Molding Planes

The jumble of molding planes seems bewildering — too complex to comprehend. American practice uses many specialized planes, each doing one complex molding. In the British tradition, the joiner tends to build up complex shapes with a few planes.

I recently bought a chest of molding planes owned by three generations of English joiners, E. F. Margetson, Tom Killner, and Robert Simms, respectively. Chests of tools are time-traveling vessels, and each passenger has a story to tell. There were the usual number of odd planes in the chest, but the main players

A small set of hollows and rounds.

left: American practice more often uses a "stick and rabbet" plane...

right: . . . or a combination plane fitted with a sash iron.

left: American practice more often uses a "stick and rabbet" plane...

right: . . . or a combination plane fitted with a sash iron.

Most corner bead planes have a boxwood wear strip.

were five basic shapes: nine pairs of hollows and rounds, ten side beads, seven ovolos, five ogees, and a few planes for cleaning up. You can easily pick out the most used planes in the chest by the thick, black, almost plastic accretion of sheep's tallow left by the grip of the joiner's hands. English planes are always dark from linseed oil, but some of the hollows and rounds in this set had been used so much that they looked as if they had been dipped in tar.

You reach for the hollows and rounds so often because of their versatile simplicity. Each hollow forms a convex profile on a surface; the matching round forms the concave profile. Used individually, they can form everything from the flutes on columns to drop-leaf table joints. Used in combination, a hollow and round can form complex moldings, particularly the classic wave-shaped ogee.

There are 9 even-numbered pairs of hollows and rounds in the chest. A full set would number 18 pairs, but half sets of 9 pairs are most common. The numbering systems varied from maker to maker, but the smallest planes in this set made by Griffiths of Norwich, England, are stamped with the number 2. They work a 1/4-inch-diameter circle with irons 3/16 inch wide. The largest pair, stamped 18, works a 6-inch-diameter circle with irons 1 1/2 inches wide. All the plane irons are set at middle pitch, 55 degrees, and at a skew of 10 degrees off of perpendicular to the progress of the plane. This skewing made a smoother cut but required extra work and workmanship from the plane maker, adding a 10 percent premium to their cost.

In the signs-of-use contest, the beads run a close second to the hollows and rounds. Among the 10 beading planes in the chest is a matched set of 7 running from 1/8 to 7/8 inch across. These are properly called side beads, because they work on the edge of a piece, cutting a half round isolated by a little square-bottomed valley called a quirk. Worked down both sides of the corner of a timber, the side bead forms a three-quarter round. The shape of the bead is not just decorative in the moment; it also wears better. Sharp corners look fine to start, but on a post or plank, they quickly take dents and splinters. The side bead moves the sharp edge back away from the corner to the quirk, protecting it behind the round and sturdy shoulder of the bead.

The bead planes are themselves protected by inset boxwood strips. Hollows and rounds work only 60 degrees, one-sixth of a circle. Bead planes work the maximum 180 degrees, with a narrow protrusion to cut the quirk side. Only on the cheapest planes is this protrusion a fragile extension of the beech body. On professional-quality planes like these, the maker inserts a diagonal boxwood strip to form this point.

Boxing not only replaces the beech with a harder wood, it also changes the grain direction. The glue that held the boxwood in the 3/4-inch bead plane has failed, and pulling out the strip shows how it was sawn on a bias to its grain. Orienting the grain at 45 degrees to the length of the strip brings it parallel to the plane iron, eliminating short grain behind the iron. The boxing at the nose of the plane is also made stronger by the diagonal grain running back into the body of the plane. Planes may be just blocks of wood with pieces of steel in them, but wisdom waits beneath the grease and dirt.

The ovolo and ogee molding planes in the chest are a conservative lot, all Roman style—based on circles. This makes things simpler, for if this were a late nineteenth-century American joiner's chest filled with the then-popular Grecian-style molding planes, we'd be facing an indescribable variety. Moldings in the Grecian style are based on ellipses and parabolas. Circles come in infinite sizes, but they have only one shape. Ellipses come in infinite shapes, as well as infinite sizes, and half of that infinite variation was made into molding planes.

We used an ovolo plane earlier, making the panel door and the sash. The ogee planes are the next step in complexity, imparting the classic S-curve to the wood, combining it with a little fillet to give it more definition. All the ovolo and ogee planes work on the spring—tilted over as they cut.

Finishing out the molding planes were some clean-up planes. There were snipes-bills to refine tight turns and side rounds to help smooth curves. Most molding planes cannot be turned around and worked from the other direction when the grain of the wood proves troublesome. Clean-up planes come in left- and right-handed pairs so they can work from either direction to go with the flow of the grain.

Planes work as well today as they ever did, but we often forget the roughing in part of the job. Save your planes and your time by using a gouge to rough in a hollow, and a flat plane to rough in a round. Even a big, six-inch-wide cornice molding plane will work easily if you don't make it do the whole job or try to cut the entire profile on every stroke. Rock the plane to cut on one side and then the other. You may discover that you don't need to call the entire crew over to pull the tow rope for the finishing cut.

Roughing in the work with faster-cutting, easier-to-sharpen tools saves your planes, but eventually they will need sharpening as well. Some very excellent cabinetmakers sharpen their complex molding planes by honing just the flat side. Gradually, though, this makes hollows open up and thins the iron so it chatters. I don't think there is any shortcut. You simply have to get out the slipstones and sharpen on the bevel face of the contours and flats. Study the clearance bevels of each element of the profile and strive to maintain it. Bringing back one part means you have to bring back all the other parts as well. Each little curve and fillet in the plane iron is a cutter with its own needs, but it still has to work well with the others.

A sharp plane leaves behind a beautiful surface, but you can always help yourself by choosing better wood for moldings. Look for straight-grained stock with the growth rings perpendicular to the face. In any wood, the curves of the molding profile stiffen the shavings like corrugated roofing, so they shoot out straight from the plane until they buckle and fold of their own scant weight. When you finish planing, gather a handful of shavings and rub them hard up and down the length of the molding, burnishing it to a gleaming flow of curves and corners—"one intire Piece."

A final bit on planes. On September 26, 1810, Thomas Jefferson, sitting at his desk in the presidential mansion in Washington City, wrote a letter to James Dinsmore, an Irish joiner working on James Madison's house in the Virginia mountains. "Johnny Hemmings is just entering on a job of sash doors for [my]

The ogee plane works on the "spring.'
In both furniture and buildings, the moldings come to life only under light and shadow.

house at Poplar Forest," he explained, "and tells me he cannot procede without his sash planes [that are] in your possession. If you could send them by Sunday's stage you would oblige me."

So here is Thomas Jefferson, asking for the return of wooden sash-making planes belonging to his slave, John Hemmings — an American who did not even own himself. In his will, Thomas Jefferson decreed that, upon his death, Hemmings would be free, so probably the last thing that John Hemmings made as an enslaved American woodworker was the coffin for Thomas Jefferson.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

There are a lot of things that either needs to be repaired, or put together when youre a homeowner. If youre a new homeowner, and have just gotten out of apartment style living, you might want to take this list with you to the hardware store. From remolding jobs to putting together furniture you can use these 5 power tools to get your stuff together. Dont forget too that youll need a few extra tools for other jobs around the house.

Get My Free Ebook


  • griffo fairbairn
    How to make ovolo molding plane drawing?
    4 years ago

Post a comment