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JOEL Joel's Blog

Iron Front Smooth Planes

07/22/2020

Smooth Plane with Iron Front Sole by John Moseley & Son C. 1862-1880
Smooth Plane with Iron Front Sole by John Moseley & Son C. 1862-1880

A few weeks ago I suggested on an internet woodworking forum that one disadvantage of wooden planes (which BTW I think can be awesome in good condition) is that they wear out. The same thread went on about how single iron planes were vastly inferior to double iron planes.
The picture above is of a 2 1/4" wooden smooth plane of pretty common proportions - with an iron front sole. I was taught that the iron front sole would be installed as a repair to a beloved plane that was wearing out - you could could retrofit a new mouth to the plane. Actually it is not uncommon to find an old wooden plane in which someone has done just that - fitted a wooden mouthpiece to a smoother to close up the mouth. Certainly Norris and other planemakers sold the iron sole fronts (see picture below). Wooden planes do wear out much faster than do metal planes, but that doesn't mean the main purpose of the iron sole front was for repair. The 1912 Melhuish Catalog page shown below shows a wooden plane with an iron front sole in either a single or double iron configuration. Melhuish also lists a wooden smooth plane with a complete applied steel sole. I have a plane with an applied steel sole (not a smoother) in my collection but I am convinced on my plane it was an afterthought, not factory production (but that's a story for another day).

The Iron Front Smooth plane at the top of this blog is by John Moseley & Son C. 1862-1880 and is one of the few samples of this type of plane I have ever seen. The iron sole plate is a machined casting with a sliding nut and screw tightened from above that allows for adjusting the mouth opening. The very top of the plane has a split in it from overtightening the screw that locks the iron sole in place. One unusual feature of this plane is that address of the maker on the toe isn't stamped into the wood. It's really just an ink stamp of John Moseley & Son 54-55 Broad Street which was the address of their wholesale division. I think this inked stamp was intended to be removed and replaced by the retailer's own stamp. In this case, that branding substitution never happened. What is also worth noting is that with the iron in the correct position and the iron sole as closed up as I can get it, the plane still has a fairly wide mouth. I can think of two reasons for this: the iron is a replacement. The plane body has a fair amount of respectful wear one it. The iron (I & H Sorby) is of the right time period but we have no way of knowing if it was original, or replaced by either a dealer or a user. It was freshly ground and sharpened when I got the plane and has a lot of length to it. And no signs of usage. My bet is that it is a dealer replacement. Another reason for the wider mouth (if I am wrong about the replacement) might be is that the user might have been expected to fit the iron sole themselves by filing the side bits of the sole. I don't know. It could also have been a dud. Or maybe a fine mouth wasn't the goal of this design.

There are a bunch of questions we can ask about this:

Let's ask and answer the easy questions first:


Did people buy them?


Apparently not. Very very few survive, far fewer than early 20th century wooden or metal planes.

How come so few survive?


They weren't popular. Catalogs listed all sorts of tools, but it doesn't mean they were equally popular.

Why were they offered?


I think modern woodworkers want justification for whatever tools they like, and with so few companies actually making quality tools today, and hand planes especially being marginalized in professional work, we forget that up to World War II a huge range of crafts people used smooth planes for all sorts of tasks on all sorts of materials. We don't know if iron front smooth planes were considered better versions of regular wooden smooth planes by your average woodworker and the planes' rarity is just a function of being more expensive. Or, in the alternative, did iron front smooth planes give an advantage for certain types of work and the rarity is more a function of specialization. I suspect the latter not the former. We need to understand the advantages better. Many catalogs not only offered the completed planes but also just the sole part to be fit into your own plane. This is where the idea that these soles were for extending wear comes from. but a complete new wooden plane with a new iron only cost half again as much as this fitting -- so why would you bother trying to retrofit a worn out plane?

Now some harder questions:


Do they have a material advantage over regular wooden planes?


I think they have one and only one advantage over wooden planes: on hard materials the iron sole won't get dinged up and wear like wood will, and in a hard working application - especially on abrasive woods - their might be a cost savings with a iron front wooden plane. In the earlier catalog (Melhuish), regular wooden planes were by default double iron, but the more expensive Iron Front Smooth Planes seem to default to a single iron (suggesting a fine mouth on purpose) with a double iron offered as an option. This only makes sense to me if there was a special task, such as use on abrasive woods, for which this design made sense. It might not need a fine mouth, especially when planing something brittle, but it might be an advantage to have a plane that can put up with abuse.

