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.
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