Wednesday 15 October 2014

The medieval toolchest: the plane (part 2)

Long promised, and finally here: this post continues from the previous one on medieval planes, and will focus on the French, German and other planes of Northern Europe, as well as providing as much illustrative material as possible of medieval planes. We are especially lucky that John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, adopted the plane as his personal symbol. Due to this many images of planes are found decorating his clothes, buildings, coins, etc. Most of these are quite schematic, though you can get a general feel of the proportions of the planes.

As shown in part 1, the Italian style medieval planes had some typical characteristics, like the cut-out handles. The northern European planes also have some typical characteristic, and can roughly be divided into three groups: planes with a horn or toat, planes without any specific hand-grip, and Lapp-style planes. The planes of the Duke of Burgundy fall into the first group. This post will consider the planes with a toat, the other two groups are presented in the next post. Aside from these three groups, there are also some medieval planes that look more different and will be also discussed in a separate post.

The planes of John the Fearless

The personal emblem or motif of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy (1371-1419) the plane. He supposedly adopted this symbol to oppose his brother and rival Louis, Duke of Orleans, whose emblem was a ragged staff. John ordered his brother be assassinated, and as a consequence was slain a few years later by supporters of the (new) Duke of Orleans. The plane as his emblem was first used in January 1406. The Duke had ordered 311 'planes' as new years gifts from his gold smith Jehan Mousefroy: 77 rings with diamonds and planes, 78 gilded and 155 silver planes (coins?). The most expensive gold ring was for himself, decorated with diamond, pearl and ruby. The orders for the planes (rabot/rabos)  can be found in his household books:

A lui [Jehan Mousefroy, his personal goldsmith] le premier jour de janvier cccc et cinq [= 1406] [...] pour avoir fait xlviij anneaulx et en chacun annel assis un diamant en xlviij rabos et est chacun annel avec le diamenz du pris de vj escuz valent iijc xxiiij fl. A lui ce jour pour avoir assis xxiij anneaulx en chascun annel assis un diament en xxiij rabos et est chacun annel avec-ques le diament du pris de ij escuz valent liiij fl. A lui ce jour pour avoir mis vj anneaulx en chascun annel assis un diament en vj rabos et est chacun annel avecque le diament du pris de xx escus valent vj xx xv e. et fl. Au premier jour de janvier pour avoir fait pour mondit seigneur ung rabot dor garny dun gros diament dune grosse perle et dun rubi pendant devant assis en un annel et poise le dit rabot xv esterlins dor couste vent ainsi aquil [sic] dit c xij fl. et s. A lui ce jour pour avoir fait lxxviij rabos dorez qui poisent xvm xc dargent dore qui valent a xiiij fl le marc lxx francs xvij s. vj d. A lui ce jour pour avoir fait vijxx xv rabos dargent blanc qui poisent x marcs iii; onces x esterlins dargent blanc valent a xij fl le marc vj xx v fl iij s vj d.
[Archives de la Cote d'Or  B 1543, fol. 124v]

The emblem of the plane on the inside of a gold ring. On the outside, a cameo bearing the face of John the Fearless. 
The ring was made in 1412 by the goldsmith Jean Nicolas. Musée du Louvre, Paris France.

Later more of these expensive planes are ordered by the goldsmith:

pour avoir fait ung rabot pour monseigneur de charrelois [the son of John the Fearless] garny dune esmeraude deux diamens une perle pendant en un annel ouquel avoit assis ung rubi et deux diamens et pesant v esterlins dor valent a lvii; file marc xxix s p pour lafaeon dudit rabot iii; frans x s.
[Archives de la Cote d'Or B 1543, fol. 125v]

Item pour avoir fait pour mondit s. j grant rabot au vif Et est assis sur ung ays et desous la vidange dicelle ou est le orfroi est tout plain de raboteures ycelui rabot garny dune grosse perle et losange et y pend j gros diamant assis en ung annel Et aucuns dicelle rabos a ung diamant fait comme ung escucon Et poise ycellui rabot iiij v dor fin lequel mondit seigneur donna a monseigneur de berry [a gift for the Duke the Berry] le premier jour de may lan mil cccc et vj au pris de lxviij fl le marc valent xxxvj fl iij fl. d.
[Archives de la Cote d'Or  B 1554, fol. 113v-114r]

Left: A coin with the emblem of a plane and the device of John the Fearless 'ICH HALS MICH',
 made around 1410 in Paris. Right: Another coin with an emblem of a plane.  

Item pour avoir fait pour mondit seigneur j autre rabot de semblable facon et garny comme cellui precedent lequel mondit seigneur donna a monseigneur dorleans [a gift for the Duke of Orleans!] le vje jour du mois de may lan que dessus auquel mondit seigneur disna avee lui Et poise ledit rabot iiij ixe dor a xxij mars au pris de lxiij fl le marc valent xxvij fl iij s iiij d. Et pour la facon dudit rabot xj fl ss d.
[Archives de la Cote d'Or  B 1554, fol. 114r ] 

The plane was used everywhere by John the Fearless: on coins, in architecture, in books he ordered to be made, such as Le livre de l’information des princes. Also, gowns and hoods are made with embroidered planes in gold on a background of red and black velvet. He commonly is seen in these costumes on paintings and book illuminations.

