Which Bench Plane?

I use a variety of hand planes, bench planes actually, in the day to day of making, writing and filming because on the one hand I want to use what people can get hold of and afford at a reasonable price and I tend feel a little nauseous when snobbism displaces proven technologies that worked for centuries.This kind of creeping culture went unchallenged until I asked the question, what’s happening to my craft. Personally I found it quite damaging and very unhelpful. It’s well proven to a world-wide audience that all well-sharpened, well-set planes will work and work well, with only an odd few exceptions, which has indeed meant that more people today recognise that you don’t need much fancy stuff to create the very finest of fine woodworking. With that said, one of the working-man’s planes of its day remains a favourite of the bench plane range for me, it’s the Woden plane. Some have said that the Woden, bought out by the former Record tool company, was a sort of lesser grade almost seconds plane but that was very far from true. Woden bench planes were robustly made without being crude in any way. They do need a little minor fettling, a result of poor Sheffield standards of manufacture that prevailed at the time, but not as much as the Stanley or Record models. When you lift a Woden it just feels solid and vibration free. That’s because they never went with plastic handles mostly but they also vary slightly in weight, some being ever so slightly heavier or lighter. Either way, they still retain the versatility I prefer from using lighter weight models.

Of course, because they are getting less common on eBay and such, the prices have risen and we are likely to see less of them, but I wanted to acknowledge this long-gone-maker for its contribution to the world of woodworking.  I don’t want to cause confusion because I still and always will love and rely on my Stanleys and Records, which I do generally reach for and make with as a rule. Of course my models are the older models new in my 1960’s. I am glad that modern makers capitalised on the flawed perspectives of British makers of the post 60s era. By developing better engineering standards and taking care of the basics, flattening soles, squaring sides, tighter thread tolerances and then sanding handles to a better finish a new market opened up.

I know. What’s the use in telling you about planes you can’t easily get. Well happenstance happens. One time, whilst living in the UK, I was about to teach a course in Upstate New York and a Woden #4 came up on eBay from someone living I think in Boston. I bought it for $19us and had it shipped to a friend’s house.

We will never know why the better model was ditched. Most likely we entered the era when the use of planes diminished almost altogether. People had also relied on the Stanley and Record names for a century. All engineering standards in Britain’s plane making industries entered the careless era and it is what it is. Thankfully the better made models of Stanley, Record and Woden were plentiful enough to keep cycling though and we will always have them with us I am sure of that. Currently they sell for fair market prices and I think that will always be the way.

30 comments on “Which Bench Plane?

  1. I have a lovely Woden No.4 and find it fits just right. I also regularly use Stanley and Record planes, and as birthday treat I chose a Lie Nielsen No.62 which is also excellent. All are great to use when set right, and thank you Paul for your excellent videos on this subject. They are always worth revisiting. Apart for the LN, all my planes came from car boot sales and antique/second hand stores. I have found that even antique shops don’t always have much of an idea when it comes to tools, and bargains can be had. A recent example being a Record No. 4 stay set (not really necessary as a system) for £10. apart from surface rust, there was nothing wrong with it and following Paul’s video tutorial on planes, so as to remind myself, I had a great tool for little money. Ebay is somewhat expensive these days, so I shall continue to scour the shops and fairs for a Woden 4 1/2.
    Is there a nicer sound in the workshop than a really sharp plane on wood?

  2. Your videos on Youtube renewed my interest in wood working…this time working almost exclusively without power tools. I used to watch Roy Underhill on public television and thought why would anyone do that with all the power tools we now have available. But, I always hated the noise and dust created by my high speed router. After seeing your videos on sharpening, setting, and using bench planes I decided to give it a go. I’ve since bought a few planes on eBay, sharpened the irons, flattened soles, and practiced using them on a few simple projects. Now I’m enjoying working with wood more than ever before. Like Steve says, I’m not sure there’s a sound any better than using a really sharp plane. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Dear Mr Sellers

    I’ve been following your on-line teachings for quite a while. Thank you very much for still making it available for free. Being so it allow me to adventure in making my own wooden objects around the house.

    At the present time my “planing set” up is a 36cm wooden Scrub plane, a wooden razee jack plane (with 2 irons a flat and a slight camber) and a #4. Now – for speed up the work – I’m looking for a #5. I’m still looking on ebay but then reading this post I remember the “Import Planes” series.
    Did your findings about the “Import Planes” extend to the no 5 as well?

