When I bought my first smoothing plane at a flea market in Burlington, Ky., I could fit everything I knew about handplanes into one of the Elvis Presley shot glasses I stumbled upon that weekend.
One vendor had a lot of smoothing planes on his table, so I picked up each one, took it apart like I knew what I was doing and inspected its guts. After that mummer’s farce, I ended up buying the plane that felt good in my hands. After all, some of the planes were a bit heavy, and others had totes that were square.
I set that plane up and used it for several years alongside my jack plane.
That plane was a Stanley No. 3 that was made before World War II, and it served me well for many years. When I started buying nicer tools, I did some research to figure out which smoothing plane I should buy. I settled on No. 4 because that was the most common-sized smoothing plane made by Stanley Works. That, I figured, should count for something.
But after switching to the No. 4, I was told by several woodworkers I respected that a No. 4-1/2 was really the superior plane because it was wider and heavier. I read that Anthony Guidice uses a low-angle jack for smoothing. I met David Charlesworth, who uses a No. 5-1/2 as a smoothing plane and prized its accuracy. And I learned later while watching a DVD that the late Alan Peters used a No. 7 for most workshop tasks.
Being a curious fellow, I tried working with all these planes set up as smoothing planes. Here’s what I found: I like smaller smoothing planes.
The larger smoothing planes worked fine on small boards, the kind that you would use during a demonstration during a woodworking class , 6″ wide and 18″ long or so. But when it came to real furniture components, smaller smoothing planes were faster. Here’s why.
Handplanes “see” the surface of the wood as a series of waves. Longer planes tend to straighten the wood, removing the tops of the waves and trying to bring them down to the troughs. The first pass with a long plane on a board will typically just remove a few high spots. Shorter planes tend to ride these waves up and down. The first pass with a short plane on our typical board will take a shaving from many more points on the board.
So here’s how I work: I use the long planes to dress the surfaces that need to be quite flat (the interior of case pieces, areas where moulding needs to go etc.). If that surface won’t show on the outside of the piece of furniture, I call it a day after using the jointer plane.
For parts that show that don’t need to be flat, I use a short smoothing plane to get the surface looking good with as little work as possible. I like planing, but I also like seeing results.
Rethinking the No. 2
So this summer I bought No. 1- and No 2-sized planes for my 8-year-old daughter to use. She was struggling with my No. 4. After some practice, she preferred the No. 1 (perhaps because it’s so cute). And so I was wondering what to do with the No. 2. I think the tote is too small for anybody to grip (except those woodworkers who have lost a fight with a table saw).
But then while building a chest of drawers I picked up the No. 2 and started holding it like a wooden coffin-bodied smoother. I wrapped my fingers and thumb around the frog and base of the tool instead of trying to jam them behind the adjuster. That different grip made a real difference.
The No. 2 is sized a lot like a wooden-bodied smoother. It’s 7-5/8″ long and about 2″ wide. Typical wooden smoothers are 6-1/2″ to 9″ long, according to R.A. Salaman’s “Dictionary of Woodworking Tools.”
Because of its small size, the No. 2 turned out to be an excellent choice for a case side. Instead of trying to remove the high spots, the plane just made the side look good with only two or three passes. Is it flat? No. Can you tell by looking at it? No.
That experience made me break out my old No. 3. When I picked it out of my tool chest, the same thought flashed through my mind as when I first picked it up years ago at the flea market.
“Hmm. This one fits.”