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Collecting American Wooden Planes


Mike Humphrey

July 8, 2020



The primary benefit that people derive from collecting American wooden planes is the happy passage of time, the same benefit that comes from good family relationships, a positive work experience or any special, personal interest. Whether alone with their collection, studying, reading or writing about it, or discussing it with friends, hobbies bring effortless pleasure, with minimal controversy. Bird watching, ballroom dancing, hiking, tool collecting and countless other activities all provide a respite from regimented work, and social intrigue.


American wooden planes are particularly well suited for collecting because they usually have the name of the maker on the front end, often accompanied by the name of the place where the plane was made. So, people can collect by maker, by town, by region or by state. Some makers further motivated their collectors by having used several, varied imprints for their names and locations. What’s more, the planes were produced for more than two centuries [with a fresh, innovative resurgence in recent decades]. Colonial America was influenced by the styles of the English, and other immigrants, but was less regimented than England or Europe in terms of style details, so that many unique wooden plane style features spontaneously arose in different parts of the colonies over time, until relative uniformity came to prevail during the first quarter of the 19th century. Consequently, there are rich opportunities to collect wooden planes by the styles of their period or place, or by similarities or dissimilarities of style features. As the style features of the plane bodies evolved over time, the profiles that they cut did as well. Antique molding planes are primary reference sources for the moldings that were in style during the Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival periods for architecture and for the furniture making of the earlier periods. The surviving period planes even tell of regional differences in the use of the various contours. The design and size of wooden planes vary greatly depending on the function, and that is another popular way that people collect. Some people particularly like plow planes, or crown molders, panel raisers or complex molders. Wooden planes also vary by the wood used to make them. Some people are drawn to the 18th century birch planes, to fruitwood planes or to the tropical woods like rosewood, ebony or lignum vitea. It may not need to be stated, but seasoned plane collectors often find their planes to be objects of beauty.


No collector of American wooden planes can notice the evolution of style patterns, or the relative abundance of some makers without learning some American history. How was the first prolific American planemaker, Francis Nicholson, while living out in the country southwest of Boston, decades before the Revolution, able to leave such an abundance of surviving planes? Why were some of the plane style elements of John Sleeper of Newburyport Ma and Joseph Fuller of Providence RI so influential among other planemakers just after the Revolution? Why did the makers stamp their names and locations into the toes of their planes? Why did American planemakers sometimes use woods that the English never used? Why were there so many hardware dealers in mid nineteenth century Cincinnati? Collecting wooden planes raises questions about immigrant settlement patterns, about the movements of all early Americans, about professional training arrangements, about the evolution of production and marketing methods and about the changing means of product transport. Collecting American wooden planes can even teach about the human slavery that was practiced in colonial New England.


In addition to all of the attributes already listed, wooden planes can often still function just as well today as they could when they were made. A good wooden plane is not difficult to use, and first hand experience with one is a source of satisfaction that does not fade. Whether using a period bead plane to replace an 18th century door casing, or hand making raised panel doors for a tool room cabinet, the process and the results are a continuing pleasure.


The biographies of the hundreds of known planemakers, their evolving styles and the progression of historical backdrops over time make this a hobby rich in detail, and a special, related satisfaction is the discovery of those details. There is still great opportunity for fruitful research, and amateur researchers are regularly making meaningful discoveries. A look in the guidebook [A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes, 5th edition] will reveal that many plane imprints have no attribution, and experienced collectors know that many currently suggested attributions will later be revised. Even as the body of knowledge has grown rapidly, the research tools, particularly on the internet, have advanced just as quickly, bringing more buried data to the surface. For some collectors, research becomes a primary objective, and for others, the thrill of discovering one or two facts about a local maker never goes away.


Collecting wooden planes requires time and money, and all collectors go through a process as they build confidence. Everyone makes mistakes, and to keep the mistakes from derailing the whole activity, collectors learn to be their own best council, and to always take full responsibility. After a mistake, the seasoned collector simply decides where to go from here, and how to avoid a similar mistake in the future.


Collectors set their own spending standards because they have more or less time and money available, and the dollar amounts vary tremendously. Some busy, affluent collectors buy what they want, when they see it. While for others, getting a good price is one of the primary satisfactions.


Collectors also set their own standards for tool quality and condition. The most important factor in this regard is collector knowledge. Regardless of what their quality standards are, collectors should be able to assess the quality of a tool in their hands, or recognize situations where they cannot. When the tools were in use, the craftsmen made repairs and prudent alterations, which may or may not be objectionable to different collectors. More recently, collectors have replaced parts, and cleaned countless planes. Most of the replacements are obvious, so the tool is no worse off, and collectors can apply their own standards. Sadly, many planes have been irreversibly damaged through cleaning, and cleaning should almost always be avoided. In recent years, some unsigned repairs and replaced parts have been done so well that they are virtually undetectable. While those repairs do make the tools look better, they pose a potential threat to the hobby. Quality, unsigned repairs can undermine the confidence of the collectors in their ability to assess condition, and that situation has disrupted many collecting fields.


While it is always best to assess quality and condition in person, that is not always possible. An array of  clear, well chosen photographs, however, can be almost as effective. As with other collectibles, the best quality tools cost the most to buy, but bring the most when sold.


As a general rule, collectors are wise not to consider their collection as an investment. The high cost to sell makes a net profit difficult to achieve, unless the collector can sell directly to other collectors. Even with realistic profit expectations, wooden plane collecting is absolutely worthwhile for all of the reasons outlined, plus a good portion of the cash spent does come back, and that is not the case with some other activities like fine dinning or travel.


For the earliest collectors, wooden carpenters planes were most often found in barns, at general, local auctions and at flea markets, and that is still true, but less so. About forty years ago, specialized tool auctions arose, and there are now multiple auctions per year, with national followings. More recently, internet auction sites and tool websites have become important sources for collectors.


The descriptions of good wooden planes for sale are often hesitant, or even inaccurate, and they seldom include much interesting supporting information about the maker, or the style features of the plane within the context of the times, or within the maker’s array of style features. There seems to exist at this time, then, a business opportunity. If a seller described, in some detail, the condition and features of wooden planes for sale with clarity, confidence and accuracy, quality planes would find their way to that venue. While a live auction is best from the standpoint of community culture, a timed, online auction might be the most egalitarian.


Wooden plane collecting often starts with an interest in the person whose name is stamped into the plane, or the location given, the plane’s function or the period of production. Or it might simply be the physical appeal of the object. Subsequently, the collector is exposed to countless bits of related information, not through discipline, but with pleasant spontaneity. The bits stick, as with static electricity, until they coalesce into a multidimensional fabric of understanding, providing the collector detailed visions of 18th and 19th century shops and water mills, and peddlers moving products by wagon to nearby villages. Finally, after some time, collectors realize that their trips to the flea markets, auctions and tool club meetings have caused great friendships to grow. Wooden plane collecting, then, is equal parts tools, history and friends. For seasoned wooden plane collectors, their hobby is a healthy, rewarding and valuable branch in their personal tree of life, with a minimum of the stresses of everyday life.

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