In Shop Blog, Techniques, Tools

We may receive a commission when you use our affiliate links. However, this does not impact our recommendations.

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.”

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

Recommended Posts
Showing 11 comments
  • Manuel Cardoso-Lopes

    Hi Christopher,

    The No.2 really intrigues but I notice that the original stanley No. 3 & No.2’s varied in length by a full inch whereas the Lie-nielsen is a 1/2 inch longer the the original Stanley No.2

    That means that the No.2 Lie-Niesen is only a 1/2 shorter that the No.3.

    The next thing that I consider is the angle of the frog, most of my final smoothing is at 55 degrees (No.4 1/2 with optional frog) or 62 degrees (Bevel-Up Smoother with 50 degree bevel on blade)

    How succesful are back bevels? does the fact that you would need to move the chipbraeker back a bit counteract the benifit of a back bevel?

    Your take on using small smoothers on big boards is sound & I would like to go that route but i wonder if goung with No.2 from Lie-Nielsen is going to work any better than my current No.3.

    The other option would be to go for one of the coffin shaped infill smothers currently buit by Wayne Anderson or the cheaper (but still very expensive) versions made by Ray Isles etc.

    My biggest concern with the infills (except for the uber expensive Karl Holtey planes with the steel pin seats for the blade) is the extreme differences in humidity that we have in South Africa, very very dry winters followed by wet summers & I fear for the stabilty of the blade bed, as the Holteys are out of my league, I am going to have to decide at a lower bracket.

    Thanks for supplying us with such amazing insights.


  • Gordon Conrad

    I thoroughly enjoyed your sessions on handplanes at WIA and am now 2/3 through Handplane Essentials. Grest sessions and book. Since you are into smaller = faster, will you reconsider a use for the stanley 5-1/4? As one who is a vertically challenged senior citizen, I find the #3 and the 5-1/4 more suitable than the #4 and #5 even though they are my go-to planes with my #7.

    r/ Gordon

  • farms100

    While the handle is a tad small for my beefy hands, I find the #3 a pleasure to use. For some reason I’m able to get a much nicer cut on stubborn wood then my #4

  • Tom Dugan

    The first plane I bought for myself was a Stanley #3, type 11, so consider me to be in the small plane club. I went on to buy a couple of #4s, but they’ve mostly sat in the cabinet for years. I plan to put them in the PATINA auction next spring since they do me no good – especially since I’m swinging back towards woodies for all of my planes.

    And that #2 you’re wondering about? That 8 year old might find a #1 too small by the time she’s 11. Hang on to it.

  • Kevin

    Sort of counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Smaller = faster, when normally you would think larger = faster.

    I noticed this last weekend – I was smoothing some 4-foot panels for a bookshelf. The boards came off my power tools with a bit of a bow in the middle. I started out flattening with my LV bevel-up jointer, but I was just nicking a bit off the top & bottom ends, and it was gonna take a long time to get perfectly flat.

    So I switched to my #4 smoother – but in the middle, there were still sections with enough bow that the #4 wasn’t reaching down in there. But I found if I skewed the plane, it effectively shortened the length and let it reach down and smooth into the valleys better.

    So, I can make my #4 function a bit like a #3 by skewing. That is, until Christmas comes and I get a real #3…

  • Greg

    Chris, your article had great timing…my Lie-Nielsen #3 arrived yesterday, from the manufacturer, and I am looking forward to trying it out this weekend. Now you have me thinking about a #2.

    Greg H.

  • David

    I use a bronze L-N #2 in much the same way, but I’ve a hard time convincing anyone else. I think it has to do with the asking price (sort of a "why, if I can get by with a #4?), but after doing the hand-tool only thing for a while, the planes just seem to multiply in the shop like unattended (and fertile) rabbits.

    Does make me wonder why the 1-1/2 didn’t prove popular enough for Lie-Nielsen to add it to their regular product offerings. It makes a superb plane for straightening out little parts for boxes, models, and little doo-dads that I find myself making for toys at Christmas.

  • This past weekend, while visiting my wife’s grandparents out on the family farm, I was poking around out in the "shop". Up on the top shelf I spotted a plane that had been sitting up there for at least forty years. I pulled it down, asked if I could borrow it, and took it home. after cleaning it up a little bit, and doing a bit of research, I discovered that it was a Bailey No. 3 manufactured sometime between 1910 and 1920. It appears to be in really good condition, other than needing a lot of cleaning up. However, I am fairly new to this, and am still trying to figure out how to go about this. Any suggestions?

    – David Dittmer

  • Ed Sutton

    Hi Chris

    I’ve recently started using a Veritas low angle block plane with a rear tote and front knob fitted as a tiny bevel up smoother and find it excellent. Much the same as the size of planes you are talking about, but has the advantage of adjusting to high effective pitches by raising the honing angle. Just used it for planing finger joints on a small case and its size was a great benefit.

    Love the blog BTW.


  • Tom Iovino

    Chris – Your plane seminar at WIA was full of great information, and this just adds to it. I’ve been finding that small smoothing planes (my little Japanese model and a coffin smoother I have) are getting easier for me to use and provide an outstanding surface. Great post..

  • David Jeske

    I love my #3 Type 11. Much of my woodworking is smaller scale and it "fits" the task just right.

Start typing and press Enter to search