The Jack Plane You Really Need: Part 1

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For me, the jack plane is as essential as the hatchet is to a green woodworker. Or a drawknife is to a traditional chairmaker. The jack plane (sometimes called a fore plane) gets furniture parts to shape in a huge hurry, and with only a little effort.

Most woodworkers who show up at our door don’t have a proper jack plane. Their tools might look like jack planes, but they’re set up all wrong (basically, like big old block planes). Whenever we can, we take these woodworkers out back to the shed. Not for a whuppin’, but to the grinder, where we can transform a store-bought 14”-long bass-boat anchor into a tool that can work small miracles in wood.

I think it’s a simple process. But I want to present it in small steps and in detail so that anyone – even those at the beginning of the craft – can do this. Let’s begin by buying the right plane.

Too Much, Too Little

It’s easy to spend either way too much or way too little when buying a jack plane. If you have the cash, it’s tempting to buy a premium plane from Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Wood River or Clifton.

I wouldn’t.

Doing so is (in my opinion) a huge waste of your money and the toolmaker’s effort. Plus, it’s like fishing with an ICBM. You can indeed trick one of these beauties into slumming as a real jack plane. But the premium tool was designed and manufactured to do so much more, so it’s just a cosmic and comic waste.

It’s also tempting to go to Harbor Freight and purchase this $14.99 miracle of pot metal and skin-lashing plastic. Or to go to eBay.com and pick out an old Stanley No. 5 that came from the bottom of the sea. Or sneak into Cracker Barrel and remove a wooden-bodied jack that’s affixed to the walls with Torx screws.

For the love of hashbrown casserole, please do none of these things.

The dirt-cheap planes from Grizzly, Anant, Harbor Freight and all the other overseas makers are trouble with a capital Chromium. Their cutting irons (and I’ve sharpened a lot of them) are banana-shaped, inconsistently heat-treated and alloyed with anti-rusting elements that make them as pleasant to sharpen as a lemon gummi bear.

Usually the handles of these planes are plastic or poorly shaped wood that will – without any additional assistance – make you hate handplaning. And the machining on the tool is usually crap, as well. I’ve handled hundreds of these planes since the late 1990s, and they don’t ever seem to get better or worse.

As to wooden-bodied planes, I love them. Adore them, in fact. But they don’t tend to survive well over time. Thanks to wood movement, abuse or being plumb wore out, their wedges don’t hold well. Or they hold too well. And they just need a lot of love to get them working. Yes, you can do it. No, it’s not as hard as hippocampus surgery. But for your first plane, I recommend you get an early Stanley No. 5 jack plane with an iron body.

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Wait, Don’t These Stanley Planes Stink?

Stanley has made planes that rival both Lie-Nielsen and Harbor Freight. It just depends on who was running the company at the time. In general, early planes (made before World War II) are nicer than later planes (made after the war). But very early Stanley planes can be problematic as well because they are missing key innovations, or they have odd (read: hard-to-find) replacement parts.

For me, the sweet spot is Stanley planes made somewhere from about 1902 to 1924. That sounds like a small window of time, but Stanley made a lot of planes during that period, and lots of them survive.

And they are reasonable – a good one is $30 to $40 on eBay (less if you buy it at a Mid-West Tool Collectors Association meeting).

To learn to date a plane (I mean to find out its age; not its turn-ons), I recommend you become familiar with one of the many handplane dating charts. Here’s the quick-study guide: buy a plane that has one, two or three patent dates cast into the tool’s body, right behind the frog.

Once you’ve spotted one of these planes, look for the obvious. Are the handles beautifully shaped rosewood? Uncracked and unsullied? Is the tool rusty? Are large hunks broken off its body? (Basically, it’s like searching for a human mate.)

One caution: If an old tool looks like it’s brand new, my instinct is to skip it. If it is indeed perfectly preserved and functional, it will likely be expensive. If it has been “restored,” the previous owner might have “over restored” it, removing metal that you’d rather still have. Third option: The tool has always been defective/cursed and has frustrated every user who has picked it up.

