The early evolution of the metal block plane

Very few historical books mention block planes to any great extent. As discussed in the last post on block planes, there were planes prior to 1850 which were small and had a low blade angle, i.e. they were suited to end-grain and cross-grain planing. But were they block planes, or planes that conveniently fill the blanks in the history of the block plane? At the dawn of the 20th century, British books on woodworking did not make mention of many metal planes, let alone block planes – for a time they may have been a uniquely North American phenomena, from a manufacturing point. In their 1914 catalog, Norris planes (manufactured by T.Norris & Sons of London) described a series of chariot planes, and two iron thumb planes (5″ in length, one with a rosewood wedge, the other with a gunmetal lever and screw), but no block planes.

The real evolution of block planes in North America began with Stanley’s introduction of the No.9 mitre plane in 1870. Within a decade, a vast array of block planes were in existence. It is testament to the toolmaking industry in the latter half of the 19th century, and the efforts of dozens of inventors, all patenting “improvements” to planes. In 1879, the Stanley catalog offered the following block planes:

The Stanley Iron Block Planes: 101, 102, 103, 110, 120

L. Bailey’s Patent Adjustable “Victor” Planes: 0, 0½, 00, 000, 1, 1¾, 2, 2¾, 1¼, 1½, 2¼, 2½

L. Bailey’s Pocket Block Plane: 12, 12½, 12¼

Little Victor Block Plane: 50, 50½, 51, 51½, 52

“Defiance” Patent Adjustable Planes: B, D, E, F

The count? 29 different block planes. How was it even possible to decide which one to purchase?

Ironically it was somewhat of a short-term burst of planes for the next decade. The Defiance and Victor lines were bought from Leonard Bailey in the early 1880s and by 1888 they were discontinued. That reduced the number of block planes to a more manageable selection – but this small number of options was short-lived. For the next 60 years, until the decline of tool manufacturing, the variety of block planes available would balloon, expanded further by the block planes produced by manufacturers such as Sargent, Union, and the Ohio Tool Co. The Stanley catalog of 1898 displayed 20 block planes:

9½, 9¾, 15, 15½, 16, 17, 18, 19, 60½, 65½, 60, 65, 100, 101, 102, 103, 110, 120, 220, and 130.

In the Ohio Tool Company’s 1910 catalogue, they offered 23 block planes (with a numbering system suspiciously similar to that of Stanley).

09½, 015, 09 5/8, 015 5/8, 09¾, 015½, 016, 017, 018, 019, 060½, 065½, 060, 065, 0130, 0220, 0102, 0103, 0110, 0120, 0101, 0100, and 0140.

Sargent offered 25 block planes in their 1910 catalog.

4306, 4307, 5306, 5307, 306, 307, 1306, 1307, 316, 317, 1316, 1317, 606, 607, 1606, 1607, 104, 105, 106, 107, 227, 206, 207, 208, and 217

Was there a quintessential first metal block plane? It’s hard to say. There were a number of patents relating to block planes from the early 1870s, however none which relate to a specific plane, usually to improvements to one or more of the adjustment mechanisms.

Indeed, block planes evolved so quickly in the latter part of the 19th century that there is no natural order to their early design. As their genre matured, new blade holding and adjustment mechanisms appeared, and oddities such as “unbreakable” steel planes, and aluminum planes appeared and disappeared.



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