Do they have a material advantage over regular steel planes?


They are less expensive than a English steel or "infill" plane. And they are also lighter. If planing is an operation you do all day a lighter plane can make your life better. It's just lighter. And of course you might not want to use your prized infill except at the very end of finishing on destructive woods.

What are their disadvantages?


The biggest disadvantage of the iron front design is that it is finicky. Unlike wooden planes where the wood moves front and back, here we have a situation where the metal is anchored in wood and can move in relation to the blade. This by the way is another hint that these planes were not used for fine smoothing, but for rapid removal of abrasive material such as planing teak. Teak furniture was not unusual at the time for ship building and other fancy projects. The other disadvantage is of course cost. Melhuish has a regular wooden smoother at 4 shillings vs 7/9 for the iron fronted version.

Melhuish (and I assume everyone at the time) offered them in single and double iron versions - Discuss!


There are three basic ways to prevent tearout when planing (aside from paying attention to the grain direction and having a sharp iron): a high angle frog or a back bevel on the iron that gives an effective higher pitch to the iron; a very tight mouth on the plane; or a double iron (cap iron). A higher angle is harder to push - bad on tough woods. A double iron works well, but on tough woods your iron gets dull rapidly and you have to remove and reset the cap iron super fine each time. A fine mouth works well, but with abrasive woods, the mouth of a wooden plane will get destroyed. An adjustable iron mouth will last longer, and can be moved closer if need be.

When I first started writing this blog, I assumed that the iron front smooth plane was considered simply a "better" version of a common smooth plane but that typical woodworkers couldn't justify the cost. On writing this blog, my thoughts have changed. I think the iron front smooth plane was desired by craftspeople working especially in teak, but also other exotics, not as final smooth plane for difficult grain, but as a general plane for final smoothing -- a plane that could take a lot of abuse. What do you think? Am I all wet?

The major argument against my conclusion is the absence of any historical evidence that supports it (at least so far I couldn't find any in the few days since I came up with this notion). Even if I am wrong about application I still believe that the iron front was made for a specific set of applications, and not just as an attempt to make a regular plane last longer like a iron plane -- although it could do this too.

Since this blog was published a reader comment prompted me to look at other tool catalogs. All my other catalogs list the iron front including a late 19th century Nurse and Mathieson catalogs. Nurse gives the iron front a fairly decent spread in their pages. The Sheffield Key (1816) lists a plated smoother, but not the insert. Holtzapfel from 1834 and 1863 do not mention it.

R. Melhuish 1912
R. Melhuish 1912


S. Tyzak & Son C. 1930
S. Tyzak & Son C. 1930


 T. Norris 1928
T. Norris 1928


Iron Front Smooth Planes 5

Freshly ground but never used. The iron is most likely a replacement and therefore we can't really tell if when new the sole could close up to a very fine mouth. The iron front sole is as tight as it goes in this picture
Freshly ground but never used. The iron is most likely a replacement and therefore we can't really tell if when new the sole could close up to a very fine mouth. The iron front sole is as tight as it goes in this picture


Iron Front Smooth Planes 7

Iron Front Smooth Planes 8

Neatly chopped recesses in the plane bottom for the iron mechanism
Neatly chopped recesses in the plane bottom for the iron mechanism


A countersunk screw holds everything in place. The shallow recess around the screw suggests to me that a small metal plate around the screw is missing.
A countersunk screw holds everything in place. The shallow recess around the screw suggests to me that a small metal plate around the screw is missing.


The wholesale ink stamp on the plane's toe
The wholesale ink stamp on the plane's toe
Join the conversation
07/22/2020 H. Stephen Lee
Is is possible the Iron surface added a burnishing quality to the finished wood surface?
07/22/2020 Matt Shacklady
Hi Joel,

Very interesting discussion! I like these discussions that try to tease out meaning in history from incomplete evidence.
A couple of points I'd like to add for you to mull over:

1. You state that this type of plane wasn't popular because few of them survive. I recently learned of Survivorship bias - your thinking could be affected by that. Not many of them have survived: possibly not because they weren't bought, but because they were bought in great numbers but used up because they were so good.

