Not All Planes Are Created Equal

It’s hard to say how many planes I’ve taken from rubbish-looking to fully operational models. Hundreds, I know. Unlike the modern day clones of Bed Rocks, where they are all equally well engineered and perhaps, dare I say much less characterful than their Bailey-pattern counterparts, each basic and feisty Bailey-pattern bench plane as in the #3, 4, 4 1/2 model smoothers, and then too the 5s and 5 1/2s, all have their own unique personalities. In other words, no two of these plane types in the same sizes, makes and dates of manufacture, are the same. Of course I am not talking about looks. No, I am talking about how they each feel uniquely different in the hand and on the wood. You would of course think that they were; that they should be; that I am romanticising, but, well, what I am saying is quite true. I’ve trained hundreds, nope, thousands of people to take their own version of the basic smoothing plane apart, work with the mechanisms to free them, fine tune them and then too to sharpen them and reload them ready for setting and working with them. I think it would be true that tens if not a hundred thousand people can do now this that ten years ago could not. No way of checking really. but I know there is now kindled a new and very fond affection for the Bailey-pattern and Bed Rock plane.

Over the last 20 years I have advocated that people pick up their version of these planes from secondhand markets like eBay, car boot sales, secondhand shops and garage or estate sales. You’ve done it and you are doing even as I type. Every week Carla alerts me to questions surrounding this wonderful bench plane. Every week I answer the questions and every week someone gets back to me to say at last they did it and the plane is working like magic.

What’s difficult via a blog, vlog or video, no, impossible, is to convey that planes are something we don’t just shave wood with but something we sense and feel the wood through. You see every single Bailey pattern bench plane responds differently to the wood and just as there will be a thousand different feels with a thousand different planers, there are a thousands different grain structures and stresses in a single species of wood. Combining this reality, the response we should have to the planes is to accept its personal idiosyncrasies as individual characteristic personality. You will no doubt get the same results from twinned planes running in tandem or inline, what you don’t get is the same feel. This I learned when I was a boy. Not at first, after a year or two. If George said, “Go ahead and take my plane to that, it’ll be quicker.” I knew though his plane was identical to mine, it felt very different. In the schools I have established and run through three decades, where I might sharpen up 40 planes and set them up and test them before the students came, they all felt uniquely their own. These are the things that still fascinate me about working wood. These are the things I write about because of my fascination.

So where are we in our relationship to the bench plane?

What still astounds me is the perspective people have about these tools. Most often people do fail to see the individuality in each one made even though they all go through the very same mass production methods all the way through the making process. Often people fail to see that along with the nuances of the individual planes there are our own personal nuances developed as we grow used to a particular plane too. We become infused with a subtle power that enables us to become highly sensitised to every aspect each of the planes we use. The more we use them the better we understand them and the more we become attuned to them. It’s as if we see their secret innards interplaying with one another in front, behind and side by side. Eventually we are able to minutely tweak the settings purely by touch and without seeing and looking suddenly the plane is performing in the same way as a violin in the hands of the maestro. Whilst these planes have been turned out in massive volumes over the last century and a half, it’s the interplay via the various linkages that makes for the individualism I speak of. Leverage and friction are really the key players mechanically, but then there is the flex of muscle and sinew that actually compose in sensitivity to the wood itself. The more you work with the plane the more it becomes a particular extension of you in your work.

17 comments on “Not All Planes Are Created Equal

  1. Paul, It’s your fault.
    I have so many Bailey’s now that my auxiliary bench is full of them!
    My sister comes out to shop and says “then you are going to sand it eh?”
    No, I don’t want to roughen the surface. . .

    Thank You Paul for helping me get into working with wood,
    Bob Bentley
    Georgetown TX

    • thank you for your years of help, i have a question about plane handles, is there a way to make a bigger push grip handle for handle for large hands as I cannot grip my planes very good usually only with 3 fingers and my index finger hanging over the top of handle on a number 4 plane making if very uncomfortable.

      • To add to what Paul said, you might find that the Sargent handles are slightly larger than the Stanley. Although I doubt they are interchangeable. I admit I find the one I have to be slightly more comfortable.
        Perhaps Paul’s upcoming handle replacement video will offer your solution.
        Cheers!

  2. When working the same wood, from time to time i changed planes thinking that something was wrong with the blades or the settings could be different.
    Now i know a litle more. Thank you.

  3. when I was a boy and I asked the carpenter I was working for how he did so and so, he replied: “you have to trick the material into thinking you know what you’re doing.” I thought he was joking around, but over the years his words have come home to roost. Not just planes. Not just tools. Not just wood. The universe must be convinced that you have a drivers license. A license earned by years of practice and patience and doing. Cheers plane man.

  4. I have 2 victor planes from the 50’s that I’ve rescued from rusting in someone’s shed and “restored”. Now that I’ve been using them for a couple years I’ve really started to notice the slop in the adjustment screw and the fickleness of the lateral adjustment. From what I’ve researched thats to be somewhat expected in the mid to lower quality planes of that era. The blade on my jack comes out of square while I’m using it and edge joining two boards often results in an out of square edge which is holding me back in a way.

