Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 162,539 pages of information and 244,522 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Early Planing Machines

From Graces Guide
Nicolas Focq, 1751.[1]
Nicolas Focq, 1751 [2]
Planing machine by Richard Roberts, 1817
Planing machine by Richard Roberts, 1817. Photo by kind permission of Rev. Dr. Richard L. Hills
Planing machine by Richard Roberts, 1817. Photo by kind permission of Rev. Dr. Richard L. Hills
1. 1833 model of a Fox of Derby planing machine at the Musée des Arts et Metiers, 2019
Morinière's 1834 planing machine
Joseph Whitworth's 1835 planing machine patent
John Roberts' 1838 planing machine patent
Leadscrew and discs on 1842 Whitworth planer at the Science Museum
Leadscrew and nut on 1842 Whitworth planer at MoSI
Pre-1700 'Machine à manche a couteaux d’Angleterre' (see text).[3]


The metal planing machine was one of the most important machine tools in the 19th century engineering workshop. It allowed accurate plane surfaces to be produced at very much lower cost than was possible by hand methods.

Despite its usefulness and its simple design, it took a surprisingly long time to appear. Even when planing machines were introduced, they were slow to gain acceptance, to the extent that the small number of early owners could charge a premium for undertaking planing work. See 'Uptake of Metal Planing Machines' below.

When general purpose, versatile engineering planing machines for metal did appear, they were characterised by having the workpiece moving linearly relative to cutting tool, with the cutting tool being held in a holder which can be moved vertically and transversely on linear guides by leadscrews, and rotated to allow angled surfaces such as dovetails to be cut. Rigid construction was essential to produce accurate work, a good surface finish, and a reasonable metal removal rate. The earliest surviving example was made by Richard Roberts, who stated that he made it in 1817. See photos. It has the key elements which characterised later machines, but lacks the important self-acting feed of the tool. This machine was donated to the forerunner of the London Science Museum, but surprisingly it is not now on display in a museum.

The reason for the late arrival and slow acceptance of the versatile planing machine is puzzling. It hardly deserves the accolade of an 'invention', and no great ingenuity was involved in its basic design. All the fundamental elements were already well-established in lathes, which were available with iron beds with accurate guide ways, and with tools that were positioned by leadscrews.

In fact, not only were the basic principles of the lathe waiting to be adapted for planing, lathes were being used to produce plane surfaces, by the simple expedient of taking facing cuts using the cross-slide. Lathes could also be applied to produce plane surfaces in two other ways: (a) By flycutting the workpiece bolted to the cross-slide, and traversing the cross slide; (b) By bolting the workpiece to the cross slide or to the lathe bed, and facing it with 'facing head', a device which can be envisaged as a cross slide bolted to the faceplate, the tool being advanced manually or automatically using a 'star wheel'. We do not know when these 'rotating tool' methods were first applied. We do find occasional advertisements referring to lathes for producing flat surfaces. For example:-
For sale in 1806 at 12 Dean Street, Soho Square, London: 'The valuable stock and implements, of a Metallic Pump and Engine-maker .... five capital turning lathes, with apparatus for cutting screws and turning metal flat plates, round and square....'[4].

Another source of inspiration might have been the Stanhope Printing Press, a very rigid iron machine which had a flat table running on a pair of guides. In passing, the sale of the equipment of a Stanhope press maker in 1810 included 'very capital and powerful turning lathes, engine for cutting screws of great dimensions, ....' [5]

Nicolas Focq's 'Planing Machine'

The earliest known example of a machine described as a 'metal planing machine' was introduced by Nicolas Focq in France and constructed in 1751. Some sources state that Focq 'invented the planing machine'. It is beyond dispute that he invented a planing machine for metal, but it was far removed from the type of machine described above, which revolutionised engineering production in the 19th century, and its principles did not find wider acceptance. This is not intentended to diminish Focq's achievement, which was remarkable.

Nicolas Focq's machine was used to plane the edges of the iron staves of barrel-like pump bodies that Focq designed. The staves were bound by iron hoops. Evidently the inside of the assembled barrels was finish-machined in the same way. These barrels were reported to be water-tight. The machine was described and illustrated in 1751. [6]. Unfortunately the illustrations leave many questions unanswered, to the extent that it is difficult to understand how the machine succeeded in carrying out the work required of it.

Certain aspects are clear enough. The reciprocating steel planing tool had two cutting edges, allowing cutting in both directions, and the toolholder was guided by a pair of horizontal square or rectangular wrought iron bars, and moved back and forth by cords guided by pulleys. The operator turned a crank which worked the cords' large winch drum via gears. The tool was spring-loaded, and the pressure on the workpiece was adjusted by screws. The toolholder rode on the workpiece in an iron sled, in the manner of a wood plane. The sled was 3 ft long.