    Thank You very much for your time

  4. A nod to these historic makers from yesteryear is a good thing.
    We should acknowledge and appreciate the work they did, but they’re long gone now. Our forefathers should have valued their work when opting for electric Black & Decker, cheap imports, and disposable saws from Home-Depot.
    Perhaps a few of these companies would still be around today?

    Woden planes have a solid quality that makes them feel very sturdy and positive in your hand, but accumulating a matching ‘set’ (3, 4, 4 1/2, 5…) of the same manufacturer; as you’ve done with Woden and Sorby, isn’t realistic for us.
    That’s why we’re focussed on Stanley and Record.
    The same goes for acquiring a lovely Preston Router.

    Perhaps we should name & shame a few more manufacturers responsible for flooding our marketplace with such unworthy tat today?

    • I just looked up the price of a Stanley #5 from 1923. In the US, they were over $6. The average salary then was about $1300. Converting that to modern terms (average salary $56K), the plane cost would be about $260 – probably more in the UK – although there are different ways of working this out I guess. Thus, Stanley, Woden, Record and even more-so, Norris etc were not such cheap tools to buy. The problem is our current expectation that quality can be bought for very little. You can’t maintain that in a fair society where folk are paid a fair wage and hence the imported tat and the demise of manufacturing in the UK where you can’t make, distribute and sell a plane for a few quid.

  5. Wodens were always a bit too expensive, but the Millers Falls I bought several years ago from a neighborhood woodworker is solid and — importantly — he himself was a solid sharpener and tuner. The others are grandpa’ “Zada” Polaski’s Stanley’s including the 4 and 3 that hum along after a couple years fettling by me. Free. The fettling paid me.

    I’ll never probably build something with it, but the 24″ transition joiner was the best one in Zada’s toolbox.

    • Probably not if you simply want a functioning plane. The Clifton bench planes are well engineered but in my view overweight and thick irons just means twice the effort to sharpen. They don’t really do any more or perform better than well tuned Stanley or Record bench planes. But, that said, people like to own so-called premium planes and I see nothing wrong with that.

        • Moulding planes are fascinating and whereas there are some being made by modern makers, the prices are mostly prohibitive and they are highly specialised planes with mostly limited functionality as they generally only mould wood and the makers generally stay with the simplest shapes like hollows and rounds. Also, mouldings from moulding planes are never new, they follow the classic shapes of the Greeks and no one seems to come up with new shapes that might better suit more modern and upto date pieces. Whereas I do own some, the greatest competition comes from the power router which of course receives ever shaped bit under the sun. Personally I think that this is where power routers come into their own. They will effortlessly mould all woods and the end grain of wood more readily too. I rarely use moulds on my furniture designs as it would be the part of my design I did not design if you see what I mean. I don’t care too much for moulds altogether either though I do like moulds on period pieces of their day.
          Moulding planes, not hollows and rounds, range greatly in complexity and with over 350 shapes in different sizes you enter quite a sphere of creativity. It is unlikely that there would be sufficient value or interest in making moulding planes and as we have so much work to do already I can see this one being left on the shelf, at least for now.

          • Well Paul after all my going on about moulding planes, I really can’t see how I missed that answer…..thank you for your time, they can be a minefield to set up but once working I would prefer them to an electric router …especially in my workshop in what for most people is bedtime……no noise!!
            You could still do an intro into sticking boards ….with scratch stocks and I use your superb poor man’s route….after hours.
            Thanks John 2V

      • “All engineering standards in Britain’s plane making industries entered the careless era and it is what it is. …I am glad that modern makers capitalised on the flawed perspectives of British makers of the post 60s era. By developing better engineering standards and taking care of the basics, flattening soles, squaring sides, tighter thread tolerances and then sanding handles to a better finish a new market opened up”. So that is what Clifton, for example, are doing and I feel need some encouragement to continue – they get the basics right then add some refinement (whether that is necessary or not). The new ‘affordable planes’ however, including modern Stanley seem far worse (some completely unusable) than those made in the depths of the careless era (a few of which I own and use happily) from what I’ve seen.

        • They are well made planes and made to tight tolerances too. Well done Clifton! Well done Lie Nielsen and well done Veritas. But none of them do any more or less than any Stanley or Record for a fraction of the price. The great thing is that I can still buy the latter for around £25 for a good one, one twelfth of a Clifton and Lie Nielsen, and rather than buy into planes that in my opinion are all too heavy and too costly for most, why not just enjoy the savings, the lighter weight and the proven functionality. I have been using my #4 and my #4 1/2 Stanleys for 50 years. My advice to any new woodworker could never be to spend £300 plus on a single plane not knowing if woodworking is for them. Ebay still turns up dozens of planes every day to give really great value for money. Mostly, for me and most, it is about common sense and practicality.

