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The History of Mitre planes - Pt 2 - The early 19th Century Before Infill Bench Planes Were Developed  


In part one of this series we discussed the earliest evidence of metal planes in Europe and that they were used for marquetry, and were not called "mitre planes".
Some of the account books of planemaker Christopher Gabriel have survived. They are very handy to have around. Gabriel was a huge London concern and sold both their own line of tools and tools of other makers. In 1796 when Joseph Seaton wanted to buy a complete, fully loaded, deluxe toolbox for his son Benjamin he bought everything in one shot from Gabriel. We know from the account books that in 1791 Gabriel had 17,500 billets for various types of planes sitting around his yard. He also had 685 completed planes and 8800 various irons. The number of mitre plane parts (he did not use the term mitre plane but that's what they were for) he had on hand was 9 iron sides - valued at 7/6 and 4 steel faces valued at 4/4. Like being a professional poet the first question you have to ask about the small number of mitre plane parts compared to wooden plane parts is: "Is there a living in it?" My guess is not. Gabriel certainly didn't have any qualms about holding lots of inventory for parts of planes so my only guess is 1 - the mitre planes were more of an experiment than anything else, and quite obviously at this time they only had a very limited market compared to wooden planes of all sorts.
I may have missed the entry but wooden strike-block planes aren't in the inventory. This tells us that strike block planes, that is planes specifically designed to plane mitres, weren't a very important category of tool, even if the operation of shooting mitres is a common operation.

That Gabriel had the parts in inventory doesn't mean his workshop made the metal planes on premises. At that time it was pretty common for a concern to supply parts to out-workers and collect finished items later and not actually have the work done on premises. There is no evidence either way. Gabriel ceased trading in 1816 and only a dozen or so mitre Gabriel planes are known to have survived from this time. In addition to Gabriel I can think of two or three other early makers, all working at the same time, and all their planes are found in very low numbers, suggesting low production compared to the number of mitre planes than survive from a 1810- 1830 period. Some of that is of course age, but mitre planes in general don't wear out so we can postulate that the small amount of recorded inventory is consistent with fairly small production for the entire period. But what was happening in England at the time, the late 18th century, that made Gabriel and other makers take a basic Continental design of a metal plane used for marquetry and put them into production in England?

Two, maybe three relevant events occurred that created a market of marquetry planes in England.

In the early 18th century, England, compared to France and most of the Continental countries was a poor country. The English navy was powerful, but the profits from the colonies hadn't yet rolled in, England had some rumblings of industry but it was predominantly an agrarian country with exports in wool. By the late 18th century England was a rich country, and conspicuous consumption was the way to show it off. English furniture got fancier and fancier throughout the 18th century. Amongst the things brought from France (which has a long tradition of very fancy furniture for the nobility) was a new emphasis on marquetry, inlay and other fancy decoration using hard, hard to plane exotics. Thomas Chippendale's 1754 The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director was the first published English book of fancy furniture designs that emulated the French fancy. After the French revolution in 1879 we start seeing French names on English furniture. It was these specialists who would have created the first demand for iron planes used for marquetry.

But there is a big difference in the English approach to metal planes than there was to earlier Continental efforts. For the first time the Industrial Revolution made it possible for someone to go to a store, buy rolled strips of wrought iron and steel, and build a plane from stock materials. Even the tools needed to make a plane: hacksaws, files, chisels and more files, were readily available at a pace never before seen. Unlike the iron planes illustrated in Diderot and Roubo, making an all iron and steel plane was something any competent plane maker could do, it wasn't so high tech anymore. Construction methods also changed. You didn't need to make an iron plane by screwing metal to wood like illustrated in Roubo, you could make planes with all metal bodies which would be more stable, using wood just to bed the iron. (note: early all iron mitre planes from the Continent do exist but they are not mentioned in the literature of the time and the survivors are far more decorative - indication of real low or one-off production).

But the problem with the new manufacture of marquetry planes is that even by 1830 (earliest data I know of), the census shows only about 100 people working in marquetry in England. Not a very big market. The problem from a marketing standpoint that the market for iron planes at the time was far far smaller than anyone's capacity to make them. You needed more customers.

