One of the most common and practical hand planes of all time, the block plane has seen many iterations over the decades. Learn a bit more about how it became the tool we all know and love today.
It has always been a mystery to me why the versatile cast iron block plane never really received a great deal of marketing fan-fare during its dramatic rise in popularity in the early 1870’s. If there’s one hand plane we still find in a woodworker’s kit, the most likely would be one of the many varieties of the block plane.
The historical path to the origins of the cast iron block plane in North America is “overgrown”. The size, form, and function changed across continents and many years. It is amusing that some 25 years after the relatively quiet introduction of the first North American block plane; it was more or less copied… twice… and was at the centre of one of the greatest woodworking tool battles in North American hand tool history.
The small plane that you can hold in the palm of your hand was for many years typically a much larger hand tool. In wooden body form (the strike block and the smooth block) the stresses involved in securing and maintaining a bevel up iron at a low angle dictated bulkier arrangements.
In wooden planes, heavy bolstered cheeks helped to secure the wooden wedge and tapered iron. It is interesting to note that the large low angle wood planes were actually called block planes. Those with straight sides were called straight-blocks. Those with curved sides were called smooth blocks. Due to the wear in the throat area of a wooden low angle plane commercial makers developed a sacrificial vertical tapered piece that formed the lead edge of the throat. These were called strike block planes.
Almost all of the early European metallic hand planes were low angle bevel-up planes. They were custom made and very expensive to produce. Tapered irons were secured with wedges designed to fit under metal bridges. Most were intended for marquetry and mitre applications, where their much longer life justified their cost. Very few of these early planes survive.
Some of the European metal planes were made in a smaller size, but these were very rare chariot style planes from the continent. Later on, about the same time that the cast iron block plane was developing in North America, commercial British plane makers were making cast chariot block planes.
The first known North American cast iron hand plane was designed by Hazard Knowles in 1827. It was a bench plane design and was produced in limited numbers. It was not until the early 1850’s that Birdsill Holly would develop the first North American cast iron block plane. These were not widely distributed, and production numbers were relatively low over their six or seven year existence. Holly did not patent his block plane, and as a result, the basic design re-surfaced in the mid-1870’s. The Holly design was quite interesting in that it was boat-shaped and relatively small.
Without question, the most prominent 19th century cast iron hand plane inventor was Leonard Bailey. His important lever-cap and blade depth adjuster patents remain intact in the offerings of almost all modern-day plane makers.
About 1867, Leonard Bailey, created the No 9 and the No 25 block planes. The No 9 was a 10″ long rectangular-box mitre plane embellished through the use of his various patents. In essence, it was an adaptation of the earlier straight block plane. Sometime in 1868, a rosewood ball-tail was added to avoid the corners of the box digging into the hands during use. The No 5 transitional plane was 9-1/2″ long and featured the coffin body sidewalls of its forerunner, the smooth block plane.
In 1869, the Stanley Rule and Level Company, looking to diversify, offered to buy Leonard Bailey’s patents and to employ him. Stanley brought Leonard into the factory and began to manufacture his numbers 1 through 8 (no half sizes were available at that time); the No 9 mitre (which was called a block plane); the No 10 rabbet; a No 11 bullnose; a No 12 scraper and a No 13 circular plane.
During the fall of 1871, Leonard Bailey developed the 9 ½ cabinetmakers block plane. The 9 ¾ tailed block plane was also offered at this time. When it comes to block planes, this is the point where we should all get up, head to the libation cabinet, and tip a glass to the downright greatness of Leonard Bailey. In his first cut at a small-scale adjustable cabinetmakers block plane, he incorporated both the throat and depth adjustments. Technically, the 9 ½ might have been numbered 13 or 14, if the company had extrapolated their numbering sequence. In context with the period, the 9 ½ was a small straight-block, in other words, a smaller No 9. It featured a levered depth adjust and lockable throat adjust. The January 1872 Stanley Pocket Catalogue did indeed include the 9 ½, however there was no depiction. At that time, in its two and a half year existence, the company had sold 20,000 planes. The front cover of the July 1872 Stanley Pocket Catalogue proclaimed “OVER 30,000 PLANES NOW IN USE” above a picture of a ball-tailed 9 ¾ block. Three months later the SR&L Co would claim that number had risen to 40,000. The 9 ½ would continue to undergo twenty-five design changes over its 109-year existence.
The SR&L Co, paying considerable royalties to Leonard Bailey for a relatively costly plane to manufacture, began to look for ways to make the highly popular small block plane more profitable. They recognized the need for a small hand plane with more basic features. It is quite possible that Leonard Bailey made an attempt to fulfill this need for them. In a parallel effort in 1873 or 1874, one of Stanley’s great designers Justus Traut started to devise a low-cost alternative, the 9 ½.
