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Newsletter Article: The Story of Western Hand Planes

The Story of Western Hand Planes


Hand planes are an ancient tool, originating thousands of years ago.  There are Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting what appears to be craftsman working wood with hand plane-like tools. Furniture pieces and other woodwork found in Egyptian tombs show surfaces carefully smoothed with some manner of cutting edge or scraping tool. There are suggestions that these early Egyptian planes were simply wooden blocks fastened to the soles of adzes to effect greater control of the cutting action.



The Romans created the forerunner of today’s modern plane.  The earliest known examples of Roman woodworking planes were found in excavations of Pompeii, Italy. 




Other Roman plane examples have been unearthed in Britain and Germany. The Roman planes resemble modern planes in their essential function, most having iron wrapping a wooden core top, bottom, front and rear and an iron blade secured with a wedge. One example found in Cologne; Germany has a body made entirely of bronze without a wooden core.  A Roman plane iron used for cutting moldings was found in Newstead, England.




By the 15th century planes had advanced to become a piece of squared wood with a rectangular slot or mortise with a 45-degree angled bed cut in the center. A cutting blade or iron was held in this slot with a wooden wedge. The wedge was tapped into the mortise and adjusted with a small mallet, a piece of scrap wood, or with the heel of the user's hand.




During the next several centuries’ plane technology continued to evolve and craftsman generally made their own wooden plane bodies while the village blacksmith made the cutting irons.   As the art of plane making improved, craftsman made numerous types of planes for all sorts of planing applications.   



Metallurgy at this time was more of an art than a science but enough was understood that artisans knew a plane iron needed to be the right combination of hardness to cut and maintain an edge but soft enough to sharpen easily without being brittle.  This combination of soft and hard was achieved through laminating hard metal onto soft metal creating a single blade.  When sharpening antique blades, you can sometimes see the separation line between the metal lamination.  Of course, even the hardest metal made in the 15 century is soft compared to the advanced metals we have today.



The earliest surviving British planes are from the Tudor Period (1485-1603). These wood planes were found when the ship HMS Mary Rose, one of King Henry VIII’s warships, was brought up from the floor of the English Channel in 1982. The HMS Mary Rose was sunk in 1545, while fighting against a French invasion fleet.  The HMS Mary Rose along with the contents of the ship, including its wooden planes, are on display in Portsmouth, England, at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.




The basic hand planes from the 1500’s to the early 1900’s was the fore plane, try plane and smoothing plane.  The fore plane was a 16”-20” plane with a heavily curved blade designed to hog off large portions of wood quickly.  This type of plane was used “before the others” to roughly plane wood to size.  Next was the “try” plane, a 12”-18” plane with a slightly curved blade used to flatten and smooth out the planing marks left by the fore plane.  Finally, a small smoothing plane with an almost straight blade was used to smooth the surface of the wood. 





The use of curved blades we see during this time is primarily due to the soft metals (relative to the metals we have today) and the lack of fine grit sharpening material.  Thus, craftsman of old could not sharpen to the precision we can with today’s modern stones nor could the blades they used hold a sharp edge.  Given this state of technology, curved blades made it easier to push the plane across the wood and remove material quickly.



Up to the mid 1750’s, all planes used a single blade held in place with a wedge.  Sometime between 1750 and 1770 an innovation in plane making that remains with us today occurred: the double-iron plane blade or what we know today as a blade supported by a chip-breaker was invented.




The double iron blade was created to combat tear-out.  Until the introduction of the double-iron plane blade, the strategy for combating tear-out was to increase the angle the blade is presented to the wood by increasing the bedding angle.  The double ironed blade fights tear-out by forcing the shaving to bend which prevents the wood from splitting ahead of the cut, thus reducing tear-out.  The closer the cap is to the cutting edge the more effectively it works.  Woodworking tool catalogs and instructional writing between 1770 and 1800 clearly show the rapid switch from single ironed planes to the more effective double-ironed planes.





Mirroring the development of planes over the centuries was the development of the art of sharpening metal.  From Roman times through the mid-1900’s craftsman used natural occurring stones to sharpen their plane blades.  Craftsman were constantly searching for abrasive stones of high quality and many famous quarries and mines developed around the world producing sharpening stones.


