As woodworkers, we are all pretty familiar with the standard metal-body plane, often referred to as a Bailey style after the inventor Leonard Bailey and, once the patent expired, copied by every man and his dog who wanted to sell a plane that was capable of the majority of tasks a plane should do.
It’s proven its worth for well over a century now, and while a tweak or two here or there has been made, some for the user’s benefit and others for cost saving, it remains essentially the same plane.
However, it does have the odd shortcoming. While a great plane in general, working interlocked or tricky grains can be difficult, even when it is finely set and the frog is moved up to close the mouth.
The bedding angle and bevel-down design dictates that it will only work at that particular angle, although there is a workaround, often referred to as ‘the ruler trick1 and promoted by world-renowned cabinetmaker David Charlesworth.
To do this you effectively remove the flat back for which we all strive by elevating the plane iron slightly via a small steel rule used as a wedge to raise a minute bevel on the flat side, effectively increasing the pitch the iron cuts at. While it works well, you will need a replacement iron to ensure you can go back to the normal design if needed.
But what is the option if you don’t want to do this, or indeed, you often work gnarly timbers and want a more permanent solution?
Question of degree
The blurb for a block plane normally touts it as being ideal for end-grain work and suchlike, with a lew-angle model seemingly the best for the job.
These low-angie models normally bed at 12°, so with a standard honing angle of 30°, the cutting angle sits at 42″, just 3″ shy of a Bailey frog. But the design gives more of a slicing action, and with the adjustable mouth you can close down to within a hair of the iron for very fine shavings. It is not, however, the plane for working boards; a block plane is for finer work, cleaning up edges, easing in, fine tuning and suchlike tasks.
The ex-king of plane making, Stanley -seemingly having a plane for all occasions at one stage of its reign — took on this bevel-up block plane principle and introduced a model in its range, but beefed it up to full hand-plane size, This No,62 was bizarrely marketed as a plane for making heavy cuts across the grain, not one for finer work.
That’s either jack piane or scrub plane territory depending on how much you need to remove — so even back then they must have employed marketing guys who didn’t do woodwork! I can only assume the Lie-Nielsen.
This plane is actually Thomas Lie-Nielsen’s favourite product from his entire range of American tools, which says something about its pedigree. It’s based on the largest Stanley low-angle plane produced during the early 1940s. The polished cherry handles are beautifully contoured and it’s the lightest tool we tested. Not surprisingly, it performs faultlessly and the manganese bronze cap iron certainly adds a degree of elegance. With no lateral adjuster, the edge of the blade must be dead square when it comes to regrinding, though you marketing bods looked at the size and thought ‘jack plane length, jack plane use’ so assumed it was for initial roughing down and general planing.
Butcher’s block model
But while the plane followed the jack plane size, and in that respect was definitely suitable for working wider and longer boards, the jobs a block ‘ plane is used for are a better indication of the bevel-up plane’s true abilities.
Aside from the bevel-up jack, Stanley also had a similar slightly shorter butcher’s block model although that one didn’t hang around too long and is very rare.
It may be that someone saw a real end-grain butcher’s block and realised there was no way a plane would be ideal for flattening it.
I know back when my granddad was the local butcher he used to have a block that would have needed a chainsaw taken to it first, to try and square it up and take the dents, dishes and chops out of it! Even so, the No,62 didn’t outstay Its welcome, and, like many Stanley planes, It died out over time, seemingly running its course. Why this happened is anyone’s guess, but as with the router kicking the multiplanes into touch, I’d guess newer technology and changes in woodworking did plenty of damage, with cabinet making and solid timbers being replaced by pre-veneered boards and mass-produced flat-pack stuff.
As Sanders became available that could guarantee clean tear-free faces with less effort and time spent, even for specialist work, specially designed planes took a back seat.
Hand tool renaissance
But there’s a renaissance in hand tools at the moment, with some older-style planes that disappeared now coming back on the market Some have more appeal for collectors rather than true woodworkers, especially a couple from Lie-Nielsen that were probably equally limited in their use when first invented! (Butt mortise plane anyone?)
Lie-Nielsen tends to keep faith with the original Stanley concepts but with the addition of fine tolerances, plus superior castings and fittings.
A Lie-Nielsen version usually outstrips the originals by a long way in these areas, but because of the closeness in design to the originals, can still be a little limiting in use, lacking finer adjustments In some instances.
Stanley is seemingly looking closer at the market it once dominated, and at the resurrection of some of its early models as well as variations on the theme by Veritas, and has relaunched the Sweetheart brand and logo. This was seen as the golden era of Stanley, and these tools are highly sought.
In doing so, Stanley has come up with some new designs of its own in traditional smoothing, block and shoulder planes, but the new No,62 remains pretty faithful to the original. In saying that, however, there’s little that could be altered because it’s such a simple tool, being just a long block plane.
