Are Hand Planers Good? [Pros & Cons] [2023]

A hand plane, also known as a hand planer, is a woodworking tool used to shape and smooth wood surfaces. Hand planes have been around for centuries and are considered one of the most essential tools for fine woodworking. But are hand planers really a good choice compared to modern power tools? Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of using hand planes.

What is a Hand Plane?

A hand plane is a manual tool that consists of a cutting blade fixed in a metal or wooden body. The blade extends slightly beyond the bottom surface, called the sole. To operate a hand plane, the user pushes or pulls it over the wood surface to shave off thin layers and create a smooth, even surface.

The basic parts of a hand plane include:

  • Blade – Also called the cutter or iron. Usually made of hardened steel to hold a sharp edge. It cuts the wood when the plane is moved forward.
  • Cap iron – Also called the chipbreaker. It rests against the top of the blade and curls the cut wood shavings to prevent tearing of the surface.
  • Frog – Holds the blade and cap iron in place. It can be adjusted to control the depth of cut.
  • Sole – The bottom surface that glides along the wood. It needs to be flat and smooth.
  • Tote – The handle at the rear used to grip and push the plane forward.
  • Knob – The front handle used to control the plane with the second hand.
  • Lever – Adjusts the blade depth by moving the frog.
  • Mouth – The opening just ahead of the blade where shavings pass through.

There are several types of hand planes, each with distinct purposes:

  • Smoothing plane – With a slightly curved sole to prevent digging in, used as a final step to create a glassy smooth surface.
  • Block plane – Small and light for working edges and tight areas.
  • Jointer plane – Has an extra long sole to straighten and flatten boards.
  • Shoulder plane – Shaped to plane into corners and angles.
  • Router plane – Cuts grooves and openings with interchangeable cutters.
Are Hand Planers Good

The Pros of Using Hand Planes

Precise Control

The key advantage of hand planes is the high degree of control they provide. Skilled craftsmen can use them to make ultra-thin shavings and perform delicate smoothing work that would be very difficult with power tools. Hand planes excel at flattening small imperfections and reducing wood gradually until the perfect surface is achieved.

No Sanding Needed

A well-tuned hand plane used properly can create a surface so smooth that no sanding is required. The flexible blade edge can slice off wispy shavings while conforming to minor irregularities in the wood. Power tools like belt sanders remove material rapidly but cannot match hand planes for creating a finished surface.

Quiet and Low-Dust

Electric planers, jointers, and belt sanders make a lot of noise and release large quantities of fine dust. In contrast, hand planes are very quiet and most shavings remain in thick curls, producing minimal airborne dust. This makes hand planes ideal for workspaces where noise and dust need to be minimized.

Therapeutic Value

Planing wood by hand can have a calming, therapeutic effect for some craftsmen. The repetitive motion promotes focus and allows the mind to relax. Power tools require constant focus and vigilance to operate safely, while hand tools permit a more thoughtful approach.

High-Quality Results

In the hands of a master woodworker, hand planes can produce exceptional results that surpass what is possible with power tools. The hand-worked surface better reveals the beauty and qualities of the wood grain. Numerous examples exist of stunning furniture built solely with hand tools.

Environmentally Friendly

Hand planes require no electricity and have a small carbon footprint compared to power tools. As long as the blades are sharpened occasionally, they can last for generations. Many antique planes still work flawlessly after a century or more of use. Their durability and minimal environmental impact make hand planes a green choice.

Cost Effective

While high-quality hand planes have become quite expensive, you can find usable ones at flea markets and auctions for minimal cost. A set of basic hand planes represents a relatively affordable investment compared to buying all the major power tools. Planes also have the advantage of not depending on consumables like sandpaper or saw blades.

The Cons of Using Hand Planes

Physical Effort

Shaving wood by hand is physically demanding and requires strength and stamina, especially when working with tougher hardwoods. New users will quickly feel the burn in their shoulders, arms, and hands. Those lacking hand-tool experience should be prepared for an adjustment period until their body adapts. Proper technique helps reduce unnecessary strain.

Learning Curve

Achieving good results with a hand plane has a steep learning curve. Novices inevitably tear out chunks of wood and create uneven surfaces in the beginning. Developing the feel and touch for finesse planing takes a lot of focused practice. Having an experienced mentor is extremely helpful for learning manual plane techniques.

Setup Time

Hand planes must be sharpened and finely adjusted to perform well, which takes experience. The blade needs to project just the right amount and have a consistent bevel. Before use, the sole is lubricated to reduce friction. This preparation adds to the total time requirement compared to simply firing up a power tool.