So how sharp were craftsman in the 1500’s to 1700’s able to get their blades?  This is difficult to say precisely, but a commonly used comparison was their abrasive stones were akin to sharpening on 250 grit sandpaper of today.  But they may not have needed their planes to be as “scary sharp” as we try to achieve today because they were dealing with old growth timber that was air dried and much easier to work than the fast grown, kiln dried, woods of today.  Another common comparison is that working wood in the 1500-1700 was akin to shaping a hard bar of soap!  That’s how easy it was to work the wood.


As the demand for furniture grew, companies began to manufacture wooden planes in large numbers. Many of the planes were made for specific trades that included: Carpenters, Coopers, Shipwrights, Furniture makers, and instrument makers.  Several of the companies manufacturing wooden planes in the late 1800 to the first half of the 1900s were: Stanley Rule & Level Company of the United States, Leonard Bailey & Company of the Unites States, Ohio Tool of the Unites States, Auburn Tool Company of the Unites States, Sandusky Tools of the Unites States, Alex Mathieson and Sons of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Mosely and Sons of London, Robert Sorby of Sheffield England, William Marples of Sheffield England, Thomas Norris & Sons of London



The Stanley company purchased patent rights to many wood planes, as well as acquiring most of the competitive tool manufacturing companies. By the early 1900s, the Stanley Company dominated the wood plane market producing a vast array of wood planes for different jobs.


In the mid-1860s, Leonard Bailey began producing a line of cast iron-bodied hand planes, the patents for which were later purchased by Stanley Rule & Level.  Using mass production techniques, Stanley produced thousands of planes.  After a short transition period, metal planes supplanted wooden bodied planes as the standard by the early 1900’s. The original Bailey designs were further evolved and added to by Justus Traut and others at Stanley Rule & Level creating their bedrock planes designed for professional woodworkers.



After World War II, the introduction of mass-produced powered woodworking tools significantly decreased the manufacture and use of hand planes.  Skilled woodworkers and craftsmen were replaced by mass market furniture makers using assembly lines.  The only significant innovation in hand tools after WW II was the push to make them cheaper without much attention to quality.  




Beginning in the 1980’s there was a resurgent of interest among woodworkers for traditional woodworking techniques, including hand planes.  In the late 1980’s a small company, Lie Nielsen Toolworks, created the first modern, mass-produced, quality plane in over 50 years.  Lie Nielsen Toolworks re-created the Stanley bedrock plane design but used modern metals and casting techniques previously unavailable.  This resulted in a modern and much higher performing plane that its Stanley forefather.  Jump to today and several plane manufacturers mass produce high quality planes using modern metals and advanced manufacturing techniques.


These modern planes, such as Lie Nielsen and WoodRiver, use ductile iron castings, and cryogenic-ally treated A-2 or harder steel.  Ductile iron, unlike the older cast iron won't crack if dropped.  Additionally, the thickness of blades and plane body casting is twice as thick as the original Bedrock planes, making the newer planes heavier and sturdier.  Of most significance is the improvement in blade steel.  Today’s advanced steels and steel treatment methods have yielded a near ideal blend of hardness and softness previously unavailable. 




At approximately this same time, the use of natural stones for sharpening was replaced by high-quality, consistent particle size, artificial stones. Modern synthetic and diamond impregnated stones are considered superior in sharpening performance to natural stones due to consistency of particle size and control over the properties of the stones. Current synthetic grit values range from extremely coarse, such as 120 grit, through extremely fine, such as 30,000 grit (less than half a micrometer abrasive particle size).  These stones allow today’s woodworkers to achieve a sharp blade edge that craftsman from the 1700’s could not even imagine.





All this, combined with modern power tools, has significantly changed how woodworkers use hand planes today.   Fore planes have generally been replaced by the power jointer, planer, and table saw to initially shape wood.  When the need arises to remove a lot of wood by hand, woodworkers reach for a scrub plane, today’s version of the fore plane. 


The modern try or jack plane with its finely-honed thick steel blades can remove shavings as thin as one-thousands of an inch, essentially combining the capabilities of the old try and smoothing planes into one plane.  These modern planes, in trained hands, can smooth machined wood surfaces into flat, glass-like surfaces smoother than sandpaper.  




If you have not purchased a modern plane nor learned how to sharpen properly, then I highly recommend you do so.  The WoodRiver #5-1/2 V3 is a versatile plane that can flatten a board as well as create a glass smooth surface when the blade is properly sharpened.  If you have not felt the pleasure of shaping wood with a hand plane, then join the ranks of the Egyptians, Romans, artisans of the 1700’s, and later and make some shavings.