How to Make a Molding Plane
Sticking with an 18th-century tool
by Norman Vandal
ou still can spot old molding planes in antique shops or
junk shops, but they aren't as common as they used to
be. Prices can be as low as $8 to $15, so people snap them
up to use as decorations. I can see displaying these old tools
because they are aesthetically pleasing, but it's really a shame
not to fix them up and use them. They were fine tools once
and can work just as well again.
I make a lot of period furniture, and I can't get along
without my set of old planes. When I needed a reverse ogee
molding with cove for a cornice on a cabinet, I decided to
make a plane to do the job, designed around an old iron I'd
found that had become separated from its original block.
I'll describe how to make such a plane from scratch, so
that if you come across an old molding plane or iron you will
be able to get it working again, regardless of its condition.
Whether you are starting with an old plane block or an old
iron, or from scratch, this is the general scheme: First you
must know the molding profile, which will determine the
width of the iron. Next you must shape the sole of the plane
to the reverse profile of the molding. Then you can true the
iron to the sole and start making molding.
If you come across a plane with a poorly shaped iron, don't
change the shape of the sole to conform. The contour of the
sole represents the molding the plane was designed to make.
A poorly matched iron is usually the result of inept sharpen-
ing or grinding. Recondition a damaged iron by annealing it
(softening it by heating), filing it to fit the sole and then re-
The style of plane I've chosen is based on the finer 18th-
century examples, and all the standard dimensions discussed
are characteristic of this period. You may, of course, alter the
design, but this pattern is a good starting point.
Molding shapes—Planes with an average length of 9 in. to
10 in., a height of 3 in., a thickness of from 1 in. to in.
and no handle have erroneously been accepted as "molding
planes." Many of these planes are for rabbeting, tongue-and-
grooving, dadoing and other purposes that have nothing to
do with making moldings. Molding planes produce moldings
on the edges of frame members called sticks, hence the pro-
cess is called sticking. Figure 1 shows some standard mold-
ings, and the bibliography at the end of this article includes
books that contain full-size drawings.
Simple moldings (composed of segments of circles or el-
lipses) are beads, quarter rounds, hollows and rounds, coves
or scotias, and astragal beads. Planes for making these profiles
are called simple molding planes. Complex moldings, often
broken up or set off by flats or fillets, are ogees, reverse ogees,
ovolos or compositions of various curves. Planes to stick these
shapes are called complex molding planes. There is another
Diagonal lines at spring angle
indicate cheeks of plane body.
These molding shapes, based on sections of a circle or an ellipse,
date back to a classical revival that began in Renaissance Europe,
and before then to Greece and Rome. They have been the stock-in-
trade of cabinetmakers, architects, builders and designers, and they
can be seen everywhere—from cornices on buildings to trim on
cabinets. Some period furnituremakers make do by shaping the
moldings with scratch-headers, but the king of tools for day-in and
day-out precision work is the molding plane.
The plane shown above began with an old iron. Vandal an-
nealed and reshaped the iron, then made a yellow-birch block to
suit. In the photo sequence below, the plane is tilted, or sprung,
so the fence will be pressed against the work. A series of passes
then takes progressively wider shavings, until the depth stop con-
tacts the work, and the plane ceases to cut.
class of planes generally used to cut wider moldings. These
planes are from 12 in. to 14 in. long, and have a throat,
wedge system and handle similar to common bench planes.
They have been dubbed "crown molding planes," though
this type of plane cuts many sorts of moldings other than
crowns or cornices.
The design—The first step in making any molding plane is
choosing the molding. Draw its section full-size, and refine
the drawing before beginning the plane. Simple planes can
make moldings up to about in. wide. Wider moldings
will have to be made with more than one plane, or with a
crown molding plane.
Use the molding section to construct a full-size drawing of
the heel, or rear, of the plane, as this will settle the size of the
block needed. The sole of any molding plane is the reverse
profile of the molding it cuts, plus the integral fence and the
depth stop. Looking at my plane from the rear, the fence is
on the left and the depth stop on the right (figure 2, top of
In use, the stock is fastened horizontally to the bench and
the plane is tilted, or "sprung," so that the fence is vertical
and the depth stop horizontal, as shown in the photos above.
