© 2023 – Martin Shepherd Piano Service Using the text, research, or images on this website without permission on an ebay auction or any other site is a violation of federal law in most countries.
EARLY METAL PLANES: BLOCK, MITRE, AND LUTHIER
This section includes a good number of early European metal planes from the 16th through 18th century, including both small block-type and instrument makers planes as well as mitre planes. Some 19th and 20th century instrument planes are also included as there was and is a link between them and the much older planes. A limited number of these early Continental planes survive, and a commensurately small number of photos of these planes exist. A notable portion of examples that remain extant are represented here. Because of this scarcity, I have used this webpage as a repository of images for these rare artifacts. I have include sources of the photographs where possible. Hopefully, this page will serve as a resource for those that are interested in this specialized subject.
In William Louis Goodman’s seminal history book on antique tools, “The History of Woodworking Tools” (1964), Goodman estimated that the early “shoe-shaped” block plane, or Vergratthobel, in German, originated in the late Medieval Period. The word was derived from the German word ‘Vergratten,’ which means to fit together; for example, to join the edges of a picture frame. These were not all block planes in the sense that we know block planes today because most of them (but not all) were set up with the cutting iron bevel down.
A key to determining a bevel up or down position, is examples where the opposite end of the iron was bent into a curve or scroll: when bent, they were invariably bent down, providing a curved contact point for the craftperson’s hand. Other indicators include evaluating the final cutting angle (angle of cutting iron + angle of bevel on bevel up planes) When there is a steep cutter angle, and the iron is bevel up, in some cases, the functional cutting angle approaches scraper territory in these short 4″ planes. In those planes, the iron was probably originally intended to be bevel down instead.
On the left side of this small painting (c. 1407-1415) is a small plane, with thin sides, apparently metal, and of the same basic type as other examples from this period.
The iron doesn’t look to be fully installed to me, and resting on the heel of the plane. But in these paintings, it’s hard to determine.
This Vergratthobel, which resides in the Arts and Crafts Museum, in Vienna, Austria, was studied by W.L. Goodman, for his book, “Antique Woodworking Tools,” around 1960. The plane is constructed of iron stock, brazed together, and is 5″ long and 2 3/16″ wide, with a 1 3/16″ cutting iron. Goodman concluded that this plane is similar to those depicted in the two paintings shown above.
Like other planes of this type, the body consisted of 3 sheets of iron: the single piece sole with mouth cutout; the sidewalls, bent into a “U” shape at the heel; the front piece.
The iron was set at 32 degrees, with the back of the iron resting on the rear sidewalls of the plane, and the cutting end resting on the rear edge of the mouth, which was 1 1/2″ long and 3/8″ wide.
It is not clear to me whether or not this plane was intended to have a bevel up or down iron because it has a fully flat iron. But I suspect it was intended to be bevel down. In the lower photo you can see the back of the iron, the metal wedge, and a second, smaller wooden wedge inserted between the cutting iron and the metal wedge.
The old craftsmen had copper brazing alloys which would melt at different temperatures within an oven, enabling multi-step assembly of the iron components. In this case, we have the U-shaped body, a separate front piece, a cross-pin, and the sole. Plane has a thick stock and is more sturdy than many of this type. The wedge typically did not span the full width of the interior of the plane body. This particular plane has a cormier wood rear infill, which greatly helps to bed the iron securely. Many examples of this 4-inch class of planes do not have a rear infill, and the thin iron rests on the the precipice of a thin sole and the heel.
In general, cutting irons were very thin before c. 1780, and may be steel, but may also be wrought iron, with the business end case-hardened. In many examples, the far end of the cutting iron was bent hot, into a curve, or scroll. Some French and Italian versions of this early 4″ block plane were ornate, and featured heart and clover cutouts, and intricately shaped edges.
Early Continental mitre planes followed, and evolved from the Vergratthobel, according to W.L. Goodman. Both the Vergratthobel and the Gehrungsfleugzeug utilized similar brazing techniques, but the mitre plane was a larger plane generally, from 8 to 12 inches long, with a bevel up cutting iron, set at a low angle, 20 to 30 degrees. The sole of the early mitre plane was often thicker than that of the early block plane. Also, the early mitres typically had a front tote. Decoratively, the mitre plane would have embellishments on the outline of their sidewalls, and feature baluster bridges.
Pictured below is an early 3″ luthier plane, with the same basic profile as we have today. Back in the 17th century, circular pipe stock was not available, so an overlap join was made at the toe. Circular pipe stock only became readily available around 1840; in the 18th and early 19th centuries, however, some luthier planes were constructed with applied soles and continuous metal stock for the ovoid body.
Where Early Planemakers Worked
Anonymous makers of 16th to 18th century block planes, mitre planes, and luthier planes typically were located around sources of iron and early steel blade-making, with delivery access to cities and communities where there would be customers for their products. Such early centers would include Firminy and Thiers in France, Bergamo and Brescia in Italy, and Solingen and Nuremberg in Germany.
Although the steelmaking industry in Firminy was established in the mid-19th century, the town had producing coalmines since the 14th century, and had a history of forging iron there for centuries. Thiers, the foremost knife and blade making center in France since the 12th century, did not have its own steel, coal, or iron industry, but instead relied on nearby Firminy and other areas such as Liège in Belgium, or Solingen in Germany, for iron and steel.
Jenzat is a major center for hurdy-gurdy making, which is discussed later on this page. Firminy was formerly called Firmin. The detail on this map is hard to make out, but the authenticity of locating places on a period map makes a difference.
Below are close-up sections of Firminy, Thiers, and Jenzat in the Cassini Map, 1790:
This virtual tour of France shows some toolmaking locations, with an emphasis on the musical arts. Mirecourt, Jenzat, Thiers, and Firminy are touched on in this page; Villedieu-les-Poêles and Léon Pinet et Cie. of Paris are covered in other pages on this website.
More early 4″ block planes, from the 16th to 18th century, made of iron stock, brazed together in ovens
These early block planes were shaped like a shoe, with the heel bent around a form, just as the mitre planes that followed were also.
A previous owner bent over the toe of the plane, in order to conceal a decorative edge. This alteration is part of its history.
In Italy, where the following plane was found, many people have become accustomed to finding antiquities about. After all, in some areas around Rome, and other cites, 2,000 year old coins can still be found.
The two planes on the right have baluster bridges which are not symmetrical.
Shown below are two 5″ iron planes made by toolmaker, engineer, and artist, Leonhard Danner (1507-1585) in Nuremberg around 1570 for Kurfurst August of Saxony. The irons were positioned bevel down. Intricate etching, with hunting scenes and floral designs adorned the sidewalls, which were bent around in a long oval shape. The plane irons were fixed with thumbscrews in a fleur de lis pattern instead of a wedge, and the toes have intricately turned front totes. The toes and heels were covered under the decorated metal exterior.