The cutting tool as illustrated would appear to be prone to digging in and chattering. In an 1852 article [7], the Rev. Robert Willis wrote: "The machine which Nicholas Focq contrived in 1751, which has been called a planing-machine, has no title to the name, or any resemblance to the modern engine. It is nothing but a heavy scraping-tool, which is dragged along the bar upon which it is to operate, and rests upon it, pressed into hard contact with it by strong springs. It will, therefore, smooth the surface, and remove small irregularities, as a carpenter's plane does with a board, but it will not produce a correct plane surface, or even make successive cuts. It is a mere plane, and not a plane-creating engine. Neither could the machines patented by Bentham in 1791, and Bramah in 1802, for planing wood, although real planing-engines, have suggested the engine in question, for their properties and arrangements are wholly different. The engineers' planing-machine made its way into the engineering world silently and unnoticed; ....."

Focq's machine was described and illustrated by Robertson Buchanan.[8] The description was based on a translation of the original 1751 document. Buchanan did not trouble to get the inventor's name right, calling him Nicholas Forq. This error was perpetuated by subsequent machine tool historians in Britain and the USA. Buchanan stated that the planing tool 'formed a kind of cross', presumably mis-translating the word croissant. In fact the tool is arched, i.e. crescent-shaped.

Digression: The concept of planing iron by a process similar to that for planing wood, i.e. with a relatively wide cutter set in a block which rides on the workpiece, seems extraordinary. However, there is a little-known hand-held tool called a 'smith's plane', probably still in use today for planing the soft metal used for organ pipes. Smith's planes were described by Charles Holtzapffel, who stated that they were used on brass, iron and steel. The cutter was vertical, with a relief angle of 70 or 80 degrees. Finishing cutters were between 5/8 and 1 inch wide.[9]. It is easier to envisage smith's planes being used to remove high spots than to cut into the metal and continue a uniform cut. Even a very shallow cut in wrought iron with a sharp cutter would require considerable sustained pressure. An earlier reference comes from Rees's Cyclopedia. Abraham Rees, writing about hand planes for metal some time between 1802 and 1819, stated that 'This tool has been brought into use within these years past' and cited mathematical instrument makers as the chief users. The planes had cast iron stocks in the form of hollow boxes, usually 12" long, 1 3/4" high, and 1 1/2" wide. The blade was set vertical, about 4" from the leading end. The users called the process striping rather than planing. The need for precise adjustment of the cutter was stated, the metal being 'shaved' rather than cut. The difference is between shaving and cutting was not clarified. It was stated that brass, soft steel, bell metal and cast iron could be planed. For initially rough surfaces, cutters with serrated teeth were used intially. Holtzapffel and Deyerlein of Cockspur Street made smith's planes with 'exceedingly hard' cast iron bodies. An earlier mention of iron planing was made by R. R. Angerstein following his visit to a gun barrel works in Bromford (Worcestershire) in 1753. After welding and heat treating, the barrels were 'planed with a planing iron, 4 feet long. At the middle of this were 26 notches cut and sharpened, all within a distance of 13 inches.'[10]. Presumably the notches were part-circular.

Returning to Nicolas Focq's machine, the drawings strongly suggest that the toolholder rides on the workpiece, implying that the two square guide bars must have some other function. Perhaps their main role was to provide something for the toolholder's springs to react against. The bars would also guide the plane linearly (viewed from above), although the drawing suggests that the toolholder has small projections at each corner which straddle the workpiece. The text describes these as two 'talons fendus'. Another reason for supposing that it is the workpiece, and not the bars, that guided the tool in a horizontal plane is that the square bars, which were 3 inches deep and approx 13 ft long, would sag appreciably due to self-weight bending, such that a curved surface would be result if the cutting tools followed the guide bars.
Note: French feet and inches were very slightly larger than their English counterparts.

Different sizes of barrel would have had different sizes and numbers of staves. It would be interesting to know how the staves were set at the correct angle for machining and held securely.

The first of the 1751 drawings shows the bore of a barrel being machined on the planing machine. This begs many questions.

Focq's method of constructing pressurised cylinders, using accurately machined staves, and his novel method of machining the surfaces, do not appear to have been widely adopted. The wrought iron barrel construction would have been very expensive. The arrangement of the planing machine poses many questions about how the machine could be made to work satisfactorily. Evidently the machine was successsful, and Focq's achievement in meeting the difficult machining challenge is remarkable.

