Do Wooden planes still have a place?

I think sometimes we look at planes more like we might consider, say, hmm, a bulldozer or a road grader — the logic where mass and weight and a dropped blade levels all opposition by sheer, unyielding force alone. The funny thing for me is this, a 22″ wooden plane, weighs 3.4 kilos, and the bevel up Veritas of the same length weighs 4 kilos but when the wooden plane hits the wood it seems to be ten times lighter because of the reduced friction even though the weights of the two are so close. Of course, we are not just talking Veritas planes, we are talking all metal-cast planes no matter the maker. The Woden plane weighs 3.1 kilos but it is 2″ shorter so it will be comparable to the other two cousins.

Three planes where the weight is similar but the wooden one weighs much lighter on the wood in use by a massive difference.

Sometimes a commenter somewhere will draw a comparison between the thicker blades in the old planes with the newer heavyweights, saying that they had thick irons too and that they were comparable in thickness to the modern ones and that it must have been because of chatter associated with thinner plates but that was not the case at all. There are differences between the new plate steels used today and hammer-forged steel cutting irons where a trip hammer compels steel into itself with repetitive blows while the steel is yellow-hot throughout the process. Mid process, a hardened plate was hammer forge-welded to softer steel, making up two-thirds of the thickness of the new iron, the iron of which was tapered from around 4mm to 2mm over a five-inch distance. This meant that the sharpening process was less laboursome than the new steels because the hard part of the bevel was only one-third or so of the width of the bevel — about the same as a Stanley cutting iron bevel.

You can see the slight difference in colour along the lamination line between hard steel and softer steel.

So why were the cutting irons so thick? More because the lamination of the steel using the methods available required it and mostly because the thicker, tapered cutting irons countered the forces of planing which had no mechanical device to prevent the blades from being driven back as would happen with a parallel cutting iron. These planes relied on a simple wedge to hold the cutting iron assembly. On Stanley planes and then those such as Norris planes, there was introduced a winding adjustment mechanism fitted to the cutting iron or the cap iron that once set, held the blade at a set distance depth. This advantaged makers like Stanley for a couple of reasons, one, the plane suddenly became much lighter and more compact, the refinements of a mechanism gave instant and highly controlled adjustability. Even Stanley actually laminated some of their plane irons. They are hard to get hold of I find, but they take and hold a good edge that lasts well if you can get hold of them.

This picture shows more clearly that the hardened part of the iron means less hard steel to sharpen and hone.

Sliding a large and blocky wooden plane into the wood brings with it the pleasant surprise that often defies describing. The cherry wood that I am currently planing is pure joy to me. Once planed, if I were to withdraw the cutting iron, I could shove the plane and it would glide across the surface for a couple of feet or more. That would not happen with a metal plane. The pleasant surprise of planing with a wooden plane is mostly about the lightness but then too the reality that you can actually plane for longer and I might suggest more accurately. The verticality of the plane is easier with an overhand grip at the fore-end and the push hand firmly enclosing the rear tote.

Overhand works best with large wooden planes like this. It has nothing at all to do with pressing down, neither with the forehand or the rear, that’s because a sharp plane pulls itself to task. The silliest thing `i ever heard was that you must bear down on the plane from overhead to make it work. That’s not the case at all. The hands are merely the extensions of the upper mass of body pushing forward from behind. You would only need to bear down if you indeed neglect to sharpen. A sharp plane pulls itself to task!

I am not saying that everyone should go back to the wooden planes. Not at all. I am saying that if you see one in good shape in the coming years and it costs less than say £30 or even £100 and you can afford one you should go ahead and add it to your collection to use as needed. They are nice to use and once you get used to the shape and such they will help you in dimensioning your wood greatly.

When the plane is sharp, the cap iron set properly and the right person planes rightly, the ribbons come full width in great lengths.

40 thoughts on “Do Wooden planes still have a place?”