An unsprung plane can wander, but a sprung plane gives
greater control because the guide fence is pressed against the
stock. The plane, even though tilted, cuts straight down the
side of the work, gradually taking a wider and wider shaving
until the full profile has been stuck. When the depth stop
contacts the top of the work, the iron stops cutting. Not only
is a sprung plane easier to use, but its geometry will also
allow its mouth to be more uniform in width (figure 3, top of
facing page). Not all 18th-century molders were sprung,
however, and a sprung plane won't cut some molding shapes.
Draw the molding with the appropriate spring, which can
vary—good working angles are shown in figure 1. Then add
the fence and depth stop to the molding profile. I allow in.
on the fence side, and in. on the depth-stop side. Your
drawing now shows the total width of the plane.
The top of a molding plane is stepped down in thickness.
The width of the stepped portion will be the width of the
iron's tang plus in. at the left and in. at the right. The ex-
tra width makes up for the wood that will be cut from the
throat. You can judge from figure 2 the height of a typical step.
The stock—Yellow birch was used by 18th-century plane-
makers, but by the turn of the 19th century beech had be-
come the wood of choice. I prefer quartersawn yellow birch,
but beech, maple or cherry will work as well. Select as fine a
block of wood as you can—straight-grained and consistent
throughout. Avoid figured wood, or you'll have problems
shaping the sole.
My rough block length for a 10-in. long plane is 12 in.,
which gives me an inch at each end to experiment with when
shaping the sole profile, and also allows for cutting off bruises
inflicted during shaping. The finished height of most blocks is
about in. Standard dimensions meant planes could be
stored and transported in fitted boxes without rattling around.
The iron—Since I figure that I'll use any molding shape
sooner or later, I frequently buy old irons that have lost their
blocks, then make new blocks to fit. I've had some good
luck, but looking for a usable iron that's also a shape you
need can be futile, so I recommend that you make your own.
The easiest way to make an iron is to start with a piece of
dead-soft sheet tool steel, work it with a file and hacksaw,
and then temper it after shaping. Alternatively, you can have
a blacksmith forge an iron out of spring steel, which can be
annealed and shaped, then tempered as a last step. Hayrake
tines and old buggy springs forge into excellent irons.
Iron thickness can be from in. to in. The thicker irons
will chatter less, but will be more difficult to shape. Old
plane irons were tapered in thickness. A light tap on the end
of the tang would loosen a tapered iron slightly while driving
it deeper into the block. Then a sharp tap on the wedge could
secure the iron without altering the set. The tapered iron,
while nice to have, is not a necessity. And a uniformly thick
iron is much simpler to make. Keep in mind that the iron
must be wider than the cutting portion of the sole—if the
profile ends at the side of the iron, you won't be able to set
the iron deep enough to cut the full width of the molding.
Layout—When your block is planed and trued square, lay
out the cuts and mortises. Start by making a full-size tem-
plate of the sole profile, directly from the full-size drawing of
the molding. To make the template, I use aluminum flash-
ing. It is easy to work, and the edges of the template remain
crisp during tracing. Position the template in the same place
on each end of the block and trace the sole profile.
Next, lay out the throat, mouth and wedge slot using the
dimensions given in figure 2. I suggest a 50° pitch for the
iron—a compromise for cutting either hard or soft woods. The
wood which the iron rests against is called the bed. The op-
posite side of the mortise will be cut at an angle 10° greater,
to allow for the wedge taper. Carry the layout lines all around
the body of the plane to define the mouth opening and the
tang mortise on top of the block. Lay out the mortise width
according to the width of the tang.
Last, use a marking gauge to scribe the step. The step
makes the plane easier to handle, helps the shaving out of the
throat, and makes cutting the mortise for the wedge and iron
A. Rabbet plane shows uniform mouth.
B. Ogee molding plane, unsprung, shows irregular mouth
because sole must be cut up the side of the plane.
C. Ogee molding plane, which cuts the same molding as
in B, shows that mouth of sprung plane remains uniform.
This plane must be a bit wider than plane B to cut the
An intricate sole can be shaped by a series of cove and straight
cuts on the tablesaw, and then sanded with shaped blocks.
