Select the Best Bench Plane for the Job

Stanley Bailey no. 5-1/2, Type 11

Asking what size bench plane is the best to buy is sort of like asking what size drill bit you should use. It depends on what you plan to do with it. That said, while you probably need a full set of drill bits in with a wide range of sizes, you certainly don’t need to own every size bench plane that Stanley ever made. In fact, you can accomplish just about every job you’re likely to face with just three bench planes.  More important than focusing on a specific model number is gaining a basic understanding of what the planes do and how the various sizes differ.

Bench planes, whether made by Stanley, Millers Falls, Sargent, Union, Craftsman, Lie-Nielsen, or Veritas, etc., all do the same thing – they shave wood. Of course, while shaving wood is the functional process, making the wood surface flat is generally the object of the exercise. To that end, certain size planes are better suited for a particular step in that process than others.

The first thing to understand is that neither physical size nor Stanley’s related numbering system has any relevance to how the planes are used or in which order they should be employed. In Stanley’s bench plane numbering scheme, the smaller the number, the shorter the length of the plane, with a few ‘1/4’ and ‘1/2’ width variations thrown in for good confusing measure. So, their no. 1 plane is the shortest at just 5-1/2 inches, while their longest is the no. 8, at 24 inches. Note that this sequential logic only applies to their bench planes, not their block or specialty planes.

Grouping them by function is a different matter, and far more relevant in understanding how to use them. Bench planes can be separated into three functional groups:

  1. Fore planes
  2. Try planes
  3. Smoothing planes

1. Fore Planes – For Rough Preparation

Stanley no. 5 Fore Plane, Type 11

Fore planes are those ranging from approximately 14 inches to 18 inches in length. In the Stanley bench plane assortment, these include the nos. 5, 5-1/4, 5-1/2, and 6. The term ‘Fore’ dates back several hundred years and is generally assumed to be a contraction of ‘Before’ and interpreted as the plane used first in flattening a surface. “It is called the Fore Plane because it is used before you come to work either with the Smooth Plane, or with the Joynter.” [1]

As the first plane one would use in preparing a surface, the Fore plane takes the most aggressive cut, removing rough saw marks and leveling out low and high spots, etc. The iron is sharpened with a significant camber, or curvature to the cutting edge, with as much as 1/16″ to 1/8″ difference between the center and the edges. This removes the most waste, but subsequently leaves the surface of the wood with a scalloped finish.

While either the no. 5 or no. 6 will do, I prefer the size and greater versatility of the no. 5. Rough planing is a very physical activity, and the lighter weight of the no. 5 makes it less fatiguing to use. It’s smaller size also makes it more versatile for a variety of other day to day planing jobs. If you’ll use your Fore plane exclusively for prepping tabletops or dresser carcasses, the no. 5-1/2 or no. 6 would be fine choices. But the no. 5 is, in my opinion, the most versatile of the group and the plane I use most often.

Those of you paying attention are no doubt asking, “If the no. 5 is a Fore plane, why is it so often referred to as a ‘Jack’ plane?” Indeed, the nomenclature pond is very murky at times. While no one knows for sure, most people guess the nickname ‘Jack’ originated from the term ‘Jack of all trades’ and refers to the versatility of planes measuring about 14 inches in length. And versatile they are; the no. 5 was by far the best selling size plane Stanley or its competitors ever made. Historical texts seem to support this moniker as well, as references to Jack planes extend back to at least 1703 (Moxon). Regardless, its length puts it in the Fore plane category, and its versatility assures it a place on the workbench.

2. Try (or Jointer) Planes – For Refining the Surface

Stanley no. 7 Jointer Plane, Type 11

Try planes, more commonly known as Jointer planes, are those over 18 inches, and are most commonly 22 to 28 inches. Stanley’s offering of Jointer planes are the no. 7 and no. 8, measuring 22 inches and 24 inches respectively.

As the name implies, a Jointer plane excels at truing the edges of long boards that will be glued together to make table tops, shelves, and carcasses. But its value and place on the workbench isn’t limited to edge work. The Try, or Jointer, plane is used to flatten and refine the surface left by the Fore plane. Its extra length allows it to true large flat surfaces without riding up over the peaks or dipping down into the valleys created (or left uncorrected) during the initial surface preparation.

Despite its heft, the Jointer should be considered a precision tool. The iron should be sharpened with a slight camber (or perhaps none at all if used exclusively for edge work), and the frog typically adjusted with a fine set for thinner shavings than the Fore plane. Working both across the grain and in all directions, the Try plane leaves a perfectly flat surface that requires only final touch up with the Smoothing plane.

Your choices between the two standards, nos. 7 and 8, are really a matter of personal preference. In this case, Newton’s laws of motion lend a helping hand.  The greater heft is actually a benefit, in that once you get it moving the additional mass helps keep it going with less effort. That said, the no. 8 is quite a beast, and my personal preference is for the lighter and shorter no. 7, which I find easier to manage.

3. Smoothing Planes – For Final Finishing

Stanley no. 4 Smoothing Plane, Type 19

Smoothing planes include the shorter planes in the lineup, those 10 inches or less. Stanley made a number of planes in this range, from the tiny no. 1 to the most popular no. 4 and its wider sibling, the 4-1/2.

