The Story of My Stanley # 4 1/2 Smoothing Plane

A week ago I wrote about my growing preference for lightweight tools instead of heavy ones. While writing that post, I remembered that I had never blogged about how I came to own my Stanley #4 1/2 smoothing plane. Here is the story of that hand plane.

It all started in about 2006, when I first took a one-day class in hand-tool joinery from Paul Sellers, who was then teaching at the Heritage School of Woodworking at Homestead Heritage, near Waco, TX. Paul talked the class through an essential set of hand tools, demonstrating how to use each one to make three basic joints (the dado, the dovetail, and the mortise & tenon). I still remember that, of his personal hand tools, he seemed especially pleased with his smoothing plane, which was a Stanley #4 1/2. “The workhorse of the shop,” I think he called it.

It’s funny how a remark like that can stick in your head, because somehow I got the idea that my first smoothing plane should definitely be a #4 1/2. Now I certainly don’t think that was Paul’s intention, but I nevertheless went home from that class determined to find one. But as it turned out, the Stanley #4 1/2 is not a very common size plane to find on the used market–much less common than, say, the #4. Plus, Waco, TX, had never been a great place to shop for used hand tools, and I struck out at local antique shops. Shopping online was possible, but eBay was much more of a gamble back then, and I was unwilling to take even small financial risks, seeing as we were living mainly on my graduate stipend at the time.

So being unable to find a vintage # 4 1/2 in the few places I thought to look, I was taken in by a catalog product description and purchased a new Anant #4 1/2 smoothing plane mail-order. (It wasn’t so long ago that many of us were still shopping from the print catalogs put out periodically by companies like Woodcraft and Highland Woodworking.) I used that plane for five years. It did work, more or less, but the adjustment was imprecise and the blade did not hold an edge very well. It was also pretty heavy as smoothing planes go.

Then, in the spring of 2011 (we had moved to southern Alabama a few years earlier), my wife was at a local church rummage sale and happened upon three very rusty handplanes.

There were three very solid hand planes hidden under all that rust and grime.

She called me at work and described them to me over the phone, asking if I wanted them. They were very rusty, she said, and one was a Stanley. She described their general dimensions, but it was hard to tell what exactly they were. But it was half-price day at the rummage sale, so I figured we should take the chance. She bought them for $2.50 each.

When I got home to find the three planes on my workbench, I couldn’t have been more pleased. There were two jack planes, one of which was a Stanley #5 that was probably made in the 1960s or 1970s (the one in the middle, above). I fixed it up and passed it on to a friend who was interested in woodworking. The other one was an identical size, but had been manufactured before 1900 by the Birmingham Plane Co. in Connecticut. The rust on it had gone pretty deep, but I cleaned up that one for my wife to use. We still have it.

And the third hand plane? It was a Stanley #4 1/2. The hard-rubber depth adjuster wheel immediately told me that it had been made during WWII. There’s not a bit of brass on it anywhere, all the brass having gone to the war effort. The handles, too, are made from stained beech wood, which replaced the rosewood that Stanley had been using before that time.

I had been waiting five years to find this plane, and I was delighted.

As I cleaned it up and put it to use, I found that it was a substantial improvement over my Anant plane, and I wrote up a blog post showing exactly why.

After using my Stanley #4 1/2 for a while, I found that the only part of the plane that displeased me was the blade. The back of the blade was severely out of flat, with one raised bump in the center, so it was difficult to sharpen and the chipbreaker just did not sit right. After repeated attempts to flatten the back of the blade, I decided to replace the blade and chipbreaker with new ones. (I now have the equipment and skills to correct a problem like that, but I didn’t back then.)

I had been very pleased with a replacement blade I got from Lee Valley for my spokeshave. The Veritas PM-V11 steel blade (a proprietary alloy made exclusively for Veritas) promised to hold an edge longer than typical tool steels but be nearly as easy to sharpen. This time, the catalog description was not deceptive–their steel really is that good. So I got a PM-V11 blade and chipbreaker set from Lee Valley and have been very happy with it.

Over the last decade, this hand plane has touched every major furniture project I have worked on, and it has made miles of fluffy shavings. Even though it now feels pretty heavy in my hands, it’s still a gem of a tool, and I’m very grateful to own it.

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5 Responses to The Story of My Stanley # 4 1/2 Smoothing Plane

  1. medwebwork says:

    Cool read. Cool find!

  2. Jim Dillon says:

    I got a kick out of reading this. If you bought your Anant 4-1/2 from Highland, I’m the guy who wrote the catalog copy which successfully wooed you. I recall making a big deal about the fact that the Anants weighed more than their Stanley counterparts. Like you, when younger, I equated weight with quality, and saw the development of Popeye forearms as a benefit. As to the other issues, my defense is that I had written that copy several years previously, probably about 2002. At first, the quality of Anant products was, truly, far better than the last of the Records had been (that’s a VERY low bar), but after a few wonderful years, it slid downhill fast. I used to teach Highland’s “Handplane Clinic” class, where students brought ornery planes and we got them tuned up. On the last batch of Anants before Highland pulled the plug, the slot in the cap iron that receives the depth adjuster seemed to be placed randomly higher or lower than it should be, so that you either had to set the chipbreaker 1/4″ back to get the iron advanced far enough to cut, or you couldn’t retract it far enough to NOT cut.
    Another nice coincidence: for years, the Anant 4-1/2 was my go-to smoother. It took me 4 hours of work, even knowing what I was doing, to get it working well. In addition to installing a new Hock iron and cap iron, I had to lap the sole, file the front edge of the mouth (out of square and rough), carve the tote to actually fit my hand, strip the lacquer off the tote & knob (the stock finish literally gave me blisters), and finally, use 36-grit silicon carbide powder to lap the frog and sole so they mated without rocking. At the time, I was self-employed, and at my shop rate, the Anant 4-1/2 ended up costing perhaps a little more than a Lie-Nielsen. But I didn’t have the cash, and I DID have a little bit of time to put in the work.
    I still have that Anant, but these days my go-to smoothers are a Stanley Bedrock 603 (the early round-sided version) and a Krenov-style wooden plane built from the Hock kit. The Anant still does fine when I bring it out, but these others are easier to get cutting sweetly.

    • Jim, thanks for sharing your story! I think I probably did get that Anant from Highland. I’ve got no beef with people who write catalog copy–we’ve all got bills to pay, after all! At the time, I just needed a usable handplane, and I could have gotten one that was much worse. Like you, I did end up lapping the sole flat. And like you, I’ve often had more free time than extra money–so I don’t mind doing some work to get a tool going.

  3. Gav says:

    It can be a bit strange as to the availability of certain tools and particular sizes. There have been a lot of 4 1/2 Stanleys floating around where I am in Australia. Some even manufactured here. Prices are not exactly kind with many somewhat based around rusty and knocked about equalling patina equalling more expensive. On a different note the last No 4 I saw had a piece of the main casting missing which had been broken off after it had been brazed back together and maybe half of it was serviceable for parts under the crud and rust. Asking price $40 Aus. One thing in common with the Stanleys I do have is that irrespective of the country of manufacture Aus, England, USA is that they are all extremely serviceable and nice to use once a bit of TLC is applied. If the modern planes which are good could be a bit lighter I think the feel would be closer. The planes made around 1900 are some of my favourites in that respect as the castings are machined that bit more.

    • Used tool availability is a very regional thing. My region is particularly poor in tools, not only because the heat and humidity cause tools to rust very quickly, but also because the region struggled economically when toolmakers like Stanley were in their heyday. Most of the used tools I own I’ve bought while on vacation in the Midwest.

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