counting planes

[estimated reading time 16 minutes]

if you’re starting as a woodworker in the west, you would be forgiven for assuming stanley didn’t just make planes but was actually aiming to give craftspeople a better way to fight insomnia than counting fluffy sweaters-in-training (sheep or was that obvious?). with its confusing number system, many beginners either give up on the numbers completely and just go with the names (jack, smoother, jointer) or become so obsessed by the numbering system they walk up to strangers at flea-markets and ask what their opinion is of the 60.5 compared to the 9.5. the blank look in return is often taken as lack of expertise but really it’s just an indication that the numbers are somewhat irrelevant. except when they’re not.

the stanley numbers don’t make a lot of sense except one very specific set. bench planes are numbered (sort of) 1-8. the bigger the number, the bigger the plane. simple. if they’d stuck to this system, things would have been far easier. of course, they didn’t and there are literally hundreds — the 151 is one of stanley’s most popular tools, for example. and i think it’s worth taking a look at the common plane numbers. if you’re experienced in the world of stanley metal planes, this won’t be much use to you because you probably already know it. if you’re just starting out, i hope it will demystify some of the numeric confusion — these are numbers you’ll hear thrown around all the time without being qualified and people really will expect you to at least have a good idea of the size of a 4 or 7.

today, i’m going to talk about metal bench planes — and not even all of them. just the ones that are either common or useful. the complete list of what we’ll look at is…

  • whole-numbered bench planes — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 62
  • fractional-numbered bench-planes — 4.5, 5.5, 5.25
  • block-planes (9.5, 60.5)

i propose we look at these in five groups — smoothers, jacks, jointers, blocks and useless. let’s take a look at what they’re meant to do, what they’re capable of and whether you might want to buy one.


practically-speaking, stanley made four useful smoothing-planes (don’t call them “smooth-planes” — for one, that’s not how english works. if something is “smooth”, it doesn’t make the wood smooth. it’s a description of the object — and of course your metal plane is smooth. if it’s not, you’ve got a problem. for two, it sounds like a character judgment and i don’t think even stanleys have that much personality).

while some may disagree with my classification, these are four planes that work well for taking a flat board and making it feel like glass. yes, you can do it with other planes (2, 3, 6, 62, etc) these planes are specifically useful for this task and, i believe, do it better than the others. you can get a glass surface with any plane. but these make it easy and efficient while smoothing a furniture-component-sized board with a 2 or a 6 is either very slow or very cumbersome.

number 4

when someone says “smoother”, they mean the 4. if they mean something else, people still hear it as “4”. this isn’t stanley’s most popular plane but it’s definitely a close-second. i suspect more furniture made in the last hundred years has had its final surface created with a stanley 4 than any other single tool.

the 4 has gone through twenty types and has been made since 1869 — ok, it’s not made anymore but you can assume stanley stopped production of its traditional planes quite a few decades ago. from the time they began building metal planes, though, the 4 was continuously part of the available models. that doesn’t mean they’re all the same but it does mean the size and shape hasn’t really changed much.

i’m going to break with my usual convention and, as i’m talking about planes made in america beginning in the nineteenth century, give all these measurements in inches. if you live in the modern world, i figure you’re probably pretty fast at doing conversions but, as a basic guide, 2” is about 50mm and 9” is about 230mm. that should get you in the ballpark, if not actually hitting the ball.

the 4 has a 2” blade and a 9” sole. this allows the plane to be setup for a fine smoothing cut. it’s a bit short to joint a large board but it is light and agile — perfect for fast, efficient smoothing.

number 5

the 5 is stanley’s “jack-of-all-planes” but, while this term tends to be seen in the modern world as pejorative, it’s actually one of respect from when stanley was using it — and for several centuries before that. the implication isn’t that it’s “master-of-none” but “master-of-several”. the 5 is small and light enough to be a smoother, large and heavy enough to be a jointer and solid enough to be a heavy-stock-removal (fore) plane. we’re going to talk about it three times here (once for each category) but this is somewhere it truly shines. it’s heavier than the 5 but takes the same iron (blade). so the result is much the same with the same sharpening and preparation but the extra mass can definitely give a smoother surface if you’re working with difficult grain.

