Loose the Weight

I used to prefer heavy tools. Now I don’t. It has taken me longer than it should to recognize that, given the choice between two tools of similar quality, I should choose the one that is lighter in weight.

Let’s begin the story in the 1990s. When I was a teenager living in the corn belt, I worked a few summers doing de-tasseling for a local seed corn company. (If you know what de-tasseling is, you are a rural Midwesterner through and through.) Some days our crew was taken off of our usual de-tasseling work and set to de-rogueing instead. That, at least, is what we called it–an agricultural practice so localized that I’m not even sure it has a proper spelling. De-ROGUE-ing is how we said it.

Anyway, here’s how it worked: local seed companies grew seed corn in their fields, and the seed corn had to cross-pollinate. As long as all the cornstalks were of the right varieties, the seed would be good. But cornfields always produce some “volunteer” corn–stalks that grow from spilled or dropped kernels from previous years’ crops. Normally that’s not a problem. But the more volunteer corn you have in your seed corn field, the lower the quality of the seed it produces. Those volunteer stalks were called “rogues,” and we were sent out into the fields to chop them out. (Agricultural work like this was the only legal employment for teenagers under 16 years old, so the crews were mostly 13-15 year-old boys.) We were equipped with sharpened hoes with handles cut short, about 2 1/2 feet long. Starting at one end of the field, each of us walked down our row keeping an eye on the stalks on either side of us. Any stalk that looked different from the rest, especially one that was a lot taller than the rest, was chopped down with one swing of the hoe.

I tell you all this because, when I first went to grab one of the many de-rogueing hoes out of the back of an old farm truck, I selected one that was a bit heavier than the others. My arms were not exactly muscular, but I liked the heft of it. One of the older, more experienced guys suggested I use a lighter one instead. But I held onto that heavier one, thinking it would give me good momentum as I swung it. I wouldn’t ever have to swing twice at the same cornstalk.

As it turned out, that guy was right. Swinging the heavy hoe a few times was no problem. But swinging it regularly as I walked all the way down a quarter-mile row and and back again, I began to feel the problem with wielding a too-heavy tool. Especially after I lost control of it at one point and landed a blow square on my shin. (I still have the scar.) Every time thereafter, I chose a lighter hoe.

I have not always remembered this lesson. As I have worked extensively with the kit of hand tools I have assembled over the last 15 years, I have realized that a few of them are really too heavy for me. I have a broad chisel, for example, whose beveled edges are barely ground down, and whose blade is therefore much heavier than it needs to be. I’ve been meaning to grind the beveled edges down further in order to make the tool lighter. One of these days I’ll get so tired of the extra weight that I will take the time to do just that.

Then there is my WWII-era #4 1/2 smoothing plane with the thick aftermarket iron. I hadn’t used it for about two months when I picked it up the other day and suddenly realized how heavy it is. Just picking it up by the handle made my wrist ache–and I have used this handplane quite a lot since I acquired it years ago. Before, I hadn’t really thought much about its full weight, but I had been using some of my smaller hand planes–my Stanley 3 and a block plane–for some delicate projects, and in comparison the wartime #4 1/2 with its extra-thick casting felt like hefting a cannonball.

This particular #4 1/2 was made during WWII, when the inexperienced machinists employed by Stanley had trouble working with the relatively lightweight castings. It was all too easy to grind too much or drill too deep and ruin the casting. So despite wartime metal shortages, they added thickness to the castings, making the resulting planes heavier than before.

Then, early in the Hand Tool Renaissance (the first decade of the millennium), many woodworkers recommended that a handplane–especially a smoothing plane–should be fairly heavy. The mass of the tool, it was said, would help to carry the plane through each stroke through sheer momentum, and it would reduce the chances of the blade “chattering,” or leaving ridges on the workpiece instead of taking a single, clean shaving.