Fortunately, at the same time, along with English furniture making more use of marquetry the trend for cabinetmakers was to use use more and more veneers in their work. As a matter of fact by 1839 in The Joiner and Cabinet Maker the author makes the basic distinction between joiner's work which was not veneered, and cabinet maker's work, which was veneered.

The problem with using a mitre plane to plane face veneers is that the ergonomics were terrible, Unlike a regular wooden coffin smoother there is nothing comfortable to push and the large mitre planes of the time are hard to pick up and return to the start of a stroke.

The plane illustrated above is an early Gabriel mitre plane, and because of the length of this entry I have decided to add a part two and a half which will look close up at this Gabriel mitre plane and explain some interesting engineering particulars of mitre planes from this early era. Expect this entry very shortly.

In part three we will look at how these problems were solved. This required another round of invention which began in the 1820's.
Tags:Historical Subjects
Comments: 12
04/21/2010John Walkowiak 
I am surprised that these planes were expressly made for leveling veneer work. I could understand using a 4" long miter plane for the odd corner that sticks up after the glue dries, but a plane this long could end up removing 1/2 the thickness of the veneer to level a table top or a drawer front. And I have never seen an 18th or early 19th C. miter plane shorter than 6". I have always thought that an extremely fine toothing plane and a scraper were the tools used to level inlay and veneer work. It's what I use. A toothing plane and scraper would have been much cheaper that a metal miter plane, probably another reason not many were made.
Joel, perhaps you could get Patrick Edwards opinion on this as I imagine he has seen evidence of tool marks in his restoration work.
As you say early mitre planes are large and get larger until about 1840 or '50 - that will be the subject of part 4 of the series.

Hand sawn veneers were pretty thick 6 or 8 to the inch max (I have to look up the number) so there would be plenty of thickness to plane level. If you follow at least some early 19th century (or earlier?) practice the veneers would be toothed on both sides to make it more flexible when gluing down and on a big surface you would have to plane the entire top down to get it smooth after application - so a big mitre plane would be worth having. Also for some woods I suppose it would make sense to plane the exposed face before sawing - to get a better surface after sawing the slice free. There is no documentation on that and I am speculating and am probably wrong on that point.

A scraper or even a fairly new wooden smooth plane would be a much cheaper tool but marquetry was one of the fanciest methods of decoration and very expensive so if any group of specialized craftsman had both the resources and incentives to buy such an expensive tool the marquerty makers would be at the top of the list.
04/23/2010Larry Williams 

In 1956, Josef M. Greber published his _Die Geschichte des Hobels (The History of the Woodworking Plane). It's a survey of the history of Continental, British and American planes and what I have in front of me is a 1991 translation by Seth W. Burchard. In the section under "Miter Plane" it says:

"The early German encyclopedists regularly included among the hand planes the so-called vergatthobel or miter plane, of which we have no real conception today. The wood derives from the Middle High German with the same root as the English "together" and refers to the fitting together of molding strips and cornices at corners, which was the mark of fine workmanship during the Renaissance and rococo periods.

"Every craftsman knows that for cross-grain miters and moldings, especially for narrow and profiled strips, you need an especially sharp iron, a narrow mouth and as low a pitch as possible. The miter plane filled these requirements and was specialized for cross-grain work...."

To begin with we know the strike block plane was bevel down and bedded around 40º which creates an even shallower pitch than a 20º bedded miter plane (bevel up) with a 25º bevel on the iron. Some writers and catalogs called the strike block plane a straight block plane and this later usage seems to become more common in the 19th Century. The strike block plane is not a high angle plane as you claim.

Christopher Gabriel, in his 1800 inventory, did the same. He listed straight block planes and wooden miter planes next to each other just as did the J. Wilks catalog some 40 years later. Gabriel did, indeed have them in stock and we can tell by the inventory they were kept right along side what would have been his most commonly sold planes. Also, like the Wilks catalog, the wooden miter was considerably more expensive than the straight block or strike block plane.

