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Number 86 ® ® ® A Journal of Tool Collecting published by CRAFTS of New Jersey ® ® ® April 1995

British Tools
by Peter R. Habicht

 More and more we are hearing reference of "English" tools, really we should say "British" tools. Many of us forget, or do not realize, that Scotland is not a part of England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are a part of Britain or more correctly the United Kingdom (UK). It was not too long ago that Scotland had its own monarchy. Even today Scotland has its own parliament and bank. So let's not refer to these great tools made by Mathieson and Spiers, or tools from such towns as Perth or Aberdeen as "English" - they are "Scottish."
 
 England followed by Scotland were the principal manufacturers of woodworking tools in Britain. There may have been a few planemakers in Wales in the late 19th century, such as Hawkins and Webb in Newport, and Munday in Holyhead. Likewise Keller and Mulholland in Belfast, Lewis in the Isle of Man, and John Hubert in Jersey each made tools around the turn of the last century.
 
 What makes British woodworking tools different? They certainly are well made but aesthetics definitely sets them apart. British tools were often made of exotic woods (such as ebony, rosewood, padouk, and mahogany) and trimmed with brass fittings, or even of just a nice piece of beech or ash trimmed with brass. In the 1800s the British cabinetmaker's chest would be full of great-looking tools: maybe an Ultimatum or brass-framed brace, an ebony and brass mortise gauge, brass-backed saws, perhaps a Scot-tish level with its "fancy" brass top plate, and brass or gunmetal planes of all types and sizes stuffed with rose-wood, ebony, mahogany, or some other fine woods. Even the chest itself would be beautifully veneered on the inside just as though it were a fine piece of furniture.
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 Until recently British tools have not been that popular with U.S. collectors. I remember my first few years as a tool dealer. I would often hear the passing remark, "Oh! He only has English tools." Many wives and girlfriends loved them - they could see the beauty of the British tools. The men could not see any collectible value or investment value. Supply and demand usually dictate price; it is not surprising therefore that the U.S. tool is higher priced than the British tool. This was also true several years ago with antique furniture. A fine chest or table made in the early 1800s in Philadelphia would be much higher priced than the same type of piece that was made in London, maybe 10 or 20 years earlier. In more recent years with the increasing popularity of antiques and the arts, and the greater knowledge of British antiques, there may be little if any difference in the price.
 
 British tools are becoming more popular as collectors leam more about them and prices are rising, but for the most part they are still underpriced. Compare the price of a plane made in London by Wooding with a plane made by F. Nicholson in Wrentham, Mass. only a few years later. Just about any tool made in England or Scotland in the 18th century will be less expensive than its American counterpart. As with general antiques, I believe that the prices of British tools will increase dramatically over the next few years and become closer in value to American tools. We are already seeing significant increases in prices for rosewood-stuffed, dovetailed-soled planes made by Norris and Spiers. And what about some of those rare gunmetal planes made by Norris, or the plumb bob that sold at David Stanley's last auction for - £1050- ($1600). Lets face it, British tools are a great investment.
 
 Let us look at some of the history of British tools. The earliest known wooden planes are those that were found on King Henry VDTs ship Mary Rose when it was discovered at the bottom of the English Channel. These tools date to about 1545 and have been described in detail in W.L. Goodman's book on British planemakers. The ship and its contents (including the tools) can be seen at the Royal Naval Maritime Museum in Portsmouth, England. More "recently," in the late 1600s, Thomas Granford 1687-1713, Robert Hemmings 1676-1695, and John Davenport -1680-, are known to have been planemakers in London. Several examples of Granford planes are known, but there are only four by Davenport, and none have been identified as being made by Hemmings. In America, F. Nicholson (Wrentham 1728-1753) was the first recorded American planemaker. Up until the middle 1700s there were only a handful of British planemakers, all of whom were in London. By the end of the 1700s there were at least 60, and most of these were in other large industrialized cities including Birmingham, York, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liver-pool, Manchester and Glasgow. There were none in Sheffield; that is where the plane iron makers and some of the other tool makers set up their businesses. More on that later.
 
