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 Joel's Blog

A Look at Violin-Maker's Planes

07/08/2015

Luthiers have a problem. When making a stringed instrument the belly (front) and back need to be thin in the right places so that they will vibrate correctly, and thick and strong in other places so that string tension doesn't break the instrument. To do this they have a need to carefully remove slivers of wood in very localized areas. While scrapers are very useful, small, metal "violin-makers planes" evolved at least as far back as the 16th century and in France by the mid-eighteen century (Diderot plate 1205) had evolved to essentially the same form as the C. 1910 Preston violin-makers plane seen at the left of the photo. Available sizes listed in the 1909 Preston catalog ranged from 5/16" - 15/16" in either a flat or convex sole. Preston's planes were supplied with both a regular plane blade and a toothed blade. The latter blade significantly reduces the tearout you get when planing and cannot always plane with the grain. The second picture has a closeup of the toothed iron. Preston's offerings were similar to most British planemakers. Preston closed in 1932.

The second plane from the left was made by an English company named ESE. They made similarly styled planes in a full range of sizes. Machined from solid bronze, which negated the need for a fancy casting, the style is boxy but ESE planes worked well. ESE ceased production shortly after the turn of the twenty first century.

The two planes on the right are by an American, Christopher Laarman. I had the privilege of stocking a few of his planes for the few years he made them C. 1990's-2003. The highly sculptured bodies were investment cast and fit fingers perfectly. The irons, which are solid and thick were by Ron Hock. The sculptured bodies are a joy to hold, a joy to use, and a feast for the eye. His planes are treasured today. The larger of the two Laarman planes in the picture has a palm rest, which many people feel gives them even more control.

Luthiers also use small block planes, which are sometimes also called "violin planes". But the larger violin planes, (which are still pretty small) developed separately, with a different set of roots that also go back to the Renaissance. These larger block planes are the ancestors of the entire modern family of mitre, block, and bench planes.

There are a few makers of violin-maker's planes around today. IBEX is probably the most well known although I haven't used one and don't have an opinion on if they are any good.

N.B. I am calling their planes "violin maker's planes" rather than just the more common "violin planes" because that's how Preston listed them in their index. Also it's more pretentious. Either term is obviously correct. "Finger Plane" is another term that is used, but in my view, that term is more suited for the family of small boxwood planes that were used by cabinetmakers and casemakers, not by luthiers.

Join the conversation
07/08/2015 Michael Christenson
Thank you for this information. I have a Laarman plane, but I didn't have the historical perspective on this type of plane.
07/09/2015 joseph curran
Makes me wish I made violins. Thanks for the info.
07/10/2015 Francis Beaulieu http://www.fbeaulieuluthier.com
Ibex planes are so uncomfortable, it's like a blister machine. Also the blade angle is quite low, which is not great on curly maple... One day I might take a week off and make myself some mini infill planes, but until then I'm using the uncomfortable ones.
07/10/2015 Richard Owen
While I don't make violins, I have a set of the Veritas Palm Planes that I like quite a lot. I'd be interested in any comparison of these to the Violin maker planes.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.