Colonial Williamsburg’s cabinetmakers, joiners and carpenters once depended on a couple of vendors who made woodworking planes with one or two designs.
“That wasn’t the 18th-century way,” said Matthew Sanbury, an apprentice historic carpenter. “When you look at 18th-century collections, you see that there were lots of different sizes and shapes and designs.”
So, about a year and a half ago, Sanbury started to make the tools himself, and now his planes are used throughout the Historic Area. He’s even made planes for left-handed users who’ve never had one that felt fully comfortable.
By making the tools, Sanbury is preserving the technique and also the “tool diversity” of the period.
Sanbury uses beech or boxwood for making planes. The woods are very strong and less susceptible to warping, which is why they were commonly used for tools in the 18th century.
Mastering the process took time. Sanbury started by studying a series of period tools. Tool marks on some of them provided clues as to how they were made. Before he started working with the harder woods, he practiced with the more common oak and a variety of saws, chisels and other sharp implements to gouge and shape the wood.
“It took about half a dozen planes or so until I became comfortable with all the steps and details in a hand plane,” he said. “And it took that many practice pieces before I spent time on a plane made of beechwood.”
Now it takes him about four or five days to make a plane, though like all tradespeople he often stops what he’s doing to talk to guests.
Other tradespeople are involved in the process. Master blacksmith Ken Schwarz makes two blades for each of Sanbury’s planes so that a sharp one can be substituted at any time.
Even in colonial times, many carpenters bought their tools rather than making them by hand. But many, like Sanbury, wanted a special fit or a distinctive decoration.
“The last thing I’d want our guests to see is all woodworking people in Williamsburg having tools that look the same,” he said. “That wasn’t the case then, and if we can reproduce known 18th-century examples, why wouldn’t we? Every day I come to work I use tools that I made to make buildings here. It doubles my satisfaction.”