2. Another reason for the lack of numbers that have survived could also be the Industrial Revolution. It may be that the technological advance of adding iron to the front of a wooden plane just came too late in the life of planes to make any major difference. By 1850ish the Industrial Revolution really started to take off in England and Scotland. Machines became more common for cutting, planing and sticking. The number of people buying planes would also presumably start to decline in response to the rise in machine woodworking. It may be that people just weren't buying planes in the numbers that they once were, and those that were still buying planes were likely older craftsmen who were (in their mind) too old to learn the new skill of machine woodworking and stuck with what they knew - and also stuck with buying what they knew - wooden planes. These crusty old men may either have been more canny with their money to spend it on "modern" inventions, or just not convinced of the benefits of adding iron to a wooden plane.

Personally I would lean towards this second point over the first point I make. It seems more likely to me.



Matt,
I would have to disagree on both of your arguments. late Victorian and later wooden planes are a dime a dozen. If iron fronted planes were even remotely popular more should have survived in relationship to wooden survivors. If they really were the cat's pajamas then in the 1950's onward people who owned them and used them would treasure them and more would have been saved. Even with the reduction in hand work caused by mechanization hand planes were very much an important part of woodworking until WW2.
I suppose in theory you could be right but there is far less evidence supporting than the simple conclusion that they were not popular.
07/22/2020 Art
if they were popular there'd be more of them about. how many catalogs have you seen them in. if they were only in 1 or 2 makers for a couple years they probably made 50 and only advertised until they sold out. if they are there for 20 years in 20 makers catalogs that's different. also, the abrasive wood idea seems off too as enough people use problematic exotics that there should still be more of them around. as a fix it seems odd that enough workers would be so precious about their tools to spend that much. as an offering on a new plane, no idea. sometimes people make and sell dumb things that no one buys, not that I/anyone I know has ever made such a mistake.
07/22/2020 Darin
Interesting topic, about an interesting plane that I was unaware existed. Looking at the catalog imagoes above I would think that cost was a major part of their lack of popularity. If I read the "S Tyzack & Sons" catalog listing a 2 1/8 "Zyto" quality smoother with a parallel iron is priced at "7/3" while the matching spec iron front smoother is "17/3" or more than twice the price. If I was a working craftsman that fed my family with my tools and felt that a regular smoother did what I needed it to do to get the job done, and I could buy two and still have money left over compared to buying the iron front model, I would need a good reason for the extra spend for the iron front.

It seems like Thomas from "The Joiner & Cabinet Maker" would have opted for a regular smoother while building his kit, and when that wore out if he did not think the value of the iron front was worth the extra money he would buy another regular smoother.

Just $0.02 from the peanut gallery.
Art,
Good point! I just added an addendum to the blog after just looking at some other catalogs. I will look at a few more tomorrow in the office.
07/22/2020 Art
lots of companies will copy a bad idea. if it stays for 20 years that means they sold enough to make it worth it...
07/23/2020 Rafael
The Mathieson 1899 and 1933 catalog lists plated sole, iron front and Lignum Vitae soled smoothers, so it appears the practice went on for a long while. The Marples 1938 catalog also lists plated sole and iron front smoothers. They were about twice the price of the wood only models.
Yes,
Buck and Hickman lists them too fairly late. The question is why so few survived. How many have you seen? I can recall only 1 maybe 2. This is pretty rare. And it's 20th century so more should have survived if the design was anything other than a curiosity. I don't know and it's an interesting puzzle.
07/23/2020 Rafael
In page 46 of The Handyman's Book by Paul Hasluck, 1905, the iron fronted smoothing plane is mentioned: "The sole of the plane should be flat; tested in any direction with a straight-edge the result should be agreement, but in the case of the iron-fronted plane (Fig. 169) the sole is curved length-ways." Of note is that the examples illustrated in the book are Marples planes.

On another note, the 1938 Marples catalog I was viewing (https://toolemera.typepad.com/files/marplescat1938.pdf), on page 83, the iron and steel fronts are listed for smoothers, jack and try planes, including the hexagonal nut at the top of the bolt that you seem to be missing. From this catalog it can be deduced that only smoothers came with the fronts from the manufacturer and that smoothers, jacks and trys could be retrofitted.
07/23/2020 Art
there was one up for sale on one of the Facebook groups this week. I've never seen another in 20+ years. of they were widely available for a long period there is absolutely no reasonable idea I can come up with as to why more aren't found. tools survive extremely well. things that were only made for a year or two turn up on the market with some regularity. I've seen more of just about anything I can think of than these planes. heck even one off presentation pieces change hands every few years. why the absence of these? no idea.
08/08/2020 Set K
fyi, evidently much more common in the UK. three have shown up in one of the Facebook groups in the last 2 weeks. all in Ireland.
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