STEWART SPIERS MITRE PLANES
“…Piano and Organbuilders, and other hardwood workers, all over the world still pronounce [Spiers planes] the best.” It goes without saying that Spiers was not the inventor of the dovetailed plane. When you make the distinction of an all ‘steel dovetailed plane,’ however, there’s a greater chance that it is true.
Stewart Spiers (1820-1899) made his planes in Ayr, Scotland, on the west coast. Spiers played a major role in developing and popularizing wood infilled metal planes, including panel, smoothing, thumb, shoulder, chariot, and improved mitres. Although, its fair to state that Spiers was not necessarily the original inventor of these forms, with the possible exception of the improved mitre plane. For a thorough examination of Stewart Spiers, his business, life, and family, I recommend “Through Much Tribulation: Stewart Spiers and the Planemakers of Ayr,” by Nigel Lampert.
Section of Ayr, Scotland, from the 1855 Ordnance Survey. Garden St. and River St. are the places where Stewart Spiers spent his working life. Stewart took over his father William’s unnumbered River St. shop in 1844, after he died. Stewart produced some of his early planes at 12 Garden St., c. 1851-58. In 1858, Stewart moved his shop to 11 River St., where he remained until his death in 1899. I’ve included the following Ayrshire P.O. Directory excepts to clarify Stewart Spiers’ early locations.
5 River St was on the corner of River and Garden Streets.
Spiers small mitre plane with lever cap, from Garden Street price list. Note the double bend and flange at the heel: small early Spiers mitres tended to have that, while early full sized Spiers mitres did not.
Inverted Cupid’s Bow
Who made the planes with the unique inverted cupid’s bow? Some think the examples marked “SPIER AYR” were made by William, Stewart Spiers’ father, while others believe that they were made by Stewart’s nephew. I am inclined to think that all planes with this bridge design were made by the same person, and that would likely be George Rutherford. In his book“Through Much Tribulation: Stewart Spiers and the Planemakers of Ayr,” Nigel Lampert discounted the notion of more than one Spiers making planes in Ayr:
“It has been suggested elsewhere that the use of alternative spellings might indicate that more than one planemaker was responsible for early planes usually assumed to be by Stewart Spiers’. However, there is absolutely no hint or evidence that another planemaker named Speir ever existed in Ayr (or indeed elsewhere) during this period, and given that some early mitre planes marked ‘Speir’ are also marked ‘Ayr’ as well, and an early block smoothing plane is known stamped with both ‘Speir’ and ‘Spiers Ayr’, it is a reasonable assumption that the Spiers family used and/or responded to a number of spellings of their name.”
Multiple spellings of an individual family’s surname was common from the beginning of surnames to the late 19th century. Consistent spelling of names only entered general practice when literacy became relatively universal, and a practical average competency became the norm.
George Rutherford was born in New York around 1824 or 1825, but his family was from Scotland. The Rutherford family returned to Ayr, Scotland sometime before 1845. George’s mother ran a drapery business at 124 High St., Ayr, and his planes were made at that address as well. George Rutherford made planes from approximately 1845 to 1863, at which time he had the opportunity to enter the grocery business, eventually becoming the business owner. Along with Stewart Spiers, George Rutherford was most likely the only other maker of iron planes in Ayr, Scotland. In his book about “Stewart Spiers and the Planemakers of Ayr,” author Nigel Lampert suggested that Rutherford made some of his iron planes for Stewart Spiers. Certainly, some of the mitre planes show great similarity, with the exception of the inverted cupid’s bow bridge. Perhaps the reason for the similarities had to do with Stewart Spiers’ requirement for conformity with his own mitre plane product. A very small amount of Rutherford cast panel planes and smooth planes have also surfaced.. These show little similarity to the building practice of Spiers’ dovetailed planes.
The inverted cupid’s bow bridge on the mitre planes was inscribed at least four ways: SPIERS AYR; SPEIR; SPEIR AYR and G. RUTHERFORD. While some of the mitres are nearly identical with Stewart Spiers planes of the period, with the exception of the bridge, significant differences exist on other mitre plane examples.
