Featured Patent

Wooden smoother plane beside a white candle.

Anyone who uses a tool, either for pleasure or to earn a living, is often compelled to rework the item to compensate for the tool’s deficiencies. These shortcomings may be due to extensive use of the tool or the simple issue of a tool being poorly constructed and not capable of completing the task as per the manufacturer’s claims. The form of a tool is often dictated by tradition, and if it has been made for more than 100 years without alteration, why change it? Such is the form of the wooden block smoother plane, a shape that was manufactured from at least 1700. In this case, the topic is not the plane but the modification that was placed in its body and its subsequent survival for another 140 years.

With patent #33,788, dated November 26, 1861, S.L. Marsden of Westville, Connecticut, and S.R. Burrell of New York, New York, sought to provide a new form of candle holder that afforded portability and was relatively inexpensive. In fact, it was claimed in the application that the holder was especially suited for military or camp use. With the advent of the civil war some six months prior to the patent date, it is possible that this candlestick holder may have been issued to every Northern soldier or at least carried in the commissary. Candles and whale-oil lamps provided much of the nighttime light during this period. There were no lithium batteries to steal from your children’s toys.

A close-up view of the front of the plane.

And now to the meat of the article: this plane bears the ZB stamp of Gabriel, a manufacturer in London, England from 1770 – 1830. The company went on to be one of the most dominant English timber merchants and lasted at least until 1900, which makes dating the plane problematic. At 7-1/2" long with a 2-1/8” blade, it is typical of that size and type of plane. Made of beech, the plane is completely usable. The candle holder is as described in the patent papers. Its inclusion on the front of the plane provides a superb handle when using this tool. This same modification has been seen before on wooden smoothers; therefore, it is not thought to be a unique owner alteration. In other words, a block plane cries out for a front handle. In fact, it is a most practical marriage.

As with most innovations, there is always the naysayer who must look on the dark side of life. There is and can be no thought that this device was the result of unscrupulous manufacturers trying to squeeze a few extra hours of worktime out of already overworked indentured employees. It is also not true that it was a place to keep a candle because, as we all know, lubricating the sole of a plane with wax makes the task easier. This is a practice that has reappeared through the writings of the modern day tool gurus.

D.S. Orr

D.S. Orr has been a collector, user and student of woodworking and metalworking tools and practices for more than 40 years. Now retired, he has devoted even more time to these endeavors.

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