Tools & Trades History Society


An early Cabinet Maker's smoothing plane from the City of London

Although eighteenth century woodworking tools survive in surprising numbers, they are mainly found to be specialised types whose slumber in their owners' tool chests was rarely disturbed, like panel-fielding planes, moulders, or gouges. Everyday tools such as hand saws, hones and mallets are rarities, simply because they wore out.

Smoothing planes are a remarkable case in point: although most tradesmen who worked at a bench will have owned more than one in the course of a career, the number of eighteenth century examples is extremely small, and almost all belong to the years after 17801. The archaeological discovery of a smoother of probable mid-century date is therefore a welcome event, especially since the plane has a double iron of early form.
The plane was an incidental discovery made by the Museum of London's Department of Urban Archaeology2 in the course of investigating potential Roman deposits at Cutler Street, on the eastern boundary of the City of London (site code CUT 78 at NG Ref TQ 334815) following the sad demolition of the late eighteenth century Houndsditch Warehouses in 1978. It was found with apparently domestic waste in a partially waterlogged pit (context [877] ), the few associated objects and  surroundings do little to explain its presence there. However, careful archaeological recovery usefully dated its disposal to the years shortly after 1776, for alongside the plane was a pewter tankard inscribed Mr [John] Walley Bucks Head James Street Bethnal Green: the licensee in 1777, but no longer by 17843. During the 1790s the Warehouses were built over the site of the discovery sealing it.


Fig 1. The Cutler Street plane after conservation. (Photo: Museum of London.)

The plane appeared to be in poor condition when unearthed. The irons were hidden in a corroded mass three or four times their original thickness, which had burst both the wedge and the side of the plane. The stock was blackened and denatured; beech does not take kindly to burial, even in waterlogged conditions. Any attempt to dry the tool in the air would literally have resulted in its collapse, but treatment4 by thc Conservation Section of the Museum of London has preserved its shape and detail to a remarkable degree, and the plane is displayed in the eighteenth century galleries of the Museum (Fig. 1) The author made measured drawings of the plane both before and after treatment (Fig. 2), and would strongly advise others faced with similar finds to make a careful examination while they are in wet storage, prior to any attempts at conservation.


Fig 2. The Cutler Street plane; stock drawn before and irons after conservation.

The plane is interesting from several points of view, to be discussed in turn:

  • its date
  • its manufacture and design for high quality cabinet work
  • its irons; it may be the earliest extant plane with a double iron.


At first sight the plane is a coffin-shaped beech smoother of a shape and size (7¼ in. long, nominal 2 3/8 in. iron) which would be unremarkable in a nineteenth or twentieth century example, Such details as the seating of the 'ears' of the wedge in the stock are already established, and only the chamfered corners of later examples are obviously lacking. Of course this pattern of plane has long been known to date to the late-seventeenth century on the basis of Moxon's small engraving of c. 1680, though oddly this only shows the underside (Moxon 1703, pl. 4, 59).

How early is the Cutler Street smoother? The plane is heavily worn, and is likely to have been made years before it became incorporated in the pit. The stock is noticeably thinner at the toe than the heel as the result of successive truings, but is also conspicuously reduced in overall height. Measurement of the mouth (never remouthed, and gaping wide) suggests that an average of 12 mm (½ in.) has been lost since the plane was new and finely set. But this measurement itself is difficult to make, and if the stock had originally been as tall as wide (the Victorian convention), then the loss will have been nearer 20 mm (3/4 in). We cannot tell how long it took to effect such wear, but decades rather than years can be suggested. Then, too, there may have been an interval between disuse and burial. The plane may well be as old as 1750.

Design and manufacture

The plane's geometry, as well as its double iron, indicates its design for the best cabinet work. When excavated, the pitch of the iron was measured at 51° to the original sole. Allowing for the swelling of the waterlogged stock, it was probably cut at 50° or a fraction less: 'York pitch', specifically suited to the finishing of difficult hardwoods. This detail will subsequently have been negated by the wear already described, by the coarsely rounded profile sharpened onto the cutter, and by the evident hollowing of the sole in front of the mouth, lt seems likely that the plane ended its days doing much rougher work than originally intended, perhaps for another master.

