Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The useful and the beautiful are never far apart. -Periander

The ancient Greeks had a saying that the useful and the beautiful were always allied. – Tuckerman

It is rare to think of a tool being designed solely on an aesthetic basis. Consider this handmade Holtey plane made in the UK by Karl Holtey. It is a thing of beauty, a work of art. Yet it, like any tool has to function, so the beauty of a tool may matter less than how well it performs. This leads us to a number of questions. Do the aesthetics of an object make it more amenable to use? Some tools, be it for the workshop or the kitchen are aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, but what does this really mean? Do we as humans gravitate more towards things that are aesthetically pleasing?

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A Holtey plane from the U.K.

Prehistoric humans were concerned with survival. That is not to say that aesthetics did not play a role in the things they made. But let’s face it, catching food took precedence over making a stone look pretty. However in their own way many stone tools were aesthetically designed, whether their makers realized it or not. Aesthetic beauty can be traced to the handiwork of their flint implements, a growing appreciation of form, and an unceasing pursuit of symmetry in the tools being built. “Such desires, such “useless” work having strictly no survival value for the race, can only have been due to the development of that aesthetic sense in man which perhaps more than anything else has helped to lift him above the brute.” (Norman Ault, Life in Ancient Britain, p.28).

So what is aesthetic? Aesthetic is concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. The modern use of the term “aesthetics” was introduced in 1750 when German philosopher  Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten wrote a book titled “AESTHETICA”, written in Latin using many Greek words. The word had existed before and meant sensation, to mean taste, or sense of beauty. Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. In the first paragraph Baumgarten defined “aesthetica”:

Aeasthetica (theoria liberalium artium, gnoseologia inferior, ars pulchre cogitandi, ars analogi rationis,) est scientia cognitionis sensitivae”, which roughly translated means: “Aeasthetica (theory of the liberal arts, the lower gnoseologia, the art of thinking beautifully, the art analogy of reason,) is the science of sense perception”.

Aesthetics in the simplest sense has to do with the beauty of an object. Beauty is objective and universal; thus certain things are beautiful to everyone. When you pick a raspberry from a bush, you tend to choose the bright red, firm raspberries, with no apparent visual defects. How do we describe aesthetic beauty? In 1753 English painter William Hogarth described his theory of visual beauty. Central to this was the “line of beauty”, an S-shaped (serpentine) line that excites the attention of the viewer. The handle of the Holtey plane may be what draws our attention to its beauty. Its clean lines, reflective surfaces, and fine detail.

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A HSB “OVB” Gage style smoothing plane

Do tools with high aesthetic value work better? There is a condition known as the aesthetic-usability effect, whereby people perceive objects with more aesthetically pleasing designs to be easier to use than less aesthetically pleasing designs. Humans tend to be drawn towards nicer looking things, and use aesthetics to judge appeal and perceived usability. Does a plane work any less better because it is made of wood, and has patina? The beauty in the Gage transitional plane lies both in the two-tone body-handles combination, and clean curves. Which of the planes in the image below do you find more aesthetically pleasing? The new bronze Lie-Nielsen, or the vintage steel Record? Both work nicely, yet many people are intrinsically drawn towards the shiny bronze plane… and yet we are also drawn towards the more amplified curves of the Records lever cap.

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Which is more aesthetically pleasing?

Dieter Rams felt that a product is “aesthetic if it is honest, balanced, simple, careful and unobtrusively neutral“. Basically the aesthetic appearance of an object should not be its primary focus. Dieter felt that for an object to be beautiful, it must also do its job properly. A tool must be usefully designed, such that its beauty is bound to its utility. Is a metal tool more aesthetically pleasing than wood? We may be attracted to shiny tools because they have the effect of enticing physical contact. This may be for different reasons – touch is the strongest sense from the perspective of demonstrating reality. We are drawn to reach out and touch shiny tools to connect with them. The problem with aesthetics is that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Beauty involves visual interpretation – colour, form, streamlining, symmetry – qualities that are different for everyone.

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The Gage self-setting plane

The Gage self-setting planes may be one of the more beautiful planes. These transitional planes were manufactured for roughly five decades (circa 1885 to 1935). The self-setting mechanism allows the blade and cap-iron assembly to be removed, the blade sharpened, and re-installed without readjustment. (still allowing for depth adjustment). The self-setting mechanism on the Gage planes is one of the more interesting, and most of the core innovations in the mechanism occurred in the first ten years.

