What is the best Smoothing Plane in 2020?
A quality smoothing plane is an essential item in a carpenter’s armory, mostly because it offers flawless finishes which surpass regular sandpaper.
The purpose of the smoothing plane is -like the name suggests- to smooth and polish a wood surface by cutting precisely whisper thin shavings. It is usually last of all bench planes used on a wood surface. Its purpose is not to flatten the hills and depressions but to follow along with the surface and make the surface look beautiful and smooth. Well-set and sharp smoothing plane with a good planing technique can completely replace the use of sandpapers and coated abrasives.
Why is it so popular those days? Well, the smoothing plane history actually started a long time ago and has progressively conquered the carpentry area. This woodworking staple, as with many tools of the trade, dates back centuries and witnessed few changes from the Roman era right up until the 19th century, when wooden-bodied planes were eventually replaced with iron.
For those new to carpentry, or even experienced professionals on the hunt for a superior hand plane replacement, this guide provides all the information needed to ensure smoothing success on any woodworking task.
Our top picks
What are models No.4 & No. 4.5?
Iron is made from extra-thick 1/8″ (3.18 mm) A2 steel for excellent edge retention
One-piece base and frog virtually eliminate chatter
Cherrywood handle and knob for comfort
Norris-type adjuster with lateral locking feature
Adjustable throat plate for different types of wood
There is a clear consensus, the « must have » should be No.4 because of its size and agility as an all-around smoother. Alternatively, if you are struggling to find a No. 4, you can always consider a No.3 because of its narrower width and shorter length. Second smoother, however, could be No. 4 ½ or another No.4 with higher pitch frog. No. 4 ½ smoothing plane is ideal for larger panels and tabletop where wider blade/iron and more mass is needed.
Body and frog made from nearly indestructible ductile cast iron
Tote and knob are made from premium grade oiled and hand-rubbed sapele
Iron is 0.120” thick and 2-3/8” wide and made from tool steel hardened and tempered to 55-60
How about Jack planes? (No. 5)
Sometimes jack planes (No.5) are touted as a multipurpose tool based on their size, joint and smooth and on how the blade, mouth, and cap iron is set. The ToolsSeeker team believes that those are not the greatest plane for smoothing. If the surface is not really level it takes ages to smooth it with a long jack plane smoother because of thin shaving thickness that it shaves away from the top of the hills. The shorter sole is definitely better, you can get to the bottom of the valleys quicker, so stick with dedicated short smoothing planes. To put it in a nutshell, you should only consider a Jack Plane vs a smoothing plane standard if you are looking for multi-task wood planning and you don’t have enough budget to buy a set of specific planers.
Hardened, tempered steel gives precision-ground cutter edge durability
Gray, cast-iron base with precision-ground sides and bottom; durable epoxy coating provides long-lasting protection
Solid brass cutter-adjustment knob; high-impact polymer handles and knobs are contoured and polished
Smooth bottom bench plane with a 2-Inch cutter
Hardened, tempered steel gives precision-ground cutter edge durability
Electric Hand Planers
Naturally, those who prefer the power of technology can forego manual options for an electric hand planer. The obvious advantage is speed and the benefit of removing more material in half the time. However, maintaining accuracy and self-correction is much more difficult with an electric planer. Plus, traditionalists will argue that an immaculate finish can only be achieved through time, graft and patience!
Best brands & products in the market
It’s no secret that a top of the range smoothing plane can set you back hundreds of dollars. Hopefully, over the last years new brands (cheaper ones!) have emerged and progressively challenged the old-fashioned and very expensive smoothing planes. The good news is, those brands have managed to create models which don’t necessarily downgrade the quality of your smoothing, nor durability and comfort. Long story short, people tend to rely on historical brands because old habits die hard, but most of them never took the time to look for good alternatives. The ToolsSeeker team has done so and found a few new brands of great interest (some of their products are recommended earlier in this article).
- Stanley: Founded as early as 1843, Stanley has existed as a market favourite for decades. The number 4 smoothing plane is considered a solid all-rounder, which is available at a reasonable price. Many traditionalists, however, have complained of diminishing quality in recent years, preferring to restore pre-1960s models as opposed to purchasing new ones. In the end, Stanley sets the standard and appears to be -by far- the best quality to price ratio you’ll find in the market.
- Lie Nielson: If the budget has no bearing on your decision, then Lie Nielson (LN) offers super high-end quality products. Not only are LN smoothing planes beautifully crafted, once set up and sharpened, but they also work like a dream, and will continue to deliver exceptional finishes for years to come. Nevertheless, those ones are extremely expensive and definitely not the best price to quality ratio (to put that differently, you’re paying for the brand here).
- Caliastro: While Stanley smoothing plane sets the standard, Caliastro comes in a position in terms of quality and popularity, particularly in the US. As with its rival, prices are steep, yet the 4, 4 ½ and customisable models provide all the help you’ll need for a flawless finish.
- TayTools: Generally more renowned for their chisels, TayTools offers a variety of planes at different prices. Nevertheless, novices may find TayTools a decent, cheap option for getting to grips with hand planes when first starting out.
- Other historical & old-fashioned brands: Veritas, HNT Gordon, Buck Bros, WoodRiver etc. All of them are quite expensive and come with decent alternatives these days.
Smoothing Plane Parts Explained
While simple in concept, modern smoothing planes are rather more complicated in their design. Gaining a basic understanding of the tool’s parts can help in getting the best out of the device and taking full advantage of its capabilities. The following list offers a brief summary of the plane’s key components.
- Body: The main element of the tool, which nowadays, is generally metal in the US and the UK, but can still be made of wood, to which all other parts are attached.
