Basic Hand-Plane Building

Why build your own plane?

Even though high quality planes are available new and used, many of these tools are out of reach, especially for beginning craftsmen.  I’ve built my tool kit with vintage Stanley planes that I find at tag sales, flea markets, and junk shops.  I typically buy these planes for $10.00 or less and spend a few hours restoring them

I’ve learned that I’m very lucky to live in places where vintage tools are accessible and cheap.  Since I started making videos, I’ve heard from lots of aspiring woodworkers, both American and international, who can’t pick up old Stanley planes for pocket change.  There are many parts of America where hand tools were never imported in large numbers.  In some places, the collectors’ market has driven up the price of vintage tools to the point where they cost too much.  Outside of America, there are many countries where mass-produced, metallic planes never existed at all and woodworkers have to choose between ancient wooden planes or super-expensive American premium planes that have to be imported at high cost.  For people in either of these situations, plane-making is the only realistic way to have some decent tools.

Even for people like me, who own a lot of good tools, plane-making gives us a better understanding of how planes work and what separates a mediocre plane from a good one. 

And finally, once you know how to make a basic plane, you can make all sorts of specialty planes for doing curved work, making hollowed chair seats, making grooves and rebates, and any other thing you can dream up.  Making a basic plane and having it work is the gateway to making pretty much any plane you need for your woodwork. 

Is plane-making difficult?

Not really.  Even beginning woodworkers can make a good plane, although it may take a few attempts before you get one that works well.  The good news is that you can buy a single iron and build planes around it over and over again until you get a good one.  The bad ones go in the firewood pile and no one needs to know about them.

It’s easy to get intimidated thinking about making a plane.  The Bailey-pattern planes that I use are actually pretty complicated, with several adjustments and many moving parts.  Every time I make a plane, I’m surprised by how simple they are. 

A plane is just a jig that holds a blade at a specific angle.  That’s it.  You buy or make the iron, and then you build a “holder” for it.  You just made a plane.

What do I need?

Surprisingly little.  The iron (or blade) is usually the biggest roadblock.  You can find used ones, buy new ones online, or make your own.  In this video series, I take a cheap, 2 inch chisel, cut off the handle, and flatten it with a belt sander.  The result is an excellent iron that costs about $15.00 and takes around half hour to make.

A mass-produced iron like this one might work, but's it's too thin and long. 

A mass-produced iron like this one might work, but's it's too thin and long. 

You could buy an iron like this one:

I don’t know for sure that these irons wouldn’t work, and you should feel free to experiment with one if you have it, but they don’t seem like a good idea to me.  These irons are meant to be used in a metallic plane, which is why they are so long.  There also quite thin, and they’re designed to be used with a chip breaker (that’s what the slot is for).  Among other things, the chip breaker stiffens a thin blade and makes it rigid enough for woodworking.  Even though you can order irons like this very cheaply off Amazon, I think the smaller and thicker iron is more worth the trouble.

You can also make the iron by buying a small quantity of O1 or 1095 steal and heat treating it at home.  Heat treating isn’t super-complicated, but it does require heating the steel to around 1200°, quenching it, and then tempering it.  You can do it with a propane torch or even a charcoal fire, followed by a standard kitchen oven, but it’s still a whole set of steps and processes that you have to master before you can make your plane.

Beyond the iron, you need a few scraps of hardwood and something to use for the cross-pin.  Any hardwood will work, but I suggest you stay away from the softest ones, like poplar.  If you have a choice, pick something tough but easy to work with, like maple, white oak, or ash.  Beach is a traditional choice, but I haven’t had great luck finding it in big enough chunks to make a good plane. Some people go with fancy exotic woods like rosewood or lignum. I bet these woods make great planes, but I’m on a budget and I’m not going to ruin an expensive chunk of wood making a plane. If I mess up a piece of hickory, I just throw it on the burn pile and start over.

Do I own the right tools?

Probably. If you can cut, shape, and smooth wood for general projects, then you have the tools to make a plane. The only part of the project that’s really critical is the bed, which needs to be cut at around 45 degrees and must be absolutely square, straight, and flat.  For cutting this 45° angle, I prefer a table saw with the blade tilted.  Obviously, a miter saw is another good choice.  If you don’t have either of these, try to find a miter box, or even make one.  A good miter box and a sharp saw will make it good, straight cut.  You could even free-hand cut the bed with a good hand-saw but you might have to do a lot of cleanup after the cut.

Leveling and straightening the bed is probably the most difficult task in the whole process, and most plane makers use a small block plane.  Of course, then you need a plane in order to make a plane, and that doesn’t solve any problems.  If you’re making your first plane, glue a piece of sandpaper to a flat surface like a piece of glass and use this to carefully flat and the bed of the plane.  It works fine and doesn’t take too long.

Am I ready to get started?

Probably.  And even if you’re not, give it a try and see what happens.  If your plane doesn’t come out well, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what other tools you need or where you need to improve.  Even a poorly made plane can still work for heavy stock removal.  And since everybody needs a fore or scrub plane anyway, your first one can still be useful as long as it’s not a total disaster.  So grab an iron and a chunk of wood and get started.  Oh, and watch my videos.

Rex Krueger