CHRISTOPHER GABRIEL MITRE PLANES
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Ornamental custom made continental mitre planes were made as early as the 16th century renaissance era and seem to have disappeared in the late 18th century.
These early mitre planes from the European mainland were made as one-off efforts or in small quantity batches. They were typically decorated, sometimes even ornate. This one has a bronze body sweated to a thick iron two-piece sole. It was found in Germany. Typical of the style, it has a complex, turned baluster bridge, and a protruding front hold or tote. The wedge is made of cormier wood, a hardwood almost exclusively found in continental Europe. Sole is proud of the sides, and the front extension has a hang hole, which can be observed on other similar examples.
Curved front totes on these early mitres were probably derived/inspired by the horn at the toe of early Continental wooden bench planes, and still offered on some new German planes. E.C. Emmerich is a prominent German maker of new wooden planes featuring a horn, which makes pulling the plane, as an alternative to pushing, easier.
The cooper who made this plane from oak (same wood that barrels are made of) was most likely an immigrant from Continental Europe. Scribe lines for the mortise are still visible on the cheeks. The tote at the toe of the plane was in the style found in Continental Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
This laborious method of construction was practiced after the earlier method of brazing iron components together in ovens. Note the fine mouth, which is placed near the middle of the sole: its an important feature which affects cutting characteristics.
This is a modern translation from French, so the actual word “miter” is Hubbard’s. But its likely an iron or bronze Continental mitre plane similar to those shown above. Showing only the beginning of the full inventory.
The no-nonsense, clean and simple English mitre plane design first appeared around 1780. So there was likely some overlap between the end of ornate European mitres, and the introduction of the English box mitre. Yet stylistically and functionally, a great chasm existed between the two plane designs. Functionally, the blade angle was lowered from 30 degrees to 20 degrees. As a result of this lower blade angle, the mouth was moved forward from close to the middle of the body, to around a third of the length of the sole, as measured from the toe of the plane. The Continental mitre used tenons through the sole to attach the body, and the sole was ‘proud’ of the sidewalls. Early English mitre planes, in contrast, had a sole flush with the body, and the former tenons could then be dovetails on the perimeter of the sole. Forming dovetails on the edge of the edge of the sole was a less laborious operation as compared with drilling out the sole for multiple tenons. English mitres could now be used on their sides for shooting mitre joints. Dovetailing the sole was also a considerably more robust construction method when compared with simply brazing the body to the sole, a common practice in making early European metal planes.
By the 1770s and ’80s, the production capabilities created by the industrial revolution made it possible for a craftsperson to readily purchase strips of iron for the sides of the planes, and obtain tools such as files and chisels for making them–see the Malade shop inventory above. Other tools included metal cutting chisels, hand drills, and metal burnishers. Earlier makers of metal planes on the European continent (before c.1760) did not have these advantages, which is why they are found in even lower quantities. Some of the preceding information was drawn from the 2010 blogs of Joel Moskowitz on mitre planes, and that is appreciated.
The late Philip Walker, a founding member of Tools And Trades History Society (U.K.), wrote an article in the 1983 TATHS Journal which described a couple of 18th century mitre planes which he believed to be examples of the earliest English mitre planes. One of the planes was from the Alan Bates collection, and was marked B.H.G. LONDON and 1739. The “B.H.G.” plane subsequently went to the David R. Russell collection and was pictured in his book, “Antique Woodworking Tools,” as no. 863. The other plane was found in Bristol and purchased by Philip Walker. Both of these planes had aspects linking them to England, although clearly, there appeared to be more of the Continental style in the way of features and layout. One of the more ‘English’ features of these two 18th century mitre planes, was the presence of a front infill, although that could have been added later, in both cases (my observation, not Walker’s). Here is Philip Walker’s summation of the B.H.G. LONDON 1739 mitre plane:
“This 1739 B.H.G. plane is understood to have been in the Portsmouth Dockyard workshops for many years, and it has until recently been kept for nasty jobs where the workmen feared damaging their personal tools.[!] To sum up: we appear to have here the earliest known English box-construction plane, the forerunner of all those box-constructed planes which constituted the pride of the nineteenth century joiner/cabinetmakers’ kit. It shares certain characteristics with a considerable series of earlier continental European planes. Whilst the date sequence does not actually prove that the English planes were derived from continental models this plane is one more piece of evidence for the existence of a common European tradition in tool design.”
Gabriel mitres emerged with the now familiar box-like form, with wrought iron sides dovetailed to a two piece steel sole. Other English planemakers, contemporaries such as John Green and John Sym, as well as succeeding generations, adopted this general pattern for the mitre plane. Mitre planes were the only generally available metal plane, followed by the rabbet plane by Robert Towell around 1815-1825, then Stewart Spiers and others introduced a range of metallic infill bench planes in the 1840s and 1850s. A notable exception to this would be metal instrument makers planes, which first appeared during the Renaissance era, and made more or less continuously until the present.
