If you’re in the market for a smooth plane, chances are you’ll probably consider one of two options. Buy a new one from a top tool-maker like Lie-Nielsen or Veritas which can set you back $200-350, or buy an old Stanley and fix it up. However there should be a third option on your list.
The Millers Falls No 9 smooth plane is one of the nicest production smooth planes you can buy for the money. In most cases, you can buy one for a lot less than a comparable Stanley No 4 plane and get the same quality of plane.
The differences between a Stanley No 4 and a Millers Falls No 9 are minimal. Both planes use 2″ wide blades. Both are about 9″ long and weigh about 4 lbs. They both have a frog adjustment screw in the back (some older Stanley’s don’t have this feature). In fact, the only main difference between the two is that the Millers Falls uses a two piece hinged lever cap that supposedly holds more pressure on the blade and chip breaker reducing blade chatter.
Both planes are about 9″ long with the Millers Falls being 1/8″ longer. If the bed is pitted a little bit it’s not a big deal as the pits won’t affect the plane’s performance. Consider them micro corrugations.
These two planes both have a frog adjustment screw in the back making it easier to adjust the opening of the mouth for the blade. Stanley’s made before 1907 don’t have this feature but I don’t think it’s a really big deal since once you set the opening of the mouth, you rarely reset it.
The handles on Millers Falls are made of beech hardwood with some older ones being made from cherry. In my experience, these are actually better than the rosewood Stanley used. Although prettier than the stained beech, a lot of Stanley’s with rosewood handles tend to break at the tip since the rosewood is more brittle than beech or cherry.
The nicest difference the Millers Falls No 9 has over the Stanley No 4 is the price you can pick one up for. Basically nobody really wants these things because all the collectors want Stanley’s. Even woodworkers when buying old tools typically gravitate toward Stanley’s more than their competitors since there are far more Stanley’s in the market place. However, if you keep a keen eye out, you can buy an old Millers Falls for about $10.00. I know because I just picked up a few Millers Falls No 9’s for $10.00 each a few weeks ago at antique shows.
As far as the price of Stanley No 4’s expect to pay $40.00 or more for a nice one since dealers will want top dollar for them. I’ve seen some mint Stanley No 4’s go for $150 on eBay.
Getting the Millers Falls No 9 cleaned up and ready to use is no different from an old Stanley. If rusty, dip the parts in citric acid for a few hours and then polish the metal to a shine with steel wool. If necessary, fettle the bed flat with 220 – 400 grit sand paper then sharpen the blade. The results will be stunning for a $10.00 plane as I was able to achieve a plane shaving of .003″ by only sharpening the blade. So thin in fact, that you can literally see through the wood shaving.
As a final note, if you’re the type of person who likes to use several smooth planes with a different cut setting, (hence the reason you don’t need to reset the blade with the frog adjustment screw), a good idea is to have a Stanley No 4 set to a medium-cut and a Millers Falls No 9 set to a fine-cut so it’s easy to determine which plane has the proper cut set to it.