A Joiner’s Toolbox: The Hand Plane

If this sometimes feels like a woodworking blog, I apologize. It’s not intended that way; it’s just that so much of the technology of the 16th century revolved around items made from wood or iron. Often both.
Despite the fact that modern woodworking has largely become a matter of “He/She who dies with the most tools wins” it hasn’t always been that way. In no small part, this is owed to the fact that there wasn’t as much unnecessary variety in tools. The tool box if the 16th century joiner was relatively simple. Even today, there’s not much you can’t make if you have a couple of measuring implements, a sharp knife, a few decent chisels, a saw or two, a hand drill, a nice heavy mallet, a hammer, and a few simple hand planes. (Your apprentice will also need an axe, a mallet, and a froe for splitting lumber as well since you can’t go down to ye olde Home Depot to buy it.)
Some details can be found in period sources:

“A Rule a compass a hatchet a hansawe a fore plane a joynter a smothen plane two moulden planes a groven plane a paren chysell a mortisse chesell a wymble a Rabbet plane and six graven Tooles and a Strykinge plane…” 

From a 1594 apprenticeship contract of John Sparke and Humfrey Bryne, outlining the tools of the joiner’s trade. (As quoted in Seventeenth Century tool kit.” Peter Follansbee, joiner’s notes (blog). September 8, 2009.) 

If you’re engaged in a specific trade, of course, there would be a couple of additional items such as lathe tools or spoke shaves, but there’s really not really much variance from that central list.
A small selection from my toolbox…
The primary tool in the joiner’s toolbox is the hand plane. Roy Underhill has even said that the difference between a carpenter and a joiner is the joiner’s plane. He’s right in a very specific way: guild laws actually forbade the use of certain key tools by other craftsmen in order to discourage generalists. For the joiner, the hand plane — especially the plough plane — was his identity as much as the lathe identified the turner.
The hand plane is essentially a chisel held in a frame and secured in place with a wedge. Sometimes, there’s a handle at the front or back, depending on where and how it’s used. They’ve been around since pre-Roman times and arose independently in cultures cut off from one another as the obvious next step to save labor from smoothing large surfaces with hand chisels and adzes.
The parts of a hand plane (I realized I haven’t done a custom illustration in awhile)
The amount of change between the Roman hand plane linked to above to the hand planes that were found in the wreck of Mary Rose (below) and the ones in my wood shop today is very slight. The drawing above could cover any one of them. Most of the changes were matters of metallurgy as the blades got better and better and the chip-breaker was introduced to help alleviate the clogging problems endemic to the old beasts.

It wasn’t really until the industrial revolution that any great change in plane technology was introduced and took root. In 1865, Leonard Bailey‘s patent hand plane changed the plane from the wooden carcass we see in the archaeological record (and my tool chest) to the iron-bodied planes that we see today.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve seen this tool before in a far more decrepit shape. It’s my recently refurbished Bailey Number 6 with my custom over-sized walnut tote (I have large hands). This is the most common form of hand plane seen in workshops today. My friends might mock me as a Luddite, but even in my focus on hand tools, I’m a mostly modern worker of wood. Iron body planes have it all over the wooden ones in durability and adjustability. They’re easier to use, easier to set up, and less finicky by far than their old wooden counterparts. Want to adjust the iron on a wood plane? Grab a mallet. Whack the tail to retract the blade, the front to extend it, the sides to adjust the pitch, and hit the wedge to set the blade… then do it all over again if you get too much or too little. Yet wooden planes are still made today and used religiously by many.


I wondered that myself until I bought a couple of them from my local antique dealer and put them back into service. First off, they’re fun. I can’t find a better way to describe it. Also, the weight of the thing does some of the work for you. I’ve noticed as well that once you’ve worked out the zen of setting the iron,  they don’t chatter as much.

Another thing worth noting is that proper joinery of the period was all done with green wood. None of this kiln-dried nonsense that we get today: Cut down the tree, split it up, and make some furniture! If you try working green wood with iron-bodied planes you’re going to have rust problems in pretty short order.

Incidentally, they can also be quite beautiful.

My favorite planes aren’t as pretty as the one Robin Wood made (pictured in the link above) but they are elegant in their simplicity.

The fact that these tools changed so little from their inception to now is a blessing of a different sort: We can set up our (mostly) period-correct toolbox without making them. The differences, in fact, are so slight that in his book “Make A Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Joinery,” Peter Follansbee advises buying them and getting on with it. This is because — other than the addition of a chip-breaker and handle placement — the wood-body planes I can buy today in any antique store are virtually identical to the tools depicted in paintings, engravings, and other depictions of early modern joiners, as well as the first English-language treatise dealing with the joiner’s art: Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (available via that link as a free download), published in 1694.

We’ll be referring to Moxon again, so get used to hearing his name…

~ Scott

Image from Moxon found via Project Gutenberg’s scan of Woodworking Tools 1600-1900

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