Hand Tool Exercises: Hand Planing

#6 Stanley Bailey bench plane.

My longest plane is a Stanley #6 and is set up as a jointing plane.

As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve been learning how to flatten a board by hand. My subject, a leftover from the outdoor table project, is thick and there is a tricky knot to work around. I don’t really feel that the 6+ hours I’ve spent working on it thus far have given me a great end result, however, this is about the journey and not the destination. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned about hand planing and some insights I’ve discovered along the way.

My Approach

Three bench planes

From left to right: #6 bench plane (set up as a jointer), #5 bench plane, #4 smoothing plane.

From my understanding, there are 3 distinct jobs that need to be done when flattening a board.

  1. Remove a lot of material quickly. I’ve got my #5 set up for this.
  2. Make the surface flat. Since my longest plane is a #6, I’ve got it set up for jointing.
  3. Make it smooth. The #4 is supposed to do this, but since it is a piece of junk, I’m really struggling with it.

The planes I’m using here are larger bench planes. For a little insight on block planes, check out this video where Rob Cosman talks about a few different models.

Bench set up

The left side is for planing. The right is for sharpening.

My bench is set up for two tasks. One end is set up to work the wood. The other end is set up for sharpening my plane irons. I can’t say that I feel that I am a master at either task, but this is really what this exercise is about.


1. Find which way the grain is running.

Rough sawn cherry slab.

Cherry slab ready for flattening and smoothing.

It’s not as key when removing mass quantities, but you really can tell a difference in the feel of the surface when planing with the grain vs. against it.

2. Sharpen often.

Plane and chisel sharpening set up.

The right side of the bench is home to the sharpening tools for now.

I read once that half of wood working is actually metal working. I laughed when I read it, but to some degree this is true. I have chosen to use diamond coated steel plates for my sharpening system. I have tried other methods, but this is where I’ve landed for the time being. It works for me. Find a method and stick to it until you achieve some level of comfort with it.

I’m spending time every session sharpening my plane blades. I don’t think I’ve achieved any sort of mastery, but I can tell that I am getting more sensitive to what “sharp” actually means.  Not only am I getting better at it, I am getting better at recognizing when it is time to sharpen.

3. Listen to the work.

It is amazing to me what the sound of the blade and the quality of the shavings can tell me about what is going on. The pitch of and tone of the work being done is largely determined by the thickness of the shaving being made and the sharpness of the blade. I’m just now really hearing this for the first time, because I’m actually spending time paying attention. Plus having sharper tools changes things as well. It’s sorta like driving a stick shift. You get accustomed to the feel and the sounds, then shift accordingly.

4. Wax.

Not talking about a bikini line here, that is for someone else to write about. I’m talking about paraffin. No, not finishing paste wax. The translucent white stuff. Rub it on your plane sole. Rub it on often. While you’ve got it out, put some on your table saw, the bottom of your circular saw, your hand planes, and anywhere friction might be an issue. Do it now. Do it often.

5. Check for flat.

Checking the board for flatness with a straight edge

Checking the board for flatness with a straight board.

I have yet to make myself some winding sticks (a pair of pieces of wood that are flat and square), but simply using a straight edge is teaching me a lot about where the high and low spots are, as well as how to look at it. See the shadow on the left? That’s a low spot. I’m struggling to efficiently do something about them, but simply finding them is the first step of the game.

6. Exercise.

Let’s face it. I’m a doughy desk worker 5 days a week and I love bread. And beer. And doughnuts. I’ve worked up a sweat every night I’ve planed on this bad boy and my arms hurt, especially my triceps. So far, this seems like a decent work out.

7. Be mindful.

This is where it gets real for me. At first I was focusing on having a flat board. How cool would it be to be able to say that I flattened it with hand tools? I started out being focused on the end result and not focusing on the task. It became clear pretty quickly that, if in fact I wanted to succeed, I would have to pay attention to every stroke of the plane and measure the progress often. I have to actually listen to the planes and feel the board through blade. I have to focus on what is happening right now. Not in 10 minutes. Not 3 days from now. Right now. Everything melts away and I am left with me, a tool and an amazing piece cherry.

To learn more about hand planes, rasps and files, see the photo gallery below.

One Response

  1. I have been using these tools for almost 8 years and you should have a look at my hands they are so tough and in shape. I loved my hands now because there is so much power in my hand. I can do any kind of exercise even weights easily. Thanks


About Dan Lipe 


I’m a Senior Interaction Designer, focused on creating compelling and intuitive user experiences. During my 15+ years in the design field, I’ve worked in print, corporate identity and digital media ...

More About Dan Lipe