Woodworking planes come in a range of different sizes, for standard metal bench planes these are given numbers in size order 1 through 8. The older system of names (fore plane, jack plane, try plane etc) refer to the jobs that they do. In this article we will work through the process of preparing a board so that hopefully by the end you will understand what each plane is for.
Most modern boards are sawn, but before the industrial revolution they were riven (split using axes and wedges), the riven board would have been hewn with axes to remove the worst of the bumps before they encountered their first plane - the scrub plane. The scrub plane is a rough tool that removes thick shavings to bring a board within range of the more refined planes, scrub planes have a thick cutting iron with a curved edge (like an axe) and a wide throat to allow large shavings to pass through. The scrub plane is used across the board, this being the weakest direction, and will leave a scalloped but broadly level surface. There is no direct equivalent to the scrub in the Stanley / Record 1 through 8 number system, scrubs were generally made from jack planes that were past their best. A tatty old No.5 with a Ray Iles D2 iron works great, as do old wooden jack planes.
Next comes the fore plane, so called because it is used be'fore' the others. I can only suppose that they considered the scrub to be an axe with a sole rather than a plane, or possibly that board would have been scrub planed when still fresh, making the fore the first plane to touch it after drying. The fore (nearest metal equivalent a No.6) is a long plane, so it imparts flatness on the surface, and again is set for a fairly coarse cut. The fore plane is used along the grain but because it is running over the scalloped surface left by the scrub it is only trimming the crests off the undulations initially so as long as the scrubbing was done well it will only need to take one or two sets of complete shavings if that.
The next plane is the Jack (metal equivalent No.5 or 5-1/2) this does the same job as a scrub but on a smaller scale, working across the grain with a cambered cutting edge to remove finer bumps and produce a scalloped but level surface. At this point we catch up with sawn boards which, after drying, would have any winding, twisting or cupping removed with a jack plane.
Once the board has been straightened out with the Jack plane, a try (trying, truing) plane (metal equivalent a No.6 or No.7) would be used to make the surface 'tried and true'. This long plane would bring the board down to final thickness and surface.
With the board planed and sawn to width it was on to the jointer plane (No.7 or 8) to accurately prepare the edges so that two straight edged boards could be glued together. This is very accurate work so jointer planes were the longest of all, some of the old woodies were five or six feet in length.
The final stage is smoothing planes (No.s 1, 2, 3, 4, 4-1/2) these meticulously maintained planes have short soles and almost imperceptibly cambered cutting edges so that they follow the undulations in the surface and can shave inside any low spots left by the try plane.
These are just the basic types for preparing timber to be made into something, there are also block planes for trimming and tidying up, shoulder planes, rebate planes, plough and fillister planes for joinery, compass planes for curved work, and a whole world of molding planes for producing profiles decoration and embellishments.
In the modern workshop, stationary power tools do much of the initial grunt work that would previously have been done by apprentices. If you are reading this to find an answer to the question 'which planes should I buy?' the answer will depend upon your physical build, what, and what standard of stationary power tools you have access to and what size of pieces you intend to make. If you have a cast iron tablesaw with an industrial quality sawblade and a planer thicknesser and only want to make pieces smaller than a bedside table, then a block plane and a jack plane set up as a smoother will be sufficient. If you want to make tables or have DIY spec stationary power tools then you would be better off with a jack set up as a jack, a long plane for trying and jointing, a smoother and a block plane. If you are following the whole process by hand you will need to add a scrub plane and possibly another long one for the rough preparation.
The Stanley range of metal bench planes, and their modern Clifton, Lie-Nielsen, Veritas and Quangsheng descendants have reduced what used to be a seemingly endless range of sizes down to a more manageable number. The No.1 and No.2 were tiny and originally intended as salesman's samples, they sold a few but production soon ceased and so they are highly collectable. Quangsheng still produces a No.1, but the No.1 isn't currently in production.
The No.3 smoother is the smallest of the smoothers with a 1-3/4 inch wide cutting iron, it is light, easy to handle especially if you are of light build or making smaller items.
The No.4 smoother is the best selling size of bench plane, It has a 2 inch wide cutting iron and is a good all round smoothing plane for most work.
The No.4-1/2 is the widest of the smoothing planes with a 2-3/8" wide cutting iron, excellent for large boards and panels it has more authority than a No.4, closer to the feel of an infill plane especially when used with a back bevelled cutting iron to raise the effective pitch.
The No.5 jack plane has a 2" cutting iron, making it slimmer and more manoeuvrable than the 5-1/2. Like the No.3 they are excellent for people of lighter build. A variant of the No.5, the No.62 low angle jack is also a popular choice for those seeking maximum versatility from a single plane.
The No. 5-1/2 heavy jack plane takes a 2-3/8" cutting iron and is a great all rounder for people that only want one bench plane. Long enough to produce smaller components with a high degree of accuracy, short enough to be easily manageable for those unused to hand planing.
The No.6 is the plane I use as a try / jointer, at 18" (46cm) long with a 2-3/8" cutting iron, it is plenty accurate enough to level and joint boards up to 6 feet long.
The No.7 is the longest plane that Clifton and Quangsheng manufacture, at 22" (56cm) long with a 2-3/8" cutting iron, the No.7 is still a manageable length and like the 6 has the advantage of blade interchangeability with the No. 5-1/2 and No. 4-1/2.
The No. 8 is a beast of a plane, of the top manufacturers only Lie-Nielsen have this monster in current production although secondhand Stanleys and Records do crop up from time to time. The No.8 takes a massive 2-5/8" cutting iron and a big pair of shoulders to wield it, but if you need something really really long really really straight the No. 8 will certainly do the job.