    At this point, I’m recognizing that my edge joining issues are part user error and part inaddequte tool. I’m considering adding a #7 or #8 to fill this gap. On eBay it looks like an unknown quality plane goes for half the price of a new Veritas jointer or low angle jack. Should I roll the dice on a used plane, or hone my technique and presumed known good tool?

    (with 3 young ones around time is slightly more precious than money at this stage)

  5. I have restored a dozen planes during the past 18 months and learned how to do it from you. I now use them on a regular basis and enjoy it tremendously. Thank you for showing me a different path.

  6. This is something that strikes a chord with me. My first plane ever was Stanley TwoTone, that got to me as a hunk of rust. I’ve been fettling it as I had progressed through the craft. Ultimately she became my main plane even though I acquired other, presumably better made planes since then. My another #4 was a Miller Falls which I couldn’t get used to. Blade adjustment was too coarse, different balance, different grip to the point I almost hated it. Long story short, I had to part ways with the lovely TwoTones and the Miller Falls got to take the place. There was a day when I spent a good hour just staring at her sitting on my bench and zoning out and then it occurred to me that tools are not and should not be identical twin copies. It’s been a while since I’ve switched my most used tool and looks like I was too hang up on one particular tool and just couldn’t appreciate another.

  7. 25 years my Stanley #4 sat unloved by me under my workbench as a “piece of junk” until I discovered Paul and his tutorials. Oopps, guess who was talking rubbish!! I’ll always be grateful to Paul and co for teaching me the sheer pleasure of using a well tuned well sharpened hand plane, I’d swear the thing sings Opera as well 😉
    Julian

  8. Its a funny thing, but I would now consider I have found a bargain, if I pay £20- £30 for a good secondhand Baily plane, which was what I used to pay for a moderately usable second hand car in the early 1970’s. The cars have all long gone for scrap, but baring mistreatment or accident I can be quietly confident that my planes will still be around in another 45 years, they are by far the better value for the money. What I can’t remember is how much I would have paid for an average second hand No 4 back then, because being a reluctant steel worker (I wanted to work with wood as a boat builder), I didn’t need one.

  9. Paul,
    I’ve always dreamed of building a boat. A quite big one. I’ve set up my shop with a 220 planer, jointer, dust extractor, a 15 inch bandsaw, a small table saw…. all the power tools needed to do the job. I’ve always felt I’ll be able to do the hull but the interior joinery was going to be beyond me. Or I’d improve my skills while building the hull to the point where cabinets and drawers inside are within my grasp. Now I’ve moved closer to my hand tools and have restored an older #4 plane to go with the Stanley #4 my dad got me new as a kid 30 years ago or more. It needs something because it’s not working quite as well as the Stanley but I’ll keep working on it until it’s working properly.
    I’ll still need the big machines to prepare material for my boatbuilding endeavours but the cabinet work is now much closer to being within my grasp. I’ve built your bench and in doing so chopped my first mortise and tenon joints. I’ve chopped a few dovetails as well (need them for the skylight on deck) and have even taught my son about your methods. At 10 he chopped his first dovetail this summer in a piece of 2×8, then built a chisel box of 1×3 strapping, chopping 4 more. think he’s hooked. I had yet to chop my first dovetails at that point. In the short 6-8 months since I found you online, my woodworking knowledge has improved with leaps and bounds and I look forward to your regular blogs and updated tools and techniques videos.
    Thanks for opening this world to me. I now spread the gospel according to Paul to every woodworker I know.

  10. Hiya Paul

    I fully accord with you about the feel of a plane. I have collection of modern and old, ranging from Stanley, through Lie Niesen to old (18/19th C) beech long planes. I know exactly which one to pick up for a particjular job. That (as you have probably said) comes from using them regularly. For me it’s about ‘heft’. Primarily enough weight for the job in hand. But also just enough length for the thing I’m planing, just enough bite for the wood I’m determined on getting into something I want it to be.

    Keep rockin fella. ‘You is doing a great job init’

    Kind regards
    Ashley

  11. Admittedly I am new to hand tool woodworking. I’ve been a power tool woodworker for 45 years and only recently began purchasing hand tools that can do the same chores as power tools. Since I have no history or knowledge of brands and the used tool market I decided to invest in Lie-Nielsen tools that have a good reputation online. I now own 4-5 Lie-Nielsen bench planes and love every one.

    Over the past 3 years I’ve followed your YouTube adventures and have come to respect your opinions on all things involved in woodworking with hand tools. Your practical approach completing common tasks is refreshing. Your skill set has been developed over many years of hands-on experience. Thank you for being such an influence in my skills.

  12. As ever, this post is excellent. Thank you!

    I have a couple of Millers Falls planes, a Stanley Bailey-pattern #4, and even a 1970s vintage Sears Craftsman #4. In your photo you show Stanley, Record and Woden (a brand I’ve never encountered) but now Millers Falls or Sargent or other makers. I’d love to read your thoughts on the various brands . . . their strengths, weaknesses, best use over another maker, etc.

    Perhaps this is grist for a future blog post.

  13. Thanks for the article. I felt bad last week, because I bought a plane from japan, and when I got back home, realised I already had 15 planes which I bought over the last two years.

    But after reading your article, I have to remind my wife, that each of them is for a particular purpose, even if i have multiple no4’s.

    Keep up the good work.

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