planes; now & then

Holme's smooth plane


Yesterday I wrote about some tools in my workshop, specifically some planes I had made a while ago. Here’s a little more about the small, scroll-shaped plane.  The small fore plane, which is loosely based on some existing 18th-century examples I have seen, and some 17th-century examples I only know from publications, is made from a fast-grown section of ash.

PF plane, ash w maple wedge


Ash is not a wood commonly associated with plane-making, but at least one of the planes recovered from the Mary Rose was in ash.  The scrolled shape of this plane, well-known in Dutch work from the 17th century through the 20th at least, was also used in English work, based on a drawing (first picture in this post) in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory & Blazon (1688). His is a smooth plane, mine is a fore plane. Here is a Dutch smooth plane, sent to me by Jennie Alexander a few years ago:

Dutch smooth plane


Alexander asked about the grain orientation of this plane. As far as I can tell, it’s got the growth rings running diagonally across the squared-up blank the plane was made from. I’ll check again later this week.

There are two good published discussions of the Mary Rose planes. One is in W. L. Goodman, British Planemakers from 1700  3d edition revised by Mark & Jane Rees. (Suffolk: Roy Arnold, publisher, 1993. In the U.S. it was published by Astragal Press, Mendham, N.J.) Although the title says “planes from 1700”, there is some background material including the Mary Rose planes, six are drawn to scale, and there is a chart containing details of 19 planes. Of these, 4 are beech, 8 are oak. One is ash. Other woods include boxwood and fruitwoods. This variety of woods was how I decided to use ash for my small plane – it was a perfect excuse to use some of what I had on hand. Nowadays, we don’t think of oak as a suitable wood for a plane, beech having become the standard in the UK. Over here, beech is typical for bench planes, molding planes are sometimes birch in New England-made examples. I have one old oak plane, I’ll get a picture of it later…it’s a wreck, has a split in its body. I bought it only because it was oak, & I had never seen one. No marks on it, so no telling how old it is.

The other published record of these planes is Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose edited by Julie Gardiner (Portsmouth: Mary Rose Trust, 2005). This book details most of the artifacts recovered from the ship, so the planes and other woodworking tools are just a small part of it. I think there’s two more drawings that aren’t in the Goodman/Rees book.

The style of plane that we now think of as German or Dutch, i.e. short, with a tote or handle at the forward end of the plane only, is as old as the hills. Here is a German illustration from the late 16th century, this is from the Landauer Hausbuch series. There are much older ones than this as well.  



(find a huge collection of these fascinating German trades’ depictions at this site: )

Another famous example is the one in Durer’s Melancolia I

A. Durer, Melancolia I, detail, 1514


So we often think of these as either Dutch or German (or even French…) but the Randle Holme illustration (published 1688, but he started work on his book in 1649…so his drawing could be from anywhere in that time frame…) and the Mary Rose planes of about 100 years earlier show that the English used this style of plane…now whether they made them, bought them from the Dutch or Germans, or whether foreign craftsmen made them in England, who’s to know?

I know I like using that style of plane, and like many things, I have Alexander to thank or blame for it…if you haven’t tried them, pick one up. Nowadays I have seen them called “horn” planes. Olds ones aren’t usually too expensive. I have bought useable ones for under $20…

6 thoughts on “planes; now & then

  1. Peter,

    Wooden planes with a front rhino horn are still available new in Germany. I believe that Dick gmbh sell them, though I can’t vouch for their quality, having not used one.

    I recall my grandfather referring to that sort of front-tote arrangement as a ‘Bismarck’ plane.

    Decorative work and scrolls on hand tools seem to me to be a continental (Dutch & German) practice.



  2. Peter:
    Continental 16th and 17th Century planes are fascinating. I am familiar with short smooth planes. I also use short German wooden planes made expressly as formers. Planes that have some manner of vertical projection for the hand at their toe can be pulled as well as pushed. This is handy when scrubbing a large quantity of wood from the workpiece. When necessary, rather than readjusting the workpiece simply reverse the direction of the plane. Further, puling a plane towards you provides a much more powerful stroke. This pull stroke is handy when removing a large amount of wood. Here again, you could remove the workpiece and use the hewing hatchet but life is short. Peter, can the vertical projection on the toe of the Dutch plane be held as well as the more vertical post on the toe of the German planes in your schreiner and Durer illustrations?

  3. Howard: yes, we have used some new German ones, Ulmia and others. They are very nice, often with a hornbeam sole.

    Jennie: your pulling of the plane towards you requires a fixed workpiece, right? in other words, the stock is held by a vise & dogs or some such arrangement? The “Dutch” style tote is, as you noted, a little leaned forward. Yes, that’s a different grip than on the German ones…but not much. I never did adopt your method of pulling the plane, so I can’t tell you if the Dutch style works for that or not.

  4. Peter….

    You might have seen this or not…another plane from Allaert Claesz. Melancholia seated; a wood planing tool on the ground and a saw Engraving

  5. I have 2 beautiful planes with the scroll fronts and are very ornate. I bought them in holland about 20 years ago both in small villages and wonder of their age and value.I feel they are museum quality. I bought them as a gift for my husband since he is a finish carpenter.Would you be able to help me find out more about these planes.Im dutch and love knowing the history of things.
    Thanks, Diana

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