Publication Date: May/June 2002
Twenty years ago I was lucky enough to work with Tim
Maloney, an Irish carpenter trained with all the classic hand
tools and methods. He almost always thought the best tool for
the job had a cord. When he finally upgraded to power planers
and routers, he gave away his bench planes and most of his
chisels. But there was no way he'd part with his low-angle
block planes. And I know why.
Back then, you could buy two types of cast-iron low-angle block
planes: the wide-sole Record and the narrow-sole Stanley. Fifty
years before that, there were dozens of choices. We seem to be
in the midst of a low-angle block plane renaissance. Many of
today's manufacturers have reached back a 100 years for solid
designs and combined them with modern materials. That ingenuity
has produced some excellent tools.
Whether you're building a boat or working with laminates,
you'll need to do some fine hand-powered trimming and block
planes are the tools to use. For this review I tested Record,
Stanley, Veritas, and Bridge City planes, and two from
Lie-Nielsen. These tools range in cost from $30 to $600.
To perform effectively in today's workplace, a plane must cut
everything from laminate to curly maple to plywood end-grain.
And it must feel good -- like an extension of your arm -- while
you're working. The blade must take and keep a sharp edge and
the adjustments must be solid. The blade needs to be
well-supported to prevent chatter. The plane's sole should be
flat and its throat adjustment (if it has one) must work
With that in mind, I evaluated the six planes on overall
design, machining, blade quality, depth adjustments, lateral
adjustment, and throat adjustments. I ran the planes over some
5/4 mahogany, cut mahogany end-grain, trimmed the end-grain of
Douglas fir plywood, and worked Formica-laminated plywood.
Here's how each model stacked up during the test.
Veritas Low-Angle Block Plane. This tool is a good mixture of
great features. It's wide at 2 inches (which makes it good for
edge-planing doors) and the sides are dimpled for finger holes.
The lateral and depth adjustments are combined and set screws
fix the lateral adjustment. I've only seen set screws like this
in hand-built hand planes and I love them.
It comes out of the box almost ready to go. The bottom is flat
and the body is square. There were no obvious grinding marks.
The blade needed a few seconds of stropping to get it sharp.
Its A2 steel blade is thick at .12 inch. The depth adjustment
is based on the wonderful Norris style, which eliminates slop.
In Veritas' case the depth adjustment also pivots left and
right, which helps you keep the blade edge square to the mouth.
This provides good lateral adjustment. The blade "clicks" into
place and there's less than 1/8 turn of slop in the
adjustments. The blade is well supported on its front edge and
by the adjustment sleeve. It's secured by a pressure knob,
which helps eliminate blade chatter.
The plane cut mahogany wonderfully, both with and across the
grain. When it hit the plywood the blade edge crippled. I
re-ground it on a steeper angle, which seemed to solve the
problem. Although this plane has every feature you could ask
for, it's a bit bulky and not as comfortable to hold as I would
like. This tool is available for $80.
Stanley 60 1/2 Low-Angle Block Plane. This is the classic
narrow tool. It's 1-13/16 inches wide. Personally, my hand fits
the narrow planes better. This one came out of the box with
grinding marks on the sole and blade. The sole took about 15
minutes of lapping in order to make it flat. The regular tool
steel blade is fairly thin at .075 inch and took a complete
sharpening cycle to get prepared. The blade's back end rests on
the lateral adjustment and isn't nearly as stable as the
Veritas blade. Pressure on the cap comes from a screw and lever
arm system. It's okay, but can loosen up. That said, it cut
wood fine. But I know from experience that the blade would
benefit from an upgrade to A2 steel. You'll find this block
plane for $30.
Record 60 1/2 Low-Angle Block Plane. I consider this tool a
wide version of Stanley's plane. This one's 2-1/16 inches wide
and has the same .075-inch-thick blade as the Stanley. The sole
needed flattening and the blade required a complete sharpening.
The blade adjustment had more than one complete turn of slop.
The pressure cap is tightened from the top with a knurled knob
that is a little awkward to get at. Once tuned up, it cut wood
well. This one would benefit from a blade upgrade. For my hand
and my work, it's a bit wide. However, if you're planing wide
surfaces (like a door edge), it can be useful. This one sells
Bridge City HP-1 Low-Angle Block Plane. This tool is so
gorgeous and expensive I'm afraid of dropping it. It has a
beautiful bronze body, steel sole, and metal dovetails. The
thick .12-inch A2 blade only took a few seconds of stropping to
make it shave sharp. Although flat, the sole still had grinding
marks. There's no lateral adjustment, which means you should
also buy a jig to sharpen the blade perfectly square. All
adjustments on this tool are solid. A knurled knob sitting
between the blade and handle applies pressure on the blade,
which I like. It fit wonderfully and cut nicely in all the
materials used for the test. This one's a heirloom at
Lie-Nielsen Adjustable-Mouth Block Plane. This plane takes the
Stanley design up a notch -- or three! Its narrow, heavy body
is 1-5/16-inches wide, which makes it easy to handle in the
kind of edge and end-grain finishing I do. Its blade adjustment
lets the knob fit into a notch in the blade. The A2 steel blade
is thick at .12-inch. It took about a minute of sharpening
before I could shave with it, but after that it cut everything
I could throw at it and kept a razor's edge all day. There's no
lateral adjustment, although some lateral movement is possible.
There was almost a 3/4 turn of slop in the blade depth
adjustment. Pressure on the blade comes from the same type of
screw knob Bridge City uses. This plane cut everything, and
it's so comfortable to hold it feels like an extension of my
hand. It's priced at $150.
Lie-Nielsen 102 Low-Angle Block Plane. This is essentially a
replica of the Stanley 102. It's specifically designed for
trimming end-grain, hardwood, and plywood where you don't
require an adjustable mouth. This small bronze plane fits in
the palm of your hand. Its short sole won't flatten a surface
as well as the longer planes. It has no lateral or throat
adjustments. The tool is very cleanly machined and has a tight
throat for fine work. It cut the plywood and end-grain very
well. The throat clogs if you take an aggressive cut in soft
wood. It uses the same depth adjustment and blade holding
mechanism as the other Lie-Nielsen plane, which works nicely.
If you're only doing fine trimming work and don't have a need
to open a plane's throat, this is a lovely tool to use. It
sells for $95.
As a final test, I spent a whole day smoothing 5/4 mahogany
boards. The Bridge City plane is beautiful, comfortable, and
cuts well, but it's so expensive I was afraid of dropping it
off the dock. The Veritas plane is innovative and loaded with
great features, but its blade is ground at too acute an angle
and it's a bit bulky for me. The Record and Stanley tools are
solid performers, but I didn't find them to be extraordinary.
Lie-Nielsen's 102 model is too short for most of my work. That
leaves my favorite: the adjustable-mouth Lie-Nielsen plane. It
isn't out of reach cost-wise, fit great in my hand, tuned-up
with ease, and stayed wickedly sharp during all the
is a wooden boat builder and woodworker
in Alexandria, Va.
This article is reprinted
courtesy of Tools of the Trade