Sharpening #4 and 4 1/2 bench planes

At the risk of bringing further controversy into the field of woodworking I thought we should build on the successes forged in the chisel sharpening YouTube video. You might be interested in this method that I use because it was also used by craftsmen for at least two centuries.

I have written several blogs, posts and forums previously about the #4 bench plane, the best of which in my view is the plainest of planes, the exceptionally humble and most underestimated and undervalued Stanley #4. I own plenty and use the #4 and the #4 ½ in my workshops. I used to have the heavyweights available but students found them to heavy and awkward to use so I just stayed with what they were most likely to use in the field, so to speak. Eventually they will want a low angle Veritas for refining aspects of their work, but a good old bevel-down Stanley does almost everything they really need.

The first stage with fettling any bench plane is sharpness and so here I am showing how to sharpen the bench plane. I am using my old #4 ½, but the technique is the same for any and all bench planes used for levelling and smoothing, regardless of plane length or width. It’s very fast and follows the same method I use for the chisels in the previous YouTube video from last week.

To begin with you must first lap the flat face of the cutting iron on a dead flat surface to give a clear and polished face for about the first 3/8”- 1/2” from the cutting edge. Then polish this face on the strop to a mirror finish. This is the last time you will need to do this as this face does not wear. I go through the grits on my 3” x 8” EZE Lap diamond sharpening plates as you can see. I don’t use cheapos for this because I like my plates to stay dead flat and the diamond particulate to be consistent in size. I also use car polish to get a final mirror finish. Dig the cutting edge into a board for safety and polish the face with a soft cloth. Once you have done this, it can simply be maintained on the strop as shown.

Now set up the sharpening plates and hone following the video. This is very fast. A matter of minutes only.

 

11 comments on “Sharpening #4 and 4 1/2 bench planes

  1. Paul,

    Coincidentally, I just sharpened my #4 using the instructions in your course for the first  time earlier today.  I quickly realized that it was quite a bit sharper than I’d ever gotten it with the micro-bevel method.  Thanks to this simple method you demonstrate, I’ve successfully sharpened chisels, plane irons and a spokeshave in a fraction of the time that I was previously spending (and being frustrated) with other methods.

    On a side note: as I’ve been hopping back and forth through your course, my confidence and skill have been growing in other areas of the craft as well.  Your instruction on sharpening fine tooth saws has completely changed my outlook on that process.  So thank you.

    Couple of questions about this post and video: Do you sharpen bevel-up bench planes and block planes the same way?  And could you explain the benefit you get from skewing the iron across the stone relative to the direction of push?

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for good questions Eric and also thank you for your encouraging words too.

      We most often do not use bevel up planes for wider surfaces. or at least I don’t, anyway. The physics of the bevel up planes are different and so I do use the convex camber bit generally I do not round the corners, though I suppose that there is no reason why you shouldn’t ‘feather them in gently. There are many differences between the bevel-up, bevel-down planes and the bevel up planes CANNOT replace the functionality of the bevel-down planes at all. Had I to make a choice between a high end bevel-up plane and and low end Stanley bench plane I would always pick the Stanley. That is not to say that the high-end planes have anything wrong with them in terms of quality but they do perform very differently in day to day work.

      Skewing the chisel in sharpening. That’s the way craftsmen have always done it. and that’s the reason their stones wore in a very definitive way. It’s actually the most natural way to hold the iron and offer it to the stones. It’s inline with the hand you see. If I were a lefty it would skew the other way. I have seen the gurus at woodworking shows, on TVs and in magazines insist on tiny strokes, side to side and so on. It’s unreal the hoops people have to jump through to appease some ‘teachers’. Just hold it as shown and let the natural feel take you where you feel most comfortable in the hold.

  2. I had a question about stropping – do you put the pressure right at the edge of the convex bevel, or somewhere behind? In the many discussions about sharpening people always seem concerned about rounding over the edge when stropping. Should this be a worry at all?

    Thanks for these posts, I’ve tried the chisel ones and it’s way, way more fun than using a jig / micro bevels. 

    • Using the strop and the convex camber method means that you shape, hone and strop all at the same angle so in the case of stropping you simply pull and trail the cutting edge will pressing the whole bevel down hard on the strop so that the whole of the bevel is in contact with the leather and so allow the compound to do its job of polishing. It is important NOT to raise up so as the cutting edge itself is rounded. People underestimate the abrasive’s ability to actually round the actual cutting edge and the leather does rise up behind the trailing edge and can abrade the very edge you are trying to keep keen, but after a short practice this will never happen.

