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.
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.