Buying good tools cheap – smoothing planes

Hand planes are the source of great debate these days. I can’t imagine such a silly thing really. The internet has connected many debaters with little good fruit, but some, a little, maybe. I have been giving some serious thought to many things I have said or say or do or don’t do with planes. Fact is we need to know truth and not sales pitches or opinions as mere opinions by someone who might know nothing but have an opinion. But I watch and I listen politely about the bestest and the fastest and the heaviest and the ductilest and the thickest alloyist and the testingest and I pick up my old Stanley and I pick up my new Bedrock (not saying whose) and I say I have a place for both in my toolbox. The big test for me is which one do I reach for the most as a practicing craftsman who always has something of a time target to finish a piece by and most often I pick up my Stanley number 4 or 4 1/2. I also reach for wooden planes and one of my hopes is that I can one day buy and own a set of Philly planes made by Phil Edwards because of his quality and the fact that wooden planes glide across wood so beautifully. Click here to see his beautiful work.

From the practical perspectives I buy many of my Stanley or Record planes on eBay. Usually they cost between £10-15 plus £6 for shipping, which makes them inexpensive and they can be fettled in about an hour or two to cut with the best. Even a Stanley in poor shape can be made to work effectively, so I don’t look for too long before deciding on a purchase. When I buy I usually use a sniper bid such as Gixen.  I look  at the plane and evaluate its overall condition. Superficial rust doesn’t bother me, but I would rather there be none. What I look for mostly is wear. I want a well used one that has been owned if possible by a craftsman. I like well worn handles with no breaks or repairs and still in full shape with no bits snapped off at the top of the rear handle. Repairs are rarely permanent under the heavy use a craftsman like myself might demand of them. I know that planes last for a long time as I have used my planes for almost five decades of daily use. I have replaced the irons and am on my fourth now and I almost never use any mechanical grinder. So if the plane has lasted that long, chances are you will find a plane with much less use than mine and mine is just about in perfect shape now that I have fettled it with sweat and hard work. Before I snipe bid I value the tool the determine how much I am willing to pay. I set my limit and place the bid. Gixen will bid in the last fraction of a second and if my bid is high enough I will bod 50 cents higher than the other bidder. I am content whether I win or not that way.

I have tried retrofitting cutting irons and found only marginal benefit in thicker harder irons but that then diminishes quite rapidly when I see how arduous it is to sharpen them. People who know little or nothing about planes and cutting irons are always telling me how much longer their thicker harder irons last in a single sharpening, but I have tried them and they are indeed harder and thicker and don’t you know it when it comes to sharpening them which takes foreeeeeeeever. Of course none of the tool  reviews mention this. All in all that then defies the very reasoning behind thicker irons and I don’t really care what method you use for sharpening or which stones or plates you choose it still takes twice as long with thicker harder irons. Besides, I like to sharpen more often than most anyway and both Stanley and Record irons in older planes well suit me because, guess what? They sharpen up so quickly and the edges last long enough for me to do a substantive amount of work before I relax and sharpen up again.

30 comments on “Buying good tools cheap – smoothing planes

  1. I’m glad you mentioned that about looking for well-used tools. That’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way. There are often good reasons that an old tool looks like it’s never been used. Some of my best tools were well-used when I got them.

  2. “…both Stanley and Record irons in older planes well suit me…”
    Out of curiosity, when the time comes that an iron does need replaced what kind of blade do you tend to get? Do you consider the current off-the-shelf Stanley replacement blades suitable? Do you scrounge ebay for new old stock irons?

    • So far I have managed to find good secondhand ones on eBay, some older ones too, still in their packaging from a decade or so ago. I don’t know much about their recent products, where they are made.

  3. I’ve never had a plane before so I have a couple questions regarding Ebay planes.

    1. Is there a difference between Stanley Craftsman & just plain Stanley?
    2. How do I tell the difference between a plane from the quality era vs the new junky stuff?
    3. Are the planes with plastic depth of cut knobs too new to be decent?
    4. Are all the Record planes good quality?