      •  Ahhh, I think I understand. The first point of contact is the very center of the convex bevel, and the pressure deforms the leather so that the entire bevel contacts at the same time. Kind of brilliant, and I would never have figured it out by myself. Thanks!

        • This is an interesting subtlety I hadn’t picked up before. 

          I’ve been raising the chisel a bit on the strop so I could reach the edge, although I was using much less pressure than Paul does. I’ll try his heavy pressure while keeping the angle constant.

          • Hello Steve,
            Raising the angle of presentation can dull the chisel’s cutting edge and many people go beyond that thinking that they must try to follow the convex bevel. That’s not the case at all. The leather compresses under the hand and being spongy springs up under and behind the pressure and that’s all you need to get a pristine cutting edge..

  3. […] help find out the dark arts of plane work. I picked out 2 items but there are hundreds out there. Sharpening #4 and 4 1/2 bench planes | Paul Sellers How To Use Your Bench Plane – YouTube Go make some shaveings Regards John Reply […]

  4. I have tried your method for the first time, and I am pretty sure I did something incorrectly… My #5 plane iron does not cut, and when I look at the bevel it seems to be very convex, to the point that I think the cutting edge is either rounded over or too far angled to make a cut (the edge may not be contacting the wood).

    Is this from improperly lifting up during stropping (after reading the previous comments I am fairly sure this was a contributing factor), or do you think I was honing at too high of an angle? Do I now need to re-grind the primary bevel?

    I do not have a bench grinder, so if I had a re-grind the primary bevel and start over, is there a way to do this with the 3 diamond stones you recommend? I don’t want to wear out these stones unnecessarily, as they are quite expensive. Should I maybe use some sandpaper on plate glass?

    Thanks,
    Rob

    • Rob, I just happened to be peeking in on this thread in searching for something else. Using Paul’s knowledge I just finished what couldn’t be considered a restoration, but certainly a revival of a SW #3 Stanley. Anyhow, check out this video that Paul did recently for the answers to your questions: https://youtu.be/RYyV6IUpsYk?list=PLI3Omzg68-Nycahaze27UZfwtRnnAed6y

      The short answer is, a dead flat surface (float glass, granite block, or even a tile from the home center so long as you can check it with a known straight edge first), then some 80 – 150 grit sandpaper, plus a little elbow grease.

      I did this with a granite block and 150 grit paper, and a honing guide (just a cheap “Eclipse” style one). It took me about 45 minutes to reset the bevel on two irons that had clearly encountered some nails in their lifetimes, and I then proceeded to the sharpening/honing process (I actually only have the extra coarse and extra fine stones so I have to put a little bit more work in on the extra fine).

      Following Paul’s process in the video linked above, with only slight modifications based on my space and comfort, I now have the #3 close to perfect (in terms of usability, who cares if it is “collector”). I think I need to set the lever cap a little bit lighter and put some more oil on the depth adjustment threads. And I need to somehow tighten up the lateral adjuster. But already it cuts with ease.

      One last thought. I can’t recommend the granite plate enough. In the States, you can get one of these at Woodcraft for $50 give or take a ten dollar bill depending on the dimension you want. They are certified to flat within very very small tolerances. If you can afford it, I think it is worth it — you’ll use it to regrind the bevel on edge tools, flatten plane soles (or sides for shooting). Having a dead flat surface as a reference is very useful, that’s for sure. And that $50 opens up the world to vintage planes. Between the cost of sandpaper, good diamond stones, a granite block, and a few other incidentals like oil and rags, after restoring one vintage Stanley you pretty much make all your money back when compared to buying a new LN or Veritas product. And then anything you bring back to life after that is at a huge discount to you.

      Not a knock on those makes. I have a LN bevel up jack and LOVE it (probably more than Paul likes bevel ups :)). I’m sure I will buy another LN plane or two (their router seems to be an improvement upon the traditional Stanley design — see Chris Schwarz’s review — and is essentially the same price as a vintage Stanley router in good shape). But I found restoring the #3 a very enjoyable experience, and hope to do it again soon with a ~1930s #4.

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