A plane, or hand plane, is a device that holds an iron chisel in a fixed position so wood can be evenly removed from the surface of a board. They are used to smooth, thin, and flatten wood, as well as to shape the wood for utilitarian purposes like joints and decorative purposes like edges and molding.
Thanks to the invention of planes, a moderately skilled workman could produce the same quality carpentry that previously had taken a master craftsman countless hours to achieve with a hand chisel.
Until the mass-production techniques of the Industrial Revolution, wooden planes with iron blades were the dominant form. In the early 17th century, woodworkers in Europe often personalized this valuable tool, carving dates and decorations into their planes, which they usually made themselves, and buying the cutter blades or irons from blacksmiths. Such tools from this period—surviving examples tend to be from Holland, Germany, or Austria—are highly prized by collectors.
It wasn’t until the late 17th century that the making of planes became an acknowledged trade. This development was in response to baroque and rococo architecture and design, which required much more elaborate furniture and moldings. Therefore, woodworkers needed much more complicated tools. These planemakers were so proud of their craft, they would often imprint their names and their towns on the fronts, or toe, of their planes.
Thanks to this tradition, antique wooden planes are easy to date and identify—there are almost 3,000 known American, Canadian, and English planemakers. Thomas Granford is the first 17th-century English planemaker on record, followed by his apprentice Robert Wooding, who worked in London between 1710 and 1728.
Initially, the American colonists brought simple planes with them from England—a number of Wooding planes have been found in the United States. Francis Nicholson of Wrentham, Massachusetts, is the first known planemaker in America. The trade quickly radiated through his state. Soon planes were made by Samuel Doggett in Dedham, Henry Wetherel in Norton, John Walton and his sons in Reading, and Jonathan Ballou and Jo. Fuller in Providence, Rhode Island.
Early New England planes are identified by their use of yellow birch instead of the traditional beech, and also for their larger size, 9 ? to 10 inches, as compared to the standa...
After the Revolutionary War, planemaking flourished, and as the new country expanded westward and homes and buildings were erected, planemaking shifted to Cincinnati, Ohio in the early 19th century and St. Louis, Missouri, later in the century.
The decline of wooden planes in the U.S. began in the mid-19th century during the Industrial Revolution, as new manufacturers, with their steam- and water-powered machines and assembly-line factories, started churning out metal planes. These new planes, usually cast in iron or gunmetal bronze, were also more accurate and easier to use.
For a plane to be identified as a “metal” plane, the body and at least part of the sole must be metal, whereas the knob, handle, wedge, fill, and part of the sole can be wood. Early U.S. patents for metal planes include the Knowles bench planes of the 1820s, Holly’s patent of 1852, and the Bailey patents of the 1850s.
At first, woodworkers were resistant to the change, and so manufacturers introduced “transitional” or “wood-bottomed” planes around 1860, which offered the worn-in “feel” of wooden planes but the more accurate blade-setting capabilities of the metal planes.
Perhaps the most influential plane manufacturer in history, the Stanley Company, entered the market in 1869. This manufacturer, which assigned its planes catalog numbers, is credited with the development and growth of the market for American-style planes.
By 1900, Stanley dominated the market, often by buying out competitors. Other plane trade names and manufacturers included Bailey, “B-Plane” by Birmingham, Chaplin, Gage, Keen Kutter, Ohio, Sargent, Siegley, Standard Rule, Union, and Winchester. But only Stanley, an aggressive firm that made itself synonymous with hand tools, still exists today.
One of the keys to Stanley’s success was to continually put tantalizing new products in front of consumers, whether they needed them or not. Frequently, many of these so-called “innovations” were surface changes that didn’t necessary make the product better or easier to use. Thanks to this policy, though, Stanley has released more than 300 plane models.
Two of Stanley’s most premium models, the No. 42 and No. 44, made using the 1872 Millers plow patent, were made of gunmetal. The company also made six aluminum models, which have the letter “A” before their model numbers—today, some of these are quite hard to find.
Interestingly, the planes that were dismissed as most useless by woodworkers are the ones that are the most valuable to contemporary collectors, as they were only produced for around 15 years as opposed to the 60 or 70 year run of a normal Stanley product. These include the No. 42 gunmetal Millers patent plow, the No. A45 aluminum combination plow, the No. 56 core box, the No. 64 butcher block, the No. 87 scraper, the No. 101½ block, the No. 164 low angle, the No. 196 curve rabbet, the No. 212 scraper, the No. 340 furring, and the No. 444 dovetail.
The most basic kind of plane is a bench plane, because they tended to be found on a carpenter’s workbench. These standard planes have a flat sole, a blade set at a 45-degree angle, and no side throat openings, so the wood shavings come out of the top. Bench planes are classified into four basic categories, by length and use.
