Tools of Necessity – a French Moulding Plane

I was pottering around in my shop one day a while back, cleaning and sharpening the irons of a couple of moulding planes I had found at a flea market, when Roger turned up.

“Alors, Copette, what are up to today?”

Retired, he had been a painter, then a roofer and then a plumber in Paris. “Copette” is what they called apprentice joiners there, he told me one day when after I moved in across the street when he found me making copeaux with a jointer plane. “Copette” is also, everybody’s favorite algorithm tells me, the name for a strip of wood, moulded or not, to hide the joint between a door or window frame and stone reveals and lintels.

So anyway he watched for a moment, wandered off and came back with a moulding plane and gave it to me, saying he had too much crap in his house anyway.

Wow, nice. It was a moulding plane in oak; the iron was an old tanged chisel, hand-forged with a laid blade.

I am not sure that every tool has a story to tell. Some are just tools – they do what they are supposed to, or they don’t. But this one had a story to tell, though maybe my ears are not tuned well enough to hear it all.

Roger said he had been ripping up an old wooden floor in an apartment in Paris to install a bathroom, and he had found the plane, hidden for who knows how long, under the boards. It cuts a simple hollow, 11 mm (maybe 7/16”) wide, and was a quick-and-dirty shop-made tool.

Mostly the moulding planes you find in France are made of one of the usual hardwoods, beech, sometimes with a hornbeam sole, or maybe maple. It’s hard to tell sometimes, though the best were made of “service tree” wood, or cormier in French. These were obviously manufactured by a toolmaker and very clean.

Laid blade, a hard tool steel edge, forge welded to a softer iron bar. A lot of moulding planes I have seen have back-bevels, sometime quite pronounced. I think it was just faster to sharpen them that way, as opposed to using 10 different slipstones. So I sharpened this one the same way, just knocking off the wire edge and some of the corrosion on the bevel with a fine slip stone.

On Roger’s plane, the blade is slightly undersized for the throat, which is 14 mm wide. On the top, you can see the lines from the mortise gauge; and on the side, a pencil mark at 45° for the bedding angle. But the throat was started well in front of the 45° line, very roughly chopped down through the stock, and then once it had emerged into the area rebated for the moulding, very roughly cut back from the side at a 45° angle, effectively giving a bedding angle of about 60°, with the iron supported only at the top and along the part emerging from the stock. The rabbet for the depth fence shows plane chatter and chisel marks where the escapement was pared out. There are a couple of splotches of a pastel green paint, some wear, and a couple of places where the tool got banged repeatedly against another edged tool loose in a box.

So what gives? Well, the plane would have had no use working on a floor, but its owner could easily have been making, or perhaps matching, a moulding on a baseboard or in paneling at the same time. So perhaps the joiner makes a template, takes it home, finds an old chisel in his could-come-in-handy box, and grinds the edge to match the template. He then uses the template and iron to shape the moulding. Since it’s just for one custom job, a plane is just a jig to hold a chisel, and time is money, no real point in making it a piece of furniture. But on the other hand, on the job, it works just fine.

So the joiner takes the time to brand his initials on the back of the plane: R.F, and it kicks around in his toolbox and gives good service for a number of years.

Then one day they are in a hurry on a job. The painters are already there, working close enough behind the joiners to slop some paint on a tool left lying between a couple of joists.  The pastel green color was (and to some extent still is) a popular color to paint interior woodwork. Today it is often called “garrigue,” because it resembles the color of the semi-arid scrub vegetation of that name along the Mediterranean coast. So the last strip of moulding is cut and installed, and the plane is left between the floor joists in a pile of shavings and building debris, unnoticed. Or perhaps it is just left there because of wear and a split in the fence. The floor goes over it.

One day, Roger is plumbing a bathroom, maybe even a century later, and picks it up. He says it must have been in the late 1970s, in a big apartment building, just across the boulevard from the church Saint-Germain-des-Près. It sits on a shelf in his apartment in Paris and then moves to the Touraine with him, where it lives on another shelf in his living room among other antiques: clay pots and jars, oil lamps, irons, brass torches for soldering the zinc roofing like he used when he was a roofer, some old planes and a saw from his grandfather, a cooper.

Then I move in across the street and the garage door to my shop is often open. Roger is a kind and sociable neighbor, and the plane finds a new home with me. Maybe a century under a floor somewhere in Paris, decades with Roger, and then 10 minutes on the stones in my shop, and it cuts just fine.

This morning I asked Roger about the plane again, and he launched into some stories. No greedy dragons exactly. But since that apartment house on the Boulevard St. Germain was built or rebuilt in the 1860s, perhaps during Baron Haussmann’s “renovation” of Paris, there have been wars, occupations, economic crashes, deportations and revolutions. With each one, people stashed their treasure in the walls and the floors, and some were never able to get it back. Roger’s eyes were alight with stories of Nazi gold, bags of jewelry, stashes of silver ingots and ancient coins. Sometimes some mason or joiner or plumber, demolishing a floor or a fireplace or a chimney, got very lucky, it seems.

And that moulding plane slept through it all.

— Brian Anderson

Brian is the translator for “Grandpa’s Workshop” by Maurice Pommier, which is the forthcoming book from Lost Art Press. You can order it before the Sept. 28 publication date and receive free shipping. Other sellers that will be carrying the book include: Lee Valley Tools, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, Tools for Working Wood and Highland Hardware. In the United Kingdom, Classic Hand Tools has agreed to carry it.

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About lostartpress

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.

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6 Responses to Tools of Necessity – a French Moulding Plane

  1. thumphr says:

    Thanks this was a pleasant diversion.

  2. TobyC says:

    If you saw that on fleabay you would laugh and tell your friends, but with a good story behind it it’s all warm and fuzzy. It beats this one.

    Turn it blue, right click, and search Google.


  3. Rex Wenger says:

    Thanks for a very informative story on an old molding plane. All the old tools have a story if they could speak and tell us. Rex

  4. Jacques Blaauw says:

    So sad. Nostalgic really.

  5. Brett says:

    The mushrooming on the ends of some old plane irons indicates they were used occasionally as chisels. It only seems right, then, that a chisel would occasionally be used as a plane iron.

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