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Fig 1:  OVB No.35 – a Stanley made Gage-type plane

When it debuted in early 1880’s  it was touted as being the “Only Self-Setting Plane Made”. Stanley did not have any planes with a self-setting mechanism until they bought Gage Tool Co. in 1919, and Sargent’s “Auto-set” planes did not appear until circa 1915 (at least that’s when the patent was issued). That it was attached to a transitional plane was likely coincidental, although of all the transitional blade adjustment mechanisms this was unique.

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Fig 2: A Gage ad from circa 1914

The patents

The concept for the self-setting mechanism was realized in a patent from D.A. Bridges in 1883 (Patent No. 271,569). It described an invention to “provide an efficient bench plane which can be adjusted with perfect ease to its work“. In the two patents that followed (No.323,804 in 1885, and No.339,872 in 1886), the mechanism evolved, to its apex in a patent by Stanley in 1920 (No.1,331,280), which saw the mechanism transferred to a line of metal planes. With respect to the plane bodies, not much changed in the intervening years – they all maintained a razee-type shape.

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Fig 3: The three main Gage patents

The mechanism

The self-setting mechanism is composed of two parts: the carriage, held within the plane body, and the cap-iron/blade assembly, held within the carriage. The construction of the carriage and corresponding cap-iron/blade assembly means there should be no need for setting the cutting edge of the tool parallel with the sole of the plane every time the cap-iron or blade is removed. If the cap-iron is removed, the blade can be taken out of the carriage, and replaced without altering its position. The blade can still be adjusted for depth of cut.

The metal carriage

The first patent, that of Bridges (No.271,569), describes a metal substructure that holds the blade adjusting mechanism in the oblique mortise of the plane body – what he terms an “inclined parallel sided throat iron“. It is somewhat better termed a carriage, and incorporates both the frog and throat assembly. Two screws hold this carriage to the plane body, and allow for it to be adjusted up and down in the mortise. This allows the frog and throat assembly to be moved up to permit the bottom of the plane to be trued up when it becomes worn. The bottom plate of the frog/throat assembly is shown in Fig.4.

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Fig 4: View of the adjustable iron throat.

The fundamental structure of the carriage changed very little over the intervening years from the original patent to the manufacturer of “clones” by Stanley for other companies in the 1920s. Fig. 5 shows the main components of the carriage from an OVB version of the Gage No.835 (after 1920).

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Fig 5: Parts of the metal carriage

 

The cap-iron/blade assembly

The original patent called for a very thin cap-iron and blade assembly with no chip-breaker present. The cap-iron has a set-screw which passes through the cap-iron and bears down on a structure known (in the original patent) as the “bit-plate” – this is essentially a clamp attached to the blade which helps position it in the carriage, and allows for depth adjustment. When the cap-iron is in place in the carriage, the screw is brought to bear forcibly on the bit-plate – raising the cap-iron, and forcing the blade down and locking it into position. The original patent also used lugs on the side of the metal carriage, and associated edge recesses on the cap-iron in order to engage and position it in the metal carriage.

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Fig 6: Parts of the blade assembly

Substantial changes were made to the cap-iron and blade assemblies in the patent of 1885. The cap-iron assembly is transformed into a combination of a chip-breaker attached to a heavy cap-iron (Fig.7). The method of holding the assembly in the carriage also evolved – the lugs/edge-recesses of the previous patent have been replaced by a transverse rod (Fig.5). The cap-iron has a concave round bearing with which to engage the rod. The only change in the patent of 1886 is the modification of the clamping mechanism attached to the blade. There is now a rectangular clamping plate on the upper surface (the “bit-plate”), and a guide block on the lower surface. The guide-block has a semi-circular recess in which the disk of the depth adjustment screw fits. Lateral adjustment is achieved by adjusting the clamps.

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Fig 7: Cap-iron and blade assembly

Comments

The patent of 1885 moved the plane to it’s modern form. Gone is the handle overhanging the heel of the plane, and a front knob has been added. It also included a fulcrum-bearing lever on the top of the clamping plate assembly to allow for lateral adjustment in the plane. It is likely very few if any planes based on the Bridges patent were ever made, with the planes likely based on the 1885 patent – yet I have not seen any with a lateral adjustment lever.