W.L. Goodman had located these 2 Danner metal planes in the collection of Elector Saxony in Dresden, and a third Danner, slightly larger, at 5 1/2″ in the Arts and Crafts Museum of Vienna. A fourth example of the Danner plane was depicted in a portrait of the Nuremberg cabinetmaker, Friedrich Finkhauer, who died in 1571. While these 4 planes were custom made variants of the early ‘block’ plane, made for the elite and wealthy, they were not one-off planes. And many more less ornate, and more workmanlike examples of the Vergratthobel from this time period, survive today.
Images from the SKD museum, Dresden, Germany:
Early Mitre Planes
Early mitre plane, 18th century or earlier, with sole extending beyond the perimeter of the plane body, and mouth aperture placed towards the middle of the sole. A similar plane was shown in Seiver’s “Il Pianoforte; Guida Pratica…” which described methods of piano manufacturing before the introduction of steam and electric power. Obviously, with an extended sole, these early mitre-type planes were not used with a shooting board on their sides. It underscores the notion that mitre planes had many uses, as described further on the piano planes page of this website.
They were typically decorated, sometimes even ornate. This one has a bronze or brass 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.
In figure 21 we see a box mitre plane with a sole proud of the body, and a similar front handle to the plane shown above. Here is the key to the rest of the plate: Workbench; Bench planes: 24. fillister plane with nicker; 22. rebate plane; 21. 18th century iron mitre with proud sole and tote at nose; 18. coffin smooth plane; 17. large smoother, German/Austrian type with horn on nose; 14 and 15. 2 plane irons with chipbreakers, 23. radiused plane; 13. jointer plane; 16. jack plane; 19. Dutch gerf plane; 20. toothing plane; 25. nosing plane with double iron; 26. plow plane; 28. convex plane; 12. cabinet workbench with vises. 27. compass plane.
The following images of early continental European mitre planes are from the collection of John G. Wells, (1929-2018) prominent architect in Berkeley CA. Photos from David Stanley Auctions, April 12, 2019.
The mitre plane below was photographed by David Stanley Auctions in October, 2022. The lack of a front tote, or baluster shaped bridge, and the addition of a front infill suggest that this could possibly be an early English mitre plane.
Most early mitre planes were made in Continental Europe: Germany, France, and Italy. This example is possibly unique, in that it it may be the only English mitre with Continental features. Features include turned baluster bridge, curved front handle, and curved sides towards the front. Sold at David Stanley 2012 auction for 7,500 GBP.
Photos below by Jim Bode.
At some later date, it appears like an owner of this plane doubled the sides of this plane, in order to make the sides flush with the sole, for the purpose of using the plane on its side. Early cutting iron by John Green.
16th to 18th Century Luthier Planes (3″ or shorter)
In the late 18th century an Italian violin collector, Count Cozio (1755-1840), purchased a good portion of Antonio Stradivari’s tools from his workshop. These tools eventually ended up in the Museo del Violino (Museo Stradivariano), where they presently reside. At least 4 wrought iron planes and 2 bronze planes survived from this workshop, according to W.L Goodman, who visited the museum in 1961. Inge Kjemtrup, in a 2017 article in Strings Magazine, wrote about the contribution of Count Cozio:
Cozio revered Stradivari. His passion for the Cremonese master’s instruments inspired him to seek them out from sources all over Italy and beyond, and even, in an extraordinary act for the time, to buy the contents of Stradivari’s workshop from his son, Paolo. Today those contents—patterns, sketches, notes, labels, an array of tools—are in the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona.
Violin making originated in Northern Italy, with earliest examples depicted in period paintings around 1530. In the beginning, with the Amati family, the craft was carried out in small family workshops, with the father teaching his sons the craft. Later, in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, in Mirecourt, France, Mittenwald, Bavaria, Markneukirchen/Klingenthal, Saxony, and Grazlitz/Schonbach, Bohemia, high volume workshops emerged, producing what are known as trade violins. In some places, such as Bohemia (currently part of the Czech Republic), much work was outsourced as piecework to members of the local communities. In other towns, such as Mirecourt, the workshops were more centralized, employing as many as 600 workers in the Didier Nicolas l’aîné manufactory in the late 19th century. The other large Mirecourt violin making factories were Jerome Thibouville-Lamy (J.T.L.), Laberte-Humbert frères/Laberte Magnie, and Couesnon.
The United States among other regions, was a big market for these trade violins. All along, the very small and medium sized workshops co-existed with with these large operations, and these small traditional family workshops tended to custom build the finer violins, violas, ‘cellos, and double basses.
By the second half of the 19th century, in Mirecourt, the Violin business had grown so large that the community of craftsmen in the workshops could support specialists for the trade, such as hand tool makers. One such specialist was Joseph Jacquet (not to be confused with the Jacquot family of violin makers). Joseph Jacquet was born into an instrument making family; his father Joseph-Xavier (1810-1867) and his brother Joseph-Gabriel (1848-1899) both made double basses, and in his early working life, Joseph-Jean-Claude also made contrabasses. Additionally, Joseph-Jean-Claude was known as a “Tourneur,” or Turner, and this probably was on a metal lathe for toolmaking, but could also have been turning in wood. Joseph-Jean-Claude’s wife Justine Mathilde Barbesant was a luthier in her own right, and was born into the large Barbesant instrument making family in Mirecourt. Their son, Frederic Marie Joseph Jacquet (1898-1980) not surprisingly, took after his parents, and became a luthier as well.
Jacquet (Joseph-Jean-Claude) Barbesant, 19th century manufacturer of luthier tools in Mirecourt, was born there on March 19, 1850. He is the third son of Joseph-Xavier. He married Miss [Justine Mathilde] Barbesant [1861-1949], in Mirecourt in 1879, and died in this city on July 16, 1900.
Michel Mailhot is a noted collector of ancient French tools, with many in his collection showing elaborate engraving, embellishment, and other adornments that were part of the practice of historical toolmaking in France.
Instrument Makers Planes: 1700 to Present
Construction of the earliest metal instrument makers’ planes closely followed that of the 4″ Vergatthobel from the late Medieval Period, with brazed together iron components, with the possible exception of steel for the cutting iron, in some examples. Other construction methods followed, and I will show some of them here.
© 2023 – Martin Shepherd Piano Service Using the text, research, or images on this website without permission on an ebay auction or any other site is a violation of federal law in most countries.
The first and obvious alternative would be wood construction. Wood moves with humidity and dryness, and that has been found to be less than ideal in a plane with such small dimensions. Nevertheless, Japanese makers produce tiny wooden luthier planes today.
