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S&J Bench Planes Review

For more information on planes, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

When I blogged and even filmed about the Spear & Jackson hands saws it wasn’t because they sponsored me, gave me a kickback or gave me free tools or equipment. They gave me zilch because I don’t and won’t take anything. Not taking any sponsorship from any manufacturer means I have the total freedom to speak it the way I see it. I take that responsibility seriously.

Last week I bought two brand new planes made by or for Spear and Jackson. I based my reasoning for the purchase on the successful purchase and use of their handsaws that I have trialed now and experienced over a number of years.

Taking the two planes from their boxes I felt pretty good about them. Pleased that I might be able to give a good report and offer another source for a less expensive plane. They felt robust and looked quite nice too. Without more ado I took shavings on pine with the #4 and achieved shavings straight off. I then sharpened the plane and it worked much better. The mouth was wide open so I went to adjust the frog forward and it was here, at the very heart of any good plane that I encountered the problems. The frog had been cinched to the sole as per usual but the new method they had developed by using a groove in the casting to engage the adjusting wheel seemed to be a slightly different angle to the wheel in the housing.

Though the wheel fit in the groove when not installed to the body of the plane, once screwed in the wheel was stuck tight meaning you could only make an adjustment with the frog out. This means that anyone following general guidelines for setting up a Bailey-pattern bench plane would fail. There were no instructions that came with the planes at all so I tried online and again there was nothing. These problems are insurmountable unless you have the skills and engineering background with equipment to rework the tool. Not something anyone should plan on anyway.

What I see as the problems

It is always depressing to see big companies rely on the original name of the founding fathers bring a product to market thinking the name is enough. I doubt that any new or even seasoned woodworker could actually get these planes to work effectively. Did nobody anywhere in the factory making them consider whether the tool worked or even try it out? I cannot for the life of me believe that they did. Yet I took the planes to the test granite for proving and guess what? The planes were indeed flat to within a thou. the plane is made from ductile iron and the threaded components had no slack.

With real wooden handles I at first had felt that I could fettle the handles and have a good plane. After an hour with the two planes I gave up. With all of my 55 years in the saddle of handling woodworking planes of any and all types these two got the better of me. I did finally get the #3 to work but had no confidence that anyone new to woodworking would be able to and no confidence that this plane would keep doing so. How disappointing.

In reality, if you are looking for a less expensive plane, I never had a secondhand Stanley or Record plane that I could not have up and running within ten minutes from eBay so in my view you can kill to birds with one stone; learn to restore and set up a plane and then save good money into the bargain. There will always be planes cycling through from here on on eBay as we can exhaust what was made for over a century.

38 Comments

  1. Keith W on 8 October 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Shame as they look good.
    Some time ago I bought a second Stanley no 4. initially disappointed I preferred my existing one. Nevertheless I fettled it. Recently whilst doing some planing I realised that I was picking up the newer one by preference. I guess that we have adapted to each other.

  2. Michael Murphy on 8 October 2019 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for the review, Paul. Coming from you I find good substance to your observations. I recently had an old plane given to me that had CoMar, New York on the iron. Badly rusted, pitted, with a peculiarly corrugated sole. It is an obvious Stanley copy from the earlier models. I almost didn’t attempt to get it in working order. Curiosity prevailed and after more time than I wanted to invest, it does quite well. I took the iron past the pitting which thankfully was not too deep though a new iron will be in store eventually. Mostly, I did it to see what the possibilities of restoring a plane in bad condition were as a personal challenge. Your videos have been the inspiration to make the attempts. It’s a case of the “Give a man information and he is compelled to do something with it” syndrome.

  3. Dave Gallaher on 8 October 2019 at 6:52 pm

    Mr. Sellers/ Paul,
    While on the subject of planes, I do not seem to recall any thoughts from you regarding plain soles versus corrugated sole planes. I have and use both and an issue I am finding with corrugated bottoms comes when using them to round over edges, particularly in soft wood. The corrugations tend to leave tracks, even on the end grains.
    Would enjoy hearing your thoughts and comments on this issue of plain / corrugated plane soles.