Over the years, Traut would be credited as the originator of the Model 110, however the plane the SR&L Co launched may not have been the plane that he intended. In coming up with his concept, Traut didn’t have a lot of options for inspiration. He had Bailey’s 9 ½ design and he had the old Birdsill Holly design. Production of the original non-adjust 110 began in the fall of 1874, however Justus Traut’s patent appeared with an adjuster on February 16, 1875. The SR&L Co probably opted to begin with the lowest cost offering. In almost all respects, Traut’s plane was a dead copy of the Birdsill Holly with a fancier shoe-buckle cap. He mimicked the Holly so well, that he may have inadvertently reproduced a design element intended for a different purpose. The Birdsill Holly had a 15 degree bed angle and so did Traut’s Type 1 No 110 design. In fact, Justus Traut carried it through to his February 1875 patent drawing. This was probably not the best option for a low-cost homeowner plane.
In the early 2000’s, a study of planes found in the old Stanley model room yielded the following:
Model No 47, an original Birdsill Holly block plane (circa 1852-1859);
Model No 48, an L. Bailey design No 0 Victor block plane with manufacturing defects (circa 1874);
Model No 49, a prototype of the original 110 block plane the SR&L Co launched (circa 1874).
It’s interesting that the Leonard Bailey Victor design was included in the SR&L Co model room before the actual 110 Prototype. Perhaps the Bailey model was rejected. It certainly followed the Birdsill Holly boat-shaped form. Unlike Traut, Bailey bedded his Victor 0 with the same 20 degree bed angle as his 9 ½.
By choosing to manufacture the Traut design, the SR&L Co significantly cut its manufacturing costs and carved the home-use market out of the Leonard Bailey royalties.
Within six months of its creation, the 110 was dramatically changed with straight sidewalls and a 20 degree bed. Ultimately, it was another one of the most successful products in the SR&L Co’s line and would enjoy a 108-year reign.
The bickering between Leonard Bailey and the SR&L Co culminated in the termination of his contracts on June 1, 1875. To his credit Leonard Bailey was up and running with his own company again in Hartford, CT within a month. Ultimately, the lowly block plane had ended the relationship between North America’s most beloved hand tool designers and it most colossal hand tool manufacturing enterprise.
The date of this pamphlet is September 1, 1873. The No. 9 ½ Block was developed by Leonard Bailey in 1872 using his existing patents.
The No. 9 ½ plane shown in Panel 1 of the 1873 brochure was actually a true 1873 model (brass knob on the front securing the throat plate). The No. 9 ¾, with the ball-tail, and on the front cover of the same 1873 pamphlet, is actually from an earlier 1872 engraving. The throat plate of a true 1872 No. 9 ¾ (and the 1872 No. 9 1/2) Excelsior block was secured with a slotted screw. This would not be the only time when printers would show older models of planes than those that were current. Stanley didn’t want to invest money into updating all the aspects of their pamphlet. Not only was it expensive, but they also thought potential customers would likely miss these details anyways.
The interesting thing is that in Panel 1 of the pamphlet, right above the depiction of the No. 9 ½ is the No. 9, which was listed as a “Block”. In Panel 3 the No. 25 Transitional Plane is listed as a “Block”. These are bigger planes and the model numbers are the same numbers that Leonard Bailey used prior to 1869 when he sold out his patents to Stanley.
In their basic form, small iron block planes offer some different options. For example, a 9 ½ with a 20 degree bed and a 25 degree bevel can have a 45 degree effective angle much like a normal bench plane. Honing to a 30 degree angle, one can create a quick York Pitch plane for hardwoods. Sharpening to angles less than 25 degrees gives more of the knife-cutting action desired for end grain.
If you are working with end grain, it probably makes more sense to use a plane like a 60 ½ or a 65 low angle block. These planes are bedded at 12 degrees. Ideally, an iron with a 20 degree bevel (effective angle of 32 degrees) makes these a better solution for an end grain plane. If one finds one of the low angle planes in the field confirm the bed angle. More often than not, these planes are found with much higher bevel angles than their intended use.
Steers was from Sherbrooke, Quebec and patented his first smoother in Canada, later having his planes manufactured in Vermont.
It’s possible that The Bailey Tool Company (Seldon Bailey has no relation to Leonard Bailey) of Woonsocket, Rhode Island may have launched its Defiance cabinetmakers block planes back in 1872. Some sources suggest this, however, this may be due to patents related to smooth planes rather than block planes. Almost all irons observed on these planes bear the 1875 battle-axe logo, suggesting that this company was a little later into the block plane market.
Within a very short time after the No 110 block plane was introduced specialized forms of Stanley block planes began to appear:
Iron Adjustment (120-1876)
Pocket (102/3-1876, Victor 12-1879)
Thumb Plane (101-1877, Victor 50, 1880)
Low Angle (60-1898, 65-1888)
Rabbet (Sargent 507, 1912)
Many of the planes which appear in this article are on display at the ‘Prior to Power’ Exhibit at the Wellington County Museum and Archives. Doug Evans’ Collection of Hand Tools will be at the museum up until January 5, 2020. Doug will be on hand for a presentation at the museum’s Harvest Home Event on Sunday, September 29th.
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