[Tool Review] Nice Ash Handplane

There is just something about wooden hand planes that makes you want to pick one up.  I think for me, it’s the warmth of the wood—the tactile sensation of the wooden plane body compared to the cold steel of a modern plane.  I have admired many wooden planes from afar, but no longer!

I recently received this little gem to review (the gnomon is 6″):  IMAG3092

The new Nice Ash Block Plane, from Nice Ash Planes.  For this review, I’ll be focusing on four key points to deliver a decent package of information to anyone shopping for a new plane (or drooling over then like most of us):

•Visual appearance and size.
•Fit and finish.
•Performance (raw).
•Performance (honed).

Visual appearance and size:

Wood planes tend to be chunkier than their metal counterparts.  This is natural, because metal is stronger than wood and so you need less of it to support the iron during the stress of planing.  I for one have never been satisfied with the size of wooden totes and knobs on metal planes.  They are always too small to be comfortable.   Usually it is by an irritatingly small amount that makes it just too much of a bother to try and make a new one.

Wooden planes, with their naturally beefier physique, always held a kind of special draw for me.  I’ve suspected (and hoped) the bigger size would lend itself well to fitting comfortably in my larger hands.  IMAG3093 In the case of the new Nice Ash, there’s also the grin and chuckle factor of the name.   The manufacturer states on their website that the planes are handmade from a solid block of ash, by local craftsmen in Kentucky, using locally sourced materials.  That makes this plane made in the USA and makes me feel good.  Does it add to the fact that it’s a joy to hold in your hand and this Nice Ash looks great sitting on my bench?  Yup.

The plane was shipped from it’s birthplace in Kentucky and arrived well packaged and even wrapped in shrink wrap to protect it from moisture.   A good thing because here in Southeastern Wisconsin, we’ve been socked with cold, heavy rain for the past week.   The plane was dry and clean when I opened it up.  Without all the metal involved in a typical plane, there was no need to coat the thing in packing oil, so there was no cleanup involved, which was nice.

Fit and Finish:

The first thing I noticed was the weight of the iron.   That is one hefty chunk of O1 steel! IMAG3187 It measures 3  1/2″ long, 1/4″ thick (wow) and 1  1/2″ wide….and it is clear from the thickness of the steel that a chipbreaker will be unnecessary.   It was ground to a fine point with a nice, crisp thick angled bevel.   It had been sharpened and tested before shipping, so I planned to try it raw and then put it through my honing process and compare the results.

The plane itself came in at 7″ long by 2″ wide and 2″ tall.    The wedge (not sure what kind of wood it is because it’s darker than the ash body and it’s fairly light but strong) is 2 3/8″ long with a cambered “bevel” and is 1  1/2″ wide.The plane feels just right in my hands.  When you add the iron and wedge, the plane has a nice heft to it.IMAG3125  The lines of the plane, overall a simple rectangle are in stark contrast to the graceful swoops and curves of many “modern” wooden planes you see today, and hearken back to planes made generations ago.   Which is a good thing—those old “blocky” planes are still around and serving people well, yet many metal planes made today will be scrap metal tomorrow.  It has a nicely cut mouth that had no noticeable imperfections. IMAG3140 It wasn’t nearly as straight and crisp as the metal mouths I’m used to, but hey, it’s wood.  It’s better than I could hope to cut, I’ll put it that way!

The angles and edges on the plane have all been smoothed and rounded for a nice, comfortable feel.   I tried holding the plane in every possible way and could not find an uncomfortable position.   It feels smooth and polished, without being glossy and slick.   The wood has a nice “grip”.

Additionally, the sole was flatter than I expected on a wooden plane.IMAG3148  While not as dead-nuts flat as the sole on my Woodriver jack, the sole on this Nice Ash plane was reeeaally flat for a piece of wood shaped into a tool.  The only discernible low spot I found using the old “lay a straight edge across the sole” trick was at the very back right corner—and that was just the faintest whisper of light peeking through.IMAG3144  Certainly well more than good enough for me.  I’ve seen metal planes that had soles much worse than this wooden plane. And know that it wasn’t just factory made by a soulless machine but crafted by a man sitting at a bench, one at a time, means a LOT when I see how tight the tolerances are on this plane.

