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?
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.
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 😉 .
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.