    • Paul Sellers on 8 October 2019 at 7:58 pm
      • Mark on 14 October 2019 at 7:30 pm

        Paul,

        Thanks to Dave for his timely question and to you for the link to your earlier post regarding corrugated plane soles. I just encountered a Stanley 5 1/2 wit hcorrugated sole. It’s priced slightly above my comfort level, but is in such good shape, that I was considering making the purchase anyway. Based on the information you’ve provided, I think I’ll Keep my disposable cash in my wallet a bit longer.

        Best regards from Central Texas,
        Mark

  4. Doug Finch on 8 October 2019 at 7:11 pm

    I purchased a new Kunz cabinet scraper some time ago. I get so frustrated with it for all the same reasons you point out in this blog. It is like nobody at the factory has ever tested it to see if it actually worked. I know this because the blade had no bevel at all?!? It was “then” that I found your review of the Kunz cabinet scraper. I worked with it until I had it functioning though. To this day, I hesitate to use it because it is so finicky.

    • Paul Sellers on 8 October 2019 at 7:55 pm

      Send it back. Make sure that they know why. It’s a terrible disrespectful way to treat any customer. They have a complete disregard for good manners and should be very ashamed of themselves.

  5. Keith on 8 October 2019 at 8:23 pm

    Paul, when they contract a factory that produces planes to make a run with their S&j branding on them, right or wrong, do you think they actually do any testing, or do they just assume a plant producing planes for multiple companies makes planes that actually function? Each company is responsible for whatever they put their brand on, but I just wonder how these low end planes keep getting invested in by companies like S&j, grizzly etc. does no one on staff know they’re not great, do they not care, are they told they meet standards by the factory employees? Who is really checking and testing the function if anyone?

    • Donald L Kreher on 10 October 2019 at 12:41 pm

      There is of course little or no testing on these $40 planes, because the testing would drive the price up. So if you buy one you know it’s going to take a lot of work to get it useable, or at least you should know this. I pity the poor sole who does not have a clue about what he was getting into and has not developed the skills necessary to turn a pigs ear into a silk purse. They are the ones getting ripped off and we suffer because they become turned off from or unable to continue with traditional woodworking.

      I am sure if Paul puts in a few more hours he would be able to eventually turn this S&J into a good user. Unfortunately it was more work than what Paul was hoping for.

      I have a type 20 No. 4 made by Stanley 1962-1967, that was given to me. I spent hours getting the sole flat and the plane in tune. It is now among my favorites. But I enjoyed the challenge of getting a tool in shape.

  6. John2v on 8 October 2019 at 8:28 pm

    That is such a sorry story Paul…..why oh why do manufacturers settle for second best these days. What makes it even worse, following your review they will completely ignore your comments.
    FAITHFULL tool manufacturers are considered by some to be low standard…..I picked up a number 5 free of charge from a local tool shop, it had been returned with a nasty crack in the sole….in one side down to the mouth……it is my favourite plane? Giving clean even whispers.
    It would interesting to receive your comments Paul
    Thank you John

  7. Jarno Verhoeven on 8 October 2019 at 8:34 pm

    As a mechanical engineer myself, I find it profoundly confusing on why products like that end up on a shop shelf. Selling these is not just a matter of slapping a familiar brand name on a product and selling it. The company itself has paid a ton of money to get casting tools made, engineering drawings, bought stock of components, made graphical design, all of that. And even if they just buy the components in China, someone still has done all of that work and put up the money to make the castings and other components..
    As you noted, the casting is dead flat, yes, because in China and elsewhere, they can do superior work. But somehow, and this confuses me, there was no holistic view of the design, no question “does it work?”, “are we happy with this?” or “is this the best we can do?”
    There is no shortage of skilled people, and it was never easier to create exceptionally accurate components. We have become experts in creating mind-bogglingly complex assemblies which have otherworldy performance, from the mobile phone in your pocket to cars that drive themselves. And yet, on this totally manageable task, it has failed spectacularly (the new Stanleys are equally atrocious by the way).
    Confusing, because for exactly the same amount of money, you could make something superior.
    (I like the way the frog adjustment screw engages the casting, by the way, the newer Records have this as well, if not needed, do not use a screw)

    • Terrence OBrien on 15 October 2019 at 4:47 am

      Maybe as engineering, metallurgy, and machinists get better, it’s harder to get woodworkers who really know the tools, and know how to use them?

