What To Know About Choosing and Using a Hand Planer

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The hand planer, also called a hand plane, is a useful tool every woodworker should own. Here you'll learn how to choose and use a hand planer.

A hand planer is a muscle-powered woodworking tool that shaves thin layers off wood to give it a desired shape.

Though the design hasn’t changed much in nearly two centuries, I believe a good hand planer will never go out of style. As a woodworker, I use hand planers regularly for all sorts of projects, like furniture making, dimensioning rough lumber and even shaping cedar shingle siding. Keep reading for all you need to know about choosing and using a hand planer.

How To Choose a Hand Planer

If you’re serious about woodworking, it pays to own at least one high-quality hand planer. But beware — not all hand planers are created equal. Some work great right from the start, but others will give you years of headaches unless you have the tools and knowledge to tune them up.

So how do you know which hand planers are good and which aren’t? All well-designed hand planers share three main characteristics.

A thick blade that can hold an edge

Usually called the “plane iron,” the blade of a hand planer can make or break the tool. Blade thickness is the first thing you should look at. You’ll almost always get better plane performance with a thick blade than a thin one. The reason? Resistance to chatter, i.e.. the movement and vibration of the blade as it flexes during use.

Thinner blades vibrate more as they slice through wood, leading a rougher, less consistently surface. Thicker blades resist chatter, creating smoother, flatter surfaces on the workpiece.

Cheap hand planers could have blades as thin as 80- to 90-thousandths of an inch. A top-quality tool will have a blade around 100-thousandths of an inch or more. This might not seem like a huge difference, but it has a profound effect on performance.

Blade steel quality matters, too. The best hand planers feature blades of O1 steel, a hard grade that can be honed to a razor’s edge and maintain it for a long time. Many high-end planes will mention the grade of steel in the product description, but many don’t.

The best way to evaluate the blade is by honing it to a sharp edge, then seeing how it performs over time. A high-quality blade will hold its edge even after lots of heavy planing.

Full blade support

Hand planer performance is also affected by a part called the frog. This angled steel component is bolted into the body beneath the blade to give it rigidity.

Cheap hand planers come with frogs that aren’t truly flat. High-quality planers have flat, true frogs that support the blade over its entire surface area.

You can evaluate frog quality by removing it and rubbing its bearing surface gently with a little 3-in-1 oil over extremely fine sandpaper on a flat surface, like a workbench or the bed of a table saw. A good frog will shine evenly everywhere; a low-quality frog won’t.

Flat sole

The bottom of a hand planer is called the “sole,” and the flatness of this part is another indicator of quality. A truly flat, smooth sole lets hand planer glide over the wood evenly, leading to long, uniform and noticeably smoother shavings.

You can test the flatness of a hand planer sole the same way you test the flatness of the frog — with a flat surface, fine sandpaper and oil. After rubbing the hand planer on the oiled paper for several seconds, examine the sole. If you see uniform shininess, your plane sole is high quality. If not, it needs work.

Good hand planer bodies are also made of ductile iron, which is much stronger and higher quality than the cast iron you’ll find in cheap ones.

How To Use a Hand Planer

Once you’ve chosen a sharp, high-quality hand planer, begin your project by securing your workpiece to your bench with clamps or bench dogs and a built-in vice. Next, adjust the blade position with the depth wheel. For coarse work like planing rough lumber, the blade should protrude more. For finer work, like furniture making, it should protrude less.

Ensure the blade is parallel with the throat of the tool (i.e. the rectangular opening the blade protrudes from). Determine the optimal blade position by trial and error. Plane a few strokes. If your planer is hanging up because it’s taking too large a bite, pull the blade in a bit. If you’re not removing much wood, push it out more.

Once you determine the correct blade position, push the plane across the workpiece in long, even strokes. Try to make each stroke as long as possible; this leads to smoother, more efficient work. Hold the plane at a 30-degree angle as you push it, rather than straight and parallel with the workpiece. This imparts better slicing action.

Hand Planer Tips and Tricks

  • Choose the right length of hand planer: In general, longer bodied hand planers are better for making wood straight and flat. Shorter ones are better for refining and smoothing small areas of wood at a time.
  • Keep your hand planer blade razor sharp: A well-honed blade is essential for success. Keep yours sharp enough using a grinder with a felt buffing wheel, or sharpening stones.
  • Round and polish the chip breaker: This is a flat piece of steel with an angled front edge, bolted to the blade to direct shavings up and away. Chip breakers work better when their front ends are rounded and polished smooth. A grinder and felt buffing wheel are best for this.
  • Use the correct throat setting: For coarse work. If your hand planer has an adjustable throat, open it more for coarse work and less for finer work.
  • Retract the blade for storage: Use your depth adjustment wheel to retract the blade when not in use. This protects the edge.
  • Save yourself time and trouble by buying the best: For the money, Busy Bee makes the best hand planers I’ve ever used. They come with all the positive features mentioned previously.

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Robert Maxwell
Robert Maxwell is a writer, videographer, photographer and online strength coach based in Northern Ontario, Canada. He grew up on a rural self-sufficient homestead property where he learned the skills to build his own home from the ground up, do all his own vehicle repairs, and work with wood, stone and metal to find practical DIY solutions to many everyday problems.