How did the block plane transition from finishing and resurfacing butchers blocks to its work today? Butchers blocks have been around for hundreds of years, so it is likely that the earliest forms of block planes were wooden, and used only by those engaged in building butcher blocks. Woodworking prior to the 15th century was extremely simple in its design, or maybe crude is a better word.
The top of a century old butchers block showing the end grain, and the dovetail joints holding the pieces together.
Mortice and tenon joints were often straight through, and no attempt was made to hide wood joints. This evolved to the use of “trenails”, wooden round pegs, not dissimilar to dowels, but also visually present, often in decorative patterns. By the 18th century however, the woodworkers craft had evolved to the point where joints were hidden from sight. Tenons no longer projected through, and exposed end grain was avoided in favour of hidden joints. This was in part due to aesthetic appeal – as furniture became more ornate, and polished, the sight of end-grain would have been considered inelegant. This may actually have contributed to a decline in craftsmanship, as few cared about the hidden joints – “out of sight, out of mind”.
The return of quality craftsmanship may have been heralded by the likes of Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), an English furniture designer who is considered one of the more influential designers of the Arts and Crafts period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His designs heralded furniture based on the lines or simplicity and good proportion. The secret dovetail gave way to the through dovetail, the half tenon gave way to the through tenon.
It may have been this resurgence of end-grain that facilitated the need for a tool to trim it. Coincidently, the start of the Arts and Crafts movement circa 1880, coincides with the introduction of metal block planes. The need for block planes (and quality tools in general) waned in the 1950s, as quality joints made way for cheaper, mass produced furniture, often using particleboard (developed in the 1940s). It was not until the 1990s that there was a resurgence in quality block planes.