TBT: The History of the Wood Plane
The First Planes
Unfortunately, only a few wood planes have survived from the Roman times, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What we do know about them comes from the wood carvings, insignias, manuscripts and the stories told by stained glass windows. It is believed that the Romans created the earliest known planes, dating from 79 A. D and found in the Pompeii region of what is now Italy. These planes were made of wood and equipped with an iron cutter wedged against a crossbar, much like the wooden planes we know today. The Romans made their steel through quenching and tempering, which involves rapidly cooling the red hot metal in water or oil to harden the steel and then reheating the steel to a low temperature. Other ancient planes have been found in Britain and Germany, and an entirely bronze plane was even found in Cologne.
The 18th Century
The 18th century brought significant improvements to the wood plane. Handles began to evolve which made the plane much easier to use. The installation process of the iron evolved as well. The iron was wedged into place in tapered grooves which were cut into the sides of the body rather than being wedged against a cross-bar. Wedging the iron in tapered grooves with a more thinly shaped wedge allowed the plane to clog less often, and hence, increasing the work time. Much later in the century another improvement was made to the plane’s design, the use of double iron. A slightly curved cap iron, or chipbreaker, screwed to the cutting iron greatly improved the plane’s ability to cut difficult wood. This made the entire plane heavier, more rigid and more stable, and it allowed the shavings to curl and break apart as they pass through the mouth. This simple mechanical advantage reduced tear out and left smoother surfaces.
Early Plane Making In America
Deacon Francis Nicholson of Wrentham, Massachusetts is the first known American plane maker from about 1728 to 1753. Nicholson had a slave named Cesar Chelor who became Nicholson’s apprentice. Nicholson died in 1753 and in his will he gave Chelor his freedom, a workshop, and many tools to become an independent toolmaker. Chelor became the earliest documented African American toolmaker in America. Hazard Knowles of Colchester, Connecticut was the first to attempt casting planes. His 1827 patent was the first significant plane patent in America, however, his design did not become popularly accepted for another 50 years.
In the mid-1860s, inventor Leonard Bailey of Winchester, Massachusetts began producing a line of cast iron bodied planes. Bailey invented the depth adjuster and the lever cap still common on planes today. In 1869, the Bailey, Chaney and Company was bought by Stanley Rule and Level. Stanley Works still manufacturers Bailey’s design today. In 1918 an air-powered, handheld planing tool was developed to reduce shipbuilding labor during World War I. The air-driven cutter spun at 8,000 to 15,000 rpm and allowed one man to do the planing work of fifteen men using manual tools. Although this high-powered plane technology surpasses the manual plane’s power many times over, the manual plane is still the most popular method of smoothing out wood.
This ancient tool has certainly come a long way over the years. It was once a block of wood with a piece of sharp iron wedged into it while the modern plane of today has over 10 parts and there are over 20 different types of planes available for a variety of applications!