A Joiner’s Toolbox: The Plough Plane

I just realized I was going on about the glories and frustrations of plough planing without really explaining the plough plane.

If you remember from our last excursion into the joiner’s toolbox, almost every tool is some permutation of a chisel. A drill bit is a twisted chisel used for making holes and a hand plane is a chisel held in a frame, used for making things flat. There are many specialized versions of the hand plane and today’s specialized version is the almighty plough plane (or plow plane depending on your local vernacular).

Ploughs appear in very few of the images of joiners at work, though you can spot one here and there if you know where to look and two ploughs were brought up with the carpenter’s tool on the warship Mary Rose. I’m of the personal opinion that they’re largely absent from the period imagery because their use wasn’t well understood outside of the fraternity of joinery, though their use was vigorously protected from other woodworkers by guild law.

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Through the magic of Photoshop, the plough plane in the above image from Jost Amman’s Book of Trades glows, as though with a magical light.

A plough plane, at its most basic, uses a heavy, narrow, blade and an adjustable fence to cut a groove into a piece of wood. The blade rides on a rail of either hardwood or metal to keep it rigid and allow it to follow the groove as it deepens without chattering and the fence registers against the side of whatever is getting grooved. This means you can control how far your groove is from an edge and dictate that it stay that distance for its full length.

This tool is instrumental for paneled work such as wainscoting and chests where there are wide boards between narrow rails. The wide boards will have a tongue and the rails a groove, which is cut with the plough.

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Here I’m using a beautiful boxwood plough plane, made by the fine folks of Sandusky, Ohio back in 1880 or so. It’s a beautiful thing, but those wood threads are incredibly delicate.

As with most things to do with planes, they do still exist, though the modern plough plane is generally cast iron and steel. As is the case with most metal plane history, this can probably be tracked to a Stanley Plane. The earliest metal plough that I know of is the Stanley 45 combination plane introduced in 1883.

Stanley called it a combination plane because its interchangeable blades made it not only a plough, but also a substitute for many of the moulding planes. This culminated in the Stanley 55, which Roy Underhill famously referred to as “A Steampunk Spork“. The 45/55 really accentuate the “chisel in a frame” idea by making the framework as obvious as possible and did everything you could want, but none of it exceptionally well. Most woodworkers today still use wood bodied planes when possible for moulding work, though metal bodied planes are holding their own for ploughing.

~ Scott

Works Cited:

Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose, Oxbow Books, 2005, 2013 edited by Julie Gardiner with Michael J. Allen.

The Superior Works: Patrick’s Blood & Gore, by Patrick Leach (website), re: Stanley 45/55 combination planes, Accessed 24 August 2018

OhioMemory.org, (Website) re: Sandusky Tool Company, accessed 24 August 2018

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