The Toothing Plane: A Tool of Our Time

Okay, everyone, prepare to be re-acquainted with what could be construed as one of an 18th century woodworker’s secret weapons. (Drum rolls, please.)

The toothing plane, a tool that has gotten me out of more difficult situations than I care to admit.

Actually, as more of today’s woodworkers delve into traditional methods, the toothing plane has become less of a secret.  But for those who may be new to this tool, I”ll explain its features.  More importantly, I’ll show how extensively it was used in 18th century shop practices.

A toothing plane is simply a very high angle block plane equipped with a blade that has a serrated edge.  The pitch angle of the blade noticeably varies from tool to tool, anywhere from 65 to 90 degrees. The coarseness of the teeth can vary as well, but we have seen a trend where the higher the pitch angle, the finer the teeth.  Here are photos of a few we use in the shop (the one on the far left is my personal one).

Note the varying pitch of the blades

The serrated blades in place

So the plane does not shave like an ordinary one, but scratches the surface of the wood.  You take off strings rather than full shavings.

The cut strings in the throat of the plane

The surface is left textured with fine grooves, like this:

The toothed surface of a walnut board

A sharp card scraper can smooth out the scratches to a finished surface.

Why go to all this trouble?  Easy answer.  The toothed edge ignores grain direction and figure in any board.  It allows for working a surface in any direction, either with the grain, against it or across it.  The teeth won’t dig under contrary grain and tear it out, as would the full blade width cut of an ordinary plane.  So while the surface is scratched up, it remains intact.  And yes, it is slower than a conventional plane, but keeping a untorn surface makes it worth the effort, and these planes can be set to cut rather aggressively, if necessary.

I hear the next question, from those techno-minded souls:  how did they serrate the blade edge and how did they sharpen it?  Here is a picture of a couple of blades:

As you can see here, the blade’s face is grooved.  Before the blade was heat tempered (and thus still workable), the cutler chiseled the grooves into its face, the indentions forming their profile on the edge, creating the teeth. Old ones  show that the chiseling was done by eye, just enough irregularity that identifies it as hand work.

Sharpening?  You can treat it as a regular plane blade.  Hone the bevel in your usual manner, then gently wipe the burr from the flat side so as not to disturb its grooved profile.

Where could a workman use this plane?  Just about everywhere except, logically, carved surfaces.  Working woods with curl, crotch or burl figure became safe and feasible, as here:

A hand cut crotch walnut veneer after toothing

So when beautiful woods were hand-sawn into veneers, the toothing plane safely worked off the saw marks without risk of gouging.  Compare the two veneers below.  This is relatively plain walnut, but note the surface textures between them: rough saw on the left, toothed on the right (note the marks running across the grain but still intact).

The left veneer from the saw, the right veneer after toothing

The toothed surface was left on the veneer and the substrate was toothed as well.  Both textured surfaces came together with hide glue as an aid in adhesion.  They also minimize slippage if you want the veneer very precisely placed, such as these oval designs executed by Kaare Loftheim (under my guidance):

Reproduction of Seaton Tool Chest Interior Veneer Work

Here’s a great shot of toothing marks from the 1726 English spinet harpsichord on which I’m basing my current project:

Cawton Aston Spinet Interior Veneer; Note the roughness of the toothing work

As you see, the tooth marks are strictly made to aid glueing the veneer, and appear nowhere else on the board.

Since 18th century veneers were usually thicker than the modern stuff, the toothing plane could finish the exposed surface followed by scraping and sanding, as I did for these cheeks for the keywell assembly:

Keywell Cheek Veneers

We can get beyond veneering.  Since these tools allowed full freedom to work from any direction, old furniture pieces often show evidence that toothing planes were used with abandon on unimportant, unseen surfaces.  You’ve seen the marks on the antique spinet.  Take a look here.

The inside carcass of an antique gentleman’s cabinet, on which we based the replica in our wareroom:

Look closely at the inside face of the case side: toothing plane marks!

