One of the many enjoyable aspects of collecting and using old tools is gleaning clues from them about the tradespeople of the past. As I said in my last blog, tools can teach us a lot, and I enjoy learning from the ones tradespeople made themselves. For the most part, they are pretty easy to spot because of their unique qualities or because they were fashioned out of another tool that has been modified for a new purpose, but sometimes they are so well made it takes a careful eye to tell them from those made by an experienced toolmaker.
If you think about it, the first tools of any type would have been made by hand, either as an experiment or as a way to fit a specific need. A task that was done repeatedly might become easier if a tool could be made that made it easier or simpler to accomplish. Maybe a tool was already on hand to do a specific job, but modifying it made it work that much better. And if a tradesperson decided a new tool was needed, he or she might not have had the option of going to the hardware store to pick it up. It’s also possible they didn't even see the need to if they could just make it themselves.
I also believe that people who lived and worked in earlier times made use of things that might have become worn or damaged, rather than throw them away. Once a file has become dull, it isn’t of much use as a file, but the grade of steel used to make it makes for a decent wood chisel if it’s modified into one, and the price is right as well. A saw blade with broken teeth won’t cut much wood, but the strong, flexible saw steel is good as cabinet scraper stock.
Custom wood planes are actually quite common, and early wood planes are rarely found with an iron made by the plane maker. Early iron mongers forged plane iron and chip breaker sets in standard widths, and plane makers would fabricate the bodies to suit the needs of woodworkers. Planes were made of different sizes and lengths or with the irons set at different angles suited to the type of planing to be done and the different types of wood. It was your choice whether to buy a pre-made plane or just the iron and chip breaker so you could make your own plane.
It’s also not that uncommon to find custom-made metal planes that stand out from their manufactured counterparts because of their uneven proportions or rough castings. So it was quite a surprise to me to discover that a plane I had brought out of storage for cleaning, and that I had always assumed had been made by an early plane maker, revealed characteristics to me that caused me to come to a different conclusion.
I knew the plane iron was wrong because of its shape, and closer inspection showed it to be the blade of a Sorby tanged wood chisel. This of itself could easily have been simply a matter of replacing a lost or badly damaged iron with the blade of a chisel. It also became obvious, once I started paying closer attention, that the wedge, which on this type of “chariot” plane also serves as the chip breaker, had been fashioned by hand. It was quite well done, but clearly hand made, and again could easily have been a replacement made by the plane's owner to keep the plane in service.
It would have been a simple matter to be satisfied that I had solved the mysteries of the little gunmetal plane, but now I was getting curious. Looking more closely, I realized the wooden finger block at the nose of the plane had also been fashioned by hand and was shaped in a way that could have been made to fit the owner's fingertip. The likelihood of the finger block being damaged is really low, and it would be pretty hard to lose because it is held in place by hand-slotted screws.
Studying the body of the plane showed that the shoulders were actually two different shapes and sizes, something you would never find on a plane made by an experienced plane maker. The stepped nose of the plane was also not equally offset, and removing the iron and finger block revealed the inside of the body to be roughly cast and unfinished. Now I was confident I had discovered in my collection one of the most well- done craftsman-made tools I had ever seen. It was so well done it disguised itself as having been made by someone whose trade it was to make them.
I couldn't help but ask myself how many people I knew who could pull that off. I know I'm not among them. What that little plane reminded me is that in more ways than one, tradespeople have changed. Today we look to quality tool makers to supply us with what we need, and they aren't always easy to find. Instead of creatively fabricating something to make our work easier, we fashion our skills to suit the tools at our disposal. I can't help but wonder how our own creativity has been diminished by today's vast array of ready-made tools and materials.