Friday 6 February 2015

The medieval toolchest: the plane (part 5): moulding planes

Moulding planes are planes that serve a special function: shaving a specific form or mould into the wood, such as a decorative edge or concave or convex forms. Nowadays, the functions of these planes have been taken over by electric routers. During medieval times some moulding planes are thought to have existed; the round and hollow planes. But no such planes, except for some early medieval planes from Funen, have survived from the medieval period. All other evidence is only indirect.

Roman moulding plane irons. Image scanned from 'Die geschichte des hobels' by Joseph Greber.

Many surviving irons from Roman moulding planes, round and hollow planes and rabbet planes have been found in Roman fortresses, like Saalburg (Germany). Some (complete) round and hollow planes were found on the 16th century ship Mary Rose. There is no reason why these planes would not have existed in the time period in between. Also, parchemin and linenfold panels, either in furniture or as wall panels, came into fashion during the 15th century. This type of panel can be carved or scraped, but more likely they were made using hollow and round planes. Planing is not only easier, it is also faster, giving a more reproducible product and a smoother end result. And especially this smooth result is found on the medieval parchemin and linenfold panels.

Some of the moulding planes excavated from the Mary Rose (1545). Photo: Moulding planes 81A1040 (flared wedge) and 81A1039 (pinned wedge), both made from boxwood (image from Mary Rose website). Moulding plane 81A1425 made from oak with a side peg (length 30.8 cm). Both plane drawings are from the book 'Before the Mast - Life and death aboard the Mary Rose' by J. Gardiner (ISBN 9781842175040).

Hollow plane irons from the Nova Zembla expedition (1596) by Willem Barentz. 
Photo copyright by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The intarsia panels (1477) in the choir of the San Petronio church in Bologna (Italy) do show two planes that have the same characteristics of the rabbet and moulding planes that were in use during the last century: an open side, where shavings van be ejected. These planes have a single iron held by a wooden peg.

The two planes hanging on the right of the panel look like moulding planes. The top one has the plane iron all through the wooden stock - as with a rabbet plane, while the bottom one shows the typical open side for ejection of the shavings.

Ship-like form planes

The three Vimose planes. Images from the book 'Die geschichte des Hobels' by J. Greber. 

The moulding planes from Vimose on the island Funen (Denmark) have a special ship-like form and date between 300 and 400 AD. One plane is complete and measures 26 cm long with a width between 1.6 and 3.8 cm and a height of 2.7 cm.  The iron was fixed with a bolt and wedge, and was only 15 mm wide. The angle of the iron was around 50 degrees. The two other planes are broken with some parts missing, but have similar dimensions. Also some runic inscription were found on the planes. The planes are thought to have been used for smoothing spear-shafts.

The parts of Vimose planes 2 and 3 have been thought to fit together, but Greber correctly remarked that the bolt holes do not match, and thus they should be two separate planes. On the right part you can see a runic inscription. Image from the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, Denmark.

A nice replica of the Vimose plane has been made by Stewart Would. 
The construction process of his plane can be found on his blog.

Another similar formed plane was found in Nydam Moor, Denmark (200-400 AD), though it is unknown to me if this plane also is a hollow moulding plane. The amount of quivers and spear-shafts found in the bog makes it likely that this plane served a similar function. Another such a ship-form plane, though dating from the 11th century, has been found in Dublin, Ireland. Only half of this plane survived; when doubling the size, the plane would have been around 46 cm long and 5 cm high (the plane is reproduced at scale 1:1 in the article).

This is a similar plane from Nydam Moor, Denmark. Image from the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Half of a ship-form smoothing plane, excavated in Dublin, Ireland. 
Image scanned from 'The High Street Excavations' by B. O'Riordain (1976) - Proceedings of the 7th Viking congress.