  1. I absolutely love the fact we’re still talking about wooden planes! After a year or two of using my #4 I got curious about wooden planes and lucked in to two. The horned European style and the standard wooden jack plane – both set by mallet. it took knowing how my Bailey style plane worked first to understand adjusting and using the wooden planes. As Mr. Sellers has suggested many many times over the years, they truly are a joy to use and work just great. The wood sole on wood is a pleasure few of us seem to get to enjoy but should experience if given half a chance.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Wooden planes are great to use, but many people find them difficult to set and adjust the depth of cut. Once you ‘ve mastered that they produce exactly the same curly shavings as any metal plane on the market. Having said that, depending on where you live some wooden planes due to crazy MC levels will cause the plane to go out of flat quickly. I know someone in another part of the world facing that very issue which caused him to buy metal planes. This is the extreme, but something that people need to be aware of.

    1. Just to balance this out though, having used them throughout my life and in the two extremes of Texas and the UK. I have never found this an issue at all. I think here in the UK we have fairly consistent moisture levels, In Texas, this was not the case but the changes were quick and short-lived, apart from the longer summer period of heat. I never lived in Houston and I can see this being a problem there.

      1. All I can go on is with the information passed on to me by him. I can’t remember where he lives, but he’s from the US and recently moved to the country side and apparently it rains a lot. Since his move he’s had issues with movement. That’s all I know. If you like I can give you his website and you can ask him directly.

        1. No. There is nothing at all wrong with anything you said there. It is good to warn people that the atmosphere can make a difference to a wooden plane and especially where the variables are greater. This is, of course, exactly the same with metal planes but not by moisture but by temperature where heat extremes high and low distort the sole and especially so in longer versions.

  3. hi paul – just curious – how do you lubricate the sole of a wooden plane? (eg tin can oiler or a wax stick or nothing etc?). thankyou,

  4. I converted an old well worn wooden block plane into a scrub plane a while ago (using Paul’s video on shaping the blade). Because it is so light in use it is great for removing lots of wood.

    1. I have a small (equivalent to a no3) and a larger (equivalent to a no5) wooden plane that I too have converted to scrub planes, and they are really great for getting my rough cherry boards down to something that I can then plane more accurately.

      I also have another large and heavy wooden plane that I use almost exclusively on my shooting board – the wooden side part of the plane glides much better on the shooting board than a metal one does…

  5. Donald L Kreher

    I think it is worth mentioning the transitional planes, that enjoy both a wooden body and the mechanical adjustment of the all steel planes. I have a transitional razee smoother that i use when i want really fine thin shavings. It is just a joy to use. I also have some very nice wooden joiners that use on special occasions. I agree that they are quite remarkable. I put a mini-split hvac in my garage shop and insulated the walls and floor. (Insulating the floor alone goes along way at keeping moisture out of the shop. ) I have not had any problem with planes going out of flat or steel rusting.

  6. Stephen McGonigle

    I agree entirely with your comments on wooden planes, they are indeed a joy to use. I feel that these wooden planes have heft as distinct from weight. Just two days ago I found a lovely example in an antique centre in Stockport. This plane has been refurbished many years ago by means of a beech fillet added to the base to compensate for the wear to the original base. I suspect the blade my be a replacement due to the length of the iron but it’s a contemporary iron to the plane. On the left side of the front of the plane is a 3-4mm deep indentation where decades or maybe generations of craftsmen placed their thumb. Imagine the use required to cause this wear to solid beech. I wish I could post a picture to illustrate what I’ve attempted to describe. I shall be sharpening the blade and returning the plane to use.

  7. I have several Bailey planes that work beautifully but my wooden planes are the ones that I reach for almost all the time. Wooden planes do have a bit of a learning curve but once you are past that, the rewards of using them cannot be beaten.

    My best rescue was a very abused coffin plane (circa 1860’s) that had an oversized iron jammed into it. That caused the sides to split and to add insult, the owner lathered several coats of lacquer over the entire body and iron. Several weeks of careful cleaning, tooling and epoxy produced a scrub plane that has worked tirelessly for over a year. Were this a Bailey plane, it would have been scrap.