The Smoothing plane is the final plane used prior to applying the finish. Executed properly, there should be no need for sandpaper. Used primarily with the grain, the Smoothing plane is normally sharpened with just the slightest camber or left straight with its corners eased to prevent them from digging in or leaving tell tale ‘lines’ along the edge of the cut. The frog is adjusted with a closed mouth for the finest of cuts, and the shavings produced are tissue thin, ideally produced from long strokes covering the full length of the wood. Aside from perhaps a little hand scraping here and there, the surface left by the Smoothing plane should require no further treatment. In fact done correctly, sanding would actually diminish the quality of the surface left by the Smoother.

More so than with the Fore and Try planes, the choice of which size Smoother is really a matter of and comfort and the scale of your work. All of them will do a comparable job, although the nos. 1 and 2 are really only suited for very small surfaces (and very small hands). The no. 4 is considered the most versatile size, and the one I use most often. However, I do have a smaller no. 3 and a wider no. 4-1/2 that I reach for, depending on the size of the project. But since the point of this article is to identify the three core bench planes you’ll need for woodworking, the no. 4 is probably the best overall size choice for a single Smoothing plane for most people.

Understanding and applying the concepts of the three steps is far more important than knowing which plane to choose. Depending on the size of your projects, you may want to scale up or down all three tool choices.  For most woodworkers, however, I recommend the vintage Stanley no. 5 Fore plane, the no. 7 Try/Jointer plane, and the no. 4 Smoothing plane, or the comparable size equivalent from one of the other major manufacturers.

I will conclude by pointing out the obvious – if you’re starting with dimensional lumber from your local home center or planing mill, you can certainly skip the Rough step altogether, and may be able to skip the Refine step too, getting by with just a little Smoothing. I can promise this, once you get the hang of a Smoothing plane, you’ll never want to pull out your random orbit sander again.

 ***

For more detailed information on the three step process using hand planes, I highly recommend you check out Christopher Schwarz’s outstanding Course, Medium, and Fine, available on DVD.

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.

____________________________________

1. Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises. London, 1703.

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About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 15 years’ experience focused on financial and operational efficiencies, talent development and optimization, improved employee engagement, and cultural alignment of teams within the organization. He has diverse experience in successful financial and strategic planning, brand management, leadership analysis and talent development, as well as designing and executing improvements to teams’ cultural efficacy and organizational alignment. Bryant has experience in both International Public S&P 500 Corporate and Non-Profit Sectors, and also runs his own entrepreneurial business venture, a consulting company specializing in helping small businesses and organizations improve operational efficiency, leadership development, and employee engagement . Bryant holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA).

4 Responses to Select the Best Bench Plane for the Job

  1. billlattpa says:

    I believe that the #4, #5, and the #7 and the “essential” planes to own even if you are not an exclusive hand tool worker, like myself. I currently own a Stanley #4(their new one which I like very much) and the Lie Nielsen #5. After alot of thought and consideration my next plane purchase will be the Lie Nielsen #7 which I hope to order at their hand tool event in October. I thought about the Veritas bevel up jointer and even restoring an old Stanley #7. But after having no luck finding a #7 worth restoring and then using both the Veritas and the Lie Nielsen at a woodworking class I decided to go with the LN. I do not like using a jointer table for glue ups, I think they are too fussy. Currently I use my #5 to dress the edges for glue up prep. So far I’ve had success but I’ve also been gluing up panels less than 4ft long for the most part. If I get into a 5ft or so panel the #7 will be the by far the best bet in my opinion.
    Good post, thanks for the tips.

    Like

    • Bryant Rice says:

      You’ll get no argument from me. While I prefer (really nice condition) vintage planes, both Lie Nielsen and Veritas planes are admittedly the cat’s peejamas. Keep in mind that if you want to use a #7 for glue ups, you’ll need to dedicate an iron to that configuration – meaning you’ll want to sharpen it straight across without any camber to the edge. I keep a dedicated vintage #7C Type 9 tuned just for that purpose.

      Thanks so much for the comment and your continued support of VA Toolworks. I really appreciate it!

      Bryant
      Virginia Toolworks

      Like

      • billlattpa says:

        Thanks for the advice. I don’t camber the irons on my planes, though I do clip the corners. I think that when I do get my #7 I will camber the iron on the jack plane. I should say that my smooth plane does have a camber but it is very slight. I keep the jack straight because I use it for jointing mostly. I have an old Stanley “Handyman” smooth plane with a heavily cambered iron that I keep sharp. I use that whenever I have to do “rough” work. I get a good deal of my lumber pre surfaced so I don’t often have to use it. I mainly keep it for doing work around the house. I used to be a field electrician and of course found myself doing a fairly large amount of trim carpentry. That was probably my first real experience using a hand plane.
        Thanks again for your advice. I’ve only been using handplanes in woodworking for just about a year, so any advice is always helpful.

        Bill

        Like

  2. Bryant Rice says:

    You bring up a very good point, and one that I actually have on my ‘to write about’ list… The conventional 3 bench plane model best applies to those prepping rough lumber. The needs of those working dimensional lumber are different, and absolutely worth addressing. Look for a post on this subject in the next week.

    BR

    Like

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