Among the smoothing planes that Stanley Works made (which includes the Nos. 1 to 4), the company sold far more No. 4s than any other size, according to Stanley collectors.
That was my rationale for buying a No. 4 many years ago. I still think it’s a good size for a handplane, with a 9-1/2”-long sole and 2”-wide iron, which allows you to use the iron in the No. 5 jack in a pinch.
Like many late-20th-century woodworkers, I also tried for a time the No. 4-1/2, which is wider and longer than all the other smoothing planes. That tool wore me out. Not because of the extra weight per se, but because I had to smooth panels a lot more to get into the minute hollows and to remove tear-out there. Its big sole wants to ride the high points of a panel.
During the last few years, I have felt the pull of even smaller planes. I tried a No. 3. It was faster than my No. 4. Then I tried the No. 1, but it doesn’t have a lateral-adjust lever, a feature I am fond of.
And though you might think I’m a bit cracked, I think a lot of deceased woodworkers would agree with my approach. I first got this notion years ago during my first tour of John Sindelar’s tool collection. His once-immense collection had metallic and wooden-bodied planes from every era, from the 16th century to the present.
With so many hundreds of examples before me, I was struck by how small the early smoothing planes were (and how long the jointers were). A quick review of W.L. Goodman’s “The History of Woodworking Tools” confirms my suspicions, with early smoothing planes typically being 7” or 8” long.
Is there a difference in a plane that is 1” or 2” shorter and 1/2” narrower? I sure think so.
The other question I get about this approach goes something like this: “Wait, if you’ve used a jointer plane to flatten a panel, then shouldn’t any smaller plane immediately be able to plane all points on the surface?”
While that is generally a true statement, it doesn’t reflect how I work. I use a jointer plane on surfaces that have to be flat – edges of panels and the interiors of casework panels (that’s where the joinery goes). When it comes to the outside of a case piece or a tabletop, it has to only look flat – not be flat.
So I’ll go from a machine thicknesser straight to a small smoothing plane. This leap allows me to get a panel dressed and ready for finish in very few strokes.
Now I just need to modify the tote of my No. 2 to see if I can get it to work like the tote for a No. 2-sized plane from Millers Falls. That should allow me to hold the No. 2 with a variety of grips. I don’t have any cherry in my wood racks, so it looks like I’m going to be using some teak scraps for the tote and knob.
— Christopher Schwarz