Slower Stock Removal

Hand planes are capable of removing wood efficiently in skilled hands, but still significantly slower than power tools like thickness planers and belt sanders. Removing the equivalent of 1/8″ of stock by hand from a large tabletop could take hours versus minutes by machine. Hand planes are best suited for final smoothing rather than bulk stock removal.

Blade Maintenance

The cutting blade is the heart of a hand plane, and it needs regular sharpening and honing to retain its edge. This requires learning to use sharpening stones and other equipment. Allowing the blade to become dull will greatly diminish performance. Maintaining the optimal bevel angle is also essential for clean cuts.

Limited Use on Difficult Grain

The tendency of a plane to tear out chunks of wood becomes much worse when working with wild or interlocking grain. Power tools can muscle through problem wood grain more effectively in these situations. Hand planes require careful grain orientation and techniques like using a higher cutting angle to minimize tear out.

No Depth Limitation

Unlike a power planer, there is no maximum cutting depth for a hand plane. This puts the onus on the user to avoid accidentally planing too deeply and removing more material than intended. Careful attention is needed to get a consistent thickness when working the faces of boards.

Inconsistent Results

A hand plane is only as precise as the person operating it. Beginner woodworkers will find it challenging to plane surfaces perfectly flat and smooth. Unintentional variances in hand pressure will lead to an uneven finish. Developing proficiency requires a Zen-like meditative focus during planing.

Making the Most of Hand Planes

Hand planes require an investment of time and effort to master, but can be extremely rewarding tools for dedicated woodworkers. Here are some tips for those interested in getting the most out of hand planes:

  • Start with a small smoother or block plane – they’re inexpensive and easier to learn on than longer planes.
  • Focus on sharpening and tuning skills – a sharp blade with a consistent bevel is essential.
  • Use proper stance, grip, and planing direction – this will maximize efficiency while reducing strain.
  • Learn to read grain direction – this helps avoid tear out in trouble spots.
  • Work incrementally, taking fine shavings – prevents over-cutting and uneven surfaces.
  • Upgrade to high-quality planes as skills improve – they hold a sharper edge and require less fettling.
  • Consider adding a few specialized planes for tasks like edge joining or trimming end grain.
  • Allow sufficient time for projects to account for manual planing work.
  • Develop a good sharpening workflow that keeps blades in peak condition.

With practice almost anyone can learn to produce impressive results with hand planes. Their advantages outweigh the disadvantages when quality and craftsmanship are the priorities. Hand planing may be slower, but for many woodworkers it results in greater enjoyment and satisfaction.

Types of Hand Planes

There are a wide variety of hand planes available for different specialized tasks:

Smoothing Planes

  • Stanley No. 4
  • Lie Nielsen No. 4
  • Woodriver No. 4
  • Veritas Smoothing Plane

Smoothing planes have soles at least 2″ wide and lightly curved along the length. This prevents the corners from digging into the wood. The ideal tool for final smoothing, they have minimal tear out on difficult grain. A No. 4 is a standard smoothing plane size.

Block Planes

  • Stanley 60-1/2
  • Lie Nielsen 60-1/2
  • Woodriver 60-1/2
  • Veritas Low Angle Block

Small and lightweight, block planes range from 6 to 9 inches long. Their compact size allows working right up to edges and ends in tight spaces. The blade bed is lower, requiring a higher cutting angle that makes them great for tricky end grain.

Jointer Planes

  • Stanley No. 7
  • Lie Nielsen No. 7
  • Veritas Jointer Plane
  • Woodriver No. 7

At 22 to 30 inches long, jointers are the workhorses for surfacing and truing up boards. Their extra mass improves straightening of longer boards. The extra-long soles ride over high and low spots. No. 7 or No. 8 sizes are most common.

Shoulder Planes

  • Stanley No. 90 & 92
  • Lie Nielsen No. 90 & 92
  • Veritas Small & Medium Shoulder Plane
  • Woodriver V91

Shaped for planing into corners, shoulder planes have a straight cutting edge on one side. The body is angled to reach into tight spots and make precise rabbets and chamfers. Great for fine joinery work. Sizes range from 1/4″ to 1″ blade width.

Specialty Planes

  • Router planes
  • Plow planes
  • Rabbet planes
  • Bullnose planes
  • Molding planes

In addition to the common types, there are specialty planes for tasks like cutting grooves and dadoes, shaping molded edges, and other precision work. Many woodworkers have a collection of go-to planes for specific needs.