The plane stock bore no maker's mark when excavated, but the owner's initials WW were struck on the toe with a letter punch. (This mark vanished completely in the conservation process.) Even in this century cabinet makers have often made their own smoothing planes though the rest of their kit might come from professional toolmakers (Goodman 1968, 16 & fig, 2), and this could explain the lack of a maker's mark; but shooting of the toe to remove the previous owner's mark is just as likely. There are individual touches to the plane - a rounding to the heel where the right palm rests, and chamfers alongside the mouth - but otherwise it looks professionally made, and the stock is cut from properly quartered beech.

The irons

By far the most interesting feature of the plane is its 'double iron', For the benefit of non- woodworkers, it should be explained that at a date unknown, but probably in England in the early eighteenth century, an unsung genius found that the tendency of planes to spoil a good finish by 'plucklng' contrary grain could be greatly reduced by seating a second iron (known as the back iron) upside down on the cutter a fraction of an inch (say 1/32 in. - less than 1 mm) behind the cutting edge. The second iron does not need to be made of tool steel. The effect is said to be to snap shavings across their width and prevent the propagation of splits into the grain just ahead of the cutter as the plane is pushed forward. This remarkable invention can scarcely have been accidental; a specialist plane maker had thought long and hard about a cutting action deep inside the mouth of the plane where no human eye can see. His stimulus is usually said to have been the use of exotics like mahogany, but in the author's opinion the more generally 'regulated' character of eighteenth century cabinet making (in David Pye's expression, 1968, 24), contrasting with the earlier 'age of joinery' in furniture, is as likely to have been responsible for the double iron.


Fig 3. The double iron cutter after conservation, cutter uppermost, total length 132mm and the maker's mark on the cutter (the round headed iron) redrawn from an X-ray. (Photo: Museum of London.)

The two irons of the Cutler Street plane are illustrated in Fig, 3. Even after conservation they are in poor condition and cemented together by corrosion products. But the essentials can be seen. the cutter is 2 1/4 in. (57 mm) wide by 122 mm long, round headed, approximately 2 mm thick where it has been steeled but only 1 mm or so at its head - the typical thin cutter of eighteenth century bench planes. The back iron is 2 7/16 in. (62 mm) wide and 130 mm long, square headed, 2 mm thick throughout, and presumably of wrought iron rather than steel. Its business end shows that the back iron had already been perfected: it has the concave profile and small bevel which even today in mass-produced tools help the back iron to grip the cutter without the suspicion of a gap. But there is no mechanism to hold the irons together; the user held the two irons together and by luck or judgement kept them in their correct relative position while adjusting the projection of the cutter and tapping in the wedge (The usual practice since the end of the eighteenth century has been to spring the back iron tight onto the cutter by tightening a large fixing screw.) Finally, it will be noted that the back iron is bigger all round than the cutter, suggesting that the latter is an unsatisfactory replacement of the worn out iron for which the stock was made. lt is acceptable to have the back iron slightly wider, but 3/16 in. (5 mm) is too much; and once the cutter was shorter than the back iron, the whole assembly must have become virtually useless, since it could no longer easily be adjusted with the hammer.

The fact that the cutter is a replacement is to be borne in mind when considering the maker's mark which was found on it in the course of a routine X-Kay (Fig. 3). It has been preserved where the two irons are cemented together by corrosion, and so is difficult to read. However Ken Hawley convincingly identifies it as HILDICK adducing the central placement of the apparent 'D'; edge tool smiths usually placed the firm's mark symmetrically and accurately. The many generations of Hildicks were almost certainly Birmingham tool makers, and a one inch-long mark by [R] HILDICK which could correspond with the Cutler Street plane commonly occurs on thc irons of late-eighteenth century moulding planes (Goodman 1978, 160, 170, dated c. 1760-90).