  8. Good morning Paul,

    I embarrassingly confess that I have several wooden/transitional planes that I have restored/trued and frequently use. Experimenting with various wood working tools from yesteryear adds an enjoyable and unexpected experience to working with wood!
    The blades on these early planes, once sharpened, hold a superior edge.
    These wooden planes are easy to fine and are very affordable. Best wishes to all.

  9. Thanks Paul. My wife had asked me late last week what i wanted for Christmas. I give her several suggestions so I don’t know what the gift will be. On top of the list was an ECE wooden scrub plane.

    About 5 or 6 years ago when I started woodworking (thanks to your videos), I was over my dads and we were in his shop going through his father’s woodworking tools that had been purchased in the 1930s. In there was a Stanley transitional wooden plane. I sharpened it up and tried it. Wow! It felt like a sports car in terms of movement over the wood. I can see why the were and are still so loved. Almost so much so, that I don’t completely understand why there aren’t more transitional wooden planes available on the market. I would think they would be quite easy to manufacture.

    1. Joe, I have an ece scrub plane and it’s great. I also got a jointer with Norris style adjuster, which is also great, but does have a problem with the sole not being perpendicular to the blade, almost outwith the tolerances of the lateral adjuster. I will file at some point. It was just so much less expensive than a metal jointer, which took the jointer from being an unnecessary luxury to affordable. I’ve used it a lot, it’s great when flattening anything wide like a bench or table top.

  10. Paul,

    I have advanced in my woodworking skills to the point (many thanks to you) of wanting to learn how to do the Queen Anne molding and topper. How would you approach this with wooden planes? For a one off, would you just carve the profile and scrape. I want to avoid using a router but, not sure what approach to take. This sort of lost art needs to be captured and documented.

  11. Back in the early 70s I bought a wooden jack plane on Norwich market for a massive £2.50 in the anticipation of returning to woodwork on my retirement. I bring it out whenever I’ve got a largeish surface to flatten and, every time, I’m amazed by just how nice it is to use. Why don’t I use it all the time? Simply because it’s fiddly to adjust just right compared to my Bailey #5 but, once adjusted, it’s a dream.

  12. Mr Paul….I love this topic….I have a good range of wooden planes including some 40 moulders….rebaters dateing to 1800’s and my own made rebater using piece of 3×2 beech….with side and sole fence…works a treat ( from your tuition thanks).
    3 diff size housing planes and a male/female tongue and groove in one.

    I have a 22″ plane. So worn down to 55mm at toe from my near original at 75mm.
    Its mouth has been repaired with an inset vee piece…I’m sure many times…I’ve ground iron to a very sharp convex…scrub plane.
    I can see it has been used by a right handed carpenter due to a worn thumb indent ….on its left side. It’s “ring sound” when slicing off material and smooth finish is a joy…..I am privileged to own it…..and as you say it is so light to use.

    If I may say at a young 76……I am concerned for what will happen to my tools….I just can’t stand the thought of them going to a ” non-believer”

    Just love your posts Paul and thank you……best wishes John 2V

  13. Mr.Sellers , I´d like suggest you one video based in some previous posts of yours.I live in Brazil and although of wood abundance,we´ve nearly zero know-how in woodworking, and it´s almost impossible to find acceptable hand planes. No, I´m not talking about these fancy hand planes with NASA pattern grounded soles and beautiful adjusters, I´m talking about planes with a minimal level of quality.So, I´m studying wooden hand planes more and more… and one plane I think that much folks there have interest is the jointer plane.You talked about this in the post ”A Letter on why no long planes?” and ”Questions answered -Considering longer planes” and you mentioned one important problem in steel planes: long steel planes flex very easily!And flattening 22 inch of cast steel on sandpaper is very very time-consuming – to not say other things.
    Anyway, I think it would be very cool if someday you can make a video on Youtube about plane making – specially the jointer ones.
    Ps.1-Sorry for my Rusty English.
    Ps.2-Thanks for all your lessons on Youtube.They’ve keep me motivated in learning Woodworking.

    1. If you are serious about making a wooden jointer or tryplane I think it would be a great idea to search youtube for a video that shows you how to do this. With the hardwoods probably available to you in Brazil (I imagine) it should be possible to make it using an iron from almost any plane.

