Chinese Planes

Chinese PlanesThe planes of the Orient differ significantly from those of the Western world. The Japanesetyle has become familiar to Western woodworkers over the past decade. More recently, planes of the Chinese style are appearing in American tool catalogs such as "Woodcraft" and "Japan Woodworker," indicating that the tools have found use here. The photographs shown here are of planes which are much earlier than those currently available.

It is not known how the idea of the plane reached China. It is possible that it was a part of the exchange of technology during the visits of Marco Polo (1275-1292) or his predecessors. No evidence of an independent Chinese invention has been found.

There is confusion in the literature as to how these planes are used. The Greber classic states that Chinese planes (like Japanese) are pulled, rather than pushed, in use.1 Without doubt, they will function in this fashion-so will our planes-but the bulk of evidence supports the belief that they were (and are) used in the same way our planes are-they are pushed. Hommel, who spent eight years in China (1921-30) researching tools at the instigation of Henry Mercer, states, "All Chinese carpenter planes are pushed away from the body, being held with both hands by the handles if they have any...."'2 Coaldrake tells us that the Chinese push plane was introduced to Japan during the Mamoyama period (1573-1603); it was described in a Japanese encyclopedia of 1712, but not included in the issue of 1761.3 By that time the Chinese style had been modified to agree with the Japanese custom of pulling (as they used their saws) rather than pushing.

Greber states that early Chinese plane blades were sharpened with two bevels, the front bevel requiring a lower iron mounting angle. None of the planes shown here had such; all use one bevel.

The Chinese bench planes shown in Figure 1 (lengths are 6, 11 and 17 inches) have brass inserts mortised into the sole at the mouth front. The two longer ones also have brass inserts at the toe and heel. Shrinkage of the stock with age has changed their alignment, but it seems that they were originally meant to contact the work simultaneously with a small clearance between the planed surface and the sole of the plane between these points. This is also seen in Japanese bench planes. The handles, of oval cross-section, are friction fit into the stock and are removable, which facilitates transport. All three irons are of European make, and of uniform thickness. They have European cap irons.

Chinese molders are seen in Figure 2. At the upper right is a bench hollow configured like the bench planes of Figure 1, with western type iron and cap iron. The bench round at top center has a thicker, presumably Chinese iron, with a Western-style wedge. An open throat molder at top left uses a Western-style wedge. The three molders at bottom use Chinese irons. Their style of cap iron is bent over at its top, and bears against the cutting iron at top and bottom. These double irons are retained by metal pins across the throat, rather than with wedges.

The long rabbet seen at the top of Figure 3 has a typical curve for its upper surface. The open-throat molders below it are of the type supplied in the expectation that the user will finish the throat and iron support; they are unusable as shown. The task of finishing the tool is rather more involved than fitting the iron to a Japanese plane. The Chinese irons are rather too thick to seat fully in their mortises. Some can be driven home with effort, relying on the elasticity of the stock with its open throat, but this would not be acceptable. The wedge mortise requires paring for proper fit. Once the iron is seated, most of these planes do not have clearance for the shavings; the cutting edge touches the mouth front. The mouth opening must be widened, leaving the clearance to be set by the user.

The same requirement is shown by the rabbets of Figure 4. All have cutting edges touching the mouth front. After the photograph was taken, an attempt was made to bring one of the side rabbets into usable condition. The cutting iron mortise was widened with a planemaker's float, and the clearance for shavings removal was widened. After the iron was sharpened and fitted, (about an hour), it would cut a shaving-but would need more work to be a useful tool. The bench rabbets seen at the bottom of the photograph would not be much easier to fettle. Getting such planes into usable condition speaks highly of the ability of the Chinese woodworker.

A final photograph (Figure 5) shows a less common tool, a wide smoothing plane constructed of heavy rosewood. (It weighs seven pounds). The single iron with a 4 ¼ inch cutting edge is retained by two wedges bearing on a wooden dowel across the throat. An iron bar of rectangular cross-section is mortised into the sole, to form the mouth front. The reason for the cutting away of the top of the stock to form a sloping recess is not clear (the stock is of one piece).

The variety of bench plane types currently available poses a challenge to the worker who is more interested in accurate wood surfacing than in experimentation. Learning the art of bringing a Bailey plane to its peak performance is probably a better investment of time for him than trying to master other types. But the plane collector and wood butcher (present author included) will be intrigued by other styles.