There are lots of these tools out there. So, don’t get frustrated if you can’t find the one you want after 10 minutes of scrolling. I purchased the tool shown in these photos for less than $40, and I overpaid a bit to get one that looked especially clean.

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Avoid Replacement Parts

It’s tempting to buy a jack with a missing part, a cracked tote or an incorrect knob and think: I’ll just buy a replacement part. Parts are out there, but their costs (plus shipping) add up quickly. My experience is that it’s best to wait patiently for a sound example with all its bits intact.

That includes the iron and chipbreaker/cap iron. Many woodworkers replace these instinctually. While that might be a good idea for a smoothing plane (or it might not…), it’s rarely necessary for a jack plane. Plus, I have found that Stanley’s old irons – if they haven’t been abused – are easy to sharpen and tend to stay that way. Plus, they fit the tool without any fuss. So, look for an iron with a lot of life left in it, and a chipbreaker that isn’t dogmeat.

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Last word on replacing parts: It’s tempting to embark on making your own replacement front knob and tote before setting up the plane for use. I recommend you do that after you have surfaced 100 boards with the existing handles. By that time, you will know if you like the handles and how you would change them (and you’ll probably notice that you can’t improve much on Stanley’s early handle designs).

Bottom line: Don’t waste your money. Invest a little in an old tool that has been cared for and the next steps will be easy.

— Christopher Schwarz

Coming Up

Clean & True Critical Surfaces: Part 2
Grind the Iron & Fit the Chipbreaker: Part 3
Set Up & Use: Part 4

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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54 Responses to The Jack Plane You Really Need: Part 1

  1. Ben Snyder says:

    Shopping for Stanley planes on ebay is a pastime for me. I need to stop and attend to the ones I have before I purchase more.

    Like

    • Steve LeLaurin says:

      I’m with you, Ben. My joy at expanding my Stanley plane cache is unfortunately not matched to the finish line. I have two 3’s, two 4’s, one 5, one 6, one 7 … plus a couple of other non-Stanleys and a few blocks. Several work well (especially my treasured #5 from my grandfather), but none are really FINISHED. Waiting for the rainy day …

      Like

  2. Justin R says:

    Damn…I’m such a fool! I wonder if Lie-Nielsen and Veritas will allow me to return these 3 year old planes? I ate only ramen noodles and just add water pancakes for 6 months to offset the cost of these things. I hate ramen noodles and just add water pancakes.
    Great article…really looking forward to the grind the iron & fit the chip breaker part.

    Like

  3. Andy says:

    That’s interesting – has your perspective changed since your PW article a few years back? You said “I want to believe that the old planes are just as good. I used to believe the old planes were just as good.”

    I refurbished a type 14 with the help of your videos, using sandpaper on granite, and it’s become a trusted friend. Thanks for that.

    Like

  4. Mark says:

    I’m unclear on the difference between a fore plane and a jack plane. Was there a purpose for the distinction that existed in the past? Or could a #6 Stanley Fore plane (or similar) be subbed in for a #5 Jack and perform just as or nearly as well if set up similarly?

    Or was the fore plane an attempt to make a jack/jointer that later fell out of favor?

    Like

    • Different terms for the same tool. “Jack” is a term used more by carpenters. “Fore” is an old word used by joiners. The Stanley Nos. 5 and 6 can be set up for this operation. The No. 5s are far more common, which is why I recommend them.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Steve says:

      I had a #6 gathering dust and decided to set it up just like my #5 to handle some larger boards. Worked fantastic and I feel better about keeping it around now.

      Like

  5. Ross Henton says:

    Any thoughts about some of the mid-range knockoffs (like WoodRiver)? I have one I’ve had great luck with – after minor parts swap with a dead Stanley – and another that was an irredeemable PoS.

    Ross Henton
    The Garage Woodshop
    http://bowsaw.wordpress.com

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  6. Salko Safic says:

    I bet it won’t be long before the Vultures of eBay will jack their prices up now

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    • Maybe, and then prices will go down again.

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      • Salko Safic says:

        I hope so, but I have never seen that happen yet.

