How Does a Hand Planer Work?

A hand planer is an invaluable tool for any woodworker. Although a hand planer is a relatively straightforward smoothing and finishing tool, there are a few technical elements that you should be familiar with to make the most of it. So, how exactly does a hand planer work? 

A hand planer shaves off wood to smooth out the surface for desired finishes. Also known as a bench plane, a hand planer can cut reasonably deep or finely, depending on the blade’s depth and cutting angle. You can adjust this depth based on your needs.

But a hand planer is not a substitute bench, handheld, or manual tool for thickness planers, nor is it an alternative to jointers. Each of these tools works differently and has distinct purposes. This article will explore how a bench plane or hand planer works and how to use this handy tool.

How To Use a Hand Planer

Using a hand planer is pretty straightforward, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind to get the best results. It’s best to follow these essential steps:

Ensure Your Blade Is Sharp

First, always ensure the blades on your hand planer are sharp. Dull blades will tear the wood rather than cut it cleanly, leaving you with a rough finish.

This requirement is essential when working with hardwoods, as they can be challenging to plane, even with sharp blades. If your knives are dull, sharpen them with a honing stone before continuing.

Keep a Firm Grip on the Planer

The next thing to remember is to maintain a consistent grip on the hand planer while using it. This grip will help you keep the tool level and prevent it from digging into the wood.

To do this, grip the hand planer with your right hand on the big handle and your left hand on the knob. This process may feel awkward initially, but you’ll get used to it quickly.

Position the Planer and Apply Pressure. 

To plane the wood, follow these steps:

  1. Position the hand planer’s blades against the board’s surface. 
  2. Apply pressure evenly with both hands and move the tool forward.
  3. As you move the hand planer forward, the blades will remove small wood shavings from the surface.
  4. These shavings will accumulate in front of the tool, so keep moving forward to prevent them from clogging the blades.

Once you have reached the end of the board, lift the hand planer off and get rid of the shavings. That’s all there is to it!

Now that you know how to use a hand planer let’s look at the anatomy of modern bench planes to understand how they work.

Anatomy of a Hand Planer

All modern bench planes or hand planers use the concept and fundamental design of Leonard Bailey. His bench plane patent was a scraper tool with an adjustable cutter to smooth wood surfaces. Stanley Works subsequently improved upon the basic structure.

Generally, all hand planers have the following components:

  • Sole: the base of a hand planer that glides over the wood surface.
  • Frog: the wedge-like body to mount the blade, clamp, adjusters, etc.
  • Knob: the front handle you grip while working with a hand planer.
  • Handle: this is the rear handle you engage with your dominant hand.
  • Blade: also known as iron or iron blade mounted on the frog.
  • Bevel: the cutting edge of the blade that projects through the mouth.
  • Mouth: the opening in the sole for the bevel’s projection and shavings.
  • Clamp: the brace with a lever, cap, and screw to fasten the iron blade.
  • Chip breaker: a metal plate atop the iron blade to break wood shavings.
  • Cam lever, lever cap, and lever cap screw to secure the components.
  • Blade lateral adjustment lever and depth adjustment wheel or screw.

Companies make hand planers in different sizes and with varying features. Stanley Black & Decker, Inc. manufactures bench planes in sizes 1 through 8, including 0.5 or 1/2 versions. The different sizes are limited to the dimensions, length, and width to determine planing areas.

The other significant distinction is the standard or traditional 45° angle between the iron blade and the sole and lower angles for hand planers designed for finer finishes. Such low-angle hand planers don’t cut deep. Also, these low-angle planes have the bevel facing up instead of down.

The bevel or cutting edge of the blade projected through the mouth points down in all standard hand planers. This angle depends on the bevel’s sharpness and the blade’s depth you set on a bench plane. However, this is not the 45° or much lower angles of the iron blade and frog to the sole.

How To Adjust a Hand Planer

Suppose you have a new hand planer. The bench plane’s iron blade should have a sharp bevel for you to start woodworking immediately. Of course, you need to get used to the tool and its typical motions if you have never used a hand planer—but there’s one other important element.

You should be able to adjust a hand planer for it to work as intended. Here are the steps to use the depth adjustment wheel or screw and lateral blade lever:

  1. Place the hand planer on a wood surface, preferably a spare plank.
  2. Move the hand planer slowly to feel resistance as it glides.
  3. The sole may move without resistance if the bevel doesn’t make contact.
  4. Use the depth adjustment wheel or screw to lower or raise the bevel.
  5. Turning this screw or wheel clockwise will generally lower the bevel’s position.
  6. Rotate the adjuster gradually until you have the necessary contact level.
  7. This bevel depth determines how deep or shallow the wood shavings will be.
  8. Once you have sufficient contact and resistance, use the planer several times.
  9. Check how and where the wood shavings are curling up on the hand planer.
  10. You should adjust the lateral lever if you find the shavings on the left or right.
  11. Move the lever left or right, a bit at a time, to toggle the blade’s alignment.
  12. The appropriate lateral alignment is when the shavings emerge at the center.

