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I have spent too many hours using my poor man's plane consisting of a flat block and a piece of sandpaper to flatten down my dovetail pins.

I am looking to buy a hand plane and am a little overwhelmed by all of the choices. I am probably going to order one Lie-Nielson to get started with.

What would be the most general purpose plane I should buy first? Things I would like to do with this plane:

Flatten pins in dovetail joints

Plane boards that are about 3-4 feet long maximum, more often than not only about 2 feet

Square boards with a shooting board

Thanks for any info or suggestions.

  • Careful with this question; this strikes me as largely opinion-based and too open to discussion, although looking across many discussion forums you may find #4 or 4-1/2 is a very common recommendation. – rob Feb 2 '17 at 7:18
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I'll try not to let this run too long but there's a lot more ground to cover here than you might expect.

Flatten pins in dovetail joints

Plane boards that are about 3-4 feet long maximum, more often than not only about 2 feet

Square boards with a shooting board

Honestly all those things can be accomplished with any bench plane within reason, so from a 3 to a 6 in Stanley's numbering system (and including both a 4 1/2 and 5 1/2).

But in reality you wouldn't normally choose to do all of that with just one plane. Planes no. 3 through to 4 1/2 are intended to be smoothing planes, and they are geared towards doing just that, smoothing. They're not intended for flattening tasks, although they can be pressed into service for that it's not without a penalty in time and effort.

I am probably going to order one Lie-Nielson to get started with.

While you're unlikely to be unhappy with an L-N purchase I'm basically going to recommend straight out that you reconsider and go with something else. For someone in your position I think a cheaper brand or vintage from the secondhand market are a much better proposition.

A premium for what?
My general point is about paying a premium for a plane (and L-N's are among the most expensive of modern planes produced in large numbers, particularly so outside of North America). One of the things that you pay a premium for is higher standards of machining on all parts, with tighter tolerances, which supposedly gives you a plane that works better, adjusts more easily, keeps setting better and lasts longer. But in reality most of that is smoke and mirrors, because planes produced not to be "heirloom tools" but merely as working men's tools — vintage planes from any number of makers, including Millers Falls, Record and Stanley of course — have a proven track record in both performance and longevity, with many planes well in excess of 75 years old still in daily use in a professional setting.

This shows quite clearly that we don't actually need those far higher tolerances for real-world performance.

And of course it calls into question just what the premium pricetag is actually for. Since it's not about performance or about durability feel free to speculate what it is you're actually paying for.

Lower-cost planes can require more work (called fettling, see more on that in the link at bottom) to 'commission' or get ready for use, and the lower price point reflects this. Notice I said can require more work. Not all cheaper planes require anything like the effort to commission that you read about too frequently online (two hours+ needed to lap the sole flat and so on). I've had three planes new planes pass through my hands that each cost less than $30 and an experienced plane user could have gotten any one of them ready to do fine work in under half an hour.

Lastly, one of the other things that buying cheaper allows is buying more tools for the same money (less money in fact), which leads on to my recommendations for you.

What I'd get instead
The important take-home message here is you can get equal performance from planes that cost far less. On top of that for the new user you're less likely to want to baby a tool that didn't cost so much, and if you won't be hesitant to use it hard when needed it can be a great boon.

So in reality what you'd really be better off with here is a selection of planes from a cheaper brand, or, the same selection in vintage tools.

2-3 planes instead of one I would want to have at least a no. 3, 4 or 4 1/2 (pick based on your hand size and strength) and a 5, the latter set up traditionally with a curved cutting edge on the iron for faster stock removal. And given the choice I'd also like a low-angle block plane too, although this isn't at all a must-have and you could quite happily live without one*.

One plane only If you go with just a single plane I would get a 4 or 4 1/2 and a spare iron which you can sharpen differently. This in effect turns the one plane into two different planes depending on which iron is fitted — cambered iron for flattening and faster stock removal, iron sharpened straight (with corners rounded off) or with a very slight radius for smoothing tasks, jointing edges and end-grain work.


A little more on some of these points in these previous Answers:
What makes a high quality bench plane?
Fettling a hand plane
Different ways to set up a Number 4 bench plane


*These days it's often said or implied that you need a low-angle plane for working on end grain, but that's not at all the case. Actually low-angle planes are a relatively modern thing and just as in the past any standard bench plane is perfectly capable of planing end grain if sharpened to a sufficiently high standard. This is why the most common plane used for tackling mitres in a mitre shooting board might be a no. 5 (some users even prefer a 6 or 7 for this, for their extra heft).

