What Actually Killed Off the Wooden Plane?
Plus: Terrifying AI-generated planes
"A poor workman blames his tools." — Scribner's Monthly (1873)
Stanley killed the wooden plane: It's a supposed truism that gets kicked around whenever someone laments (or celebrates) the demise of the wooden plane. But a 2,000-year-old technology doesn't just disappear overnight. It took at least 100 years for numerous cultural, economic and technological factors to (nearly) oust the wooden plane from the woodworker's kit.
It starts in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. Colonists had occasionally embraced the idea of "home manufacture" (as opposed to importing goods from Britain and Europe) in the lead up to the war. But in the turmoil that followed their victory, self-sufficiency became a critical political issue. Patents, which were mostly a curiosity for the colonists, were now seen as buttressing a new technological order. It was an attitude that led historian Leo Marx to proudly declare that "inventions [were] vehicles for the pursuit of happiness." And planemakers joined the fun. But while some 19th century plane patents were innovative, many others were near-duplicates of similar patents, or for extremely minor improvements, or useless combinations of functions. One Smithsonian curator concluded they were indicative of "a society seeking, often naively, a mechanical solution to almost every problem of the day."
The invention of the metal plane is often mistakenly attributed to Leonard Bailey. It was first patented in 1827, two years after Bailey was born. In the 40-plus years between that first patent and when the Stanley Rule & Level Company began implementing Bailey's innovations, inventors filed dozens of patents for refinements to both wooden and metal planes. There was a shared goal: find a better way to adjust the plane's iron. For many decades there was no clear winner. One of the designs that came out of that era was the hybrid transitional plane, which manufacturers sold well into the 20th century.
One of the biggest mechanical advancements at the turn of the 19th century was the creation of the mechanical planer. Despite legal disputes and internecine conflicts between patent holders, the machines had a massive impact on the growth of the United States. Not only could they mill and surface plane the seemingly endless supply of timber waiting on the frontier, they could also joint the enormous amounts of tongue and groove flooring and ceiling that a nation that was growing by millions of people a year needed. As if that wasn't a big enough threat to carpenters, the machines could also churn out tens of thousands of feet of molding a day.
Molding was an integral visual component of the various architectural movements — like Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and others — that swept the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. Moldings surrounded doors, windows, and mantle pieces. They were a part of furniture, clock cases, chests, picture and mirror frames; everything required some kind of decoration. These design styles — from the layout of piazzas and porticoes down to the shape of the various moldings — were detailed in hugely popular architectural pattern books that were available in every corner of the country.
At the turn of the 19th century, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was a rough little city on the edge of the western frontier. Even they had a book dealer selling architectural pattern books.You wouldn't think jointers, who could produce at most 250 feet of molding a day, stood a chance against the machines. But they did. Planing machines were limited to fairly basic molding profiles. Cheap and adaptable wooden planes could produce wonderfully complex designs. Paul Kebabian points out that the variety of specialized wooden planes that were still available at the start of the 20th century shows that hand-labor was still competitive.
But furniture and architectural styles were simplifying, the hand-tool tradition was dying out, and the nation's labor system had dramatically changed. The work done by apprentices and journeymen had been mechanized. Woodworking factories and mills could send cheap building materials to the far reaches of the nation, thanks to a burgeoning transportation network. And yes, Stanley did its best to add a few more nails to the coffin lid.
Of course, the wooden plane never died. The largest plane manufacturers (which share some of the blame for killing off small planemakers) faded out of existence in the 1920s and 1930s. But the editors of woodworking books and magazines, like Charles Hayward, saw wooden planes as an ideal tool for first-time woodworkers and promoted their use. Organizations like the EAIA, and collector groups inspired by Eric Sloane, began to study and collect antique planes. By the 1970s there was a growing awareness of their value both as historical and functional artifacts. Since then, this tool, one of the most sophisticated hand tools every invented, has undergone a revival that feels likes it's still accelerating.
You may have heard of DALL-E 2, the new text-to-image neural network. Simply put, it's an artificial intelligence that uses natural language processing to generate realistic images. Give it a simple description and it will give you a picture. And some of the images are incredible. A month or so ago I was able to score an invite and so I did what any lover of 18th century technology would do, I fed it variations of the prompt "woodworker using an antique wooden plane." At first I just tried to get images of planes. It actually "understood" the general components of a wood plane, but would only produce images of horned planes. When I moved on to woodworkers, I unintentionally ran into the limitation all types of AI face: they're only as good as the input they've been trained on. Clearly, the "woodworker" photos it's working with are stock photos of people using chisels and hammers. DALL-E 2 combines that with a plane-like shape, and ta-da! Nightmare fuel. I didn’t cherry pick the worst ones. I tried dozens of times and they all look like this.
Something worth noting is that these images are a great example of why these newer AIs are nowhere near "sentient," despite some very ridiculous claims otherwise. (This is a good read if you want a deeper explanation.) So what's the purpose of this? Mainly to be silly. And to show that when the robot AI uprising happens we can use our wooden planes as weapons since they'll have no idea what they are?
proudly declare: Leo Marx. The Machine in the Garden. Oxford University Press. 1964. Smithsonian curator: Peter C. Welse. "United States Patents 1790 to 1870 New Uses For Old Ideas." Contributions From the Museum of History and Technology: Papers 45-51 On History. Smithsonian Institution. 1966.
Charles W. Prine, Jr. Planemakers of Western Pennsylvania and Environs. Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. 2000.
Paul Kebabian. "Match Planes - Old, New, Patented, And ... Pirated?" The Chronicle, vol. 46, no. 1, 1993.
Enjoyable read, as always.
Excellent essay, Abraham! It always bugs me when someone wholly blames Stanley for the demise of wooden planes. It’s just not that simple, is it? Thank you for your work.