After examination, Bill Carter found that this plane differed from standard Spiers mitre planes of the period in the following ways:
“…In my mind this Speir plane has absolutely nothing to do with Spiers, I think it is earlier and it is entirely different to the later made Spiers. The bridge has a beautiful cupid bow which is identical to the Rutherford makers in Nigel’s book. Again, very little is known about Rutherford as a maker.
These are the differences I have found between Speir and Spiers of Ayr:
Speir plane: The brass sides if the plane and bridge are much thicker. 2) The bridge is fixed either side with three pin brass pins, they could be tenons. 3) The cupid’s bow bridge is identical to a G. Rutherford plane and so are the overall dimensions of the plane itself. …6) The joint at the mouth appears to be like a bird’s mouth, not a tongue and groove. 7) The spelling Speir completely different, Speirs if Ayr always appears on his planes, it always has an S on the end (this is a really big difference between the two makers). 8) Brass and steel construction on his first type of dovetailed mitre plane. Spiers of Ayr did no use these materials on his first type of mitre plane. 9) The infill is solid rosewood, not made up of two pieces. 10) The front infill is a different shape.” From http://www.billcarterwoodworkingplanemaker.co.uk/new-infills/
Improved Mitre Planes
One way to gain a sense of the date on these early improved mitre planes is to carefully remove a side screw holding the infill. They are typically handcut and blunt on the end. Machines to produce consistent and pointed screws were developed from 1849 and into the 1850s. By the 1860s, machined screws were essentially universal.
Controversy surrounds the subject of improved mitre planes, with some favoring them as an actual improvement over box mitres, while others refute their usefulness on any count. Contested applications would include shooting mitres as well as general smoothing, primarily on various hardwoods. Improved mitre planes were the type that Stewart Spiers was most likely to have invented from scratch. Overall configuration–20 degree bed angle iron bevel up–was derived from the traditional box mitre plane. For the rest, Spiers borrowed from the new bench planes when coming up with his design: the front bun and general side profile came from his early panel plane, the lever cap came from his early mitre plane (and others), and the rear tote was adapted and modified from his unhandled early improved smooth plane. Collectors seek these planes out because of their rarity and uniqueness. It doesn’t hurt that Norris made a limited few improved mitres and those have become something of a holy grail with aficionados. Norris planes have always held a certain mystique, and that has captured the imagination of some collectors.
The vast majority of antique improved mitre planes, however, are the Spiers examples, which were made from the 1850s right up to the onset of World War One. Improved mitres were always a relatively low production/specialist type plane for Spiers, but because they were made for ~60 years, they’re rare, but not the rarest. Offered alongside Spiers’ box mitre planes for their entire production run, Spiers improved mitres were intended to be an alternative rather than a replacement for Spiers’ traditional mitre. Several modern planemakers produce improved mitre planes, and the small market that created this demand consists of current traditional woodworkers as well as collectors. For example, Wayne Anderson and Gerd Fritsche are both planemakers who produce improved mitre planes currently. New improved mitre plane products give today’s woodworkers a chance to experience these low angle bevel up planes for themselves.
Catalogue image shows a very short lever cap and cusp on lever cap screw. I am not sure how current the image was in 1909. Bench planes in this catalogue show flat lever cap screws with no cusps. So strong selling planes were shown with the latest features while slow sellers and special order/out of production models showed older features. Planes that showed 19th century details such as a cusp on the lever cap screw included the Improved mitre, Box mitre, Thumb plane, and Chariot plane. Very few of the latter listed planes were made after 1900.
The following two photos show a Spiers no. 5 improved mitre plane made in the early 20th century, as late as the onset of WWI. It shows a large SPIERS AYR stamp and a completely flat-topped lever cap screw, typical of c. 1910 or so. Truly the end of an era; there were no Spiers mitre planes manufactured after the Great War. Also discontinued at that time were the chariot and thumb planes. Photos by Aled Dafis (photobucket).
Spiers no. 5 improved pattern mitre plane circa 1890s. This example differs from the previous short lever cap by having a large acme thread on the cusped double screw. –And an original iron with straight sides rather than dog-eared.
This catalogue is dated by the dovetailed “Plane ‘O’ Ayr” as well as the concurrently available malleable iron “Plane ‘O’ Ayr” versions. At 18/6, the improved mitre plane was less expensive than the smoothers. Today, the improved mitre would be among the most expensive of these planes. The embossed lever cap, introduced circa 1914, was not yet pictured.
