I finished building a Roman-style handplane from a kit made by Ron Hock of Hock Tools. The kit is designed to be used to make a plane in the style popularized by James Krenov,Ã?Â but I converted it easily into a Roman-style handplane, with its odd grips.
The reason for the exercise was to see what the plane felt like to grip and use. These planes, a form that is about 1,700 years old, haven’t been common for a long time. The unusual slots through the body appear on planes up through 800 A.D. and then disappear, according to W.L. Goodman’s “The History of Woodworking Tools.” I’ve always wondered why.
The Roman planes are important for a variety of reasons. Not only are they the earliest examples of a plane iron secured by a wedge, but they are also technically the first metal planes and the first infill planes recorded.
Some of the surviving Roman examples were all wood, such as this reproduction, but many of the other surviving examples have a metal sole. Some more elaborate planes have a metal sole that has a U-shape and is filled with wood. And one example, from Cologne, is almost entirely metal. The grip area is the only part that’s wood.
The kit from Hock Tools was a cinch to adapt to the Roman form. This particular example is built like the plane known as the Saalburg jack plane, which was recovered from a well in 1907. Goodman says the plane was thrown in the well when the village was sacked by barbarians.
Here are the differences: The original wooden body (usually called the stock) wasÃ?Â 2″ thick, 2″ wide and 12-3/4″ long. My stock is 2-1/4″ thick, 2-3/16″ wide and 11-3/4″ long. In essence, my plane is 1″ shorter at the heel. I wish I had that extra inch back there just for authenticity’s sake, but the plane is remarkably easy to grip as-is.
The iron on both the Saalburg plane and on the Hock plane is 1-1/2″ wide. Unlike a typical Roman iron, the Hock Tool iron and breaker are short. In the Roman examples, the iron will jut out several inches from the top of the stock. The extra iron will add weight and make the iron a little easier to tap left and right to adjust its projection. The iron in the Hock kit is bedded at 45Ã?Â° — Roman planes are typically pitched much higher , between 50Ã?Â° and 66Ã?Â°.
The other difference is cosmetic. Roman planes typically would have a shallow and wideÃ?Â dado cut across the bottom of the grip. Goodman is at a loss to explain the reason for the feature , there is plenty of space in the grips for fingers without the dado.Ã?Â If I ever make another one of these planes, I’ll add the dado to that one.
Overall, the plane was surprisingly easy to make. A 1″ Forstner bored out the holes for the grips. A handsaw,Ã?Â chisel and some rasps did the rest of the work. After about four or five hours of work, the plane was complete and ready to use.
The throat is gappier than I’d hoped, but it’s actually a remarkably useful aperture , probably about 1/32″ all told.
The grips are a bit of a revelation. I’ve spent a couple hours fiddling with the plane after the shellac dried and was amused by how the grips encouraged me to press my entire weight on the wooden stock. My bench at home is 34″ high. I think a 31″-high bench is optimal for this plane and my frame. Paintings and frescoes and the like that show Roman planes typically have a low bench,Ã?Â so that seems to make sense.
I’m going to be interested in how the wooden body reacts to humidity changes. Coffin-bodied smoothing planes are shaped to expose the maximum end grain, which allows them to react to humidity changes quickly. This plane has even more end grain exposed , right up against the area where the wedge and blade are and at the front and toe. It could be good; could be bad.
Next up: Moving forward from the 3rd century to the 20th as I build a Krenov-style plane from the same kit.