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Iron Rebate Planes - A Design That Came And Went  

10/11/2011

Before the 1860's iron rebate planes were pretty common. Robert Towell, the earliest specialist iron plane maker made a bunch, as did other makers. Then the shoulder plane was invented, and rebate planes become scarce. Shoulder planes were purpose designed with lots of finger grips to make it easy to trim a shoulder or cheek of a tenon. The earlier rebate planes, are at a higher bed angle than a shoulder plane and are really just a metal version of a wooden rebate plane. With the advent of shoulder planes, rebate planes lost their reason to exist. Iron rebate planes do not disappear from later tool catalogs, but they are no nearly as common as shoulder planes by several orders of magnitude.

The four rebate iron planes in the picture are organized by size. A full sized Towell plane in the back, then a Norris (20th century), both 3/4" wide, which was by far the most common size made. Then we have a small 1/2" Spiers rebate plane, which while less common than the 3/4" isn't really rare. In the front we have a probably unique 1/2" Towell double iron rebate plane.

It's the double iron Towell that's the most puzzling. With this exception all the double iron rebate planes I have seen or heard about were by Spiers. Even though the earliest brochure (c. 1851-58) from the Scottish maker shows a 3/4" double iron rebate plane and a 1/2" rebate plane neither model is particularly common. I spoke with Konrad Sauer, who has one of the Spiers planes what they were used for and neither of us could come up with a compelling use. While the front iron is set in a bullnose position it struck both of us that stopping work and shifting blade position just to do a few bullnose passes made no sense.
It's also a harder plane to make than a regular rebate plane. Neither of us had heard of a 1/2" Spiers double iron plane. The Towell 1/2" shows finger wear in front of the rear blade, which suggests at one time it was heavily used. The irons are unmarked and most certainly replacements and wedges might also have been replaced. The mouths of the plane are both pretty fine. My guess - and it's only a guess with zero evidence to back it up, is that in the late 1840's, the last years Towell was active, a local London customer had a specific need for a small double iron rebate plane. With Spiers all the way up north, he asked the local guy to make one. This of course begs the question of what was the pressing need for the plane as opposed to a regular 1/2" rebate plane, but the beautiful part of random conjecture is that I don't have to pursue that thought. Another theory could be that Towell was known for his 3/4" rebate planes and once made a double iron plane. Spiers, coming later on the scene didn't want to just advertise a copy of a Towell plane, but wanted to stress two models that were not commonly available elsewhere. Another theory involves the Loch Ness Monster but it's too complicated for a blog. As you can gather I have no idea and considering the number of tool designs that make evolutionary sense it really bothers me that the logic behind the design seems so elusive.

Below is a picture of Konrad's 3/4" rebate plane - At the tip you can see the a line showing the distinct way the iron nose was hammer welded onto the main body of the plane. On the Towell plane I would assume the same method of construction was followed but I can't see as distinct a weld line.
Tags:Historical Subjects
Comments: 9
10/11/2011Gary Roberts http://toolemera.com
Let's say your role in a shop required your traveling to the job site to fit and install fitments and suchlike. One plane that could do the work of two would be preferable when you had to carry your tools with you. Think also not in the modern rush sense of time but in the 19th or 18th century sense of time when it came to the energy and minutes spent adjusting such a plane. Not such a big deal after all.
10/14/2011Jim Alguire 
It is even more puzzling that those plane irons are obviously not bedded at the same angle.
10/14/2011joel http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com
Konrad and I discussed this. We both think that the main reason was mechanical. If the front iron were at the same angle as the rear there would be that much less hand clearance and you would need more space between the irons to avoid interfering with the infill that surrounds the cutout for the second iron.
10/16/2011Steve Schuler http://literaryworkshop.wordpress.com/
A fascinating post. I've never seen an iron shoulder plane in person, so this is quite an education for me.

The double-iron 1/2" plane is indeed a puzzle. Here's my question about that plane: are the wedges interchangeable? Or are they slightly different shapes? If the wedges are different shapes, then it should be obvious why there are two irons.
10/16/2011joel http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com
For all intents and purposes the irons and wedges are identical
10/18/2011Steve Schuler http://literaryworkshop.wordpress.com/
Interesting. Here's what I had in mind there: assuming that the irons were not used at the same time, what if the wedges weren't interchangeable? You would have to have two wedges, but if you had only one iron, then one wedge would always be floating around loose. Two irons would solve that problem. But if they're interchangeable, then so much for that theory. I'm no authority at all, but I'm guessing that the design is just there to make it quicker to shift from one job to the other.

Woodworkers are good at devising complex solutions to very simple problems...
10/27/2011John Harder 
George Ellis shows an almost identical looking plane on p. 14 of "Modern Practical Joinery" c. 1902. On p. 15 he explains the purpose of the double iron rebate plane this way. "These are intended for cleaning up hardwood rebates quickly, the front iron cutting coarse, the rear one fine; either one can be used alone when required." Just found this book today on Google Books.

http://books.google.com/ebooks?id=GXZZAAAAQAAJ&dq=modern%20practical%20joinery&as_brr=5&source=webstore_bookcard
10/27/2011Joel http://http:www.toolsforworkingwood.com
Thanks for pointing out The Ellis reference. I have the book but didn't know about the reference. But I think he is mistaken. In order to use one iron coarse and one fine you need to retract the coarse iron first. That makes no sense from a speed standpoint. That is if the speed gained from having two irons is really important you would do far better to have two planes.
11/22/2011Adam Petersen 
It seems to me, and this is speculation, that having two different planes in one would be beneficial in a day where you have to haul your heavy tool chest to each job. Having a low angle and higher angle in one eliminates the need for two plane bodies and allows you to use it with the grain or cross/end grain with the low angle. Just a wild guess.
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