that being said, it’s heavier and that means it will be more tiring to smooth with a 5 than a 4. the tradeoff is completely one of weight. my recommendation is to use the 4 to smooth smaller pieces and the 5 for larger ones where the weight is a benefit and the extra size doesn’t make it cumbersome to keep on the boards. the 5 has the same 2” blade but is 14” long.

number 4.5

the 4.5 is a wider 4. it has all the same characteristics but has the advantage of being heavier and requires less passes to smooth a wide board. being heavier makes it more bulky to use.

it’s almost the same length as the 4, 10” as opposed to the 4’s 9”, but has a 2 3/8” iron, meaning you can usually improve your coverage efficiency about 20%. is that worth it? practically-speaking, no. which is why stanley sold comparatively-few 4.5s. this sometimes means you can pick one up cheaply because people don’t think of it as the standard model. realistically, the extra weight and width make little difference in daily use and you can treat this the same as a 4 — take your pick and you’ll probably like them both about the same.

number 5.5

in much the same way as the 4.5 relates to the 4, the 5.5 is a wider version of the 5.5. it’s realistically an answer to european infill planes — heavy smoothing-planes. the 5 isn’t heavy enough to give that downward compressive force. neither is the 5.5 but it’s definitely closer. with a 2 1/4” iron and 15” length, it’s bulkier and notably heavier than the 5. unlike in the 4s, this extra length and width changes the feel of the tool and makes it more solid and substantial. in daily use, though, it can be used like a 5 and, if you just have one or the other, you won’t be missing anything.

number 62

yes. the 62 can be used as a low-angle smoothing-plane. but it’s far better-suited as a jack so i’ll deal with it there. just know you can make it work for this if it’s the only plane you have — though that’s probably not a good idea.


a jack is designed to remove stock quickly. also called a “fore” or “try”, these planes are the first tools used when a board is being taken from rough to usable. straight from the mill, a jack quickly removes the surface damage from the saw and makes the board approximately-flat and vaguely-smooth. while doing joinery is unwise after this step, it gives you almost-finished dimensions and the vast majority of the shaping and cleaning of the wood is done with this tool before another takes over (usually a jointer then a smoother).

number 5

here we meet our old friend 5 again. this is the next thing it’s particularly good at. setup with an aggressive camber and wide mouth, the 5 is an excellent heavy-stock-removal tool. this is what it is specifically designed to do and it excels. the other nice thing about this is that it doesn’t have to be in good condition. pick up a beat-up old 5 and you won’t even have to restore it. whatever its condition, sharpen the blade and you can probably do this rough work without having to put much effort into the tool. this goes for all jacks but, given that the 5 is the most-popular plane stanley ever made, you’ll be able to find one cheaply (probably about twenty bucks) at a flea-market or auction. if you buy a few jacks and one isn’t in great shape, you can set it up for this task and it’ll be fine.

number 5.5

there’s very little to say about the 5.5 as a jack other than that it can be used exactly as the 5 is for this purpose. find a 5.5 instead of a 5 and you won’t notice the difference. they’re relatively uncommon in the wild so you may never see a good deal on one. if you can’t get one cheaply, don’t get one. if you get a great price, consider it a substitute for a 5.

number 6

this is the next step up in size — what people have often referred to as the ugly-stepchild of the stanley family. but it’s my favorite of the metal planes. it’s practically-speaking a slightly-larger version of the 5 with a 2 3/8” iron and 18” length. this makes it significantly heavier and longer.

the extra weight means when removing stock quickly you’re less likely to have it stop. the mass gives you extra momentum to cut the wood and its wider iron means you can get through this step of the process more quickly while the extra length increases stability on large boards. if you’re dimensioning small pieces, this is the wrong plane. if you have big panels, this thing will save you a lot of time. its extra length makes it an excellent jointer, too. but that’s for another time.

number 62

the 62 isn’t just the ugly-stepchild of the family. it’s a distant cousin. while it looks vaguely like the other metal bench-planes, the 62 works in differently. it works upside-down. the other bench-planes we’ve been talking about all have a standard cutting angle — 45-degrees. it doesn’t matter what angle you sharpen the iron at. because the bevel is down in the direction of the wood, the sharpening-angle doesn’t matter and you get a 45-degree cutter touching the wood.

