My new, old coffin smoother


Recently, I spent time with my girlfriend’s brother Bob, tasting the latest in sour bear offerings at the Crooked Stave.  After our taste buds gave out we made our way to the parking lot. But before we said our goodbyes, Bob handed me a coffin smoother. Apparently, the pastor at his church was downsizing his home and had to part with a number of woodworking tools. Bob knows I prefer using hand tools so he asked me if I wanted to give it a loving home. The Lord giveth.

Here’s what I brought home.

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Good heavens. This tool has seen a lot of mileage in the shop. If you look at the pic with an inset above, you can see a crack in the plane body. It’s suspiciously close to the wedge, which looks like this up close.

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Obviously a philistine pounded it with a stone axe. That’s probably what led to the crack…and the subsequent repair with a pin nail.

The wedge has other irregularities, such as missing side “prongs” and a bit of owner-made carving out of the material at the tip.

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That’s all wrong. It should look something a bit like this:

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 Perhaps when the wedge prongs broke off, the owner carved some of the tip off for a better fit. But to be honest, I’ve never seen a modification like this before.

A look at the sole shows a protracted, sad story of its own.

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As the area in front of the mouth wore out, a previous owner installed an inset piece of mahogany to close up the mouth. Either he didn’t do a very good job, or the plane’s sole has worn considerably since the inset was installed because the mouth shows a performance-damning ¼” opening. That’s about four times what the opening should be for very fine work.

What’s really interesting is that the owner used pin nails to affix the inset to the body. And that’s a sin because the size of this plane—8” long with a 2 3/16” blade—suggests to me that it was used as a smoothing plane. And the last thing one of God’s children wants is for his pin-nails to mar the wood whose very surface he’s trying to make mirror smooth. Still, it must not have affected the tool’s performance much because the tops of the nails show signs of heavy wear.

This plane’s wear and damage remind me of Moses’ escape from Egypt across an unforgiving desert. In fact, the body is so worn that the front of the sole is a fraction of a cubit—that’s 9/16 of an inch—shorter than the rear.

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That suggests to me that the user should have spent more time in the confessional, rather than working out his feelings of guilt by applying unneeded downward pressure on the front of the plane during use.

Surprisingly, the sole was perfectly flat as measured from side to side.

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Still, it’s a wonder that its owner(s) kept using it for all those years rather than crafting a new body to house the iron. But obviously, he/they had an attachment to it. Plus, there’s the whole “Waste not, want not,” angle to consider too.

Who made it?
My initial once-over in search of a maker’s mark didn’t turn up anything. However, the plane iron did have a rather conspicuous maker’s mark.

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 Now that looks a lot like the logo featured in this biography of W. Butcher.

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From the article, I concluded that the plane iron was manufactured in the years of our Lord c. 1822-1826, making it at least 187 years old. It was during that time that W. Butcher used only his name on his tools from what I can tell. Later, he added partners—and their names—to his business and future products.

Since I wasn’t able to find a plane maker’s mark on the toe of the tool initially, I thought that I had a craftsman-made plane. Meaning that a woodworker built the tool himself rather than buying it. And that’s a perfectly logical conclusion to come to considering that God helps those who help themselves. But then, when I was preparing pictures of the toe for this post, I made out the faint etchings of a maker’s name.

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 E. F. KRAFT & Co. of ST. LOUIS. That’s a new name to me and my search through the archives of a local monastery failed to turn up any history for them.

About the same time I made out the maker’s marks, I also spied an owner’s mark. “W WOAKS”

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Owner’s marks are very common on wooden planes and no wonder. The tool fetched good money back in the day and their owners didn’t want them “wondering off.” This is clear evidence that not everyone obeyed the 10 commandments in the 19th century like we all do today.

WOAKS is the only owner’s mark I could find, which suggests to me that this plane stayed among their progeny through many entries of marriages and births in the family bible. By the time it found its way into the pastor’s hands, it was no longer necessary to stamp initials to thwart thieves. Besides, who would risk God’s wrath by stealing from a pastor?

 To make this plane usable again would require a small miracle, not to mention a significant amount of work. Frankly, I don’t have the heart to disturb the rich patina of the beech body. So even though its working days are past, I’ll enjoy its worn history and beauty by displaying it around the house.

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I’m loving it Bob. The next beer is on me.

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About The Write Biz

By day, I'm a mild-mannered copywriter who harnesses frontal-lobe creativity (right brain) to help B2B marketers generate leads and sales. By night I pick up hand tools to create wooden masterpieces...and give my black lab Bella the "red dot" laser to chase after.
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