Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When East meets West

Two Planes go Head to Head
These days, when you open up your favorite Woodworking Magazines you see an incredible amount of hand tools coming back into style by manufacturers from literally all over the world. While this indeed is a good thing for hand tool users and collectors, the amount of choices the amateur woodworker can have may be a little overwhelming. In this article I'm going to compare two of my favourite Smoothing planes, a Lie-Nielson No. 4, and a James Krenov custom smoother.

Tale of the Tapes

Lie-Nielson No. 4, Bronze Body
Length: 9 1/2"
Width: 2"
Weight: 4 lbs ., 10 oz.
Blade Thickness: 1/8"
Manufactured in Maine.

James Krenov Custom Smoother
Length: 8 1/2"
Width: 2 1/8"
Weight: 2 lbs., 4 oz.
Blade Thickness: 3/32"
Manufactured in California.

The first thing to mention when comparing these two planes is the obvious, one is an admittedly 'rough around the edges' wooden bodied plane and the other is a shiny and sleek looking, Bronze bodied plane based on a Stanley, Bedrock design. The Krenov has no front Knob or rear Tote, so using a plane with this style may take a little getting used to. The Lie-Nielson has a comfortable pistol grip tote, familiar to most of our Western style hand planes.
Both would be considered in the high end of quality in today's hand tool market and are quite compatible in price. So what's the difference and which one is for you?
Let's take a closer look.

Lie-Nielson No. 4
Let's start off by saying Lie-Nielson Tool works Inc. manufactures precision made, top-quality hand tools in Warren, Maine. They are quality through and through. Right out of the box these tools are hard to beat, high quality castings, beautifully shaped and finished Cherry handles and totes. The blades are A-2 cryogenically treated Tool Steel, hardened to Rockwell 60-62 and double tempered; they may need only a small amount of honing before use. The No. 4 is a Bench plane that is basically a re-designed Bedrock. The Bedrock was Stanley's top of the line planes, the biggest difference being in the frog assembly. The frog has a long bed that mates along the sole for a better supported iron with noticeably less chatter. Another advantage of this set-up is the ease at which you can adjust the throat opening. Two screws set behind the rear tote allows you to easily open or close the throat. No more fussing with the Lever Cap, loosening the iron and chip breaker, turning screws, putting things back together just to find it's not quite right.
The No. 4 is available in Bronze or Iron, I purchased the bronze version for the extra added weight. Not too mention, it looks pretty cool as well...Lie-Nielson also offers a Corrugated bottom version as well as a High-Angle frog upgrade.For smoothing hard reversing grain such as Birds Eye Maple, this plane works like a dream. Never any fussing, no surprises, just reliable performance every time. The No. 4 is in my opinion, the ultimate in Bedrock style hand planes and retails for $300.00 American. I think it's worth every cent.

James Krenov Custom Smoother
Now we'll go to the other end of the spectrum except however in performance. This plane is exactly what it's supposed to be. A simply made wooden bodied hand plane with minimal parts and not much else in the way of bells or whistles. Rough edges and dull finish, this plane may look as though an amateur woodworker cut it out using a dull steak knife. Funny how looks can be deceiving? As soon as you pick up this plane you realise those rough edges aren't so rough after all;perfectly shaped to meet the irregular hills and valleys of your hand. It is admittedly a little strange at first, the force is a downward pressure, with your hands lying in a more flattened but natural state. After using it for a few minutes you realize this downward pressure lends itself to optimum control. Fine adjustments are effortless with small movements and changes in your body weight. A much more organic movement you'll quickly discover small nuances in the grain of the wood. You'll be able to 'feel' the grain down through the plane body. The mechanical motion of the Lie-Nielson plane, while safe and predictable goes by the way side once you feel the difference in a wooden plane. You no longer will plane in that straight line; this plane allows you to explore with a rhythm and motion never experienced in hand planing. Circular motions, cross-grain fielding, and reversing exotic grains will become like silk. To adjust the blade a small hammer is used and sighting down the sole from the back, hold the plane upside down and gently tap the Iron until it just comes out of the throat. Another tap on the wedge and your ready to go. To retract the blade a repeated tap on the heel and that's all there is to it. Perhaps a little over-simplified but with a little practice, this will become second nature. The Krenov came with a Ron Hock blade and chip breaker. Hock tools is a small company in Fort Bragg, California. Starting in 1981, they've been making high quality steel for James Krenov and his students in the Fine Woodworking Program at College of the Redwoods. Now available world wide, they are some of the best plane irons available. I've recently fitted all of my old Stanley hand planes with Hock Chip breakers and Irons.

And the Winner Is...

So there you have it, the East meeting the West in hand plane technology. Which is better? I think that depends on the piece of wood or project you're dealing with. I tend to use the Lie-Nielson for larger areas and the Krenov for more delicate pieces. If I'm making a piece like a kitchen cabinet for someone and using a lot of figured Cherry, then I'll grab the Lie-Nielson; if on the other hand I'm shaping a small box out of figured Maple, perhaps a Christmas gift for a friend, then I'll always reach for the Krenov. Funny how simply holding a certain tool will change your thinking and/or working perspectives. One may inspire while the other offers a sense of security. Now, if I had to choose only one...?


Great website and nice comments about the two smoothers. I think you may have put into words the best explanation I've read about how these planes actully feel in use, niceley done.


March 4, 2008 8:24 AM

1 comment:

  1. Tom,
    Great website and nice comments about the two smoothers. I think you may have put into words the best explanation I've read about how these planes actully feel in use, niceley done.