Christopher Gabriel very likely used a piecework system like this, especially as his business and production levels grew in later years.
In the 18th century, what we now know as mitre planes were simply called “iron planes.” The 1793 shop inventory for the French harpsichord maker Pascal Taskin made references for “iron planes.” Gabriel’s business record book for 1800 made the first English reference of “mitre planes,” albeit for wooden mitre planes with a mouth closing block or stop.
Working years for Arthington range from 1808 to 1852, and this mitre was likely an early effort of his. The iron is bevel up with a ~25 degree bed, and the rather thin wood often failed behind the mouth. Nevertheless, wood bodied mitre planes of this type were less costly alternatives to the iron mitre planes.
Gabriel still used the term “iron plane” to notate his iron mitre plane in the 1800 ledger. Subsequent usage of the term mitre plane can be found in the Sheffield tool dealer J. Wilkes catalog of c. 1829:
707. Strait block 2 1/4″ 3 0………………..4 6 (Double)
708. Mitre do. with stop and iron reversed…….9 0
709. Iron do. steel faced…………………………25 0
From “British Planemakers from 1700″ 3rd Edition, by Jane and Mark Rees. Page 111.
Early English mitre planes were expensive.
The “Strait block” (strike block) plane was around 14 inches long and configured with the bevel of the cutting iron facing down with a bed angle ~40 degrees. Historically, the strike block plane had a single iron, but by 1829, a cap iron (chipbreaker), or “double” iron was available for a higher price. Strike block planes, which had parallel sides at 90 degrees, were primarily used for end grain, often with a shooting board. Original examples are extremely elusive, however modern replicas are available.
Christopher Gabriel was born in Falmouth, Cornwall on 2 April, 1746, and apprenticed with John Barncoat, Master Carpenter of Falmouth, starting in 1760. Like so many other talented toolmakers after him, Gabriel left the far reaches of England (in Gabriel’s case, Falmouth after 1766), to practice his trade in London.
Christopher Gabriel started making planes in London before 1770. Not long after setting up his business, Gabriel expanded by offering a full line of tools and additional products. After his retirement in the late 1790s, Christopher passed away on 23 August, 1809. Thomas and Christopher Jr., his sons, continued making planes as late as 1822. During the 1790s, after Christopher’s sons took over, the firm diversified into making beds and chairs, as well as parts for pianos. As early as 1811, the family became a large wood supplier in London, and they remained in business until well into the 20th century.
Gabriel worked out of 100 Old Street until ~1793. In that year the business was moved to Numbers 31 and 32 Banner Street.
“Gabriel & Sons, Pianoforte makers, chair and looking glass manufacturers.” -Holden’s London Directory, 1799 .
In “Christopher Gabriel and the Tool Trade in 18th Century London,” Jane and Mark Rees came to the following conclusion regarding Gabriel’s involvement in piano making: “It has been suggested that the entry as pianoforte makers was an error in the directories but it is probably correct. The firm were unlikely to have made complete pianos, but may have been producing the movements, or more likely, the very numerous parts that made up the movement. The manufacture of piano and harpsichord movements was an early application of mass production techniques in the woodworking trades, It would seem entirely logical the Gabriels would have tried this market alongside the chairmaking and other beechwood items they were making. In this respect, the Gabriel firm is similar to other planemakers who had diversified product ranges based principally on their raw material.”
For well researched historical figures like Gabriel or Spiers, I have chosen not to follow up, or expand on previous work. A thorough review of Christopher Gabriel, his business and contemporaries can be found in Jane and Mark Rees’ fine work on Gabriel cited above.
The mitre plane, as it entered the marketplace around 1780, had arrived in its mature form, as created by Christopher Gabriel, John Sym, and John Green. Overall proportions, construction, and features of the mitre plane remained remarkably stable throughout its production period, which finally ended in obsolescence with the onset of World War One. Despite that general obsolescence, old-fashioned piano makers such as Steinway used the mitre plane for specialized tasks, like crowning the keybed, into the early 21st century. Crowning the keybed required a large mitre plane, with at least a 2 inch iron, in order to meet production requirements. “…A miter plane is a design rendered obsolete by mechanization early in this century.” –Maurice Fraser “Fine Woodworking” 1993
It is the embossed type, similar to some of Gabriel’s stamps for his wood planes. This stamp was obscured by oxidation for years. Both stamps into the metal on no. 220 are partially legible, and therefore, only partially successful.
