Toolsday: Jack Plane

I'm starting what will hopefully be a regular feature here on my blog: tool reviews. I've been reading a lot of tool blogs lately and they mostly seem to cover the new and the interesting, which is good for enthusiasts, but not for people who don't know anything about tools. I'm going to cover general tools, just the kind of things a normal person thinking about getting some tools might acquire. Since I've basically built my tool set and wood working ability from the ground up over the past dozen or so years, I maybe have a different perspective.

Grosz #5 Jack Plane

This is a plane. Specifically, it's called a "number 5" or a "Jack" plane. It's apparently called a Jack plane because it's a medium-sized plane good for many different tasks, thus a "jack of all trades". I'm told that Stanley produced a wildly popular version of this size, and that the "#5" was their terminology for it. A hand plane would be smaller, and a smoothing plane would be larger. This is "Western" style plane, which is pushed across the wood. "Eastern" style planes are pulled across the wood, and are typically not as complex in construction.

I resisted getting a plane for many years, because I really didn't know how to use one, and didn't often need one. When I started buying reclaimed wood, and wood that wasn't finished on all sides, (and I had a 20% off coupon for Rockler,) I gave in.

A plane is used for shaping and smoothing wood. It works by resting on the surface of the wood and holding a sharp blade at a good angle. You slide the plane, and anything that sticks up from the surface gets shaved off. If you adjust the blade downwards, it cuts in a bit, removing some of the wood as it smooths. Since it slices the wood off with a single blade, instead of abrading like with sandpaper or chewing like with a saw, it leaves a very smooth surface. If the blade is sharp and the plane well adjusted, a planed surface may not need any sanding.

A smaller plane will have a narrower blade and a smaller body. This will enable you to work in smaller spaces and on smaller pieces, but it will be more difficult to keep flat to the surface, and more difficult to smooth large areas with. A larger plane will have a larger footprint, making it easier for you to smooth large areas, but impossible to do detail work.

A decent plane will not cost you a whole lot of money. You can get a Craftsman or Stanley plane for less than $50, especially if you wait for a sale. If you're lucky, you can find one at a garage or estate sale for very little money. If you want to spend much more, a number of high-end planes are available. Eastern style planes are more difficult to get in the USA, and are typically much more expensive.

The main difficulty with getting into planing is that you can't just buy a plane and start using it, the way you would with a saw or hammer. Any plane you buy or borrow probably needs to be sharpened and adjusted before you can use it. This might mean buying and learning how to use sharpening equipment, and tuning the parts of the plane with abrasives. I had the sharpening equipment/skills from working with chisels, but learning how to tune my plane properly actually took me a couple of months of trila nd error. Once you et a plane sharp enough and tuned properly, though, it's a joy to use.

It pays for itself since a power surface planer would cost you one or two hundred dollars, and a jointer for smoothing the edges of boards would cost you about that, too. Having a small hand tool that fills both jobs for a small fraction of the money is definitely the frugal way. It will also enable you to buy wood that is not finished on all sides, which is usually cheaper as well. Plus, you'll use less electricity and feel all "hard core woodworker".

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2010.04.20 at 8:20pm EDT