What to Look for When Buying a Hand Plane

Several factors should be considered when choosing a hand plane to purchase:

  • Quality materials – Look for thick cast iron and steel parts that won’t flex or warp. This increases accuracy and precision.
  • Sole flatness – Rub the sole on sandpaper to reveal any hollows or bumps which diminish performance. The sole must glide perfectly flat on the wood.
  • Blade sharpness – Test the blade’s factory edge and ease of adjustment. Re-sharpening may be needed for peak performance.
  • Smooth mechanisms – The lever cap, depth knob, and blade adjuster should all operate smoothly without wobble.
  • Comfort – Try holding the plane to ensure the tote and knob feel comfortable in your hands.
  • Reputation – Stick with proven brands like Stanley, Lie-Nielsen, Woodriver, and Veritas. Avoid cheap knockoffs.
  • Intended purpose – Make sure the plane size matches the tasks you expect to perform most often.
  • Condition – If buying used, inspect for chips, cracks, rust, and twisting. Minor issues can be resolved but may require restoration work.

Tips for Effectively Using Hand Planes

Here are some key points for mastering hand plane techniques:

  • Direction matters – Always plane in the direction of the wood grain. Planing across the grain is likely to cause tear out.
  • Skew the plane – When working troublesome grain, slightly skewing the plane up to 30 degrees helps slice the fibers cleanly.
  • Take fine cuts – Adjust the blade for thin shavings of .001″ or less to produce the best surface finish.
  • Use consistent pressure – Apply firm downward pressure without flexing your wrists to avoid uneven cuts.
  • Advance steadily – Work at a consistent pace without stopping in the middle of a cut to prevent ridges.
  • Plane the whole surface – To ensure flatness, plane the entire length/width, not just problem spots.
  • Check for flatness – Use a straightedge to find high and low areas needing additional smoothing.
  • Lubricate and wax – Apply paste wax or silicone spray to the sole periodically to reduce friction.

Sharpening and Maintaining Hand Planes

Sharp blades and proper adjustment are crucial for optimal hand plane performance. Here are some key maintenance steps:

  • Clean – Remove wood dust, dried pitch, and rust using solvents, abrasives, and rust removers as needed.
  • Inspect – Check for damage, warping, and excessive wear. Replace parts like sole plates if too far gone.
  • Lap the sole – Use sandpaper on a flat surface to remove any unevenness on the bottom of the plane.
  • Sharpen the blade – Regularly hone to a mirror finish at 25-30 degrees with sharpening stones.
  • Adjust the blade – Project the blade just enough to cut without excessive tear out. Retract fully when not in use.
  • Lubricate – Apply a lightweight machine oil or silicone spray to the sole and blade adjusting mechanisms as needed.
  • Protect – Store hand planes where they are protected from impacts, rust, and rapid temperature changes.

Proper care prolongs the life of hand planes and keeps them working at peak efficiency. Time invested in sharpening and tuning is rewarded with better performance.

Common Problems and Solutions for Hand Planes

Hand planes developing issues? Here are some common problems and potential solutions:

Problem: The plane is difficult to push and seems to drag along the wood.

  • Solutions: The sole may be dirty – clean it thoroughly. Also lubricate with paste wax. Adjust the chip breaker to minimize drag. Lastly, the iron could be too far extended.

Problem: The plane is not cutting evenly or leaving ridges.

  • Solutions: Check for uneven pressure while planing. Resharpen and hone the blade. Make sure the cap iron is parallel to the blade. The sole may need lapping to flatten it.

Problem: The plane digs in or gouges the wood intermittently.

  • Solutions: Retract the blade slightly. Check for unevenness on the sole and lap it flat if needed. Wax the sole to reduce friction. Avoid unsupported grain runout areas.

Problem: The shavings are very thick and coarse.

  • Solutions: Retract the blade to reduce the cutting depth. Take slower passes for thinner shavings. Sharpen the blade at a lower angle.

Problem: Tear out is occurring on the wood surface.

  • Solutions: Check that the grain orientation aligns with planing direction. Add a tighter mouth insert to reduce tear out. Try skewing the plane at a slight angle rather than perpendicular.

Problem: The blade keeps slipping out of adjustment during use.

  • Solutions: Tighten the lever cap more firmly. Check for loose screws on the frog and chip breaker. Replace worn adjustment components if sloppy.


Hand planes require dedication to master, but provide a versatility and precision in woodworking that cannot be matched by power tools alone. While slower, a well-tuned hand plane used by a skilled craftsman can achieve remarkable results. For those who appreciate working wood by hand, hand planes impart satisfaction from shaping and smoothing the material directly. Their usefulness and appeal carry on centuries after their invention. With proper care, these durable tools will provide many years of service and quality results. For the passionate woodworker, hand planes remain one of the most essential tools in the shop.