From Gabriel’s early years, a full range of woodworking tools were supplied, but wooden planes always remained his core business. Mitre planes were not stocked in anything but small numbers, and while relatively new and innovative in the English box mitre format, they were not a primary focus of the Gabriel enterprise.
In this book about Gabriel, Rees examined 6 mitre planes:
“Perhaps the most interesting feature of these planes is that five of the six are marked with what appear to be serial numbers – 415, 492, 700, 701, and 720. This feature has not been noted on the mitre planes made by other contemporary makers such as John Sym of Westminster (1753-1803), and the Ponders, the Gabriels’ successors in the plane-making business.” Another signed Gabriel mitre plane with 309 stamped on the bridge, was featured in a blog by Joel Moskowitz. Moskowitz estimated that there are around a dozen Gabriel mitre planes remaining extant, and that based upon the low volume of mitre components in Gabriel inventory records, mitre plane production was quite limited. I believe that there are more than a dozen, especially when one adds in all of the unmarked mitres having Gabriel characteristics.
After a few more years of observing Gabriel mitre planes, I have arrived at a new tally of 11 stamped and numbered examples. Of course the number of examples are inadequate, but this is what’s available. Numbers span a total of 500 (which doesn’t mean that 500 were made), ranging from the lowest at 220 and the highest at 720. The numbers are: 220, 270, 309, 337, 372, 394, 415, 492, 700, 701, and 720. Gabriel nos. 220, 270, 394, and 700 are available to me for direct study, while nos. 309, 372, 492, and 701 I have observed through multiple photographs. The infill woods used are beech, mahogany, rosewood, and walnut. There is a general pattern of wood chosen relative to the sequence of numbers: beech tended to be used early on, with rosewood, mahogany, and walnut used somewhat later. Exceptions exist–no. 220 has rosewood infill and appears original. Planemaker Bill Carter reported observing a Gabriel mitre plane with original boxwood infill around 2002. Three of the low numbered, or early planes have pinned infills: 220, 270, and 372, while the remainder are screwed in at the front and back. Nos. 220, 270, and 394 have exactly the same shaped front infill, with identical mouldings at the back. Gabriel nos. 309 and 372 both have a plain beechwood front infill, with no moulding at the back. The higher numbered, or late planes, 700, 701, and a similar unmarked example have thick bridges ~3/16″ with a bevel along the crescent recess at the front. 700 and 701 also have a reeded front infill attached with a cheesehead screw through the front plate. The unmarked example also has a reeded front infill and cheesehead screw. All of the other earlier examples have thinner bridges, closer to 1/8″ thick, without the bevel along the curved front edge. No. 220 has a weak GABRIEL stamp on the bridge, with the numbers etched instead of stamped. The next two numbers, 270 and 309, have GABRIEL stamped on the rear of the front infill. Metal (hardness) used for tool stamps would have advanced during Gabriel’s metal plane production (1780-1822) which may explain the weak stamp on #220, and the stamps on the wooden front infill for numbers 270 and 309. Subsequent Gabriel mitres had strong GABRIEL stamps into the iron bridge, which would suggest utilization of a harder steel for the name-stamping punch. So there is some limited indication that Gabriel mitre build details are linked in clusters with the ascending numbers. That would be consistent with production in batches over the passage of time.
Here is a list of early features in Gabriel mitre planes:
- GABRIEL embossed stamp into back side of front infill (270, 309; except 220, weak stamp into bridge).
- Beech primarily used as infill wood (270, 309, 372, 492; except 220, with rosewood infill).
- Bridge 1/8″ thick (220, 270, 309, 372, 394, 492).
- Front infill top surface 1 3/4″ to 2″ long (220, 270, 309, 372, 492).
- Infills pinned into place (220, 270, 372–screwed and pinned).
- Bridges attached through cheeks with rectangular tenons (220, 270, 309, 372, 492).
Here is a list of later Gabriel mitre plane features:
- Infills screwed into place (309, 372–screwed and pinned, 415, 492, 700, 701).
- Cheesehead screw attaching front infill (700, 701, 1 unnumbered example).
- Use of rosewood, mahogany, and walnut for infill wood. (700, 701, several unnumbered examples).
- Bridge 3/16″ thick, with bevel on crescent-shaped cutout. (700, 701, several unmarked examples).
- Front infill top 3/4″ to 1 1/8″ long, with long trailing exposed moulding at ~45 degrees. (700, 701, unnumbered examples).
- Bridges attached through cheeks with cylindrical pins (700, 701, several unnumbered examples)
Some foundational build characteristics consistent throughout:
- Thin 5/32″ wrought iron sides (gunmetal sidewalls thicker) dovetailed to a thick 1/4″ blister steel sole.
- Front and rear soles dovetailed together at the mouth.
- Horseshoe bend in the sidewalls at the heel.
- Very rounded front flange, sometimes with extra long extension.