  6. I’m curious as to how many planes I even actually need. I’m really just getting started back into woodworking after a long absence (did a lot of it in my childhood with my dad), and just tuned and refinished a Stanley-Bailey #5. I also have a couple of junk planes that I will get around to refinishing – both #4 or equivalent. I probably will need a smoothing (block) plane, but other than that, do I even need anything else? I’ll still need to joint and plane roughsawn boards, but I’ve seen it done with just a #4, so will my #5 be enough?

  7. Never had a Woden steel plane, the ones I have seen have always been in such horrible condition I’ve passed them up. Plenty of Stanleys and Records though and for some reason I ve always leant towards Record planes. I ‘ve never fancied paying a fortnights wages on a plane though, If I was going to spend the amount of money a Clifton costs I’d buy something with a awitch on it ,Paul says he likes the exercise, I’d rather not !!

  8. A few weeks ago I walked into a charity shop and spotted a cardboard box on a low shelf. I looked in, and my jaw dropped. In the box was a Record No 5, a Stanley No45 (with just one quarter inch cutter), a Record 078 rebate plane, two brace drills, drill/auger bits, a Rabone sliding square…£20. I was in heaven. This tipped me into wanting to use hand tools only, because I am making an oak coffee table for my son and his wife, and I have since got rid of an electric router. I think I’m going to get rid of my electric planer too…of course, Mr Sellers’ videos have tipped me into using hand tools too.

  9. I began woodworking about 4 years ago. And in retrospect I probably bought too many tools some new some used And I certainly went down some wrong paths. The problem with used tools as a beginner working in isolation is you don’t really know how to set up a plane or what sort of performance you can get out of a plane. Is it a bad plane or am I a lousy artisan? Paul Sellers has been a great help to me sorting out these issues.

    • It took me a long time to sort out the issues with my first Stanley No.4 and longer to learn how to use it. The learning curve is steep but awesome when everything clicks and you have the confidence to pick up a plane and use it effectively.

  10. Thank you for your fantastic contributions Paul, if I may ask, as a first time Woodworker looking to start (have your book) by purchasing my first plane, would you recommend a smoothing plane or a jack plane? I have read your numerous blog posts on the subject of planes but have don’t recall reading anything on the different types of planes, their uses and what type is best for a beginner.

    Thank you

  11. Dear Paul, you talked about Woden a while back, and this made me keep an eye out for one. And as you say it, happenstance did happen, and now I own a Woden no.4 in almost mint condition, that I bought for a bargain. Thank you for the solid advice (on everything really)!

  12. Hi Paul,
    Weren’t you going to put a modern Stanley (£23 from B&Q) through its paces a while back? Did you find the time to do that?
    Not that I have any intention of buying one of those bright-yellow plasticised jobs, but it would be interesting to see how it compares in expert hands. Perhaps it might be an avenue for newcomers – without them having to perform restoration first?

  13. I have a Faithful number five……these are not normally rated?
    It is a returned damaged to a local tool shop……I was given it
    It has a nasty crack in the side casting to the side of the mouth

    It is a fantastic tool ….making very thin even shavings…..if it does not last the rest of my working life I will buy another…….I can highly rate FAITHFUL TOOLS
    JOHN 2V

  14. It could be a consequence of my inadequate planing technique but I tend to favour planes with longer toe which seems to give more stability when starting at any edge of the bord. Wooden toes are always longer than iron one. Why heel toe ratio has been changed is mystery for me. It also move the center of gravity away from the blade which I think is a greater disadvantage than the increase in weight.

  15. Keep your eyes open you just never know…………….?
    Paul, now an ex-pat living in Ottawa, Canada (5yrs.), I went on the hunt for a hand plane on Kijiji (a type of e-bay local to Ottawa). Can you imagine my surprise and delight when I came accross a Woden no. 4! OK, it cost me $60 (he knocked $5 off when he found out I was originally from near Sheffield) but when I opened things up to inspect before buying it was pristine, yes, a couple of nicks in the blade but nothing that can’t be sharpened out. So……..very pleased to have finally got a Woden. Very pleased to have met the guy I bought it from. Very pleased to know he’s going to give me first refusal on other hand tools that come up (he’s looking for Distons now).

    Finally, to all those who want good quality hand tools never give up looking…. seek and ye shall find, and enjoy yourself looking.

You must enter certain information to comment on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *