Consider the hand plane for just a moment. No other woodworking tool evokes the idea of hand tool joinery more intensely than the bench plane. When lithographers of old set out to convey the essence of woodworking, they used the image of a hand plane — sometimes in the hands of a craftsman, but often it was simply the image of the plane alone.
Examining their choice, there is every reason to believe that they had it right. Over hundreds of years, the pedestrian hand plane has built a legacy that demands respect.
Again, consider this: when set coarsely, a plane will remove shavings as thick as 1/8" from the face or edge of a board. Set fine, it will slice a shaving that is just one or two thousandths of an inch thick. That sort of cut will leave behind a surface that is smooth enough for even the most finicky of finishers.
It is easily argued that the hand plane has a greater range of capabilities than any other single hand or machine tool. Indeed, even keeping to the singular category of “bench planes,” a bit of nomenclature that has its use, but is not exacting by any means, the variations are amazingly broad. Many woodworkers own half a dozen or so bench planes of differing dimensions. Others limit themselves to two or three and find that sufficient.
To use a bench plane successfully, you must have two things right before you start. The blade must be sharp, and the plane must be set up correctly. Properly fettled is the term that describes a plane ready to be used. The good news is that there are few old planes that can’t be put in fine fettle. The bad news is that new planes, sadly, often need fettling as much as the old ones.