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Tools
Thomas Falconer Plough Plane

The Thomas Falconer plough plane is one of those mysterious planes, cloaked in the obscurity of time, for which little is known and all avenues of research seem to lead to a dead-end. Those lucky enough to be at Clarence Blanchard's Brown Auction in Harrisburg, Pennslyvania during October 1998 actually got to see the plane and handle it to confirm its existence. The rest of us just heard the news trickling through the tool grapevine -- "winner of a Royal Society of Arts award", "a unique plane", "the finest plough plane made", etc, ... and later "a record price".

The Falconer plough plane (I am sticking with the English spelling as the plane is English in origin) is a coachmaker's plough meant for plowing grooves, typically for decorative inlaid banding, on objects with curved sides. It is made from rosewood with gunmetal and brass fittings, and has a flexible steel fence which can be adjusted to follow a large variety of curved work. It has been stunningly preserved, looking almost as it must have 150 years ago when it was made.

I have been able to dig up some additional research on this fine plane, and hope to shed some more light into the dark alleys of the tool's past. At first (at the time of the Brown auction) there had been only three of these planes known, although five or six reproductions were made several years back (and these are easily distinguished from the real McCoy). Two of these originally known examples now reside in the United States, and the remaining example was once in the collection of the Science Musuem of London, but has now been returned to its owner. Since I began my research, two more examples of "Falconer-type" planes have surfaced -- and each of the five is different in significant aspects. I now believe Thomas Falconer was not a planemaker at all, simply a designer who came up with a good idea, received an award for it from the Royal Society, and then let others make planes based on the idea. The idea was never patented, so anyone could have made Falconer-type planes.

The Brown-auction example seems to be the earliest of all, as it has features harder or more expensive to produce than those on the later two, and it lacks some features of practical use held by the other two. I believe it to be the actual plane presented to the Royal Society as documented later in this story. Some distinctive features of this plane:

  • The nicker is unique to this plane and is missing or nonexistent on the other two examples.
  • This plane is rosewood rather than ebony.
  • The cutting iron is skewed rather than square.
  • Graceful fillets and rounded contours ease the edges of the rosewood.
  • Much of the hardware is hand-crafted and fitted in a manner that suggests one-of-a-kind production.
  • The depth stop interferes with the nicker when in its lowermost position. This error would be corrected in production models.
  • There is no locking screw on the adjustment that changes the fence radius. The other two examples have this screw.
It is known that Thomas Falconer won the Silver Medal for his plane design from the Royal Society of Arts in 1846. His address is recorded as 10 Park Street, Limehouse. Limehouse is an area in the East End of London, near the West India docks. Limehouse was one of the main centers in London for shipbuilding in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It is believed that Mr. Falconer was a military man of some sort, a machinist and designer by hobby, and not a planemaker (no other records of him in the usual planemaker references are found). I prefer to believe he was involved with the shipbuilding industry due to his address, perhaps in the Royal Navy. However, I have not been able to confirm his actual profession.

The award granted to him by the Society of Arts was for the flexible steel fence and hollow-faced iron that combined to act as both a nicker and a cutting iron. (The circular plough plane was not invented by Falconer, there are many earlier examples known. It is the adjustable fence which sets his plane apart from these, as each of the earlier planes was made to produce just one cut radius.)

The Royal Society of Arts was founded in 1754 by William Shipley with the mission to: ...embolden enterprise, to enlarge science, to refine art, to improve our manufactures and to extend our commerce..." 50 million trees were planted in an awards effort run by the RSA from 1758 to 1821 - many of today's British woods are the direct result. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was initiated by the RSA and its President, Prince Albert. The British system of national school examinations were first launched by the RSA in 1856. It is still active today.

The minutes of the Royal Society's Committee of Mechanics from the fifth of March, 1846 are transcribed below:

Minutes of the Committee of Mechanics, 5 March 1846

Charles Holtzapffel, Esq in the Chair. Present: Messrs. Woods, Newton, Varley

... took into consideration a communication on an Improved Circular Plough by Mr Thomas Falconer of 10 Park Street, Limehouse

The Instrument is made with two arms placed at right angles to each other. One of the arms which may be considered as the body of the plough carry's the cutting blade in the front of which is a second or forked blade with double cutting edges and is intended to prevent the wood being torn when ploughing across the grain when grooving circles. A thumbscrew works through the body of the plough and raises or lowers a steel platform which regulates the depth of the grove to be cut. Under the body of the plough and attached to the arm at a right angle to it, is a brass bracket that carry's a steel fence which is used to regulate the distance from the edge of the board at which the groove is to be cut.