Here is the underside of the original Peter Scott tea table that Brian Weldy is reproducing now.  Note the tooth marks on the skirt edge as well as the bottom face of the top.

The overall piece, viewed from underneath

Here are the toothing plane marks. Wow!

In these instances, the toothing plane may have been a reliable way to flatten out any track marks or imperfections left from regular planing.  On exposed surfaces the scratches would be scraped away for finishing, but on the secondary surfaces, they are left behind.

So toothing planes played a big part in shop methods during our period.  Taking a cue from these and other original items, I’ve begun to use them more myself.

So how can today’s woodworkers follow the same option?  The only modern equivalent I’m aware of are the toothed blades that come with either modern scraper planes or the low angle planes that were recently featured in the February 2011 issue of Fine Woodworking (though both of these operate on a very different basis than the traditional toothing planes).

Otherwise, to find one of these old ones, haunt the antique tool shows.  Hunt the Web.  I found my personal one in England in far better condition than I ever hoped.  It’s a beauty and the other guys in here borrow it frequently (and I watch them like a hawk with it).

I hope this has not been overly long, but also useful and informative for everyone out there.

Oh, one last thing:  yes, they hand-sawed the veneer back then,  3/32 to 1/16 inch.  But that’s for another posting in the future.

Best.

Ed

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33 Responses to The Toothing Plane: A Tool of Our Time

  1. Jim Tolpin says:

    These posts are wonderful…just what I was hoping for: deep insights into the how’s and, just as (if not more) important, the why’s of how the pre-industrial artisans worked.

    Both Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley do offer toothed blades for their bevel-up planes. If you wanted to use them at a scraping angle (to really insure against tearout), I’m thinking you could just steepen the primary bevel from the factory-supplied 30 degrees to as high as you want to go. I haven’t done this myself, as I do find that the grooves vs. shaving action seems to largely eliminate tearout anyway–but not entirely. Keep up the great posts (and the truly important work) that you are doing.

  2. Jim Marsh says:

    Great stuff. It seems they used the toothing plane sort of like a “power planer” to get through the work in a hurry on the non show surfaces. Makes a great deal of sense.

    I have watched the demonstrations on the Lie-Nielson You tube channel on the these blades but never have thought of using them before now.

    Thanks again

    Jim

  3. Charles N. says:

    Great post Ed. I frequently use toothing planes for violin ribs, and difficult maple backs. They are wonderful tools. Do you use toothed blades in any of your instrument planes?

    • Charles, if you mean the small finger or palm planes used especially in violin carving, then the answer is no, partly because right now I’m not sure if toothed edges on such small blades were used historically. For most of my spinet work, the normal toothing planes and regular stock planes serve well. I still have a couple of small instrument planes, made by George Wilson in the old instrument shop days, that are good for making parts for the plucking action, but they are not toothed. Mine is certainly not the last word on this, certainly, since I haven’t researched it. If you or anyone else knows something about this, I’m glad to hear about it in this forum. Thanks for the comment. Ed.

  4. Sean FitzGerald says:

    i think e.c. emmerich and ulmia still make these irons. gotta find one now!
    thanx

  5. Michael Dyer says:

    Please keep up the blog. Great detail and a pleasure to read.
    Mike Dyer

  6. Roderick Drumgoole says:

    Ed,
    Not having any experience with toothing planes, can I presume that a “tight” mouth is not a requirement for the plane to function properly? That being said, what are the requirements that one should look for while attempting to source a toothing plane?

    Also, just to add, I don’t think that your posts are overly long; I am under the impression that you guys could blog/write essentially a “book” and folks such as myself who are fond of working with hand tools would be quite content. Thanks for taking the time.

