The Difference Between Bench and Block Planes

By Matt Kenney

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It’s not size, weight, handles, or what they’re made from

I have a question for you: What’s the difference between a bench plane and a block plane? At first blush, that might seem to be a pointless question, but it’s not. In order to realize a tool’s full potential, you must understand how it works, what it does well, and what it simply cannot do. So, you’ve got to know what makes a bench plane a bench plane to get the most from it. The same goes for a block plane, tablesaw, bandsaw, chisel, etc.

Before I tell you what I think it is, I encourage you to tell us what you think the difference is in the comments below.

I once asked this question to a large group of woodworkers. Here are some of the answers I got. Bench planes are big, and block planes are small. Bench planes have wooden handles, while block planes do not. Bench planes have a frog, but block planes do not. You need two hands to use a bench plane, but not a block plane. Block planes are a carpenter’s tool. Bench planes are for making furniture. All interesting ideas, and perhaps true, but none explain the difference between the two types of plane.

Difference Between Bench and Block Planes - Block Planes_

If you took a Lie-Nielsen No. 60 1/2 low angle block plane and made it exactly the same but four times as large, would it then be a bench plane? Of course not. Some block planes do, in fact have handles. Wooden bench planes do not have a frog but a bed, just like a block plane. I own a bench plane that I use with one hand, and I often use my block planes with two. And I definitely use them when I make furniture. All of those distinctions are superficial and arbitrary. What we need is a difference between them that isn’t arbitrary, that gets to the heart of what the tool is.

There are many ways you can explain what a thing is. For example, you might talk about the material it’s made from. A human being is made from flesh, bone, sinew, etc. Hand planes are made from metal, wood, and perhaps some plastics or other manmade composites. That might help us distinguish between a human being and a block plane, but it doesn’t help us much when it comes to differentiating between bench and block planes.

You can also account for what a thing is by describing what made it. Human beings are made by other human beings. Hand planes are made by tool makers. Again, perhaps useful for distinguishing between large classes of things, but not between two things within the same class or group.

A third way to explain a thing is to explain its function and what it does. An oven cooks/bakes food with heat. A broom cleans by sweeping with dry bristles (or whatever they’re called). A mop cleans with wet ones. All planes but thin layers of wood from a board, but some planes use a blade with its bevel facing up, while others use a blade with its bevel facing down.

Why this difference in the bevel’s orientation? Because planes with bevel-up blades were designed to plane end grain. Bevel-down planes are meant for long grain. The physics of how each blade cuts is different. Bevel-up planes slice. Bevel-down planes sorta peel wood away. Slicing is better for end grain while peeling works better for long grain. (Please understand that I am not offering a technical explanation here, but I am still getting to the heart of the matter.)

Bevel-up planes are block planes. Bevel-down planes are bench planes. That’s the difference between them. And that anatomical and functional difference is explained by the difference in their intended purpose. Block planes are designed for end grain, and bench planes are for long grain. However, I will point out that a sharp bench plane is just as good with end grain as a block plane, and a block plane handles long grain well, too, especially if you use a steeper bevel on the blade. And many folks use them interchangeably. So, the distinction in intended purpose collapses under the weight of actual use. (But, it’s interesting that bevel-up planes need a steeper bevel to work long grain as well as a bench plane, and that alters the physics of how it cuts to approximate how a bench plane cuts. That’s a thicket that makes all this a bit more difficult to sort out. Still, I think the core point remains.)

The upshot is this: the difference between block and bench plane is the orientation of the blade’s bevel. I’m sure that at least a few of you disagree with me! Tell us why in the comments, and if you can add a higher level of insight and intelligence, please do. Thanks for subscribing and reading. Please share this post if you liked it. Finally, if you like what you read here, please consider a paid subscription.

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