Smooth Planes: Smaller is Better

Back when I used metal bench planes, like a lot of folks who like old tools, I had a good assortment of bench planes. I had pretty much all of the numbers in the Stanley catalog from #3 up to #7. This gave me a good choice in plane sizes for different tasks, however, I always seemed to gravitate toward the same three planes. I used the #5 for my initial work (i.e. as a fore plane) on rough sawn boards, then I flattened those boards with the #7. After completing all the joinery and test fits, I’d do my final smoothing with the #3. Even though I had a #4 (with a Hock iron and Clifton two piece chipbreaker) and a #4½, I still always reached for the #3 with it’s thin, narrow, stock iron for my smoothing needs.

When I switched over to wooden planes, I kept in mind the metal bench planes I tended to reach for the most, and chose woodies based on those planes. For the most part this worked out well. I use a 17″ wooden fore plane and a 22″ wooden try plane. My smoother is about the length of a #3 iron plane, but it’s iron is much wider than an equivalent #3, being closer in width to a #4½. I thought at the time this would be ideal, allowing me to smooth wider areas faster, but this has not proved to be the case.

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To understand the difficulty, let’s examine the purpose of a smooth plane. When lumber is prepared from rough sawn to finish ready by hand, the common progression of bench planes is typically stated as fore plane (so called because it is used before the other planes) to try plane (used for trying or truing the surface, i.e. making it flat) to smooth plane (for removing any remaining surface imperfections). The longer the plane, the flatter the surface becomes. In an ideal world, all of our lumber would have straight, well behaved grain, and our try plane would get the boards perfectly flat. This would leave a surface ready to be finished after the try plane. However, anyone who works lumber completely by hand knows this to be the exception rather than the rule.

Instead, most lumber will have high and low spots, even after working with the try plane, and reversing grain that makes attacking a board from a single direction difficult at best. This is where the smooth plane shines. Because of its shorter length, it’s easy to reverse directions and spot plane small areas to take care of patches of tearout. However, the longer and wider the smooth plane, the more difficult this becomes.

Like any other plane, the longer and wider a smooth plane’s body is, the flatter it tends to make the surface. This all seems fine, until you try to spot plane a small low spot with tearout. In order to attack the area, you need to blend the surrounding area into the spot with the tearout. With a long, wide smoother, the blended area needs to be bigger in order to hit the low spot. However, with a smaller smoother, it becomes much easier to spot plane small areas. Shorter, narrower smoothers can tackle isolated areas of reversing grain like nobody’s business. This is why historically, smooth planes were shorter than the more common lengths we see preferred today.

Nowadays, most lumber is prepared with machines. Smooth planes are only used for final surfacing before applying finish. The machines are typically going to make lumber flat to a higher degree than what most of us using hand planes for preparing rough lumber are doing. So longer and wider smooth planes can work the boards sufficiently most of the time. When we plane lumber by hand, our boards typically aren’t as flat as machined boards. That’s not to say that hand planes aren’t capable of the same degree of flatness that machines are, just that we don’t need it most of the time, so we don’t bother taking boards to that level of flatness with planes. In this case, smaller smoothers are a blessing.

That’s why I always seemed to reach for my old #3. It’s shorter length and narrower width made it a more effective weapon against the dreaded tearout than my larger smoothers. It’s also the reason I seem to reach for my small wooden smoother more often than my larger one. The little guy is only 6½” long, with a 1¾” wide iron. It’s actually closer in size to a modern block plane than a typical modern smooth plane, however, it is bedded at about 55 degrees, perfectly pitched for smoothing domestic hardwoods. The larger and wider smoother does have it’s place, but if I could have only one smooth plane, I’d definitely choose the smaller plane over the larger one.

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12 thoughts on “Smooth Planes: Smaller is Better

  1. Great article Bob. I always like it when I discover something about my own working habits and have the affirmed by someone else. Makes me feel like I am not an odd ball. I love using my #3 for smoothing. Even on large table tops, though it takes more strokes, the end result is better for me. And that is what matters , the end result.

    Keep up the good work and hope you had a great Holiday.

  2. Hi Bob – A very interesting post. I had a similar discussion with some other blogger friends recently and they agree with you about smaller being better. I notice more and more people are going for the #3 as their main smoothing plane. Seems the #3 is the new #4!

    If you were limited to a single plane (Im considering a LN #3) for all smoothing duties (both hard and soft woods) would you opt for a standard pitch or higher 50 or even 55 degrees?

    • For only a single smoother, I’d go with 55 degrees. The higher angle is better in figured hardwoods and can still handle hard and soft woods with tame grain. Since it’s a smoother you will only be taking fine shavings, so the higher angle really won’t be much more effort.

      • I had a beautiful LN smoother with the 55deg frog. Great plane, but I didn’t use it much. I mostly work with cherry and I did not care for the surface that the higher pitch left behind. The surface looked more scraped than planed. Maybe I am just crazy. I would stick with
        the lower pitch and use a back bevel when you have highly figured wood.

        • Maybe 50 degs is the sweet spot and better for an all purpose general smoother? If anyone has such a tool and could offer some feedback it would be very appreciated.

          • A 50 degree bedded plane will do well on most woods. Where it will fall short is on figured woods. Any woods that have the words curly, birdseye, tiger, flame, etc. in their names will typically want a higher angle. If you work mostly with the standard straight grained varieties, 50 degrees will be fine 95% of the time.

  3. I agree. I have a Vertias bevel up smoother. The wideness is sometimes not desirable to plane a small area. Maybe we need a course, med, fine smoother plane series 😉

  4. Bob, nice explanation. I use my no 4 most of the time because I like the way it feels in my hands. I have a 3 that has helped several times when my 4 wouldn’t clear a low spot. Definatley going small with smoothers is good.

  5. what about using a bloc plane as a smoother ?

    I think Veritas provides some handles so that you can hold their blocplane as a benchplane. It should be possible to make some similar handle for just any blocplane you might have.
    But just thought it may not even be necessary.

    • Block planes can work fine as small smoothers. If you plan to do so, I’d go with a standard angle block as opposed to a low angle. You don’t need the low angle for long grain work, and the higher angle of the lever cap on a standard angle block plane fits the hand better for smoothing work. The low angle blocks can be hard to hold comfortably for smoothing work because they are so low profile. The aftermarket handles can work, but they don’t fit all models of block planes. Plus, the handles make the planes longer, which makes them more tricky to maneuver in tight areas. I like a standard angle block plane without the added handles.

  6. Interesting timing Bob. I just purchased the current issue of ShopeNotes (#121). It has an article on how to build an infill smoothing plane. It’s all of 7” long. Looks like the plane iron is 1 7/8” wide.

  7. I agree too. I have #4-sized planes but I prefer the smaller ones. I also have #3 sized, but I sometimes take things a little further. I have a #2-sized Fulton 3708 that feels excellent in the hand (it’s the only metal #2 size I know of that actually fits an adult hand, think: 3-finger pistol-pointed grip) and it small enough to drive like a little race car around the edges of small boxes to even them out. It’s essentially a smoother that’s the size of a standard block plane. It’s great.

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