Boxing the sole
Slivers of Turkish boxwood can be let into the sole of a
plane to reinforce it at points where use would wear it
down. Boxwood—the familiar yellow wood used in old
Stanley folding rules—is dense, tight-grained and extremely
Planemakers plowed narrow grooves into the sole of the
plane, inserted thin slips of boxwood, then trued up the
sole. In order to make the slips even more wear-resistant,
makers set the grain of the boxwood nearly at right angles
to that of the plane body, so that the tougher end grain was
exposed to take the abuses.
Boxing was not common in 18th-century planes, but it
caught on fast—it is found in almost all molding planes
produced after the turn of the 19th century. —N.V.
easier, as we shall see. The edge of the step can be decorated
in a number of ways—molded with ogee or quarter-round
profiles, chamfered, or simply beveled off. I decorate my steps
by cutting a cove the full length of the plane. Lay out the
decoration now, too.
Shaping the sole and step—Period planemakers duplicated
many profile molders. Instead of shaping each sole with files
and gouges, they devised a "mother plane," made in reverse
profile, to stick each profile. The mother plane saved time,
and it ensured that all the planes for a specific molding would
be the same, at least those from any one workshop. I've never
bothered to make a mother plane, though, because I've never
needed more than one plane of each shape.
Cut the sole and the step decoration prior to sawing out
the mouth and throat—these gaps would interfere with the
shaping. It's vital that the sole be uniform from end to end,
or you won't be able to set the iron properly. Various tools
and techniques can be used to shape the sole. For the fence
and depth stop, or any other flat portions of the profile, I use
the tablesaw to make cuts the full length of the sole.
The concave areas can be gouged and filed, or cut on a
router table using various cove or fluting bits. By making a
number of repeated cuts, not quite to the layout line, you can
remove most of the material. The sole can then be scraped or
sanded smooth, with the sandpaper wrapped around a dowel.
For shaping convex areas I generally use hollow planes, but
other methods work too. Again you can remove most of the
material using router or tablesaw, then clean up with chisels,
scrapers and a shaped sanding block.
Check the sole with a straightedge, and then true any hol-
lows or high spots.
The steps on period planes were probably cut with a large
rabbet or fillister plane—chatter marks from the iron are often
visible. I cut the step on the tablesaw and scrape the surfaces
smooth, saving the waste to make the wedge. At this point
you can cut the decoration on the step.
Sawing out the mouth—Surprisingly, a good deal of the
mouth and wedge slot can be made by simply sawing out the
area between the layout lines. Mark out how far up the body
of the plane you wish to saw. This cut is a compromise be-
tween leaving enough wood above the step for strength and
providing a gentle angle to guide the shaving out of the
throat. I usually stop the sawcuts in. above the step.
Figure 2 shows how deep to cut across the sole. I use a
miter box to start the cuts at the proper angles for the blade
and the wedge—the miter box also ensures that the throat will
begin straight across the sole. I use the backsaw freehand to
finish the cuts.
The wood between the kerfs can now be chiseled out, and
pared as smooth as possible. You will find that a -in. chisel
is a great help in clearing out the mouth.
Mortising the wedge slot—The angled mortises in period
planes were, I believe, chopped out without pre-boring—pro-
duction planemakers of yesteryear had plenty of practice. I
find it a lot safer to pre-bore the wedge slot with a bit slightly
smaller than the width of the mortise, using a guideblock
bored at the correct angle. A drill press could be used, or any
number of jigs worked out. It's important to bore accurately,
without cutting into either the bed or wedge ends of the mor-
tise. Bore all the way through to the throat.
Now pare the sides and ends down to the layout lines.
Some chopping is required, but don't rush it—many a plane
has been spoiled at this point. You have to chisel the wedge
end of the mortise into end grain at a 40° angle. Patience and
an absolutely sharp chisel will prevail.
After my wedge-slot mortise has been cut, I use a set of
planemaker's floats (FWW #30, p. 63) to true up the bed
and the mortise. Floats are single-cut files of various shapes
and sizes with widely spaced teeth, each of which functions
like a tiny chisel. Original floats are extremely scarce, and
command high prices. I have a set that a friend made me on
his milling machine, and I value them highly. Although they
make truing up a lot easier, floats aren't strictly necessary—
careful paring with a chisel can produce as good a result.