      Like building a great bicycle, but nobody in the company knows how to ride a bike?

  8. Frank McInroy on 8 October 2019 at 10:25 pm

    At the end of the day it’s all about price. Most manufacturers just churn out the product to suit the individual branding of who ever orders it.
    Someone in the sales department probably wrote the specifications which was all about the marketing advantage over competitors, they wouldn’t have a clue how to use and probably don’t have the experienced staff to test it.
    It’s all about the numbers game and they get away with it because the majority of their sales are in large retail outlets and the buyers are new to woodworking and don’t know any different.
    I am a retired engineer and after sixty plus years I still all the tools from my apprenticeship still going strong.
    An old adage they don’t make them like they used to.
    Regards Frank McInroy

  9. Matt on 8 October 2019 at 10:44 pm

    For what it’s worth…

    Paul did a review of some cheap planes a couple of years back. Very shortly after that I was in “Toolstation”, (a supplier of tools and various building materials here in UK), and saw that they has a “Silverline”, (cheap, often despised brand), #4 plane on sale for just over £12…

    I bought it.

    I have half a dozen Stanley/Record #4 planes, and three 4 1/2 planes, and a 5 and a 5 1/2…

    The Silverline one needed virtually no fettling, (apart from sharpening of course), and it is normally my “go to” plane. It’s proved to be an excellent purchase!

    Regards,

    Matt

  10. Ed on 8 October 2019 at 11:20 pm

    I know it’s not the point, but I didn’t understand what the mechanical problem was. Is it the blade depth adjustment doesn’t work after moving the frog, or is it that the frog adjustment doesn’t work? Maybe I’m not understanding because they changed the design.

    If it is the frog adjustment, can you remove the goober in the slot, toss it in the trash, position the frog by hand, and then tighten it down? Is it just the fancy “turn the screw to move the frog” that doesn’t work, and you might be able to ignore that, or is it that once you move the frog, the plane can’t be used at all?

    Again, I realize that’s not the point. Clearly, they did not use their own plane, or you got a sample of a bad batch, although the latter seems unlikely.

  11. Alan on 9 October 2019 at 6:32 am

    I think it’s the ‘Goober’ in the slot. Sticking at an awkward angle, and not turning by screwdriver, when its threaded shank is engaged.

    I would pop the threaded shank in an electric drill chuck, spin it up, and file that disc thinner. It appears to be too thick, especially at the centre.

    I can see how this might happen: They buy a Company’s name and reputation, source cheap materials from China, cheap labour from Mexico… There probably isn’t a single factory which sees the entire finished product. It could simply be an Assembly & Packing Plant, with parts arriving from all over the globe. Boeing and Airbus use the same technique, but thankfully they’re a little more concerned with quality control.

  12. Alan on 9 October 2019 at 2:05 pm

    Most of the vintage planes we see are by now, well-used fettled examples that have been well worn-in. Usually they just need cleaning-up and adjusting when we get them.
    Remember, those didn’t leave the factory in a usable condition either. Planes never worked straight from the box.
    There were no instructions regarding flattening the sole, rounding sides/corners/heel, shaping the iron, fettling chip-breaker/lever cap. And nothing was said regarding setting the plane, adjusting the mouth, or even using the plane. They told you the Grinding Angle, and included a leaflet promoting “other tools in the range”.
    We tend to have forgiven Stanley, Record, Marples… but they weren’t much different.

    • Paul Sellers on 9 October 2019 at 2:54 pm

      Whereas what you say is partially true, in that they did need fettling, sharpening etc, they were up and running in a few minutes so they were in fact much better than the ones I am talking about in the blog. And what I was addressing is that there was no description of the parts or identifying schematic to help anyone, whereas the Stanleys and others did come with a booklet.

  13. Ken on 9 October 2019 at 3:49 pm

    I have five vintage Stanley planes. I have wondered about how much tuning previous owners did. All I had to do to get them working was to sharpen the irons.

