Read my entertaining (and informative) “Woodwright’s Shop Review” blog- the guide to season two, episode three has just been finished. Take a lighthearted look at a very young Roy Underhill as he teaches us to identify and use thirty-five different (and often unique) antique woodworking planes!
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode, thoughts and additional content. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
Today Roy is talking about a subject that is close to my heart: hand planes. The good folks at Colonial Williamsburg lent him a bunch of them, and we’re going to try and guess what shops they came from. Strap yourselves in, folks. This is going to be a wild ride!
First up is a spill plane, a unique tool in many ways. For one thing, you use it upside down. You clamp it in a vise with the bottom up, running your work piece through a groove in its sole. The angled iron shaves off a long curl that “spills” out the mouth in the plane’s side. Those shavings have the look of a wooden straw, and are themselves called “spills”. “If you know what a spill is used for, then you know what this plane is all about.” Roy is such a tease! He doesn’t actually tell us “what a spill is used for,” instead he moves on to another plane.
The second plane in today’s show-and-tell is a tiny little thing that looks like a baby coffin smoother. No, I don’t mean a plane used to smooth baby coffins. I mean a very small version of the traditional coffin shaped smoothing plane. So small, in fact, that it’s about the size of the end of Roy’s finger, which is a funny coincidence as it happens to be called a finger plane. It creates more dust than actual shavings, but it does have a purpose. Of course, Roy isn’t going to tell us that purpose yet. He’s moved on to plane number three. This one is a beautiful brass and rosewood infill plane with a very low angled iron to reduce tear-out in figured grain. A fourth plane is just the opposite: a simple block of wood with an iron so steep that it’s almost perpendicular to the sole. This is a “toothing plane” and it is used to scrape highly figured grain. These three tools came from the same shop, and now it’s time to guess which shop that is. I think the finger plane gave it away. Only a musical instrument maker would use such a tool, with the possible exception of a manicurist or a Lilliputian carpenter. Since there’s neither a nail salon nor a colony of tiny people in Williamsburg, I’m going with the instrument maker. And Roy awards me a gold star for my answer.
He’s still carrying around his “spill” shaving as we move on to another set of planes, beginning with number five for the day. This strange looking tool is full of clues that hint toward its owner’s identity. For one thing it has a tongue that runs down the center of its sole and an octagonal shaped iron. It’s hand made from highly figured tiger maple. And there’s a finely engraved scroll pattern on the top. This is the plane of a gun maker. In the old-timey days fine gun stocks were made from tiger maple. The barrels were shaped like an octagon, requiring a matching profile to be plowed into the stock. And finely engraves patterns were often a signature of the maker. That one was easy, what’s next?
Number six is a rabbet plane with a steeply curved sole. On the toe is an adjustable strip of wood that serves as a primitive way to change the profile, simply raising the toe farther above your work surface. I would have guessed it was a cooper’s plane, and that guess would have cost me my gold star. But I kept my trap shut long enough for Roy to let the true owner’s identity slip. It’s a coach maker’s plane. By way of comparison he shows us a more modern version, an iron compass plane with a sole made from a thin piece of steel that will bend to a wide range of convex or concave shapes. I have seen these used for all sorts of woodworking tasks. I even have one in my shop, which has never turned out a coach. But Roy insists that this seventh plane of the day is also a coach maker’s tool.
The next four planes are used to create moldings. These are very common even today, long after they became obsolete. Roy takes the opportunity to give us some tips to help identify their age. If you find a molding plane with steeply chamfered edges along the top and a round profile cut into the end of the wedge, chances are it was made in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, rounded or lightly chamfered edges along the top, and an ellipse shape on the wedge indicates a nineteenth century (or later) origin. The maker’s mark is also a sign of age, assuming you know your plane makers. But don’t confuse an owner’s mark with a maker’s mark or you’ll really be confused. Molding planes often have strips of boxwood inset into the sole to resist wear at the most delicate areas of the profile. As he talks, Roy is kneeling next to a wooden box he built using at least one of these planes. He formed the ovolo profile on the edge by holding one of the molding planes at the proper “spring angle”. This is the angle that the maker intended for the plane to be held, as indicated by a line scratched into the toe of the plane. Many molding planes are not designed to be held perpendicular to the work piece, so it is critical that you know what the spring angle is, and have the skill to hold it accordingly. Roy’s box also includes a double beaded groove cut into the front, about an inch from the edge. He uses a beading plane with an adjustable fence to cut the profile, which is something that I hadn’t previously seen. It looks much like a moving fillister plane, except it cuts beads instead of rabbets. (Rabbit cutters, baby coffin smoothers- who names these things?) Roy doesn’t tell us which Williamsburg shop he swiped these particular planes from, but molding planes are common in cabinet shops and would also be familiar to any carpenter that makes his own moldings.
