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A brief history of woodworking hand planes

Shop for Woodworking Hand Planes

Wonkee Donkee: planes have been around for thousands of years
Hand planes originated thousands of years ago.

The early planes were made from wood and had a mortise (a rectangular slot) cut across the centre of the body.

Some things don’t change. . .

Adjusting wooden plane's iron with hammer The iron (cutting blade) was secured with a wooden wedge that was tapped into the mortise and adjusted with a hammer, a piece of scrap wood, or the heel of the woodworker’s hand.

And that’s almost exactly the same as it is today with traditional wooden hand planes.

Roman wooden hand plane unearthed in UK The earliest known examples of the woodworking plane were found in Pompeii. Other Roman examples have been unearthed in the UK and Germany.
Roman plane unearthed in the UK One example found in Cologne has a body made entirely of bronze without a wooden core – rather like today’s popular metal planes.
Example of furniture from an Egyptian tomb

Did the ancient Egyptians have woodworking planes?

The history of the hand plane prior to these examples is not clear. However, pieces of furniture and other woodwork found in Egyptian tombs show surfaces that were smoothed with some kind of cutting edge or scraping tool.

Planes with horns

Antique plane with horn-style front handle The planes of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were provided with horn-style front handles.

These disappeared in England but have persisted in Europe to the present day, where planes are sometimes used with a pulling rather than a pushing action.

The leader of modern plane development

Early plane developed by Leonard Bailey In the mid-1860s, American Leonard Bailey led the development of hand planes, producing a line of cast iron-bodied hand planes.
Stanley Rule and Level Co advertising improved tools

The patents for these were later purchased by another US tool innovator, Stanley Rule & Level, which later became Stanley Works.

The basis for modern hand planes

A pair of Stanley smoothing planes The original Bailey designs were further evolved and added to by designers at Stanley. The Bailey and Stanley designs became the basis for most modern hand planes manufactured today, hence many references to the Stanley / Bailey design, or the Stanley / Bailey ‘pattern’.
Stanley Bailey bench plane design The Bailey design is still manufactured by Stanley Black & Decker, which resulted from the merger of Stanley and Black & Decker in 2010.
Stanley block plane and its box Stanley has a UK connection, too – in 1937 it acquired a site in Sheffield where tools, including woodworking hand planes, were manufactured for many years.
A Stanley No17 block plane

So that’s where those numbers came from…

Stanley originated a system of model numbers for hand planes which is still in use today for Stanley planes and those produced by some other manufacturers. See What’s in a number? The Stanley model numbering systemfor more details of this.

Power tools don’t quite take over

A row of Stanley bench planes A hand plane used to be an indispensable tool, used to smooth, shape and straighten just about every piece of wood in a project.

And they were invaluable on site for “easing” – shaving tiny amounts off, say, the edges of a door to get it to fit perfectly.

Carpenter's bag and woodworking planes A carpenter would lug around a bag or chest full of planes, each with its own special function.
Power planer; woodworking hand planes Today, power tools such as routers, jointers, belt sanders and power planers perform the same tasks faster, so many old hand planes are relegated to the collectors’ shelves.
A plane is useful for curing a sticking door However, the hand plane is far from extinct. Because it can pare off just a thin slice of wood, it takes some beating when it comes to shaving the edge of a sticking door, chamfering the corner of a board or straightening a piece of wood that is twisted or warped.

Also, the finish that some hand planes can put on a piece of wood, without the need for sandpaper or other abrasives, is unbeatable.

Woodworking enthusiasts like traditional hand planes Woodworking enthusiasts often use them in preference to power tools, which can leave a less satisfactory finish and damage the wood’s surface more easily.

Making gains from planes

A classic crown moulding plane Many planes, especially ones made early last century, or in the 1800s and earlier, are collectable and can fetch very high prices.

There’s a booming market in antique and vintage woodworking hand planes on a number of auction and special interest websites.

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