    I think 50s and 60s vintages, in good cosmetic condition, are a great value.

  14. Alan on 9 October 2019 at 4:35 pm

    The original market was Tradesmen and Craftmen, who’d learned tool-fettling from experience, or from time-served apprenticeships.
    When DIY took off from economic necessity, the amateur/novice DIYer would have attributed torn grain, jammed shavings, and plane tracks to his lack of technique.
    Tasks such as saw-sharpening were also a dark art. Why would manufactures educate customers? You paid a ‘Saw Doctor’, or bought a new sharp saw. No chisel manufacturer ever suggested flattening the backs before honing. It’s always been an industry-wide shortcoming. Worse now of course.
    Perhaps manufacturers are fully aware of all these problems.
    Relying on us to share know to overcome their cost-cutting?

  15. Neil christie on 9 October 2019 at 4:46 pm

    It is a pity that this happens. How many people will throw them in the bin and go and buy an electric one, convinced that hand tools are useless?
    Rubbish like this really does put people off.

  16. Alan on 9 October 2019 at 4:47 pm

    * knowledge *

  17. Don Lunn on 9 October 2019 at 8:34 pm

    I have just purchased a No 7 plane from Faithfull! The sole was terrible, the blade was absolutely useless.But it was only £42. After a “lot” of work on the sole,and purchasing an Axminster Rider replacement blade it works beautifully. But no one should have to do this to a new plane. It is totally unacceptable. For a few pounds extra it could have been a great plane straight out of the box. You get what you pay for I suppose. But we can’t all afford a Clifton/Lie Neilson/Veritas plane.

  18. Don Lunn on 9 October 2019 at 8:59 pm

    Looking at Paul’s comments again I had the same problem with the frog adjusting screw.The frog was being forced up by the screw! I am fortunate that I have a lathe and was able to turn the diameter of the screw down,So that it wasn’t holding the frog up! Also the Frog was rocking on its mount and I found that the frog projections were uneven, so had to be filed.As I said it now works well and takes those 1 thou, shavings, that I was looking for.But you should not have to do this to a newly purchased tool.

  19. Max™ on 10 October 2019 at 6:21 am

    I’m sure the situation isn’t helped when you end up with people cross-shopping an adjustable frog, blade angle/skew/depth, throat and chip-breaker relationship, metal bodied plane against something like the most simple of simple kanna: a block of wood with a bed cut down to a mouth and a blade that snugs in to slots on the sides with a hammer tap.

    Are they really appropriate comparisons? No, of course not, everything involved in setting up the tool, workpiece holding, and maintaining them are as different as the techniques used with the high bench brace and push planes vs sitting on the floor with a kinda reversed shooting board which you pull the little japanese woodies against.

    But, you go search “plane” or “wood plane” under tools and you’ll see fourty and fifty dollar metal bodied planes pop up alongside four and five dollar kanna as though anyone would be seriously cross-shopping them to do the same task at the same workshop?

  20. John Hannon on 11 October 2019 at 12:59 pm

    This looks similar to the Grizzly plane which I think is made in India. Same bad fit of the frog adjustment screw so I removed it. All of my other planes are old Stanleys without the frog adjustment so I am used to adjusting manually.

  21. Steven Newman/Bandit571 on 12 October 2019 at 3:05 am

    Looks like what they are selling at Lowes, over here…called a Kobalt ($30)…tried it for 1 whole week…then took it back to the store.

    Noticed Menard’s over here, is selling an Irwin-Marples #4 sized smoothing plane ($20 +tax)….in a plastic blister package….did not even bother…

    Both planes look like they came from the same factory…handles were made from the remnants of the Ugly Tree Forest they went through to make the planes…

  22. Thomas on 14 October 2019 at 11:10 am

    These https://www.fine-tools.com/juuma-putzhobel.html were reviewed very positively bei Heiko Rech https://holzwerkerblog.de/werkstatt-2/hobeln/bankhobel-juuma-nr-5/ as being adjusted and sharp enough out of the box while still having a very competitive price. You may want to check them. At the moment only Nr 4 available not 5 it seems.

