To make and use historical hand planes

For the reenactment project I make reconstructions of the tools depicted by Jost Amman in his portrait of “Der Lautenmacher” (1568).

imageAt the workbench we see a variety of tools:

  • A mallet
  • Chisels (and gouges?)
  • Two hand planes

And in the box under the bench an oval honing stone and a glue pot with a brush.

But rather than only make some props (a nice but quite useless exercise) I want to have some working planes and use them in the shop.

Melencolia IThe plane on the foreground looks like a smoother, the one in the background like a jointer. Two things stand out: the jointer bulges out in the middle, and the smoother has a sort of horn at the front. A similar model can be found in the “Melencolia I” engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1514).

Melencolia plane

The handle looks like it resembles a bone. Perhaps a remnant of earlier plane models? Although to my knowledge planes that have a bone for a handle haven’t been found. But on the other hand one of the earliest planes we know – a Roman one – has a body made of ivory…

WorkbenchI chose oak as a material for the planes. Why oak and not beech? Because I had a large piece of dry oak in the shop, in the form of a solid slab table from the seventies (the legs of which became the pattern makers vise). Beside this the Japanese have used oak plane bodies for centuries, and we can’t accuse them of being bad craftsmen or having bad woodworking tools.

The Durer plane beside its modern equivalent: a Stanley no. 4

The Durer plane beside its modern relative: a Stanley no. 4

The plane blade was found at a fleamarket years ago, made in Sheffield  in the early 1900’s.

Durer plane image image

Last week I tried this plane while thicknessing the soundboard of a baroque guitar. It works VERY well. Once you get the hang of it, adjusting the blade with a mallet can be just as precise and easy as its more modern equivalent. After a while it feels very natural and intuitive. The ‘horn’ feels and holds quite ergonomic, Another upside is the weight of the plane (709 g) less than half of the Stanley (1749 g), a difference you will feel best after a long day of working with them…


The Jointer

Amman JointerA tool more enigmatic was the jointer plane. The bulging middle was something the experts I asked had no explanation for. One suggested that Amman had a hard time drawing straight lines… Really? The rest of the engraving is basically built up out of straight lines. So the drawn shape clearly was intentional.

But why to make it wider in the middle? To give it more ‘flesh’ around the blade perhaps?

Sometimes the only way to find something out is to abandon the theory and just try the thing in practice. So I started making the 2′ long plane from the same block of oak used for the first plane.


The reason occurred to me when I took up the plane body after sawing of the sides: The rather large block was much easier and more pleasing to hold. It fitted in my hands, instead of being a rather oversized block.

image image

Just like the first plane this one is rather easy to work with. I’ve even used it to join a soundboard. And even though I find this task easier with a modern jointer plane and a shooting board. But I can imagine that – with some training – it will be just as easy. Especially combined with a “Moxon-vise” and the routine the old makers had. Judging from surviving shop inventories, most workshops were probably small factories, where every worker had a specific set of tasks.

I intend to use these planes for historical instruments. If the old makers could make their masterpieces with planes like these, why can’t we?

This entry was posted in History, Re-enactment, Research, Think different, Tools, Uncategorized, Woodworking, Workshop and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to To make and use historical hand planes

  1. darinmolnar says:

    This post is very, very, very motivating for me. I like the way you customized the jointer until it was a good fit for you. So many times, we acquire or make tools according to a template and just live with them, even when they’re uncomfortable to use. Good lesson and nice work!


    • I didn’t customice it after my own hands, but merely copied the dimensions from the Amman woodcut. The ends of the plane are just as wide as the blade in the middle, so the blade I had dictated the width of the plane and also its length.

      I believe this is how the early makers made their planes. They bought an iron and fashioned the bodies themselves. Just like Japanese woodworkers still do today. In craft schools here on the continent it was common practice until the second half of the 20th century that students made their own tools as an exercise. It served two purposes: to learn the techniques involved, but also to provide the student with the tools he needed after the education was completed. I still have some soldering irons my grandfather made in school.


  2. Gavin Cawley says:

    Two beautiful planes! I particularly like the fluted wedge for the Durer plane, very elegant! I made a plane for thicknessing lute ribs based on a FoMRHI article by Peter Forester (, mostly because I have a very small workshop and haven’t room for power tools.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great plane! Love what you did to the handle.
      At school we did something similar to make veneers, by sticking two pieces of veneer to our scraping planes.

      To gain some increase in my production I’m currently making a small thickness sander for lute ribs out of an Ikea bar stool and a rolling pin (powered by an engine from a washing machine). But they will still be finished with scrapers.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. alexholdendotnet says:

    Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Aiko Timmer says:

    Nice job Jan!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. James Stenhouse says:

    I’m working on a theory that the horned planes were pulled as often as pushed. The blades are almost right in the center of the sole and pulling is as, or more comfortable than pushing. Flip that smoother around and try it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That sounds very plausible, although some horn planes (like in the Nuremberger Hausbucher) are depicted pushing forward. I will certainly give it a try. In some situations I already use the stanley type planes pulling (inspired by Paul Sellers).


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  7. Pingback: To make and use historical hand planes | An Exile in Jersey

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