On top of a barrel behind him we see our twelfth and thirteenth planes of the day. “Whose shop in Colonial Williamsburg do you think these planes came from?” Of course, the barrel ruined the surprise. These are the tools of the cooper, which I always thought to be a strange name for a barrel maker. Of course if I spoke Dutch I would know that “kuper” is derived from the word “kupe” which means basket or tub. But it really doesn’t matter because a cooper makes all sorts of things aside from barrels. Roy doesn’t take the time to give us this lesson in medieval Dutch, he’s too distracted by the unique shape of the cooper’s planes. “You can hardly even recognize it as a plane. I’ll even tell you what it’s called. It’s called a Howell.” It’s buddy on top of the barrel is called a “sun plane” or a “topping plane”, and looks like a jack plane that has been bent sideways into an arc. Topping planes are used to smooth the rim of a barrel. While we look at these two strange tools Roy removes the top of the barrel and sticks his head deep inside. I expect him to emerge with a wet face and an apple in his teeth, but instead he produces a fourteenth plane. This one looks like a spoke shave with a hearty appetite. It’s fat and round and is used to smooth the staves inside the barrel. The Howell is used to shape the inside of the rim in advance of a grooving plane called a “croze.” And wouldn’t you know it, Roy has a rhyme about this: “The Howell precedes the croze, as you well knows.” Well, we do now. He don’t have a croze plane for today’s show, but he does have a five foot long mega-plane that is either the smoother of a giant, or another cooper’s tool. It turns out to be the latter. It is laid upside down as you pass your stave material over the sole to create a bevel along the edges. They judge the angle by eye, which is quite a feat if you ask me.
Our sixteenth example is another molding plane, but this one is nearly four inches wide. The iron features two ogees and a fillet, which is a lot of profile to cut at once. So a hole has been bored through the toe to accommodate a handle. Once the handle has been inserted through the plane you can attach a long tow rope. Two or three guys can pull the rope while a fourth uses his body weight to hold the plane down on the work piece. Who knew creating crown moldings required a four man plane? I have to say, I would rather be the guy riding the plane than one of the pullers. That just sounds like good clean fun, if you ask me. Nearby lies another specialty molder, a “sash muntin plane”. As the name suggests, this is used to create the profiles on window sashes. And next to that we see the strangest plane of all. It looks like a small wooden cask with a handle sticking out of the base. When Roy picks it up and lays it on his lap we see an iron in the side which makes its use obvious. This is a giant pencil sharpener. At least that was my guess, but Roy is quick to correct me. “If you have wooden water pipes in your house you know what this is…” (Wooden water pipes? What century does he think this is?) This plane is used to taper the ends of the pipes. What do planes sixteen through eighteen have in common? They are the tools of the house wright, and Roy should know. He was the chief house wright at Williamsburg. How nice of him to lend himself these planes for today’s show!
The next plane is one we’ve seen before. Roy has used the rounder plane, or at least referred to it a couple of times in season one when he was making tool handles. These are also known as “rung engines” or by any number of other names, and their size is typically fixed. But Roy also has a rare adjustable version to show off. This one is far more complex than the fixed version, and can also be used to taper a handle. Of course you don’t need a rounder plane to make a handle, you can use a “fork staff plane”, which we’ve also seen a time or two in past episodes. These look very much like a typical round over plane, but they cut a full half circle in one swipe. They were commonly used to make handles for hay forks, thus the name. Another rounding tool came to Roy on loan from Bob Leary of Nova Scotia just in time to become the twenty-second plane of the day. This is a “spar plane”, used by boat builders to make, you guessed it- the spars that hold the ship’s sails. While we’re talking about planes that round surfaces why not throw in an “elephant shave?” These are shaped very much like the head of the animal from which they take their name and are used to shave out the curved insides of bowls and tubs.
We’ve seen twenty-three hand planes so far, and to celebrate Roy finally shows us what that “spill” is for. He takes the delicate wooden straw and sticks the end into the wood stove, using it to transfer the fire to a long tobacco pipe. Spill planes were used to make piles of these strange shaped shavings, which would be placed in a basket and used to move a flame from one place to another. After a couple of puffs he puts the pipe down and we cross the shop to find a hand adze and a timber laying on the floor. I sense a history lesson! He imagines himself an ancient workman trying to smooth the wood for “some Byzantine fellow,” only to be frustrated by the way the shavings split off ahead of the adze with each chop. So he uses his foot to hold the shaving down, chopping beneath his sole. Of course in those days he would have been working barefoot, and it wouldn’t take long before he realized he needed a better way to hold the shaving down until the sharp edge could sever it without severing his digits. The answer was to put the cutter into a wooden box, attach a handle and call it a hand plane. The sole of the plane replaced the sole of his foot while a flat iron is held in place with a wooden wedge. In the late eighteenth century someone added a second layer to the blade, called a cap iron or chip breaker, which forces the shaving to rise at a sharp angle, breaking it off before it can tear the wood fibers ahead of the blade.
Enough of the history lesson, time to learn some planning techniques. He takes a split plank and begins flattening it with a “raze plane”, a name that refers to the way the wooden body is cut down at the rear to make room for a “D” shaped handle. This places the thrust of the user’s hand closer to the wood. But you don’t really need a “raze” to begin flattening your rough stock. The important thing is to use a short plane with a wide mouth and the iron “rank set”, which means set to take a deep cut and produce a thick shaving. As you start to flatten the board you move on to longer planes with tighter mouths that take finer shavings. The longest are called “jointer planes” because you can get two edges so smooth that they will appear to join seamlessly together. If you want a stronger joint you may use “tongue and groove” planes, one to create the tongue and the other to create the groove. He demonstrates all of these techniques within the space of about four minutes before showing us a combination plane, a plow plane, a set of three transitional planes, a router plane, and an old woman’s tooth for making dados. Before wrapping up he whips out a rabbet plane and takes a few strokes as the music plays. That’s thirty-five planes in twenty-six minutes, and a true classic episode of the Woodwright’s Shop!
-- Subscribe to "Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal"- One of the crafts' most unique publications: http://www.stumpynubs.com/