As I tried to explain in my response to your first installment, the strike block plane has some critical clearance angle issues that were not well suited to the normal trade practices of less than accurate grinding and honing. The wooden miter plane was bedded at about 20º and was bevel up which solved the clearance angle issues. But the wooden miter plane had structural problems caused by the low bed angle. I've found evidence of this structural failure in every surviving old low angle wooden plane I've seen.

I believe the British metal miter plane was an independent development seeking a solution to these issues. It's a completely natural evolution. By 1700 British planes were more evolved and functionally more sophisticated than any developed on the Continent even 200 years later. I can find no evidence British plane makers looked to the Continent for any of their plane developments any time after the late 17th Century.

I'm at a loss as to how you think these planes worked. I think John's suggestion to check with Patrick Edwards is a good one. I strongly suspect he learned to use high angle planes for leveling and finishing marquetry and still does.
Greber was written over 50 years ago and a lot of stuff has come to light since then. I don't read German but as near as I can tell he doesn't list any pre-19th century encyclopedias in his bibliography - so I don't know what he is talking about when he says "early German encyclopedias". He also dismisses the English mitre plane in their entirety (which the translation points out). I can't find any translation of the word "vergatthobel" or "vergat" but my specialist German-English woodworking dictionary is at work at the moment (although it's a modern dictionary so it probably won't be there anyway) In any case when I first looked at Greber his information doesn't jibe with any of the other sources I mentioned. So at the very least Greber's inconclusive.

I will certainly defer to you on strike block bed angle.
I missed the reference to the Gabriel 1800 inventory but I am glad you mentioned it as it bears out my point and further pins down the dates. The 1791 list doesn't mention strike blocks or wooden mitre planes, but as you point out they both show up in 1800, 9 years later, in minuscule quantities. So which came first? Well we know that the term "Strike Block" is way old - but judging by the quantities on hand 0 in 1791, 2 in 1800 it wasn't really a hot seller. On wooden mitre planes I think the 1800 reference is the first English reference using the work "Mitre" plane of any kind but it comes after the 1791 inventory. Also listed in the 1800 account is "1 iron plane stock" in the 1800 - so we can definitely say for sure that what we call an infill mitre plane was called in 1800 by Gabriel at least an "iron plane" and "mitre plane" referred to wooden mitre planes. Iron bevel up planes might have been used for mitering along with other tasks but they still hadn't been removed from their original non-mitre terminology and usage. This contrasts with Wilks, 30 years later, in 1829, when he listed "Strait Block", Mitre do. with stop and iron reversed, and Iron do, steel faced.
("do" in this context meaning ditto).

As for metal planes in England developing independently according to "British Planemaker's from 1700" 3rd edition, there exists a "mitre plane constructed from bronze plates with an upstanding front tote and down-curving sides and marked B.H.G. London 1789 ... This plane would seem to be the transition between the shaped continental pattern and the restrained English style."

I think there is another "inter-continental" design from even earlier but I can't put my hands on the data just now.
04/24/2010Larry Williams 

Just a cursory look at the Gabriel inventories shows he was selling to more trades than just cabinetmakers. If one wants to know what cabinet makers were using there are some inventories of cabinet shop tools. The 1708 Plumley inventory, for example, lists three strike block planes--just as many strike block planes as jack planes. Hardly a "minuscule quantity" just as the quantity of planes for shooting miters is hardly minuscule when compared to other specialty planes like screw arm plows or sash fillisters in the Gabriel inventory.

Gerber's information is completely consistent with Moxon, Neve, and even Nicholson. The only inconsistency I see would come from when someone selectively picks individual items from these sources to promote some screw-ball theory. Give me some solid evidence, Joel.
Greber’s only contemporary pre-18th century documentation is of what he calls a French mitre plane from 1676 (fig. 184B) and it is actually the illustration from Felibien (which I don't think he credits) that I mentioned in part one of the blogs on mitre plane history. As I mentioned, it's in the MARQUETRY SECTION of the book. It wasn't for mitreing. His photographs of pre-19th century metal "vergatthobel" include an obviously bevel down plane (fig 107) that has no relationship to a mitre plane at all. Greber is wrong.

