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JOEL Joel's Blog

Parts But No Labor


Rd. Melhuish
Rd. Melhuish, Ltd. 1912

Up until the Great Depression, it was not uncommon for English tool catalogs to feature plane parts for sale. By "parts," I'm not just referring to replacement irons and cap irons. I am talking about iron fronts, plow plane parts and other fairly esoteric gizmos. Where was the demand for these items? Were cabinetmakers or other woodworkers really building planes from scratch -- or repairing their planes so extensively?

I suspect the answer was no. Rather, the reason for the market in plane parts was in the nature of small business in the time period.

For most makers of the era, plane-making was a small business. While giants like Mathieson were cranking out tons of tools, in many cases even these large companies were outsourcing manufacture to individual "little mesters" who were responsible for running their own workbenches, finding parts and materials, and delivering whatever their wholesale clients wanted. These individual craftsmen were paid piecework. They might have rented workspace from their customer. Materials could be bought from the parent company and billed accordingly. In addition, many craftspeople worked independently in small workshops and in these cases were true small businesses with multiple customers.

In the picture at the top of the page, we have a pretty standard set offerings for parts from a pre-World War I catalog from Melhuish, one of the largest hardware stores of Edwardian London. The page from the Nurse catalog of 1893 has a much smaller selection, reflecting the far smaller size of the company, but it actually includes brass ferrules for plough plane stems -- not something you would casually need.

Charles Nurse & Co. 1893
Charles Nurse & Co. 1893

Needless to say, the system of plane making was mindbogglingly inefficient by modern standards. However, in plane making - as in most crafts before widespread mechanization and small electric machinery - the actual capital requirements of becoming a little mester were pretty small. A great amount of skill, especially the skill of working fast enough to make a living, was involved, but the tools needed for a planemaker were not that complicated. Even infill or steel planes required very few tools - mostly files and chisels. But if you wanted to make anything other than a wooden plane, such as a moving filister plane, you needed a source for brass parts. And as the volume of specialty planes was small, you didn't need that many brass parts. So while in theory you could make a wooden pattern; take it down to a local foundry for casting; file the final casting; tap a few threads; and so on, you'd find it far easier to pop into your nearby good hardware store and buy the fittings you needed finished or nearly so. This might seem needlessly expensive, but tools were expensive too, and it's not like you were competing by price seriously with anyone else. After all small companies provided goods to larger companies - retail and wholesale sellers. And as I already mentioned, the process was quite inefficient.

I have no information on which companies actually made some of these parts. Were they planemakers like Slater, who only sold cast planes. did they run extra castings and sell them wholesale in addition to finished planes? Local foundries in the late 19th century were not all that unusual. It would not have been too much of a stretch for a small company to work up some patterns for parts and get them cast. There is enough variation in the various surviving brass bits to conclude that certainly over time there were a fair number of original suppliers who made these parts, finished them up with files and metal chisels, and then sold them to distributors. A large company like Maples or Mathieson would have had enough demand to need a steady supply, but chances are they had a little mester who delivered parts to them.

Also remember that mail order existed but was expensive. It was absolutely possible in the 19th century - or even earlier - to write a letter to a far-away company seeking half a dozen of this part or the other, but the time delay and the cost of shipping and sending money made buying from a well-stocked local hardware store so much easier. Modern mail order in the US replaced local great hardware stores of my youth, but I can still remember several hardware stores that carried comprehensive lines of instruments and tooling for local machine shops.

This blog was going to end here, but while I was taking pictures of the Melhuish catalog for the blog I noticed the bottom of the pages after the parts listing that had me gobsmacked! I have no smoking gun proof that specific known planemakers bought their parts from Melhuish or any other retails. But I think the argument is very strong. Here is the rest of the page:

Rd. Melhuish
Rd. Melhuish, Ltd. 1912

This is a complete and enviable catalog listing for all the permutations of various cast steel or "infill planes." Cast, machined-planed, ready for final filing and woodwork. I've never seen a listing like this before but I bet it's because I haven't been paying attention. I have always suspected the reason there was a "London" style of infill planes, as opposed to, say, a "Scottish" style, was because Norris (or for that matter, any of the known London makers) didn't make their own casting and perhaps didn't even make their own cast body planes. Norris certainly did its own steel dovetail planes, but why would they (or Slater or anyone else) bother to get their own patterns made -- and have to commit to a run of castings and get the casting machined -- when their cast body planes looked just like everyone else's, and you could easily get whatever style or quality finished casting from Melhuish? Norris, for example, typically offered its cast planes in malleable iron, gun-metal, or gun-metal with a steel face, in multiple sizes. At the time of these catalogs, Norris also offered some models in cast iron. The steel dovetail planes could be made as needed, but in order to satisfy the Norris catalog selection, Norris would have had to have many different castings on hand for essentially pretty low volume tools. It would make so much more sense to just order them as needed. I was struck that the Melhuish selection pretty much matches the cast catalog listings by Norris. Norris certainly sold some cast planes that were unique, but not all. Also the Melhuish catalog dates from before the Norris adjuster (1913) and from before Norris really went to the top of the pile of planemakers. In 1912 Norris was just finding it's own identity and their cast planes were very, very similar to other London makers. One obvious proprietary casting at the time were the lever caps which had the Norris logo cast in them.

On a separate note, I even wonder if Norris made any of its own small cast planes. They could have just outsourced the small planes to other makers. There is no real proof one way or another. But I have always wondered why there are so few planes by George Miller extant. How did he make a living just selling under his own name? Also Arthur Price, the last of the traditional infill plane makers, only made cast planes. Considering the length of Price's career (1924-1967) you would expect more planes, especially early ones, bearing his mark to survive. The ones I have seen only start appearing after Norris and his competition shut up shop. Who was he making planes for?

T. Norris & Son. 1928
T. Norris & Son. 1928
Join the conversation
02/17/2021 Michael Tulloch
I wish they supported with parts like they used to.....I bought a Clifton (UK) from you recently...gosh is it nice. Last of the traditional plane makers in
England. I know woodworkers that don't own a hand plane .
02/17/2021 Tom Walton
Planemaking was just a side business for the Slater family. They were foundry workers long before getting into planes. From what I`ve read they had a very successful line of hinges among other things.Ran small four or five man shops making planes in basement of residence. I`m sure other readers will have more complete informatin.What did happen to George Miller? Have always assumed he died in the War.
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