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The Mystery of Miter Planes by Christopher Schwarz
Copyright 2007. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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An 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 apartment.

 

This early 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.

Photo courtesy of Joel Moskowitz.

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.

A dovetailed 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 mitering.

 

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 joiner’s tool. 

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 royalty.

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.

  1. 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.

 
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