Evolutionary Dead End or
a Misunderstood and Useful Tool?
As a modern user
of hand tools, the so-called miter plane has always been
something of an enigma lurking in the tool chest. After
setting up and using a fair number of these blocky planes it
seems unlikely that these tools were designed solely for planing
smooth a hand-sawn miter.
Except for a couple of trades –
picture framers come to mind – mitering on the large scale that
demands a dedicated miter plane is an infrequent chore for a
cabinetmaker or joiner. Much cabinet- and sash-work
mitering can be handled by a chisel and a guide.
Perhaps, some have proposed, the
name “miter plane” is the incorrect term for the tool. The
Stanley catalog lists this tool as a cabinetmaker’s block plane,
and the tool was particularly favored among piano-makers.
Both facts suggest that the tool
had perhaps more than one function in the traditional shop.
So last year I decided to investigate the history of the tool
and also to try using this style of plane in a variety of
unusual ways in my own shop. I got out the books and put
away my set of bench planes for the time being. It was
time to start looking back.
From an Unexpected French Trade
Metal-bodied planes have been
traced back to Roman civilization and the 4th
century. And other examples surface from Europe as early
as the 16th century, including some that look like
the miter plane we’re familiar with.
But from a user’s
perspective, the most obvious fact about these tools is that
they were unlikely to have been used on a shooting board.
The iron sole is sometimes proud of the sidewalls. Or the
sidewalls aren’t even flat. These planes look to me like
they served a purpose other than shooting miters.
Some solutions to the mystery came
from the Manhattan apartment of Joel Moskowitz, a tool collector
and founder of the
Tools for Working Wood catalog and web site. As
interesting as Moskowitz’s tool collection is, what is equally
impressive is the quantity of printed material on tools and the
trades he has gathered over the years that line the walls of his
17th-century metal plane is likely French, is made of
wrought-iron pieces brazed together, and the jury is
still out as to if it had a wooden infill.
However, you can see how it resembles the so-called
miter planes of the following centuries.
courtesy of Joel Moskowitz.
himself has often wondered about miter planes, especially the
curious way they appear in England in the late 18th and early
19th centuries without any evolutionary precedent, including
their inclusion in the inventories of Christopher Gabriel & Sons
(a planemaker and tool dealer on Banner Street in London).
Moskowitz points to the French as
the source of this form of metal-clad tool. Three early
sources clearly show metal-clad planes. André Félibien’s
“Principes de L'architecture” (1676); Denis Diderot’s “L’Encyclopedie,”
a collection of 71,181 articles on the state on the arts,
sciences and trades in France between 1751 and 1772; and André
Jacob Roubo’s “L'Art du Menuisier,” a multi-volume treatise on
the manual arts published between 1769 and 1775.
miter plane made by Gabriel with a beech infill and numbered 309
on the bridge. This boxy tool is typically what we call a
"miter plane" but it's unlikely it was used exclusively for
What is curious is that the plates
that show a metal-clad plane are not where you might expect
them, which would be with the traditional cabinetmaking and
Instead, it is in the marquetry section. Moskowitz speculates that the highly skilled French marqueters
would use the metal-soled planes to smooth the exotic woods they
used in their work.
Before the French Revolution, France was a
rich country, and the court could afford to support such
high-end work and the craftsmen and tools that produced it. After the Revolution (1789), there was no such well-heeled
However, soon after the
Revolution, these metal planes show up suddenly in
England, Moskowitz notes. The Industrial Revolution made
metal planes easier to build, England was become richer
and perhaps French craftsmen fled to England.
Of course the
demand for marquetry tools would be small, so it’s logical
that planemakers tried to sell the metal plane to the
cabinetry trades, Moskowitz says. In any case, the
miter soon became a mainstay of early planemakers and likely
evolved into the classic bevel-down infill plane that
remains desirable to collectors and users.