 

A weird bronze plane

A very strange plane indeed. The MORIN is a French manufactured plane, of unknown maker. The plane is made of bronze (58mm × 300mm), with a handle made of Bakelite. Some versions of the plane make provision for a fence on the side of the plane, attached in the flush region between the front handle and pin holding the lever cap. There seem to be very few specimens of this plane, which had a block plane companion (50 × 173mm), also made of bronze, with an 18º blade incline.

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The blade is held in place by an eccentric lever attached to the top of the handle, and a bolt on the lever cap, although it is difficult to ascertain what function this bolt performs. It seems as though the bolt should screw into the handle base, but there is no indication that this is the case. It is likely uses a specialized blade assembly. There is no frog for the blade to rest upon, and therefore is likely to be subject to some flexing to the the lack of rigidity. Whilst a beautiful looking plane, it seems to lack ergonomics and would likely be challenging to use.

 

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The transitional plane

The transitional planes are a crossbreed of sorts. Half way between a wooden plane and a metal plane, these hybrids possess a wooden body, usually made of beech, and a metal blade holding/adjustment mechanism. They were manufactured in the latter portion of the 19th century, allowing for the smooth movement of wood against wood together with the ease of blade adjustment offered by the metal planes. Stanley’s transitional planes first made their appearance in the mid 1860s with their characteristic boat-shaped iron castings – the blade could be secured and adjusted using the same Bailey mechanism as the all-metal planes, a spring-lever cap, and knurled screw respectively. These Bailey-type transitionals spawned copies from Sargent, Union, Ohio Tool Co., Sigley and Winchester.

Transitionals are not the most sought after planes in the world, and are therefore often quiet inexpensive ($25-50). Some people think they are only worth hurling onto an open fire. To be honest, I don’t really like the look of many transitional planes either- aesthetically they just lack something. There are however two exceptions – The Stanley “Liberty Bell” transitionals, and the Gage Tool Co. transitionals.

Stanley’s Liberty Bells

The Stanley “Liberty Bells” were a series of transitional planes produced by Stanley during the period 1877-1918. They belong to the same lineage as the metal “Liberty Bells”, using the same blade adjustment mechanism. It’s easy to tell if the transitional is a Liberty Bell – the lever cap has a “76” cast into it – made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ringing of the Liberty Bell in 1776.

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“Liberty Bell” transitionals

There were five planes in the series: No.122 (smooth, 8″), No.135 (smooth, 10″), No.127 (jack, 15″), No.129 (fore, 20″) and No.132 (jointer, 26″). These planes may have been phased out due to the pending purchase of Gage Tool Co.

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Liberty Bell No.127 transitional

The Gage Transitionals

The Gage Tool Co. (1883-1919), of Vineland (New Jersey), produced a unique transitional, with a self-setting feature. John Porcius Gage founded this company and owned it until 1917 when it was sold to Philip Leavens. In 1919 it was sold to Stanley Rule & Level Co. who continued to use its name, until it discontinued the planes in 1934. In 1920 Stanley transferred the self-setting mechanism of the Gage planes to a line of self-setting metallic planes – likely in an effort to compete against Sargent’s self-setting mechanism.

These are a set of self-setting transitionals. Made of beech, these planes are unique in that the frog/throat assembly can be adjusted up when the sole of the plane needs to be trued up. Stanley continued manufacturing the wooden transitional’s until 1935. There were five planes in the Gage series: No.835 (smooth, 10″, 2″ blade), No.822 (smooth, 10″, 1¾” blade), No.826 (14″), No.828 (18″) and No.830 (22″). J.P. Gage had plane patents on 4 August 1885, 13 April 1886 and 8 November 1892. The 30 January 1883 patent of David A. Ridges was also used. Stanley also manufactured Gage-style planes for other companies after 1920, including for the Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company (or H.S.B. & Co.) – which are marked with the O.V.B. (Our Very Best) logo (with the same numbering system).

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H.S.B. & Co. OVB No.835 transitional plane

The problem with transitionals is that they are often in a mediocre condition. This is a situation experienced with many wooden planes – metal planes have a tendency to rust, and wooden planes are no less susceptible to environmental changes. There are some contemporary “hybrids” that meld a wooden body with metal blade adjustment mechanisms. These are variants of the horned planes found in Germany and Scandinavia – using mechanisms such as the Primus blade adjustment mechanism.