Why I Converted to Wooden Hand Planes

In a recent blog post I mentioned how our content editor, Jim McConnell, and I have agreed to engage in a friendly discussion on the blog about metal-bodied and wooden hand planes. In that post, Jim explained some of the reasons that he prefers metal-bodied planes. We aren’t here to make this topic controversial and adversarial. That’s the stupid kind of stuff that happens on forums. This is just plain ol’ honest discussion. Here's my take:

I was trained on metal-bodies planes at the luthiery school I attended. We learned the setup, adjustment, and use of these high-performance tools. Even though my introduction to planing was with new high-end examples, after I graduated from the program, I fixed up a few old Stanleys to fill out my set. I had no reason to complain about metal-bodied planes—I had nothing to compare them to.

It wasn’t until I began demonstrating pre-industrial woodworking that I decided I better figure out how to use wooden planes. I expected to eventually achieve decent competency—at least enough to do planing demonstrations—but I didn’t have high expectations.

For me, the only way to learn is to dive in head first. I resolved to go cold turkey for a few days to force myself to learn the mystical subtleties of adjusting these foreign contraptions. I cleaned the grime off some old fore plane and sharpened the iron same as I always did on my metal planes. I read some instructions and watched a YouTube video or two and then gave it shot. I spent about 20 minutes playing around with the adjustments, varying the tapping pressure, and even experimenting with retracting the iron a bit (I don’t know why but I didn’t expect that technique to work.)

I found that it only took me a few hours of playing around with wooden planes until I was instinctively making confident adjustments with the hammer. This was an honest-to-goodness surprise. I began to incorporate these planes more and more into my work to increase my proficiency with them. After a few weeks, it occurred to me that I was actually beginning to prefer using wooden planes over against my faithful metal ones. How in the world did that happen? What were the advantages I saw in these planes?

A Few Reasons I Prefer Wooden Planes

  1. Lightness – If you are a hand-tool woodworker who preps your stock with hand tools, mass is not your friend. Why in the world would you want to spend hours slugging around a heavy metal plane when a wooden one works the same (or better)? This is no joke—It makes a huge difference for endurance. If you use machines to prep your lumber and pretty much only use your smoothing plane, then this point is probably irrelevant to you but if it’s up to your muscles to get the job done, you’ll want all the help you can get.
  2. Lack of Sole Friction – This one goes hand in hand with #1. Wooden soles glide on wood like no other. With my metal planes, I remember regularly going back to lubricate my soles in order to minimize the resistance while planing. I’d rub a little wax on the sole and BAM! what a difference it made. Lubricating soles is an old practice that even historic wooden plane users took advantage of. It makes sense. Why muscle the tool around if you can make it glide better? The truth is, I almost never lubricate my wooden plane soles. Once in a blue moon I remember that most people out there do that so I put some wax on there for good measure. I hardly notice any difference.
  3. Ease of Adjustment – I know, I know. You don’t believe me. Am I really saying that adjusting a wooden plane is easier than adjusting a metal one? Yes, I am. Although there is a learning curve (like everything in woodworking), I think the wooden plane’s fewer parts and more straightforward design makes adjustment easier. Metal planes have their own learning curve. The cap iron has to be in the right place or the iron projection will change. Then the lever cap screw has to be turned just right to get the right pressure—too much and you have problems adjusting the iron, too little and you can bump your setting out when planing. And forget about that little knurled knob that you have to cram your fingers to spin, spin, spin to adjust. (Is it clockwise or counter-clockwise, I forget?) I always felt the lateral adjustment lever that can be finicky. Etc, Etc. None of this is a big deal to someone who is used to these idiosyncrasies but my point is both metal and wooden planes have learning curves. My belief is that once you get past the learning curve, the wooden plane is faster, easier, and much more pleasurable to adjust. Try it, I dare you.
  4. Comfort in Use – There is a reason that metal planes have wooden handles and knobs—metal is cold and uncomfortable. I like the feel of wooden tools and find them much more inviting.
  5. Tactile Feedback – The wooden body transfers to my hands all the subtle vibrations from the iron engaging the wood. This gives me a source of feedback I never had with thick and heavy metal planes. I can actually feel how the plane is working.
  6. Beauty – This is totally subjective, I know. I think many metal planes have their own beauty but, in my view, wood ages better than metal. To me, there is nothing like a couple hundred years of patina on an old wooden tool.

You don’t need exceptional planes to get these results. All my planes are over 100 years old and are nothing special. When I am searching for a plane in an antique shop, I look for grain orientation (quartersawn, preferably), no major structural concerns, and at least decent amount of iron left. That’s about it. I am very happy with these simple ho-hum examples and don’t feel a need for anything fancier.

If you are someone who wants the best of best and has the resources to pay for it, there are several wooden plane makers out there that make high-quality bench planes. Old Street Tool has been making single-iron planes for a long time, Steve Voigt makes double-irons, and I recently got to try out a nice single-iron fore plane from Jeremiah Wilding. I highly recommend all these makers.

Have questions? I’d be happy answer in the comments below. 

- Joshua


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