Two Block Planes Everyone Should Own
May 20, 2012 3 Comments
I have a weakness for block planes. They are the two seater sports cars of the hand plane world – quick, nimble, and fun to handle. Heck, from the classic lines of Stanley Excelsiors 130 years ago to the high performance Veritas planes of today, they even look fast. (Both shown below)
I have a sizeable collection of block planes that includes some of the rarest and most beautiful ever made. Those, of course, are now relegated to display, as their value precludes risking damage in use. But the vast majority in my collection are sharp and ready to use, and I do exercise each of them periodically when I’m working on a project. This helps keep them in working order, and it just makes me feel good.
Still, over time I’ve found myself unconsciously reaching for the same couple of planes whenever the need arises. If I were forced to reduce my toolbox to just two block planes, these are the two I would keep:
The Stanley No. 18 Standard Angle
The Stanley No. 60 Low Angle
The Stanley No. 18 Standard Angle
This is my go-to block plane for everyday use, the one I always seem to grab first. Mine is a very pristine WWI era model that I’m pretty sure I’ve used more than anyone else in its history. Although it’s almost 100 years old, it looks like it could have been manufactured last year. Both the japanning and nickel plating are pushing 100%, and so I baby it.
The Stanley no. 18 is a standard angle plane, meaning the iron is seated on a 20 degree bed. With a bevel angle sharpened at the standard 25 degrees, you have a cutting angle of 45 degrees, same as a bench plane. It also has an adjustable throat plate, an essential feature in a block plane. The no. 18 is 6 inches long and fits my hand better than its longer, otherwise identical 7 inch brother, the no. 19. And unlike the more popular Stanley no. 9-1/2, it feels more like an extension of my hand.
The no. 9-1/2 plane predates the no. 18 by about 15 years, was in production longer, and was the best selling block plane Stanley ever made. It’s still made today, in fact, although the current design features a completely different mechanism from the original. Admittedly, the no. 9-1/2 was the more popular of the two. I truly don’t know why, though, since the design of the no. 18′s knuckle cap was far superior to the hooded lever cap on the no. 9-1/2, and it’s also more comfortable to hold in the hand. I also find that the hooded cap on the no. 9-1/2 is more prone to slip around a little in use. Not so with the no. 18.
Ironically they are both basically the same plane with two different styles of lever caps. Other than the lever cap and its mounting bolt, all the other parts are interchangeable. Stanley charged a little more for the no. 18 and marketed it as virtually indestructible. This of course was not true, for while the steel cap is arguably more durable, the bodies of both were cast iron and therefore susceptible to breaking if dropped.
I have several vintages of both models in my collection, but find the no. 18 with the knuckle cap superior in both function and comfort. I use this more often than any other block plane I own.
The Stanley No. 60 Low Angle
The Stanley no. 60 (and the identical japanned version 60-1/2) is a low angle plane, meaning the iron is seated on a 12 degree bed. Sharpened at 25 degrees, you have a cutting angle of 37 degrees. The primary advantage of the lower angle of attack is that it excels at shaving end grain.
Like the no. 18, the 60 series of planes are approximately 6 inches long. However, the 60 series are narrower with an iron width of 1-3/8 inches, vs the 1-5/8 inch irons on the standard angle planes, and the 60 series featured a narrower version of the hooded lever cap used on the no. 9-1/2. The 60 series planes also have adjustable throat plates.
As with the standard angle planes, Stanley made another low angle plane that was more popular than the No. 60. The no. 65, which was wider and longer, is even today considered by many to be the ‘Cadillac’ of Stanley block planes. I have a couple of no. 65s, which I use occasionally, but I prefer the no. 60 for its smaller size. The size of the no. 65 makes it feel a little awkward to me for most projects, although it excels on wider boards and edges where the no. 60 is too small.
Most people are familiar with the knuckle jointed lever cap on the no. 65, the very same cap used on the nos. 18 and 19 standard angle planes. It’s interesting to note that the no. 65 was originally made with the hooded style cap until about 1917 when Stanley switched to the knuckle jointed steel cap. I’ve never quite understood why the no. 65 is so highly regarded. Being 7 inches long, I find it a little too big in the hand. The no. 60 series planes are smaller and much easier to handle, and ironically, I never found their hooded cap to be problematic as I do with the no. 9-1/2. So, maybe it’s just me.
Ultimately, that’s the point. I had to try all of the various models and sizes until I found what I liked best. On all of these block planes, the iron is seated bevel up, whereas on bench planes the bevel is usually down. There is a tremendous advantage with bevel up irons in that the angle of the bevel can be changed to affect a change in the angle of cut. While there is more to consider in edge geometry than just the angle of cut (ex. durability), you could reasonably sharpen the bevel on a low angle plane iron to 33 degrees and end up with an angle of cut of 45 degrees (12+33=45), the same as on a standard angle plane. However, to accomplish a low angle of cut using a standard angle plane, you’d have to sharpen the bevel at a very shallow 17 degrees (20+17=37). Durability of such a thin cutting edge would be problematic with most woods.
For this reason, along with a few others, many people consider the low angle plane to be the more versatile of the two. I tend to agree. While I use my standard angle plane more often, if I could only have one block plane, it would have to be a low angle. Fortunately, despite what my wife says, that’s not the case.
The no. 18 and no. 60 are my two primary go-to block planes when I’m working on a project. I have most of the other Stanley sizes in my collection, and like I said, I’ll pick them up to use sometimes just for nostalgia, but the nos. 18 and 60 are my favorites. These are the two that I think everyone should own, but ultimately, you won’t know which you prefer until you try a few for yourself.
Vintage tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques. Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.