How to decide which hand plane to buy

When you approach purchasing a hand plane, it can be a dizzying experience. Which size of plane should I buy? Do I need 11 different planes? Should I splurge on a Lie Nielsen? Take my chances with a modern inexpensive Stanley? What about Wood River et. al., that sit between modern Stanleys and the Veritas/Lie Nielsen? What about used planes? Which era of used Stanley should I get? Is older really better?

Each of these options come with a laundry list of positives and negatives and when I was trying to answer these questions for myself, I turned to my trusted short list of Internet-based hand plane authorities. The people you turn to to help with these decisions are likely people like Paul Sellers, James Wright, Rex Krueger....etc. And so I did, but I found putting their advice into practice didn't really match up with reality, at least in my experience.

Which size of hand plane should I get?

There is a somewhat confusing numbering system that was used by Stanley to describe the size/model of the hand planes which they produced and sold for over 150 years. Because of the popularity of Stanley planes, their numbering system has become somewhat of a general way to describe the various, mostly standardized sizes of hand planes. While other manufacturers may use slightly different nomenclature, they probably make planes in the exact same sizes that Stanley has been making for 150 years.

If you are new to hand planes, many experts will tell you that you can get just a single #4 or a #5 plane and you'll be able to do everything with it. This is somewhat true, but a little misleading. In reality, if you are a very experienced hand tool woodworker, you can do everything with a #4 or #5...barely. These planes were all built with specialized tasks in mind. The idea is that you wouldn't have just one plane, a woodworker might have 3, 4, 5, or 20 planes that excelled at different tasks.

If you are starting out and want to dip your toes into hand planes, I'd recommend purchasing a #5 "jack" plane. This is referred to as a jack plane because it is the "jack" of all trades. In other words, a great starting place to get one plane that can do a lot of different tasks. However, I think over time you will likely want a #4 "smoothing" plane, a #5 and a longer sole plane like a #6 or #7 for more accurate flattening. This gives you a short sole plane for smoothing and spot work, a #5 for a wide range of tasks and a longer sole plane for jointing and flattening across longer pieces of wood.

Which brand of hand plane should I buy?

You'd be forgiven for thinking that knowing which model/size of plane you want to buy is the last line in the story, but alas, it is not. It is where the story begins. "Which brand of hand plane should I buy" is a question that has vexed woodworkers for a generation, particularly if you are just starting out. It has also become increasingly complicated with interest in traditional hand tool woodworking on the rise over the past couple of decades, which has led to higher prices on the used market and more inexpensive plane manufacturers selling planes that look like old Stanley planes but diverge greatly from them in regards to quality.

First off, choosing a brand means you are likely looking at new planes. You should know that there is a strong argument to be made for purchasing used. I will get to that in a second, but let's focus on modern, new plane manufacturers. I like to think of new planes in a few of different categories: there is the cheap tier, the mid-tier and the high-end tier.

The cheap tier is anything that costs $10-$75 or so. This includes things like Harbor Freight, some Stanleys (more on that in a second) and anything you can get at a Home Depot or Lowes. I'm going to cut right to the chase here, you may be tempted to buy a $50 #5 Stanley and call it good but I would strongly recommend not doing that. Especially as a beginner. The primary reason not to do this is that generally speaking, these planes are just flat out junk. A hand plane really is an instrument of precision and if it is not made properly to start, you will ultimately spend more time fighting the poor manufacturing of the tool than actually doing woodworking.

The mid tier is where things get a little more interesting. There are some modern Stanleys that I think actually fit in here and may be a good purchase. I have a modern Stanley Sweetheart block plane that I think works pretty well. I've used it on several projects and it is a serviceable hand plane. Stanley also makes a Sweetheart low angle Jack and #4 smoothing plane. These planes are considered Stanley's premium line and from my own personal experience, I think these are actually relatively decent planes for the money. This tier also includes planes that are in the $100-$200 range. You will see several brands that fall under this category: Wood River and Taylor Toolworks are a couple of brands I would consider mid tier.

Personally, I also think you should avoid the mid-tier unless you are experienced enough to effectively troubleshoot hand planes. These are nicer and manufactured to a higher standard than dirt cheap planes, but not expensive enough to be manufactured perfectly out of the box. You may find that a plane like this works just fine for you or that you are willing to deal with a few problems to save some money. But, planes can be difficult to understand and troubleshoot properly for beginners. If you happen to get a plane that isn't quite right, you'll again be in the "fighting the tool" situation, except you will have just spent $200 instead of $50.

The high end tier is basically Veritas or Lie Nielsen planes. There are even more expensive premium planes out there but I won't even discuss a plane that costs more than $1000. So, the deal with Lie Nielsen or Veritas is that they are expensive because they are meant to work perfectly out of the box. You can buy a Lie Nielsen plane and expect to use it on day one with zero tweaks and you are also expected to be using it for the rest of your life and probably your kid can use it for the rest of her life too. They are great tools and I am strongly in favor of buying a quality tool once over buying an inexpensive tool, THEN a high end tool when you realize your inexpensive tools sucks. I have made this mistake over and over again in my woodworking journey. Don't be like me, if you can afford a quality tool, buy it.