On of the three planes (on a wooden plank) with some shavings on folio 1 of Le livre de l’information des princes. The plane blade is set at a very low angle, and combined with the size looks to be a block plane.  Brussels, Belgium, KBR, Ms. 9475, dated 1408-1409. Also other folio's in this manuscript are profusely decorated with these planes in the margins. See e.g. 'Der Knotenstock ist abgehobelt!  - der Hobel als Sinnbild der Reformation bei Johann ohne Furcht, Herzog von Burgund' by S. Slanicka for  more examples.

Tin badge dating from 1409, containing the emblems associated with John the Fearless: 
the plane, the cross of St. Andreas and a level. Musee Nationale du Moyen Age, Paris, France.

A painted glass window with an heraldic plane on a shield from the 'Tour de Jean sans Peur',
the fortified home of John the fearless in Paris, France.

John the Fearless (on the right) is depicted with a cloak embroidered with many planes having a toat. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, Manuscript 23279, folio 1v. Around 1409-1410.

John the Fearless is wearing the same 'plane' coat, while the author of the book (Salmon) presents his manuscript to King Charles VI. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, ms. 23279, fol. 53. Around 1409-1410.

From the same manuscript: John the Fearless sits on a bench with a red velvet cloth embroidered with gold planes. Also the banner at his back displays planes with a toat. Bibliotheque Nationale de France Manuscript 23279 folio 119. Around 1409-1410.

Some portraits of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy with a hood embroidered with planes or planes with shavings. I have found these images on internet and do not know if these are original medieval paintings of the duke or where the original resides. At the bottom right two drawings of planes found on a hood of John the Fearless.

Planes with a toat

The toat is an upright handhold or horn at the front of the plane, which helps to push the plane in its forward direction. Toats can (still) be found on planes of all sizes, from smoothing planes to large try planes, though it is most often depicted in medieval illustrations as a medium sized plane. The toat can be placed at the center of the plane block, but is also found placed asymmetrically on one side.

Two woodworkers from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung in Nuremberg, Germany with smoothing plane with a toat. Left: Peter Screiner (1444) and right Paulus Weydmann (1542) Note that the toat of the right woodworker is placed asymmetrically.

The ladies in this book illumination have a plane with a toat as well as a hacksaw (bottom right).  'The pleading at the court of Reason' from 'The book of the Queen' by Christine de Pizan. Harleian MS 4431, folio 196v. British Library, London, UK. Dated 1410-1420. 

The above depicted plane has a striking resemblance with the original medieval plane shown below (and with most of John the Fearless). This is a plane from the late 14th century (between 1355 and 1380 - around the same time as the illuminations) excavated from a pit in the Hanse city of Greifswald, Germany in 2001. Bram found this small picture in a book this summer and as this plane is from exactly our re-enactment period, we contacted the author of the book chapter. He was very kind so send us some more information on this plane. The plane is made of beech and has a length of 20 cm and a height (without the toat) of 6.8-7.5 cm and a width of 8.4 cm. Height including the toat is 13.2 cm, the toat itself is approximately 11 cm long and has a diameter of 4.5-5 cm. The body of the plane curved at the toat end to a height of 2.3 cm, the edges of the plane are rounded off for easy holding. Remarkable is that the toat and the plane are one single piece of wood. The plane angle is very low, 20 degrees and the opening for the blade is 2.5 cm, the width available for the blade is 4.7 cm. Such a low angle makes it likely that this plane was used as a modern low-angle block plane. No wedge or plane blade was found with this plane. A square iron pin was set to hold the wedge and iron (at 3.7 cm height - 6.5 cm length from the end). We will certainly reconstruct this plane and add it to our collection of replica medieval planes.

Left: The plane from Greifswald, Germany, dating from between 1355-1380. Right: The plane of Christine de Pizan, dated 1410-1420. 

The drawings of the late 14th century plane from Greifswald, Germany.

A 13th century stained glass window in Chartres cathedral (France) of the carpenters guild. The man on the right is  planing on a workbench using a plane with a toat.

Two small planes with toat in the scene of building of the ark from the Bedford Hours (1410-1430), as well as a large plane. British Library, Add. MS 18850 folio 15v.

 Side of a choir stall from the cloister in  Pöhlde, Germany, dated around 1280. Nowadays in the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany. Among the woodworking tools is a plane resting on the workbench. 

The plane of Karl Schreiner (1421) from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung was used to make a replica. Our plane is made from beech and is used as a smoothing plane. It is 26 cm long, 5 cm high (14.5 with toat) and 9.5 cm wide, fitting a 5 cm plane blade. The blade is set at an 40 degrees angle. The asymmetrical toat on the left side is rather comfortable and does not affect the planing performance.

Our version of the plane from the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung. The edges of the plane are rounded to have a more comfortable handhold. The toat is fastened with two pins to the plane block.

