Cutting the end of a piece of lumber with a low angle block plane

What is the difference between a block plane and a low angle plane?

I have a regular jack plane and a newer low-angle block plane. I find it much easier to use the low-angle plane. Can you tell me the difference, and does each style have its own specific use? Is there a style that you would recommend? - Russ Larson

Tim Inman: Hand Planes 101: Is there a difference between a "regular" old plane and a low-angle block plane? Absolutely! Your observation is right. Usually, the low-angle block plane is easier to use.

Each and every plane has its own design function. The block plane is especially different from most of the others. On most planes, the plane iron — the actual cutting part — is set with the cutting bevel facing down. They have a second part called a chip breaker that rides on top of the plane iron. It is spaced just a little bit behind the cutting edge. How much behind? It depends — on the operator, on the wood, on the plane, etc. The chip breaker setting is critical, and it is an "artistic" choice. A block plane does not have a true chip breaker. The bevel side of the block plane iron is set with the bevel facing up. A "regular" plane holds the plane iron up at a much steeper angle. A low-angle plane lets the plane iron lie down at a lower angle.

Now the history lesson: Once upon a time, long, long ago, wood was cut with hand saws that left ragged edges. These edges had to be planed off for perfectly fitting joints, especially miter joints in frames and cabinets. It was “Whoompa, Whoompa, Swish, Swish” as the wood was sawed and then planed. Even when I was a young man working for my father and uncle, the circular saws still left ragged edges that had to be planed. The block plane was the choice for the job. It was designed to plane end grain wood! Then came carbide blades that cut so smoothly the little workhorse block plane was put out to pasture. Today, only old guys like me can remember using them for what they were intended to do – or why.

Back in the day, carpenters wore bibs with a side pocket on the leg. The block plane was commonly found in one of those pockets. Handy, at the ready and versatile for use on about any job at hand. Still true today. Not many wear carpenter's striped bibs anymore, but lots and lots of tradespeople who work fine wood will have that little block plane close at hand still.

Which one to use? I go back to my woodturning mentor and friend, Bill Jones. He endeared himself to me instantly at a teaching seminar one time when he was asked by a participant which tool he should use. Bill answered immediately and without hesitation: "The one that cuts," he said. I agree. Use the plane you like and the one that cuts. It isn’t the tool, but the smooth surface you're after. Use the one that cuts best for you.

Finishing up an adirondack chair with a block plane on the bench

Chris Marshall: I use my low-angle block plane for all sorts of applications. It’s great for leveling mismatched panel edges in a glue-up, trimming the ends of box joint pins, dovetail tails or wood plugs flush when they’re standing proud of a joint, taking the rough surface off of workpieces that are too small to run over the jointer and for general chamfering. This last task is where I probably use mine the most. Whenever I want to "soften" or "ease" a sharp edge but still want to keep the very fine facets of that edge (instead of just rounding it over with a router or abrasives), I reach for my block plane. Every woodworker needs a good block plane. I'll argue that it should be the first plane we buy, regardless of whether we consider ourselves dyed-in-the-wool machine tool users, “hybrid” woodworkers or a hand tool purists. It’s so versatile and easy to use! And if I had to choose between a low-angle block plane or a "regular" block plane again, I'd still choose the low-angle style. It seems to do everything a block plane should do for me.