Hand Tools - The Advantages of Hand Planing

At times, I still have doubts about whether milling a piece of wood by hand is worth it. Sometimes I sit back and wonder whether it would be worthwhile someday to get a powered benchtop planer and take out all the slog work from my woodworking. But invariably I fall back on the good old hand plane method; its tedious, time consuming and a lot of work but in the end, I realise this is the best for me.

Milling a piece of wood by hand has several advantages.

1. It's a great form of workout
A number of people I know spend a lot of time and money doing workouts in the gym. I tried that once but found it incredibly boring. Nowadays I walk or spend half an hour or so hand planing.

2. You get to know the wood
It was only after I started hand planing that I really started to discover wood, its intricacies, grain patterns, internal stress patterns and so on. I am gradually beginning to read wood, how to work it best and predict how it could move. There is also something rather interesting about the feel and workability of different types of wood. The grain, springiness, hardness and so on of a particular type of wood tell you how to use it best and where. I am beginning to get a sense of this wonderful material and the more I plane the closer I get to it.

3. Eliminates dust, noise and danger

Planers and thicknessers are machines that create an infernal sound, emit vast quantities of dust and are potentially dangerous. Why do I even contemplate getting one of those into my tiny workshop!

4. Gives a better finish
I cannot comment on the quality of planer-thicknessers abroad but in here in India, wood that has been processed by these machines almost invariably require further planing to take out the cutter marks and so on. Patient hand planing, on the other hand, produces great end results.

Planing by hand, however, has some attendant problems as I have realised over the last one year and unless these are overcome, results will be disappointing.

1. A Decent Hand Plane Requirement
The first problem is getting hold of a decent hand plane in this country. Most, I am sorry to say, are awful and require hours and hours of preparation before they can be used effectively. I am constantly surprised at the good quality of work some local carpenters produce with our crude tools but I cannot do the same. Today, after a year or so of planing, I would pay a lot extra for a good plane. I know it can make a huge difference both in the quality of work and the ease of work. The bare minimum is a plane with a flat sole.

2. Stamina

Initially I could not plane for than a few minutes; it was too strenuous for me and I used to get fed up quickly. Then I realised that like any other form of physical activity, one needs to build up stamina for this kind of work gradually. It takes time but gradually I found myself being able to plane for longer periods. The muscles, I am told, also have memory which is built up with practice and each day it becomes easier and easier.

3. Stance and Technique
Another persistent problem arose from bad stance and ignorance of basic techniques. Today, I plane with my feet apart, my body perfectly balanced and my legs assisting in the planing motion. Earlier, I used only my arms to push the plane forward but nowadays I use some of my upper body weight to do the pushing; it is easier and I can control the plane better. I believe over time, planing by hand will get progressively easier and become intuitive.

Best thing is I am looking forward to losing my belly someday!
Till then, and even after that, I will slog on.

Indranil Banerjie
16 October 2013