Two planes sit side by side, one, a wooden-bodied, handmade individual, the other, cast from iron in lots of hundreds throughout any single day. On the one hand the old wooden plane required well seasoned and dried wood that lay dormant under cover for ten years before working and cycling through began. The handmade wooden one required the much skilled work of a crafting artisan. Actually, no, many hours of highly skilled handwork. Castings in the form of iron-bodied planes on the other hand were developed and designed to remove the necessity and reliance on such skill. Once cast, the iron castings were left to ‘season’ for a year in crates to relieve some of the stresses in the metal before the refining and milling processes prepared them to receive the cast iron block we call the frog. It took only a few minutes to make the cast metal planes, that is once the moulds were set up and the right men doing the pour poured the molten metal that would soon become the all metal counterparts we’ve commonly used over the past 150 years. The metal flows like lava to the lowest levels, fills the moulds and after total cooling they are removed from the sand and piled in crates to wait. At some point, a year or more later, the plane soles are lifted to milling machines and the work begins to develop meeting points on the inside of the sole where the frog, the central hub governing all of the plane’s future settings, registers on three fixed points inside the mid section of the sole.
The No 7 Woden plane six pictures down is my longest bench plane in my collection of Woden planes. Woden is not my inept misspelling of ‘wooden’, it’s the name of a Germanic neopagan god, but that’s by the by. The Woden plane is a decent plane that follows the Leonard Bailey patterns of construction, so, whereas Woden is the brand name, Leonard Bailey is the designer and the originator and I have always enjoyed using the Woden planes alongside my Stanleys and Records.
I recently made this wooden plane using the gubbins from a bad eBayed Stanley to make it with. Some decades ago a man I worked with as an apprentice, worked under really, the last man I knew who really did use wooden smoothers, jacks and tri planes, a man then in his late seventies, told me that there was no real evidence to show that a wooden plane didn’t last equally as long as an all metal one. He’s the one that told me you need to “bend” metal planes to get them to create a straight edge. I found these facts hard to believe at the time, but now I think it more a truth than a falsehood, primarily because the plane soles on longer planes definitely move, no matter the maker, and the patina I see on a beech-bodied plane made in the early 1800’s didn’t happen in a year or two but more like at least ten, twenty, thirty, forty and more. I have seen bench planes worn down half an inch at the toe end and filled in front of the throat with throat closures because of wear and probably this reflected another 20 years of use beyond its life expectancy of three score and ten.
Transitioning from a cast metal plane to any of the wooden planes takes a little adjusting to too if indeed like me you have used them for hours every day for 50 years. Using them and gaining experience and skill is very much worth the effort though and it’s in the using of them you discover a worth and value you might never have considered before. Not only do you connect with how craftsmen felt about them when they used them in the centuries past, but you discover responses of wood on wood that it is absolutely impossible to get with any metal plane. It’s an indescribable sweetness that helps you to at last comprehend why old craftsmen in the late 1800s refused the Stanleys and clung to what they had owned and used and understood, fully.
In mainland Europe wooden planes have always proven ever popular and even today many woodworkers, especially in Germanic regions, continue hand work using wooden planes. I suppose herein is the strange anomaly in that the Woden plane was made under the name of a Germanic pagan god for a British market and yet was never sold in mainland Europe to challenge the wooden planemakers. I know this though, that no matter the era of wooden plane making, if you set the wooden plane up correctly, and they are as readily adjustable as the cast metal ones, they are more pleasing to work with and just as effective as any metal one I ever used.
Black and white
I recently completed the making of some wooden planes following two that Marples made in the earlier half of the last century. It’s a funny thing how when you want to emphasise something we might say something like, “Well let me make things black and white for you.”, or, “Put it in black and white.” When colour first came in print form in newspapers I remember the impact it had even though the print job was and I suppose still is deplorable.
I took the colour out here to emphasize something really. I am used to wooden bodied planes. On and off I have used them through the past 50 years and yet I generally go back to my all metal Stanley #4 for the major part of my working in daily life, followed swiftly by my #5, 4 1/2 and 5 1/2. Until recently I preferred the adjustment mechanisms these wonderful planes offered me and yet I do have to say that I always like using wooden bodied planes because of the ease on the wood and lightness in use. I have always liked the standard Stanleys with an emphasis that I do not particularly like thick irons. I prefer the Stanley’s because they are light and strong, hardwearing and indeed equal to the task. I also like to make certain I use what my students and watchers can get their hands on readily and yet I want something that is by no means second rate or a stopgap or in any way inferior in producing top quality work, or, on the other hand, to leave anyone with the impression that it will work until you can get something better. Stanley planes from before the pre 1970s do that for me and so I feel that I am giving woodworkers what they really need to work wood with. If anyone then simply wants to spend money on a better engineered plane, and that’s their personal preference, then that is their choice. But at least I have done my part in saying there is no need to spend more unless you just want to, prefer to or personally feel you need to. I have also done my best in defending the good name of one of the best engineering entrepreneurs in the history of plane making. A man who designed a plane from scratch and was able to patent his design because it was brand new.
Over the past few weeks I made several wooden planes and incorporating the body with a retrofitted adjustment facility in the form of the Stanley (or Record) frog, replete with matching cutting iron assembly unit. Marples did this in the early half of the last century. These planes were preferred by woodworking class workshops in many schools because boys could handle the lighter weight better and they of course offered the same adjustability that the all metal versions were then offering as the current way forward.
I made my first one from non hardwearing pine as a prototype, using a scrap of stud for my material. It took me half an hour (minus the handle) and when I offered it to the wood, even for the first time, shavings shot through the throat and skyward like a popped cork from a champagne bottle, even though the setting was way too deep. I was absolutely stunned. I have to say it, it even felt better then the Marples beech original. It felt spunky, spritely, versatile, light and easy – Oh, so easy! It made me wish I had had it to build my tool chest with for the current video series on woodworkingmasterclasses.com.
You can in fact make a smoother, a jack and a tri plane and simply reinstall the same frog and iron into one or the other as you please if you want or you can buy in secondhand frogs the price of which just shot through the roof on eBay I am sure by the time you read this post. At the time of writing I just bought five frogs for £15 — $23.
The thing about building this plane and retrofitting the frog to fit is that the sole of the plane with its 45-degree slope acts as the extension for support directly behind the cutting-iron assembly unit and thereby necessitates cutting the frog slope down. Otherwise it will be further necessary to thin the sole directly behind where the frog might normally extend to on the sole, which in turn leaves a thinner aspect to the sole than you might want. I feel that in wood this might be a tad too thin, but then again perhaps not, whereas in the cast metal soles this works well. I am just saying that you can take the extra effort to shape the sole to receive the whole frog if you wish so as to retain the frog for interchangeability using both the original metal-cast plane and your new wooden ones.
We are also putting up a free two-part video series on making winding sticks starting next week so you may want to catch that one.
Oh, and by the way, we are working videoing the tool cupboard like the one in my shop but a scaled down size. You will be able to scale yours either way and we hope to be able to show how you can size one to suit you and your tools too.