The width of the mortise isn't crucial, just make sure there
is adequate clearance for the iron without removing too much
wood. The bed, however, must be perfectly flat—or the iron
will chatter. For the final fitting, use your iron to check out
the bed surface, the mortise width and the mouth. But check
the iron itself for flatness first. The wedge end of the mortise
must also be flat, and square to the plane's sides.
Much of the angled mortise can be started with a backsaw and
then pared away, but the inside should be drilled and chopped.
The plane's wedge is made from the scrap left over when the step
was cut. Its lower end will be tapered to guide the shaving out.
Making the wedge—Take the cutoff you saved when you
made the step, and thickness it to the width of the tang.
Taper it to 10° so it will fit the mortise. I make the angled
cut with a fine-tooth handsaw and plane it true and smooth
with a block plane. Now set the iron in the plane and insert
the wedge against it with the grain of the wood parallel to the
iron. The wedge must fit tight to hold the iron firmly against
the bed, and to prevent shavings from catching between the
wedge and iron, jamming up the mouth and throat. Carefully
pare away wood from the mortise until you get a perfect fit.
Shaping the iron—The blank has to be annealed, so that it
can be worked to shape, then rehardened. To anneal the iron,
you can use a propane torch, or better yet a hotter MAPP gas
torch, heating the iron to a dull red glow, then letting it cool
slowly for an hour or two. If the steel is properly annealed
you should be able to cut it with a file or hacksaw.
Once you've shaped the tang so the iron fits neatly in the
plane, the cutting edge can be laid out to the shape of the
sole. This must be done while the iron is set flat on the bed. I
make a full-size template of the iron out of aluminum flash-
ing. Place the template in the plane as a substitute iron, hold-
ing it tightly in place with the wedge and making sure that its
full width protrudes slightly beyond the sole. Using a sharp
marking awl, scribe the contour of the sole on the underside
of the template. Remove the template and cut out the traced
profile with a tin snips or knife. The line of the cutting edge
must pass into the body of the plane at the fence and depth
stop—carry this line out to the sides of the template. This will
not give you an entirely exact profile for the cutting edge, but
it's as close as you can come at this point.
Next, paint the bottom inch of the wedge side of the iron
with either machinists' blue layout dye or flat black paint.
When this is dry, lay the aluminum template on it and, using
the awl, scribe the cutting edge's contour. You can use a
grinder for roughing out, but a file will give you the greatest
accuracy for the final cuts to the scribed line. Place the iron in
a vise, paint side toward you, and go at it. Don't worry about
the bevel of the iron yet, just file square to the contour.
Now turn the underside of the iron toward you to file the
bevel: all but the cutting edge itself must clear the sole. Thus
the bevel angle is dependent upon the angle at which the iron
is bedded, the pitch. For a plane with 50° pitch I give the
iron at least a 55° bevel (a 5° clearance angle), which usually
proves sufficient. Set a bevel square to the bevel angle and file
up to the cutting edge.
When the edge is formed, position the iron with the wedge
in the plane, so that the iron protrudes about in. Check for
clearance, and sight down the sole of the plane from toe to
heel to see that the iron protrudes uniformly. Remove the
iron and touch it up with a file where necessary.
When everything is right, remove all traces of the paint or
layout dye. File all parts of the bevel as smooth as you can,
because once the iron is tempered, a file will not easily cut the
steel. Next, polish the iron. I use a muslin wheel charged with
gray compound (tripoli). The shiny, buffed surface will allow
you to see the colors of the steel—your clue to the correct
temperatures—while you temper the iron.
Tempering—I confess I have little scientific knowledge of
tempering. I learned from a local blacksmith who was even
less scientific than myself. I don't have my own forge, but a
MAPP gas torch works quite well on small pieces such as
plane irons. Heat the iron until it glows dark cherry red in
dim light. This is about 1550°F to 1600°F. Don't direct the
flame at the cutting edge—the edge reaches a hotter tempera-
ture anyhow, and there's no sense in burning it. When the
color is right, plunge the iron vertically into a pail of cool,
salted water. When cool, the iron will be in the hard state.