  • This is a great answer. I do want to ask what you mean by this numbering system. I am thinking it just means the width of the cut, right? – Ljk2000 Feb 2 '17 at 2:35
  • @Graphus: Thank you. The Lie Nielson really aren't that much more expensive than the other options I have (Lee Valley or Wood River). I have trolled flea markets and pawn shops all over the city and hand planes are apparently getting bought up very quickly because of collectors wanting many Stanley planes. I saw one on craigslist for $125 dollars which looked suspect so I passed. I actually picked up a wood river block plane today out of impatience for $99 which took about 3-4 hours to flatten the sole and sharpen up. It is awesome to use though, having never used a hand plane. – jbord39 Feb 2 '17 at 7:43
  • That WoodRiver plane should do you well. But about this, "took about 3-4 hours to flatten the sole " did you check it for function before you started? As I've tried to emphasise here in the past, it shouldn't be assumed that a sole needs work and anyway a completely flat sole isn't needed for a plane to work well. [contd] – Graphus Feb 2 '17 at 10:15
  • FWIW of the metal planes that I've bought new not one of them needed any work done to the sole for the plane to function properly. I would have done the lapping if needed, but I checked how they worked first (after honing the irons and fettling the cap iron in the double-iron planes). And every one worked like a champ with the straight-from-the-factory sole, capable of one-thousandths shavings or better, which is about as good as anyone really needs. – Graphus Feb 2 '17 at 10:17
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    @Ljk2000 The Stanley (or Stanley-Bailey) numbering system is the one most often used in the various clones of their products, brought out all over the world once their patents ran out in the early 20th century. So a Record no. 4 from 1960 is basically the same size and shape of plane as a Stanley no. 4 from 1920. The numbers can reflect the width of the cut but it's more about the overall size of planes. If you want to read much more than you ever cared to know about Stanley planes check this out. Bookmark that site, you'll return to it often! – Graphus Feb 2 '17 at 10:24
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While the jack plane (e.g. Stanley #5) is often considered a general purpose plane, it is longer and heavier than you would need for most of what you have listed. It should have a slight advantage over a #4 for flattening and squaring a 4 foot board, but I think this would be pretty minor, so I would recommend a smoothing (e.g Stanley #4) plane instead. I personally favor bevel-down planes, because I believe they are less sensitive to the sharpening angle, and because the chipbreaker can sometimes help reduce tearout.

Also, since you are planning on purchasing at least one high-quality plane, it makes more sense to spend that money on a smoothing plane, where the quality of the plane makes the most difference. Later, if you want a larger plane to flatten and square rough lumber, you can get a used or antique plane for much less money, and at that point you will have a good idea how it should work, which will make rehabbing / fettling it easier.

Looking at the Lie-Nielsen site, they only have the #4 size in brass. Brass is heavier, which can have advantages for smoothing, but is more expensive and can be more tiring to use. Lee Valley carries a line of high quality planes, including a #4. Lee Valley planes are significantly cheaper than Lie-Nielsen, but from what I have read, the difference between the two brands is not so much build quality / effectiveness as it is personal preference. (For example, I have a rather expensive block plane from Lee Valley which, if I'm being completely honest, doesn't feel as good in my hand as my $12 estate-sale Stanley.) So if you are lucky enough to have a nearby store or hand-tool event, I'd encourage you to try both brands.

  • Thanks for the advice. Man, I would love to find some hand planes at an estate sale, flea market, or anything else. I spent the last two weekends trolling the city but apparently the collectors are making it very hard to find here in Austin. – jbord39 Feb 1 '17 at 20:06
  • Just to verify, you mean the Veritas planes from Lee Valley? – jbord39 Feb 1 '17 at 20:08
  • Yes, the Veritas bench plane. I sympathize with the trouble you're having finding a used plane. Here in southern CA, I've gotten a couple at antique stores, but the better deals are at a used tool swap meet the local Rockler store holds 3 times a year. – Mr. Kevin Feb 1 '17 at 21:53
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A #4 would be a great plane to start with. It's one that I have started with and it's done everything I have asked of it in the last year. It's a Stanley which was fairly inexpensive compared with Lie Nielsen, about $65. It does require tuning out of the box to polish the sole and sharpen the blade before working with it. If you don't mind the extra work it's been one of my better purchases for woodworking (although they are few and far between!).

An alternative to Lie Nielsen, although I do covet them, would be Woodriver planes. I personally have not used one yet but have heard great things: https://www.woodcraft.com/products/woodriver-4-bench-hand-plane-v3

This is a bit cheaper compared to the Lie Nielsen but would allow you to just hone the blade and get to work compared with the Stanley.

If you do find a plane second hand as the previous answer mentions, I recommend watching the video of how to tune one up so you are aware of the work involved, this one comes from Paul Sellers: https://youtu.be/RYyV6IUpsYk

  • thanks I ended up getting a wood river low angle block plane to start off with ($99). It works really well. I have noticed that the blade (25 deg bevel) is chipping more than I would like meaning I have to spend a lot of time sharpening it. Are the more expensive planes made with better metal which reduces chipping more? – jbord39 Feb 3 '17 at 0:13
  • @jbord39 You may find the chipping settles down after a while. The heat treatment may have left the iron right near the edge fractured or more brittle than it should be (this is a recognised issue with Narex chisels and might be the case here too). However it is fairly standard practice to hone an iron to 30° and not the bevel angle of 25°, even if only done on a tiny strip (a microbevel, rather than the older style of secondary bevel which is wider) it will make the edge stronger and could reduce the problem to tolerable levels or fix it entirely. – Graphus Feb 3 '17 at 8:55

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