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Woods Used In Making Infill Planes

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The Lore Of Timber

Many different kinds of timber can be used for planemaking in general. Most of the old wooden planes of past generations have been made from timbers such as beech, hornbeam, maple, boxwood and birch. I have seen some fin examples of early Scottish and English made metal planes with various burls such as walnut, elm, yew and ash used as infills, as well as a spectacular American made panel plane in birdseye maple. Most of these early planes were either mitre or smoothing planes, with the occasional panel plane thrown in for good measure. Many of these planes were also user made, and their maker probably used whatever scraps of "nice looking stuff" he had lying around. If you're unsure exactly what an infill plane is you can check out "What Is An Infill Plane" on the Infill-Planes.com website.

It was in all likelihood Stewart Spiers himself who decided, mid last century, that there was really only two woods that were considered worthy enough to be used as infill for high class woodworking planes. Though he experimented with mahogany early on, Spiers soon discovered that Brazilian rosewood and, to a lesser degree, ebony were the way to go when it came to producing high class woodworking planes on a commercial level. Obviously enough customers agreed, for not long after production plane makers old and new began manufacturing planes extensively using these two woods.

Rosewood and ebony have long been regarded as "THE" timbers to use in metal infill planes. Virtually all of the older makers of these styles of planes used one or both of these timbers. They were hard, heavy, dimensionally stable and exceptionally beautiful. Most of all, however, they were expensive! This helped to enforce the notion that the plane, when finished, was of the highest quality possible. After all, a handplane that was going to cost most craftsmen two to three weeks wages really had to be one of the best and most beautiful planes that had ever been made - and that meant using the very best materials available, regardless of cost.

When it comes to rosewood and ebony however, all is not what it seems. Like the metals discussed in an earlier article, it is important to understand that there are several species of each, all with their own properties, characteristics and appearances. Below is a brief description of some of the more common types, as well as some other timbers that might be worth considering.

Unfortunately for the modern planemaker, some of these timbers may be difficult to obtain - or no longer available at all! Others may be hesitant about using timbers that are not ecologically viable and should therefore attempt to seek out ones that are. After all, there's no point spending all that time making a beautiful looking plane that works wonderfully - only to end up feeling guilty every time you use it.

Glossary Of Timber Terms

Botanical Name --- This is expressed as the last two names of a species' classification. Known as the Binomial System, it is the only way to accurately identify a particular species.

Common Name --- Refers to the standard trade name given for a specific timber. It is by no means an accurate system as timbers in one country may be known by different names in another country.

Density --- The density refers to the weight of a timber. This is expressed as weight Kg/m3 at 12% moisture content. The specific gravity is defined as the density of wood to the density of water at 40 degrees celsius.

Distribution --- The distribution refers to the native or main source of supply of a particular species.

Figure --- This refers to the surface pattern on a given piece of timber. It is produced by both natural features and the way the particular piece of timber is cut.

Grain --- The grain refers to the direction or pattern of the wood fibres in relation to the main axis of the tree.

Texture --- This describes the way wood feels. Timber with large open pores is referred to as coarse textured, while those with small or narrow vessels, or pores, are considered to be fine textured.

Working Properties --- This refers to the ease or difficulty in which a particular species is able to be cut, planed, drilled or shaped.

The Rosewoods

Brazilian Rosewood --- Traditionally the most commonly used species of rosewood for infill was Brazilian rosewood ( Dalbergia nigra ), also known as Rio rosewood. Spiers and Norris used this timber extensively in their production models, as did many other makers. This highly figured wood is dark purplish brown in color, with black streaks which often branch out giving a vein - like appearance similar, in some respects, to marble. The presence of these overlapping and interlocking pigment lines, as well as the rose like smell that is exuded when this timber is cut, helps to distinguish Brazilian rosewood from other species. The grain is mostly straight but can be wavy on occasion and the pores are quite open, giving this wood a coarse texture. It can dull chisel and plane blades very quickly and is not easy to saw but despite these shortfalls I enjoy using Brazilian rosewood whenever I can. Unfortunately it is not easy to come by and is usually only available in small sizes, so larger planes are generally out of the question.

Honduras Rosewood --- Although noticeably heavier than Brazilian rosewood ( for comparative densities refer to table 2:4 ), Honduras rosewood ( Dalbergia stevensonii ) is often easier to cut and plane. It is much lighter in color than the Brazilian, ranging from a light pinkish brown to a dark purple brown, with black markings that can sometimes appear irregular. Honduras rosewood is generally straight grained, although it can become wavy in places, and is somewhat less porous than Brazilian rosewood. As far as the older planemakers were concerned I have only ever seen Honduras rosewood used on a few rebate planes by Spiers and Preston, and one or two small parallel smoothers from Slater of Clerkenwell. I'm not sure why it wasn't used more often - especially on smaller planes where its added weight would have proven beneficial. Honduras rosewood can be one of the most attractive timbers available.

Indian Rosewood --- Indian rosewood ( Dalbergia latifolia ) is the species that most modern planemakers use today. It has effectively taken over the mantle formally held by Brazilian rosewood, due mostly by that timbers' scarcity. I can't recall seeing any evidence of this timber being used on older infill planes by any maker, although I'm sure there must have been one or two out there using it. Indian rosewood is light to dark purplish brown with purple - black lines and occasional reddish - orange streaks. It can also have a greenish or even bluish tinge to it on some occasions. Although it is often interlocked, the grain is fairly straight and the texture coarse but even. Indian rosewood is more dimensionally stable than Brazilian rosewood. and can quite often be available in large sizes. Mostly found in India, this prized timber has been successfully plantation grown in Indonesia, where it is referred to commercially as Sonokeling. Often this plantation grown timber is even more visually striking than the forest grown variety.

