You're So Metal

Editor's Note: Jim and I have been discussing metal-bodied vs. wooden hand planes and agreed to have an open discussion on the matter here on the blog. Here's Jim's take.

One of the driving passions behind Mortise & Tenon Magazine is the exploration of efficient pre-industrial woodworking techniques in the hope that we can share that information with others. We realize that we sometimes sound like evangelists and we’re ok with that. We really are trying to share the good news of rough secondary surfaces and set people free from the law of machine tolerances. With that in mind I sometimes feel like a bit of a hypocrite when I admit that the planes I choose for my own personal work are direct result of the industrial revolution that we so often rail against. 

That's right, I use metal bodied planes. Judge me accordingly.

The only wooden planes in my workshop are a couple of moulding and dado planes that find occasional use, but mostly live in the bottom cabinet of my tool chest. Oh, and one old fore plane that serves as decoration, you know, to make me feel authentic. The rest of the time, I'm a ductile iron kind of guy. I'm fairly ecumenically minded. I have nothing against wooden planes and I've tried out some of the very best, but for some reason I’ve never  even been tempted to make the switch. Lately I’ve started to wonder, why?

I have to admit that I’ve always thought of wooden planes as fussy (Tap, tap, tap). They also have the reputation of being temperamental and susceptible to changes in the weather. Honestly I suspect that those issues are greatly exaggerated, but I can’t shake the feeling that wooden planes are like the creaky old men at the barbershop who predict the weather by the aches and pains of the day. To be fair, a wooden plane in good condition should take no more time to set up than their metal counterparts. The only real problems I’ve ever had were with the neglected and derelict wooden planes that sometimes float around antique shops. I bought a few of these when I started working with hand tools. In general, I should have left them for the interior decorators.

If you’re new to rust hunting it’s a lot easier to hit a homerun with a rusty old Stanley Bailey than your average Ohio Tools woody. To date, I’ve probably had a 60% success rate with antique wooden planes. That gets better as you learn what you’re looking for and your chances also go up if you live in certain parts of the country (or certain countries for that matter), but these days there are other options. With the current renaissance of plane making you can get yourself a fancy new wooden plane (or a whole set) and although you will likely pay exponentially more than you might for an antique store find, you will also be buying the peace of mind that they’re well tuned and ready for shavings. 

That’s appealing to me... until I remember how much I paid for the handplanes I already own.


Besides, that’s the argument people make about new high-end metal planes isn’t it? The idea that you pay for the privilege of pulling a highly refined tool out of the box, sharp and ready to go to work? Hmmm... And metal planes take some fussing too. Blades get dull. Moisture wreaks its rusty havoc. You need to wipe them down and keep them oiled. It’s certainly easier to true the sole of a wooden plane than one cast in iron. Oh, and the weight!

Do I need to continue?

This is PC vs Mac. Canon vs Nikon. Ford vs Chevy. Duke vs that other team from North Carolina.

There will always be opinions and there are no perfect answers. I won’t argue that metal planes better than wooden planes. I can make all sorts of rationalizations, but use metal planes for the simplest reason of all - because I like them. They feel right to me. I understand their idiosyncrasies and yet I find them to be reliable and well-suited to the work I do. The heft and inertia of these post-industrial beasts work in my favor (most of the time) and I understand how to make the subtle adjustments to get what I need out of them. With the limited shop time I have, I don’t want to think hard about the tools. I just want to use them, and these are the tools I want to use. Some days they wear me out, but they always put a smile on my face.

- Jim McConnell


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