Grain Direction on Plane Handles

Ever wonder why there are so many old metal planes found with handles that are broken right through the middle, and hence, so may internet articles on repairing broken plane totes?  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the grain orientation running horizontally through that handle is an invitation for a break.  Common sense would tell you that the strongest orientation of the grain in an open tote plane is actually running straight from the bottom of the handle to the top of the handle.  So why did Stanley, and every other metal plane manufacturer, orient the grain in ther plane handles horizontally?

Another broken plane tote!

Well, in Stanley’s defense, it really wasn’t their fault.  They were just following what came before them.  Unfortunately for them, it is kind of a poor design, but for whatever reason, it’s neve been changed.  It wasn’t always that way though.  In the 18th century, open toted planes typically had vertical grain running through their handles.  Why?  Because it’s the strongest orientation, that’s why.

Typical 18th century plane tote.

The handle on the jack plane above is typical of 18th cenury open toted planes.  These handles were primarily designed to be functional.  That meant orienting the grain in a direction that maximized strength…vertically.  Because of this vertical orientation, however, ornamentation of the handles needed to be kept to a bare minimum.  Shape the handle so it’s comfortable, but don’t go crazy adding lots of long, thin horns and stuff sticking off of it.  Anything projecting outward from the main vertical column of the handle would contain short grain and be vulnerable to breaking off because of it.  The one pictured above has a horn that is actually quite a bit longer than was was typical in 18th century open toted planes.  Still, even though these handles are very simple, there’s something aesthetically pleasing about them.

In the 19th century, things change.  I suppose we could blame it on those crazy Victorians.  Everything from houses, to furniture, to tools begins to get bling.  The simple, vertical grained open tote of the 18th century planes becomes too dull and boring.  It needs some flair, so someone decides to extend the top of the tote rearward to create a graceful, flowing horn.  There’s only one problem with this though.  With the grain oriented vertically to maintain strength, there’s no strength through the horn, so the shaping process alone breaks it off.  The solution, is to run the grain of the wood horizontally to keep the long grain flowing through the horn and prevent it from breaking off so easily.  Does this weaken the handle?  Well, yes.  But since there is some thickness there, it was a compromise that they chose to accept in order to have pretty.  Hence began the demise of the quality hand tool.  As the 19th century goes on, and mass production methods begin to replace hand made, we see more and more compromises made to aid in production, at the cost of durability, performance, and comfort to the user.  Ahhh, that’s progress 😉 .

The long, thin horn and toe, typical of plane handles from the mid 19th century to today, require orienting the grain horizontally to prevent the delicate horn and toe from breaking off.

For my own jack plane, I decided to step back to about the third quarter of the 18th century.  This might be what some would consider the peak period of hand tool design and construction.  Hand saw designs are perfected as steel manufacture becomes more controllable.  Planes are available in multiple pitches with both single and double irons.  It’s just a great time to be a hand tool.  Since the donor iron I’m using for the plane is a double iron, I decided to go with that style of plane.  I could have ditched the cap iron and went single iron, but I don’t like the look of a double iron sans chip breaker being used in a single iron plane.  It looks out of place to me.  I did however, decide to go with the vertically oriented grain for the plane’s tote, because that is the strongest orientation.  The design is based upon one used in Williamsburg.  It’s surprisingly small, but still comfortable.  So far, I really like it.  

My 18th century style jack plane tote. It’s not perfect, and I’ll modify the next one I make a little bit from this design, but so far I like it.

10 thoughts on “Grain Direction on Plane Handles

  1. Its looking good, did you make it from one peice. If you did that is one fine mortice you cut. Use a old pre 60s table saw blade they are flat and good steel if you are carful not to over heat the cutting you will not need to temper it…

  2. The horizontal grain direction really was an improvement, if you also use a steel bolt to support the tote vertically. Additionally, Mr. Bailey added a screw slot to the end of the bolt so you could adjust it for expansion and contraction with the wet and dry seasons. Regrettably, most users tightened the screw when it got loose, but didn’t loosen it again when the rains came. Eventually the shoulder of the bolt hole got compressed until the bolt bottomed out. In any case, most totes broke at the height of the dry season, when the bolt was not providing the needed support.
    Horizontal grain direction also allowed Bailey to add a second screw to the front of the tote on the larger planes, to keep the tote from twisting.
    The Bailey design also used less expensive rosewood in each tote, and allowed it to be used with a metal body, which would not support the length of tenon used in wood bodied planes of the old design.
    There is, however, an elegant solution to the problem, Belleville springs. Google will find them for you as long as you spell “belleville” correctly.

    • This is what I guessed, except the compression of the wood, I was going to say that I bet all the breaks happened when the handle was loose, the strength comes when its tight, imagine the handle made by a stack of washers, if the bolt is tight everything stays in place

  3. Hello, I am a long time fan of your blog, it’s great stuff. Regarding grain orientation on plane handles, have you seen Caleb James’ take on this?
    Also, Larry Williams’ planes, which I believe are patterned off 18th century style, seem to have handles with horizon grain.
    I can appreciate the argument for vertical grain totes and I built my first planes like this, but I changed to horizontal grain to accommodate seasonal movement better. I also don’t drawnbore my totes, so maybe that is sufficient for seasonal movement problems with horizontal grain.

    • Larry’s older style Jack plane tote had horizontal grain. However, the newer style he makes is an older design similar to what I’ve done here. I think he orients the grain in his current Jack plane tote vertically. Caleb’s Jack plane tote is a later design with a different mortise configuration. The “tenon” on the tote is much shorter but comprises the entire length of the tote. It’s a later design that needs no draw bore because the grain in the tote parallels the grain in the body. In my opinion, without the reinforcing bolt used in metal plane totes, it’s a weaker orientation. Many old Jack planes with totes having horizontal grain have broken totes because of this. Larger planes have closed totes to take up the stress and support the tote to minimize breakage.

    • I tried to find a good picture of the handle Larry uses on his Jack planes today but I can’t find a good one. I’m not positive how he orients the grain in his Jack plane totes. But the picture on the web site is an older one. I don’t believe he shapes his Jack plane totes that way any longer.

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