The bracket is slid backwards and forwards to the required position by loosening a screw. To the fence are attached two levers having their heads made fast to a nut through which a screw works and gives to it the required curvature.

The Candidate submitted to the Committee one of his instruments and stated that the improvement consists in the addition of the spring fence which by turning the screw can be made to work a curve of any degree from nine inches radius upwards, it can also be applied for planing either concave, convex, or straight surfaces.

The cost of the instrument would be about 2 pounds, by taking off the fence it can be used as a grooving plane.

Resolved. The Candidates have retired, it was resolved that Mr Falconer's Plough is a new, very ingenious and useful instrument. It is resolved to recommend to the Society to present the Silver Medal and Five Pounds to Mr. Falconer on condition of his leaving one of his instruments with the Society."

Upon hearing of his award, Mr. Falconer wrote back to the Society in the letter dated 6 April 1846:

"As requested by your letter of the 19 March I attended at the Hall of the institution on the Wednesday evening following but at that time I had no opportunity of expressing personally my gratification for the premium your Committee deign to award me. I therefore think it requistie thus to express with feeling of satisfaction my thanks - and my willingness to leave the improved Circular Plough in the Society's hands. I remain Sir, your Obedient Servant, Thomas Falconer."

Thus Mr. Falconer fulfilled the condition set upon him by the Society.

Note that Charles Holtzapffel of the famous London tool maker was chairing the Society at the time, and also made further reference to this plane in Volume II of his famous epic work "Turning and Mechanical Manipulation" (published 1875). Following a discussion of banding planes (planes related to the marking guage, intended for cutting out grooves in circular work as in the rounded corners of piano-fortes and similar objects), Mr. Holtzapffel writes:

"Mr. Falconer's plough, rewarded by the Society of Arts in the Session 1846, presents many points of improvement on the banding plane by Mr. Onwin, described in the text. The principles of the plough, fig. 335, page 486, are nearly followed, but instead of a variety of fences being used some concave others convex, the new instrument has a flexible steel fence attached to the plough by two stays which are jointed to the ends of the elastic fence, whilst to the central part of the same is fitted a screw adjustment, so that the one fence may be made to assume any required curvature, either convex or concave and of course the right line also.
The widths of the grooves are determined as usual by those of the cutters, which are provided with double pointed scorers or nickers, for cutting through such of the fibers of the work as lie transversely, and would otherwise be torn up. The entire construction of this circular plough is very judicious and complete, and the tool may be considered as greatly improved on those previously used for this purpose.
"

High praise indeed from so revered and skilled a toolmaker as Mr. Holtzapffel! Note the reference to the nickers, which would indicate that the current Falconer is the prototypical example, as it is the only one with nickers! The only other reference I could find to Falconer's plane was in R. A. Salaman's "Dictionary of Woodworking Tools", published in 1975. Mr. Salaman recounts Holtzapffel's description, and goes on to describe the Science Musuem example in greater detail:

"The pistol-shaped handle is solid with the ebony stock and an ebony stem carrying the movable fence. the plate or skate has a flat sole with the section in front of the iron adjustable in the direction of its length. the plough iron or cutter is hollow-ground on the face, making the action similiar to that of a double nicker or spur; it also has the usual V-groove on the back to keep it in position on the plate. teh fence is a flexible steel strip and can be adjusted to work straight, concave, or convex. For use on circular work such as hand-railing and circle-on-circle joinery."

Also, now you can begin to see the genius of Mr. Falconer and the impact his invention would have on coopering and other forms of circular woodworking. It was the flexible steel fence of his plane that won the Society award for him! Leonard Bailey's American patent of March 3, 1871 (for a flexible steel sole) would seem to have an English precedent 25 years earlier! It is from Bailey's patent that all the subsequent American flexible sole planes are derived.

In trying to track the provinence of the Falconer plough, much of the history is lost. Once out of Mr. Falconer's hands, the plane disappeared for 150 years. Then, in 1996, it surfaced in England and Mr. Don Rich, a tool collector from Reeders, Pennsylvania purchased it. Don had a love affair with the plow plane, and especially loved coachmaker's plows. He began research on the plane but unfortunately passed away before completing his research. I had the benefit of some of his research in preparing this article, as well as the remembrances of Herb Kean, another long-time collector who was a friend of Don's and had examined the plane closely. From both of these men I got the feeling of a fascination with this plane, its mysterious history, and its historical value. I too share this fascination, and I believe it is one of the most significant tools I have seen.

The Prototype Falconer Plough PlaneOne of the other two known examples, previously at the Science Musuem in London. Note the absence of a nicker and the locking screw underneath.

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