3 Hand Planes I Can’t Work Without

MEK Woodworks Plane Till

By Matt Kenney

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No, one of them definitely is not a router plane

When I am teaching, students frequently ask for tool recommendations because it can be hard to figure out which router, bandsaw, and hand plane to buy. One of the things I am happiest about is that I really don’t need any more tools. In fact, I often find myself standing in my shop, looking around at what’s there, and thinking “What could I get rid of and still make what I make?” Perhaps I should be ashamed that the answer is “Quite a bit.”

MEK Woodworks Hand Planes
Here’s the rest of my hand planes. Anyone want to buy a scrub plane?

That also makes me consider which tools I absolutely could not work without. When it comes to my hand planes, there are three that would necessarily survive a culling. The rest I could live without, even if I would miss a few of them to the point I’d feel it physically. Here are the three I’d keep to the end of times: Lie-Nielsen 60 1/2 low-angle adjustable block plane, Lie-Nielsen No. 4 bench plane, and Lie-Nielsen No. 4 1/2 bench plane with a 50º frog.

(Yes. They are all Li-Nielsen planes, but that’s because their planes fit my hands better than those from other makers. Veritas planes, for example, kick ass just as much as those from Lie-Nielsen. They just don’t fit my hands well.)

Alright, so I am going to explain why I can’t work without these three planes. I’d love to write about the other planes someday. Some I have nothing nice to say about, but others, like my Lie-Nielsen No. 9 iron miter plane, are fantastic but don’t see much use because of how I work these days. That’s important to keep in mind. The planes I’ve chosen are necessary for what I make and how I make it. You might need other planes because you make other stuff and work in ways that I don’t. That’s cool.

Here’s the rest of my hand planes. Anyone want to buy a scrub plane?

One thing that applies to all three: They are manufactured to insane tolerances, and they stay that way. They work, and you don’t need to futz about with them to get them to work. That is immensely valuable when your tools are used to make a living.

Lie-Nielsen 60 1/2 block plane

Lie-Nielsen 60 1/2 Block Plane

This is the plane that I use more than any other. It’s great for cleaning up end grain, cutting small miters, and trimming parts to fit with a shooting board, and it does double duty as a small smoothing plane.

It has a nice heft—heavy but not too heavy—and fits nicely into the palm of my right hand so that I can use it one handed. However, it’s not so small that I cannot use it with both hands. There’s plenty of room for the thumb on my left hand to press down on the knob up front.

Adjustments to the blade’s depth of cut are easy to control, which means I can always tune it just right for the job at hand: thin and light for end grain, a bit deeper for long grain, and heavy for jobs like creating a chamfer. Because the mouth adjusts, the plane is always set up to prevent tearout no matter how light or heavy a shaving you are taking. (The mouth should always be set just wide enough to let the shaving through.)

I like the A2 blade. After sharpening, the initial sharpness is excellent, slicing through end grain with ease, leaving behind a glass smooth surface. It’s also durable, and the “usable sharpness” lasts for a long time. So, you get great results even after the initial sharpness has faded.

I have a second blade for my 60 1/2 and sharpen it at a higher angle so that when bedded, the effective cutting angle is 47º. Set for a light shaving and paired with a tight mouth, the plane performs amazingly well as a small smoother. I need a small smoother because I make small things. A bench plane is too big, too heavy, and creates too much racking force for little boxes and drawers.

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