Sunday, 14 December 2014

The medieval toolchest: the plane (part 4) - metal planes

The medieval plane history is not finished yet, although it becomes more speculative here. In this part some planes made from metal are presented.

Medieval metal planes

There is one illumination of the John the Fearless planes that had not been shown yet. It concerns an illumination of St. Andreas in the Book of Hours of John the Fearless. On this image levels are depicted on the right side and planes on the left side. The planes appear to be made of metal (also suggested by W.L. Goodman in the History of Woodworking Tools (page 60)). The plane iron is set at a very low angle, while the grip is curved forward. Metal planes were common in Roman times, but have not been depicted elsewhere or found during medieval times. The early renaissance period (16th century), however, does have some metal planes that have survived, bearing some similarity to the metal plane of John the Fearless. Though it is, of course, possible that the metal plane in the illumination only resembles the (non-functional?) 'gold' planes that the duke had ordered by his goldsmith.
The metal planes (including one large) are shown on the left side on this illumination of St. Andreas. 
Book of Hours of John the Fearless. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, Ms N.A.L. 3055, folio 172v.

Two of the metal planes that have some resemblance to metal plane of John the Fearless happened to reside at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, Austria. However, they are not on display. The only way to see them is to make an appointment with the curator (Elisabeth Schmuttermeier) to visit the depot in the cellars. I was very glad that I thus was able to see them, to hold them (with gloves) in my hands and to take photos of them. Unfortunately for you, I had to sign that the photo's are restricted for private use only. Therefore, the only thing I can share are already published photos, my drawings and measurements and my experiences with these 16th century planes. Both planes are of the type 'vergratthobel', a plane type that resembles the modern low-angle blockplanes and was used to make perfectly fitted angled joints of frames (e.g. of paintings). The word 'Vergratten' means 'to fit together' in German joinery terms.

The small 16th century vergratthobel from the MAK in Vienna. The photo is scanned from Die Geschichte des Hobels by J.M. Greber. The drawing is mine based on the measurements in the MAK.

The smallest plane, and the most cute one, MAK F. 1316 is 13 cm in length (11 cm according to Greber), has a height of 4 cm and a width of 5.5 cm. The plane body is made out of three pieces of metal. The sole has a wide opening (1 by 3.8 cm) for the iron. The iron is set at an angle of 32 degrees (27 according to Greber). At one end it rests on the metal rim of the plane, where the sharp end of the iron rests is unclear. The plane looks hollow inside, however the iron has to rest against some kind of frog. The iron itself is 2.9 cm wide with a thickness of 3.8 mm. The length of the iron is almost 10 cm. The wedge consists of an irregular shaped piece of metal, 2.8 mm thick, 3.45 cm wide and 6 cm long, with a small wooden peg wedged between the iron and the metal wedge. The wedge is set against a bolt with a diameter of  5-6 mm. The front part of the plane is decorated and ends in a curl (like an opened tin of sardines). This curl also has some decoration itself.

The plane felt relatively heavy my hand, just a bit more than a Lee Nielsen 62.5 low angle plane. But it is quite comfortable to hold, and I would not mind having such a (replica) plane in my collection.

The large16th century vergratthobel with the wedge sculpted as a head from the MAK in Vienna. 
The photo is scanned from Die Geschichte des Hobels by J.M. Greber.

The second plane, MAK F. 1314, is larger and has a total length of 23.6 cm (20 cm sole length according to Greber) and a width of 5.8 cm. The sole has a thickness of 6.3 mm with a very small opening for the iron of 2.8 mm by 4.5 cm. Onto the sole, a smaller metal box - the plane body - is fixed. This box measures 18.6 by 5 cm. The height of the plane is 4.1 cm, the sculpted wedge more or less doubles it to 10 cm. The iron of this plane is set at an angle of 30 degrees and has a width of 3.8 cm and a length of 13 cm. The iron is held by the sculpted wooden wedge (carved as a man's face with a moustache). The carved wedge also serves as a handhold to push the plane forward.  Aside from the carved wedge, the plane has some simple decorations. For instance the bolt has some decorative curves. The toat consists of a curved piece of metal, extending 5.2 cm from the box of the plane body. It reaches a height of 6.2 cm. 

 My drawing based on the measurements of the large 16th century plane in the MAK, Vienna.

This plane is quite heavy, like a metal number 5 jack plane. The frontal grip is comfortable to hold, but the wedge/handhold at the back feels awkward. In my opinion it is too bulky. There are two holes in the plane: one square in the sole, and a round one in the toat. The holes were probably used for hanging the plane onto a pin on the wall.

Finally, the MAK did also have another type of  metal plane (F 1313), dating from the second half of the 16th century. The plane is a small fore plane (according to Greber) with a toat. It measures 14.2 cm (13.8 according to Greber) is 4 cm wide and 3.8 cm high (+ 4 cm for the toat). The diameter of the toat is 1.8 cm. At the end is a square metal bolt, used to loosen the iron. The blade iron is set at an angle of 45 degrees; the opening for the blade in the sole is 7.5 mm. The plane iron look very peculiar: it is shaped like the teeth of Dracula. At both ends the blade has protruding points, the reason for this is unclear for me.

The 16th century etched fore plane from the MAK in Vienna. 
The photo is scanned from Die Geschichte des Hobels by J.M. Greber.

The body of the plane is fully etched with floral designs; even the sole of the plane has these etchings! yet the sole is till quite smooth. This etching looks similar to that of two metal planes from 1570 belonging to the Kurfürst August of Saxony (now in the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Dresden, Germany). The MAK plane is a bit lighter than the small Vergratthobel. For me, this plane it is too small to hold and work comfortably.

Smoothing planes made by Leonhard Danner (1507-1585) in Nürnberg around 1570 for Kurfurst August of Saxony. Top plane: Length 12.7 cm Width 3.8 cm Height with toat 8.0 cm Weight 511 g. Bottom plane: Lenght 12.7 cm Width 4.8 cm Height with toat 9.6 cm Weight 642 g. The planes are decorated with hunting scenes and floral designs. The plane iron is fixed with a screw instead of a wedge. Images from the SKD museum, Dresden, Germany.


Goodman, W.L., 1964. The history of woodworking tools. Bell and Hymann Ltd, London, UK.
Greber. J.M. 1987. Die geschichte des Hobels – von der Steinzeit bis zur Entstehung der Holzwerkzeugfabriken im fruhen 19. Jahrhundert. Th. Schafer, Hannover, Germany. ISBN 3-88746-188-6 [In German].

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