Roy Underhill, the traditional woodworker with the long-running PBS show, “The Woodwright’s Shop,” has a storefront school in downtown Pittsboro, NC. If you visit the town, you will often find students building projects with hand tools — no power tools here! On the second floor of the school is a store with a huge inventory of hand tools. Hundreds of hand planes, chisels, saws, folding rules, braces and bits, and dozens of specialty tools used back in the day. It is a great place to go and look at examples of how things used to be done. You can actually hold history in your hand.
As I try to improve my hand tool skills, I often go over to that tool store and occasionally pick up something for my shop. Recently, I came home with perhaps the oldest “new” tool I have ever acquired – a wooden jointer plane. As I looked at some of the store’s inventory, Ed, the proprietor, showed me the jointer planes. We tried out a couple of different ones on a piece of lumber he had on his bench, and they had a nice feel, even with very dull blades. I grabbed one more from up on top of the cabinet, and examined it. Ed looked at it and noticed that it had a “Butcher” blade in it.
It was 26 inches long, and had a metal owner’s mark tacked on to the end. He estimated this plane was from the early 1800’s, and it was obvious that it had been used a lot in its lifetime. I tried it out and the blade was very rusty and dull, but a little time with the sharpening stones can fix that. The area right behind the mouth had been worn down over the years and was just slightly hollow. Ed commented that if I didn’t buy this plane for the $20 shown on the price tag, it was going back on the shelf with a new, higher price, now that he had looked at it more closely.
So, I bought it and brought it home. I spent a couple hours on the blade, getting it razor sharp. The iron is made of two different metals bonded together – a softer one for the main body, and a harder one for the cutting edge. I had no idea that this was being done that long ago.
I know some will find this blasphemous, but after some thought and deliberation, I put the hollowed sole of the plane on my 8 inch, 220 volt modern power jointer. Taking only a few thousands off at a time, I got the hollow out and the sole flattened. I then bathed the plane in linseed oil, and later applied some paste wax.
The plane iron had an interesting mark on it: “W. Butcher Warranted Cast Steel.” A little internet research revealed that Mr. Butcher was known back in the 1800’s for producing some of the finest steel for tools and razors in the world from his foundry in Sheffield, England. This hand plane very well could have been produced in the early 1800’s and this would have been the original iron.
The best part is . . . this plane works amazingly well! I took a rough piece of ash and had it completely flat and ready to work in short order. Notice the shavings in the photo above. Ah, but where does one store something like this?? It won’t fit in a drawer, or even on any of my shelves. Time for more tool storage! I had been thinking of building a hanging tool cabinet, and this new plane provided the push to get started.