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Mathieson Cabinetmaker's Floats and Early Shapers  


The pictures are of a small set of Mathieson cabinetmaker's floats that I purchased a few years ago. Available in a bunch of sizes to match standard hollow and round profiles, these were offered by Alex Mathieson & Son, the giant Glasgow tool makers, from the 1840's to I think around 1880.
While very rare, which is partly a function of the short time they were offered for sale, and partly because very few people bought them, the seemed the perfect antidote to how to work the last bit of a stopped molding. I also thought they might have some general cabinetmaking application as the Mathieson catalog does call them "Cabinetmaker's Floats".

Except that they don't work.

I mean that they really don't work. Of the half dozen floats I have, none has any significant wear on them and the teeth of the float have no relief angle. So then you go over a board, nothing digs in and cuts. I could not get them to cut for squat. I am willing to entertain the idea that the user needed to sharpen the float by either adding relief or rolling on some sort of burr. Of the former notion, that would be really hard to do. There are a lot of teeth and no clearance for sharpening. Of the latter notion, the steel is hard, and there is no evidence that anyone even tried. Also, in any case, most tools sold usually have enough grinding on them so that they sort of work. These floats didn't work at all.

This might account for their rarity.

Now for the second part of the blog title. We like to think that the Victorian woodworker used series of molding planes to work all their moldings on a job, working in an airy, well lit workshop. While this might have been true for workshops in rural areas, and for high end shops, in most places moldings were things you bought pre-made in lengths from a lumber yard, just like today. And from the 1840's on (actually a little earlier in some cases) the moldings were machine made on early shapers.

As a modern day seller of router bits I can tell you that everyone these days uses carbide bits and both routers and shapers spin incredibly fast so that you get a smooth surface. In the 19th century this wasn't the case. The bits would be steel, and the speed of rotation nowhere as fast as today. Consequently you ended up with a molding with regularly spaced rises and falls. This problem gets even worse as the cutters dull - which happens pretty quickly.
So what do you do about it?
Here is my theory, I have no contemporary evidence backing this up and would welcome some documentation. All I can say is that practical testing of my theory bears me out. If you take an uneven machine made molding, with the hills and valleys of a too slow or dull cutter and work a multi-tooth float with no relief over it, the float cuts. It evens out the hills and valleys and you get something that looks like it came from a molding plane. I think this is exactly what the Mathieson cabinetmaker's floats were for. And they were available from the early days of machine made moldings, where the uneven surface of the machine wasn't acceptable to only a few decades later, when the machines were better and customers also got used to machine made moldings.

I have no proof that I am right but so far I haven't been able to poke a significant hole in my theory. What are your thoughts?

Note: "To Make as Perfectly as Possible" is now available! Yipee!!

Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 15
I have some of those and whilst I raise an eyebrow at the prospect of, not only sharpening, but cutting with those so-called floats, cabinet-Makers' floats are a completely different animal and really do cut when both flat and sharp.

Rather I think that these seem to come in convex and concave form made-up in a beefy piece of steel - more akin to retaining heat and acting as a former of some kind.

Somewhere in the depths of the memory-bank is the notion that they were originally intended for workers in animal horn, though I could conceive of using them to form veneer onto a curved ground.

If you find out any more - please let me know.
They are called "Cabinetmaker's Floats" in the Mathieson catalog - complete with an illustration. This is what is so puzzling - I didn't make up the name.
11/20/2013Ken Bures 
Is it possible that the Mathieson floats were made for putting a curved edge on a convex surface rather than on a flat piece of stock? That would mean that there would be some relief. An example would be to round over the edge of a circular picture frame.
If they work like plane maker floats, then the first tooth is the cutting tooth and the other teeth work like a scraper following the cut. Just a wild guess. They certainly look different than plane maker floats.
If they do work like plane maker floats, then from the pics in the blog they are not sharpened. The bottom should be ground flat and then the leading edge of each tooth filed until it forms a sharp intersection with the bottom. When using, the first tooth has to start the cut with the other teeth following. A great reference is "Making Side Escapement Planes" by Larry Williams.
11/20/2013David Smith
Could you grind/sharpen each "tooth" a bit more than the one behind it? So the first one in front would be the shortest? Perhaps then it would work.
11/20/2013Rick Schuman 
If it quacks like a duck ...
11/20/2013David Griffiths 
Could it be that they were used by pulling rather than pushing the tool?
11/20/2013David Cockey 
Am I correct that the relief angle is zero? If so that would explain why the don't cut a flat piece of wood. It's like trying to pare a flat piece of wood with the bevel up and the back of the chisel against the wood. I'm suspicious of how well they would work on a piece of molding with regularly spaced rises and falls. My guess is it would be like trying smooth the molding with chisel, back against the wood.
11/20/2013John Vernier 
The problem with these suggestions for radical sharpening (or re-shaping, really) is that this suggests the tools were originally sold in a state totally unfit for use, and if that was the case we should see some examples which have been modified to cut "properly." I don't think we learn much about early tools if we modify them extensively to fit our notions of how they should work. I think that by using them pretty much as found, and discovering what they are actually capable of, Joel is learning something useful about these oddball tools. Personally, I am delighted to learn that they are nothing I need to seek out for my own kit!
11/21/2013Ron Ainaire 
Having been a machinist for 55+ years, I would have to agree with Joel. The zero relief would indeed cut small bumps; the tool then could be used in both forward and reverse direction.
11/22/2013Jean Becnel
This is an interesting topic that I had not previously pondered and I have no experience with tools that even resemble those. While I do think you may be correct I have an alternative explanation which might make be worth considering.

If you consider the cornice of say, an Acadian Armoire for instance, they quite commonly have a rounded profile. The mouldings meet at a 90 deg angle. The intersection is then carved into a rounded profile making for a rounded moulding. For reproduction work I carve these with gouges but I am wondering if your floats would work for this given the radius?

While some relief would still make them work much better this has my wheels spinning. Any chance you could test this theory?

Something to ponder.


Jean Becnel
11/25/2013David Weaver 
Looking at them, I'd have come to the same conclusion. Actually, I did, but I had to read the entire blog post to see that you also did - that they are a finishing tool and not a tool meant to cut a molding, rather one to remove stuff from a moulding that shouldn't be there (hills, valleys, etc) and finish the profile so that there are not chatter marks or any other such fluff.
12/09/2013Alice Ross
Maybe this is because of its design and merely looking at the picture above it doesn't look very sharp so I won't wonder if it really would not work at all.
02/16/2014Daniel Shuster 
I have a pair of these tools; although I don't see the name Mathieson on them. One is convex with convex curvature and the other is concave with convex curvature. I'm intrigued by the possible uses and yet reluctant to hone them to get sharp leading edges. Perhaps they were meant to shape plaster or clay. I hope to locate and acquire some more geometries for the time when I discover their original purpose.
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