BUCK THUMB PLANES AND OTHERS
Distinctly English thumb planes were never produced in quantity; chariot planes were the most similar English plane in design and function, but chariots were made in greater quantities by a larger number of planemakers. Both chariot and thumb planes had thick bevel up irons on a wooden infill bed, around 20 degrees, with a 3 to 5 inch body respectively, and easily used with one hand. Given these similarities, the relative popularity of the 19th century chariot plane almost eclipsed the thumb plane. Certainly, some 19th century woodworkers preferred using the bullnose feature for planing in tight spots. A majority of English chariot planes had the bullnose component: with the mouth placed close to the toe. Scottish style chariots, from the mid-19th century, with their mouth 1/3rd of the way back from the toe, could have provided inspiration for early makers of the thumb plane.
Scottish chariot planes are characterized by having a stepped toe, front infill, flat heel, and a mouth placed 1/3rd of the way back from the toe. The iron, is usually around 1 1/4″ wide, bevel up, over a rosewood bed.
Length ranges from 4 1/2″ to 5 1/2″, proportions that were mirrored in the English thumb planes. Some examples are very high quality.
Someone opened up the mouth on this one.
Working in the early to mid-19th century, George Kerr (born in Aberdeen c. 1805) may have been the first innovator of thumb planes, and Stewart Spiers likely commenced making them around that same time or a few years later. John Holland also made thumb planes and his working years were 1861 to 1902. The last historical manufacturer of the thumb plane was Thomas Norris (late 19th century to ~1940), and Norris made more of this type than anyone else in the trade. Thomas Norris (1836-1906) was located at 57 York St, and John Holland (1831-1912) worked out of 93 York Rd., and they were there concurrently between 1870 and 1890. It would have allowed plenty of time for an exchange of ideas between these two planemakers.
American block planes were the closest domestic equivalent to the English thumb plane, but their general introduction circa 1872 postdated the thumb planes by at least 20 years. Birdsill Holly of Seneca, New York did produce a ‘block plane’ in the 1850s, but very few were made, nowhere near the economies of scale that typically exemplified American industrial production. At 7 3/4″ long with a 1 3/4″ iron, the Holly block plane was close to the size of a mitre plane. English influence from the thumb plane on Leonard Bailey was apparent in the side profile of his Excelsior pattern block plane.
Bailey’s block plane was the American version of a small plane, with a bevel up iron, set at a low ~20 degree angle. Block planes were used for end grain, but also for a myriad of general handyman tasks. –A tool for the masses. English thumb planes would more often be found in a cabinet or instrument makers’ toolkit, and used for critical detailed work.
In contrast to the English thumb planes, the Bailey/Stanley block planes caught on like wildfire, and were made in prolific quantities and variations from the 1870s until World War Two. On average, American block planes ranged from 6 to 7 inches long, compared with English thumb planes, generally around 5 inches long. While similarities existed between these two types, differences were also present: thumb planes had a much thicker iron on a wooden infill bed, and they were largely a handmade product. American block planes were mass produced: much less expensive, in many cases adjustable, and had a thinner iron bedded on the iron casting.
Since so few English planemakers made thumb planes, examples are difficult to find. This lack of antique English thumb planes has created demand, so a number of current planemakers are producing new thumb planes. Interest in thumb planes today quite possibly equals that of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Mathiesen Thumb Planes
The interesting and highly valuated Mathieson thumb plane sold in the November 2019 Brown Tool Auction for $4,746.00 (before commission). We are unlikely to see another one come to market anytime soon. George Anderson wrote that the thumb plane, in general, was the most challenging of all the English infill planes to collect.
Buck/Spiers Thumb Planes
Planemaker Konrad Sauer’s description of a Spiers no. 9 thumb plane in 2013:
“[The Spiers no. 9 thumb plane] was a pretty amazing experience. Everything was exactly where it needed to be. There was an amazing relationship between the sneck of the iron, the top of the lever cap screw and the empty area at the front of the plane. There was a complex and deliberate relationship between these points and they all worked together to provide a very comfortable experience. I was pretty shocked and was once again reminded that simple looking, does not mean that complex design thought did not go into something. I kept this experience tucked away until the time was right.”
Two different versions of the Spiers no. 9 thumb plane. Example on the right seems older, with a longer lever cap, and similar to screw sided models. But this type was photographed for the 1908 catalogue. Plane on the left seems later, with features copied by Norris. Similar examples have shown up with Buck 247 Tottenham Ct. Rd. (1867-1879), however.
No. 9 thumb plane was not in production and only made upon special order. Possibly a picture of an older plane that happened to be handy when the catalogue was put together. Lever cap not as long as the example on the left.
Buck/Norris Thumb Planes
Thomas Norris’ first thumb planes were dovetailed and were classified as No. 12. These were not produced in any quantity, but some of them were rebadged as Buck thumb planes. In July 2020, an example of a Buck/Norris No. 12 thumb plane came to market on Ebay U.K. Here are some photos of that plane (please excuse photo quality). In the 1908 Norris catalogue, the no. 12 was included, but by the time of the 1914 Norris catalogue, the no. 12 was replaced by the nos. 31 and 32. These pictures reveal, however faintly, the dovetailed construction of the Norris (Buck) no. 12 thumb plane. The front infill differs from the later no. 32 Norris thumb planes, and the toe is shortened, not unlike some of the Mathieson thumb planes.
