Left: Beginning a cut using a molding plane. Middle: Part way through the cut using a molding plane. Right: The final finishing cut using a molding plane.

Molding Plane Anatomy

Though they consist of only three parts—a body, a blade, and a wedge—molding planes are actually complex precision tools. The sole is shaped to the reverse of the molding and the bedding angle of the blade (its pitch) is directly related to the material it is intended to cut: 45º for softwoods, 50º for general use and 55° to 60º for hardwoods. Some planes have strips of a dense wood (usually boxwood, though lignum vitae was occasionally used in early planes) inserted where the sole receives the greatest wear. Known as boxing, these strips extend the life of the tool. In the photos above, notice how the plane is tilted—or sprung—with its fence running along the edge of the work. Springing gives greater control, but it also allows the mouth to be of a consistent width to support the shaving and take a smooth cut. Multiple passes take wider and wider shavings until the integral depth stop makes contact and the molding is complete.

Left: Beginning the cut. With the fence pressed firmly against the work, the plane is held at the required spring angle.

Middle: Part way through. Notice how the shaving becomes much wider as the profile takes shape.

Right: Final finishing cuts. The blade removes fine shavings as it skims the high points of the molding. Once the depth stop makes contact, the plane will stop cutting. This molding is a small Grecian ogee with a bevel.

A trio of antique molding planes.

Dating the Plane

Before the Industrial Revolution, molding planes were the product of small shops. After, they came to be mass-produced and thereby standardized. It’s important to distinguish between the two types, because although both are finite in number, early planes are much more rare. As users and collectors, we are the custodians of these artifacts and should be circumspect when determining which tools are appropriate to use. My opinion is that planes that are especially rare and unusual, or those made in the craft-shop tradition, should be used sparingly, if at all. However, each of us comes to our own conclusion.

Top: An early molding plane. Bottom: A mid-19th century molding plane.

Here are some guidelines for verifying a plane’s age:

  • The maker’s name is usually imprinted on the plane’s toe. A good reference guide will give the working period of most makers. The style of the stamp can also indicate age. An imprint with archaic spelling (e.g. IOHN GREEN for JOHN GREEN), or a zigzag border, is usually indicative of an older tool. Conversely, stamps with elaborate scrollwork, cursive script, or the imprint of an industrial origin (e.g. Chapin-Union Factory) indicate a later tool. Many guides rank the rarity of particular makers.

  • The wedge finials on planes made before the 1820s are circular in shape; later planes have elliptical finials. Early makers sometimes relieved the back of the wedge to prevent bruising while setting the iron.

  • Flat chamfers are generally indicative of a plane made before 1800. Factory-made planes have rounded chamfers.

  • Beech was the choice of large-scale plane makers because of its abundance, stability and wear-resistance, but other hardwoods are equally suitable. Early makers who worked by hand often used yellow birch or apple.

  • The standard length of factory-made planes is 9-1/2", but earlier planes were sometimes 10" or even 10-1/2" long.

  • Early molders sometimes have boxing, but this is normally limited to a simple strip at a sharp indentation in the profile (called a quirk). Planes with large inserts that cover the whole profile or planes with elaborate keyed boxing are of factory origin.

  • Moldings composed of circular curves evolved out of Roman architecture, while those based on the ellipse derive from the Greek. If you have a general understanding of architecture, you can assign a likely date to a plane’s manufacture and make an educated guess about its use. As an example, Greek revival style was popular in the 1830s; therefore, a plane that produces a Grecian ogee likely dates to this time period. This is only approximate, since architectural styles overlap and their acceptance varied regionally. The scale of the molding indicates use—a narrow plane might have produced a backband, while one with a large, deep profile could have cut a base mold.

Top: An early plane, probably American. There is no name stamp on the toe, but note the relieved wedge with its circular finial and the flat chamfers.

An English factory-made plane from the mid-19th century. Notice the elliptical wedge profile and the prominent rounded chamfers. Stamped, “Arthington-Manchester” on the toe.

Collectors’ Tips

Molding planes are not difficult to find, but neither are they widely available. Local flea markets, specialty auctions and tool shows, or dealers on the Internet are potential sources. When examining any plane for use, you should be aware of these points:

  • The iron and the profile of the sole should match. Reshaping an iron may be an appealing idea if the block is in excellent condition, but it’s more time-consuming than it appears. Making a new iron, or performing major restoration, involves annealing, grinding and heat-treating.

  • Have a look at the plane’s mouth. It’s important that it’s close to the cutting edge (1/8” maximum) so that the shaving is supported as it is cut. An excessively wide mouth will result in tear-out as the molding is worked.
Using a molding plane.
  • If possible, remove the iron from the body by pulling on the wedge or tapping on the heel of the plane. Inspect it carefully—slight surface rust is acceptable, but the cutter should not be pitted.

  • The body should be in excellent condition in order for the plane to be a worthwhile purchase. It’s crucial that the block isn’t warped; otherwise the plane won’t track properly. Occasionally, its end grain will have checked over the years, but if this isn’t significant, it won’t cause any problems during use. Small dings and dents that are merely the results of use are all right, but avoid signs of abuse or excessive wear such as a modified mouth, or a sole that has much of its detail eroded.

  • The wedge must be in good shape and should fit the plane. That is, the wedge’s taper and the angle on the front of the throat should be the same; otherwise, setting the iron will be impossible. A new wedge is not difficult to make, though attention to fit is critical.

Andrew Strome
Lee Valley staff

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