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        • I’ve been shopping for planes over the past 30 years. Originally – cheap. Then — people discovered WW. Then — eBay showed up! Sure glad I like all the ones I’ve got, cuz the investment value just ain’t there.

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          • I think a $40 plane that will last several lifetimes is a very good investment.

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            • I totally agree. However, it gets harder to justify when you’re on about number 40. 🙂

              The one thing I did get out of attempting to collect all those planes is I swore that I would permit no un-sharp planes in my house. So, I’d flatten the backs while watching TV until I could see myself, and then take a break and sharpen the front bevel. Through all that practice, I gained a truly invaluable skill — I can hold the blade and instantly sharpen the edge with no gimmicks, jigs, or anything else, except an extracted 1200 grit water stone from the tub. Just holding it at an angle with my hand. That has saved so much time.

              Most people’s problems, as you know, with old tools, are directly related to sharpening. Especially chisels.

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              • Ha. Well my advice isn’t for tool collectors. My best advice for them is to first build a time machine….

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                • I’m convinced that the Stanley Works marketing folks got together with the US Post Office and learned that people will buy anything with small variation to collect. “I’ll bet we can make a ton of money off of modifying these here knuckle block planes just a smidge! Especially if we design ’em to break!” 🙂

                  Like

  7. woodworkerme says:

    I have picked up many a Stanley No. 5 cleaned and set up for my students tools chest. I learned from you setting up your plane with Roy on the woodwright shop. Putting the 8in. radius on the iron was a huge game changer for my plane work. Thanks

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love the way you write. Now get back to work.

    Like

  9. Tucker Tuck says:

    While I absolutely agree with the points made in this article, I still also absolutely love me my LN 5 1/2. That thing sings.

    Like

  10. Kerry doyle says:

    I enjoy your writing. It’s just like being around my wise-guy buddies, and here, wise-guy is sincere flattery, not a three stooges term.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. davidcockey says:

    Plastic handles can be comfortable if the shape is right for the user. My jack/fore plane is a circa 1980 blue #5 Stanley with plastic handles I’ve had since it was new. The plastic handles have a nice shape and are comfortable for me, and as comfortable as the handles on my Lie-Nielsen planes. That plane gets as much use as any of my planes.

    Like

  12. Michael Brady says:

    Great to see you re-visiting tools recently. I see from some responses above that readers may interpret your position as being dismissive of premium handtools. I read it differently. You may be saying that when it comes to jack planes and their intended purpose, one does not need a premium-priced tool. That money could be better spend on a premium smoother, for example, since it is the last plane the wood will see. Please correct me if I’m the one getting it wrong.

    Like

  13. Phil M says:

    After using an old #5 for a while, I was pretty clear about what I liked and didn’t like about the rear tote. I worked it over with some files and fine grit paper, and man, is it sweet to use now.

    Like

  14. Pascal Teste says:

    Did you ever try the one sold by Stanley today? I think they call it the “14 inch Bailey Bench Plane” They go for around $50 new. Appart from the epoxy coated knob and tote, all the other parts look the same as the ones on the old Stanley planes.

    Like

    • I have used them (many times) and they are not worth purchasing, I’m afraid. While you can set them up to do the coarse work of a jack, you can buy a beautiful old one for about the same price that is infinitely nicer.

      Like

  15. John Cunneen says:

    Thank you Christopher, but you have just stirred a pot. You have not mentioned the small to big adjuster, the small front to big front knob, the no ring to raised ring for the knob debates that I will leave to others. But following your advice you might miss out on the following paths. The 5 with alloy knob. The search for a replacement one. The lookalike 5 with its own charm, the Hunt Mfg Co smooth or corrugated, with small b on the casting and thick blade.
    Now you did not mention the smooth or corrugated base either… I look forward to the later episodes as outlined. Grinning from the antipodes, and going to work on my manual sharpening station made with mostly recycled parts. Even an old Pennsylvania packing crate from the 1970’s.

    Like

  16. I am going to assume that Part 5 in the series will show how to engrave the sides of our jack planes, just like yours.