 Through the 19th century British planemaking was at its peak and in many smaller towns throughout England and Scotland you could find a planemaker. This was similar to the spread of planemakers throughout the U.S. Many traditional British planemakers continued in busi-ness well into the 20th century. The British cabinetmak-ers, unlike their American counterparts, were slow to mechanize which extended the need for wooden planes. William Marples & Sons (for example), the last British wooden planemaker, closed shop in 1965.
 
 Metal planes have been known since at least Roman times. In Britain metal planes were first offered in the late 17th or early 18th century as high-priced tools to meet the demand of high-quality funuturemakers much as the Ultimatum brace was offered later. Although Stewart Spiers in Ayr, Scotland was the first to offer a "complete" line of such planes, there were a few metal planemakers in England. For the most part they made metal mitre planes having very fine mouths that proved outstanding for cutting end grain. Benjamin Frogatt, a well known maker of wooden planes, 1760-1790, was one such maker. These early planes were made from wrought iron with sides that were dovetailed to the wrought iron sole. Dovetailing is not usually associated with metal working, other than the coppersmiths, but is known by woodworkers for its strength and durability. Later, planes having brass or gunmetal sides dovetailed to wrought iron soles were made and included shoulder, rabbet, chariot, and bullnose planes. These planes were usually filled or stuffed with rosewood, mahogany or European or French walnut. By the middle 1800s a variety of metal planes with cast iron and gun-metal bodies were being made. Cast iron tends to be a brittle material so it is not unusual for these planes to be found with a chip or even a crack.
 
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Stewart Spier of Ayr, Scotland is one of the best known makers of high-quality, dovetailed-soled, metal planes. He offered a full line of planes through to the second half of the 19th century. A story is told that he started his business in 1840 after purchasing a metal plane casting for ls.6d (about 120), finishing it and selling it in his native town for 18s. (about $1.50). Not a bad profit! Although many of the smaller planes had been made in England for many years. Spiers was probably the first manufacturer to make the larger smoothing and panel planes. In fact Spiers offering of such an extensive line of high-quality, wooden-filled planes probably led to their great popularity. Other manufacturers including Edward Preston, Thomas Norris and Alex Mathieson soon got involved, and hundreds of these planes were made by the end of the 19th century, m addition there is a large number and variety of metal planes having only a user name. These were in fact often made by the user himself from castings and parts sold by his local plane dealer.
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A plane is not much use without an iron or cutter. Some of the first plane iron manufacturers were in Birmingham, such as William Crosby (1718-1742), whose irons have been found in Robert Wooding planes. Through the 19th century, Sheffield was the principal center for the manufacture of plane irons. In fact, probably 95 or more of British plane irons were made in Sheffield. Remember, that Sheffield was the center of the British iron and steel industry. It was centrally located and had an abundant supply of raw materials. One of the most important developments in the world's iron and steel industry was the invention by Benjamin Huntsman (1740-1750) of Cast Steel or Crucible Steel. This was a high-carbon, purified steel which Huntsman invented for improved clock springs, but was soon found to be an outstanding steel for edge tools. Because of its brittle nature and high cost it was almost always forge welded to a more ductile piece of wrought iron which comprised the greater bulk of the cutting tool. Hence with an early plane iron, chisel or axe we look for this applied cast steel edge which is usually quite visible because of the significant difference in the material properties. It is noteworthy that this Sheffield invention was so important and resulted in such a superior cutting steel, that most of the early Ameri-can planemakers used plane irons manufactured in Sheffield, m addition, prior to American Independence in 1766 the manufacturing industries in this country were suppressed or even outlawed. Britain wanted its colonies for their raw materials and, in turn, Britain sold them finished goods in exchange for even more raw materials. So, the close similarity between metal (brass, iron, steel) fittings on many American planes is because the parts were manufactured in Sheffield or Birmingham, England.
 
