Several days ago I posted a picture on instagram that elicited a few surprising (and passionate) responses. It was a simple black and white still of a Stanley Bailey no.4 sitting next to a no.3
I posted it as an informal straw poll to see which one people generally used or liked better. I was surprised to see that most folks proclaimed the no.3 to be top of the shop.
Well, on second thought Maybe I wasn’t so surprised, because after using both the no.3 is my preference as well. I’m a big guy and I can swing a heavy plane, but something about this smaller and lighter smoother has captivated me. It may be that it just feels “agile” and smoothing is a task that requires some finesse and agility. It may be that the no.4 feels cramped like a compact car, but the no.3 feels like a well tuned sports car with just enough leg room to work the clutch around tight corners. Maybe it’s just infatuation with something new.
Whatever it is, my no.4 is sitting the bench right now and my no.3 is in the game.
But the question was asked (and I do love these sorts of questions); “What’s the difference?”
In one sense it all comes down to a couple fractions of an inch.
That difference doesn’t sound like much, but it’s most evident when you compare the surface area of the bottoms visually.
If you wanted to crunch the numbers, the no.4 covers about 4 1/8 square inches more area than the no.3, and when the no.3 is 20 1/4″ square total that is a significant difference (nearly 20%).
Visually speaking, again, the no.4 vs the no.3 from the front:
And the back:
The irons also make a significant difference. The no.4 uses the standard 2″ blade found in the no.5 as well, but the no.3 uses a 1 3/4″ blade.
Again, it seems like 1/4″ shouldn’t be a big deal but, in practice, it’s a world of difference.
This morning I was working on a bottom and lid for a small mahogany box and just for kicks I got them both out and used them side by side for a while. (I should say that they were both sharp and set about the same, and either could have handily done this work on their own.)
The immediate difference I noticed was the size of the shaving. The no 4 was taking off handsome shavings with ease and the no. 3 was doing the same, but the no.3 had a lighter touch on the wood which is a real advantage on this mahogany (the grain reverses to some extent).
The smaller iron, with a slight camber, let me work trouble spots with ease.
In the end, they both produced a fine finish. (The no.3 on the left and the no.4 on the right).
So that’s the difference. Now you really have to decide for yourself.
I wrote this post not just to answer an Instagram question, but honestly to answer my own question when I was considering smoothers. I searched the internet high and low for information about why I would choose one over the other and most places all I found were answers like:
“The no. 4 for me!”
“No, the no.3 is sooo much better.”
“But the no.4 is great!”
The tech specs are available online, but until you put the two next to each other, hold them in your hand and run them down the grain of a board, it is hard to quantify the feeling in quarters of an inch.
Metaphor fails, as always, but I hope this gives an impression of what it’s like to use the two and why one might work for you better than the other. And, as always, if you have a story or comment to share below about your search for the perfect smoother it is most welcome below.