Brief History Of Hand Planes

Note: this is a test post, all text from the Hand Plane History website

For almost 2,000 years the plane has been one of the craftsman’s most important tools. It has helped to shape history, but its origins are unknown.

In the earliest times wood was probably roughly trimmed with an adze and then smoothed with a stone, using sand as an abrasive. This method was the one most probably used by the Ancient Egyptians, skilled woodworkers who were familiar with the mortice and tenon joint.

The first plane was probably a chisel-like tool inserted in a block of wood, but none of these rudimentary tools has come to light. By Roman times, however, great developments had taken place.

The earliest known planes date from 79 A.D. and were found at Pompeii. Any schoolboy would recognise them as planes. Except for the rather narrow iron, the dimensions agree very closely with those of the present No. 3 Smoothing Plane.

The Pompeii planes had a wooden case sheathed with an iron plate about 1/4” thick. The mouth was cut about a third of the way back from the front, and the iron, set at an angle of about 50 degrees, was held with a wedge against a round iron bar across the opening. A grip for the right hand was effected by cutting a slot through the wooden core.

The earliest plane found in Britain was excavated at Silchester. This was a Roman iron plane of much sturdier construction than the Pompeii models. Roman planes of Bronze without the use of wood have also been found on the Continent.

The Silchester plane bears a remarkable resemblance to a modern Jack Plane in its main lines of design.

Other discoveries indicate that this pattern remained in fairly constant use for at least l50 years.

With the passing of the Roman Empire the picture again becomes blurred until the Middle Ages. A painting by Bourdichon of a Parisian joiner’s shop of about 1510 shows a late medieval tryplane and smoother and the artist’s great attention to detail helps us to discover a great deal about the tools of this period.

The front of the plane is fitted with a carved handle for the left hand and the back of the stock is left flat.

During the first half of the 15th century the traditional method of securing the plane iron by means of a wedge bearing against a cross bar, which had been in use since Roman times, was superseded by a grooved wedge.

The first accurately dated example of the new patterns is seen in another picture, Durer’s famous engraving ‘Melancholia’, dated 1514. The smoothing plane shown still had the rather small mouth opening, while the grooves for the wedge were comparatively deep.

Another new feature, the stopped chamfer along the top edge, gave a more comfortable grip, and both these features remained on wooden planes until modern times.

Generally speaking the planes ofthe 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were provided with a forward horn. This disappeared in England but has persisted in Europe to the present day, where it is often the practise to use the plane with a pulling rather than a pushing action.

This was the craftsman’s ‘Golden Age’ and much time and trouble was taken over the design of tools. Craftsmen were being called upon to do more skilful and exacting work and the use of tools and the interest in development had become very widespread.

A cabinet maker’s plane of the 17th century has been preserved and has beautifully finished scrolls and the toe and heel are so designed that it is impossible to trap the fingers. Some exquisite carving can be seen on a set of early German planes in the possession of the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield.

It is worth noting that except for the lower pitch of the iron. development took place on a close parallel with that of Roman times. The first step was iron sheathing (like that of the Pompeii planes discovered later). Dated from 1880 a plane found in the U.S.A. had a wooden core sheathed in iron, with a low set cutting iron and a very narrow mouth. It was no doubt ideal for the shooting of mitres and end grain and for smooth finish for difficult grained wood.

Believed to have been made in England, this plane was the forerunner of many similar types. Blade fixture was by wedge and of such a form that the blade could be removed without banging the blade on the bench.

Other planes of the early nineteenth century have survived, in which a sheathing of iron is used and in some cases this was dovetailed together.

From 1800 onwards many planes trace their origin to Shefiield and London as the craft of the toolmaker had now begun to develop and centre on these places.

Experiment continued. Bronze was used (as it was in Roman times) for plane bodies but mostly in smaller planes such as bull nose and shoulder planes. More accuracy of sole and mouth was the goal and it was not long before cast iron was used to attain this.

Although experiments with planes with cast iron soles were taking place as early as 1827, it was not until about forty years later that a satisfactory tool was marketed. The man responsible for much of this development was an American, Leonard Bailey of Boston, Mass.

The story of the gradual evolution of American metal planes of the Stanley type is rather hazy although a fairly accurate pattern of development can be obtained from old catalogues and patent specifications. Even so, some of the more important improvements to planes were not made the subject of patents at all.

As mentioned above the first glimpse of a metal soled plane seems to have been in 1827 when a patent was taken out by H. Knowles for a plane with a cast iron sole. This would seem to have been a Jack plane with a flat sole. The side plates rose to their maximum height about one third of their length from the front Two ribs on the inside formed a groove to take only a single iron and a wooden wedge. At the back was a closed handle with a turned knob at the front.

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