Molding plane blades
These works remind me of the steel blades of antique wooden molding planes. The blades, when inserted into their
matching wooden hand plane, are held fast with a wooden wedge and are used to create various wooden moldings.
These moldings can be complex or simple, purely practical or purely decorative, depending on the shape of the blade
and the corresponding shape cut into the sole of the plane blade.
The blades themselves are moving and transforming sculptures during their working life. As the planes are used,
the blades and the soles of the planes wear down. Sharper and more delicate features are often preserved by
sections of very dense wood (often pearwood or boxwood) into the sole of the plane. Most of these planes bear the
patina of repeated use, with the underside worn smooth and the upper surfaces discolored through years of contact
with a craftsman's hand. Around those areas of patina, the planes often have a uniform soft brown color, achieved
the plane maker boils the wooden plane block, releasing just enough of the wood's natural tannic acid to create an
even, warm tone. The blades, too, show signs of their working life. Each new plane starts out with a profile cut at the
of a sharpened blade to exactly match the profile of the blade. With successive sharpening, the blades often loose
fidelity to the plane soles, evolving into abstractions of the original intent.
The steel used in these blades is also worthy of note. Early examples were made of iron into which carbon was
hammered (while the iron was hot) to create a sharpen-able carbon steel end on an iron shank. Later examples were
made of "crucible steel" and still later steel made using the bessemer steel process. This steel was tempered to retain
strength and the ability to maintain a sharp edge. In the case of these molding plane blades, the hard steel edge was
tempered using a lead quenching process, where the hot steel is cooled in a bath of molten lead. This creates an
with unusual properties: The blades are easily sharpened, but they maintain their sharpened edge for longer periods
than steel made with other processes. To maintain durability, the hard, but brittle, steel edge pieces were often fused
softer steel shanks better suited to absorbing the stresses of hand planing. Over time, the sharpened edges develop
fine polished patina of cool white, in contrast to the blackened and often rusty patina of the soft steel shanks.
The various profiles cut into the bases of each plane tell their own stories. Some can be complex forms created to
complement the intricate decorative needs of 18th century baroque design. Others are used to cut window mullions
simple rabbit joints. Many were created to complement proportional systems, many of which have largely been lost
time, unless you know the right old person to talk to or the right threadbare book to read.
I have mixed feelings about repurposing these old blades for use in sculpture. They are sculptural and they can
ripe for being appreciated for their practical beauty when re-contextualized. However, when retained with their
plane bodies, these are working tools, and they are a joy to use even today. Also, a wooden plane without a blade is
more or less permanently orphaned until someone makes a new blade for it. The new blades can't be as good as the
because lead quenching of hot steel is far too toxic for today's sensibilities. The hollow wooden planes are left with
more than their history, starting with the name and location of the plane maker and/or successive plane owners,
are often stamped into the ends of each. Some of these planes are crudely cut at one end. This was done so that
18th century planes could fit into the compact tool chests of the 19th century. To find a longer plane, with it's patina
tact, is certainly a prize.
-- Marshall (email)