    Roderick

    • Roderick, I would first make sure that the grooves on the blade have not been badly worn down. If they are, someone was too heavy-handed in wiping burrs from that side and the blade won’t cut as aggressively as it could. That’s a concern when buying sight unseen (and the gamble I took when I got mine from England). The picture of the two blades on the post should give an idea of an acceptable standard, they work well. The open throat on mine has not been a problem (ditto that on the other toothing planes we have). Like all wooden planes, the body should be in good shape, free from worm, etc., the usual things. Thanks for the vote of confidence on the posts. We’re trying to figure out the right balance here. Ed

  7. Rob Keeble says:

    Great blog with obvious expertise behind it. Seeing these toothing planes i was wondering?
    Could you think of doing a blog sometime on the standard coffin plane? How to tune it how to use it and how the heck to hold it. That back is almost square angles and hard on the hand, were they meant to be pulled or pushed. I know one uses a light hammer to back and front to move the blade but i would like to know more. I had one handed down to me and have tuned it to the extent i can, but these planes seem more hassle than they worth. I would very much like to know more of how they fitted into the woodworker of olds world. My blade is very obviously been hand forged and is a tapered blade same width all the way but very thick at the cutting edge and tapering. What angle should the blades on these have been ground at? Any other info as well. Its one thing to read the basics but i am hoping guys like you can add the missing links or stir some grey matter on the subject.

    BTW you guys have a shop many dream of .

  8. Shannon says:

    Excellent post Ed. I too have a vintage high angle toothing plane much like yours. Your plane looks a little shorter than mine, but I love it. I have also gotten one of the new toothed blades that Lie Nielsen offers and used it in a low angle Jack plane. Both methods work great, but they are very different cutting actions. As you mention the high angle plane is much more a scraping action whereas the 12 degree bed of the low angle Jack definitely cuts shavings. I think the scraping work is easier to clean up and not quite as aggressive as the low angle cutting action, but the low angle is a quick way to hog out difficult grain. It is kind of like a toothed Fore plane (or Scrub depending on where you come from). I was surprised to hear just how much this plane was used in antiquity as I had previously thought they were only used in the veneering applications. Thanks for sharing this and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that our modern notion of using these blade to tackle tough grained woods is not an original one.

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  10. Rob Keeble says:

    As to balance with regards to post length, in my view you should poll your readers, as to their choice. For me i prefer substance over soundbites. There is enough soundbites that exist today for those that cannot deal with more than a sentence. For me the attraction to your blog is the fact that their is substance on a subject where i would hope and imagine people want sufficient detail to get more than a mere superficial understanding of the topic and see you as experts rather than amateurs with a desire to be seen as experts.

  11. bugbear says:

    I may be able to add a little on how the blades were made, from a thread on another forum

    http://www.ukworkshop.co.uk/forums/post281125.html?#p281125

    BugBear

  12. John Walkowiak says:

    Great posts, keep up the great work. I have used toothing planes to level wide crotch boards and such and have thought that a longer tooth plane would work even better. I am thinking the length of a jack or fore plane. I have never seen one or read of a reference of one this size however. Do you know of evidence or reference of any size but the smooth being used or made?
    John

    • John, Interesting question. I personally haven’t seen any other size, either an actual tool or in print. But I’ve bounced this question off to another person more knowledgable than me. If they know something positive, I’ll post the info here with their permission. Ed

    • John, my curatorial source hasn’t seen any other sizes other than block plane one, either. But you never know. In the history business one has to be ready for new info and discoveries. Best. Ed

      • Gary Roberts says:

        Holtzapffel shows a jack sized plane for surfacing brass, iron and steel. The blade is vertical and there are adjustment mechanisms to make life easier. I believe one showed up some years ago at auction. (vol. II, page 483, Fig. 330). Other than this reference, Holtzapffel refers to toothing planes but does not refer to size.

      • bugbear says:

        I can expand slightly on Gary’s information; here is an example of the type of plane he refers to:

        http://www.petermcbride.com/metal_plane/

      • Tom Dugan says:

        Ah yes, I remember Peter’s plane, Bugbear.