    • First off I think that we are talking smoothing planes here. If so here is my view:
      1) Not really, they are Bailey pattern planes made to the Stanley pattern casting. I would still shoot for a pure-bred Stanley though.
      2) I wouldn’t worry too much about era but whether the handles are wooden as the plastic ones almost always break, especially when cold.
      3) Choose the adjustment wheel in brass first and nickel plated steel second. The plastic knobs work but I don’t like the feel and they don’t spin on the thread like brass ones do. I rely on that for thread take up which is fast and easy.
      4) I’d rather have a Stanley than a Record but I have both and alway find myself reaching for my Stanleys first, but I think perhaps that’s may be a personal thing. The Records seem fractionally heavier and I strongly dislike unnecessarily heavy planes.
      If talking about a heavier smoothing plane then go for wider 4 1/2 Stanley as a good best smoother too.
      If talking about jack planes, it has to be both and not either or. Start with the narrower number 5 and then get a good Stanley 5 1/2. Once fettled and flattened these two planes knock the socks of any and all other metal cast planes and they are inexpensive at any price under $50. If you did buy a costly heavyweight I suggest you sell it on eBay and buy all other Stanleys you need, enjoy fettling fixing and fine tuning and you will have lifetime planes that will never let you down. Don’t worry about looking out for Bed Rocks unless you like collector planes. The reason Stanley couldn’t sell as many of them is that there was really so little difference between a Bed Rock and a Bailey-pattern Stanley so craftsmen who knew planes stuck with the perfectly good Bailey pattern planes. Also, thin irons work great. Don’t fall for the thick iron fashion because they take three times longer to sharpen and they too add too much weight. They don’t get rid of chatter but if you wipe the sole with a smeer of oil. that will. I keep a bean can stuffed tightly with a rag and tipped occasionally with light machine oil like 3 in 1.

  4. I bought a #5 Stanley today for $10. Three hours of elbow grease later and it’s a useful tool instead of a lump of rust. Beats new prices any day.

  5. Hi Paul – been following your videos on youtube and now added a Stanley No6 to my previous only plane a No4. got the bug now and looking for a number 5 but not sure if there’s any diss-advantage of a number 5 1/2 over a 5…wider seems better???

    • Why settle for one when two work differently and are therefore both needed. Buy them now while they are low in price. Most planes have double in price and some have quadrupled since my blogging on them. When my book comes out i predict they will triple again!!!

  6. In terms of woodworking, I know next to nothing right now but I’ve been inspired to build myself a simple workbench and get some good hand tools and practice.

    I am looking into a Stanley No. 4 but am confused when I look on eBay. I guess the long and short of it is I want to know if UK Stanleys are the decent ones you are referring to or do I have to try for a USA one?

    Thanks

    • Makes no difference as they are made to the same specs and Brit-made models are no better. US models have rosewood handles because they stopped production and then relied on Stanley UK manufacturing. All the models work but the pre 1960’s are better planes. That basically means those with wooden handles. You can usually tell because those with black and very shiny handles are almost always the plastic handles ones to be rejected at all cost as the crack within the first year of use.

  7. Well, I had an eBay moment and have a 5 1/2 on the bench ready for fettling, 2 x 4 1/2s on their way along with a nice looking vintage 4 (one needs a new handle so that zebra wood I have will come into it’s own)…missed a nice 5 but will keep looking…the quality of the old stuff next to the new stuff is very clear to see!’

  8. I just bought a wooden plane 3″ X 3″ X 22″ with a blade that has “Green Field Tool Co.”
    This is stamped in a arch or 1/2 circle with a diamond in the middle.
    I paid $35.00 for it.
    I also got a small “American boy” It dose not have a screw instead it has a bar across the plane to hold the frog & blade.
    I have another just like it with no marking & it has a screw like larger planes.
    I got two Bailey Stanley #4 planes & a # 5 Bailey plane.
    I paid $30.00 for all 5 planes.
    They are well used, some rust, a chip or two & lots of dust.
    Everything is in good working order.
    Did a get my money worth, that is without seeing a photo ?

  9. Paul,

    First, thank you for your videos, blog and ALL that you do for the woodworking community (pros and amateurs). Your easy teaching methods and manner are much appreciated by this student.

    I do have a question about the planes. I have read the comments in this thread up to this point and see your advice about pre-60’s planes due to their rosewood handles over the inferior plastic ones. My question is, all things considered, would one be satisfactory to buy a brand new plane (say a Stanley No. 4 – such as the Model # 12-904 http://www.homedepot.com/p/Stanley-9-3-4-in-Bailey-Bench-Plane-12-904/203771412 ) for the listed price of $43.65 and purchase a set of rosewood handles (like these: http://www.highlandwoodworking.com/rosewoodplanehandleset.aspx) for an additional $39.99? This would give one a BRAND NEW, lifetime guaranteed Stanley Bailey No. 4 Smoothing plane with the preferred rosewood tote and knob for a whopping price of $83.64. Or would you still suggest buying a pre-1960 plane and cleaning it up, replacing or reconditioning any parts, etc…?

    Again, thank you for your teaching us.

    Jerry

    • It is true that a retrofit new Stanley will be fine with added wooden handles. The wood takes out the rattle and if you are prepared to do some of the work we recommend on fettling a plane, even the new ones, and I often recommend some of the steps on the high-end models anyway, then you will have a good plane. That said, I think you can find a ‘broken-in’ one for less and that is always fun. Just take care to check all photographs offered. Look thoroughly at the description and ask questions if time permits. I will post a blog on this later to help others.