- Cheesehead screw into heel to secure infill (most examples).
- No. 220: 3 dovetails in front of throat, 5 dovetails in back.
- No. 270: 3 dovetails in front of throat, 5 dovetails in back.
- No. 309: 3 dovetails in front of throat, unknown in back.
- No. 372: 3 dovetails in front of throat, 4 dovetails in back.
- No. 394: 3 dovetails in front of throat, 4 dovetails in back.
- No. 492: 3 dovetails in front of throat, 5 dovetails in back.
- No. 700: 2 dovetails in front of throat, 3 dovetails in back.
- No. 701: 2 dovetails in front of throat, 3 dovetails in back.
- Gabriel (unmarked, with reeded infill like no. 700, 701) 2 dovetails in front, 3 dovetails in back.
- Gabriel (marked, no number, with ebony infill) 2 dovetails in front, 3 dovetails in back.
- Gabriel (marked, no number, with rosewood infill) 2 dovetails in front, 3 dovetails in back.
- Gabriel (unmarked, with rosewood infill) 2 dovetails in front, 3 dovetails in back.
Gabriel mitre no. 220 has the earliest production number, and early features, with the exceptions of the use of rosewood for the infill and wedge, and proprietary stamps into the metal rather than wood. Joel Moskowitz, owner of Tools for Working Wood, woodworker, and antique tool collector, had the following insight into no. 220, plausibly informed by his own experience as a merchant: “My own idea about the numbers is that when Gabriel was making these planes they were rare and expensive – and like expensive things serializing them makes some sense. It’s also reasonable to assume that as expensive items (…he had parts in his inventory but no completed planes) the planes might have even been assembled as needed and customization very common. –On a budget, beech; feeling proud, a few pence more, rosewood.”
These two planes, along with Gabriel no. 701, probably came from the same production batch. No. 701 also has a cheesehead screw on the front, to secure its reeded infill. Common practice at the time was to have a handcut flathead screw countersunk into the front plate. The bridges on both of the above planes are thicker than the earlier Gabriel mitre planes, at ~3/16″ and the crescent shaped indentation has a smooth bevel along the edge. The earlier Gabriel mitres shown here, 220, 270, and 394 have 1/8″ to 5/32″ thick bridges with no bevel at the crescent.
This Gabriel reeding plane is of a general type that would have been used to make reeded mouldings. More specifically, the type of plane that was probably used to cut the Gabriel infills was a multiple reed plane. “The development of the reeding plane required improvements in the construction of moulding planes in that they have many quirks, all of which need to be boxed if the plane is to be accurate and long- lasting. In some cases full boxing became the preferred option. The Gabriel firm seemed to be at the forefront of these developments…[c. 1780].” From “British Planemakers from 1700,” by W.L. Goodman, third edition by Jane and Mark Rees.
Gabriel mitre plane, number 270. This example is 10 1/8″ long and has an early 2 1/4″ James Cam iron. The wedge and infills are a red beech, and the front infill is stamped Gabriel, with the same stamp that is used on many wooden Gabriel planes. No. 270’s bridge is 1/8″ thick with a crescent indentation, and the wedge underneath mirrors that shape. 394’s bridge and wedge have a similar configuration.
“The number of braces (stocks) and parts of braces included in the two inventories is evidence that these were a regular product of the Gabriel workshop. We have examined four marked braces during the preparation of this publication, three plain, and one plated. We are aware of at least two other braces by Gabriel that we have not seen and suspect that there may be others.” From “Christopher Gabriel and the Tool Trade in Eighteenth Century London” by Jane and Mark Rees. Another marked Gabriel brace was included in “Antique Woodworking Tools,” by David R. Russell, no. 1430, on page 470.
Below is a later Gabriel mitre plane, with a thicker bridge, and a bevel at the crescent recess. It has two dovetails in front of the mouth,and three behind, on each side. It was marked on the bridge, without a number. The stamp looks similar to that used for the bit brace shown above, with extra space between the G and the A.
Stephen Ponder took over the 31 Banner St. Gabriel tool business around 1823, and continued to make planes at Fish St. Hill from 1825 until 1833. The plane is marked “PONDER” on the front plate. It is 10 1 /2″ long with a 2 1/8″ J. Fearn iron. This gunmetal Ponder mitre plane was included in “Antique Woodworking Planes,” by David R. Russell, no. 872. Construction and details of the plane appear more or less similar to those of Gabriel. Decorative recess on bridge is less rounded than those of Gabriel, however.
Thomas Gabriel and his successors occupied Gabriel’s Pier and Wharf off of Commercial Road in Lambeth, from 1815 to c. 1930.
Gabriel Wade and English, Limited continued to trade as late as 1968 in other locations.