      The challenge is of course to get well dried wood that is stable, old plane makers bought wood for planes and kept it in their workshops for years sometimes to have them stabilize the moisture content – sometimes after rough dimensioning.

      Maybe try to make a smoother first (smaller and quicker to make) and then do a larger one.

      If you think you don’t have the skill level now, maybe you will in a year or two, and if you get some dense hardwood now you will have a some material to use when you are ready to actually try making a plane.

    2. Isaac, try making a wooden infill plane first, as it’s a lot easier to do. It allows you to simply cut two blocks at the correct angles before assembling with the sides and sole. Tom Fidgen’s book has a couple of nice options and there are several videos on YouTube of people making them. As Jim mentions, try a smoother first and make sure the wood is dry.

  14. Mr Sellers,

    I often wonder whether using the same species of wood and modern plane irons would accomplish the same level of satisfaction as an antique plane which was well cared for. There seems to be something satisfying at the prospect of making tools rather than purchasing. Costs of making versus buying quality tools can be spread out at the expense of time, but it seems to me that one may end up in a better place in the long run.

    Would you care to share your thoughts?

    Where is the best place to start a plane making adventure?

    Thank you.

  15. Small correction about how the old blades were made. First, the majority of the blade’s metal is low-carbon/no-carbon iron which remains dead-soft during heat-treat.

    The cutting edge of course is the thinner high-carbon steel lamination, but it is not “ hardened steel” at the time it is forge-welded to the iron lamination, but is still soft. During heat treating the iron lamination remains soft while the high-carbon layer becomes hard changing into a useful blade.

    You can readily confirm the difference in hardness between the laminations of “Warranted Cast Steel” blades by scratching the bevel with a hardened drywall screw or scribe.

    The iron lamination is thicker for two reasons. First, iron was cheap back in the day, being the first step in making steel, but steel was more difficult to manufacture and so more expensive. Second, plain high-carbon steel, lacking the molybdenum, chrome, tungsten and/or vanadium alloys added to modern tool steels, tends to warp and even crack badly during quenching resulting in many more rejected blades. But the soft iron layer helps reduce damage during heat treating improving productivity.

    This lamination technique is ancient because it worked. Modern high-alloy blades frequently don’t become as sharp as the old blades and are more difficult to sharpen because of these chemical additives. But high alloy steels are easily heat-treated by untrained factory workers and don’t need the skills and experience of true blacksmiths. Prices are lower, because of these alloys but performance is inferior.

  16. Good morning,
    I have a 16″ beech plane with no makers mark which was given to me because it was exactly that; a wooden ‘old fashioned’ tool and, therefore, ‘inferior’.
    It is an absolute joy to use. I often spend time practising my planing technique with it but in reality it’s mostly for the pure pleasure of using it!

  17. Nice to see some appreciation for wooden planes. I have several I found in thrift shops, and a new ECE jack plane. Some of the thrift shop planes are transitional, with the mechanical adjusters, some are the simpler wooden wedge planes that you adjust with a little hammer. It took me a few weeks to get the hang of using a hammer to make adjustments, and now I’m almost as fast as with the transitional planes. I also have some metal planes, a couple of old Stanleys and a new Lie-Nielsen block plane.

    I’m also learning how to use wooden molding planes. What a revelation! For most tasks they are faster than a power router, because I don’t have to fuss with the setup, and more pleasant to use. Just pick up a tool and work, instead of spending time adjusting machines, and enjoy the quiet.

  18. When I was at school in the 1960’s we used ‘Technical’ wooden jack planes for woodwork. These had the rear of the plane cut away so they were even lighter than a normal shaped plane. I wonder what happened to them all as I don’t think I have ever seen one in a second hand shop ?

    Someone mentioned lubrication above – I think we used candle wax but after some time the Beech became impregnated by wax and there was rare that applying extra wax made any difference.

    The only place metal planes win is I thing on a shooting board where the extra mass and smaller height makes them easier to use.

