These are the planes that grace the cover of woodworking books and magazines, the ones that you see on DIY shows on TV and the type you are likely to find in your grandfather’s shed.
Called bench planes because they usually lived on the shelf below the bench for easy access, they generally follow the same design – curved body, a rounded knob at the front and a curved handle (called a tote for some reason) at the back.
The most famous and prolific maker of these was Stanley tools, followed closely by Record and a host of others. There’s a huge number of these on the secondhand market that can easily be restored to great user planes, and there’s quite a large collector market who take perfectly good users and hide them in glass cabinets.
My collection is a mixture of older Stanley and Record models, ranging from around 1940 to 1970 or so, after which they started to decline in quality. The records are somewhat newer but the quality stayed high with them a lot longer so I find them just as good to use.
Bench planes generally follow the Stanley Bailey pattern system being numbered 1-8, with the #1 being a tiny,14cm long display item that no sane person will try and use, and the 8 being a monster that you need good arm muscles to use at a bit over 60cm long. Most common is the #4 which was made and sold in the millions.
Smoothing planes (#1 to # 4 1/2)
The #4 is the most common plane around as mentioned before. It’s a smallish plane and is normally set up with a straight blade for taking fine shavings. It’s job is to smooth the final small differences on a piece of work.
The 4 1/2 is a slightly longer, wider version of the plane and works the same way. Some people prefer the extra width or weight, I prefer it simply because there’s a bit more room for my hand to fit on the tote. Both my #4 and 4 1/2 are in the process of being restored, as both had a hard life with a previous owner.
Jack Planes (#5 & 5 1/2)
The jack plane is the workhorse of the plane family. It’s a bit longer than the smoothing planes, and can handle a number of jobs. If you were to have just one plane this would be the one to have. Normally set up with a slight curve on the blade so it doesn’t dig into the work, it is capable of taking a lot of wood off very quickly. As an example, I took 18mm off a metre long 80mm x 80mm piece of maple in under 5 minutes with one.
You can make an edge straight with them if you need to, and if you set the blade for a finer cut you may never need to touch a smoothing plane as these are so capable of doing a good job.
Again, the 1/2 size is for those people who want a little extra width on the blade. It’s a little longer and a fair bit heavier too which can be a disadvantage. It’s not a bad compromise size if you don’t have a lot of room for a larger plane though as it makes quite a decent jointer as well.
Jointer Planes (#6 – #8)
These are what many woodworkers refer to as ‘the big iron”. Long, wide and heavy, the job of these planes is to make sure the work is flat. The name comes from the process of making sure the edge of a workpiece is perfectly flat, so that when glued up into larger panels the joints are perfect.
The #6 is possibly the quiet achiever of the bench plane family. Most people tend to go for a #7 when you can get perfectly acceptable results from a #6 and on work the size most home woodworkers create it can be much easier to handle, being shorter and lighter. These can normally be picked up much more cheaply than the better known #7 size.
The #7 is the one that gets all the press . A #7 can be quite a revelation if you are used to the smallish #4, and the weight will give you good strong arm muscles. Don’t dismiss the older Record planes in this size, which can normally be had at around half the price of the Stanley equivilent. My experiance is that they were every bit as good if not better made when comparing planes from the same era.
The #8 is quite rare and possibly overkill for most workshop tasks