lt is clear that double irons can be earlier than this HILDICK mark. They are documented in a letter of 1767 (Goodman 1968, 26), but more satisfactorily illustrated in the famous trade card of the plane maker John Jennion (1732-57; Goodman 1993, frontispiece) at the Three Plains. The 'plains' are undoubtedly shown with round-topped back irons peeping over their wedges, with a good length of cutting iron behind to allow for wear of the entire steeled section, and ease of adjustment (Fig. 4). So perhaps cabinet makers commonly used double irons by, say, the 1740s. The Cutler Street plane at any rate confirms what had already been surmised by Goodman (1964, 90), that the first back irons were not fixed together, even though the cutting of screw threads would not have been a difficult job for an eighteenth century smith. This feature has not previously been observed, most if not all surviving eighteenth century bench planes with double irons have the modern arrangement of screw and keyhole slot (or have been adapted to accept it), and this is first recorded in a letter of 1787 requesting 'top and cut irons' (Goodman 1964, 88). A few late- eighteenth or early nineteenth century examples of the alternative 'long screw' pattern also survive (Goodman 1993, 488).


Fig 4 Central detail of the Jennion trade card (1732-57) showing double irons. (By courtesy of the British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings)

It is to be hoped that further archaeological discoveries will push our knowledge of plane development back into the earlier-eighteenth, and, crucially, seventeenth centuries. Bench planes were very common objects then, and it is almost suspicious that post-medieval archaeology has not yielded more. But while it is natural always to be looking to the origin of modern features - first the double iron, then the fixed back iron - it is as well to remember that not every joiner or cabinet maker followed fashion. Some will have got on with the old single iron. Others did not find it convenient to fasten the double iron together; perhaps very skilled men found it quicker not to do so. So as late as the 1840s Timmins And Sons' (Birmingham) list illustrates 'top plane irons' which still do not have the tapped hole or nut for fixing to the cutter. In France, the custom of using a loose double iron was evidently alive and well 100 years or so ago, as the fruitwood smoother in Fig. 5 illustrates. Width apart, its thin, nicely made irons are exactly as the Cutler Street plane's would have been in use.


Fig 5. A late nineteenth or twentieth century French fruitwood smoother, marked AUX FORETS DU QUERCY and its loose double iron. St Albans Museums accession no 1995.8. Length of stock 213 mm, width of irons 41mm. (Photo: Kate Warren, St Albans Museum.)


Gaynor, JM, & Hagedorn, NL, 1993 Tools; working wood in eighteenth-century America, Williamsburg, VA.

Goodman, WL,1964 The History of Woodworking Tools

Goodman, W L, 1968 British Plane Makers from 1700

Goodman, W L, 1978 British Plane Makers from 1700, 2nd ed., Needham Market

Goodman, W L, 1993 British Plane Makers from 1700, 3rd ed. (eds J & M Rees), Needham Market

Moxon, J, 1703 Mechanick Exercises. Or the doctrine of handy-works... 3rd ed., repr. Mendham, NJ, 1994

Pye, D, 1968 The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Cambridge

Tool & Trades History Society, 1994 The tool chest of Benjamin Seaton (eds J & M Rees), Swanley

Timmins & Son, c 1845: [illustrated list] reprinted as The Victorian catalogue of tools for trades and crafts, ed. P Walker, 1994


The author wishes to thank: Ken Hawley (identification of maker's mark); Bernard Nurse, formerly London Borough of Tower Hamlets Local History Library (identification of publican); the late Arthur Trotman, formerly Head of Conservation, Museum of London (conservation of plane): and Jane Zeuner, Department of Later History, Museum of London.


1 At least seven early smoothing planes were brought together for the exhibition 'Tools; working wood in eighteenth-century America' [Colonial Williamsburg 1994-95; Gaynor & Hagedorn 1993, 29, 96, 97), Five had single irons, and date from 1765 (American) and c. 1775 (English), or later. Two had double irons, but only the example in the Seaton tool chest is closely dateable (1797;TATHS 1994, 34,36) Four early double irons (alone) were also displayed, but all could be as late as 1800. All the back irons were fixed.

2 Now the Museum of London Archaeology Service.

3 Middlesex Record Office, Licensed Victuallers Register |Tower Division)

4 The plane was preserved by acetone-rosin treatment: the acetone in which the plane is immersed slowly replaces the water ln the waterlogged wood, and the dissolved rosin prevents the collapse of the cellular structure of the wood following the evaporation of the acetone. The irons were X-Rayed and mechanically cleaned.

This article by Chris Green originally appeared in TATHS Journal 9, 1996.