Although the lateral movement is not a strong point, there’s little, if any, useable movement lor squaring the iron to the sole.
This is a problem with low-angle planes in general. The need for ultra-accurate machining is paramount because a discrepancy in the bedding angle is magnified as the angle lowers, so the iron will sit slightly askew.
An adjuster or some play in the fit between the side wing and the iron will get over this, but if the fit is too tight or the adjuster simply moves the whole Iron across, as is the case with the new Stanley, you need to hone slightly out of whack to accommodate it.
Veritas sees the plane market as a whole new ball game and has devised simple but effective solutions to these common pitfalls.
While some of this company’s planes may not win any beauty contests, they do a remarkable job, Its take on the bevel-up low-angle jack plane is a great example, using simple grub screws tapped through the wings of the plane to restrict the iron at the mouth so that when the lateral lever is used, it actually skews rather than slewing across.
This allows you to make fine adjustments very effectively and retain that position easily after honing.
That simplicity is replicated on the mouth Being able to close the mouth down is useful to minimise tear out; to keep the Iron from coming into contact with the mouth when you close it right down there’s a small brass knob that acts as a stop to set the aperture.
Again, it’s handy for moving from fine mouth to open mouth and back quickly and easily.
Wild grain action
But it’s more about what the bevel-up can do that makes it worthwhile adding one to your kit. It will do the same work as a standard jack, so you can still do the fast, rough prep work as well as shooting and straightening up stock, but it also addresses the shortcomings of the Bailey design to take on wild grains,
Quangsheng No.62 1/2
The Quangsheng is a real Asian beauty, with polished bubinga handles. In fact, its sleek profile reminds me of those gorgeous mahogany speedboats from the early 20th century, Sole edges need softening a tad with a needle file, but this is nothing too drastic. You can adjust the mouth from 8mm right down to zero, a facility that is not possible on the other planes. The blade is a bit thinner and did not seem to keep its edge as long as the rest either, which I suspect is because it’s not made from A2 steel. You do get two extra blades provided, though, which is fantastic. If your budget is tight then the Quangsheng is the plane to choose.
Before testing, I sharpened each plane iron using a honing gauge to achieve a consistent edge. To give them a good workout I subjected each tool to a variety of timbers: pine, sapele, lacewood, iroko, some wild Spanish olive and quarter-sawn European oak.
In terms of build quality, both the ‘ Lie-Nielsen and Veritas (iverleaf) planes are superb. The American tool is obviously more traditional and delightful to use. if you’re willing to part with quite a lot more cash, the Canadian cousin offers some clever features. I particularly liked the lateral adjuster, while the grub screws mean you can set the blade very precisely — perhaps too fiddly for some.
To be honest I found the Stanley (overleaf) a bit disappointing. While the three other contenders are dressed for the ball, the Mexican ss still in work gear and is a bit rough around the edges. Yep, it does its job, but it s not refined…
There’s no question about best value here. The Quangsheng may not be quite up there with the North American planes, but it’s not far behind the Lie-Nieisen. It works extremely well, plus you get two extra blades thrown in.
All the planes worked well enough with a shooting board, the Veritas being slightly easier to hold with its dimple to accommodate your thumb. And you can buy a hot-dog handle for the Lie-Nielsen if you tend to do a lot of shooting.
As something of a traditionalist, I’ve always tended to favour Lie Nielsen tools over the Veritas equivalents — I find some of the Canadian bench planes quite awkward to use — but if I had to choose an overall winner in this test it would just be the Veritas. On wider boards I found the slightly wider blade and extra weight helped planing performance, while refinements such as the lateral adjuster are far better than on the Stanley and Quangsheng. Actually, aithough the Lie-Nietsen does not have this Norris-type adjuster, the American plane works perfectly well without one.
In isolation you may be quite impressed with the Sweetheart, Its appearance is quite pleasing, especially when you consider standard contemporary Stanley bench planes with their nasty plastic handles. Alongside its rivals here it’s just a bit awkward and slightly crude, though. The cherry rear handle needs some TLC with abrasives to make it really comfortable, while the front adjustable plate needs filing so it will slide smoothly.
This works, but tends to stick, You can ! actually close the mouth completely down to zero tor very fine cuts on wild grain, but It’s not bad. Surprisingly, the Stanley actually has the thickest blade and is capable of decent work, but not straight out of the box.
Veritas tools are known for their innovative features, this jack plane being no exception. Longer, wider (hence the 621A moniker) and heavier than the rest, it. may rot suit everybody. As the most expensive plane in the test, what makes it so special? Besides build quality, it’s the various adjustments that just work reliably and smoothly, as they should. The lateral adjuster moves nicely, while the screw stop on the front piate is clever and saves this hitting the cutting edge You can even close the mouth right down to zero. Two screws down through the rear handle ensure this remains rock-solid. Various blade options are available, making the Veritas a pretty versatile tool.