One Plane to rule your woodwork?
It is a constant request for advice, “if I were to buy just one plane when starting out, which would that be?”
So to answer this question is not a simple statement of “choose this plane”, and some sort of justification for the features it offers, “and there you go”, which will all be true, but may not be appropriate to task.
And therein, is the rub, woodworking is task-driven, by that I mean to build anything from a small box to a full kitchen, requires multiple steps (tasks) to put together any project. Each task has to be completed with a degree of accuracy for the following step to be successful.
And I know you are saying “well heck, way to state the obvious!” However, keep the above in mind as you read on.
To get back to the origin of the question, most often suggested by sundry information paths, is that the Low Angle Jack Plane is the answer. Well, it may be, if you are an accomplished woodworker, it will surely answer many difficult tasks, but (and I am sorry to disappoint) for the novice woodworker it will not end well.
So now you are asking “why?” And fair enough.
First, though, I will claim that the low angle jack plane is a fantastic product, it is in fact a large block plane with an adjustable mouth, thick blade with the bevel in the up position, and a 12-degree blade bed angle, just like pretty much all the current make block planes made today. These attributes accomplish one very important function, it dampens vibration by ensuring the blade does not flex while in the cut, meaning no chatter marks or tear out, at the start of a cut, after a knot, or through the curly grain. The ability to alter the micro-bevel on the blade from 30 degrees up to 90 degrees is an extension of this function. Keep in mind that if there is vibration, a cutting tool will not cut, a simplification but true nonetheless. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?
Is the Low Angle Jack Plane the one plane? The short answer is maybe not.
This is because the multiplicity of the tasks to build a project means one plane will never be enough.
To answer the question, however, the Low Angle Jack Plane for the novice is going to be frustrating. Its abilities come with a disadvantage, set up and adjustment are slow. Block planes in general are set and forget setups, taking very fine shavings until blunt where they are sharpened and reset. This serves well for a specialist plane, but for general work throughput, it will frustrate even the accomplished, and the reason is two-fold.
An example will help I think, firstly, I had occasion to make mating wedges, (two wedges face to face through a beam mortise), cut on a bandsaw the cut faces are rough and irregular and need to be perfectly flattened to work properly. The Low Angle Jack Plane is too fine a cut, if you deepen the cut to speed the work you will then have to stop and adjust the blade back again as you near the mark lines, with a bedrock standard bevel down frogged plane you can adjust the cut finer as you work, this allows speedy work and greater control as you approach your lines, for two faces this is not a problem for a low angle plane, but for 10 or 20 surfaces, well you get the picture. This brings us to the second issue, sharpening. Remember these surfaces have to be perfect, if you do 20 surfaces you are going to want to resharpen, probably often depending on the material, set up and adjustment is fast and simple on a standard bevel down the plane, which means you will be more likely sharpen regularly. Blunt tools will ruin work.
Attached above is a photo of mating wedges, these were created using a 5 1/2 Jack plane, I used this plane for the reasons mentioned above and because its blade is 2 3/8” wide just less than the wedges which are 2 1/2” wide because I put a slight camber across my blades the center of the wedge is very slightly concave across its width and this can be achieved with one stroke with 2 very light strokes on either side to create perfectly mated finished wedges (normally you would not put cambers on low angle bevel-up planes).
Of course, none of this is definitive, the 5 1/2 Jack is more expensive than the Low Angle Jack, and this may be the difference for you, if it is a bespoke one-off piece, being a bit slower is perhaps irrelevant, but if you just want one plane to start, and you are new to this craft a standard bench plane will serve you best be it a No 4, No 5, No 5 1/2. It will teach you when it reaches its limits and when you may want the other planes to continue.