I know: this is a journal about woodworking on the cheap. And since I'm still kind of a cheapskate, I'll keep with that theme, for the most part. But here's the thing: in woodworking, up to a point, you get what you pay for. At the lowest end, even a few dollars makes a difference: The difference between a $15 saw and a $20 saw can be pretty significant. At the top end, it kind of ceases to matter: sure, that $2000 plane may be better than $500 one, but is it really four times as good? Or is it maybe $20 better?
For the last year or so, my primary smoothing plane has been a Ward's Master No. 4. It's essentially a Stanley #4, except not as good. I've always had some trouble with it: the cutter regularly slips side to side, and adjusting the depth of cut can be frustrating. But once it's set, it can take some beautiful thin shavings, thin to the point of translucence. And the improvement in my sharpening skills has been helping, too... sharp can compensate somewhat for slightly out of adjustment.
Today, I finally pulled out my Stanley #3. It's an old plane -- the date on the cutter is in the 1890s, and the latest patent date listed is 1910 -- and it's in beautiful shape. I inherited it: when my uncle went to clean out my grandfather's basement, quite a few years after my grandfather passed away, it was there with some other tools. Since I'm the only woodworker in the family, they mostly came to me. That was last summer, and I'm just now managing to do the necessary cleanup, which tells you something about my life for the past year.
It's amazing. It didn't need much: it'd been stored in something like cosmoline, so it wasn't especially rusty, despite having been in an unheated basement for years. I cleaned the grease off with WD-40 (aerosolized kerosene is a wonderful thing...), and did a little light tuneup. The sole had a touch of rust, so I sanded that lightly with sandpaper on a piece of plate-glass, and the iron was badly in need of sharpening. But once that was done... it just worked. Drop the iron in and line up the lateral adjustment, and it's straight. The mouth was pretty far closed already, so a spin of the depth adjuster brought the cutter down below the sole, ready to take a fine cut. With the first cut, I knew I was replacing the No. 4. Depth adjustment is quick and precise, with very little backlash (the main problem with the Ward's plane). The lateral adjustment works quickly and cleanly. The tote feels more like wood, and less like Bakelite. And, while the iron still needs a little work, I could go from custruction-paper-thickness shavings right down to those "read large print through them" shavings, with no problem.
So what's the big difference here? Quality. The channel on the depth adjusting wheel on the No. 4 is far larger than it should be, which means depth adjustment is hard. The frog doesn't sit quite straight (it's only a degree or two off, but that's enough), which means lateral adjustment is a little strange. The lever cap is always too tight or too loose, no matter how you adjust the screw.
The Stanley probably cost twice as much new, despite being a smaller tool. But it will be a better quality tool for as long as it's cared for.
I'll hang onto that Ward's Master plane: it was the first I ever bought, and I have some ideas for fixing some of the more egregious problems. But in the end, it's a lower quality tool, and it will probably never be as good. So when you can, buy quality.