Rabbet and rabbet-like planes

One can say that the rabbet (or rebate) plane is derived from the moulding plane or the other way around.  For the rabbet plane the iron is straight, while for the moulding plane it is curved. The blades are held similarly with a wedge and shavings are ejected from the side. Rabbet planes have their iron slightly protruding from the sides of the plane and are used to make grooves in or at the edges of wooden planks. Specialist rabbet planes are the tongue and groove planes and the plow (or plough). A large tongue plane (with the size of a try plane) is found in the illumination of Noah building the ark in the Bedford Hours (1423). The plane shows two irons, while two separate shavings are ejected from the plane, suggesting that the carpenter is shaving a tongue.

Detail of the illumination of Noah building the Ark in the Bedford Hours (1423) showing a large plane with two irons suggesting a tongue type of plane. Note that the wooden board does not yet have a planed tongue. 
British Library, London, UK. Manuscript Add. MS 18850, folio15v.

Finally there is an inventory from a Dutch joiner from the mid 15th century, mentioning a plough. This plane can be seen as an advanced type of rabbet plane, with adjustable width and depth settings. Both examples are indicative that the more simple rabbet planes also must have existed at that time.


Our moulding and rabbet planes

Our moulding planes consists of a set of 17 matching round and hollow planes (one is missing), of increasing width. They date from the early 20th century and were made by Peter Duessing, a German plane manufacturer from Anholt, who also supplied the Dutch market. These round and hollow planes were used to make the parchemin panels for the toolchest, in which they now rest. Our rabbet planes are from different manufacturers and adjusted to the same look of the moulding planes. They have also different widths. All planes are made of beech.

Our set of round and hollow planes. The size (in inches) is given on the head, as well as the mark PD with a crown (for Peter Duessing) and the mark ITH, with the initials of the former (unknown) owner.

The components of a hollow and a round moulding plane.

One of our rabbet planes (this one made by Nooitgedacht) that was decorated in the same style as the moulding planes.


  1. As always, your blog is very interesting. You seem to share the belief that I have held for many years that the plane never disappeared during the middle ages as history has been want to teach us. I have a theory about another method of producing moulding based on a couple depictions from the 12th century. I would love to discuss this theory with you if you are interested.

    Also, many eyes are better than a few; I have known about this miniature from the Bedford Hours for more than 30 years, but never realised the bit about TWO irons, thanks for pointing that out. I had always assumed this to be a giant fore-plane.

    1. More medieval planes are getting dug up nowadays it seems - a matter of luck and looking at the right (medieval city) places ... I have two more for a next post on medieval planes.

      I am interested to hear/discuss your other method of producing mouldings. I think the blog readers as well, so perhaps it is best to discuss it here.

    2. Hello Marijn,

      I have no idea how to post a picture in your blog, so I will save if for my own blog when I get to that point. because I am still hunting a drawing I have saved someplace made by Violete Leduc. His drawing, I believe, will help support my theory which is primarily based on a French stained glass window of c1200 which shows some joiners at work in their shop, perhaps you know the one I am referring to? I believe it is in Chatres cathedral. One man is planing the lid of a chest, and the second man holds something which I believe to be some sort of scraping device to make moulding. As I said, I need to make an article about it in my blog, I made rough tool a few years ago to test out my theory, it worked well enough to make me believe I am on to something, but I never finished it. At that time I did not know about blogs so did not know where to share it, no one I know shares my interest in things medieval and they all think I am loony. I just learned how to get a blog going this January. Your blog is what spurred me into it, and the link at the top which says "create your own blog" got me going, so thank you.

  2. Hi Marijn, is there a way to get in contact with you outside of this commentary area? I would like to talk to you about dutch moulding planes.

    1. Hi David
      Enter your email as a comment. The comment automatically forwarded to me. You can delete your comment afterwards yourself; or I will do it as quickly as possible so you email will only shortly be exposed.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Greetings Marijn, just read the comment with your instructions to get in contact with you, so I gave a try.
    I'm an Italian reenactor looking for informations on the reconstruction of XIII Century woodworking tools. I hope you could give me some advice...