Small Planes: More Tools of Our Time

Hello everyone:

Anyone recognize these little tools?  If you are into violin making or bow making, you should.

They are known by names such as violin planes, finger planes, palm planes.  They may look like toys from their size, but they are serious tools for detail work.

If you look close at the picture, you can see very subtle cuts (looks more like a change in color) in the middle of the walnut board. That’s how fine these planes can work when set properly.  Click on the images for a close view.

This set we have had in the shop a long time.  They were acquired by George Wilson, the first music instrument master at CW, in his violin making days years ago. The brass ones are set up thus: one is compassed, meaning convex-soled with a flat blade, the other is flat-soled with a convex blade.

The soles and blades of the Hay shop finger planes.

The bigger iron bodied plane, intended for cello work, is both compass-soled with a convex blade.

Perspective of the Hay shop large iron cello plane.

The little iron plane is termed a bow maker’s plane, made by George Wilson years ago amongst many other items for our trade shops (including the bi-fold rules in these photos).  It allows the shaping of violin and cello bows, as the name implies.

Perspective of the Wilson bow maker's plane.

While these tools are mainly the province of the violin maker, I use them frequently for the small, precision situations that arise in the spinet work here.

There is no doubt that these planes go back to the 18th century.  Here is Diderot’s plate, from the Encyclopedie‘s section on musical instruments:

Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, "Lutherie," 2nd suite, plate XII

Additionally, follow this link to luthier Kevin Lee’s site that has his pictures of the tools owned by Antonio Stradivari, housed in the Stradivari museum in Cremona, Italy.  Among them are “finger” planes.  Thanks to Kevin for permission to link up to these photos.

I was pleasantly surprised recently to find that CW had a batch of violin planes in its tool collection.  They are all compass-soled to handle the sculpting of the hollow interiors of violin front and back plates.  We’re not sure how old the bodies are, but two of the blades are from the 1930s at the earliest (thanks to Jane Rees for a quickie research of the “C. F. Johnson” name stamped on two of the blades).  The bodies could be older and the blades replacements.  No real way to tell now.  Here they are:

CW Violin Plane 1

CW Violin Plane 2

CW Violin Plane 3

The two “Johnson” blades are toothed, which was an even bigger surprise for me.  It would make sense in theory, allowing their use in any manner and grain direction.  Scrapers would remove the scratches. This all returns back to my post on toothing planes.  I have no experience using toothed blades at such a low angle as these planes have.  Museum protocol does not allow me to test with these old ones.  Here are the blades:

These blades date from the 1930s at the earliest.

Closeup of the largest blade of the CW trio. It's toothed!

The name "C. F. Johnson" on two of the CW violin plane blades

Any comments with further information about this aspect are very welcome .  Granted, these are 20th century blades, but it is an interesting issue.

How do these tools fit into our very un-violin oriented work here in the Hay shop?

Kaare Loftheim made full use of the bow and small compass plane for the veneer work on our Seaton chest reproduction.  For example, the bow plane refined the center oval to final shape.

After the light/dark stringing was laminated around the oval, he trimmed the edge of the curved crossbanding pieces to precisely fit against the stringing.

These tools were indispensable for this work.

On my spinet, the large iron cello plane helped shape the concave section of the baseboard after rough sawing it out:

The bow plane helped finish the convex portion of the same curve:

The bentside itself served as the template for tracing the curve and as the test piece for trial and error refinements of the fit with these small tools, scrapers and files.

The braces on the baseboard were glued and nailed overly long and cut back.  I used the bow plane for final flushing of the ends to the edge of the bottom, working from both directions to avoid end grain tear-out.

These ends butt against their respective case walls, so again, their final shape was defined by fitting the case walls in place and testing.  Trial and error again.

A baseboard brace butted to the spine, after assembly.

A combination of chisel work and the iron bow plane helped fit the soundboard liner on the backboard to its mate on the register.  Here is the finished assembly, to give an idea of where the work was headed.

The liner was glued to the backboard prior to assembly.  After rough chiseling the beveled end –

The roughed out liner end, temporarily in position.

I further chiseled and planed out the bevel with the bow plane.

When the full backboard assembly was glued and nailed in place, the bevelled end butted up against the register liner, as in the initial photo in this group.

There are several sources for modern violin planes, from the regular hand tool companies to speciality instrument suppliers.  The closest thing I’ve seen to the bow plane is a wooden one offered by Lee Valley.  The bow makers out there may have some other resources which I don’t know about.

Very, very useful tools.  Not just for the string instrument makers anymore!


PS.  My hands are much improved, thanks to a couple of good hand therapists.  Slowly coming back to work.

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10 Responses to Small Planes: More Tools of Our Time

  1. Dave Ray says:

    Very interesting little tools. Thanks for the info. Very glad to hear your hands are on the mend

  2. joel says:

    Preston and Norris both made violin planes as did Hammacher Schlemmer in New York. THe pattern of course as you say goes back centuries earlier. The Preston violin plane I have has a toothed iron. IIRC (I haven’t used it in years) it works quite well. Preston’s and I assume everyone elses violin planes were offered regularly with either a toothed or regular blade.


  3. Chuck says:

    Hi Ed,

    Another great topic! Glad the hands are healing as well.
    I make a few violins a year, and use these planes every week. The toothed blades are wonderful for maple backs where the grain can be quite difficult to work. An online search for luthier supply will yield quite a few suppliers. Mine are from Germany, and some from Italy. Somewhere in my files I have references to Strad’ using toothed planes, and I know first hand from repairs that toothed surfaces can be seen inside quite a few 17th and 18th century Italian made instruments. Especially the maple ribs. I do have photos of this. Shoot me an email if interested…

    • Hi Chuck, I would love to see such photos, as ignorant of violin work as I am, and especially if the surfaces stem from original pieces. Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Hi ED,
    was good to see you during my visit in may.
    as you know, I do violin work and the toothed blades I use in forming and scooping the back of the violin, wich is usualy curly maple and is nearly impossible to work with a regular blade, wich leaves a lot of tearouts. All my little curved planes (i’ve got 4) have a toothing blade also…can’t imagine working without those toothed blades ounce you,ve acquired them..

    Gilbert the frenchmen.

    • Hi Gil, thanks for the info. I did imagine that the curly maple would require toothed blades. I guess my wonder was how they fared at the lower bed angle. From your comment and others, they seem to work quite well. Truly appreciate the comments. Ed.

  5. John says:

    Great post! Those planes are amazing. I had no idea they made them that small.

  6. John Dalley says:

    Do you have available or can you make a small curved bottom plane with a verticle blade position to use as a scraper? Thanks ,, J Dalley

    • Hi John: Theoretically, yes, it could be done, but we know of no tool like this from the period. The closest thing would be a scraper in a scratch stock, which I have used for making small moldings. I also would not see the point to such a tool since scraper edges don’t last long. You would spend more time restoring the edge and fussing with the tool than getting the job done. Short of a scratch stock, finish scraping, for us, is most practically done by hand, as most of us do, when a board face is not smoothing well with a blade. Hope this answers your question, just stating our approach. Thoughts on this, anyone else?

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