The making of hand planes for woodworking.
|Status||Critically endangered (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Craft category||Wood; Metal|
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||1-5 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of trainees||1 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||2|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||6-10 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
Historically, tradesmen would purchase irons from a blacksmith and fashion their own bodies. The first documented professional maker of wooden planes was reportedly Thomas Granford in the late-seventeenth century.
Polishing a bench plane. Photo: Thomas Flinn
Timber is carefully selected for grain direction and seasoning. It is dimensioned and marked out. The mortise is then chopped out and detailed using traditional plane makers tools, and a wedge is cut and made to fit the mortise. The cutting iron is made from steel, and the then the iron and wedge are fitted to the body so they are a perfect match. Depending on the type of plane there may be a handle or additional fences added. The plane is then tested and chamfered and details.
In terms of making individual or very small batches, wooden planes are typically easier and quicker to produce than infill planes, and as such are priced accordingly. Both can be made either using only hand tools or with a mixture of machine tools and hand tools, but it is more advantageous to use engineering machinery for infill planes because of the resistive nature of metal. Industrial planemaking on a larger scale is carried out by casting the body from iron or bronze and subsequent machining operations before a final assembly of all machined components. Very little handwork is involved in this scale.
Some wooden hand planes are made on machinery by splitting the body down into individual components, forming various geometry that make up the planes function before gluing the body back together into a single piece. The better quality wooden hand planes have their internal geometry morticed out from a single solid block using chisels and specialist plane makers edge tools called ‘floats’. This is superior because their inherent strength is not dependant on glue.
Infill planes are called so because of their construction. A metal shell is formed from thin steel, brass or bronze before being ‘infilled’ with an exotic wood, which supports the blade and forms the ergonomics of the tool. These metal plates are joined to one another via dovetails, which are cut either by hand or more typically on the milling machine. When the two sides are jointed to the sole (bottom) the entire shell is permanently fixed by peening the dovetails, a type of cold forging. The wooden infills are held in place by rivets. This method is superior to casting for longevity because if done correctly, hardly any distortion will occur in the shell, whereas a cast body will invariably warp as it seasons over a century or so.
Blade making and heat treating
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Business issues: There are lots of issues which affect all small businesses, such as the inability to buy in bulk, and new legislation regarding pensions for all employees.
Market issues: Demand for traditional handmade tools is very limited in the UK.
Market issues: There is definitely a market for high quality hand-made tools. Woodwork is a favoured past-time for people of high net worth with stressful jobs, and there are only half a dozen or so people worldwide making super high end infill style planes.
Market issues: The new, bespoke and high-end handtool market is growing rapidly, particularly in the USA where there are many makers. We have also noticed a decline in the demand for high end vintage/antique hand planes in favour of new ones. This is great but If this trend takes a dive, demand will fall too and some of the makers will fold as a result.
Training issues: There is no structured learning for the craft in any one place. The internet is the best resource but it takes many years of research and practice to properly learn the craft. It depends on what Is being made too on how varied the skill set needs to be – making a handmade wooden plane is completely different from making a handmade infill plane, as is making a cast production plane etc. In reality, every maker is self-trained, or has previous relatable experience that can be utilised.
Market issues: Plane making isn’t very well paid. Bespoke toolmakers agree that they do it for the love of the craft, not the pay check. Customers don’t appreciate the sheer number of hours of incredibly skilled labour that must go into production in order to have a product of that quality, and the investment in materials, machinery and running costs.
Craftspeople currently known
Philly Planes (Phil Edwards) – traditional 18th-century wooden-bodied woodworking hand planes, using beech and Sheffield high carbon steel. Full time maker.
Oliver Sparks – custom wood and infill-type planes. Full time maker.
David Barron – Krenov style wooden planes. No longer makers full time, although does some small batches.
Thomas Flinn & Co. – based in Sheffield. There are three skilled craftspeople in the plane department, but this is geared to industrial, factory-style production.
Two makers who have recently given up the craft
Karl Holtey – infill planes in the style of Norris, Mathieson and Spiers. Has now retired.
Bill Carter made planes but has had to stop due to arthritis.
Status: 30 years ago plane making was nearing extinction but since then there has been more interest in the craft, helped by the internet and a resurgence in the interest of use for hand tools.
Minimum number of craftspeople: In terms of individuals, 1-5 makers; more would be needed for industrial production via factories.
Number of trainees: Thomas Flinn & Co. has one trainee, although they are not currently specialising in plane making.
Total number of craftspeople: There are two professional planemakers, approximately another five or so hobby makers who are capable of practising the craft but do it occasionally for fun in their spare time rather than professionally, plus three plane makers at Thomas Flinn & Co. which took over the Clifton brand, although they are geared towards industrial factory production. The internet has been great at encouraging hobby makers, and knowledge is gladly shared and published to help people make planes.
- Goodman, W.L. (1978). British Planemakers from 1700.