Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The medieval toolchest: the plane (part 1)

The plane is an indispensable tool for the medieval joiner and carpenter, and was used for flattening, smoothing or forming wooden boards. Guild regulations existed that prohibited the use of the plane to certain woodworking trades other than the joiners.
Very few actual medieval woodworking planes survived. Luckily there are many medieval images (miniatures, fresco's, intarsias, carvings, and paintings) that show medieval planes. All in all, these images show a great variety of different plane forms and types. It is even possible to attribute specific plane forms and types to certain regions. Most notable are the differences between the Italian, French and Northern European (German) medieval planes. Also some special Dutch plane types existed.

Bone planes from early medieval times (400-1000 AD), found in terps in Friesland, the Netherlands. The form is related to an Italian medieval plane type. The top plane is 16.5 cm long from a terp in Hallum, the bottom right plane is 13.7 cm long  from Oosterbeinum terp and the left bottom plane comes from Beetgum terp and is 11.4 cm long. The slope for the iron is 40-45 degrees. The actual planes are on display in the Fries museum, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. Image from W.L. Goodman - The history of woodworking tools.

Bone plane from Oosterbeinum terp  400-700 AD. Height 4 cm, 2.8 cm width and 13.7 cm long.   
The crossbar for the wedge is still in place.
Photo from the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.

Another Frisian plane found at a terp from Finkum, 700-1000 AD  made of antler with a bronze sole
Sizes are 16.6 cm long and 3.8 cm wide, angle 45 degrees.  
Photo from the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.
A decorated Frisian plane made from yew dating 500-600 AD from Aalsum (21.6 cm long, 3.8 cm wide).   
Photo from the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.
This is a Saxon plane form Sarre, Kent, UK. The form is similar to the Dutch terp planes and made of horn. Sizes are 13.5 cm long, 3.2 cm wide and 3.2 cm height. The iron is set at an angle of 43 degrees and is 1.9 cm wide. The bronze sole is 3 mm thick. Image from W.L. Goodman - The history of woodworking tools.

All medieval planes have in common that the iron is only a single (thick) blade. Double irons did not exist until the 18th century. Also most planes secured the wedge against a cross-bar. However, occasionally a grooved wedge can be found; for instance in the Bergen plane (1248 AD ). The grooved wedge became common during the end of the middle ages, around 1500.

The small medieval smoothing plane found in Bergen, Norway dating from 1248 AD. 
It is made of yew and is15.7 cm long, 2.9 cm wide and has a height of only 1.3 cm. The plane has a grooved wedge.
Image from the book by J.M. Greber, Die geschichte des hobels.

 A smoothing plane carved in the gothic style dating from 1500 made from beech. 
The plane has an iron sole and a grooved wedge and has a length of 13 cm. It originates from southern Germany..
Image from the book by J.M. Greber, Die geschichte des hobels.

The Saint Thomasguild is familiar with all types of plane: the guildmaster spend his time as a journeyman in Bruges (French planes), as well as in the papal city of Avignon (Italian planes), and our guild is situated in Nimweghen, just a few miles from the German border. Therefore, we have planes from all the main regions in our toolchest.

Italian style medieval planes

One of the most typical planes we have (made) is an Italian smoothing/jack plane. At the time I made the replica of this plane, I had only one good image of it. an intarsia on the choir-benches of  the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, Italy. The intarsia was made by Agostino de Marchi from Crema, a famous joiner family of that time around 1468-1477. The details and construction of the plane is quite clear from the intarsia (obviously if you consider that the artist also worked with the tools - the other tools depicted are a chisel and a compass).
The hollowed out grip is also used in planes of the Roman empire. The (try)plane on the left has the grip behind the iron, providing a push momentum, while the smoothing plane on the right has the hollowed grip in front, giving it a pull momentum.
Another image of this type of plane is found at a mosaic in the San Marco Basilica in Venice, Italy dating from the 13th century, however the mosaic shows less detail.

Image from the book by J.M. Greber, Die geschichte des hobels

A plane with a hollowed grip shown in the mosaic of the 'Building the Ark'  in the Atrium of the
San Marco Basilica in Venice, Italy, dating from the 13th century.

Our replica Italian type smoothing/jackplane is shown in the next photos. It is made of beech and has an iron crossbar to secure the beech edge. It is 33 cm long, 7.4 cm wide and 6.9 cm high. An old iron, 5 cm wide, was used for the plane. The photos below show our medieval plane from different sides, as well as underneath. The shaving characteristics of the plane are very good: it feels comfortable to handle and it is able to produce very thin shavings.

Recently I discovered from the 'Ancient, medieval, renaissance and Colonial Furniture and Woodenware' Facebook group two paintings dating from the 16th century. These were made by the Italian painter Jacopo da Ponte (also known as Jacopa Bassano) and show in detail the use of exactly the same type of (Italian) planes.

 The Italian painter Jacopo da Ponte: detail of the painting Noah building the Ark (16th century) showing Italian type planes on the ground and one being used by the man on the left.

Another painting 'Noah's sacrifice' (1574) by Jacopo da Ponte. This detail shows many woodworking tools, including several Italian type planes..

