The Simple Block Plane. First Published in “The Tool Shed” for CraftsNJ.org

Imagine it’s the late 1800’s. You’re a woodworker by trade, and you walk into a hardware store. There, sitting on the shelf is a Birdsill Holly block plane. The plane you would have seen is exactly like this one.

The First Version of Birdsill Holly’s Cast Iron Block Plane. Photo Courtesy of Jim Bode Tools.

You’ve heard about these metallic planes but you’ve never seen one before, and you don’t own a hand plane this small. A smile comes over you face, which is a reaction that doesn’t happen all that often. The price is almost a week’s worth of wages, so the smile quickly fades. After a few weeks go by, you have a new project and you know this plane will be extremely helpful. You bite the bullet and after making a deal to pay for it in 3 weekly payments, you buy it.

In 3 weeks you go back with the final payment and pick it up. The smile comes back as you carry it out the door. You know this plane will save you some time and work, and will help the quality of the products you produce. Quality is important in this day and age. It helps keeps you employed and puts the food on your table and a roof over your head. It makes you proud of what you do. Not only that, but you know you will be the envy of the other guys when you walk onto the work site with this plane.

Now fast forward some 150 +/- years later. A plane of this style is being scoffed at regularly. What? No depth adjuster? Look, no adjustable mouth! How in the world would you adjust this laterally? These tools are pretty simple. This style plane is the simplest version of a metallic hand plane. It’s simply a holder for the blade. This hand plane concept can be traced back to the 4th century in the Roman times. It carries a history we are still uncovering.

Today we have professional woodworkers among us, where time is money and that money is meant to feed their family. So I understand those folks having the same reaction when they find a new block plane with all the bells and whistles. Anything to shave a few seconds off each task helps make that living. But for the rest of use, there should be some joy and satisfaction in seeing what these old timers felt. Image being one of the first woodworkers walking on a jobsite or into a shop with this simple but elegant block plane. It’s the latest thing, and an absolute joy to use.

A few years after Birdsill Holly’s plane was being sold, Leonard bailey decided to copy the Holly block plane. And some time later, being the inventor that Bailey was, he decided to “improve” it. And he did. Both Leonard Bailey and Justus Traut used Birdsill Holly’s design as inspiration for their block planer designs. Using patent No. 67,398 of August 6, 1867, Leonard bailey added a depth adjuster to the block plane. This became known as a #9 ½ and is still called that today. It was first offered in 1872.

In 1874 Stanley came out with the #110 block plane. This was essentially the exact same plane as Birdsill Holly’s original design. So why would Stanley make a step backwards, adding a plane without an adjuster after the #9 ½ had one? After all, doesn’t everybody need a cutter adjuster on their block plane?

Stanley No. 110 block plane – type 1

Well it seems in the late 1800’s, everybody didn’t need a cutter adjuster on their block plane.  The #110 sold very well and in 1898 Stanley came out with the #220, which added the depth adjuster again, followed by several others like the #120 and the #203. These were well built planes and sold very well. But they lacked the bells and whistles we seem to desire today.

These simple, yet effective planes were made by all of the major manufactures, including Stanley #110, #120, #220, #61, #203), Sargent (#107, #207/208, #217, #1107, #1217), Union (#110, #120, #220), Ohio (#0110, #0120, #0220) and Millers Falls (#45, #61, #75, #87, #97, #700, #707, #1455, #8455, #8707, #9775) and many more. I’ve only included the planes without an adjustable mouth and did not include the smaller versions without a front knob, known as apron planes or pocket planes. These too, are very useful planes to have in your shop.

The most popular of these block planes are the #110 and #220 style block planes. They sold extremely well and were used by many many craftsman. But somewhere through the course of history, they started to fall out of favor. The new improvements and the transition from those using such tools to make a living to those simply having them in the garage to make it look like a man cave transpired. This created a market for poorly manufactured but very inexpensive planes, which helped lead to the bad reputation.

But these block plane still have many advantages to the modern carpenter and woodworker.  They are less expensive, very easy to find in almost any condition, from new old stock to downright rusty and nasty. They are light, and most of all, they still work very very well.

A Stanley #110 at work on some red oak

In my opinion, the style of plane like the Stanley #220, Sargent #207 and #208, and similar planes are one of the most underrated planes on the vintage market. They were made and sold in extremely large numbers so they can be found for prices very reasonable and very easily. There are very few flea markets and antique shops that will not have a few.

A Sargent #207 on some Ash

There is a bit more of a learning curve for a beginner. Adjusting a hand plane without a mechanical adjuster can be a little overwhelming at first, but the learning curve shouldn’t be a deterrent. After all, woodworking is still a skill that needs to be mastered, and each step helps gain an understanding of the history and the appeal of the craft.

It should be obvious the need for adjustment style changes as mechanical adjustments are added. So let’s look at the simplest plane. This would be the #110 style block plane and is best used with a plane hammer, but you will often see craftsman use what may be handy from a block of hardwood, the plastic handle of a screw driver, or even the bench you are working from. I’ve used the handle of an Estwing hammer. One should not use steel on steel however. That is what causes the mushroom blades we so often see on vintage planes.

A plane hammer, or plane setting hammer is typically a hammer of softer material than the plane blade. Some are even double faced (mostly for wooden planes) where one side is for blade setting and one side for the wedge. One can be purchased or shop made. One can be very simply made from a brass rod with a hole drilled and a handle attached. One side can even have some leather epoxied on if desired.

Adjusting the plane for use is not any different in theory to using a mechanical adjuster, you’re just using hammer taps instead of a mechanism. One difference is in retracting the blade. For this task you will tap the back of the plane.

The learning curve comes from knowing exactly how tight the cap needs to be, when you need to loosen the cap, how hard to tap and how tight the cap needs to be for the wood you’re planing and the type of planing you’re doing. But with a little practice all of this becomes second nature. I often find myself setting the side to side lateral adjustments with a push from my thumb rather than the hammer. Learning this technique on a #220 style eliminates the need for the plane hammer.

To retract the blade on the #100 style, you tap the back of the plane. Again, it may be necessary to loosen the cap before tapping. And again, learning how heavy the tap needs to be for the adjustment takes a bit of practice. Some woodworkers will simply tap the back of the plane on the bench.

There is of course one more point that needs to be discussed. None of these plane I have mentioned have an adjustable mouth. Why then, would I suggest anyone buy anything but a plane with an adjustable mouth? Well, that’s because I believe an adjustable mouth on a plane is more about marketing than performance. Many will argue the point, but a non-adjustable mouth plane will take very fine shavings. It will smooth and resize the piece, and it will leave a smooth glassy finish. What else can one ask for?

I’m certainly not suggesting we all go throw our adjustable mouth block planes on eBay and expunge out shop of them. There is a small advantage to an adjustable mouth in some instances. The point is, it is not a requirement for a truly useful plane. It is fairly common knowledge the beginning of the adjustable mouth that Leonard Bailey devised was more about production cost than hand plane performance, but since the marketing strategy arose, it was taken advantage of. Just think about the history, and some of the exquisite workmanship that was performed long before the adjustable mouth was put on a hand plane.

So the next time you see one of these simple planes sitting on a flea market table, or on the shelf of an antique shop, pick it up, and take it home. I’m quite certain you will be somewhat surprised at its usefulness, and if you hold it just right, you’re likely to feel the excitement and gratitude you felt in a former lifetime. The lifetime where you were a woodworker, walking into a hardware store, and picking up that Birdsill Holly block plane for the very first time.