Bench plane vs block plane – main differences
It may be surprising that people use hand planes nowadays, but they are still essential tools for many woodworkers, especially those who work with large pieces of wood.
Tools like the block plane and the bench plane are used to make flat surfaces (the “plane” part of their name comes from a historical reference to wooden planes that could actually be flattened). Note that this is not the same as making them smooth.
They can also be used for knocking down minor protrusions or taking off small amounts of material. The chief difference between these two types of hand planers (also called smoother) is how they do this task: A block plane uses its blade almost flush with one side, allowing you to tap it into a surface at an angle. A bench plane has a blade that protrudes on both sides, so you can pass it over an area to smooth out irregularities.
Very sharp blade: this is important for two reasons:
- You can take off more material with less effort, which means you will need to sharpen the bladeless often.
- A sharp edge works better and safer than a dull one, especially on difficult woods like end grain, which may cause you to end up with a chunk of your finger jammed in your plane.
Razorsharp iron: the blade is ground to a very fine angle. This allows it to pare tough end grain and do other fine work that’s hard on your elbows and fingers.
Handle: this lets you control how much pressure you apply, and gives you good leverage for pushing the plane across the face of the wood (the hand-plane equivalent of “follow-through”).
Tote: The handle on many bench planes is bent slightly down toward the sole, which helps lock your grip around it without needing to hold it too tightly. This also helps make sure that your knuckles don’t hit whatever surface area you’re planing as you push forward with each stroke.
Depth adjustment mechanism: A metal bar at the back end of the plane that runs flush to the sole when there’s no iron in it. This can be used to hold the blade at an exact position relative to the main casting, which lets you make more accurate cuts. It also limits how far you can shove the blade into your wood (the “throat” area) and prevents you from cutting too deeply by accident -very good for safety-challenged people like me who are always snagging their knuckles on sharp blades.
Toothing cutter: The iron creates a series of tiny V-shaped notches across the face of the board as it goes forward with each stroke, kind of like somebody took a giant cheese grater to one side of your piece.
Blocks come in various sizes and shapes: low-angle block planes like Stanley’s No. 62, standard angle block planes like Lie-Nielsen’s No. 60 ½, and premium standard block planes like Veritas’ PMV-11. They can be found in different materials such brass or bronze alloy bodies (or soles) with different grades of coarseness, depending on how much material needs to be removed.
Block planes are generally lighter and less bulky than bench planes. This makes them easier to manipulate in tight areas, but it also means you can’t remove as much material at once or make as pronounced a cut.
Fence: this can be adjusted to different angles to make sure that your cuts are straight and even, and prevent you from planing an angle on your workpiece.
Depth adjustment mechanism: A screw at the front end of the block plane that dictates how far back into the body it engages with a machined notch, limiting the depth of cut. This is less important in a block plane than it is on a bench plane because you don’t need to remove as much material at once. However, it’s still nice to have for safety purposes.
Block planes are very compact, even with blades fully exposed. Bench planes are bulky and take up more space in your toolbox.
You can take off very fine slivers with a block plane, which is why they are so popular for model-building work. But there are situations where you need to take off more material at once when working on large workpieces or removing lots of wood in the process of flattening or smoothing it. In that case, using a bench plane will be much faster and efficient because its blade protrudes on both sides allowing you to quickly cover a larger area without having to flip the piece over very often.
Block planes are light and easy to maneuver, but bench planes can take off more material at once.
Ease of use:
The low-angle block plane is the easiest hand plane to master because you can get it up to speed quickly, and any beginner should be able to achieve good results with very little effort. However, some users find that smaller bench planes like Stanley’s No. 4 or Lie-Nielsen’s No. 4 ½ require a bit more finesse (or “scuffling” as my father would say) before they start working properly.
Bench planes are usually cheaper than block planes, especially for models with adjustable mouths allowing for fine adjustments without having to disassemble them first. That said, the most expensive bench planes are only marginally more expensive than some of the cheaper block planes.
The blades for bench planes are wider and thicker than the ones on block planes; this is important because you can’t always get plenty of downward force on your block plane.
Bench planes are faster at removing wood, but you might end up with rougher surfaces if you use them incorrectly or fail to grind their blades. But don’t be fooled by claims that block planes will give smooth results without effort; they still need to be sharpened properly in order to work well.
Block planes excel at making very precise cuts (especially with low-angle models) and creating edges straight off the saw or jointer with just a few strokes, all of which make them placeable in certain situations. Bench planes are not as good for cutting edges (although doing so with the blade fully exposed is not difficult) because it usually takes more than one stroke to make an edge straight off the saw or jointer; actually, you need to make two or three strokes with each corner of your bench plane in order to get everything.
If you do plan on using a block plane for this purpose, then I would recommend buying a bevel-up model (high-angle block planes like Lie-Nielsen’s No. 60 ½, standard angle ones like Stanley’s No. 9 1/2, and premium standard models like Veritas’ PMV-11 ) so that you can continue making precise cuts without having to flip your workpiece over every time.
Rip vs crosscut:
Most bench planes have skewed blades, which means the blade’s cutting edge will be at an angle with the horizontal. This is optimal for pushing the plane across the grain, particularly with woods like oak or maple. Block planes are designed to be used on the end grain and so have straight blades, so they work better when pushing them along the grain.
Smoothing vs jointing:
Jointing refers to flattening two board faces exactly flush with one another. They can then be glued together to form a flat surface. Smoothing involves removing small irregularities from a surface before finishing it by applying some kind of wood finish (e.g., varnish or wax). As such, bench planes are used mostly for smoothing while block planes are also used for jointing.
Their main purpose is to flatten the surface of the board, i.e., make it flat. They can also take off very fine shavings which are useful in some cases, e.g., when you want to smooth an especially uneven surface or round over edges.
Bench planes are generally bigger with larger blades that protrude more on both sides so they can be used for rounding over wide surfaces, while block planes are small and compact, making them easier to handle but they cannot remove as much material in one pass (only when pushing direction) since they have smaller blades whose cutting edge almost runs along one side of their body.
Both bench planes and block planes function in a similar manner. They have an iron fastened to a wooden base, and the blade protrudes through a hole in the base.
Their blades are exposed by rotating or removing knobs at their rear. This will allow you to push the plane across the wood’s surface, like when flattening boards. To remove material (e.g., cut rabbets), you need to raise its blade using either adjusting levers or screws located on its heel. Raising the blade lifts it up from its bedding, creating a small space between itself and its base that allows shavings to pass underneath it.
If you are making models, do not think that bench planes are more for “real” woodworkers. That’s a common mistake beginner make. A bench plane is only about the size of your palm, so it can be used to take off small amounts of wood in tight corners. You would be surprised how much work can get done by wielding one of these around!
The block plane is the smaller tool that has a blade that extends on one side only, allowing you to work with its edge at an angle. It requires less downward pressure due to its size and weight, but this makes it harder for beginners to use because it does not remove as much material or behave predictably when pushed into the surface of a workpiece. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it in no time. This is why beginners are usually taught to start with a standard bench plane first before switching to a block plane.