    • Paul Sellers on 14 October 2019 at 11:35 am

      I too gave this plane a good review years back. The issue is not the quality but the weight and the price. You can buy a Stanley and Record on eBay for £20-30 and it will do exactly the same work with no compromise and less effort too.

  23. Bill on 14 October 2019 at 11:31 am

    With lots of lovely old Stanley planes kicking around in flea markets and on ebay etc one wonders why anyone buys a new plane. The older ones are better quality, and if they have been abused they are likely to be cheaper but still able to be brought up to a decent standard. At the end of the day a plane is just for bringing a sharp steel edge to a piece of wood. Even the most hideously expensive plane is a poor plane if it has a blunt edge. But then a cheap Ford car is just as effective as a mode of transport as a Rolls Royce, so the RR owner is just making a statement about his wealth and the pleasure of owning a fine piece of machinery. Same with expensive planes I guess.

  24. Dave Alvarez on 14 October 2019 at 11:35 am

    This is simply a reflection of the utterly (and increasingly) toxic society we are increasingly finding ourselves victims of these days. From the cheapening and ‘dumbing down’ of hand tool manufacturers methods (and we all know why) to the monopoly stranglehold the Stanley corp. has on the US tool market (look it up) to the abolition of high school manual arts teachers and apprenticeship programs at work places in the US to the extreme lack of (and clamoring for) skilled labor (for which employers simply refuse to pay a living wage) we are all in danger of losing the skills that Paul Sellers (and co.) are striving so desperately to keep alive. This is why Paul and his team are so important; because we could lose them without the teachers. I don’t know what the solution is (though I do have some theories) but I’d bet its a lot bigger than any one web site can relate, even one as large as Paul Seller’s (though I thank goodness it, and he, does).

  25. Omar Colocci on 14 October 2019 at 1:10 pm

    My first plane is a #5 Stanley made here, in Brazil (they gave up making planes here around the 80s, if I’m not mistaken) and it’s still not quite right despite my occasional efforts. Still haven’t given up on it., though.

    On the other hand my #4 is a Bailey made in England, found on eBay. A little reasearch online told me it was made in the 1930s. It was a good deal, even considering the shipping from the UK. When it arrived I went through the inspection process and it was perfect. Fairly used, but treated properly. Flat sole, square sides, no rust, only the expected patina, no denting. I could tell this plane came from someone who actually knew what he/she was doing. The iron had a slight rounded bevel, indicating the shapening was done freehand. I could not help but wonder what that plane had worked on through all these years and about the people who have handled it so far.

  26. Victorino Chang on 14 October 2019 at 3:35 pm

    Paul, as I watched a video of you showing their saws, I ordered 4 of them (two 26, one 24, and a Tenon one). They seem pretty good for the price, though as an Info for any interested in them, you will need to pay shipping from UK to US, and that adds $. One of them I converted into a rip saw, and sharpened all together the same day. Still, I decided to try a kit they sell on Amazon under “4 Piece Carpenters Tool set;” well it was like a “hook”. They never sent me any kit, but a single 6 inches block plane. I’m not going to be nice like you in describing their planes…this was a junk. It seems something made in India.

  27. Rick Johnson on 14 October 2019 at 5:01 pm

    I love planes. So much so that I am constantly drawn to my little shop just to pick up one and make shavings. It’s relaxing. I always appreciate your honesty, forthrightness, and passion Paul. Good on ya! Cheers!

  28. Robert Brunston on 14 October 2019 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for sharing Paul!
    I will stick with my Stanley planes as I am very happy with them.

  29. David Bartley on 14 October 2019 at 8:24 pm

    I had a similar experience to Paul’s with a Record/Irwin spokeshave. I wanted one with a curved shoe and thought the prices on eBay were pushing common sense simply because curved ones are less often seen. The Record spokeshave came from England via Amazon. I don’t know where it originated. The blade doesn’t bed, because the casting isn’t true. The cap iron when tight against its pivot screw is 1/8″ away both laterally and depth-wise from the channel and shoulders in the body where it is meant to rest, so it is quite impossible to position it well as a shaving deflector and have it stay in place. The cutting iron has the appearance of having been violently stamped from plate stock with a stamper being used well beyond its service cycle, and the mini-razors and spurs left where they occurred. The adjusting slots in the blade and the flanges on the knurled adjusting nuts were so rough one side was difficult to turn and the other side would not go together; despite this it was dumped into a plastic bubble and sent on its way. I’ve been doing some filing and “sanding” on the cutter situation and I thing I can fix the bedding problem, but the poor fitting of the cap iron is unfixable.

