The best plane for a shooting board? One that’s sharp, heavy, bevel-up and comfortable to use.
Not so long ago, I wrote a blog explaining why planes don’t continuously cut into shooting boards, which would give you no good way to control how much wood you removed and would wear away the shooting board pretty darn quick. That’s probably the question I’m asked most often when I get a chance to meet readers and other hand tool nuts like myself. The question that I’m asked nearly as often is which plane is best suited for a shooting board. Let me start by saying this: The best plane is a sharp one! As long as it’s sharp, you can use almost any plane with a shooting board, except for ones like a shoulder plane, where the blade extends the full width of the body. A block plane will work. So too will a bench plane. I know some folks who prefer using a big No. 7 for shooting. Also, the sole of the plane must be exactly 90 degrees to the side it will ride on. Otherwise, you’ll plane the end grain of out square from top to bottom. Taking those two points as given, there are a few features that I value in a shooting board plane. I’ll explain them below. Of course, if you disagree, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.
Comfort is the most important thing
When I made my first shooting board, I used a No. 4 smoothing plane with it. It worked fine, but I don’t use it anymore. Here’s why. If I used it to shoot for anything more than a few minutes, the hand I held it with would begin to hurt. If I had a lot of shooting to do, my hand would hurt the rest of the day, possibly into the next, and occasionally it would get bruised. Why? Because bench planes aren’t designed to be used on their sides and held by the sidewall, frog, blade assembly. So, when I could afford it I bought a Veritas low angle jack plane, which has several distinct advantages over my smoother. First, it is made to be used on a shooting board (among other things). It has fairly tall sides walls, which makes it stable when laid on its side. There is also a nice little circular indent on the side wall–the perfect place for a thumb. And because there isn’t a frog, it is very easy to grasp the side wall with your hand. It adds up to a comfortable plane for shooting. I’ve also used the Lie-Nielsen low angle jack with the hotdog attachment. It too is very comfortable as a shooting board plane. (And trust me, I’m already scheming a way to justify owning it as well!)
A low angle of attack is nice, too
When it comes to end grain (and 99% of shooting is on end grain), you want to slice through the fibers at a low angle of attack. The higher the angle, the more likely the blade is to break the fibers rather than cut them cleanly. In order to get the blade at an angle low enough for cutting end grain, you’ve got to turn it bevel up. If it were bevel down, the bevel angle would have to be less than the bedding angle and that would make it too weak. So, you should look for a low-angle, bevel-up plane.
Beefy is better
That last thing I look for in a shooting plane is heft, because it’s easier to get through end grain with a heavier plane. That’s why I use a jack plane. It has just the right amount of mass. Anything bigger is, in my opinion, too tiring. Anything lighter doesn’t glide through end grain as well.
Finally, let me go back to a point I made earlier. Keep your plane sharp. In fact, sharpen it before you use your shooting board. And keep it sharp as you use it. Nothing is more frustrating or counterproductive at a shooting board than a less than razor sharp blade. It takes way more effort to get through the end grain and the surface you leave behind won’t be smooth.