the 62 doesn’t work that way, though. it has a 12-degree angle and the iron sits with its bevel up, adding its sharpening-angle to that of the plane. that means it can be low-angle (sharpen the iron at 20-degrees and you get 32) or high-angle (sharpen at 45 and you get 57).

the impact of the angle on the wood is that a lower angle dulls quickly but cuts more easily. a higher angle provides something closer to a scraping action and avoids tearout on more difficult grain but is significantly harder to push. the advantage of a higher angle is that the blade remains sharp dramatically longer — a 35-degree blade will stay sharp multiple times as long as a 20-degree blade on the same surface. the low angle is specifically useful for planing endgrain, which makes the 62 great for shooting or planing butcher-blocks or cutting-boards. it also has a simpler design — no chip-breaker. this tends to lead to more difficulty planing difficult wood but in something easy just simplifies sharpening and assembly.

many beginners love the 62 but usually find it disappointing as they try to improve their planing over time and switch to a 4 or 5. for heavy-stock-removal, though, the 62 does a perfectly-fine job. i wouldn’t recommend it to be used as a smoother.

it has the same blade size and length as the 5 — 2” and 14”. it doesn’t feel at all like using a 5 but, sitting side-by-side, they look strikingly-similar. actually, the 62 just looks like a 5 someone stepped on and compressed vertically. these are highly-collectable, by the way. if you see a 62 in the wild, it will probably be very expensive. if it’s not, buy it. then sell it for a significant profit. they’re worth a fortune and are generally better as investments than useful tools unless you spend your days flattening large butcher-block countertops or shooting endless numbers of parts with difficult endgrain.


after the jack, the jointer takes your roughly-surfaced board and makes it level (before the smoother then turns level to smooth). this plane should be long to allow it to ride on the high-points in the wood and flatten them without taking material from the low-points between (sit on the hills and avoid the valleys, you could say). the longer it is, the longer the board you can joint. a good estimate is that you can joint a board between two and two-and-a-half times the length of the jointer — used in this way, a 5 can easily joint a 28” board, perhaps one as long as 31”, while an 8 can definitely handle 48”, maybe as much as 60” (5’ or 1.5 meters) yes, you can joint a longer board with a small plane but you’ll need a straight-edge and it is far less automatic.

number 5

we’ve already looked at this plane quite a bit but it makes an excellent small-jointer. it’s light enough not to make the process exhausting and if your board is relatively small it works just as well as a larger plane. if you’re working with large components, though, it is somewhat lacking as a jointer.

number 6

the smallest of the functional jointers, the 18” length of the 6 can easily handle a 36” (3’) board and that’s usually enough for most small furniture. if you don’t have a larger jointer, this will often be functional. the only thing to keep in mind about this one (and the 5 if used for this task) is that you’ll either need a different one from the heavy-removal tool or a different blade — get another plane for each task because swapping blades is cumbersome and hugely-time-consuming and will mean you won’t want to spend time in the shop. you need an aggressive camber and wide mouth for removing stock quickly but a mostly-straight iron and tight mouth for jointing.

if you think anything’s going to be a multi-use plane, remove that thought from your mind as quickly as possible. there are three tasks — scrubbing, jointing and smoothing — a plane can do and you need at least three planes to do them quickly, efficiently and effectively. you can do them all with a 5 or 6 but you’ll need three of them or you’ll be kicking yourself. the 6 is a great little jointer.

number 7

while the 6 is a great “little jointer”, the 7 is the real thing. it’s heavier and much larger. it’s 22” long but has the same iron as the 6 (2 3/8”) so you’re really just gaining the ability to joint at least 44”, potentially 55” in board length. if you’re regularly doing longer parts than 36”, you’re probably just building bookcases and desks. going beyond 55” and you’re in bedframe-land and that’s far less common as a frequent task in a hobbyist’s shop. the same rules apply as for the 6.

number 8

the 8 is wider and longer than the 7 — a 2 5/8” iron and 24” length. this gives it more mass and allows a slightly-longer board to be jointed. practically-speaking, though, if you’re going beyond four feet, you probably need a very long straight-edge anyway and the extra few inches the 8 gives you won’t help much. it’s a little wider but, again, if your panel is big enough to want wider, you probably won’t notice this slight increase. the 8 is quite rare and usually far more expensive than the 7. if you can find one for a good price, go for it. if you can’t, you’re not missing anything. it’s heavy enough you’ll think you’re pushing a car, too. so keep that in mind and make sure you try a few test-passes before you commit to using this thing as a jointer — on the edge of a long board, it can feel extremely unbalanced because it’s just so wide, too!