After Stewart Spiers’ death on 19 July, 1899, his daughters ran the business. Isabella, the youngest, was in control from the 1890s until her premature death in 1901. Then Maria Carstairs took charge of the business. For the day to day shop operations, William McNaught, who was making Spiers planes in the shop, became superintendent. The budget “Plane ‘O’ Ayr” line was attributed to his innovative work towards increasing production. Business was slow after the Great War, and the daughters began their endeavor to sell the business, which was eventually purchased by John McFayden (1866-1928) in 1922. McFayden continued the traditional catalogue offerings which had already been pared down to dovetailed bench planes and the cooper’s plucker after World War One. The “Plane ‘O’ Ayr” line was updated, and the Stanley-like “Empire” line was introduced. Despite these efforts, effects of the depression constrained interest in all tool products that lacked economy of scale price advantages.
In around 1933, The Spiers factory was moved to 3 Lonend St., Paisley. Many planes were cranked out from this facility for three years; these were something less than their best work, but circumstances and the market dictated that adjustments be made. By 1937, it was all over.
BENJAMIN AND HENRY SLATER
Henry and Benjamin Slater can be considered among the top four or five producers of English infill planes in the late 19th, early 20th century. This output was a direct result of the efficiency of casting as compared with the labor intensive process of dovetailing the plane bodies. In 1881, Henry Slater had 3 men and 4 boys working for him–a crew of that size would be capable of creating large quantities of products. Another factor was their long production period, starting after Benjamin Slater took ownership of the Wellington Foundry in the early 1860s, to as late as the 1920s. The last hard evidence of Slater’s plane making that I have found, however, dated from 1910.
Standard Slater design for a mitre plane, with fitted front sole piece, rounded-off front infill, and classic Slater gunmetal lever cap and screw. Many were bought and sold without attribution.
Having earned a good reputation from fine woodworkers, the Slaters were known best in that community for their smoothers, chariots, and shoulder planes. Using the less labor intensive method of casting rather than dovetailing, the Slaters were less expensive than most of the other infill planes. In our current market, Slater smoothers, chariots, and shoulder planes that are up for sale can be found fairly readily. Relatively few Slater mitre planes remain, as not so many were made. I have not seen a marked Slater mitre plane–they may exist, however. Slater mitre planes were rebadged by dealers such as Tyzack or Moseley, but most of the Slater mitres were unmarked.
A reason why Henry Slater did not stamp his mitre planes may have to do with the fact that it was the most traditional of all the forms of planes that he made. As such, Slater’s mitre planes would naturally invite comparison with a number of fine dovetailed examples which had been around starting the 1780s. Rather than engage in a head to head comparison with the likes of Spiers or Towell, it would have been simpler for Henry Slater to wholesale mitres to the trade. As the owner of two Slater mitre planes, I can say, however, that they are among the best cast mitre planes made in the 19th century, with no appreciable degradation on the trailing edge of the mouth.
As a surprise to some current plane aficionados, Slaters’ main business was manufacturing other cast iron goods, primarily hinges. Benjamin Slater (1823-1875) also invented a gas regulator, and he built a separate factory to make them, which lasted several decades. Along with patented rising hinges and door ironmongery, the Slater family made the cast infill planes that they are recognized for today.
Shown below is a Samuel Tyzack (Slater) cast iron mitre plane. Second photograph shows the upper and lower sole, done in a way that resembles the New York planemakers, Brandt, Thorested, Erlandsen, and Popping. This Tyzack mitre postdates Brandt and Thorested, and was stamped on the lever cap and front infill with the dual address of “TYZACK RAILWAY ARCH 345 OLD ST.; S. TYZACK 153 SHOREDITCH LONDON.” 153 Shoreditch was right around the corner from 345 Old St. This dual combination of addresses was known to be used circa 1876, a time when interest in mitre planes was on the wane.
Samuel Tyzack & Son Railway Arch 345 Old Street. Large Tyzack sign on the right is mounted on the iron railway bridge crossing Old St. Picture was taken circa 1920, just before 345 Old St. was remodeled. Photo from tyzack.net.
