Since you asked for suggestions; I would really like to get some advice on blockplanes and your take on them. I imagine that a low angle one would be handy? I have standard angle one, without an adjustable mouth, and since that one don’t get used much I hesitate to buy another one.
I will get myself in trouble on this one so I’m putting on a hardhat before I start. I am pretty thick-skinned these days because I go against the flow more than ever it seems.
So, this is my perspective and most likely no one else’s.
If you already went out and bought a nice $150 block plane it will be hard to change your perspective and say you don’t really need one. In actuality I like having them around and find them useful, but if someone told me they were essential I might ask them a few questions first. Block planes have actually proved essential to me, and I own or have used several made by the key makers like Record, Stanley, Veritas and Lie Nielsen. In general they all work and work well so the issue is not whether they plane wood so much as application of use. Sometimes, often, they are bought as gifts because they, well, look cute. That’s not really a good reason for buying a tool unless you like fancy and expensive paperweights.
Here I am using a block plane to level and smooth an inset repair and that’s is a function block planes can be ideal for.
Block planes of the type we are talking about are bevel-up planes and that really limits them. People buy them thinking that they are smoothing planes and smoothing planes of a more convenient size, but they will not usually substitute for the function of a smoothing plane. Generally they are not used for planing wide surfaces at all and often result more in damaging the surface than solving a planing issue – This is really the function of a smoothing plane. These planes find favour as endgrain planes or for planing tangentially to the run of the grain. They are compact, so they work well for single-handed use, and that translates into holding and bracing the piece you are planing with one hand and planing with the other. For easing corners both with and across end grain they are especially simple and effective. On the other hand I can do just about everything I want with a smaller plane like a well adjust and sharp bevel-down plane like the #4 or #4 ½.
People often consider the bevel-up plane to be more effective because of the low bedding angle supporting the iron, but the difference between a block plane and a smoother is only marginal when it comes to sharpness or angle of presentation because the bedding angle of a low-angle bevel up is usually around 12-degrees and the bevel on the bevel-up plane is around 30-degrees. Combining these two angles totals about 42-degrees and so the angle of presentation closely parallels the bedding angle of the smoothing plane at 44-degrees.
The thing that makes the key difference then is the in-line point of thrust that gives more direct thrust behind the cutting edge and so minimizes any vibration or flex at the very cutting edge.
Now then, even though there is little difference in the angle of presentation, there are differences in use, technique and so on. I like them for particularly fine work and also for convenience. In the picture here you see two block planes. The one on the right is the Veritas apron plane, which is an effective plane and very handy. The other plane is a highly refined block plane again made by Veritas. I used this on the White House credenzas I designed and made for the Cabinet Room of the White House back in 2009 and found this extremely accurate and ideal for fine, close and tight work.
This image below shows the conventional bedded angle of a Bailey pattern bevel-down plane alongside a low angle bevel-up jack plane. You begin to see how people can think one to have a lower angle of presentation than the other even though they closely parallel one another.
Block planes in general favour two bedding angles and many bevel-up planes have a 20-degree bed. When that happens the calculated difference in the angle of presentation to the wood is actually higher than the conventional smoothing plane and sits at 50-degrees – 6-degrees higher in fact.
This can be effective on figured grain such as violin and cello necks and the edge grain of bouts (the walls of traditional bowed instruments).
Or of course you can use it on almost any figured wood including maple, which is actually one of the easiest woods to hand plane.
Block planes are good practical planes, but on the ladder of essential planes, on a scale of 1 through 10, 1 being highest priority for general users, I might put them somewhere near a #3.