I read a blog post from Paul Sellers this morning which spoke to me a little bit, mainly because I have some experience on the topic. In the post, he asks the question: Do wooden planes (meaning wood-bodied) still have a place in a woodworking shop? It is a quick and informative (IMO) read if you are interested in seeking it out. In my humble attempt at paraphrase, Sellers asks: Are wood-bodied, wedge based bench planes worth seeking out, restoring, and using? He then compares and contrasts those planes to the more modern iron-bodied planes, including some information regarding the design and use of both styles. And though I enjoyed the post and I think it is well worth the time to read it, I am writing this post not necessarily to plug Paul Sellers’ blog, but because I found myself agreeing with nearly everything he said.
This topic, Wood planes vs Iron planes, appeals to me because I’ve spent a fair amount of time comparing the two styles. I have #4, #5, and #7 Stanley bench planes, and I have functioning versions of the wood-bodied planes that the Stanley planes were meant to improve upon, or replace depending on how you see it. For full disclosure, the only wood-bodied plane that I purchased was a coffin-smoother, the others were all given to me, though I did fully restore them myself. And to add some real world measurements to the theory, let’s say that the corresponding wood-bodied measurements when compared to their iron-bodied brethren are as follows: #4 (10-14 inches); #5 (16-20 inches); #7 (22-28 inches). Please consider this just a rough guideline, as I’ve found that the dimensions of many wood-bodied planes weren’t as codified as the Stanley bench series.
In his post, Sellers mentions that wood-bodied planes, though often not much lighter than their metal counterparts, feel much lighter in use, likely due to the fact that wood on wood planing results in less friction, and in my much more limited experience I feel that he is absolutely correct. Using a wood-bodied smoother with a sharp iron is an easy way to see and feel the difference. Wood bodied planes seem to glide across the surface rather than fight with it, and, if you are a person who uses a jack plane very traditionally (meaning for rough stock prep), then I would actually recommend finding a wood-bodied jack for that purpose, as they are generally inexpensive, much more forgiving to restore, and less fatiguing to use.
But I do have to add a “but”. There is one circumstance, in my opinion mind you, that I’ve found metal planes far superior to wood-bodied planes, and that is when edge jointing a board. I’m sure a 18th century joiner or furniture maker had no issues at all when using a wood-bodied jointer plane to true up edges. Those fellas used wood-bodied planes day in, day out, for most of their lives. On the other hand, I woodwork maybe a few times per month, and when it comes to edge jointing, or edge truing, I’ve found that the Stanley #7 I use, which itself is a 100 year old tool, does the best job, and oddly enough it is because of the friction created by metal on wood planing. When it comes to edge jointing, and match jointing in particular, I want some friction because it helps me to control the tool, and it gives better feedback when planing, revealing high spots and low spots on the board better than a wood-bodied jointer plane does…once again this is in my experience only…I’m not speaking for anybody else out there.
So, do I think wood-bodied planes are worth it, the same way Paul Sellers does? The answer is ‘Yes!’, I really do. A few posts back I wrote about some of the pitfalls that a new woodworker may run into when it came to restoring tools, in particular bench planes. Wood-bodied planes, in my opinion, are a lot more forgiving to the newbie. Because of their simple wedge based design, and because they really have no moving parts, I’ve found wood-bodied planes to be easier to restore, and if already in decent shape they really only need a flat bottom and a sharp iron to get going.
But there is a catch. Wood-bodied planes that aren’t in decent shape can be a nightmare to restore. Sometimes the wedge is bad, sometimes the mouth is too wide and needs to be resized, and sometimes the plane has been flattened so many times that there isn’t much of a body left (which is often the reason the mouth is too wide, as well). At this point they are simply not worth fixing, with the required work necessary to get the tool working again tantamount to building a new plane from scratch. One thing with Stanley style iron bench planes, most of the time they can be restored to functionality regardless of condition with time and effort, the same can’t be said about wood-bodied tools. Once a wood-bodied plane hits a certain point they are often beyond repair. In this regard having some experience is necessary, or at least very helpful. in making the best judgment as to whether a restoration is worth doing.
So, if you are considering going with a wood-bodied plane, in my amateur opinion it is worth a try. They can actually be fun and easy to use when tuned up properly; they have a great feel and even a great sound. Adjusting them is not nearly as difficult as it is made out to be; and if you are using or considering using a hand plane you should probably learn to feel comfortable using a hammer with a little bit of precision no matter which style of plane you prefer. Sellers has several good free videos on YouTube on both restoring and using wood-bodied planes, and I highly recommend checking them out if you are going this route. After all, he is an expert, and though I may have a reputation of not agreeing with the experts from time to time, in this instance he is right on the money.