  10. Hi Paul, i have recently started to get interested in woodwork with a view to learning to be a furnature maker, anyway i have leaned up my dads old acorn no 3 which was given to him by my uncle who used to be a joiner. i have been looking at this guardsman plane with a bit of rust on etsy and an old rapier in good condition on ebay made in gateshead near me, both no 4s by the looks of it….any thoughts on these as there is very little information on them and they are going for 25 pound each?

    Also i have just bought a near mint looking type 3 millers falls jack plane off ebay for 60 pound including shipping from new york after researching them and im exited about it arriving….everybody talks about stanley and i have to be different ha

  11. Mr. Sellers, allow me to begin by praising your work and knowledge. I love watching your videos and reading your writings.

    Onto the bulk; I’ve bought a Stanley #7 plane at an antique store for a steal and I came to learn i may have been duped. The frog screws will not release, as well as the one holding the iron. I’ve tried WD-40 and an impact drill to loosen then o no avail. Any advise to salvage this great plane?

    • It goes without saying that if Mr.Sellers disagree with me< I am wrong, after all he know so much more about planes.
      Could you put heat on the screw without heating the rest of the plane.
      Sometimes that will make corrosion break lose.

      • That was going to be my next step after soaking the screws overnight. Unless I’m told this is not wise, I’ll be trying it tomorrow. I just hope something can release these screws and I will be able to use this plane!

        • Bit slow jumping in here. Been back in Wales moving the workshop. Big move! Soaking the screws with penetrating oil may well help with this. If you don’t have any try regular light machine oil but cut it with some solvent to thin it down and help it wick in. Leave it overnight and then try again.

      • I would avoid heat because that will expand the rod tighter although sometimes this can help because it fractures the joint line of rusted union. The problem is introducing any high heat can and usually will distort the sole. A nono really.

        • No worries! I left the screws soaking in a penetrating oil overnight. I would periodically give them light taps with a hammer to try and break the joint line. In the morning I found that they were still stuck. Maybe I made a mistake (time will tell), but I applied very light heat to the screws and that did the job! All my stuck screws broke free! The plane was left last night in a product called evapo-rust to clear the substantial rust away and I am certainly pleased with the results! I’m very excited to continue this project. This old plane has not see the end of its life yet.

          Thank you all for your advice.

  12. I bought a No 4 smoother ( Buck Bros ) from Home Depot for like $25 or something… I will say this is the only brand I have used and I have nothing to make a comparison. That being said, after spending some time one the iron, it makes ok’ish cuts in pine. I am usually able to get a very silky finish. The adjustment is clunky and unpredictable, so I basically make an adjustment and then try to plane .. rinse repeat, until I get the shaving I want. I picked up a couple pieces of oak to make winding sticks, and I am not pleased, I think the iron needs a bit more attention. I have not spent time yet working the body yet. All in all if you have patience ( and if you are into hand woodworking you probably do) the HD planes will get the job done. However I will be searching for some better planes to rehab.

    I am a combat veteran and woodworking has helped me find a center and stress relief, I truly appreciate your videos on YouTube Mr. Sellers, it has really helped me develop my skills.

  13. A Stanley 4 1/2 has been moe and more difficult to find on eBay at a “cheap” price. I’ve been looking for months.
    Jim Bode, whom I consider a reputable dealer, just listed a Stanley No. 4 that looks good, and his reputation stands behind what he sells, but the price (not the asking price but the solid price) is US$325!
    http://www.jimbodetools.com/Fantastic-STANLEY-No-4-Smooth-Plane-Type-2-circa-1869-72-p53645.html
    I may as well save my shekels and buy a LieNielsen, fettled at the factory before it goes out the door.
    Maybe there’s something arcane about this offering that I’m not aware of, but, golly, that’s a boatload of money.

  14. Hi im re aquainting myself with hand tools after a career on site using power tools and now need retire after several heart attacks . I now only do what needs to be done around the house i.e just laid a new oak floor upstairs ( only hand tools used ) and potter in my workshop making small projects . I cant believe how cheap hand tools are . I have just purchased a stanley no4 no41/2 no6 all for £22-£25 each including postage . Also i have aquired a record no 050 combination plane all cutters present and like new , i dont think they have had a stone put to them for £35 posted . And i now own a stanley 71 hand router for a mere £32 posted with all the bit and 3 irons . A little t.l.c on the planes ( flattening ,squaring a clean and oil , prepare the iron you know wat i mean and my tools are building up nicely with very little money . My tool chest will be bursting at these prices .

  15. would like to but a #51/2 should i consider a lea neilson or veritas? would like a stanley but have the time to look for used one or restore it thank you.

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