Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some Alsatian Tools and Furniture

Recently, my wife and I spent a few days in Alsace. One of the highlights was a trip to the wine village of Mittelbergheim. We were there for the wine and scenery, but there was an unexpected detour when we walked past this sign:

Note the horned plane, symbol of a joiner (or menuiserie in French). We poked our heads in and asked if we could look around. Instead, we got a 40 minute tour of the shop from Henri, the owner (sadly, I did not get a picture of him).

Most of the shop was given over to production power tools (a fact that seemed to sadden Henri--he said it was no fun any more), but there were a few hand tool highlights. Here's an old bench:

This bench is Continental-style, with recessed base and tool tray, but it has a leg vise, more characteristic of French benches. The other benches in the shop had shoulder vises. When I asked Henri about this, he said "well, we were three times part of Germany."

At one point, I noticed an old horned smoother and asked Henri about it. We briefly discussed handplanes, and a few minutes later, he gave me one! What a wonderful gift!

The most interesting thing about this plane is the French-style double iron, which uses a complicated screw mechanism to regulate the distance between chipbreaker and iron. I've seen pictures of these irons, but never expected to own one.

Interestingly, the chipbreaker does not clamp to the iron; it just nestles in the chipbreaker slot. There is a little "nipple" at the top of the slot that fits into a detente in the top of the screw. The mechanism is quite precise: I would guess there is only about .003" worth of play.

The same family also ran a cabinet-making shop (or ebenisterie). They sold very stylish modern furniture. I quite like this chair:

They also had a small museum dedicated to traditional tools. Most interesting were four display boards of various hand tools. First, menuiserie:

Then ebeniste:

Then charpentier (carpenter):

And finally tonnelier (cooper).

There was a great wheel lathe:

And an enormous cooper's plane.

The cutting iron of the cooper's plane was huge, more than 6" wide (my shoe conveniently shows the scale).

Finally, here's a Rouboesque frame saw, with sister-in-law and wife:

While visiting several of the town's wineries, I noticed that they all had the same style of chairs. Apparently, these are traditional Alsatian chairs.

What is really interesting about these is the joinery. Christopher Schwarz has recently written about the use of sliding dovetail battens in medieval furniture. These chairs combine the battens with a wedged tenons to secure the back to the seat.

The tenon on the bottom of the chair back goes through both the seat and the sliding battens, and is wedged in place with a key.

All in all, it was a pretty fascinating day. And the wine was yummy too!


  1. That sure must have been a fun day out. And now you have your own horned plane too! That capiron is a miraculous device, and I have no idea yet how it is supposed to stay in place while you set the wedge.

  2. Hey Kees, I'm very happy about the plane! I haven't used it yet, but I'm pretty sure it is not a problem to set the wedge. The mechanism prevents the chipbreaker from moving up and down, relative to the iron, and the wedge will clamp the chipbreaker to the iron. Anyway, once I get it tuned up, I'll let you know how it works.

  3. Well, looking forward to see how you like it.

    Next time in Europe you should fly on Amsterdam and give me a call ;-).

    1. Kees, I wish I had had the time to visit you and your shop. If I ever get to Amsterdam I will definitely do that. And if you are ever in Virginia, let me know.

  4. Neat! I see chairs like that all the time in Germany. could they be of Germanic origin? Regardless, what I neat experience.

    1. Yeah, as you probably know, Alsace swung back and forth between France and Germany several times, and Alsatian is a German dialect, so I'm sure the chairs were influenced by earlier German chairs.

  5. One of my two favorite types of planes (the continental - the vintage types, no rube goldberg adjusters to get tangled up in). Takes not very long to get used to them, and they are very capable. Back corners on planes without a hand web rest can be pretty painful, though.

    Somewhere in prior discussions, the mechanism on that plane came up in conversation. I'll be interested to hear how it works. It looks more robust than I expected from the drawings of it.

    1. Hey Dave,
      I've been wanting a continental plane for a while. I'm not sure whether this one can really be rehabilitated into a first-string worker--it's pretty rough--but I'm very glad to have it. Partly for the sentimental value, but also because that double iron, whether it works well or not, is a really interesting historical artifact. If nothing else, it shows that people of the time were really serious about setting the chipbreaker a very precise distance from the edge. If it was just there to "stiffen the blade" or some nonsense, why go to all the trouble?

  6. I came here after a Google search to try to find out info on a similar cap-iron and not finding much. I recently bought a 26.5 inch French jointer on Ebay, made by Aux Mines De Suede of Paris. It was in very good condition and only needed a little work to get it running beautifully. Anyway... it has the similar unusual cap-iron with the two bolts welded to the cap-iron that feed along a threaded rod that sits in a cut-out in the blade. The mechanism had no rust, works very smoothly and there is no play in it at all. It's so easy to get to a super tight cap-iron setting, or to back off if needed. Also there's no undoing of any screws when taking out to sharpen - the bolts perfectly fit the cut-out in the iron and stay put unless tapped gently out from the back. It made me wish all cap-irons were made like this!

    I had exactly the same initial thought - this is prima facie evidence that it was important in some way for some people to be adjusting the cap-iron to a very precise location. It struck me that these panes with wedges and tap adjustment were being used by men who were very sensitive to adjusting planes by tap only. That means that someone saw value in making/selling/buying an adjuster that worked better than just doing it by hand/eye and or tapping the cap-iron down into place with a semi-tightened screw (these men must have thought of that).

    Or... it is possible that I somehow bought a Rolls-Royce over-engineered plane and some manufacturers even back then were adding gimmicky things that sounded like a good idea whether or not they were useful... Can't imagine that ever happening.

    One other thing came to mind, which was that this cap-iron feature wasn't just added to a smaller smoothing plane - but a jointer. This kind of suggests that users wanted to reserve the right to use a massive jointer with a super tight cap-iron for smoothing should they so choose. I can't imagine many people doing that now, but there must have been a use-case for it.

    I guess we may never know, but it's very interesting to think about, and this is good evidence for historical cap-iron rationale beyond reinforcing Stanley's thin blades (for cost) as per his original patent.