The antique English wooden luthier plane shown below, is 1 1/2″ long, with a 3/4″ iron. A brass soleplate at the toe, closes down the mouth nicely (and counters intense focused wear at this point), and chamfers along the bottom of the cheeks give more clearance when hollowing tops and backs.
After the late 1600s, a very limited amount of iron, brass, and bronze became available in in circular, or continuous stock. This would then be cut into sections high enough for the sidewall stock of luthier planes, and then be compressed carefully, to form the familiar ovoid shape we recognise in instrument planes. Then, the sole would be brazed on, and the remaining pieces added.
You can see the join all around the perimeter of this Luthier plane. Joining the sidewalls to the top of the sole was the most common applied-sole method used for instrument makers’s planes. And the simplest.
The late Janet Wells, wife of noted Berkeley architect, antique tool collector, and author, John Wells (1929-2018) had her own collection of instrument makers’ planes that was separate from John and Janet’s joint tool collection. Janet Wells found this Luthier plane in the famous Brimfield Flea Market in Massachusetts in 1982.
This French Luthier plane shown below is of a similar type to that shown above. Copper brazing compound looks very much like that from the early European 3″ and 4″ iron planes that were introduced in the late medieval period. French Luthier planes with applied soles like this were made from the 17th century, extending all the way into the early 20th century.
The Russian toolmaker who built this plane did not skimp on the copper-based brazing compound during assembly. Exterior of the body was cleaned up, but the interior was left as-is, after compressing the copper alloy with a convex mould before solidifying.
Many Russian violinists play instruments made in Italy, France, and Germany, but in the 19th century, a number of Central and Western European luthiers emigrated to Russia, adding to a modest number of native born luthiers. Some notable Russian luthiers would include Robert Ivanovich Arkusen (1844-1920), Ivan A. Batov (1767-1841), V.V. Ivanoff (1850- ), Nikolai Kittel (1805-1868), Ivan Krasnocheckov (1798-1877), Anotoly Leman (1859-1913), and Eugen Vitichek (1908-1943).
The use of curved embellishments on the toe of some early luthier planes sometimes took the form of an acanthus leaf, which has been used in art and architecture since the Greek Classical Period: most notably, in the capitols of Composite and Corinthian columns. Acanthus leaves as a decorative form were also used on some elaborate French and Italian mitre planes, as shown earlier on this page.
Set of three 17th/18th century French or Italian luthier planes, with rear infills, scrolled rosewood wedges, flat bridges and ornate acanthus leafs (with 7 and 9 fronds respectively) or scroll at the toes. They range in length from 1 1/4″, 2 1/8″, and 2 5/8″, with 9/16″, 7/8″, and 1″ toothed irons. The shortest and longest ones have arched soles.
The applied soles of these planes reveal more on their construction, showing pinning into the rear infills, with dovetails at the toe on two planes. This angle also shows another view of the two acanthus leaves as well as the small scroll in the middle. The brass stock shows an uneven texture, which may have been due to oxidation over the years, or may have been a result from early manufacturing techniques.
These seven 17th, 18th century luthier planes have a similar form as the set of three shown above. In the two photos directly below, the two planes on the right side, appeared in “The Art of Fine Tools,” by Sandor Nagyszalanczy, page 195. Published 1998.
The inset sole is much less common, and more difficult to make. This particular sole was slightly rounded both ways: radiused and compassed. It was done to reduce the thickness of the spruce soundboard and maple (or other hardwoods) back, which were made crowned, or convex on the outside. This was done to optimize strength while also being very thin, which increased vibrational properties, and projection of sound. The compassed and radiused sole of many luthier planes, was ideal for working the inside of these two plates, which were concave. Rounded soles, however, could also be used on the outside of these components.
Coopers also used compassed and radiused planes for working the inside of barrels, which were arched to enhance strength and lightness. These were called Coopers’ Stoup planes
Another method of constructing luthier planes is by using multiple dovetails, which is almost unheard of, however. In 2014, David Barron posted some photos of a beautiful antique 1 1/2″ violin plane, probably English. At this small size, multiple dovetailing could be considered overkill.
Investment casting, or lost wax casting goes back 5,000 years, and was also used on some early instrument planes. The antique French violin plane below was most likely investment cast.
Because the form of the ‘modern’ luthier plane is over 250 years old, it is sometimes difficult to estimate the age of these small planes. Janet and John Wells concluded that this plane dated from the 17th century. I didn’t think it was that old, but thought that the engraving suggested late 18th/early 19th centuries. That still may be true, but the cutting iron with the Ferry stamp (which could have been added later) belonged to that of Francois Ferry, of Mirecourt, a “tool maker whose mark we find on real, highly sought-after jewels,” according to luthier Roland Terrier. Born into the large Ferry instrument making family in Mirecourt, Francois Ferry (1889-1942) was known as a mechanic fitter and manufacturer of violin-making tools.
8 Quai Clasquine Mirecourt. Francois Ferry (1889-1942) Son of a railway employee and nephew of two luthiers sets up as a mechanic fitter and manufacturer of violin -making tools.
Francois Ferry married Charlotte Julie Monginot (1894-1940) on 7 October, 1913. They had no children.
Like the luthiers’ tools themselves, Francois Ferry’s Mirecourt Workshop had a timeless quality about it. A craftsperson could have plied their trade there in 1940, or 1640.
Use of a baluster bridge was another design element that could be found on some 17th and 18th century luthier planes as well as mitre planes.
Real or Counterfeit?
After publishing these images of the set of violin planes with the ornate bridges, I was contacted by an English collector who informed me that bridges for small planes had been made from early iron skeleton keys by an antique tool dealer and auctioneer (now deceased). Furthermore, there was no information, or qualification regarding the issue that the planes were not authentically from the 18th century at the time they were introduced to the public. When the plane shown below appeared, I was fully convinced that these were fakes:
I now have five of these violin planes, and can see some distinct patterns that apply to most of them.
- Ebony wedges, all in the same pattern (1 rosewood).
- Toothing irons, of the same maker’s pattern in 4 of 5.
- Baluster bridges; 3 from antique skeleton keys; 1 brass, prob.20th century; 1 brass, possibly authentic.
- Plane castings ranging approximately circa 1880 to 1930.
One of the plane castings–probably the oldest of the imitations–was made of solid bronze with a parted toe. It was the only plane not to have one of the late 20th century toothing irons; it had a Sheffield iron with a mark from the 1870s.