I know what you’re thinking…”Okay, so it looks good and feels good…but how does shave? If it doesn’t work, then it’s just a pretty paperweight.”

Well, rest assured, this little plane is ready to rumble.

Performance (raw):

One word about wooden planes for any fellow neophytes out there: there is no simple depth/lateral adjustment mechanism of the iron like on modern metal (or old transitional planes) planes.  Ironic, because the adjustment technique on wooden planes is simplicity itself.

So, how do we adjust the iron in a wooden plane?  A hammer.   Not just any hammer—you don’t to go all Thor on this thing and wail away with a metal claw hammer out of the toolbox, or even a wooden mallet like Kroktskaft…you need a smallish hammer, preferably wood or brass.  I made a little one I made out of two little bits of oak and a dowel to get the job done.  It’s brutish in looks but it’s gentle in the persuasion department. IMAG3168 It probably needs a leather pad on the business end and maybe a tad bit more weight, but I’ll make a better looking one in the future.

To seat the iron, put the plane on a flat surface (those more experienced will hold it in their hand and use a finger across the plane’s mouth to keep the blade from falling out and cutting off a toe or something).  Slide the iron in, bevel down until it makes contact with whatever surface you chose under the plane.  Place the wedge next and push it down snug against the steel retaining pin.  Then, carefully (very carefully, if like me, the only wooden hammer you have is a mallet much bigger than the plane itself—see Kroktskaft again) and LIGHTLY tap the iron once or twice.   I cannot emphasize enough how light your tap needs to be to move the iron.  It felt like I barely touched it but it moved.  Which, as I understand it, is the mark of a well crafted wood plane.

To adjust the iron up and take a lighter cut, you lightly tap the rear of the plane, then re-tighten the wedge.  To remove the iron all together, a harder tap on the rear (it sure is fun to smack a Nice Ash*) will loosen both iron and wedge so you can easily pull them out.  Just remember—this iron is heavy and when the wedge pops loose it will shoot for the floor and cut into anything in its path.  Placing it on a flat surface or holding it sideways so the iron doesn’t go anywhere are two safe bets for newbies.  And no, it didn’t happen to me, but this iron is thick and heavy enough it demands that you show a little more respect than it’s more emaciated cousins we see normally.

To adjust the lateral cut of the iron, just tap the iron—not the wedge—lightly (see a pattern here?) with your hammer on the side opposite where you want the blade to adjust.  Example: if you want the right corner to stick out lower on the plane and take a deeper cut, tap the rear left corner with the hammer.  Then tap the wedge again.

Once the iron has been tapped, lightly again, tap the wedge once or twice.  This will lock the iron and wedge in place.  Now we’re ready to give it a test drive.  Did it take a few (15) minutes of fiddling to get the hang of this?  You bet.  Was it fun?  Absolutely.  Did I feel like I needed suspenders and old golfer’s hat like Roy?  Yes!  Would my wife approve of the wardrobe change?  No way.

The first sacrificial wood was a length of pine I had laying around.   Alright, alright, it’s proper name is scrapus two-by-foricum.  The plane made a nice solid contact across the length of the sole . On the first pass I noticed two things: (1) this wooden sole—not even waxed, mind you—really glides across the wood you’re planing, producing an incredible tactile feedback you don’t get in metal planes, and (2) the iron wasn’t deep enough to make contact with the 2×4 (see 1).

If you’re new to wooden planes—like me—be prepared for a shock of sorts.  When you push a metal plane across the wood, you feel the handles, you feel the weight, you hear the shnick and you’re done.  When you push a wooden plane across the wood…you feel the wood making contact with each other in your hands.   As the grain of the plane kisses the grain of the workpiece, your hands register their contact in a way that made me stop and think about what I just felt.  It was a new sensation, and it was really, really, cool.