    Looking at the spoke shave it seems apparent to me that nothing had been done to it that a machine didn’t do. Therefore the problem with these tools that are targeted at a reasonable (possibly in truth nostalgic and irrelevant) price point and an unknowledgeable consumer is the same problem you, Paul, and others are addressing in the manufacture of wooden things. The makers are not craftsmen but unskilled labor feeding machines and catching and packaging their output.

    I have noticed that when a machine comes between a worker and a job, the person doing the job changes focus from the job to be done to the machine to be operated. A simple example: I hired someone to prep my house for painting; he power-washed it. When he was done I found that nothing was done that the machine wouldn’t do and things were done the machine would do that shouldn’t have been done. Similarly, woodworkers and toolmakers with machines cease being woodworkers and toolmakers and become machine operators only, if they are not careful to keep the true object in mind and put in the work necessary to reach it.

    I have bought some planes on eBay; honestly, I’m getting behind on my fettling. I enjoy the hunt, but I am starting to question old tool buying on eBay for a couple of reasons, even though I have obtained pretty good examples in the sizes I wanted. The quality of the majority of #4 planes on eBay (looking at Stanley, Record, Millers Falls, Sargent, Wards Master, Keen Cutter, Winchester) are in highly questionable condition or just plain unacceptable; the situation with #4 1/2 is worse. Heartbreakingly many of the planes being offered on eBay have obviously had a ride on the dread belt sander by someone short on belts with the finer grits, leaving finishing to be done, but already gaping mouths. That is, planes are being ruined just at the moment they might have been saved. As for Bedrock, those prices make Lie Nielsen a viable idea. Despite your protestations to the contrary, I think it is possible the supply of usable Bailey pattern planes may be slowing some. The Bay, the hobby and the hoarding are killing that goose. I think you may worry about that as well, thus the sampling of cheap wares available new. I know this is possible, because I have seen it happen over the last twenty years (i.e., the eBay era) in other areas of interest. Even though I am retired, because of my age (76) I don’t feel comfortable being as lavish with my time as I was when time seemed infinite. I went to quite a few flea markets and garage sales in the past; I recently experimentally went to some; I just can’t bear to do it anymore while looking for something specific.

    Someone locally Craig’slisted a #2 and #3 Lie Nielsen. I went and looked and bought the #3. Over the next few month’s I will likely buy a few more, new. With those and a #29 foreplane, an ECE scrub I’ve had for many years and a wooden jointer yet to be acquired, I’ll have what I need. And I will be liquidating my vintage all-metal planes. They will be nicely fettled and I will be making them available to someone else to use. And I believe the value in my Lie Nielsens will be much easier for my heirs to recover, no matter how long I live.

  30. Mark on 15 October 2019 at 2:17 am

    I recently took a trip to a hardware store and they had jack planes in there that had a piece of thin, bent steel as the base instead of cast iron! Complete with the sole being painted with a think, uneven layer of paint to stop it rusting. I couldn’t believe it when i saw it. I feel bad for the DIY/beginner wood workers that buy these cheap, useless tools and are possibly put off by it. The old saying that a bad woodworker blames his tools is no longer as true as it was.

    Also recently bought a Record plane as it was on offer for £15 brand new. Mainly to use as a rough plane for planing internal doors etc. It looks like they have done away with the frog adjustment screw and there is just an untapped hole where it would have been.

  31. Cian on 15 October 2019 at 9:21 am

    It would take me about 5 minutes to fix that issue with the frog adjustment. Even quicker with a rudimentary jig to hold the part. But I am a toolmaker by trade and have a milling machine. The average woodworker just wants a tool that works properly without major surgery. This is a typical example of penny pinching by big companies. They have a potentially good product and undermine it just to save a few pence.

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