These five planes came from three sources: England, Canada, and the United States. Only one seller represented these planes as “probably 18th century.” The other two sellers made no claims regarding the age or authenticity of the planes. One of the sellers stated that he had owned one of these planes for around 25 years. That makes sense to me, because the economics for the current value of these planes, $80 to $120, would not justify the cost of materials, and also the labor, which was not insignificant. Drilling out the ‘fake’ bridge, filing it on the bottom, and fitting it to the plane would have involved some careful work. Then there was the matter of making the wedges out of ebony from scratch. It would also have taken some time to source 100 year old donor violin planes. And the percentage of antique keys that have the correct ornamentation, and the required length on either side of that is very small. The few keys that would work range in age from the 1600s, to the Victorian period in the 19th century (also coming at a price). Toothing irons are not cheap either, starting around $25. In the case of the last plane shown here, two ebony infills were also fitted, in addition to the matching ebony wedge.
Being in the business, the antique tool dealer who was responsible for releasing these planes to the public, would have had access to an intermittent supply of old luthier planes, and probably some old (very) iron skeleton keys as well. Even so, it would seem to me, that given these costs, a price of around $250 per plane (in today’s dollars) would be needed to break even on the materials and labor invested. Of course, in the 1990s, antique tool prices were higher generally.
Ironically, some of the antique keys were likely as old as the actual baluster bridges in planes from the 18th century. The last dated baluster bridge that I’ve found on a luthier plane was from 1847.
I think that the 2 3/16″ violin plane with arched sole and rosewood wedge is possibly authentic, and served as a template for the series of imitations. The rosewood wedge shows some age on it, and the pattern of the bridge is identical to that found on period luthier and mitre planes.
The image of a luthier plane in Diderot’s plate shown here shows a compassed and radiused sole, and a parted toe, which was a decorative element in some European luthier planes from the early 1700s to about 1900.
Some books on violin-making, published at the turn of the 20th century still showed some luthier planes with the parted toe.
The French Evano violin plane (below) was made of pressed steel, which, if you stretch the rules a bit, could be considered yet another method for constructing violin planes. Evano luthier planes were probably made, circa 1900-1940.
Last but not least, we have an instrument makers’ plane in German Silver, probably dating from the late 19th, early 20th centuries.
–Not sure what V.C. stood for. It could have been the maker’s initials, or it could have stood for violincello.
693. Violinmakers’ planes in iron, in three sizes: small, medium, and large.
696. Wooden screws for clamping the table [soundboard] of violins/cellos/contrabasses.
699. Iron screws, for gluing violin necks.
Soundpost adjusting tool.
French Bowmakers’ Planes
Bowmaking is a specialty which requires the full concentration of the craftsperson, and those who ply this trade, make only bows, and not instruments. It was not always a separate profession, however; in Mirecourt, the archetiers’ field advanced to the point in the late 18th century, where specialization became standard practice.
The bowmakers’ plane shown below, often had a toothing iron, just like many instrument planes, to cut across the grain of difficult hardwoods, such as pernambuco and snakewood, used for making bows.
Similar in form to the early continental mitre plane, the bowmakers’ plane could be considered a scaled down version of the early mitres, with a bevel up cutting iron. The bowmakers’ plane featured a scroll tote at the toe, and a doubled, or reinforced heel. Made in limited quantities, the bowmakers’ plane is still made in small specialist workshops to the present day.
This mitre plane pictured below is similar to the bowmakers’ plane in its configuration, but was used by hurdy-gurdy makers in Jenzat, France. Hurdy-Gurdys used a crank that turned a rosined wheel against the strings to create the sound. Here is description of the hurdy-gurdy from wikipedia:
Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents—small wedges, typically made of wood—against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a sound board and hollow cavity to make the vibration of the strings audible.
Most hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy-gurdy is often used interchangeably or along with bagpipes. It is mostly used in Occitan, Aragonese, Cajun French, Asturian, Cantabrian, Galician, Hungarian, and Slavic folk music.
One or more of the drone strings usually passes over a loose bridge that can be made to produce a distinctive percussive buzzing sound as the player turns the wheel.
Rear infill is shimmed with thick papers full of very old French script. Body is made of thick wrought iron stock, a 1/4″ sole, brazed together, with pillar and pin construction. Formerly in Russell collection, no. 810. Found in Allier area of France, which includes the town of Jenzat: a center for hurdy-gurdy making. Famous hurdy-gurdy makers there include Pajot, Tixier, Pimpard, Decante, and Nigout.
Jean-François Chassaing from http://maison-luthier-jenzat.fr/le-musee/ on the instrument making town of Jenzat:
The instrument-making centre of Jenzat draws the attention of musicologists because of the high quality of the work, and the makers’ specialization in a single instrument, namely the hurdy-gurdy. This heritage has long since aroused the interest of museums.
In 1959, Mr. Favière, the curator of the Bourges Museum, wished to set up two glass-cabinets devoted to hurdy-gurdies in the Montluçon Museum; to do so, he requested the aid of Mr. J.-A. Pajot, Maison Pajot Jeune at Jenzat.
As early as 1960, an important collection had already been made by the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris, as a result of several visits Georges-Henri Rivière, the curator of the museum, had paid to Mr. Pajot, and of the inquiries made in 1959 by two MNATP musicologists, Claudie Marcel-Dubois and Marguerite Pichonnet-Andral, research workers at the CNRS.
In 1984, an exhibition prefiguring the Jenzat Museum was financed by the Mission du Patrimoine Ethnologique of the Ministère de la Culture. In 1986, the foundation of the Maison du Luthier-Musée allowed the acquisition of a very important collection of tools (see the hurdy-gurdy workshop), through a donation by Jacques and Hélène Pajot, and as a consequence of the inquiries (1983-1984) made by Jean-François Chassaing, an ethnologist.
In 1991, the city of Montluçon bought a collection of tools from Mr. Boudet, an instrument maker, for its own museum ; originally, these tools were part of the Pajot Jeune collection.
After 1935, the major part of the tools for musical instrument making belonged to the Maison Pajot Jeune, for at the time their workshop was the last one still in operation in Jenzat. From 1991 on, the collections have been shared out among the museums of Paris (MNATP), Montluçon and Jenzat. The tools have been shuffled and reshuffled and dealt out, some coming from the Pimpard workshop, some from the Nigout workshop, others from the Tixier workshop, others again from the J.-B. Pajot workshop. Only a close study of the various items can result in finding out the identity of their original owners.
The Jenzat Museum has started research in this field, as well as in others concerning the circulation of hurdy-gurdies, the trade and restoration of the instruments, the use of certain specific tools, such as the Keyboard-rulers.
Antique Palm Planes
The ‘ears,’ form the flanges that hold the cross pin, and the void behind them leaves the iron exposed, with room to move the blade side to side. In the example below, however, there is a small second ‘hump’ which adds embellishment to the side profile of the plane. The carved woodwork looks Italianate to me, but could also be French.