So cool, in fact, I did it again and again and again just to feel the sensation of that instant feedback travel up through the plane into my hands.  It was like the workpiece was talking to me (no, I’m not crazy) and explaining—“Hey’re, you’re putting too much pressure here on the front of me and it’s going to create a hump in the middle you’ll have to smooth out later…take it easy there, bud!”  It really was quite the epiphany moment.

And I am now officially hooked on wooden planes.

Anyway, after I got over my quasi-religious experience and realized that as neat as it was to get instant feedback from the plane, this Nice Ash wasn’t going to do the work for me, I got serious.  After adjusting the iron some more I got it where I thought I wanted and tried again.  This time the iron bit the pine and the first shaving was created. And I thought just running the plane over the wood was amazing feeling.  When that iron got involved…oh my.  It makes me grin just thinking about it.  Of course, being the first I’ve ever taken with a wooden plane, the shaving—ha, more like a slice!—was way too thick.  I apologize that in my excitement, I completely forgot to get a picture.  But rest assured, it worked, and it smelled wonderful.  I tried a few more passes and then adjusted the iron some more for a lighter cut.  The shavings got thinner and thinner and my appreciation for this little block plane grew.  I still can’t believe the difference between this plane and my other block plane (Groz) right out of the box.  Amazing.

To test how well I was getting the hang of adjusting the iron, I next tried the plane on some oak.  This time the surface was left even smoother than the pine and it was almost as glassy as the WoodRiver jack.  But that plane had been through my honing process, and the Nice Ash was still raw, so-to-speak.

I was advised to give the plane time to acclimate to my shop (it is wood, you know) so after the oak, I reluctantly put the Nice Ash aside and continued work on other projects.  I decided in a few days I’d come back to it and check the sole and hone the blade my usual way.

Performance (honed):

After a nearly a week of varying weather that saw cold rain, an inch of snow, sunshine  then more rain and back to sun again (with a smattering of crazy winds and lots of clouds), I went back to check on the Nice Ash.  Using the same straight edge I did for the initial tests  last week, the sole is just as flat as it was when it arrived.  If there were any adjustments the plane made on it’s own due to the conditions of my shop, I sure couldn’t tell.  That told me it was time to hone this baby and see what a Nice Ash can really do.

I put the iron (still can’t get over how thick this thing is) through my honing process (to wit: sandpaper in grits of 800, 1000, and 2000…as mentioned above, the manufacturer already ground the blade nicely and sharpened it for testing [and apparently flattened the back!] so I felt no need to hit it with anything less than my touch-up grits).

Here we are, ready for work:IMAG3181

Notice the mirror edge on the bevel reflecting the wood grain.  I loved it.  The iron came ground from the manufacturer on a wheel (I assume, because there was a concave face on the bevel).  No problem.  I honed the bevel and it produced a mirrored edge at the tip and the top of the bevel.  I used to hone the entire surface of the bevel (like on my chisels and other planes) but I’ve come to realize after some research that just hitting the important parts works just as well!

Once honed and set properly, there is absolutely no chatter at all, just like before honing.  This little plane with the that thick chunk of steel they call an iron is solid.   The only sound was that wonderful shnick sound and beautiful curled shavings of wood.IMAG3174Here is the same scrap 2×4 from the pre-honing test.  It quickly produced full length shavings with little effort.  Then I tried it out on maple:IMAG3183Oh yeah…it’s nice.  That’s a full length maple shaving there.  I adjusted the depth and got even finer maple shavings: IMAG3176I have to say again how awesome it is to feel the planing process rather than simply plane.  Now that I had properly honed her, this Nice Ash plane fairly purred over the wood.

