The Hermitage Hand Plane

The left side of the hand plane that shows what looks like an old sticker on the body. It sits on a table with a red tablecloth.
The right side of the hand plane, sticker free. It sits on a table with a red tablecloth. 

So there is an old wooden hand plane at The Hermitage.

When I send out emails to different places, I generally ask if they have any information on individual woodworkers as well as the wider sense of what woodworking went on at the plantation and if they have or know of any tools.  When I emailed The Hermitage, Marsha Mullin, the Vice President of Museum Services and the Chief Curator, told me they have one hand plane.  She mentioned that it has a tradition of having belonged to the Jacksons, but it was not passed down from the family.  Instead, it came to them in 1961 from a “longtime Jackson scholar and collector.”  I never did find out who that is.  Perhaps I’ll shoot her an email to ask.

At any rate, there was indeed a sticker on the heel (the back end) of the plane that seems to indicate when it was donated:

The heel of the hand plane with a sticker that says 1961-9-1.

As you can probably tell already, Ms. Mullin allowed me the opportunity to handle the hand plane and take as many photos as I wanted.  I was like a kid in a candy shop.  I wanted to look this thing up, down, and all around, and my main objective was to figure out if Ned Davis or Henry could have possibly used this plane.  And I certainly had my suspicions.

If you have not read the posts about Ned Davis or Henry, here’s one quick note: the widest possible range for working life at the Hermitage was from the early to mid 1820’s to 1867-1870 for Ned, and from about 1841 or a little earlier to 1858 for Henry.  For this hand plane to have been used by Ned Davis or Henry, it had to have been from the early to mid 1800’s or earlier.  This is not necessarily a problem as hand planes were made for countless years by countless makers, and it is still pretty darn easy to find hand planes from that time period even today.  I’ve got a few myself, so the time period alone was not the main concern; there was something else that seemed fishy.

This plane is known as a jointer.  It’s length allows the user to get a flat reference surface on the face or the edge of a board.  In the work flow of hand planes, this tool would have been the second most used, behind only a fore plane, which was used to get rough saw marks off lumber to begin the milling process.  Even if you have no clue what I’m talking about, the main takeaway is this: jointer planes would need to be replaced more often because of their frequent use.  They were workhorse planes and, as such, it is much harder to find jointer planes today from that era.  Moulding planes on the other hand, such as this one made by Cesar Chelor, can easily survive because they were not used nearly as frequently (and that one from Chelor is from a century before Ned Davis and Henry were working!).  For this jointer to survive and have been used by folks at The Hermitage, though, seemed unlikely in my mind.

So where does every great hand plane adventure start?  With the maker, of course!  Unlike many old woodworking items, planes are much easier to find at least some information about because many makers had a stamp to indicate who made it.  With this in mind, I turned the tool over to look at the toe (front end) of the plane as that is a common place for a maker to put their stamp, and I saw this:

The toe of the hand plane, which reads J. & C. Smith, CintiOhio.

The stamp reads: J. & C. Smith, CintiOhio.  I had not heard of that maker before, and I told Ms. Mullin that I would try to find out whatever I could to see who these folks were.  I soon bought what may be the dorkiest book that I own: A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes, Fifth Edition (AWP-V), by Thomas L. Elliott.  Let me tell you, I love this book.  It is easily my most referenced book already for 2019.  I scoured this work as soon as it arrived, and sure enough, I was able to find J. & C. Smith.

According to the guide, J. & C. Smith were a pair of men, John H. Smith and Charles J. Smith, who were wholesale hardware and edge tool dealers in Cincinnati, Ohio at 218 Main Street from 1851-1852.  That is a very short-lived time for their partnership, but this revealed an important piece of information:  the time frame aligned with the time Ned Davis and Henry would have been working as carpenters at The Hermitage.  Does this necessarily mean that this specific hand plane was used by them?  No, not with 100% certainty, but it is a possibility, and so I have abandoned my wholesale suspicions in favor of only piecemeal suspicions.

To be sure, there is still a lot that I cannot answer about this hand plane.  I cannot say if Ned Davis or Henry used it, and I cannot at this stage say that someone in the Jackson family bought it.  There may be a bill of sale from the company or from the Jacksons somewhere that could shed some light on this, but I have yet to uncover it.  And as you might be able to tell from these pictures, there is no iron present for this plane.

A top view of the plane showing the wedge to hold an iron in place.
A bottom view of the plane showing the mouth from which the iron would protrude to cut the wood.

Basically, no one can use the tool right now because the metal cutter is not here.  If we had this piece, we may even be able to tell more because sometimes the iron can have its own markings, especially if they were made for specific plane makers, as a wooden jointer that I just bought for myself shows:

A view of my own jointer plane on top of a magnolia dining table.
The toe of my plane reads J. Pearce, New York, no.110.
The iron of my plane reads The Chapin-Stephens Co., Pine Meadow, Conn., U.S.A.

According to AWP-V, this plane’s imprint (J. Pearce, New York) probably indicates a line of planes that were sold by H. Chapin, later The Chapin-Stephens Company (as seen the iron), to various New York tool stores and wholesalers.  The no. 110 stamp seems to indicate to me a factory environment for my plane’s manufacture, as well.  All this goes to indicate that if we had the iron from The Hermitage Hand Plane, we may be able to tell more about its origins and how likely it may have been used by Ned or Henry.

Even with all the questions we are left with, I find this little bit of information really exciting.  This plane most definitely comes from between 1851 and 1852, and thus it could have been used by Ned Davis or Henry given the time period, the necessity of a tool like this for a carpenter, and its living at The Hermitage from the donation of a Jackson scholar.  There is no telling what this tool was used to build, but it definitely was used.  If it is hard to tell from the above photos, these should offer additional support:

A left view of the handle, indicating wear.
A top view of the handle, indicating wear and potentially a repair.
A view of the handle’s attachment point to the body of the plane.
A top view of the front of the plane. There is no strike button and it looks well worn.

Honestly, I love this part of all of this research.  There are endless questions about The Hermitage Hand Plane, but when I get to see that there may in fact be a connection, from tool to woodworker, from woodworker to crafted item, it gets me excited.  This plane adds another dimension to the lives and stories of Ned Davis and Henry, and I hope we can uncover even more.  Until then, though, I will continue to hold onto this as another helpful element in uncovering the stories of those who built this nation.

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