        To answer the question about longer toothing planes, I haven’t seen any in the flesh nor in auction catalogs. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if (presumably) JG doesn’t know of any, I doubt they were made.

        And in answer to the question on the length of posts – go with what you feel is enough. None have been too long yet, and I doubt I will ever complain any are.

  13. Paul Chapman says:

    Very interesting piece. I regularly use a toothed blade for stock preparation after seeing a demonstration by Deneb Pulchalski of Lie Nielsen. I use a bevel-down blade mainly in my old Record #7. You can get bevel-down blades from Dick Tools in Germany http://www.mehr-als-werkzeug.de/product/703160/Toothed-Blades/detail.jsf

    I found that you have to set the cap iron back some way to prevent shavings getting trapped and I ground a little off the end so as to retain full adjustment.

    I think toothed blades are great and use mine a lot.

    Cheers ;-)

    Paul Chapman

  14. Dean says:

    Ed,

    Could you expand on the use of the toothing plane on endgrain? For example, quickly leveling proud DT pins/tails on a case piece?

    • Dean, we agree that toothing planes work well in cleaning up proud dovetail pins on case work. We were trying to think of some period examples in our collection that illustrate this technique, but we’re drawing a blank. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for this — we know we’ve seen evidence of it somewhere! This said, we’re all hard pressed to come up with examples of this on drawer sides. We generally prefer to clean drawer dovetails with smoothing planes (for what it’s worth, at home I usually use a low angle smooth plane or block plane, but in the Hay shop I tend to use a high angle smooth plane). Though drawer sides are secondary surfaces, they tend to be fairly clean compared to case bottoms and tops on period work. Hopefully we’ll be able to get back to you with more information on this soon.
      Thanks, Bill.

  15. rakeandfleam says:

    What a wonderful post…thank you much! Keep up the great work, and I look forward to the post on resawing!!!
    -Matt Cianci
    http://thesawblog.wordpress.com/

  16. Craig Hunter says:

    Outstanding post — thanks for taking the time and effort to photograph and write everything up. This is a wonderful way to document the tools and processes.

  17. Ed says:

    Paul Chapman’s comment really caught my eye- I just read a description of the toothing plane being used as an indicator: You work a rough sawn vaneer with the toothing plane in one direction, then crosswise. Any place with criss-crossed scratches indicates that the toothing plane cut there. Places with scratches that don’t criss-cross are low spots indicating things aren’t flat. I started wondering if you could use the toothing plane as part of general stock prep to quickly show high/low spots. Paul, is that what Deneb was showing? If not what did he show?

    Thanks for the excellent article.

  18. Ben says:

    The post is wonderful. Thanks a lot. But I’m even more anxious to see how you hand cut the veneer! A post on the tools and the process (as well as any common pitfalls) would be very appreciated.

    Teach us how to cut our own!

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  20. Kevin Wilkinson says:

    Thanks for your very informative post on the strength of which I purchased a 2″ Marples Shamrock Brand toothing plane from Patrick Leach’s Tool Sale monthly email list.

  21. bobklein says:

    I have read and seen photos 17th century toothing plane marks in which the cut showed that the tooth must have been trapezoidal rather than the 19th century triangular shaped tooth. Could you give some insight how that was done? Thanks and I really do appreciate the wonderful information you share.

    bobklein

  22. bobklein says:

    after more thought, the picture became clear how this was done. simple after more thought! anyhow, thanks again for your information.

  23. Mike Homer says:

    I know this question doesn’t pertain to toothing planes, but I figured you guys would know the answer. Offset handled bench planes, What’s the story behind them ? do they aid in squaring off an edge with a cambered try or jointer plane ? or was it just a vestigial remain that the English adapted from Europeans ?

  24. Mike, offset handled planes are things that even we can’t figure out. The early ones are definitely done that way, but we don’t really know why. And eventually given way to centered handles. We’ve found (so far) no particular use or advantage that would require it. One of these mysteries. Sorry, but this is an honest answer.

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