Fair Woodworking

April 29, 2015

If I could only have three planes

So the other day I was listening to an old Fine Woodworking podcast (I’ve been listening to them from the first), and this same old listener mail question reared its ugly head yet again.

If you could only have 3 planes, what would they be?

I’m really tired of this question for a number of reasons, but I decided to listen to their answers anyway.

1. Block Plane

2. Smoother

3. Shoulder Plane

For what it’s worth, this is a good list of planes. I can’t say that it is incorrect for what I know of their type of woodworking.


It’s a terrible list for my workshop, and that is one of the reasons I don’t like this question.

For a shop ruled by power tools, a shop that has no hand tools, these three planes could really up the game of the woodworker at the helm.

In a shop where almost nothing is done with power tools, this list is both redundant and inadequate at the same time.

That may be harsh, but let’s have a look at what Fairwoodworking of today would say to baby Fairwoodworking elect.


Firstly, to dimension wood you normally use 3 planes, the Jack, Jointer, and Smoother, but that’s just for dimensioning.

At the same time joinery has a its own stable of planes, but we only get to have 3 total.

Then there are planes we use to clean up cuts, break hard edges, and plane end grain. Typically we’d use the block plane, but imagine if you were to reach for your block plane and discovered the blade was far too dull to use, but you needed it now, and you forgot your sharpening gear at your friends house. What plane would you use as a substitute?

In my shop I’d turn to my Smoother.

And if I was to do without one of my bench planes for dimensioning, would I drop the Jointer, or the Smoother? No. I’d have to do without the Jack. I wrote about this a while ago, by using a modern thick blade in an old smoother for smoothing tasks, you can then swap to the old blade with a “Jack plane” like camber for rough work. The difference in thickness of the blades will remove the need adjust the frog for the two vastly different tasks.

I’d hate to ask it of my smoother, but it could get by doing 3 jobs in my shop.

The Smoother gets my first vote.

But the smoother won’t do so well as a jointer unless we are dealing with really short boards, and the more traditional jointer is really difficult to find a suitable substitution. Thankfully, the Jointer is also excellent in the role of both a Shooting Plane, and a boat anchor.

The Jointer gets my second vote. Not so much for what it can do, but for what every other plane can not.

With one plane left, how will we address joinery?

I guess I’d offer the router plane. It’s great at cleaning out the bottoms of grooves and dados, I love mine for mortising hinges, and some people use it for cleaning the cheeks of their tenons. My Veritas router plane has an optional fence that would make it work as a marginally functional plow plane, so there you have it.

Plane number three is the Router plane.

To recap.

1. Smoother plane

2. Jointer

3. Router plane

These are the 3 great planes I would choose if I could only have 3. And dare I say,

If the world was in jeopardy, and the only way we could save ourselves from alien destruction was the faint hope that I could build a box with these and only these 3 planes…

I will be your hero!!!

But like most of the free world, aliens don’t give two craps about what I build, and so I build for fun.

And that is why I hate this question.

Three planes is not fun.

Three planes is the opposite of having the right tool for the job.

Three planes is for some kind of weird “bang for your buck” collector types.


Three planes is a good place to start, and a terrible place to stop.

But really, DON’T go out and just buy 3 planes because of my or any other recommendation. Buy one plane. Probably a block plane or a smoother. An old Jack plane would be a great first plane as well.

Yes I realize that 2 of these 3 planes did not make the list, but that is because the 3 plane list is simply idiotic. If you are interested in planes, get one. Learn how to use it. Learn how to sharpen the blade, and use it until you can see what job it is not the right for. Then figure out what is the right tool, and look at getting it.

And save the lists for Americas Funniest Home Videos.




1 Comment

  1. I’m a hybrid/hand-tool guy as well, and my jointer gets the most abuse. To be fair to the people asking the question, most are beginners. I think it’s good for them to get 12 different answers, because it helps them to assess what they want to get out of woodworking and furniture making.

    Comment by Patrick Harper - Blood, Sweat, and Sawdust — April 30, 2015 @ 4:54 am

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