Medieval Italian plane type with side handles

There are more typical Italian medieval plane types. One of them is a plane with handles on both sides of the plane, or with two cross-bars on both sides of the plane. These planes were used either for smoothing or for roughing out and could be worked by two man, one pushing and the other pulling. This medieval plane is shown in the basket of the fresco 'Building of the ark' (1390) by Pietro di Puccio in Campo Santo in Pisa. An engraving of the same fresco show a clearer view. of the plane. The same plane type is also depicted in another intarsia by Agostino de Marchi from Crema in the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, Italy. 

The fresco of Campo Santo, Pisa showing a workman using a large try plane with two handles on a workbench. In the basket below two other planes can be seen among other tools. The fresco has been severely damaged during the second world war. Image from the book by J.M. Greber, Die geschichte des hobels

The engraving showing the basket with (clockwise) a hammer, a mallet, a blockplane, a broad axe, a boring tool, a square and the sole of a plane with two side handles.  Image from the Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association 46 (4) 'Some medieval Italian carpentry tools and techniques'.

This intarsia from Agustino de Marchi dating from 1468-1477 shows several medieval Italian plane types, as well as a workbench with a holdfast, a frame saw and tool chest. The plane on top of the chest has two side handles, while the plane hanging left of the frame saw has two cross bars and is shown underneath. Other planes are a small try plane on top of the workbench, on the right of the frame saw is a rabbet plane with a hollowed handle, on top two other planes with hollowed handles are shown: on the right a fillister plane, and on the left likely a fore plane (or another fillister shown on the other side). From some planes the (place of the) crossbar holding the wedge can be seen.

Also Leonardo da Vinci (1500) has depicted the plane with side handles in one of his inventions (a design of a planer-thicknesser). The plane with side handles was also been popular in France at later centuries. Several 19th century planes of this type can be found at the Musee D'Outil in Troyes, France.
At the moment we do not have this plane type in our tool chest, but it is our intention to make such a plane in the near future.

The plane with two (side) crossbars is  also found in the painting 'The Holy Family' by Bartolomeo Schedone (1560-1616) in the Palazzo Reale in Naples, Italy. Here the plane is shown from a different angle.

Image from the book by J.M. Greber, Die geschichte des hobels
 The design of Leonardo da Vinci of a planer-thicknesser showing a plane with two side-handles at the top, and at the bottom of his drawing. Image from the book by J.M. Greber, Die geschichte des hobels

 A 19th century version of this type of plane in the Musee D'Outil in Troyes, France.

The side view of the 19th century plane. Some more can be seen in the background.

Plane with two crossbars at the painting in the Palazzo Reale, Naples, Italy by Bartolomeo Schedone. 
Drawing from the book of W.L. Goodman 'The history of woodworking tools'. 
Note that the iron is secured by a grooved wedge.

Large Medieval Italian try planes

Medieval Italian try planes also have hollowed out handles, but these are attached to the top of the plane, likely as separate handles. Large planes carry two handles: one in front and one at the back. Smaller ones only one at the back. As mentioned before, the image of Campo Santo shows  a man at work on a bench with a large try plane where the handles are far apart from each other. Either the plane would have been worked by two men, or a single man would alternate between the handles depending on the position of the plane on the wood.

The fresco of Campo Santo, Pisa. The handles are really far apart from each other. 

A similar, but smaller try plane is shown in the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti dating from 1338-1340 in the Hall of the Nine in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna, Italy. The plane rests on the lap of a woman representing Concordia (harmony). Unusually, the iron is secured by two wedges.

Fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna, Italy. 

This type of plane is also shown in the - non-Italian - Bedford Hours miniature 'Building the ark of Noah'. It is almost as large as the plane on the fresco of Campo Santo. There seems to be and extra handhold in the middle, making this plane a hybrid of the Italian and northern (French/German) styles. The extra handhold is useful when the plane is worked by a single man. Another curious thing of this plane is that the shavings are coming from two holes, implicating that there are two different irons at work.

Bedford Hours miniature 'Building the arc of Noah', 1433, London, British museum, Ms. 18850.

To conclude the display of Italian medieval plane types, a smaller try plane with one handle in front is shown in the fresco "Preparation of the cross" by Agnolo Gaddi, in the Santa Croci church in Florence, Italy, dating from 1390. The Thomasguild toolchest does not (yet) contain a try plane of the Italian type. In a next post I will continue discussing French and German medieval plane types.

Detail from the fresco "Preparation of the cross" by Agnolo Gaddi in the Santa Croci church in Florence.


  1. It appears to me that the easiet way to use the small italian plane is to pull it rather than push. The 13th century illumination seems to depict this.

    Your thoughts?

    Japanese planes are all thought to be pulled but until relatively recently there was a tradition of planes that were pushed in the northern islands.

    Is it possible that there was dual tradition in europe?

  2. It will likely depend on the plane. My Italian plane with side handles (see other post) is used by two persons and is used by both push and pull.
    My single handed Italian plane is definitely one for pushing, pulling will not give enough pressure of the plane on the board.
    The fresco da campo, the bedford hours and the mosaic of the San Marco show a clear pushing action in my opinion. The painting by Jacopo da Ponte is ambiguous. It can depict a pulling action, but also the end of a pushing stroke.