Something Wild and Free


After extolling the virtues of metal planes a few months ago, I began to wonder if I had truly given wooden planes their due. I have had a hard time finding usable wooden planes locally, and so in a fit of curiosity I emailed Joshua to see if he could put a set of wooden bench planes together for me to use in the shop.

I had a good excuse. As part of an article I’m writing for Mortise & Tenon issue four I’ll be re-creating some pre-industrial techniques as part of a build and I wanted to limit myself to working with the tools that would have been available to the original craftsmen. Wooden planes fit the bill here, but I knew that in order to learn to work with them efficiently I was going to have to put my metal planes away for a while.

Here’s the thing. I did put them away, and honestly I haven’t missed them all that much. 

I should start by saying that I still believe most of the things that I wrote about metal planes are true. They’re precise, reliable and plentiful, and I think that one of the best arguments they have going for them is that anyone getting into hand tools is likely to be able to find one and get it up and running quickly. Not only that, but even as a complete hand tool novice I was taking wispy shavings with my $20 restored Stanley no.5 within hours of finding it languishing in an antique store. There are reasons that metal planes replaced wooden planes.

Still, it is possible that not all of those reasons are important to everyone, and there are good reasons to use wooden planes if they call to you. They’re not just for anachronists and fancy lads.

The set that Joshua sent took me only a few minutes to tune and a few days to get used to using. I did flatten the sole of the smoother, but otherwise I just sharpened the blades and went to town. The learning curve wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined. Thanks to some excellent instruction from Richard Maguire I was up and running in very short order.

On a halfway decent wooden plane, setting the blade isn’t rocket science. It does take a few tries until you begin to hear the differences in taps, and it takes a little faith to think that whacking the plane here or there actually does anything, but within a week I was instinctively adjusting the plane with no trouble at all. I’ve only had one hitch in the whole process - learning to properly hold the plane to joint edges - and I think I’ve overcome that. The planes do react to heat and humidity, so I have to remember to check the settings when they’ve been sitting in the cold shop overnight, but honestly, I would do that anyway. 

I feel like I’m writing a little bit of a conversion story, but here’s what I love about them: they’re light, they’re efficient and they’re a blast to use. There’s something a little wild and free about them and that reminded me of one of the reasons I took to hand tools in the first place. They eschew some of the cast iron precision of machined perfection, but in skilled hands they produce work that is no less beautiful. My hands are getting used to them and so is my heart. 

-Jim McConnell


Would you like email notifications of our daily blog posts? Sign up below...