- Frog (also known as the « Pitch »): Usually comprising the same metal as the body, the frog holds the complete cutting assembly in place, including the blade or plane iron, plus both the lateral and depth adjustment mechanisms. The frog’s job is to open and close the mouth or throat of the plane.
- Mouth/Throat: This is the opening through which the blade extends, and the shavings emerge.
- Lever Cap: The cap firmly secures the blade and the cap iron/chipbreaker to the frog.
- Cap Iron/Chipbreaker: As well as providing extra support, as the name suggests, the chipbreaker allows the shavings to curl and break.
- Knob: The rounded knob at the front or toe is held to guide the plane.
- Tote: The primary handle situated at the plane’s rear or heel.
Note that a smoothing plane is the smallest of the bench planes, sole length ranging from 5 ½”/140mm (No.1) -10”/250mm (No.4 1/2″) long and blade widths from 1 ¼”/32mm (No.1) to 2 3/8”/60mm (No 4 ½).
How to Use a Smoothing Plane
Now we have some insight into the tool’s essential components, let’s take a look at how to actually operate the device effectively.
As expected, it takes plenty of time and experience on the carpenter’s part to master the technique and guarantee a smooth, high-quality finish. For beginners, it’s best to start with edges before moving on to the wood face. Aside from common sense guidelines, such as utilizing a sharp blade, firmly securing the wood into the vice and working with the grain, not against it, the following expert tips may help in improving technique:
- The pressure is key: Maintaining the correct level of pressure makes all the difference to gaining level perfection. The general rule of thumb is, to begin with slightly more pressure at the toe, which should be shifted centrally during the main length, before faintly lifting off the front towards the end, finishing with exerted pressure on the heel.
- Rounded corners: To avoid taking chunks out of the wood’s surface, consider rounding the corners of the blade first, before attempting to plane.
- Check your shavings: Aim for shavings sporting a good width and an almost lacy fineness. If the shavings are too thick, retract the blade and start again. Always remove the waste after each plane and continue to work across the wood in consistent, overlapping strokes.
A thickness of the shavings with the best smoothing planes can be set to 0,001” (0,025mm) or even thinner. The best smoothing plane can cut soft and hardwoods as well as curly and interlocking grains well even without tear-out producing beautiful surface.
Also, the tear out can be eliminated when the shaving produced is thin enough. Another way to reduce tear out is to move the cap iron / chipbreaker close enough to blade edge.
When looking for cuts without tear-out, skipping or chatter and thus produce perfect surfaces, important features are the sharp blade, perfectly level sole, adjustable mouth, machining and mating of the body-to-frog, frog-to-blade and blade-to-cap iron surfaces, cutting angle (pitch) and the rigidity of the body
Characteristics of the best smoothing planes
Smoothing plane width
Smoothing plane width is a key feature that influences the way how it performs. Narrow soled smoothing planes tend to fatigue the woodworker less. The wider the blade, the faster you can go over big surfaces but also the more power is needed to move the plane. Higher pitch frog or steep back bevel also increase the cutting resistance considerably so the narrow sole/blade is recommended when using them. Narrow soles are better with trouble grained woods. With a narrow sole, you can pinpoint the tear-out prone areas of grain more easily.
The best shape of the smoothing blade/iron is slight arch across the cutting edge. Some woodworkers prefer straight edge with rounded corners. Arching of the blade is called camber. The camber is needed to prevent unsightly grooves and tracks that can ruin the appearance of the surface. Cambered blade also reduces the cutting resistance, therefore, allowing the user to plane longer without getting tired and reducing the tendency of the thinner blades to produce chatter. The ideal amount of the camber/arch in smoothing plane blade/iron is arch that sweeps back about .005″ / 0,15mm or so at the corners.
Ideal smoothing plane shaving is thickest at the center, say 0,01” and feathers out to nothing at the edges. The Thicker the shaving, the faster the surface is smoothed but with the higher risk of tear-out.
Low angle vs high angle
In addition to the common format, low angle varieties refer to planes with an attack angle, (the angle between the edge of the blade and the surface), which is lower than 45 degrees, usually positioned around the 12-degree mark. The blade bevel also tends to face up instead of down. Low angle planes often work better on end grain than standard models.
In contrast, any angle greater than 45 degrees is considered a high angle plane. Using a higher angle smoothing plane may be a little tougher to manoeuvre and will remove smaller amounts, yet the risk of tear-out is significantly reduced, particularly on tougher woods.
The one secret for the perfect result when planing curly or otherwise troublesome woods is the sufficiently high cutting angle, pitch. Common softwoods and some easy, straight grained hardwoods can be planed with a Common Pitch 45° cutting angle without problems and get perfect results. When the wood to be planed is tricky, or there is pronounced figure or the grain is interlocked, as in a sapele, then the cutting angle, the pitch should be higher to get best surface quality. There are a couple ways to do it: In common bench planes, the frog can be replaced with a higher pitch. High-angle frogs are offered in a couple of pitches: 50° (York Pitch), 55° (Middle Pitch), and 60° (Half Pitch). Another way to steepen the cutting angle is to hone tiny back bevel to the back of the blade.
A common knowledge states that smoothing planes should have a very tight mouth. It is said that the mouth clearance should be about two times the shaving thickness. This is said to reduce the tear-out and help to produce better cut. It could be true in some circumstances but the tight mouth and its tendency to clog easily is really a nuisance. From experience, we know that you can leave the mouth open and still get tear-out free surface even with curly woods. More important way against the tear-out is to set the cap iron very close to the cutting edge than to close the mouth.
The sole of the best smoothing plane should be dead flat. When planing with the blade set to take 0,001” shavings the sole must be flatter than that along with its length. Sole quality is one of the most important traits of the best smoothing planes. Corners of the sole should be rounded slightly to prevent them from digging in.
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