These three palm planes appear to have the same casting as the plane with the mark, B. Steffen, Berlin on the cutting iron. I have searched German records for a Bruno, Benjamin, or Bernhard Steffen in Berlin, who had some relation to instrument making (or leather working), but have not had any luck finding the possible maker or seller of these planes. The plane with the beech wedge appears to be almost identical the the one in the 2015 Stanley Auction. On the toe of the other two palm planes are finger rests, one in rosewood, and the other in brass. The brass piece appears to be a factory part. Over the last 20 years, I have probably seen about a dozen of these German palm planes, and in that time have acquired these three examples. While I suspect these planes date from c. 1885 to 1935, I think the double crest decoration is an earlier decorative element, as shown on the 18th century Hurdy-Gurdy luthiers’ plane shown earlier, and in the c. 2005 photo from iluthier.com (defunct).
Real or Counterfeit?
In October 2022, this 3″ plane appeared in the Brown Antique Tool Auction and was described as made in the 17th or 18th century . It has the same size and profile in the back half as the German planes shown above. It even has the same wedge as the B. Steffen plane and the basic model shown in my set of these planes. The double crest on the sides was continued all along the front of the plane, never exceeding what would have been available to work originally.
Preston violinmakers’ planes were made in quantity, and must have been in demand when they they were sold. During the early 20th century, in Britain, Preston violin planes established a standard of excellence amongst the instrument makers’ community. Norris violin planes were less common, although they were made from the late 19th century, right up to the early 1940s. Because of this relative scarcity, as well as the cachet of the Norris brand, Norris violin planes are currently sought after by antique tool collectors.
In the Preston 1909 catalogue, the drawing showed an “EP” logo on the side of the luthier plane. I have not seen this on actual Preston violin planes, which are generally marked with “PRESTON” and the logo “EP” on the end of the cutting iron. Both Preston and Norris had a number system of 1 through 5 for the range of sizes of their violin planes, but the gradation used by the two firms was opposite: for Preston, no. 5 was the largest 2 1/8″ size, and for Norris, no. 1 was the largest 2 1/8″ size.
Preston and Norris violin planes look very similar, and small differences only appear with direct comparison of the two planes, which rarely happens. Also, some of these small differences can be attributed to variations in casting and machining batches.
An exception to this was the differences in knurling on the adjusting wheel. Preston had simple ridges at 90 degrees, and this was consistent throughout the many years of production of this plane.
Norris, on the other hand, went through an evolution, of at least three types. The first type had ridges at 90 degrees, with a dividing line around the center of the perimeter of the adjustment wheel(c. < 1920). This dividing line was consistent throughout Norris’ many years of production of their Violin plane.
The second Norris knurling type consisted of fine ridges at 45 degrees (c. 1920~1930). The third type of Norris knurling on their Violin planes was a coarse series of ridges at 45 degrees (c.1930-1943). This evolution roughly followed knurling patterns on other Norris planes.
Adjustment wheel on the Preston is 1″ in diameter, and the Norris adjustment wheel is 1 3/32″ The flanges for the cross pin are narrower on the Norris, and in general, the Norris has more delicate features than the Preston, has a thinner casting, and has a mouth opening that is overall smaller than the Preston. The functional mouth opening, with the iron extended, is fine in both planes, and is quite similar, however.
I examined the photos of a good many Norris Violin planes at Norrisplanes.com and also looked at a number of images of Preston Violin planes, which were made in greater quantity than the Norris planes, in order to confirm that these differences between these two planes extend to other examples as well.
Copies of Preston and Norris Violin Planes
Set of W.E. Hill & Sons England Violin planes. Photos by Jim Bode
W.E. Hill was a prominent London Violin dealer, who traded in some of the finest instruments. Additionally, Hill had an in-house staff of fine bowmakers, and instrument repairers, which earned them a great reputation.
Hull is on the Humber estuary in East Yorkshire County. Scarr was a well known ship building family in Hull, but I have not yet found G.E. Scarr, maker of luthier planes. While rare, there a number of these that show up on the market from time to time.
Some, but not all the better instrument planes with flat soles, were intended for them to be worked on, or rounded both ways. These two examples worked out just fine.
But not this one!
This Norris violin plane was originally compassed and radiused, but an early user decided to make the sole flat. Behind the mouth, he broke through the sole, and had to resort to soldering in a gaping hole. Furthermore, with such little metal behind the mouth, cracks developed at both corners of the mouth.
I’ve made worse mistakes.
The small town of Markneukirchen, Germany is home to 7,000 people today, and around 9,000 back in 1910, when the area was producing 2/3rds of all the string instruments made in the Western world. Violin making began in Markneukirchen, when after the 30 years war in the mid-1600s, a number of Protestant luthiers living in Schoenbach and Grazlitz, Bohemia moved to Markneukirchen and Klingenthal, Germany to avoid the Counter-Reformation that was happening in the Austrian Empire at the time. These towns became known for making high quality violins, and by the beginning of the 19th century the four luthier towns, also known as the Musikwinkel (Music Corner), were producing 18,000 violins per year. This period coincided with the industrial revolution, and with it, came increased demand for musical instruments. The region responded by establishing a piecework system, where self employed Bohemians working out of their houses would make separate violin components, such as backs, soundboards, fingerboards, scrolls, etc. and then send them to Klingenthal and Markneukirchen, where a master would customize, and assemble the various parts.
During this time of expansion, a need arose for luthiers’ specialized tools and supplies. In 1848, Johann Freiderich Dick established his company in Markneukirchen to supply these to the community. His business grew, and when his son Hermann took over, the company was renamed HERDIM (Hermann Dick Markneukirchen).
This piecework system remained in place in the region throughout the 19th century, and by 1913, the peak of production for the area, around 180,000 string instruments were made in a year. A third of this production was sold in the United States. Markneukirchen became one of the wealthiest towns in Germany, with the bulk of the money going to the dealers, and less going the the German luthiers. On the Bohemian side of the border, there was much poverty and disease, as they were selling their parts for a pittance to the Germans.
Many famous instrument makers got their start in Markneukirchen, including the renowned guitar maker Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1873), who emigrated from Markneukirchen to New York City, in 1833. Other luthiers from Markneukirchen would include the Hamm family, most notably Johann Gottfried Hamm (1744-1817), the Heberlein family, which included around twenty makers over a 250 year period, and the Roth family, who have produced some outstanding violins from the late 19th century to the present day.
Another famous person to leave the Markneukirchen area for the United States was Rudolph Wurlitzer (1831-1914) who came to Cincinnati in 1853. At first Wurlitzer imported stringed, brass, and woodwind instruments made in the Markneukirchen area, but later, he added in-house brands made in the United States. Wurlitzer then expanded into making pianos, organs (“The Mighty Wurlitzer”), and barrel organs.