Buff it until it shines again, and test it with a file.
Next, temper the iron by heating it until the polished sur-
face turns a light straw color. This will be about 500°F to
600 °F—nowhere near as hot as when heating to harden.
When the color is right, plunge the iron into the water. Then
check it for hardness with a file, which should be barely able
to cut. If it isn't hard enough, start over.
Buff the tempered iron clean, and use a set of Arkansas
slip stones to hone the tricky spots. Use plenty of lubricating
oil until the entire bevel gleams.
Finishing the wedge—With the tough wedge against the
iron in the plane, mark the wedge's decorative profile. Then
shape the wedge on the bandsaw or scroll saw, and sand the
edges smooth. The wedge in figure 2 is typical of a prolific
18th-century planemaker, Joseph Fuller, of Providence, R.I.
Taper the tip of the wedge to allow the shaving to escape
the mouth and be directed up and out of the throat. The tip
will sometimes have to be cut back a little. Taper from the
end up to the bottom of the angled mortise—if the taper ex-
tends into the mortise you will trap shavings.
After chamfering and carving some decoration on the
block, I stain the yellow birch and apply three coats of Min-
wax antique oil as a sealer and final finish. The plane is now
about ready to go to work.
Setting the iron—Place the iron in the plane and insert the
wedge loosely. Sighting down the sole from the rear of the
plane, set the iron so the cutting edge is just shy of the
mouth, and drive the wedge, but not as tight as it will be
during use. It helps to have a light positioned behind you, to
reflect off the bevel as it protrudes. Get the final set by tap-
ping the end of the iron, then drive the wedge tight. Use a
mallet on the wedge and a ball peen or other small hammer
on the iron. To loosen the wedge, hold the plane in your left
hand and give the heel a sharp blow with the mallet. Be
careful the iron doesn't fall out of the mouth of the plane.
Lubricate the sole to minimize friction and to prevent pitch
buildup. Cabinetmakers used to use tallow, kept in cups fas-
tened beneath their benches. I use paste wax, and sometimes
mineral oil, though mineral oil tends to darken the sole.
Depending on the wood and the amount of set, it might
take twenty to forty passes to stick your molding. Start with
the plane sprung so the fence is flat against the edge of the
board. Keep pressure against the fence with each pass, and be
sure to keep the spring lines vertical, otherwise the molding
may end up with a tilt.
Making wooden planes in the old manner is an all-but-
forgotten trade. I hope you will be inspired to give it a try—to
experience the immense pleasure of using a tool you have
restored or, better still, designed and built on your own.
Norman Vandal, of Roxbury, Vt., makes period architec-
tural components in the summertime and period furniture
during the winter. He wrote about panel planes in FWW
#18. For more on tempering, see FWW #4, pp. 50-52.
Wooden Planes in 19th-century America, Kenneth Roberts, Ken-
neth Roberts Publishing Co., Fitzwilliam, N.H., volume one.
Note: Volume two, available soon, features the most compre-
hensive material ever published on making wooden planes.
Dictionary of Tools Used in the Woodworking and Allied Trades,
R.A. Salaman, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1975. In-
cludes planemakers' tools and the processes involved.
Alex Mathieson & Sons, 1899 Woodworking Tools, a catalog re-
print, Kenneth Roberts, Kenneth Roberts Publishing Co., Fitz-
william, N.H. Many full-size drawings of period moldings.
Chapin-Stephens Catalog No. 114, 1901, a catalog reprint, Ken-
neth Roberts, Kenneth Roberts Publishing Co., Fitzwilliam,
N.H. Molding planes in sticking positions; useful for designing.
Explanation or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield,
Joseph Smith, 1816, a reprint by Early American Industries
Assn., South Burlington, Vt., 1975. Historical information.
Woodworking Planes, a Descriptive Register of Wooden Planes,
Alvin Sellens, Augusta, Kans., 1978. A valuable compilation.
A molding plane can yield a crisp, traditional molding, free of
machine-tool marks and needing no sanding.