How Many Planes Do You Need?

Chris Schwarz likes to talk about beginning woodworkers being in the “crow phase.” That’s the period in your tool collecting where you’ll snatch up anything shiny and add it to the hoard.  I went through a pretty long crow phase and I bought things that still puzzle me.  One day, I came back from the flea market with six block planes.  I already had a Stanley 9 ½ that I was really happy with.  Why did I buy six more?  Each one was different and I was kind of fascinated by the different adjustment mechanisms.  They were also cheap.

But this is exactly the kind of behavior that can get you into trouble.  You’re fascinated by tools in general, or by some specific tool, and you sacrifice stacks of cash on tools that are going to end up collecting dust.  That money could be going towards tools you really need, or wood to make actual projects.

So it goes with planes.  Even if you’re just trying to build up your bench planes, Stanley and others made a huge variety of sizes.  You might confine yourself to looking for the common ones, but even if you just focus on getting No.3 through No.8, that’s still ELEVEN different planes.  You might find yourself wandering around your house tonight mumbling “Do I need a No. 4, or a No. 3?  How about the 5 ½?  David Charlesworth says it’s the ultimate plane.  How is it different from the 5?”

I’m never going to tell you that you shouldn’t collect all the different Stanley models and try them out.  This is how we figure out what our preferences are.  For instance, lots of people hate the No. 6, but I quite like it.  Other woodworkers to do pretty much everything with a No. 4 or a No. 7.  Over time, you’ll figure out what you like best, but that knowledge doesn’t come through collecting; it comes through actually building things and putting in your hours at the bench.

So when you’re first starting out, you need to pick up common, useful tools and get to work making shavings.  I’d like to suggest three planes that will handle the vast majority of woodworking tasks and are also a cheap and easy to find.

The cambered iron of a fore plane. This is a wooden one, but you get the idea.

The cambered iron of a fore plane. This is a wooden one, but you get the idea.

The No. 5 Jack Plane

I’m sure you’ve heard that the No. 5 is the “jack of all trades.” Like most clichés, this one is basically true.  If you can only have one plane, the No. 5 is a good choice.  It’s light enough to use for long periods of time, but the sole is long enough to give you a good reference surface for many straightening and flattening tasks at the bench.  I actually keep two No. 5s handy.  One of them is set up as a “fore plane,” which means it has a cambered iron, a wide mouth, and can be set to take a very heavy cut.  This plane is similar to the “scrub plane” that you may have read about; it’s just longer.  Whether you favor a fore or a scrub basically comes down to training and personal preference. 

My other No. 5 has much less camber to the iron and a finer mouth.  I use it for general bench work where I want a longer sole.  This plane often comes in after the fore plane, and I use it for flattening and for jointing short boards.

You can have one No. 5 that fills both of these roles.  Just have two irons; one cambered and one mostly straight.  If you have a separate chip breaker for each of these irons, then swapping them in and out of the plane is fast and easy.  You might need to open up the mouth on your 5 to make it function as a fore plane, but that’s easily accomplished with a file.  And with the rougher work you do with the 5, the wider mouth won’t really matter, even if you have the straight blade installed.

A single No. 5 and a pair of irons will let you handle rough flattening, removing cup and twist, thicknessing stock, and jointing short edges.  It’s a real workhorse.

The No. 4 Smoothing Plane

Many woodworkers, like the venerable Paul Sellers, use the No. 4 as their main plane.  Paul even recommends buying a No. 4 BEFORE you buy any other planes.

My No. 4 might be filthy, but it does clean work. 

My No. 4 might be filthy, but it does clean work. 

For a long time, this advice confused me.  The No. 4 makes an excellent smoothing plane, and for most smoothing tasks, the common, lightweight, Bailey-pattern No. 4 gets the job done with minimum fuss.  But the 4 is small and has a short sole.  How could it be your main woodworking plane?  Shouldn’t the heavier and longer No. 5 fill that role?


Or not.

I love my No. 5 and wouldn’t want to be without it.  But the longer I do hand tool woodwork, the more I have to admit that the No. 4 is probably more versatile.  Its shorter sole gives you less of a reference surface for flattening edges and faces, but that’s a good reason to use winding sticks, a straight edge, and your eyeball.  When flattening a large surface, you’re just taking down the high spots one after another.  If you know where the high spots are, there’s no reason you can’t take them down with pretty much any plane.

Because the No. 4 is shorter, it can do more tasks than larger planes.  It can get into smaller spaces for smoothing, and its light weight makes it easy to use for long periods of time; the 4 just won’t wear you out like bigger planes will.

The No. 4 will also handle more specialized tasks.  It’s good to have a block plane, but the 4 tackles end grain just fine.  It will also do chamfering, bevels, and will easily take the sharp edges off of boards.  When you have one plane that will handle all of these operations, it’s easy to see why it could be your only bench plane.

The Block Plane

I used to feel like block planes were essential and finding the perfect one was a mission I should be on.  That’s how I ended up owning 10 or 15 of the damn things.

I’ve come around to the view that block plans are nice to have, but you don’t really need one at all.  You can use a small smoothing plane for almost all the same tasks.

At the same time, the block plane might be the only plane you can use one-handed all day long.  There are models small enough to slip into your pocket, which makes them convenient.  And, Stanley and its competitors invented and produced about a million different varieties of block plane.  They are everywhere and they are cheap, so you might as well have one under your bench.

Unfortunately, there are so many varieties of block plane on the used market that it’s pretty hard to figure out which one you should get.  Let me offer a few quick suggestions.

Steer away from the ultra-basic models like the Stanley 110.  This plane has a fixed mouth and no mechanical adjustment, so you have to adjust it with hammer taps.  If you’re going to be hammer-adjusting your plane anyway, you might as well just use a wooden plane since they’re lighter and glide more easily on the wood anyway.  There are too many block plans out there to bother screwing around with this little monster.

The Stanley 220 only has a depth-adjuster, but that adjuster works extremely well and has very little backlash. 

The Stanley 220 only has a depth-adjuster, but that adjuster works extremely well and has very little backlash. 

A good (and generally cheap) alternative is the Stanley 220.  This plane has a fixed mouth and no lateral adjustment, but its depth adjuster is extremely precise and comfortable to use.  The big nob at the back makes it very easy to dial in the exact shaving you want to take. Since 220s are plentiful and cheap, they make a great alternative to more basic block planes like the 110.

In my mind, you can’t go wrong with either the Stanley 9 ½ or the No. 18.  Both of these planes are fully adjustable, which means there are mechanical adjusters for both depth of cut and lateral adjustment.  They both also have adjustable mouths, which is a very useful feature in a block plane that you might use to take very fine cuts on difficult woods.

The Stanley 18 has all the adjustments you could ask for. The "knuckle-joint" lever cap is also very comfortable in the hand. 

The Stanley 18 has all the adjustments you could ask for. The "knuckle-joint" lever cap is also very comfortable in the hand. 

There are also many block plans with the iron bedded at a low angle.  This is another very desirable feature and I do find myself reaching for low-angle block plans more often.  But when you start getting into all the different models and features a block plane, things spiral out of control pretty quickly.  As long as you’re buying a plane from a major manufacturer like Stanley, Sargent, or Union, and you look for the three major features (depth adjustment, lateral adjustment, and mouth adjustment) you’ll probably be happy with your purchase.

Add the block plane to the 4 and 5 you already own, and you’ll be ready to handle almost any planning task.  Of course, your needs probably won’t end forever with these three models, but they’ll get you started.

Rex Krueger