Bersham Ironworks

1805: 'A large copper table, for making plate glass, has been lately cast at Bersham Iron Works, near Wrexham, which contains upwards of twenty-two tons of copper. The surface is levelled by a cast iron plane, from seventeen to eighteen hundred weight, resembling a carpenter's, which is kept in motion by a water wheel.'[11]

Early Developments

In 1701 the French polymath Charles Plumier described "La machine à manche a couteaux d’Angleterre, ou propre à tailler des pointes de diamant sur des manches à couteaux", which translates as 'the English knife-handle machine, suitable for cutting the points of diamonds on knife handles. He regarded it as 'one of the most ingenious of all those that have yet been invented in the arts'. The inventor's name was not known. The machine was used to cut grooves and decorative patterns, including 'diamond' shapes, in knife handles made of ivory and other relatively soft materials. It embodied some features which would later be found in planing machines.[12]. The cutter was held in a toolholder located by a pair of slideways in a metal frame. The toolholder was moved back and forth by a hand-cranked leadscrew having a coarse thread. The cutting depth of the tool was adjusted by a vertical screw. Thus the cutter had 'x' and 'y' axis movement. The workpiece was held in a spindle which could be fixed in position or made to rotate as the tool moved along it, in order to create a pattern. The pattern was determined by a template which traversed with the toolholder. A spoked index wheel was pressed against the template in order to rotate the spindle. See last image (from the 1749 edition of Plumier's book). It will be seen that the guide frame could be tilted for machining tapered handles.

1762 'Last Night at a Meeting of the Society of Arts..... Also an ingenious Invention, by an Artificer at Soho, for planeing Iron, was referred to the Inspection of a Committee. St. James's Chron.'[13]

1809 A M. Caillon in France presented a form of planing machine to the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale. An 1834 article was somewhat dismissive of it, saying that it was only used to dress the iron workpiece and to cut grooves and mouldings, and it left something to be desired as regards the regularity of the operation. It was a simple plane attached to a carriage, which travelled along the workpiece, while in subsequent machines it was the chisel that was fixed and the workpiece that moved.[14]. In fact some makers did subsequently favour keeping the workpiece stationary and moving the cutter.

A source states that Caillon was a locksmith at 82 rue Saint-Martin, and built a planing machine for his own use, to plane iron with widths up to 9.5" wide and 3.25" thick. It won an honourable mention at the Paris Exposition in 1806, and a silver medal in 1819.[15]. In 1808 Caillon was credited with 'une machine propre a canneler les cylindres pour filature' (a machine suitable for fluting the cylinders for spinning).[16]. An 1808 article[17] described one of Caillon's machines at some length: it supplements the work of the file and the chisel with speed, and can produce channels and grooves of all depths on wrought iron bars and even on soft cast iron. It should not be not confused with a fluting machine. It acts on larger pieces, both round and square, and by a mechanism one can stop the tool at will, even in the middle of its stroke. The workpiece is subjected to its action with extreme precision.

A claim was made on behalf of Matthew Murray for producing a planing machine before 1814. 'We are informed by Mr. March, the present mayor of Leeds, head of the celebrated tool-manufacturing firm of that town, that when he first went to work at Matthew Murray's, in 1814, a planing machine of his invention was used to plane the circular part or back of the valve, which he had at that time introduced in the steam-engine. Mr. March says, "I recollect it very distinctly, and even the sort of framing which it stood. The machine was not patented, and like many inventions in those days, it was kept as much a secret as possible, being locked up in a small room by itself, to which the ordinary workmen could not obtain access. The year in which I remember it being in use was, so far as I am aware, long before any planing-machine of similar kind had been invested." ..... He also subsequently invented the D slide valve, or at least greatly improved it ...... To make the D valve work efficiently it was found necessary to form two perfectly plain surfaces, to produce which he invented his planing machine.'[18]

Various other makers are credited with planing machines in the late 18th and earlier 19th centuries, but information is sparse. Most curious is the fact that a special form of planing machine was in widespread use from the late 18th century, namely the fluting engine, used for cutting shallow grooves in rollers for spinning mules. See below for more information.

No convincing explanation is offered for the late development of the general-purpose planing machine. One possibility might be that prospective designers considered it to be impractical. Perhaps there was a mindset that large numbers of reciprocating cycles of the machine's table, with a relatively heavy burden of workpiece weight and cutting force, would wear the guides out and render the machine useless. They would have known that reciprocating slide valves in steam engines did suffer wear (although lubrication was problematic). Some support for this theory comes from the fact that Joseph Clement's remarkably sophisticated planing machine of c.1825 had the table traversing on wheels. (According to one source, this machine was still at work in 1876 [19]. As late as 1835 Joseph Whitworth patented a planing machine on which the workpiece was stationary and the tool-holding carriage moved on wheels (see illustration). A pair of leadscrews with square threads traversed the carriage. Rotating discs engaged with the leadscrews instead of nuts, presumably with the aim of reducing friction.

Roller-supported planer tables did not begin and end with Clements and Whitworth. Rollers were used by Joseph Bramah on a large wood planing machine in 1806 (see below), and makers of stone planing machines applied them for many decades.