You may need to adjust the lateral alignment periodically. The depth adjustment is necessary for a hand planer, and you must do so whenever you want to change how deep or finely you need to smooth a wood surface. The type of wood will also influence both adjustments in most cases.

Things That Affect How a Hand Planer Works

A few key factors can affect how well a hand planer performs, including the following considerations:

  • The blade’s angle. Your hand planer’s angle affects how smoothly you cut the wood and how much power the hand planer can put out. A smaller angle gives the plane more control and makes it better suited for hardwoods, while a more significant angle results in a smoother cut and is better for softwoods.
  • The blade’s condition. Your blade will also affect how well the hand plane works. A dull blade will cause tearing and splinters, while a sharp blade will result in a smooth cut. Always make sure the blade on your hand planer is nice and sharp before using it.
  • The width of the blade. The width of the blade will affect how much material you remove with each pass. A wider edge will take off more material, while a narrower blade will remove less.
  • The depth of the cut. Your planing depth is determined by how far down you set the blade. Deeper planing will remove more material, while a shallower cut will take off less.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors that affect how well a hand planer works. But don’t worry—it will soon become second nature. Keep these things in mind and experiment to see what works best for you.

When To Avoid Using a Hand Planer

Sometimes, there are more suitable tools for a job than a hand planer. Here are some examples:

  • When accuracy is critical. A hand planer is not the right tool for the job if you need to make an exact cut. For example, if you want a parallel, flush cut on two pieces of wood, a hand planer will not give you the level of precision you need. In cases like this, it’s better to use a power tool such as a table saw or router.
  • When you are working with hardwoods. Some hardwoods, like maple and oak, are too hard for a hand planer. The blades will quickly dull, and you’ll end up with a lot of tear-out and splintering. If you’re working with hardwoods, using a power tool like a table, saw or jointer is better.
  • When the wood is bowed or warped. If the wood you’re working with is twisted or warped, a hand planer will not do an efficient job. For more info, check our article on how to fix warped wood.
  • When you’re working with delicate material. A hand planer is not the best choice if you work with a thin or damaged material. In these cases, it’s better to use a chisel or some other type of hand tool.
  • When you need to make a deep cut. If you need to remove a lot of material, it’s best to use a saw or another power tool.

As you can see, there are some situations where a hand planer is not the best tool for the job. But in most cases, it is an excellent choice for smoothing and shaping wood.

When To Have Your Hand Planer Sharpened

The blades on a hand planer will eventually get dull, and you need to sharpen them. How often you need to have the blades sharpened depends on how much you use the tool and the type of wood you choose.

If you use the hand plane regularly, you’ll need to have the blades sharpened once or twice a year. If you only use it occasionally, you can go a few years without sharpening the blades.

There are two main ways to sharpen the blades on a hand planer:

You can take it to a professional and have them sharpen it. This option is the easiest way to get the job done, but it can be expensive.

You can also sharpen the blades, but this is more work. However, it’s also a much cheaper option for your hand planer. You can check out this Youtube tutorial on sharpening hand plane blades:

Can You Use a Hand Planer as a Thickness Planer or Jointer?

A hand planer suits its function well but does not function well in the role of other tools, such as thickness planers or jointers, for the following reasons: 

Hand Planer vs. Thickness Planer

A bench plane or hand planer is a manual tool for finishing or smoothing wood, while thickness planers are powered machines to trim wooden planks. One would choose something other than a thickness planer to finish a wood surface, as a thickness planer uniformly reduces a chosen side’s thickness for an entire plank.

Bench Plane or Hand Planer vs. Jointer

A bench plane, or hand planer, isn’t a jointer. Also, a thickness planer and a jointer planer don’t serve the same purposes. A jointer is effective if you have to trim bowed or warped wood. Most thickness planers won’t deliver parallel edges and surfaces if a plank is bowed or warped.

Likewise, a bench plane or hand planer doesn’t account for macro contours or the overall shape of the wood. Small and medium hand planers may ride out any significant bowing or warping of wood without affecting its finishing or smoothing. So, a hand planer doesn’t replace a jointer.

If you think of using a hand planer to reduce the thickness of any side of a plank, you must consider how tedious the process will be. A manual bench plane with limited cutting or trimming ability won’t reduce much thickness unless you have a slender plank.

Over to You

If a hand planer is something you could use, we recommend picking one up and giving it a try. You might be surprised at how much difference it can make in your woodworking projects. Keep your blade sharp and avoid hardwoods like maple, oak, and delicate wooden surfaces. 

Damien Madeira

Damien has been doing woodworking for the last 5 years. He began as a hobbyist with hand tools and slowly worked his way up to own larger machines and mill rough wood into beautiful creations. While still considering himself a hobbyist, he has a passion for woodworking and enjoys working with epoxy as well.

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