a block is meant for small tasks and should be used one-handed. it doesn’t really have the same handle configuration as the larger, two-handed planes because it’s specifically meant for shaving endgrain and doing edge-details like chamfers. while stanley made (and still makes) many block-planes, the two common ones are the high-angle 9.5 and low-angle 60.5 and those are the two you’ll probably see. most modern blocks are approximate copies of one of these two, even stanley’s other models.

number 9.5

the 9.5 is tiny — 6” long with a 1 5/8” iron. it’s bevel-up like the 62 we just talked about but it’s not 12-degrees on the bed — it’s 20. that means that at a sharpening angle of 25-degrees it gives you a 45-degree cut on the wood — the same as a standard block-plane. there’s little to know about this other than that it does its job. the thing about block-planes, though, is that they’re extremely simple. i’ve used very few bad ones and a huge number of inexpensive modern copies. it has no real complexity compared to a larger, bevel-down bench-plane and you shouldn’t be spending a lot of money on it unless you’re making an investment for collectibility.

number 60.5

the 60.5 is slightly longer (6 1/2”) than the 9.5 but looks much the same. its 12-degree basic angle means you can sharpen your blade at 20 and get a very-low 32-degree angle to cut the wood. this is particularly-useful on endgrain, which is what a block is specifically meant for, anyway — remember the “block” in the name is referring to “butcher-block”, a countertop made of all exposed endgrain to resist breaking when repeatedly hit with a heavy butcher’s cleaver. these are, again, very simple tools and you should be able to find one cheaply or a modern copy. spending a lot of money on a block is probably just going to make you feel regret. having a nice little one, though, is very useful for edge-details and everyone likes a nice crisp chamfer.


we’ve gone through quite a list — the 4 and 5 families, 6, the jointers, the low-angle jack and the common blocks. but stanley made a lot of other bench-planes. what are they for?

well, they’re not for anything.

the 1 is a gimmick. you’ll see them well over a thousand dollars but this has nothing to do with its usefulness and doesn’t reflect that it was a complete failure — actually, it being a complete failure is why it’s so rare in the modern market. stanley only made a few of them and didn’t even keep producing this size until the end of the second-world-war. yes, you can use it like a block-plane. no, you shouldn’t. it’s meant to be used two-handed (it has an actual rear handle, also called a “tote” for no particularly-good reason, the other handle being called a “knob” for more obvious reasons, often the description of a person who obsesses over terminology for plane-components or anything else) but if you have hands this small, you’re not just a child — you’re a child monkey. honestly, if you give this plane to a six-year-old, they will probably find it too small for their hands. don’t believe me? pick one up at an auction sometime and try to hold it in a way that’s comfortable. trust me. you won’t find one. it’s a waste of money and effort. don’t. get. a. 1.

the 2 is realistically just a slightly-swollen 1. again, it’s block-plane-sized but meant to be used with two hands. i suspect it was designed for young children to use in nineteenth-century shop-class. it’s too small even for that. this is another useless tool.

while we’re on the subject of stanley, the master-manufacturer of metal planes who brought woodworking to the american masses, you might be wondering why such a company managed to make these silly mistakes. it’s because the plane-manufacturing market was already very mature before stanley got in the game. planes have been used for woodworking for thousands of years. they just happened to be either made of wood (the vast majority) or solid metal without adjustors (like some roman planes). when stanley started making these bailey-style planes, they simply copied all the common sizes — smoothers, jacks, fores, jointers, etc. they innovated with things like low-angle planes because wood doesn’t work well with those extremely-low bed angles — it just cracks. but most of their planes were copies of common sizes. a plane the size of a 1 or 2 is extremely useful as a wooden plane. you hold it in one hand and use it the way a block-plane is used today.

the problem is, as a metal plane, we already have that. it’s a block-plane. and there’s no easy one-handed grip on a 1 or 2. they weren’t competing with wooden planes. they were competing with their own 9.5 and 60.5 and they were beyond silly as competition for these extremely-useful alternatives. so don’t think of these as “useful because stanley made awesome tools” but meaningless glitches on the learning curve that are exceptions to the general norm of making excellent tools.

