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 smoothly.
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 for $46.
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 $600.
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 testing.
Joe Youcha is a wooden boat builder and woodworker in Alexandria, Va.