    1. My school woodworking was back in the 50’s with Mr Pook. We used similar planes. We never sharpened anything so I assume that Mr Pook was busy sharpening planes and chisels at the end of the day. I recently visited a wood carving club where they meet in an old school woodwork classroom. It is full of benches, complete with tools as if the boys had just gone home for the day.

  19. Anyone tried the German brands ECE and others? I quite the look of those but never been sure enough that they would make a difference.

  20. I have several wooden bodied planes that I have acquired over the years. One, in particular, is a marvelous piece made in the 1700s. When using it, I find it difficult to not think of the fine craftsmen of yore that have held it and wonder what creations ensued! I find it in hand less frequently than I should given the satisfaction its use brings. Its use begs following with a cup of tea!

  21. I have a wood bodied plane made in the 1700s that is still yielding great results. It’s easy for me to imagine the hands of yore that have pushed this plane through various woods through the years. Those thoughts are quite satisfying. The only fitting end of work session with this marvelous block is a nice cup of tea…ah…

  22. Hi P¨aul,

    Thank for your insights on wooden plane. I agree about the plane pulling itself, but as a beginer i feel it so hard to know when i m actually goofying my move and provide poor result or if the blade is dull.

    I often sharpen and i find that only the 2/3 following minutes are so provide this feeling of sharpness. It s very frustrating, because there is surely something i don’t do well that must destroy my bevel … but well, i happen to get an old wooden plane from my parent home ( belongs to my great-grand father) i m thrilled to have new shaving flowing out of it 🙂

    Best Regards,

  23. I recently picked up a used wood jack plane that is a modern recreation, made by a small company in the NE US called Crown. It was a true revelation after using a Stanley #4 for several years. I made my two first bow saws, prepared the stock and planed all to size using one rip tooth hand saw and this wood hand plane. The entire process was an absolute joy, and as Mr. Sellers always states a real good bit of exercise. That plane was so light and worked so well I found I could indeed work much longer and felt much less tired than I would using a Bailey style plane. It takes a bit of getting used to setting these planes with a mallet, for those of us used to the more modern metal planes but so worth the effort! This definitely put me more in touch with how our ancestors worked wood.
    Thanks for all the inspiration and teaching us real woodworking with real wood.

  24. I have a few of my dads wood planes, plus a Stanley. He was a boatwright back when boats were wood. One is a “backing out” plane. Slightly convex for hollowing the planks as they turn the bilge. The coolest is made of ebony, kind of coffin shaped, +/- 2 inches wide and 8 inches long. It uses a cutting iron without a cap, and has finger grips carved into the body. They are very well done, but I am left handed and the plane is right. When i use it Right handed, the grips limit my dexterity, so I don’t use on them. He passed away when I was young, so I didn’t get the full story. If anyone has information on this type of plane, I’d very much appreciate it.
    On the issue of laying planes on their sides….., in the boat building/repair world of old, most work was done outside on rocky and/or sandy surfaces, the scaffolding was haphazard and rickety, with debris such as nails, screws and bolts everywhere. We lay our planes on their side to avoid nicking the cutter on a stone or nail, and reducing the likelyhood they fall of the scaffold or into the bilge.

    1. I have always said that there are legitimate reasons for laying the plane on its side. I only have a problem with people doing it blindly and without question, but of course, everyone is free to follow the trend set up for 13-year-old boys in classes of fiteetn to twenty if that’s what they want to do. Tradesmen before the 1930s did it when they were outdoors on gravel and in dirt. They did not do it on the workbench. This is the fact I am encouraging others to know. Nonsilly things for silly boys in classes can seemingly become silly traditions for adult woodworkers worldwide and with no good reason because people follow like sheep rather than questioning the authority that keeps stating you “MUST LAY THE PLANE ON ITS SIDE!”

      1. Robert Cory Lawrence

        Paul, thank you for replying to my post. I apologize as I wasn’t trying to get under your skin. I know you know this. And I understand that you are transmitting high quality and refined craftsmanship. I was just trying to describe for todays hobbyist/gentleperson wood worker, some other scenarios in which past craftspeople used these tools. A pristine workshop is not a requirement. These tools work outside too.
        PS. Any ideas regarding the plane described?

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