Summary of the characteristics of the best smoothing plane
- Compact, short (well under 10” / 250mm) and not so wide body
- Quite heavy, mass is good with smoothers/smoothing planes
- The totally straight and smooth sole and all-over impeccable machined parts that fit together perfectly without play
- Bedrock-pattern planes tend to provide more stable planing function in diverse conditions than Bailey-patterned planes.
- The cutting angle (pitch) should be higher (50°-60° degrees) than 45° degrees normally used with bench planes particularly with tricky grained hardwoods although the common pitch works well with softwoods and some straight hardwoods.
- The mouth of the plane should be easily adjustable to very tight opening.
- Precise cutting depth adjustment without backslash helps to dial in the thinnest shavings easily
- Lateral adjustment of the blade (iron) should be easy and precise
- Robust cap iron/chipbreaker that mates tightly without the slightest gap with the back of the blade/iron and that is easy to adjust.
- High-quality, thickish, easily sharpened blade/iron with long edge life. Edge profile should have slight camber or relieved corners ground and honed.
- Ergonomic handles and all in all comfortable to use for extended period of time
Which smoothing plane to buy – what is the best smoothing plane?
For the woodworker who is looking for a new smoothing plane the old saying “you get what you pay for” is still true today. Smoothing plane that works great straight from the box costs quite a lot. Get ready to spend from 150$ up to 500$ for a great smoothing plane. A great tool can also be had for a lot of less money if you are ready to spend hours of your time for setting and honing the plane for top-notch operation. Time is, however, money for the most of us and I have therefore collected a list of great smoothing planes that works great with a minimal set-up time, often merely a couple minute honing of the blade is enough and you are good to go. I haven’t had a chance to use all of these planes but I have read countless reviews, articles and forums posts to combine this list. Premium Infill planes are excluded from this list due to the astronomical prices although they are the crème de la crème of smoothing planes. Maximum price on this list is 500$/€.
The best traditional smoothing planes
The Lie Nielsen No. 1 to No 4 ½ smoothing planes, the benchmark to which all other are compared.
The Lie Nielsen smoothing planes are considered as a benchmark to which all other smoothing planes are compared.
Lie-Nielsen’s smoothing planes are precisely machined from a manganese bronze casting or a stress relieved iron casting. Very high-quality machining and finish with zero faults. Beautifully formed, comfortable handles from American cherry. Stanley Bedrock style frog with optional high angle frogs are available for number 3, 4 and 4 ½ smoothing planes in 50° (York Pitch) and 55° (Middle Pitch). The cryogenically tempered A2 blades/irons are 1/8″ thick and require light honing before use.
The Veritas no.4 and no.4 ½
The design of the Veritas smoothing planes is completely new. The frog extends all the way to the sole of the plane. This structure reduces effectively blade chatter by providing complete support and allows the quick adjustment of the mouth aperture if required without dismantling or removing anything from the plane. The innovatively combined depth of cut and lateral adjust lever make blade setting easy and accurate.
Only slight honing is required for the blades. Overall high-quality planes with superb quality blades/irons
The Veritas Custom Smoothing planes
Newest option among the modern smoothing planes is the new Veritas Custom Smoothing plane. Planes can be used with or without cap iron/chipbreaker. Available in two sizes corresponding to no.4 and no. 4 1/2. Veritas offers many customization options including frog angle/pitch, blade/iron material and handles / tote/knob size and shape. Handles are made from torrefied maple. High-quality planes with superb quality blades/irons.
The Clifton No.3, 4 and 4½ smoothing planes
The Clifton smoothing planes are proudly made in Sheffield, UK. Planes are based on the Stanley Bedrock design ensuring the absolute stability of the frog and the blade. Body and frog are accurately machined from annealed (stress relieved) cast iron. Cutting irons/blades are thick and the original two-piece cap iron makes rigid and effective clamping mechanism. Knob and tote are beautifully shaped from Bubinga hardwood.
Planes are ready to use from the box only final honing is needed for the blade/iron.