In 1907, the famous illustrator, James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), decided to make a trip to Markneukirchen, to write a story for Scribner’s Magazine about the instrument makers there. With the industrial revolution in full swing at the beginning of the 20th century, Flagg thought it would be interesting to give people a glimpse into the world of making musical instruments the old-fashioned way: by hand. Flagg soon discovered how remote the Vogtland region of Saxony was, when it took him and his wife a whole day to travel from Dresden to Markneukirchen.
Upon arriving at Markneukirchen, James was introduced to Albert Theodore Heberlein (1880-1961) a luthier, and the son of Heinrich Theodor Heberlein (1843-1910), who was known in the area as the “German Stradivarius.” Albert was fluent in English, fresh from having spent 4 years in New York City working for Carl Fisher, and Albert was able to to talk instrument makers into to posing for James, including his father, Heinrich.
The Heberlein family had been involved in making violins, violas, cellos, and double basses for several generations, and the earliest recorded luthier in this family was Christoph Heberlein (1690-1761). The famous Heberlein makers, however started with Heinrich Theodor’s grandfather, Johann Gottlob Heberlein (1782-1856), who taught his son, Carl August Heberlein (1805-1875). circa 1820-1823.
After studying with Carl August, c. 1857-1860, Heinrich Theodor traveled to Hanover to study with the luthier August Reichers, who attended the instrumental requirements of the great Hungarian violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). As a result of his success, Joachim had the wherewithal to own some of the great antique Cremonese violins, especially those of Antonio Stradivari. Working with Reichers, c. 1860-1863, H.T. Heberlein had ample opportunity to examine and take notes on a number of Stradivarius violins. Heinrich and August remained friends for life.
Along with Albert Theodor Heberlein, luthier Paul Wilhelm Heberlein (1872-1962) Heinrich’s other son, carried and continued the Heberlein workshop in Markneukirchen. And Heinrich Paul Theodor Heberlein (1902-1975), son of Paul Wilhelm, returned to Markneukirchen to further continue the Heberlein Workshop.
More than perhaps all of his fellow luthiers in the Musikwinkel, Heinrich Theodor Heberlein was able to strike a balance between meticulous craftsmanship, first rate wood sources, and successful business acumen. Throughout his career, H.T. Heberlein won a dozen medals for the impeccable quality of his work. Additionally, Heinrich served as the President of the German Guild of Violinmakers, and was a founding teacher at the Professional School of Violinmaking in Markneukirchen, in 1878. Because of this recognition and fame, Flagg wanted to paint a portrait of H.T. Heberlein.
The following set of convex luthier planes were found in Europe, and were marked “H.T. Heberlein” and “1901.” They were elaborately engraved, all with the same pattern, and would have been a prized possession of Heinrich Theodor Heberlein; these were personal items. As James Montgomery Flagg described in his 1907 Scribners article, the Heberlein Workshop was a small, family-run affair based in Heinrich’s home. Efficiency was achieved by the Heberleins with selecting the highest quality ready-made violin components, i.e. necks, tables, backs, etc., and then expertly customizing them before final assembly.
Heberlein’s planes were constructed using investment castings. German and English tools usually had a more restrained style than French or Italian tools, which were more apt to feature engravings and other embellishments. H.T. Heberlein, however, looked to the Cremonese masters for inspiration, and this must have extended to his personal tools as well.
Albert Theodor Heberlein (1880-1961), son of Heinrich, was known for his ingeniously carved miniature violins, and these were mentioned in Flagg’s article, but Albert was not credited. This makes me wonder if Albert might have engraved these planes as a gift for his father. In 1901, he would have still been in Markneukirchen, not having left yet for his four year stint in New York working for Carl Fisher. At the time, Carl Fischer was a dealer of musical instruments–including Heberlein violins–and was not strictly a music publisher that they are presently.
The early European plane shown below has some similarities with the Heberlein planes shown above.
Reality check: $50 in 1909 would be about $1,630 in 2022. Presently, Heberlein violins sell in a wide range from $2,000 to $10,000+. A lot less than the old Italian Masters’ violins, and considered by some, a good value.
The following is the entry for Heinrich Theodor Heberlein Jr. in “Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers,” by William Henley (1874-1957), published in 1973:
Born 1843. Worked at Markneukirchen. Died 1910. Instruments date from 1863. Developed into a trader, but in doing so, never descended from the exercise of his art-skill, in fact he materially helped the interests of commerce by using tact and diffusing his talent on producing better instruments than those previously exported from that industrial centre. He knew that a dual knowledge of art and business was more essential for success than had been previously thought necessary, so called forth his best enthusiasm in modelling and designing, and paid indefatigable attention to the harmonious shading of the varnish, and soon got ahead of the various competitors in the commercial world.
Recipient of about a dozen medals from adjudicators at Exhibitions throughout Europe. Fine imitations of the old masters’ traits, all perfectly homogeneous, and particularly admirable are the warm tints of the different varnishes as well as his unique way of giving to them an old and well worn appearance. Quality of wood never varies, impossible to detect the smallest defect. Pre-eminently succeeded in imparting a splendidly clear tone, one without the slightest harshness. Also, and not of the least importance either, abundantly proved the possibility of putting every conceivable detail of finely finished workmanship to a marketable commodity, yet kept the price only slightly in advance of the many botches that had previously emanated from the workshops of Markneukirchen. Violas and ’cellos equally deserving of unqualified approbation. Also made bows, beautiful transcepts of all the celebrated models, and at very reasonable prices.
Markneukirchen in the 20th Century
After WWI, demand for instruments decreased dramatically, and inflation in Germany was rampant, so production was scaled back. Despite this, in the 1920s, additional Markneukirchen companies were established in a support role to the stringed instrument business, for tools and supplies, including these two: Aehnelt in 1924, and GEWA (Georg Walther) in 1925.
Brothers Theodor and Horst Aehnelt founded their stringed instrument tool and supply business in Markneukirchen in 1924, with an initial focus on the local community of luthiers. Horst soon stepped back from his leadership role, leaving Theodor in control. Most Aehnelt tools were marked with the trademark “TA” (Theodor Aehnelt). After some years of success, the company expanded into supplies for brass and woodwind instruments. During the 1950s, Karl-Heinz Aehnelt, an engineer and craftsman, and son of Theodor, married Käthe Fischer, the grandaughter of Ernst Leberecht Fischer, who had founded a drum factory in Markneukirchen in 1861.
At the time of Lefima’s (Ernst LEberecht FIscher MArkneukirchen) Centenary in 1961, Lefima integrated with Aehnelt Tools, and because Aehnelt had an in-house machine shop, Lefima no longer had to buy in hardware for their drum manufacturing. In 1983, Karl-Heinz Aehnelt took ownership of the the Lefima Timpani GmbH. Aehnelt supplied most of the tools for GEWA for many years. Today the combined company has 25 employees.
