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JOEL Joel's Blog

National Priorities in Early Metal Planemaking


National Priorities in Early Metal  Planemaking  1

Here are two planes from approximately the same time period. The one in the back is a panel plane by Robert Towell of London, who is generally acknowledged as the first full-time metal plane maker in England. The plane is from the 1830's, the first generation of metal bench planes, when Towell and others were figuring out how to make mitre planes more generally useful. The plane in front is American. The maker's name isn't marked on the plane, but the plane uses the Hazard Knowles patent of 1827 and probably dates from the 1830's too.

Both of these planes represent a transition in technology. Both of these planes clearly represent the functional priorities of metal planes in their respective countries.

The metal plane showed up in England in the late 1700's as a great plane for marquetry -- with the form we now now as a "mitre plane". Better-heeled woodworkers quickly discovered that these metal planes were great not only great for marquetry, but also for planing difficult woods. The metal body was stable, didn't wear, and worked consistently well. The only issue was that mitre planes were uncomfortable to use, so throughout the early 19th century we see mitre planes with handles cobbled up into them. This trend culminated in the form of the panel plane above, which is actually constructed like a mitre plane but has a regular handle like a wooden panel plane. At this juncture the English infill plane still had a lot of maturing to do: it really wasn't until the 1860 that infill smoothers and other metal bench planes fully developed. In this 1830's plane we can see things well on their way.

Plane-making in England, even by large companies, was done by "little meisters" -- skilled craftsmen working at piecework rates, either in their own shops or on a bench rented from the larger company. The advantage of this system to the larger company was clear: no need for a capital investment, just the placement of orders. Overhead was essentially zero because it all was part of the piecework rates. For the craftsperson, piecework meant you got paid for what you made, so a skilled person had it easier than an unskilled person. The main problem for everyone was that there was no capital investment. The individual lacked the capital to invest in machinery and the factory had no incentive. Fortunately, perhaps because of this situation, steel planes did not require fancy tools to make. A hacksaw, a few files, a drill for metal and an anvil and hammer. Basic stuff. Castings would be farmed out to foundries. In 1830, the milling machine was barely invented and in any case there was no capital to buy one. So the cost of an infill plane is primarily in the skilled labor -- lots of it. The market for these expensive planes was in higher-end shops that worked exotic woods. England was a rich country with a small but steady demand for these types of tools.

In the US, there was a totally different problem to solve. The early 19th century saw a huge demand for decent woodworking tools to cope with the massive expansion of the country. The demand for skilled labor greatly exceeded the supply. The kind of tool for which the need was greatest was for regular work, not fancy tools for high-end projects. And wooden plane-making, even in a factory, needed more skilled workers than were in ready supply.

National Priorities in Early Metal  Planemaking  2

In 1827, Hazard Knowles, an American inventor, made the first stab in solving the American tool problem. He patented a cast iron body plane that looked like a wooden plane but was just cast. His idea was to create cheap versions of wooden planes. As far as I know, Knowles never actually manufactured the plane he envisioned but other companies did. One big problem: a rough casting really doesn't give you a great plane. The tools needed to flatten the metal surfaces - files and chisels - still needed skilled hand labor. Milling machines were not readily available and Knowles' idea died on the vine. There are very few extant examples of this type of plane but the example above, probably from the 1830's, is a piece of junk. Rough surfaces don't hold a wedge properly nor bed an iron correctly, so the plane doesn't work well or adjust easily. It is possible that the sole of this plane was machine planed flat on a mechanical metal planer (I am not sure). But the machine tools needed to machine proper mating surfaces for the wedge, or even a better, larger blade support, were not generally available yet.

National Priorities in Early Metal  Planemaking  3

The American plane manufacturing problem was solved between 1855 and 1867 by Leonard Bailey. Working in New England where the precision tool industry was rapidly growing, Bailey invented a plane that would work very very well -- as long as you were able to precisely machine it. His planes weren't as inexpensive as a wooden plane of the time, but it came with a wonderful adjuster and didn't require field adjustments. But to make this marvel, you needed a modern factory and lots of capital to get things going. The US then, as now, was chock full of venture capitalists looking to invest in large new businesses and precision manufacturing machinery was finally becoming the standard.

In Britain, lack of capital and an absence of expanding demand prevented the precision-machined, mass-produced metal plane from developing. But in the fancy high performance world, Robert Towell and other makers were followed by people like Stewart Spiers of Ayr, Scotland, starting in the 1840's. Spiers didn't invent any of the infill plane forms, but he perfected them and his company survived until the 1920's.

By 1870, all the pieces were in place: Britain had steel planes that required lots of skill to manufacture but little capital. The result was expensive tools that were perfect for doing fancy woodworking in tricky wood. At the same time, conditions in the United States gave rise to iron planes that were stable in all weather, wore slowly and could take the abuse of a growing unskilled labor force. Most importantly, these planes could be made consistently in quantities that wooden plane-makers could only dream about.

Both these approaches exactly reflect the economic culture of their countries of origin.

Front: Early Spiers wedged smoother c. 1850's. Rear: 20th century Stanley Bench plane
Front: Early Spiers wedged smoother c. 1850's. Rear: 20th century Stanley Bench plane, nearly unchanged since the 1870's

Join the conversation
08/04/2021 Michael Wilkins
Thanks for answering a question that has nagged me for some time - putting the “how come” of the form and function of UK vs US planes in a historic perspective.
08/04/2021 Andrew
As an historian of 19th-century US industrial history, though of another type, this was an excellent illustration of the two paths the different countries often took in their industrial development. Another element in the US evolution was to import skilled British tool makers (they made the industrial tools that made the woodworking tools) in the mid-century era, especially just after the Civil War. This upped the game for precision machine tooling in the US, which was needed to make the mass-quantities of Bailey planes and other tools we began to produce. Sheffield still made the best cast steel, but by the 1880s American precision tool making could start to truly compete with the best Birmingham could put out.
08/04/2021 Michael O’Brien
Some tools were just designed right initially, and save for a few slight improvements, continue to work perfectly and serve us well in our workshops. The original Stanley Bailey plane design is such a tool,and even the Bedrock design does not really improve on its functional. Just Give me a properly tuned, vintage, pre- WWII , Stanley Bailey plane to use as I do every day. Hard to beat.
Good article Joel, Thank you.
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