Final Thoughts:

Okay, I’m going to break down each section into pros and cons for you.   Here goes:

Appearance and Size:  Pros: Very nicely sized, comfortable to hold in one (especially for someone with large hands) or two hands.IMAG3090  The iron, the iron, the iron.  That thing is amazing.   Cons: It is bigger than a typical metal block plane.  This could be a con for some people (it’s NOT for me).  If you have smaller hands, you might need 2 to operate the Nice Ash.

Fit and Finish:  Pros: I really like the texture of the wood—I don’t know if there’s BLO applied or wax or what, but it the plane body is smooth, has kind of a satin finish to it and feels great in your hands.  It has grip without being sticky or tacky.  The sole is nice and flat and slick on the wood you’re planing.  The boxy shape is old-school sexy.  Yet on their website, Nice Ash Planes states that they want people to customize their planes, cut them to shape their hands, Krenov it up!  That is a neat concept.  Cons: The boxy shape is old-school sexy.  Some may like the more aerodynamic shapes people seem to impart on wooden planes nowadays.  See the above about customization.  Something that did kind of bug me however, was the size of the bed for the iron.  The iron looked small in the bed:IMAG3186  The bed is likely cut larger to allow you adjust the iron laterally without impeding on anything.  It’s not like there is a simple lever to move.  While I understand the concept, it’s new to me and so a little awkward.  I found myself over adjusting because the iron had nothing to register against.  Easily fixed and I found that the more I used it the less it happened.  Does that detract from performance?  Not at all.

Performance: Pros: This plane was sweet enough, right  out of the box if you are in a hurry and just needed to knock off corners.  Once honed, it gave my WoodRiver jack plane a real run for it’s money in terms of leaving a glassy smooth surface.  That is saying a lot, since the Nice Ash is just a piece of wood with an iron and the WoodRiver is 5 pounds of iron and metal bits and adjustment levers and blade assemblies, and whatnot.  Oh, and the Nice Ash is half the price of the WoodRiver…  Cons: The only cons in the performance category are derived from my inexperience with wooden planes.  That is, once I had played with it a while and started to get the hang of adjusting the depth of the iron with a hammer, the performance jumped up exponentially.  So, I guess the con would be a learning curve that just isn’t as steep with metal planes (good ones, that is).  But it’s only a temporary thing—the more you plane, the better you get.  By the time I was finished with this review, I was getting some nice thin shavings on a scrap piece of maple that made my metal block plane (with a nicely honed blade and tuned body) chatter like a whistlepig chewin’ twigs.

To sum it up, this plane gets me excited to go shave some wood—not just for a project, but just for the love of planing.  It is easy on the hands, eyes and wit (thanks to the name) and the whole line of Nice Ash Planes is easy on the wallet too.  The Nice Ash Block Plane retails for $85.

Sure, it’s a little more expensive than the so-called block planes you can get at big box stores, but keep in mind, this is handmade, made in America, solid wood, and short a little honing (and I do mean little) is ready to roll out of the box. Can most big box block planes do that? Not without some serious tuning (ask me how I know this…).

And the Nice Ash also is fairly competitive with other high end block planes.  When you get into other sizes, the value only increases.  Considering you’re getting a handmade wooden plane that’s saying a lot.

I hope that this review helps shed some light on this new line of planes and maybe even helps someone looking for a plane to make a more informed choice. I sure had fun putting this little gem through its paces and if you follow my blog, I guarantee you’re going to see more of this Nice Ash in future posts!

Now I’ve got to go find more wood to plane and start making my Christmas wish list…

* Yes, with a name like Nice Ash, the puns and innuendos are sure to fly around the internet…I shall restrain myself…or at least I’ll try.  I promise.  But man it’s fun…


About Marcus Richardson

Marcus attended the University of Delaware and later graduated from law school at the age of 26. Since then, he has at times been employed (or not) as: a stock boy, a cashier, a department manager at a home furnishing store, an assistant manager at and arts and crafts store, an unemployed handyman, husband, cook, groundskeeper, spider killer extraordinaire, stay at home dad, and a writer.
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