A smooth plane ranges from 6½ to 10½ inches long, and is used for the final finishing on wood. The most widely used plane is the jack plane, which is 14 to 16 inches long, shaves off the most amount of wood in the smallest amount of time, and is used for roughing out work in the early stages. A fore plane or try plane, 18 to 22 inches, is used between the jack and jointer, and is the one a workman was most likely to forgo. A jointer plane, 22 to 30 inches long, is used to prepare the long straight edges of a piece of wood prior to jointing them.
In addition to straight bench planes, there are a multitude of planes for other purposes. A miter plane (with a 35-degree blade angle) and a toothing plane (with a vertical iron) are both designed to work on woods with difficult grains. “Miniature” or “finger” planes, which are 2-3 inches long, are used by model and instrument makers. A “bull-nose” plane has its blade toward the front so that it can cut deeper into corners, while a chisel plane can cut right up to the perpendicular wall of a box.
Some planes like circular or compass planes have curved soles to carve curved surfaces, while still other planes like molding or shoulder planes make steps (called rabbets or rebates), bevels or chamfers, window sashes, door panels, convex, concave, and beaded molding patterns, and jointing features like dadoes, tongues, grooves, mortises, and dovetails. Plane-like tools called “shaves” or “spokeshaves” are also used smooth rounded surfaces. The makers of barrels (coopers) and coaches even had their own special kinds of planes.
A particularly popular sort of groove-cutting plane is a plow plane, which generally comes with eight or more blades in different widths, each of which can be adjusted to various depths, and has an adjustable fence so it can make a wide range of grooves and rabbets in varying distance from the edge of the wood. Hence, it serves as multiple planes in one. A style of plane known as the Yankee plow was hugely popular in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries before the standard plow came into favor again.
Even in the 19th century, plow planes, the most treasured plane in a woodworker’s kit, were purchased for show, particularly those made of exotic woods like boxwood, rosewood, and ebony, with ivory for the locking nuts and arm tips. In 1869, L. & C.H. DeForest even advertised a $1,000 ivory handled plow plane with 22-karat gold nuts, washers, and arm tips. That was the price of a house at the time, but no one has ever found an actual physical model.
Stanley’s metal bench planes were first numbered based on size—the No.1 was 5 ½ inches, the No. 8 was 24 inches, and so on. Many of the company’s planes and tools became standard for every woodworker’s tool kit, including the No. 80 scrapper (used to give wood a glass-like surface), and the classic No. 45 combination plane, which is like a plow plane, but also cuts various curved molding forms.
The Stanley No. 45 was produced between 1884 and 1962, and is still used by woodworkers today. When Stanley released an improvement on the model, the No. 55, it was praised by carpenters as it had even more options, but for some reason—perhaps the weight and complexity of the tool—most of the ones found today are unused. To collectors, these tools are usually more valuable when they come with all the blades and the box with its instruction booklet and screwdriver, and yet these planes were also the least valuable to the people who used them.
The block plane (Stanley’s is No. 120) is commonly found in most people’s kitchen drawer and is used to, among other things, level uneven doors. A British plane, also called a chariot plane, is a forerunner to the block plane and is popular with collectors since no two castings are alike. Japanese and Chinese planes different from Western planes in that a user pulls the plane toward himself.
Outside of Stanley, another highly sought plane is the English metal plane. These high-quality precision tools are particularly beautiful, made with iron, brass, or gunmetal bronze, and infilled with mahogany, rosewood, or ebony.
Wooden planes can be dated by the maker’s mark, the type of screws used for plows, and also the size—for example, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that American molding planes took to the 9-inch standard. Planes made of yellow birch date before 1800, whereas plans of ebony, boxwood, rosewood, and lignum vitae came much later.
Molding profiles can also be dated if you match them to the style of architecture that was popular during a certain period. If a wooden plane has more than three owner’s initials scratched into it, it likely dates before 1800.
When it comes to metal planes, it takes some doing to distinguish between the antique Stanley models and the contemporary versions—look for the Stanley name cast into the plane body or on the adjusting knob. Older metal tools were japanned (coated with black pigment), while later planes, like the Stanley No. 49 from 1898, were nickel-plated.
Collectors should be wary of “parts cannibalism,” which is when a plane has been reassembled from mismatched, often inferior, parts. Sometimes this practice occurred at the factory using leftover pieces from a previous model, or by a woodworker, who needed to keep his tools in working order. Others were put together by collectors who simply didn't know any better. Not surprisingly, these planes can be difficult to date properly.