Larry, as you know I have tons of respect for what you are doing and your wealth of knowledge about wooden planes. And you should know I have no quarrel with Neve or Moxon. I am simply stating that the English metal infill plane currently known as a "mitre plane" wasn't initially developed for that purpose, and wasn't called a mitre plane until early in the 19th century. There is also a very, very strong case to be made that the wooden mitre plane with a boxwood plug to close up the mouth was invented after the iron mitre plane showed up in England. Do you know of any counter-evidence, or any existent example that predates the late 18th century?

I certainly disagree that I have selectively picked individual items to buttress my theory. In Part 1, I show or mention every known contemporary illustration of a metal plane. They all happen to be related to marquetry sources. If any of the 18th or earlier cabinet maker's inventories mentioned metal planes, I would be happy to include them. But I don't think they do.
04/25/2010Larry Williams 

You haven't even explained how or why the french plane was used in marquetry. A low angle plane is a bad choice for this because of the lifting nature of the cut. Using such a plane for this runs counter to my experience and everything I've ever read. I'd use a scraper or high angle plane set for very light cuts.

Your simply saying how well it works or saying how well steep cutting geometry works on end grain is what's not consistent with all the old or contemporary sources. Show me your evidence.
Except for the fact that all the known illustrations of bevel up iron planes are in the marquetry sections of the sources I already listed before there is no other documentation. I think both Diderot explains the use of the plane in context of difficult woods in the marquetry captions - but I have to dig up the translation of the text to refresh memory. Felibien doesn't offer much technique information on marquetry. Roubo should have more information in the Marquetry text to accompany the illustrations but I don't have a translation yet. Still, in all cases the location of the plane illustration along with other marquetry tools is pretty telling. There are no surviving documents or illustrations from the 18th century or earlier on using a metal plane for mitreing.

A scraper might be fine for something small I doubt you would want to do an entire table or desk top that way. as you well know by changing the bevel angle of a iron in a bevel up plane you can go higher or lower angle. Mitre planes (of all eras) are usually bedded at 20 degrees with a typical blade at 30 degrees you get 50 degrees. So the bevel angle is actually higher than average - just what you want for difficult woods in marquetry at a minimum but it's easy to raise it further with a different blade grind. For planing end grain in a mitre a lower angle might be more useful but you don't see low angle block planes until the cast era Stanley.
04/27/2010Gary Roberts
In marquetry, a mitre block is used to trim the edges of the exotic wood pieces to produce a straight edge. Some mitre blocks are compound angled to produce an invisible joint. The mitre plane is used with the mitre block (or mitre jack, or mitre board) for it's clean cutting of difficult grain.

Check out any good book on the practice of marquetry.
In addition to the engravings I presented previously I will be adding some additional information from early marquetry sources on the use of metal planes in early marquetry. I found my old notes but translations are taking awhile.
Incidentally you can use any fine mouthed plane with a mitre jack or mitre board the advantages of a metal plane are the same as planing a large surface - the hard brittle material of exotic marquetry won't tear up the sole of a metal plane.
04/27/2010Gary Roberts
Joel... exactly. Same reason many shipwrights preferred to make their own planes of hard exotic woods. They stood up to the hard exotic woods used in parts of shipbuilding.

If I remember correctly, the marquetry craftsmen where, for generations, a special breed, holding their secrets very close and jealously guarding their niche in the scheme of things. The tools of their trade, given the scale of their work, the cost of materials and the necessary precision in craftsmanship, would seem to be both expensive and well made.
04/28/2010Stephen Shepherd
I would think that the rarity of metal miter planes are their price. 10 times more money than a common miter plane and 6 times the price of Miter Plane with box front. Smith lists the Brass Mitre plane with steel face as costing the equivalent of all of the bench planes, a toothing plane, snipe bill, several molding planes and a moving fillister. Two or three days wages in the early nineteenth century.

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