A Primer On Antique Planes

Historical View of the Antique Woodworking Plane

In its’ basic configuration, the woodworking plane is simply a chisel locked in position by a block of wood or metal. The chisel itself dates back to neolithic times, so the plane would logically have appeared in prehistory times. The earliest true examples that have been found date from Pompei, 79 A.D. However, images of various planes have been found on Roman coins dating c. 100 B.C.

16th Century Block Plane

Types of Woodworking Planes

Bench Planes

A typical order of use in flattening, truing, and smoothing a rough sawn board might be:

 Smoothing planes have a sole that ranges from 5″ to 10″ long. The primary job of the smoothing plane is to prepare the wood for finishing. It is typically the last plane to touch the wood.

Stanley No 2 Smoothing Plane

Fore planes have a sole that ranges from 14″ to 20″ long. The traditional (but by no means only) job of the fore plane is to remove material quickly. By virtue of its longish sole it also tends to straighten the wood to some degree. The fore plane is typically the first bench plane to touch the wood to get it to rough size.

Stanley No. 6 Fore Plane

• Jointer planes have a sole that ranges from 22″ up to 30″ (in wooden-bodied planes). The primary job of jointer planes is to straighten the wood, a task it excels at by virtue of its long sole (the longer the sole, the straighter the resulting work). The jointer plane is used after the fore plane but before the smoothing plane.

Decorative Jointer Plane

Other Bench Plane Types

The shoulder plane, is characterized by a cutter that is flush with the edges of the plane, allowing trimming right up to the edge of a workpiece. It is commonly used to clean up dadoes and tenons for joinery.

Record No. 073 Shoulder Plane

The molding plane, which is used to cut mouldings along the edge of a board. Very often a molding is first roughed in using a set of hollows and rounds with the configured molding plane used for final finish. The bead plane is another type of molding plane. Bead planes also commonly came in sets of graduated sizes.

Double Iron Moulding Plane

The plow/plough plane, which cuts grooves and dadoes (housings). And can replace a chest full of planes because it is fully adjustable and comes equipped with graduated sets of irons. Plow planes are among the most collectible of the planes and were often made from exotic woods with ivory fittings as presentation pieces.

Boxwood Plow Plane

A full set of plow plane irons consists of eight different width irons.

The grooving or roughing plane which is used to cut shallow grooves along the top of a board for preparation before gluing veneer. The blade edge is serrated.

Roughing Plane

The router plane, which cleans up the bottom of recesses such as shallow mortises and dadoes .

18th Century Router Plane

The finger or thumb plane, which is used for smoothing very small pieces. The very small curved bottom varieties are known as violin makers planes and are used in making stringed instruments.

Norris No. 30 Thumb Plane

The bullnose plane has a very short leading edge to its body, and so can be used in tight spaces; most commonly of the shoulder and rabbet variety.

Bullnose Plane

Compass Plane

The circular or compass plane, which utilizes an adjustment system to control the flex on a steel sheet sole and create a uniform curve. A concave setting permits great control for planing large curves, like table sides or chair arms, and the convex works well for chair arms, legs and backs, and other applications.

Compass Plane

Dating Wooden Planes

The maker’s name is usually imprinted on the plane’s toe. A good reference guide will give the working period of most makers. The style of the stamp can also indicate age. An imprint with archaic spelling (e.g., IOHN GREEN for JOHN GREEN), or a zigzag border, is usually indicative of an older tool. Conversely, stamps with elaborate scroll-work, cursive script, or the imprint of an industrial origin (e.g., Chapin-Union Factory) indicate a later tool. Many guides such as Goodman, British Planemakers from 1700, (4th Edition, Jane Rees) and Pollack & Pollack, Guide to American Planes and Their Makers rank the rarity of particular makers.

 Typical 18th Century Molding Plane The wedge finials on planes made before the 1820s are circular in shape; later planes have elliptical finials. Early makers often relieved the back of the wedge to prevent bruising while setting the iron.

18th Century Birch Moulding Plane

F. Nicholson 18th Century Bead Plane (birch)
  • Flat chamfers are generally indicative of a plane made before 1800. Factory-made planes have rounded chamfers.
  • Beech was the choice of large-scale plane makers because of its abundance, stability and wear-resistance, but other hardwoods are equally suitable. Early makers who worked by hand frequently used yellow birch or apple and even dogwood in some cases.
  • The standard length of factory-made molding planes is 9-1/2″, but earlier planes were sometimes 10″ or even 10-1/2″ long

Early planes sometimes have boxing, but this is normally limited to a simple strip at a sharp indentation in the profile, which is called a quirk. Planes with large inserts that cover the whole profile, or planes with elaborate keyed boxing, are of factory origin. The boxing strips are normally boxwood or lignum vitae.

Bridle Plough Plane

Tips For Collecting

Molding planes are not difficult to find, but neither are they widely available. Local flea markets, specialty auctions and tool shows, or dealers on the Internet are potential sources.

When examining any plane for use, or collecting you should be aware of the following points:   The iron and the profile of the sole should match. Reshaping an iron may be an appealing idea if the block is in excellent condition, but it’s more time-consuming than it appears. Making a new iron, or performing major restoration, involves annealing, grinding and heat-treating and ultimately detracts from its’ value. 

Have a look at the plane’s mouth. It is important that it’s close to the cutting edge (1/8″ maximum) so that the shaving is supported as it is cut. An excessively wide mouth will result in tear-out as the molding is worked. If possible, remove the iron from the body by pulling on the wedge or tapping on the heel of the plane with a wooden or leather mallet, not a hammer!. Inspect it carefully—slight surface rust is acceptable, but the cutter should not be pitted.

References: for more information

Web Sites:



Books, periodicals and articles

The Fine Tool Journal, published quarterly. 9325 Dwight Boyer Rd., Watervliet, MI 49098

Fine Woodworking, Working with Handplanes: The New Best of Fine Woodworking – 2005

Goodman, W.L. British Planemakers from 1700. 3rd ed. Ed. J. & M. Rees. Mendham, New Jersey: Astragal Press, 1993.

Perch, David G., and Robert S. Lee. Wooden Planes and How to Make Them. Ottawa, Ontario: Algrove Publishing Limited, 2001.

Pollak, Emil, and Martyl Pollak. Guide to American Wooden Planes and their Makers. 2nd ed. Mendham, New Jersey: Astragal Press, 1987.

Schwarz, Handplane Essentials, Revised & Expanded, 2017

Wesley, Robert. Guide To Canadian Plane Makers & Hardware Dealers. Kingston, Ontario: MacLachlan Woodworking Museum, 1997.

Whelan, John. Making Traditional Wooden Planes. Mendham, New Jersey: Astragal Press, 1996.

Photos courtesy of JimBodeTools.com