Unlike other planemakers, such as John Smith or George Kerr, the hinge and tool making family of David Slater has been laid out in advance by several genealogists in their family trees. Fortunately, some of these trees had documentation, and that is shown in summation here. Excluded from the family trees, however, was any information on Henry Slater after 1861, around the time he would have started producing planes..
David Slater (10 May 1802-c. 1840) married Francis (1801-1881>), became an engineer, and engaged in the business of hinge making. David and Francis Slater had the following children: Benjamin b.1823, John b. 1826, David, b. 1827, Walter b. 1834, Alfred b. 1836, and Henry b. 1839. While several of these sons became active in the hinge making business, Benjamin (1823-1875) and Henry (1839-1900) were the most instrumental.
The Slaters became associated with John Gollop & David Redmund, hingemakers, 59 Greek St., Soho, and owners of the Wellington Foundry.
This map shows some early locations of the Slater family. Henry Slater’s later location on Wynyatt St. is shown, as well as 13 Nelson Place, and 14 Rawstorne St.. Wellington Foundry was not built when map was surveyed.
“Benjamin Slater wishes to direct the attention of Model Makers, Plane Makers, Jewelers, Opticians, and other, to the superior tough quality and softness of the Annealed Castings, the facility of working which effects a saving of 50 to 60 per Cent in Files and Labour. Also the MALLEABLE IRON CASTINGS tough as Wrought Iron, which effects considerable saving in all small work, which otherwise must be forged.” 1864
David Redmund’s Patent Rising Hinge was very popular and successful. The Slater family dynasty was involved in producing it for 100 years:
- David Slater c. 1825-1840.
- Francis Slater (David’s widow) 1840-c.1845.
- Benjamin Slater 1845-1875.
- Benjamin Slater Jr. and Henry Slater et al 1875-1920.
- Henry Ernest Slater 1920-1926.
It did not make them rich.
It is understandable that Benjamin Slater did not leave a large legacy. Benjamin died relatively young, raised a large family, and purchased the Wellington Foundry in the early 1860s.
Benjamin Slater Jr. took over the business of his father, and continued to produce an abundance of products. This 1880 Kelly’s London Trades Directory entry shows Benjamin Jr.’s involvement in planemaking. An omission is apparent in this entry, it should read: ” …iron & [gun]metal plane maker & tool warehouse.” Production plane making likely began after Benjamin Slater purchased the Wellington Foundry by 1864. A small number of planes have been found, stamped “Benj. Slater London.”
Almost all of the Slater Planes were stamped “H. [Henry] Slater.” Since the planes were signed by Henry, it is a sound assumption that Henry was primarily (but not exclusively) responsible for finishing off the castings from Wellington foundry, fitting the infills, and the irons.
Listings as “Planemaker,” in the 1871, 1881, and 1891, U.K. census entries, underscore Henry’s specialization in this area.
Henry Slater, planemaker, died in the spring of 1900.
Henry Slater did not have children, so the 1910 listing below could be Henry W. Slater, born 1858, son of Benjamin Slater Sr., or Henry E. Slater, born 1879, son of Benjamin Slater Jr.
Henry William was a silversmith, engraver, and comb manufacturer. Henry Ernest was an Iron Founder, and the more likely of the two to be a producer of metal planes.
1910 is the last reference I have found for Slater plane making to date. Has anyone seen a plane stamped with “4 Clerkenwell Green?”
Henry Ernest Slater and his family lived in the same house as his father Benjamin Slater Jr., at 163 Essex Road, Islington in 1911. Henry Slater had one son, Henry Reginald, born 1902, so the 1910 Post Office listing “H. Slater & Son,” was likely a father’s proud nod to his young son. I checked the address, 4 Clerkenwell Green in the 1911 U.K. census, and did not find any Slaters living there. That, of course, is not definitive; the portion of the building rented could have been a shop and storefront only.
Posthumous listings for Slater’s Foundry:
As late as the 1920s, the Slater family had the capacity to produce plane castings. 1926 was the last listing that I have encountered to date.
Below left: JOHN MOSELEY & SON 54 BROAD ST. LONDON. Photo by Hans Brunner Right: unmarked, photo from ebay 2017. Both are Slater mitre planes.