ECE Primus #711 Improved Smoothing plane
Only wooden smoothing plane on this list. Made in Germany by E.C.Emmerich. Traditional Europeans-style smoothing plane with typical horn-shaped handle. Lignum vitae sole and pear body. Most precise cutting depth adjustments of all the smoothing planes, absolutely no backslash. Movable toe for throat adjustment. Quality, the thick blade is bedded at 50° and well supported by the body.
Lightweight compared to metallic planes but planes extraordinary well. Light honing of the blade and cap iron is needed.
The best bevel-up smoothing planes
Note: I don’t generally recommend the bevel-up smoothing planes as a first smoother because of the pronounced cambering needed. It takes a lot of work to camber bevel-up blades due to the thickness and low bedding angle.
Veritas bevel-up smoothing planes.
Three different widths corresponding to sizes no. 3, 4, and 4½. Final honing required for the blades otherwise perfect quality. High-quality planes with accurately machined parts and surfaces. Good quality blades/irons.
Lie Nielsen No.164 Low Angle smoothing plane
Very high-quality machining and finish. Good quality thick blade. Requires only slight honing of the blade.
How do you define the best smoothing plane?
In order to answer the question satisfactorily, one needs to understand for what and how the smoothing plane is used.
What is the smoothing plane?
Smoothing plane is 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).
What is the smoothing plane used for?
Purpose of the smoothing plane / smoother is to smooth and polish the surface of the wood 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.
How does a smoothing plane work?
A well–set smoothing plane cuts gossamer thin shavings. 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.
To get perfect surface even with the gnarliest woods, the conditions of the cut should be right. According to findings of the Japanese scientific studies in the eighties 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 at the smoothing planes ability to cut 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
Smoothing plane parts
Common bevel-down type smoothing plane consists of the following parts:
- The body to which the frog, tote, and knob are mounted.
- The frog that supports the blade assembly and establishes the cutting angle aka “pitch”. The depth adjuster wheel and the lateral adjustment lever is incorporated in the frog. The frog is attached to the body with screws, and the position of the frog/ throat size can be adjusted with a frog setting screw.
- Blade/iron and cap iron assembly
- Lever cap that clamps the blade/cap iron to the frog
- Tote and knob, usually made of wood.
Characteristics of the best smoothing plane – what makes the best smoother?
Smoothing plane length and width?
The function of the smoothing plane is to follow along with the surface and smooth and polish it along the way. Its purpose is not to flatten the humps and valleys but to make the surface look pretty. The shorter the sole the more tightly plane follows the surface and the faster the plane performs its function.
Smoothing plane vs jack plane – jack plane as a smoother?
Sometimes jack planes (No.5) are touted as a multipurpose tool that can size, joint and smooth depending on how the blade, mouth, and cap iron is set. My opinion is that it is really mediocre 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.
Smoothing plane width
Smoothing plane width is another 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.
Which smoothing plane should I get first, a No. 4 or a No. 4 1/2?
I looked the woodworking forums around the internet and articles from renowned woodworking magazines and the consensus seemed to be that the first smoothing plane should be No.4 because of its size and agility as an all-around smoother. My opinion is along the same lines but sometimes I think that No.3 could be great first smoother 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.
Best Smoothing plane body material?
Best materials used when making smoothing plane bodies are ductile cast iron and manganese bronze. Wood and grey cast iron work also well but come with caveats
The ductile cast iron is invented in the 1940s and offers greater strength and it is not subject to the same creep and tension relief as the grey cast iron. It retains well its factory machined dimensions. Ductile cast iron planes can survive drops from the bench without breaking and becoming untrue.
Manganese Bronze is a very hard, strong alloy which wears very well. It is optimal material for smaller planes because of its heavier mass. It is not subject to rust and it is shockproof can survive knocks and drops.
Grey cast iron is used in modern cheap planes and was heavily used past with vintage planes. It is brittle, and prone to cracking if subjected to shocks as when dropped to the floor. Grey cast iron plane bodies can warp if machined too soon after casting. Grey cast iron has better vibration dampening qualities than ductile cast iron.
Wood as a body material is largely used in the past. It is more comfortable to hold, it glides effortlessly over the surface planed and it is easy to maintain. Drawbacks are its tendency to warp or crack due to the humidity changes, light weight and lack of wear resistance. Although it represents only a sliver of the market, there are still fine wooden planes being made
Smoothing plane blade – thick blade/iron with a quality steel
The quality of the blade/iron is paramount in smoothing planes. The cutting edge of the blade/iron should stay sharp for a long time and resist the severity of the cutting conditions in hardest and most abrasive woods. Simultaneously it should be easily and quite fast to sharpen with common sharpening tools.
