Planes were once one of the most important tools in a carpenter's chest. Nearly infinite in variety, they enabled a craftsman to achieve techniques difficult or impossible with other tools. Among these are producing smooth, polished surfaces, cutting tight-fitting joints, and creating interesting details.
There are so many varieties of planes they alone could fill an entire museum. We have selected just a few types for this exhibit.
Planes for Joinery
Good joints provide strength to a wooden structure or piece of furniture. A wood worker could select from many types of planes for joining. Here are a few of them.
A rabbet is a step cut into the side of a board, either with or across the grain. Rabbet planes share one characteristic: the iron extends flush with the sides of the plane body, forming a "rabbet mouth." The edge of the iron is set square across the body for working with the grain, or skewed (diagonally across the body) for easier cutting, particularly across the grain.
These planes come in pairs: one that cuts a tongue down the center of the edge of a board, and another that cuts a corresponding groove in the board to be joined. These planes are also known as match planes, and the boards so joined are called matched boards.
These planes were used for cutting grooves of specific widths. Before tongue-and-groove technique was developed, two grooves were placed against each other and a spline driven into the "tunnel" to join the two pieces. Sets of eight or more plane irons in varying widths allows one plow plane to do the work of an entire range of other grooving planes.
The heavy iron of a smoothing plane makes a clean cut like no other tool can, leaving a smooth, polished surface. Most smoothing planes are small (between 7" and 10" long), and have a heavy body, cap iron and lever cap or wedge. The greater the overall mass, the smoother the cut.
Planes for Shaping
Shaping planes offer nearly unlimited design possibilities. Of the many hundreds of different types of planes, more are used to shape the surface in some way than are used to leave it flat.
Molding planes are thin-bodied planes with variously-shaped soles and blades' cutting edges for forming decorative sections known as moldings. As the use of moldings increased in the 18th century, so did the number of molding planes. Hollows, rounds, ogees, reverse ogees, astragals, beads - there is an almost endless number of shapes.
By the end of the 19th century many carpenters carried large sets. Then the invention of the universal plane and the development of mass-produced, machine-made moldings made the molding plane obsolete.
To eliminate having to take a heavy chest full of molding planes on the job, combination planes were developed. These tools, which promised great versatility, consist of a plane and an array of interchangeable irons. The earliest wooden combination planes date from the 16th century; cast-iron ones appeared in the last half of the 19th century.
Compass (Circular) Planes
Used for shaping curved work, compass planes look like coffin-shaped smoothing planes with a sweeping convex sole. They were used by wheelwrights, coachbuilders and other tradesmen.
Sandpapers, like some planes, are used for smoothing and finishing a surface. It is usually used to condition a surface for painting or just to provide a pleasing appearance and feel to a finished item.
Before the 19th century, sand was used as a polishing material. It was placed loose on an object and rubbed with wood to give a smooth surface. The next step was to find an adhesive to keep the sand on heavy paper.
One of the first patents for sandpaper was granted to Isaac Fischer, Jr., of Springfield, Vermont, in 1834. His invention was covered by four different patents, all issued on the same date. Unfortunately, the paper used in early sandpaper fell apart when wet. Hence, sandpaper could only be used dry and its dust often caused lead poisoning among workers.
Heavy users of this sandpaper were in the automobile industry, where in the 1920s a considerable amount of sanding was needed to finish the paint on auto bodies. Richard Drew, who had studied engineering through correspondence-school courses, improved sandpaper by developing a waterproof paper for the company he worked for, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (later known as 3M), which became a major supplier of sandpaper as a result. Drew also was the inventor of Scotch tape, another well-known 3M product.
A plane's performance is a function of its physical characteristics: the mass of the plane, how the iron is secured, how sharp it is, its pitch or angle to the sole and bevel angle, the width of the throat opening, the depth of the cut, and how the plane is oriented to the cut.
The dynamics of the cut is basic physics. The plane's cutting iron contacts the wood, driving a shaving into the throat that curls and breaks against the cutting edge of the iron. Every part of the plane in contact with the shaving affects the physics: the sharpness of the iron, the size and smoothness of the throat opening, the pitch of the iron, and its bevel angle.
Effective planing depends on the width of the throat, the pitch (inclination of the iron to the sole), and the presence or absence of a cap iron. For hard or figured woods a steeper pitch is necessary for good results. The steeper the pitch, the more abruptly the shaving is curled and, assuming the fibers are pressed downward by the front of the throat, the less the likelihood of splitting out ahead of the cut. In addition, the steeper the pitch, the more force is needed to push the plane.
A plane joke: What has a body, a toe, a heel, a sole, two cheeks and a mouth? And it's sitting right there on your workbench!Stanley Company
A name synonymous with tools is the Stanley Company. Started as a ruler company in 1854 in Connecticut by the two Stanley brothers, it immediately found its niche. Very soon, an impressive trade catalog was issued featuring an array of folding ivory and boxwood rulers.
In 1869 Stanley made its wisest purchase,
exclusive rights to manufacture Leonard Bailey's patented bench planes, spoke
shaves, and scrapers. In the early 1900s Stanley was acknowledged as the world's
largest producer of woodworking planes, having sold over three million units.
Aggressive advertising and acquisition soon eliminated most competition.
The Stanley Company remains a major and highly regarded manufacturer of tools, but now competes with tool manufacturers from many other countries.
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page last updated:
August 5, 2002
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