 As an aside, Sheffield, Massachusetts, where I live is so named because it was one of the earliest centers of the American iron and steel industry with its local supply of bog iron (iron ore), limestone, and hardwood for the charcoal to fire the smelting furnaces.
 
 One British tool that has been very popular with the American collector for several years is the brass plumb bob. The British bobs tend to be more ornate and shapely than their American counterparts. The more well-known ones are onion or turnip shaped. Many of these were manufactured by Edward Preston and William Marples, and range in sizes from 00 (1 Vi oz) to 12 (4 Ibs.). For the most part however the British bobs were unmarked, other than being stamped with the owner's initials or name. Another difference between British and American bobs is patented and mechanical plumb bobs. While American ones abound, I know of only fourteen patented or mechanized British plumb bobs. Any of you who have read The Plumb Line by Bruce Cynar are familiar with large numbers of mechanized, American-patented plumb bobs from the late 1800s into the early 1900s.
 
 There are a number of British tools that were either not made in the U.S. or were only made in very small quantities. This may have been due to mechanization in the American cabinet shop or the fact that there was a different tool made by someone like Stanley that performed the same task. Examples of these tools include:
The Goose or Swan-Neck Lock Mortise Chisels
Adjustable Wooden Compass Planes
Sliding Box and Stopped Chamfer Planes
Metal-Framed or Ultimatum Braces
Iron and Bronze Chariot Planes
The Little Brass-Fronted Beech Bullnose Plane
The Badger Plane
The Sheffield-Style Wood Brace
In addition many of the great carriage or coachmakers planes were unique to the British manufacturer, such as: the wheelwright's jarvis and nelson, often fitted with brass wear plate and brass bands to strengthen the throat, and the various shaves, jiggers and routers that were used to shape around windows and door frames.
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 Along with the tools that were more unique to the British manufacturers there are many tools whose design and appearance are classic to the British Isles. As I mentioned earlier, the British craftsman demanded tools that in addition to being functional were aesthetically pleasing. Some of these classic British tools include ebony and brass mortise gauges, solid brass mortise gauges, and brass-topped levels. Levels were made in all shapes and sizes, in a variety of tropical woods, and with very ornate top plates. In addition, there were ebony and brass mitre squares and a whole variety of beech or boxwood planes and shaves that were trimmed with brass or had brass adjustments and wear plates. Even many of the screw drivers or tumscrews, as they were more commonly known in Britain, were very shapely and often had ebony or rosewood handles with brass ferrules. This tool was a very important tool in the British shop and was used not just for driving screws, but also for adjusting and setting craftsmen's tools. Here is yet another point where a difference exists between British and American tools. British marking and mortise gauges and bevel squares required a screwdriver for adjustment, whereas an American tool often was fitted with a convenient thumb screw.
 
 Although there is a great assortment of British wood-working tools, patented tools are few. The British crafts were steeped with tradition and new ideas were looked upon with suspicion. In fact most British craftsmen considered the design of a patented tool to be flawed such that it would probably not perform as well as the traditional tool. In some cases the craftsmen were right.
 
 One of the better- known, successful, patented British tools is the Ultimatum Brace which was first patented by John Cartwright of Sheffield in 1848. Another is the A5 Norris plane with its patented iron adjustment, which still makes this a very popular user plane for a number of quality fumituremakers. Other successful patents include: the Kimberly patent plow plane, which had an iron adjust-ing screw for setting the fence which was supported on two iron rods or stems; the James Silcock patented metal combination plane; the Pilkington and Pedigor's patented "Sheffield-Style Brace;" and George Horton's beautiful brass-framed brace.
 
 The second part of this article which will follow in the next edition of Tool Shed will describe some of the better known British tool manufacturers, provide some reference materials, and list a number of British dealers.
 
 Peter Habicht was born in England. With a Master's degree in welding metallurgy, he has worked in the nuclear power industry, primarily in New England, and now has his own business as a consultant on materials corrosion. Starting in 1969, his wife, Annette, has built a business specializing in English antiques, including a few tools. It was natural for Peter to expand that line, and he has become a leading authority on British tools.