stanley bailey no4

No4 Smoothing Plane Explained

The smoothing plane is probably every woodworker’s first-hand plane that they purchase.  My very first woodworking plane was the ‘Stanley Handyman’ smoothing plane it wasn’t a bad tool at all.  In fact, it was very similar to the standard-issue No 4 smoothing plane. Apart from the usual branding on the outside of the plane, the key differences were the knob and the tote was made of plastic as well as the depth adjuster wheel. 

How big is a smoothing plane?

Stanley has its own method of categorising the smoothing plane. Sizes from 1 to 4 are all smoothing planes. 

The length of the smoothing plane is between 51/2 in – 10 inches (140mm – 250 mm). 

The weight of the smoothing plane is a tricky one because not all planes even from the same manufacturer are the same weight. For the purpose of Interest, my Stanley Bailey No4 weighs 3lb 480oz (1578 grams)

Why buy the No4 First,

I think this is quite a good question but I do have a couple of reasons for this. Firstly if you like me spend your first woodworking education in the school workshop the most likely plane you’d be using would be the Stanley Bailey number 4.  After all, we are creatures of habit and choose what we are familiar with as our first point of call. Another theory is that the Stanley Bailey or similar hand plane was probably the cheapest plane you could buy.  This was because so many were made as such there are many good second-hand smoothers on the second-hand marketplace.

Was the smoother your first hand plane?

Although the No4 Is often considered as the 1st hand plane you should own. I would say it probably isn’t the best 1st hand plane. As the name suggests the smoothing plane was made for the purpose of smoothing timber. 

The most common use of a hand plane is to true a piece of wood such as a reference face. I would suggest that the No4 smoothing plane is too short to be able to true a piece of wood unless it is very short itself. Every woodworking plane has its own specific task to perform a smoother is for smoothing a Jointer is for jointing. Sometimes you can deviate from this but the tool still needs to be the right one for the job.

If you want to true a piece of timber I would suggest using something much longer such as the triplane. The reason for this is that the smoothing plane is too short and doesn’t Bridge the highs, unlike the triplane.  The triplane  (No.7) will Bridge the highs and plane them lower until they disappear to the lows.

tanley smoothing plane No4

What is the smoothing plane used for?

Whenever I grab the No4 or a No4½  it is usually for the flattening of Edge glued boards such as a tabletop for instance. 

Remember the smoothies job is to smooth not to flatten if you want to flatten use a No7.

Using a smoothing plane for joint edging 

Preparing the edge of boards for the purpose of glueing into a workbench or tabletop a hand plane is a tool to use.  In my experience, their traditional hand planing is a much better tool to use for trimming boards to be edge-glued.

But is the smoother plane a good plane for this job? 

It is possible to true boards using a smoothing plane but that depends on how you have sharpened your plane iron or blade. My smoothing planes are sharpened and honed but I do not grind completely straight.  

My smoothing planes have a slight Curve to the plane iron so the corners do not dig in. The reason for this is so I don’t leave tramlines in the top of my workpiece. The problem with this is that if you want to use the same smoother for trimming a board you will put a curved cut into The edge and this could leave to a bad gappy joint. The shavings produced with this plain are fine at the edge than in the middle.

If I wanted to use a smoothing plane I would have a specific smoothing plane with a straight Primary grind and hone. This way I would have a completely flat and uniform shaving. Remember though the smoothing plane is only good for truing shortboards. The shavings produced with this factory ground straight blade will produce a shaving of the same thickness across its width.

Should you own a smoothing plane ? 

The answer is yes but not necessarily your first plane.  If you have a small budget and cannot afford to buy every plane you see. I would choose to buy two bench planes and these would be No5 five jack plane and the No7 triplane. Equally so if I was going to buy 3 planes I would buy a smoother as well.

Where to buy a smoothing plane?

There are many smoothing planes for sale second-hand.  Check out all your local classified publications such as craigslist or Gumtree but also don’t rule out eBay.  I bought my jack plane from eBay and it is a very good tool and I still use it today. 

Buying used

Because the schools use these planes and also is always been considered as the first plane to buy well then there are many many of these still available to buy second hand. My preference would be to seek out a Stanley Bailey pre 1970 and I’m sure you would be very happy with that. 

When buying a second-hand smoothing plane inspected closely  look for any cracks in the Casting wobbly handles or parts missing. Also so take with you a metal rule and a square.  this way you can check to see whether or not the sole is flat and straight. If the sole has any minor undulation then it probably has never been fettled from new. Almost all hand planes require a little bit of work on the sole to make sure it is perfectly flat. Truing a smoothing plane is actually quite easy because they’re so short. Check the plane for Square is from the soul to the sides and hopefully, they are 100-per cent. Don’t be too concerned if they’re not because you’d never use a smoothing plane on a shooting board. 

Buying a new smoothing plane

Going shopping for a new tool is quite frankly how much easier and less risky proposition. Buying a used smoothing plane is not always cheaper than buying a new tool. No, I recommend the Stanley Bailey if I was buying and old pre-owned tool but sadly a new tool I would never buy the traditional Stanley bailey design.   

Sadly Stanley is not the same quality as what they built their reputation on. Most Stanley cast iron tools are built in China and are not of the same I’m high quality as we previously loved. If I was to buy a Stanley plane I would buy the Sweetheart range of tools as these are of much better quality if buying later incarnations. 

Smoothing plane manufacturers

Luckily the Stanley brand is not the only maker of hand planes and in particular the triplane.

High Quality

  • Lie Nielsen
  • Veritas
  • WoodRiver
  • Clifton 
  • E.C. Emmerich
  • Bench Dog
  • Stanley Bailey (Old)

Average Quality 

  • Kobalt
  • Stanley (New)
  • Stanley Sweetheart
  • Faithfull
  • Grizzly
  • Kunz
  • Amazon Basics

Our buying decisions are quite often dictated by our ability to pay for these lovely tools. And when I say lovely I mean tools such as Lie Nielsen, Veritas, Woodriver, Clifton are all extremely good new woodworking hand planes. Unfortunately, these brands are expensive what I mean by that they cost a lot of money but are very good at what they do.  But do you really need to spend that amount of money on a hand plane, I would say no.

Average quality brands such as those above are actually very good tools but they will need a little bit of fettling. The Stanley Sweetheart is probably the best quality tool in the average quality bracket. 

Though it will need some work, it will do a very good job. My second choice would be the Faithfull Smoothing plane. 

Faithful is a bit of the outlier but I must say that after my experience with some faithful hand planes they’re actually not bad at all.  The plane irons are of good quality steel and the actual castings are reasonable but you will need to flatten the sole. Personally, I would change the total and handle as to fit my hands but I do that anyway with all my hand planes.

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