At first glance, these two luthier planes look alike, and they do have a similar body shell. But the older version on the left, with a rosewood wedge, is set at a steeper blade angle. The luthier plane on on the right, with a mahogany wedge, has a lower bed angle, and the mouth has been moved to the toe of the plane, and the bridge has been moved forward as well. In order to accommodate the shallower angle of the iron, the mouth was made a bit larger.
Aehnelt tools are still made in Germany:
“Our tools are manufactured to the highest precision level, in our own company, and are subjected to consistent tests and a final check. We have avoided cheap imports, and Asian production, and opt wittingly for the economical location of Europe instead.
General manager Stefan Aehnelt says, “We don’t see our staff as a cost factor but as the basis of a success concept, with which we accept the challenge of the international market.”
The bed is solid bronze, and the plane is unusually tall, with dead flat sides, which leads me to think this plane may have been intended for some uses on its side, in a miniature user-made chute board.
This Gewa luthier plane is tall and relatively narrow, for use within enclosed edges among other tasks.
This is what most Gewa finger planes look like, that I have seen. Toothing plane marks on violin; probably scraping after. Never sanding, which clogs the pores of the wood, and inhibits tonal quality.
The Herdim line of planes included a “Mittenwald” model, as described by Gewa, which has the same boot-like shape as the two planes shown above, but is clearly made by another manufacturer. The brass sidewalls are much thicker, and the bridge is brass rather than steel in the latest production. These Herdim luthier planes, sold by Dictum as their in-house line of planes, are available with either a lever cap or wedge of light colored wood. I am not sure what attributes, if any, constitute a “Mittenwald” style luthier plane, but Gewa was located in Mittenwald after WWII. In 2008, Gewa purchased the old Musima building in Adorf, next to Markneukirchen, where luthiers worked in a collective during the GDR days, and this is where Gewa is currently based.
German luthier plane, with recent custom scrolled engraving by Matthew Lepper and rosewood wedge.
Mittenwald, a picturesque town in southwestern Bavaria of about 7,200 people, held several geographical advantages for making stringed musical instruments. Ensconced in the middle of the Karwendel mountains, Mittenwald’s climate was favorable for growing spruce and maple trees that yielded some of the finest tone woods. And located along a trade route between Augsburg and Venice, luthiers in Mittenwald could make connections with the Cremonese instrument makers as well as develop contacts for selling instruments in cities like Milan or Venice. Matthias Klotz (1653-1743), the most famous Mittenwald violinmaker, went to Padua to study with Jacob Stainer and Pietro Railich in the 1670s, although violinmaking in Mittenwald had actually begun in the mid 1600s. By 1854, the Bavarian State government established a school for luthiers in Mittenwald, and 25 members of the extended Klotz family were among the original teachers. Other well known makers in Mittenwald would include the larger shops of J.A. Baader, and Neuner & Hornsteiner, and the small family shop of Johann Baptiste Reiter and his son.
Johann Reiter, Mittenwald
Born at Mittenwald (Bavaria), 1879. Son, pupil and successor to Johann Baptiste [Reiter 1834-1899]. One of the few Mittenwalders to work independently of factories and exporters. Every instrument made entirely by hand and without the assistance of workmen… Recipient of medals at the Nürnberg Exhibition, 1905. Specialist in re-toning and regulating the vibrations of old and faulty instruments. Also recognised as a capable performer on the violin, ’cello and guitar. From “Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers,” by William Henley (1874-1957), published in 1973.
The following passage came from “A Spray Gun for the Varnish”
by Joseph Wechsberg, in The New Yorker, February 18, 1956,
A SIGN on the gable of a white house on Obermarkt read, “JOHANN REITER, 271 YEARS OF OLD-MITTENWALD VIOLINMAKING.” The digits, I noticed, were removable, so the sign could be kept up to date. Through a large window, I saw a low-ceilinged workshop in which two men sat facing each other across a workbench. I opened the door, and found myself in a corridor that was filled with quaint pieces of furniture, obviously intended less for use than for atmosphere.
Reiter’s workshop was crammed with a colorful collection of old and new fiddles, violas, violas da gamba, cellos, guitars, lutes, zithers, and other instruments, in various stages of manufacture or repair, varnished, half varnished, or unvarnished, hanging from the ceiling, lying on shelves, or leaning against the wall. Scattered about the room were bows, tools, violin bellies, bottles of oil and alcohol, and piles of sheet music. The place reminded me of prints I have seen–probably unauthentic–of Antonio Stradivari’s Workshop, at 2 Piazza Domenico, in Cremona, and I suspected that it had been deliberately arranged that way. Whatever else Reiter was, he certainly seemed to be more interested in attracting customers than Fürst and Bader were.
When I went over and asked the two men if Herr Reiter was around, the older of them stood up, held out his hand, and said he was the man I was looking for. The other chap, he added, was his apprentice. Reiter, a cheerful, vigorous man in his seventies, was wearing a leather apron, a waistcoat, and a white shirt. (That’s the way Stradivari is dressed in those prints.) He greeted me cordially, managing a toothy smile under his walrus mustache, and told me that he had many American customers, especially members of the Oo Ess Marines, who came to buy ukuleles. By way of confirming this improbable bit of information, he took a ukulele down from a peg on the ceiling and launched into “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”
“I buy my ukuleles from a factory,” Reiter said when he had finished. “Four dollars apiece. I keep in step with the times. I’d get bored if I did nothing but make violins. Reiters have been living in this house and making violins in this very room since 1685, the year the violin was born.”
It is by no means certain that the violin was “born” in any specific year–a great many experts think that it just emerged gradually, as a composite of several other instruments–but if it was born, it was certainly born a good many years before 1685. Nevertheless, I found myself nodding in agreement, for Reiter tossed off statements with the assurance of a spellbinder. He handed me a booklet that had on its cover “250 Years of Mittenwald Violinmaking, by Johann Reiter” and on its back “OLD TRADITION: Amati-Klotz-Jais-Reiter.” (Reiter explained that Johannes Jais had made violins with his great-great-great-grandfather and had been a close friend of Matthias Klotz.)
Then he picked up an unvarnished instrument that looked like a viola except that it had very high ribs, tucked it under his chin, and began to play “Wie Mein Ahnl Zwanzig Jahr.” The instrument had a tenor timbre, lower than a viola, higher than a cello. “My own invention,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice. “I call it an octave violin. The strings are tuned in G, D, A, E–one octave below the violin–and, as you see, it requires a very heavy bow. The larger depth of the body produces more air volume and lower tone color. I’ve got a German patent on it, and I’ve sold over fifty so far–some to Americans. The price is a hundred dollars.” He looked at me speculatively. I refrained from asking whether by any chance the octave violin was related to the tenor viol Fernando Gagliano had made in Naples almost two hundred years ago, although that would have been a pertinent, as well as impertinent, question. Reiter handed me the instrument and the bow, and urged me to try my hand. I found it difficult to keep the high, heavy instrument under my chin, and I told him so.