During the end of the 15th century, planes with pin holding the wedge were replaced with versions having a grooved wedge. Such a wedge allows the pressure to be applied more evenly onto the (edge of the) plane plane. It also does not weaken the plane body by having a hole for the bolt. Planes with wedges did exist earlier than the 15th century.

The plane by Albrecht Durer originally from the Melancholica engraving (from 1514, here the version by Viollet le Duc is shown). The plane has a toat as well as a grooved wedge. Also, the plane is a bit ovally shaped.

A southern Europe plane variant with a toat

There is a large plane variant with a toat depicted in the late 15th century that looks a bit different. This try plane has a very big toat in front, an increased middle part - that hold the plane blade - and an end without any special features. The plane is most clearly shown in a miniature from Jean Bourdichon (1505-1510) depicting the holy family as a craftsman family. Another is found on a misericord in the choir stalls in Plasencia Cathedral, Spain and a misericord in the Musee the Cluny has a similar form, but seems to be missing the toat - it might be broken off or is hidden beneath the hand of the carpenter.

Joseph is working the try plane. At the front another small plane can be seen amongst the woodworking tools. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, manuscrit Fr. 2374/ École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Mn. mas 92.

A joiner working a plank with a try plane . On the chest on the right two more planes are shown, though it is unclear if they have a toat or that it a projecting plane blade. Dated 1500, Plasencia cathedral, Plasencia, Spain.

The carpenter is working with a try plane with a heightened middle part on a work bench. The toat could be broken off, or perhaps more placed to the middle of the plane. Dated 1500, Musee the Cluny, Paris, France.

Bram has re-created the large plane of the Bourdichon illumination, albeit as a smaller version in beech. His plane has the size of a (number 5) jack plane. The plane blade is a recycled old plane blade with a width of 4 cm.The blade is set at an angle of 45 degrees.

 The toat looks relatively large, but is very comfortable to the hand.

The bolt that holds the wedge is made of an African hardwood. 

The gerfschaaf

The gerfschaaf is a typical Dutch plane, which is whale formed and has a curly toat at the front.  The plane body also becomes smaller at the front. A gerfschaaf has been used for multiple tasks: with a small mouthed opening for smoothing, or with a wide mouth for rough work, like a scrub plane; but also rounded rounded (ship) forms existed for planing curved work. This plane had its medieval predecessors; perhaps the smaller plane shown by Bourdichon in his miniature could be such a predecessor (or the Greifswald plane). We have also made a replica of the small Bourdichon plane. The plane blade is set at a low angle (30 degrees) to be able to use it as a low angle block plane. The plane works fine, but, as you can see at the illumination and the photos of the replica, the bolt is set such that there is little room to clear the shavings.

 Our small 'Bourchichon' plane or a medieval gerfschaaf made in beech. It has a length of 19 cm, a height of 5.5 cm ( 7.5 with toat) and a width of 6 cm - decreasing to 4 cm at the front.

Left: I made the mouth of the plane too wide in the beginning and had to make an insert to make it smaller. You can see very clearly that the plane is smaller at the front. Right: The (recycled) plane blade is thicker at the cutting end and consists of two layers of steel. Originally it was too long and had to be cut in half.

 The room for clearing the shavings is very small. The plane regularly has to be emptied by hand.

We also own some antique (beech) gerfschaven with grooved wedges. Images of gerfschaven can be found in the late 16th century. They keep this form until they become obsolete in the early 20th century. Our gerfschaaf has a length of 15 cm, a maximum width of 5 cm, and a height of 6-6.5 cm. Including the wedge and blade, the height becomes 11.5 cm. The blade is set at an angle of 50 degrees. The opening is wider than the Bourdichon plane and easily clears the shavings.

Left: The whale form of the gerfschaaf. Right: Here you can see that the plane becomes smaller at the front, but also a bit  at the back.

Sources used:

J.M. Greber, 1956. Die Geschichte des Hobels. Reprint 1987. Th Schafer Verlag.
W.L. Goodman, 1978. The history of woodworking tools. Bell and Hyman Ltd. 
J. Ansorge, K. Igel, H. Schafer and J. Wiethold, 2003. Ein Holzschacht aus der Baderstrasse 1a in Greifswald. Aus der Materiellen Alltagskultur einer Hansestadt in der zweiten Halfte des 14. Jahrhunderts. Bedenkmalplege in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Jahrbuch 2002, pages 119-157.


  1. Thought you might be interested in this picture of a medieval plane. Great detail.*&offset=2680&rpp=100&pos=2702

  2. Many thanks for this. Question (for Marijn, perhaps) on the Bourdichon illumination (Mn.mas.92): is the tool third from the left a carving knife, of specific function? It does not appear to be included amongst the tools in the ink sketch:

  3. This is an interesting ink sketch. A lot more tools (those hanging on the wall) - and details (the linenfold)- are missing on the sketch. Also the large plane is much simpler.
    As regards to the colour image, I think the third tool on the table is indeed a carving knife.