Wait, you have to buy the expensive tool?

No, that's not what I'm saying at all. Here's where the used tool market comes in, but it is tricky.

Stanley and other manufacturers like Sergeant in the U.S. or Record in the UK made very high quality planes for 70-80 years, and it was an absolute staple of the garage workbench during that time. Everybody in the world has a Stanley #4. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide. There are hundreds of thousands of these things floating around and many of them are great, great tools. The trick is finding the right used hand plane.

I hear a common refrain from the youtube personalities regarding used hand planes: "Don't pay over $40 for a used hand plane, they should be cheap." or "Don't be afraid to buy a messed up looking hand plane, you can fix it up easy and here's how."

Now, I'll admit as a woodworker, the mystique of me sitting down at my workbench and finely tuning my old piece of crap hand plane like some modern day Stradivarius of hand planes was appealing. The first piece of advice from Youtube personalities that I became frustrated with was "You shouldn't pay over $40 for a hand plane, I picked this up at a swap meet for $15." and then they proudly display their $15 hand-lane that has been restored to gleaming perfection.

Here's the deal, some people have time, years in fact, to go to thrift shops, swap meets, car shows and back alley trashcans looking for old hand planes. Can you find a $15 hand plane you can transform into a great tool? Yes. The better question is will you enjoy that process and do you have the time to do it? The answer for me to both of these questions was a resounding no. I wanted a working tool that I could get ahold of in a few days, not 6 months from now at the Topeka gun show, that would also require another month of work before I could accurately slice a single piece of wood. So I found an online store that specialized in selling used planes and I bought one. It cost me $65 and I thought it was a pretty good deal for a well made 1940s Record #4.

However, when I received it, it was quickly apparent that this plane was a major fixer upper. In the worst way. I could list all of the things that were wrong with it but basically everything. I ended up spending a significant amount of time tuning it and getting it close to a working pile of junk, but that is as far as I've gotten with it over the last couple of years. It was a project, more of a project than I really had time to take on. Instead of building things with my plane I was futzing with it, trying to make it work.

To make matters worse, I still needed a #5 and I was feeling burned by my previous purchase. Maybe I needed to simply eat the cost and buy a $400 Lie Nielsen plane. I seriously considered it. But then I happened upon a seller on Etsy that had a #5 available, it looked like it was in good condition. It was a 1940s Stanley and the cost including shipping was $110. It ticked a lot of boxes but here is the kicker: the seller had already refurbished it.

I took a bit of a gamble and ordered the plane. Was it a $15 fixer upper? No, it was a plane that someone had taken the time and effort to clean up and restore before I purchased it. This meant it would likely not require much if any set up and be usable from day one. It also meant that I would be paying someone else a premium for their work, which I am totally ok with.

The plane arrived a few days later, really well tuned and fixed up. I immediately put it to work and it glided across my workpiece slicing flawlessly. For an extra $45 on top of what I had paid for a project hand plane, I had a perfectly working 1940s Stanley that had already been completely refurbished.

And this my friends, is where I think the sweet spot is. You'll end up paying $100-$150 for a used plane that's been refurbished but if you can find a shop that does good work and sells them regularly, personally I think this is a great deal. It's likely a person that knows quite a bit about hand planes and picks planes to fix up and resell that don't have major flaws, they've gone to the trouble of finding a good plane for you, then they will make it usable and clean it up and you've got a really great tool that will last a good long while and you are only out an extra $50-$75.

My recommendation

Going forward, If I have $100-$150 to spend on a hand plane, I'm buying a refurbished classic any day of the week. It takes a bit of effort to try to track down a reputable dealer that does good work, but scanning reviews and looking at their previous sales and what the customers say about them go a long way to giving you confidence you've found a good seller. I've been really happy with my #5, it has been a great tool and totally worth the extra cash in my opinion. There is something to be said for learning by doing and fixing an old plane will give you a decent amount of knowledge about how hand planes work, but the thing about fixing old planes up is that you kind of need to know what a good hand plane feels, looks and works like before you can strive to match it. Most people just starting out have never even held a plane before much less know how to troubleshoot and repair them.

If you are struggling to find a seller you have confidence in and you are on a budget, the Stanley sweetheart line could be a good choice, as likely will the other mid tier brands but I can't recommend anything other than the Stanley sweetheart line because that is all I have had personal experience with. Check out Rex Krueger's thoughts on the Sweetheart as well as his thoughts on the Taylor Toolworks low angle jack planes, he buys them and does a deep dive into these planes so you don't have to.

All of that said, if you have the budget, buy a Lie Nielsen plane. They are rock solid modern recreations of what are widely considered the best hand planes ever produced, they will last forever and you'll likely never have to worry about any fixing up of anything.

The main takeaway here is that everyone has their own tolerances for how much time and effort they are willing to put into a given hand plane purchase. If you love spending hours on tools, tinkering with them to make them work perfectly, then by all means grab a cheap fixer upper. If you hate the thought of spending your time trying to sort out what is wrong with a tool and just want to get back to your woodworking as soon as possible buy a Lie Nielsen. If you fall somewhere in between, an already refurbished plane is a great way to go.