while we’re on the subject, though, by the way, stanley made excellent tools. they’re well-designed. but they’re not well-made. something you’ll notice about old stanleys is that the material quality is extremely-poor. the metal isn’t uniform (seriously, test a dozen prewar planes from a metallurgy standpoint and you won’t even be able to tell what the baseline is) and the milling is crude at best. but that doesn’t really matter. they were cheap tools for everyday use. they’re not premium and they’re not meant to be. spend a lot of money on an old stanley and you’ve wasted it. get one cheap and fix it up and you’re doing great. something to keep in mind — you won’t turn an old plane into a luxury tool but it’ll serve you well if you accept its flaws. if you want a premium plane, call veritas or quangsheng — even woodriver. stanley’s old faithfuls simply don’t stack up well against those modern methods.

the next one on the list for contemplation is the 3. it feels like it has all the makings of a good smoother. here’s the problem — the 4 is a better one. the 3 is tiny. if you’re a child, this is a great plane for you. it’s light and will fit your hands. i’m not a big girl in any way. but i find it small for me and if you have large paws you’ll feel like you’re holding cinderella’s slipper — glass or fur but definitely miniature — i wonder if she had bound feet like my grandmother. if you can pick one up really cheaply … don’t bother. get a 4. there’s nothing the 3 can do the 4 doesn’t do better. again, this was a case of stanley copying an existing wooden plane and ending up competing not against the wooden one but its own already-better product. don’t make the same mistake stanley did. get yourself a 4. actually, get yourself several for different setups. it’s an awesome plane. the 3 isn’t worth your time unless you’ve got kids — and in that case it’s awesome.

the last one on our list is the weirdest-numbered of the planes. the 5.25 isn’t a larger version of the 5. it’s a smaller version. it’s a little longer than the 4.5 but narrower than either the 4 or 5 — 11” and 1 3/4”. what’s it for? practically-speaking, it’s … not for anything. it’s too narrow. it’ll take you far longer to use it as a jack compared to the 5, 5.5 or 6 and that’s what it’s meant to be. stanley fucked up even putting this plane into production — not because they made a bad plane but because they’d already made a far better one in terms of useful size in both the 5 and 6. this thing didn’t even make an appearance until after world-war-one so you won’t see it very often. if you do, ignore it. pretend it doesn’t exist. it’ll be better that way.

final thoughts

so you want to get into woodworking. and you like the idea of fixing up a few old stanleys. awesome. a few quick tips.

buy three planes to start. one to smooth, one to joint and one to scrub (a jack).

  • for your smoother, get a 4, 4.5, 5 or 5.5.
  • for your jointer, get a 6, 7 or 8.
  • for your jack, get a 5, 5.5 or 6.
  • get a block-plane but don’t spend much on it.

don’t overlap your purchases. in other words, if you get a 5 for a smoother, you still need a jack. so you can get another 5. that’s fine. just don’t expect your planes to do double-duty. you won’t do it and you’ll just end up back at the flea-market anyway. might as well start with three.

while we’re on the subject of flea-markets, buy cheap.

a 4 or 5 should cost you no more than $20-25. if you’re buying online, expect to spend double that. but don’t spend a lot because this is a well-designed but poorly-made tool that will require hours (often days) of your time to get it working. yes, a good-quality new version will cost two or three hundred dollars. that might not be worth it. but you’ll find a cheap old one if you keep looking.

a 6, 7 or 8 shouldn’t run you more than $50 in-person — likely twice that, online, unfortunately. these are more expensive new (and were more expensive when stanley made them) and paying more makes sense. again, the same guidance applies.

if you can’t get a cheap block-plane, you’re not looking hard enough. even the ones you see on amazon will do just fine. don’t spend a lot on a classic stanley — it’s not worth it. save your money for a nice smoother. that’s where the investment will pay off in quality of results.

that’s it. it’s certainly not everything you might want to know about stanley bench-planes. but it’s a start. and now you’ll know what they mean when people talk about the common numbers. hopefully you’ve found that useful and, if not interesting, enlightening in at least a small way. thanks for reading!

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