Planes valued by collectors

Robert Britnell, Special to the Packet & Times

A Stanley 55 plane.

A Stanley 55 plane.

Rhykenology? This is the antiques column isn't it? With a name like that it sounds like this article will be more along the lines of a serious medical issue. A rhykenologist is a student of antique wooden planes and their history -- a history that dates back to the times of ancient Egypt and Rome. The ruins at Pompeii have seen examples unearthed that are very similar to the planes in use today.

Up until the beginning of the 18th century, if a tradesman need a particular style of plane this tool would have been handmade using the unwritten guidelines found within the guild system where they learned their trade.

Just exactly who the first commercial plane maker was in England may never be exactly determined, but the evidence from such documents as Poll Tax Assessment records points to the Granford family of which there were three generations. The Granford clan began making planes on a professional basis late in the 17th century. These same records yield information about two other commercial makers by the names of Robert Hemmings and John Davenport who were producing planes for woodworking craftsmen.

In the American colonies, plane making centred around Boston and Rhode Island and from there it expanded along with the growth of the various population centres of the original 13 colonies. The first known American maker was Francis Nicholson of Massachusetts who began making planes on a commercial basis around the turn of the 17th century. His son John also participated in the business as did their black slave - Cesar Chelor. Not surprisingly these planes were close copies of the English tools but were slightly more primitive. As well, different timber was used as this was more readily available.

It will come as no surprise that only a very few of these first models are known to exist. By the 19th century the production of woodworking planes significantly increased thanks to the advent of the industrial revolution. Large factories grew out of what once may have been a small, family-run operation. Planes were now being turned out by some of the larger factories in quantities sometimes exceeding 10,000 a month. The drive to keep costs down lead several manufacturers to turn to prison labour as an inexpensive work force. Another common practice of some manufacturers involved the making of no-name planes so that the retailer or merchant could add their own stamp to the tool if they wished.

Up until the middle of the 19th century, no full-time plane makers were known to exist. The planes in use by Canadian craftsmen had either been brought with them when they left their homeland, handmade by them or were ordered from Britain or the United States. One notable plane making centre in Canada dating back to the latter half of the 19th century was found in Roxton Pond, Que. There were five separate plane manufacturers located here and any serious collector of Canadian planes will be familiar with those examples.

The practice of tradesmen making their own planes declined after commercial planes became widely available. However, it never quite ended and there are examples still coming to light that are readily sought after. A great amount of time and energy was involved in making even a simple wooden plane by hand and some of these select examples can sell in the five figure range.

An antique plane often has a great deal of information on it that goes a long way in identifying and dating it. The first piece of information to look for is the maker's mark or stamp. From the earliest makers on their names would be placed on the front or toe of the plane near the top. Most of the earlier tools were embossed with the name of the maker while later examples were stamped or recessed with a name or monogram.

The value of these tools depends on type, material and condition. Planes are often prized above other types of woodworking tools and can be wonderful works of art unto themselves. Fine examples have handles and frames of imported rosewood and mahogany and were sometimes trimmed in brass and ivory.

Although handmade planes are the most desirable a number of factory models are also sought after and the most valuable of all factory-produced planes are those bearing the trademark of the best known American tool manufacturer -- The Stanley Rule and Level Company. Founded in 1857 in New Britain, Conn., among many products, Stanley made a 15-pound plane that could handle 75 different jobs. Known as the No. 55, this plane is a much-sought-after oddity and is considered to be the King of Combination Planes. Another particularly prized Stanley collectible is the five-and-a-half inch No. 1 plane. Although this was made for about 70 years and is fairly common, it too is valued by collectors.

Robert Britnell lives in the Bracebridge-Muskoka area and is prepared to travel reasonable distances to evaluate fine antiques and collectibles and offer guidance in how to best market them. He has a special interest in fine art, estates and downsizing projects. He can be reached at 705-645-6157 or

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