What Makes a Good Hand Plane? Two Smoothers Go Head-to-Head

When I first started seriously working wood, I bought my first smoothing plane, an Anant 4 1/2.  The ad copy insisted that they were just as good as the Record hand planes that the Anant replaced, and online reviews were passable.  The plane worked okay once I flattened the sole and sharpened the iron.  Yet I found it finicky to adjust, and performance was inconsistent.

Eventually I replaced it with a vintage Stanley 4 1/2 (type 17), and after using my new/old plane for a few weeks, a light went on.  This plane was demonstratively easier to adjust, and results on wood were consistent.

Stanley 4 1/2, type 17 on the left, Anant 4 1/2 on the right. The Stanley was made in the early 1940s. I bought the Anant in about 2006.

So what distinguishes a good hand plane from a mediocre one?   The difference is in the details.

Stanley with a corrugated sole on the left; Anant with a smooth sole on the right.

Let’s begin with the soles.  Both have been lapped flat, though the Anant took significantly longer.  I don’t really care for the corrugated sole on the Stanley because it makes it difficult to use the plane to break sharp edges.  However, it does make the sole quicker to flatten, should that be necessary.  (It shouldn’t.)

Notice that throats are different sizes. That’s not a problem on a smoother if you can move the frog forward to close it up, but it suggests that Anant is allowing more room for error.  A wide-open mouth would be desirable in a jack plane, and acceptable in a jointer plane.  Other things being equal, a smoother should have a tighter mouth.

Stanley on the left, Anant on the right. You can probably spot one or two small but significant differences between the two.

Taking off the iron assembly, I find that the bedding area for the iron is nearly identical on each plane. However, I notice the first real problem with the Anant: the lever cap screw wiggles slightly in its hole.  It won’t prevent the plane from working, but it might allow the lever cap to come lose after a while.

Putting the irons back on reveals a more significant difference between the two planes.  The post on the Stanley’s depth adjustment yoke fits snugly into the slot on the chipbreaker (green arrow).  The post is tapered, so even though there appears to be a gap above and below it in the slot, the bottom of the post engages the slot with little play.  The Anant’s post, however, shows a noticeable gap (red arrow), and the post is not significantly tapered, so the gap you see is the gap you get.

Stanley 4 1/2, type 17 frog. The later type 17s omit the frog adjustment screw, visible below the depth adjustment screw.

Let’s turn the Stanley around. (Heavens, I didn’t know my plane was so dusty!)  I have removed the depth adjustment wheel for visibility.  The yoke rotates on a rod in the frog.  It wiggles a little on the rod, but overall there’s not a lot of play in the mechanism.

Anant 4 1/2 frog. Depth adjuster wheel removed for visibility.

The Anant, however, has a lot of play in the mechanism.  (Note, too, that the yoke on the Anant is stamped, not cast, and so is less precisely made and less rigid than a cast yoke would be.)  You can see the gap where the yoke rotates on the rod.

By themselves, each of the gaps in the Anant’s depth adjustment mechanism would be insignificant, but when compounded they result in a sloppy depth adjustment.  There is about 450 degrees (a turn and a quarter) of play in the wheel.  That’s a lot of backlash.  Worse, it’s difficult to feel when the yoke has finally engaged the chipbreaker and is moving the iron forward or back.  I suspect that the stamped yoke bends a little when pressure is put on it, making depth adjustment imprecise.

Now let’s look at each lateral adjustment mechanism.  The Stanley’s adjuster on the left fits neatly into the slot on the iron (green arrow).  So when I move the lever, the blade moves immediately.  The Anant on the right has a small but significant gap between the adjuster and the slot (red arrow).  That makes for slop in the adjuster, resulting in imprecise lateral adjustment.

Finally, we come to the bedding of the frog.  If the frog does not seat well on the plane body, the iron will vibrate in use, making the plane harder to push and leaving a rough surface.  The Anant’s frog on the right actually has a little more surface area on the front-bottom of the frog than does the Stanley.  That’s to be expected since the mouth allows for (requires?) more frog adjustment.  The machining on both frogs is comparable.

The mating surfaces, however, are rather different.  The arrows show the four mating surfaces.  Again, the Anant has a lot more surface area on which the frog can rest.  That might be a good thing, but look at the machined surfaces on the bottom right.  Uneven milling marks are clearly visible.  Worse yet, the frog rocks slightly when set onto the body.  When the frog screws are tightened, only three of the four surfaces are actually mating.  It’s possible to either shim the frog or file down high spots, but is it worth it?

To be fair, I decided to give each plane a test.  I sharpened each iron and took the planes to a piece of very knotty cherry.  First the Anant:

Then the Stanley:

Both planes could take a fluffy shaving and leave the surface very smooth.  The biggest difference was that it took longer to get the Anant set to take a very fine shaving.

My conclusion?  You can make an Anant plane perform reasonably well if you are willing to fettle it and put up with mushy adjustment mechanisms.  Me, I’m going to put my Anant smoother up on a shelf and stick with my WWII-era Stanley.

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8 Responses to What Makes a Good Hand Plane? Two Smoothers Go Head-to-Head

  1. Good comparison blog. I have an Anant (#4) that I use as a paperweight on my desk. The older Stanley Type 11-13 are my favorites besides Lie-Nielsen.

  2. Rob says:

    Reading this, I just took my Stanley No 4 apart to see how it’s doing and found the threaded post for the depth adjusting wheel was a tad loose. It’s tightened and feeling much better now.

    • That can happen. It’s nice when there’s an easy fix, though.

      • Sigurt Bladt Dinesen says:

        I know I am a little late to the game, but I have this exact problem on my stanley #4, and I can’t for the life of me see how to fix it.
        Any help would be much appreciated.

      • Sigurt Bladt Dinesen says:

        Huh. Hadn’t realised it was screwed in. Never mind, but thanks for the post (and comment)!

      • Glad you figured it out. If it continues to loosen, wrap a rag around the threads and gently tighten the screw with a pair of pliers, keeping in mind that the threads on the depth adjustment knob screw are REVERSED. (Other brands, like Sargent, are regular threads.) As a last resort, a dab of superglue on the threads will keep everything tight.

  3. Joshua Byrd says:

    Your comments about the depth adjuster on the Anant reminds me a lot of every one of my Millers Falls planes. Two-piece stamped steel, loose in the chipbreaker slot and waaaaay too many turns to engage make me curse every time I have to adjust the blade depth. That’s two No 14s, two No 9s, one No 8 and a Dunlap-rebrand in a No 8 size, all with the same problem…

  4. Pingback: The Story of My Stanley # 4 1/2 Smoothing Plane | The Literary Workshop Blog

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