Back of the blade/iron should be honed perfectly flat and polished to mirror shine.
The thickness of the smoothing blade/iron
Forces during the cut try to bend the blade/iron backward and the thickness of the blade affect how they succeed. Especially slightly blunt edge increases the cutting resistance so much that thinner blade may bend cutting slightly deeper, and blink of an eye later, return to its original position. This phenomenon is called plane chatter, this is easily recognized by the telling sound. The thicker blade/iron resists stronger forces and therefore works better/longer producing cleaner surface.
Smoothing plane blade camber – Shape of the blade / iron edge
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. According to Japanese scientific research by Dr.Kato, shaving thickness 0,002” / 0,05mm or less produced least tear-out.
The properly cambered smoothing plane blade/iron produces perfect, pretty surface with imperceptible scallops, that is ready for finish.
One thing to note is that with bevel-up blades the camber must be more pronounced due to lower bed angle and the amount of metal removed is substantial compared to bevel-down blades. If you want to read more about cambering the bevel-up blades I recommend the very exhaustive article about blade cambers by Brent Beach:
Smoothing plane cap iron / chipbreaker
Cap iron / chipbreaker is an important part that has a big influence on the function of the plane. It does have two tasks:
First is to support the blade near the edge and reduce blades tendency to warp under the cutting forces and cause chatter.
Another and the more important task is to break the internal structure of the wood shaving before the wedging effect of the blade has chance to lever and tear the fiber out from the surface causing tear out.
Rule of thumb when setting the cap irons distance from the edge is: the thinner the shaving the closer the cap iron leading edge should be to the edge of the blade and thicker the shavings the farther away it should be placed.
Cap iron/chipbreaker should mate perfectly with the back of the blade without the slightest gap and the upper surface of the cap iron should be well polished for smoother chip/shaving displacement.
Read more about the cap iron function from my recent article about tear-out: HAND PLANE TEAR-OUT – HOW TO DEFEAT THE MONSTER
The best smoothing plane blade angle? – The perfect pitch
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. With 5° to 15° back bevel, you get the total pitch from 50° to 60°.
Lie Nielsen and Veritas offer high angle frogs as an optional accessory for their bench planes.
Very exhaustive article about high angle smoothing planes by Lyn J. Mangiameli
Bevel-up planes are the most user-friendly with regards to the pitch adjustment. The pitch angle in bevel-up planes is the sum of the bed-angle (usually 12°) and the blade bevel angle, so by grinding and honing the bevel steeper, you can effectively adjust the pitch higher. For example, with the bevel angle of 48° and the bed angle of 12°, you get the total cutting angle of 60° (Half Pitch)
Tight mouth opening
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. My experience with vintage Stanley planes has shown me that I 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.
Quality of machining of the parts
The best smoothing plane has precise components that are well machined with tight tolerance. Every part of the plane should mate its counterparts without slightest of play. The subpar performance with cheap Bailey –clones and newer Stanley planes can be attributed to the shoddy machining and mating of the important parts of the plane. For example, if the mating surfaces of the frog to body connection is painted like it is in some cheap planes then the connection won’t be rock solid and the performance deteriorates.
Premium manufacturers like Lie Nielsen and Veritas and some Bedrock-type clones from the far east are beautifully machined and provide stable cutting operations.
The sole quality
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.
There are a couple types of adjustment mechanism used in bench planes. Stanley Bailey and Bedrock planes have separate adjusters for cutting depth and lateral adjustment. Bevel-up planes use the Norris type adjuster that adjusts both the depth and lateral angle by the same adjuster.
In some infill-type and wooden smoothers, the blade depth and lateral adjustment are done by the plane hammer. In skilled hands, the taps of the hammer can be a super precise way to adjust the plane.
Best adjustment mechanism offers precise adjustment of the cutting depth without backslash which helps to make a very fine adjustment when planing. The lateral adjustment should also be easy and precise.