“It takes a while to get used to it, but once you do, you’ll never want to play anything but an octave violin,” Reiter assured me. “It adds new color to conventional chamber music. When we get up string quintets here, I always play my octave violin, instead of the cello or the viola. ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ sounds better with it, and so does a good deal of Bach. And it’s useful for café orchestras, too; it can replace the horn, the fagott, or the tuba. You can also use it as a solo instrument. Quite a few members of the Berlin and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras spend their summers here, and they always come in to borrow an octave violin and practice. It’s a real bargain for a hundred dollars.”
A man came in to buy a cake of resin, and Herr Reiter began to chat with him, leaving me free to wander around. At the rear of the shop and partly cut off from it by some bookcases stacked with sheet music was what appeared to be a combination dining and living room. Seated there at a heavy oak table under a low-hanging lamp was a very old woman with a kerchief over her head and skin the color of parchment. She was holding a baby in her lap. Across the table from her sat another very old woman, and on the floor between them lay a dog. All four figures were motionless, and I might have come away thinking I had seen a waxworks tableau installed there by Reiter as a further atmospheric touch if a third woman; carrying a second baby and followed by a second dog, had not appeared from somewhere off to one side. All three women at once began to argue–I couldn’t quite make out what about–speaking loudly and rapidly in a guttural Bavarian dialect, and this started the babies crying and the dogs barking.
Reiter, having taken care of his customer, returned to me and, paying no attention whatever to the clamor, fished out from under a table another strange-looking unvarnished instrument–a fiddle with such low ribs that it seemed almost two-dimensional. Picking up a violin bow, he proceeded to play a tune that came very close to being “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The instrument had a sweet, thin, flute-like tone, comparable to that of a shepherd’s shawm. Reiter explained that this was another of his inventions–the piccolo violin, German patent pending.
“These strings are tuned in B, F, C, G,” he said. “The ribs are half the usual height. I’ve sold a lot of piccolo violins to music schools. They’re excellent for old music–Dittersdorf and Handel and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.” He handed the instrument to his apprentice and told him to varnish it. I asked him whether he still made any ordinary old-fashioned violins. “Certainly,” he said. “Any kind you like. One hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars. Oh, we’re versatile around here. We switch from violin to cello to lute to viola d’amore. Next month, we’re going to make a concert zither and a viola da gamba. Too bad I can’t invite you to one of our chamber-music sessions, but we won’t be playing for a while. Our first violinist is sick. He runs a lending library here in town.”
Several American tourists entered the shop. I said goodbye to Reiter, and he gave me a small metal pin with a red violin stamped on it–a souvenir of the house. As I left, he was telling the tourists how much the Oo Ess Marines liked his ukuleles.
To be fair to Reiter, he was successful in running a difficult independent violin making business through the German inflation of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the loss of World War II, after which, a luxury item such as a violin would have seemed irrelevant to most people. Not unlike some other craftspeople, Reiter was not well schooled in history, but in no way does that diminish the fact that as a violin maker, Reiter was the real deal. Joseph Wechsberg wrote an entertaining article around the theme that the ‘old Mittenwald violinmakers’ could no longer make instruments by traditional methods after 1930, because there was too much competition from Czechoslovakia (an Eastern bloc country at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s), where mass production of violins predominated. Writing for the erudite readers of “The New Yorker,” Wechsberg revealed a somewhat condescending and patronizing view towards the Mittenwald violinmakers, in my opinion.
Today, there is renewed interest in the octave violin, particularly in blue grass and jazz circles. The amazing serendipity of discovering 17th, 18th century German mitre planes in Reiter’s workshop, underlined his role as a successor in a long line of instrument makers.
Hammacher Schlemmer Violin Planes
Modern Artists of the Luthier Plane
In 1976, 29 year old artist Jonathan Bonner conjured up this creative series of Otner-Botner whale planes (Ott was his wife’s maiden name). They have since become collector’s items. Bonner went on to have a successful teaching career at Rhode Island School of Design, also many of his sculptures were placed in public spaces as well as shown in exhibitions.
In the mid-1990s, Christopher Laarman, a jeweler from Oregon, developed a beautiful set of ornate luthier planes. To make these planes useful as well as aesthetically pleasing, Laarman consulted with a number of luthiers in the process of designing them.
Laarman showed his planes at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival c. 1996-1998 (Northern California). They did not sell well amongst Guitar Makers, mainly because of their price, which ranged from $125 to $220 at the time. Not everybody loved the design workablity of the planes, but that is true about most things. The planes sold better with collectors, who generally had more resources available.
By the turn of the century, Laarman stopped making planes; all told he made around 100 sets of these planes.
After a long hiatus, Chris Laarman agreed to make a simplified version of his 3″ palm plane for the Best in the West Pacific Northwest Tool Collector’s Conference in 2008. For this event, Christopher cast 431 palm planes.
Ibex Luthier Planes
Since the 1980s, Ibex planes have been a leading line of luthier planes in the United States. Irving Sloane, the pioneering author of books on Guitar building, developed the Ibex planes in the 1970s. They featured a traditional violin plane shape, with a removable lever cap, with the adjustment knob underneath, as in Norris and Preston violin planes. The removable lever cap feature was somewhat similar to that of Karl Holtey’s, who made planes later. This particular plane has indentations for the fingers, like Stanley “handi-holds,” and also features an adjustable frog, to change the mouth opening as needed.
Interestingly, the flat faced Ibex planes (except the palm plane) are oblong in shape, and the arched Ibex planes have an oval shape:
Ibex planes also have an indirect link to the Musikwinkel. The manufacturing of the the Ibex line is controlled by Metropolitan Music, a wholesale Stringed instrument supplies distributor based in Stowe Vermont. Metropolitan Music (originally called Czechoslovak Musik) was founded in New York City by Robert Juzek (1894-1975) and three of his brothers in 1920. The Juzek brothers imported violins made by, and bought in by, John (Janek) Juzek (1892-1965) another brother, who was a luthier based in Prague, Bohemia. John Juzek bought many of his violins from Schoenbach, Bohemia, and earlier in the 20th century, Juzek had a small violin making factory in Schoenbach. The Metropolitan Music Company is still owned by the Juzek family,
At a certain point, there becomes an overlap in size between the largest instrument makers’ planes, and the smallest pianomakers’ planes. But in reality, there is overlap, and a blurring of lines generally, between early 4″ Continental ‘block’ planes and early luthier planes; between early Continental mitre planes and bowmakers’ planes. And many other tools.