Monday, March 14, 2016

Finding a Good Used Bench Plane

A Stanley #5 in good as found condition
Pretty frequently it makes a lot of sense to pick up some used tools instead of buying new, especially if you're looking to make your tool budget go as far as possible. This is especially true of one essential group of tools, bench planes.

When it comes to new bench planes you can, if a bit stereotypically, break them down into two groups: Inexpensive and Good. Luckily there are generations of used planes available for reasonable prices and a little time to fix them up. 

I'm not one for restoring tools to like new condition. I guess I'm more of a functional restorer, aiming instead for excellent operation but not worrying about the cosmetics so much. I like my tools looking a little more used anyway, for me it enhances the connection to past craftspeople that used these tools in their lives. Anyway missing paint, chrome or chips in the knob and tote don't really effect how the plane functions. What really matters is that none of the parts are missing or broken and that it's not too rusty when you get it.

Some pitted scaly rust
Some light smooth rust
Check out these rust pics. Light rust can be removed readily. What does light look like, well rust but smooth, not real scaly or pitted. If the rust is smooth, pretty sure the part beneath it is smooth as well.  Now I've seen some stuff that looks like its been swimming with the fishes brought back to be good tools, but in general I like to stick with the light rust or less. This gives you a tool that requires less work to get in shape. I've  been working on the plane in the left hand photo and it's coming back with some effort.

Don't hesitate to take the iron out of the plane and have a look at the frog. The one below is one of the later styles. This area can be cleaned up so the iron adjusts easily. Look for broken parts. The frog may not look exactly like the one shown here but you can pretty much see all the things that should be there. If the plane is really old it may not have the lateral adjuster, which is the silver lever at the top right of the photo below.

With the lever cap and iron removed you can see the bedding surface of the frog
Now look behind the frog at the adjuster knob. Make sure that little fork that rides on the adjuster isn't broke, cracked or missing. If you look closely below the knob there's two screws that are the adjuster to move the frog forward and back. Some planes have this and some don't. You won't miss it if it isn't there.

Make sure the adjuster fork is in good condition
Finally the lever cap, the chip breaker and the plane iron. Make sure the plane iron is not too rusty, especially near the cutting edge. Pitting at the cutting edge will prevent the iron from sharpening up to a usable edge. The chip breaker is the piece held to the iron with the large screw. It stiffens the iron as well as provides the engagement to the adjustment knob. Finally check the lever cap for cracks, chips near the edge are no big deal, and make sure it holds on well to the screw on the frog with it's keyhole.
Lever cap (left) Iron and Chip Breaker (right)

The reverse sides
I think that looking closely at these things can help you choose a plane with a good chance of becoming useable. Also take into account the condition vs the cost and how much work you're willing to put in. A lot of hidden gems can be found under a bit of dirt and rust.  If you're looking for more information on Stanley bench planes, a lot of which is applicable to planes in general, I suggest checking out Patrick's Blood and Gore which has more plane info than you might ever need. It's my first stop when researching a used Stanley plane purchase. 

Happy hand plane hunting!


  1. Hi! I'm glad I found this blog. I'm also in Pittsburgh and have recently been bitten by the hand tool bug. I've been able to pick up Stanley #3,#4,#5,#6 on Craigslist the last few months. I think I like cleaning these old planes up as much as I like working wood.

    1. I'm glad you found it too! It is pretty satisfying to get these tools working again and they'll last for a few more generations. Now all you need is a 7 or an 8, you don't need them both, but if you want them that's another story :-)
      I'm a 3, 5 and 8 guy myself.