    Please email me a list of which gravers I’ll need. When Part 5 comes out they’ll all be sold out.

    Like

  17. Nathan says:

    This is it! This plane has and will continue to bring people fully into the realization that wood working without a few well tuned hand tools was not really wood working!

    Like

  18. jglen490 says:

    Chris, you are right about the search, with patience, for the older (pre-WW II) Stanley and some of their brethren such as Sargent and Ohio Tool. There is a lot of crap to be found, and a lot of mediocrity, but when you find that one great example it’s worth the chase. I’ve actually found some of the good stuff at local fleatique shops, too.

    A big part of the chase also involves finding parts for the inevitable great Stanley with a worn out iron. I’ve not bought any “new” blades, mostly because the old plane was built for a specific thickness of iron, so I have a few extra irons, cap irons, screws and bolts, etc. A tote with a clean break, can be repaired – with care.

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  19. Mark says:

    I know you’re talking about prewar planes but I’ve got a ww2 era plane that was still in the box that was my grandfather’s. It’s got the rubber/ metal adjusting knob. It’s never been sharpened or used. Will it make a decent starting point as opposed to an earlier model? I dont collect and am a firm believer that tools want to be used. Just asking.

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  20. A Stanley No 5c Type 13 was my very first plane purchase. $25 I think? I DO have a Hock iron and blade on it and somehow ended up with a set of user-made handles that match Stanley handles so well you wouldn’t know they weren’t Stanley handles, except that the tote is 1 1/8″ thick.

    I just picked up another No5 at the latest Great Planes Trading Co tool auction (a quarterly event in St. Charles) because it’s time my older brother had his first bench plane.It’s a Type 11 in as-found condition still except for the freshly sharpened iron. It works like a dream and makes that wonderful schhhhhhnik sound as it planes that tells you your plane and iron are as one and your edge is keenly sharp.. Can’t wait to see how it works with a proper cleaning/fettling.

    Anyway, at some point in the near future my older brother will have his very own first bench plane!! He’s going to love that Type 13…

    Like

  21. Daniel Williamson says:

    What radius do you shoot for on the camber? I think I have mine set about 10” and I suspect it may be a little too gentle based on what I hear described in terms of use. I’d have to have the blade projected pretty aggressively to achieve what I suspect you’re referring to. And how far back should the chip breaker be from the edge? Pics would be helpful, but if I have to wait for a future post to see them, that’s fine too. Thanks!

    Like

  22. Joe says:

    I love my No. 5 jack plane. Curious to read the rest of the articles.

    The work horses of my planes are:
    a No. 4 set up with the 8″ radius on the blade (I suppose you could call it a scrub or fore plan as well. It’s biggest use is to hog off lots of wood thus extending the No. 5 blade for the finer part of the work)

    a No. 5 with a much more mild camber. It gets a lot of use.

    a No. 3 for smoothing.

    I have a No. 8 with no camber but it doesn’t get used that much.

    Like

  23. John says:

    I agree. I found an intact Stanley #5 at an estate sale; haggled down to $3. The tote was cracked. Lee Valley has a replacement template which is very good.
    https://assets.leevalley.com/Original/10090/56664-stanley-number-5-and-up-plane-tote-c-06-e.pdf

    Like

  24. BLZeebub says:

    Almost all of my workaday planes are Stanleys from the “Sweetheart” era. I do have a couple of type 2s that are pre-lateral adjuster but they came to me intact and complete which is a rare thing.

    Like

  25. Timothy says:

    Our local Cracker Barrel has a wooden joiner that’s about three feet long. I will admit that I have been tempted to take a screwdriver in there and take it down, then try to sneak it out hiding it under my shirt.🙃

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  26. Matt Boutte says:

    Thanks for posting…when do we get the rest?

    Like

  27. gregla2 says:

    I was surprised how different my #5 felt after switching out the straight iron to a curved one. Less effort to push for thicker shavings. I waited far too long to try it. Looking forward to the rest of the series. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Brian Miller says:

    You’re telling it damned straight, Jack.

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