Cocobolo --- The brilliant colouring and figure of cocobolo ( Dalbergia retusa ) as well as its heavy weight makes this timber highly desirable for planemaking. The color ranges from orange and red to purple and yellow, with streaks of purple, brown and black. It weighs more than most of the other rosewoods except Kingwood and African blackwood, and the grain is often wild and variable, but with a fine, even texture. Although cocobolo is very hard, it poses no real problems with cutting and planing and is fairly easily worked. It can cause difficulties with gluing and finishing however, and some people may find the sawdust irritable.

Stanley Planes apparently used cocobolo for handles and knobs whenever their stocks of Brazilian rosewood were down.

Kingwood --- Kingwood ( Dalbergia cearensis ) has a rich violet - brown color with streaks of dark violet and black. It is straight grained and has a fine uniform texture, and is generally only available in small sizes. Probably just as well though, as a 28" long jointing plane made with this as an infill would be extremely heavy indeed! Would be good for smaller planes, however.

African Blackwood --- Looking more like an ebony than a rosewood, African blackwood ( Dalbergia melanoxylon ) is a very hard and difficult timber to work. The coloring is dark purplish - brown to black, and the grain is generally straight with a very fine, even texture. Although heavier than most ebonies, it is also much more expensive and for this reason probably best suited for high class woodwind instruments rather than woodworking planes. Having said that though, I have made several chariot planes from offcuts of this timber.

The Ebonies

African Ebony --- Generally considered to be the blackest timber in the world, African ebony ( Diospyrus crassiflora ) can quite often be more of a browny - grey to black color, depending on its grading. Select billets are truly and genuinely black - jet black - and this contrasts beautifully with brass or gunmetal, and not too badly with steel either. The texture of the grain is very fine and on most occasions straight, but that doesn't seem to make this timber any easier to work. Despite this, many makers of the past offered both African ebony and Sri Lankan ebony, as a higher class alternative on some of their smaller planes. Occasionally you'll find African ebony used as infill on some smoothing planes as well, but mostly on the unhandled versions. I have yet to see a panel or jointing plane with an ebony infill, but there maybe one or two of them out there.

Macassar Ebony --- Macassar ebony ( Diospyros celebica ) is dramatically different from other ebonies. Rather than being all black or all grey - black, this ebony is streaked with contrasting bands of pale yellow - brown and grey - brown through to dark brown and black. The overall look is somewhat visually striking which is just as well, because like most ebonies, it's pretty difficult to work. The grain is generally straight,. though it can become irregular in places, and the texture is fine and even. I have not seen any older planes made with a Macassar ebony infill.

Sri Lankan Ebony --- Sri Lankan ebony ( Diospyros ebenum ) is often regarded as "true" ebony. Its appearance is very much the same as African ebony, and its working properties are also very similar. Sri Lankan ebony tends to be a bit heavier than its African cousin though. It still looks every bit as good wrapped up in gunmetal or steel.

The Others

Bocote --- Bocote ( Cordia elaegnoides ) is often referred to as Mexican rosewood, and while it isn't actually a true rosewood, it's still a very attractive timber. It has a greenish golden - yellow color with contrasting dark brown and black streaks. Its fairly coarse grain is often interlocked. This timber often has a very wild figure pattern.

Gidgee --- Gidgee ( Acacia cambagei ) is a dark chocolate brown to black, occasionally with streaks of purple. It's texture is very fine and its grain varies from straight to interlocked, sometimes producing a mottled figureback figure. Gidgee is very heavy and very hard and is limited only to small sizes.

Gonçalo Alves --- One timber that is worth considering as an infill for metal planes in Gonçalo Alves ( Astronium fraxinifolium ). Although it doesn't posses the richness and allure of the rosewoods, it nonetheless shares some of their qualities. Gonçalo Alves is reddish brown in color, with dark brown and black streaks. The texture is medium and the grain is often irregular and interlocked. This timber weighs about the same as Honduras rosewood. Although I've not seen it used as infill, Harris Tools use this timber a lot for making their panel raising planes and spoke shaves.

Lignum Vitae --- The color of Lignum Vitae ( Guaiacum officinale ) is dark greenish brown, to almost black. The grain is irregular and very much interlocked but the texture is very fine. Lignum Vitae is one of the hardest and heaviest timbers available and it's downright cruel to your chisels and planes. It does end up looking good as an infill however, and for obvious reasons, it's great for small planes. Companies such as ECE Primus use Lignum Vitae for the soles of their planes.

Louro Preto --- Louro Preto ( Nectandra mollis ) is a timber which passes itself off as a good substitute for Indian rosewood. The color varies from light grey - brown, with dark brown - black streaks. The texture is medium and the grain is straight, to irregular.

Snakewood --- If you're after something a little different, you can't go past Snakewood ( Piratinera guianensis ). It is reddish brown in color with mottled black spots, speckles and stripes, and it virtually looks like snake skin! Snakewood is very hard and heavy and it's really only available in small billets. It's also quite expensive.

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