I now wonder if that is why modern hand planes, including some really nice ones, are built to be quite heavy. Today, my Stanley #4 1/2 weighs in at 4 lbs. 10oz., and that feels heavy in my hands. But it’s a lightweight compared to a brand-new Lie-Nielsen #4 1/2, which is almost a pound heavier at 5 lbs. 8 oz. A new WoodRiver #4 1/2 is heavier still, tipping the scale at over 6 lbs. That’s a lot of weight to push across a board a dozens or even hundreds of times over the course of a day!

As it seems to me, the conventional wisdom was both right and wrong. I think that the extra weight of a heavy smoothing plane does indeed create momentum that will carry the tool through the cut–but at a significant cost. First, the user has to create that momentum, and the extra energy used to get the plane moving will cause fatigue. And then the user has to stop that momentum at the end of each cut and bring the tool back to its starting place. Pushing and pulling a heavy plane will soon tire you out.

Something we woodworkers missed a couple decades ago was that earlier, professional woodworkers almost universally preferred lighter-weight tools to heavy ones–not just the lighter-weight cast-iron smoothing planes like the Stanley #3 and the Stanley #4, but also the wooden hand planes that weigh only a fraction of the weight of a metal-bodied plane of similar size.

A lot of modern woodworkers can tolerate using a too-heavy hand plane because they’re not using the tool for long periods of time. Often they are working with stock that has been planed by machine, so they are just taking a few light passes over each board before a final scraping or sanding. But if you are using the a hand plane (or any tool) all day long for days on end, then you had better get the lightest one possible.

That, I think, is why I have been gravitating more and more to my 1920s-era Stanley #3 with the original iron. It’s lightweight, coming in at a mere 2 lbs. 13 oz.

I can push it back and forth across boards for hours without feeling its weight in my hands, wrists, and forearms. (By the way, wooden planes may appear lighter than their metal-bodied counterparts, but my wooden fore plane is actually a couple ounces heavier [4 lbs. 3 oz.] than a 1920s-era Stanley #5 [4 lbs.].)

I’m not going to get rid of my trusty Stanley #4 1/2, though. It’s a well-built tool that has served me well for more than a decade. But I think I am now fully cured of my youthful preferences for extra weight in these objects.

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5 Responses to Loose the Weight

  1. Joe says:

    I am in agreement with you. Looking to build up a stable of transition planes as well. The light weight and wood on wood action feels so good as well. I started woodworking in 2015. I can think of only one instance where I actually preferred a heavier mass plane. I was making a Roubo frame same out of ash (strong wood but not at all hand tool friendly). I was having a tough time keeping a plane in the cut when smoothing the long runners. I progressively kept moving to lighter smaller planes to solve the problem and it didn’t help. It was only when I used by Lie Nielsen No 8 did I get a good shaving. Again, only time in 6 years of woodworking where I found heavier actually helped me.

    • Your experience makes sense to me. Because the bigger planes were manufactured regularly, I can only assume that professional woodworkers did find them useful. But the fact that they are rarer also tells us a lot about the preferences of the average workman.

  2. Flo Schuler says:

    I love the stories and the wisdom gained over the years of experience, which is as i
    t should be.

  3. Larry says:

    I have come over to the lighter plane camp as arthritis sets in also.
    Your choice of a #3 isn’t the only thing that makes your plane lighter. My #4C type 9 is only 3 lbs. 3.1 oz , as compared to my late Sweetheart era #4 that Weighes in at 3 lbs 10.3 oz. Castings got thicker even before WWII.

    My scale tops out at 5 lbs, but my type 9 #7 casting is a lot lighter than my sweetheart #6.

    And my 1920 Bedrock 604 1/2 , which I have always considered a bit of a beast, now seems dainty at 4 lbs. 13.7 Oz compared to the Lie Nielsen and Woodriver clone numbers you cite.

    • That’s really interesting! I hadn’t realized that the castings were getting progressively heavier like that. I also wonder if the corrugations make any difference in weight? My #3 is corrugated, but I don’t have a similar, non-corrugated #3 to compare it to weight-wise.

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