Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Searching For an Escape

I recently read an interesting post from Bill Lattanzio regarding traditional side escapement planes where he brought up a point that I too have wondered about for years, namely "Where are the "user" Hollows and Rounds?" I must preface this topic with the caveat that I haven't really used these planes, though mostly it is due to the point I am bringing up, the high cost of entry*.

Now before anyone takes me for being a cheapskate* (which I probably am) I'm not talking about tools made in low labor cost countries, though I am sort of surprised someone hasn't filled that niche yet. What I'm talking about is a wholesale look at what makes a good molding plane designed and manufactured for use by today's wood workers.

The easy answer is that it looks exactly as it did in the 18th century*. I have the excellent Larry William's DVD as I hope to make some side escapement planes someday. I believe these are amazing tools every bit as refined cultured and beautiful as infills. The amount of materials and labor involved means that they are time intensive and expensive to make, again just like infill planes. This means they cost more than peanuts, and given multiples are needed (yes I know you probably only need a couple), it gets to fairly large numbers quick. Custom plane makers aren't rolling in cash, despite what a set of their tools cost. It only makes sense that a skilled craftsman ought to live somewhere above the poverty line, divide that cost by the planes you can make in a year, and that's how much they must cost, simple economics. The facts that most H&R plane makers have a backlog (sometimes measured in years) and that there isn't a glut of makers proves that this isn't a get rich scheme. Now you can try to address this by finding skilled workers in low cost of living areas, or you can figure out a way to simplify or accelerate production with the end result being more quantity & less expensive tools made.

This doesn't mean making products that aren't good. Again take infill planes. I doubt many would say that a Bailey pattern plane can't do good work. It certainly could be made in far less time with less expense in craftsman labor. This is why infill plane makers were largely supplanted by "good-enough" Baileys. Thankfully, today there is enough interest in woodworking to allow infill makers to thrive again despite increasingly better (more than) "good-enough" mass produced planes like Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, and others. I believe a line of such H&R will not take away the niche of the small number of makers of traditional side escapement planes (Old Street, MS Bickford, Caleb James, Philly Planes) (and not to leave out the non-traditional Time Warp Tool Works) In fact, I'd suspect that as more folks use these planes, even more people would desire "Premium" versions.

My intent here is to start a discussion on an open source design for 21st century molding planes. I have thoughts to share on materials and manufacturing, but invite as many opinions as possible, hopefully driving toward a design that is relatively economical to make, just as the originals were in their time. I realize that there is an amount of hubris here as a thus far sideline molder*, and I welcome even disparaging comments on the challenges ahead with such a project.

*I should add that I recently acquired a nice RH half-set from Hackney Tools, whom I can heartily recommend and will be trying out and reporting on more here.


  1. I think a partial answer to your query is that there are not many users who want or know what to do with H&Rs. Without consumer interest, and very well informed consumers, it's nary impossible to think of manufacturers getting into production, certainly as long as the secondhand market can supply.
    Aesthetics also come into the matter. The customers for bespoke furniture do not have the vocabulary to understand complex moldings and they are much more likely to have been surrounded by industrially produced furniture. Many furnituremakers are compelled to, wittingly or not, to create upgraded versions of Ikea style pieces. The same applies to interiors. Few homeowners ever consider anything beyond the stock moldings on offer. It's all chosen from a kit, milled from glulam using spindle routers, prefinished according to a designer's palette, and lastly assembled on site with pneumatic nailguns, the ultimate user tool.

    1. You are spot on regarding consumer expectations and what's available at the big box store being increasingly what people expect as "traditional"
      Also excellent comments that many modern makers don't know what to do with moldings in general (myself included) This is where bench planes were 15yrs ago and today they are alive and well, because they slowly made converts and eventually hit a tipping point of understanding. I believe we are in the start gate with molding planes.
      Perhaps it is different in your area, but I think the second hand market is nearly depleted. I got my "new" set while traveling abroad, I've not seen more than a few random molders (in terrible shape) in my area.
      Thanks for the comment, as I think you are spot on about the demand side of the equation something originally not in my thought/design process for this series of posts.

  2. I think there are probably a couple things involved with this. Potomacker mentions the secondhand market being able to fill the need, but really I think the need is low in this case because "modern" furniture doesn't use them. Not everyone is into reproductions or antique furniture. Perhaps we need to come up with some new and fashionable ways to include them in our contemporary work.

    As far as manufacturing of the planes go, one barrier to mass production is that H&R's really need to be wooden. The only metal moulding planes out there that I can think of are combination planes like the Stanley 45 & 55, and let's face it, they never really caught on as a realistic replacement. I'm not sure why no one has manufactured H&Rs using a CNC router type of process, but my guess is that results this way aren't precise enough.

    I think you are right when you say a lower priced version might actually increase interest in moulding planes, which in turn would be good for the small planemakers you mention.

  3. Brian, good points here regarding the design language of modern furniture being so heavily influenced by clean straight lines (read simple manufacturing). I personally expect a dramatic shift of fashions in the next 10yrs toward elaborate ornamentation with the advent of 3d printing and accessible CNC (and current look being "old") Along with this will likely come a renewed interest in edge molding profiles. H&R are building block tools and not limited to reproduction work as you note, so we shall see what our generation of makers do with geometry. It's a chicken/egg issue as it stands.
    In addition to the 45's of old there is also a newer small variation from bridge city, and only a couple of weeks ago I saw a 3D printed molder on Instagram. So I believe there is some pent up interest in these types of tools.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. Your post got me thinking. I was cruising around on French eBay today (one can only watch so much YouTube when out sick from work), and discovered that the French took an interesting path with their tradition of moulders. Essentially, from what I can tell, the bed and wedge mortise are sawn out, so the entire side of the plane is open, and a strip of wood is glued on the top half to close the mortise. I think this probably simplifies construction of the plane about a billion times. The plane probably would not last like an English plane, but I think at this point what we are looking for is entry level tools for the masses. The makers you mentioned are all pretty high end, as you say.

    2. Yes that would definitely simplify body construction, are French irons similar to English? Tapered and with the step down in width? I think the greatest simplification need lies in the irons, and those currently require quite a bit of processing

    3. I'm not sure, as it is hard to tell from eBay photos. I suppose I'll have to buy one someday to figure it out. But, if I suppose if you adjusted the English method of construction with this sawn out mouth, and perhaps a straight up and down iron to facilitate using a router plane to clean it up, I imagine the plane bodies could be knocked out a lot quicker and with less skill.