“The Metal Thumb Plane, English type …is 5 in. long, and …1 1/4 in. wide [cutter]; it has a long cutter, which answers for a handle, and is secured with a gun-metal screw lever. It is, I believe, a specialty of Mr. George Buck, whose address will be found in the advertisement pages of this book.” From “Modern Practical Joinery,” by George Ellis, 1908.
Norris 31, in steel soled gunmetal and front infill. By Norris’ 1928 catalogue, this was how No. 31 was offered, rather than in “patent metal,” cusped lever cap screw, and open toe.
“…Certainly some of these planes, most notably Norris thumb planes, were marketed towards pianoforte case makers and the like.” –C.R. Miller, infill.planes.com
Heels of two thumb planes. The dovetailed example has a separate heel plate, and the Norris No. 31 is cast gunmetal. The Spiers No. 9 Thumb planes typically have a U-shaped bend at the back, and no separate heel.
Buck/Holland Thumb Plane
Wedge from a Badger & Galpin smooth plane. Note the similarity with the wedge in the Holland thumb plane. I am not aware of any Badger made thumb planes.
Holland made planes at 68 Oakley St, Lambeth (1861-1870), then 93 York Rd. (1870-1890). Holland took over the business of metal planemaker Charles Badger (at 93 York Rd. in 1869-70) in 1870. Thomas Norris worked down the street, at 57 York St., Lambeth London.
Reasons why I think Holland made this thumb plane: 1. Side profile similar to other Holland thumb planes. 2. Influence of Badger in the wedge. 3. Early use of gunmetal in a thumb plane. 4. Buck iron points to a working relationship, which Holland had with Buck.
This view of the heel shows a distinct arris, which emulated the convex rear plate found on the earlier Kerr type of dovetailed thumb planes. In this example, the body was cast in gunmetal and not made of joined body components.
George Kerr Thumb Planes
Early thumb plane, with some chariot plane features, made by George Kerr, 36 Store St., Bedford Square, London (address c. 1864 in Williams London Trade Directory). This thumb plane was included in David Russell’s, “Antique Woodworking Tools,” no. 1093. Originally, it had a tapered 1 1/4″ Buck iron, but that got switched with 1092’s Ward iron, another Kerr thumb plane. Kerr may have had a trading relationship with George Buck, or he could have just walked around the corner to buy the iron while work was in progress on this thumb plane. No. 1092 had an open toe, and that made it appear much more like a classic thumb plane.
19th century English thumb plane, dovetailed and unmarked, although it may have had a visible stamp originally. An early user tapped on the thick gunmetal bridge habitually. Professionally-made dovetails on this plane are virtually invisible, with the exception of the ones for the rear plate. The strike button at the rear (a cheesehead screw–now replaced with same) had been mightily pulverized, and probably slightly straightened the convex heel causing the dovetails to become visible there. Fortunately, the hammering did not extend to the heel itself. The Kerr thumb planes shown above, also had a separate heel plate, dovetailed to the sides. On this example, the sides were cut for trailing dovetails into the sole which was part of the reason that the rear flange was made longer than most other English thumb planes. Behind the bridge, the top edges of the sidewalls have a slight lip on the inner sides. It’s an indication that those surfaces were burnished smooth rather than filed or sanded–an old method. The infill bed, which was pinned to the sides, was also drilled out for lead weights, of the same type that would be installed in a quality piano keyboard in the factory. This was a piano plane for sure, and it most likely came out of a piano factory.
Lead weighting adds mass, and the resulting inertia makes it easier to cut cleanly through difficult grain with a small plane. This is the largest of all my English thumb planes at 5 7/8″. It is also slightly deeper than the others, as the pictures show.
Instrument makers had little choice for a plane in the 5 inch class in the late 19th and early 20th century. These size planes were used for such tasks as making guitar fingerboards, stringed instrument bows, and paring down gussets on repaired piano keysticks. C. H. Lang included the Stanley no. 102 block plane in his 1905 piano supply catalogue.
Between 1914 and 1936, Thomas Norris continued producing specialist planes, while other makers, such as Spiers, discontinued them. Only Norris kept alive the traditional chariot, mitre, and thumb planes during this period.
John William Mitchell was a British dealer at 94 Newington Causeway, London between 1865 and 1910. Norris’ “Patent Metal” was stamped on bridge. Most chariot planes were the bullnose type, like this one, with the mouth at the toe of the sole. Also, chariots were shorter ~3 1/2″ and blockier than thumb planes.
Thomas Norris Jr.’s decision to continue making violin, chariot, thumb, and mitre planes after the Great War was conceivably informed by his grandfather Thomas Norris (1804-1886), who was a music engraver. Music engraving was a prime example of the craft side of music. And so was instrument making. Violin, chariot, thumb, and mitre forms of planes were inextricably linked with the luthier’s tradecraft and piano manufacturing.
Unmarked Thumb Planes
This gunmetal thumb plane has a flat heel like a chariot plane, but in all other respects, it has a thumb plane design. It is simple yet elegant.
With the bronze heel of this English Thumb plane 1/2 inch thick at the center, this is a heavy plane for it’s size. The use of lugs instead of a bridge as well as the use of gunmetal suggest a maker such as Badger or Holland. Since there are no other clues that are apparent to me at this time, I would conclude just as easily that it was craftsman made.