Note: Reciprocating cutting tools were proving themselves in the early 19th century in the form of the Marc Brunel/Henry Maudslay machines for mortising wooden ships' blocks at the Portsmouth Block Mills. However, their slideways were not particularly heavily loaded. It might be argued that these mortising machines had their genesis in the metal sawing machine used by Joseph Bramah, c.1790. This had a reciprocating toolholder guided by horizontal slideways arranged thus: < >. Henry Maudslay was Bramah's lead mechanic at the time.

It may be that a number of makers, like Robert Richards, Matthew Murray, James Fox (1760-1835) and others decided to 'give it a go', and found that wear was not, after all, a stumbling block. Certainly general purpose planing machines were offered for sale by the 1820s, the most influential early maker being Fox of Derby.

A possible challenge to the 'fear of wear' theory to explain the late development of the planing machine comes when we consider wood planing machines (see below).

Another possible barrier may have been the fear that the cutting tool would wear to spoil the finish before the cut was completed.

Whether or not 'normal' wear was a concern, another factor likely to have delayed the introduction of metal planing is the problem of wearing the tool's cutting edge on the return stroke. This problem did not arise with lathe tools, because the motion was always in one direction. The solution proved simple enough for planing and shaping machines - the clapper box. However, planing machine developers introduced various other solutions which also allowed the machine to cut in both directions.

A further barrier to the construction of planing machines would have been the difficulty in producing - with hand tools - the long flat surfaces needed to support and guide the table, particularly in the case of V-shaped grooves on the underside of the table.

Although Richard Roberts's landmark 1817 planing machine had the structural elements that came to characterise metal planing machines, it would have been of limited value for engineering production. This it is because it was hand-powered and not self-acting, so would tie up an operator in manual labour. Also, the absence of automatic feed would result in an impaired surface finish (because the characteristic parallel tool marks would be irregularly spaced).

Surface finish is also affected by factors such as lack of rigidity, and vibration from the table operating system. It may be that early developers were plagued with poor surface finish or tool digging-in problems, and decided to abandon the pursuit. The pioneers would have to address the problem of the tool's tendency to dig in, by optimising the geometry and rigidity. The horizontal cutting force acting on the tool tip will exploit any lack of rigidity in the tool holding attangement, and exploit any lack of torsional stiffness in the cross slide, causing a tendency for the tool to dig in deeper. One simple improvement was to use 'cranked' tools.

Fluting Engines

Mention has been made of a special form of planing machine which was in widespread use from the late 18th century, namely the fluting engine, used for cutting shallow grooves in rollers used in spinning mules.

Surprisingly, no illustrations of 18th century machines have come to light. A relatively recent German book[20] notes references to such machines in 1795, and confirms the paucity of information. It does, however, provide a drawing of a machine from an 1820s French translation of a document. The date of the machine in the drawing is not known, and the source material could be well out of date. However, the design of the machine would have been consistent with the state of the art c.1820. If it had been much earlier, it would seem to have been remarkably advanced. The drawing shows the roller being fluted, held by a bell chuck in a lathe-type headstock. On the other end of the spindle is an indexing gear wheel. The other end of the roller is supported by a tailstock. Headstock and tailstock are bolted to a sliding table, which is guided on the supporting bed by one V and one flat slideway. The tool is held in a casting which is fixed to the supporting bed and straddles the sliding table. The tool is set at a very low angle to the workpiece, and appears to be located in a 'clapper box' which prevents the tool dragging during the return motion.

Fluting engines were commonly included in notices of sales of textile-makers' machinery. As an example, machinery advertised at the Derby Mill of John Rollason in 1786 included an 'exceeding neat Engine Lathe, Fluting Engine, and Several other Lathes'[21].

In 1788 the sale of the machinery at William Sykes's cotton spinning mill at Birkacre, Chorley, included 'Smith and Clockmakers Tools; consisting of Bellows, Anvil, Vices, Cutting and Fluting Engine, &c. &c.'[22]

The earliest identified maker of fluting engines for sale was James Fox (Fox of Derby).
1787 Advertisement: 'James Fox, returns his sincere thanks to all those gentlemen whom he has had the honour to serve; and begs leave to acquaint them and the public that he is settled at Tatenhill Mill, near Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, where he makes all Kinds of Engine, Oval, and Common Lathes of all Sorts and Prices. Screw Stocks, Taps and Plates. Presses and Press Screws of any Sort or Size. Clock and Watch Engines. Fluting Engines for Cotton Rollers etc....... ' [23]

In January 1803 Simon Goodrich examined a self-acting fluting engine at the Leeds works of Fenton, Murray and Wood. It 'was completely worked by machinery a boy stood by and had nothing to do but look on and to take out or put in the rollers when necessary.' The roller was held between centres in a frame which moved back and forth under a bridge which held the cutting tool. The moving frame was guided by a pair of triangular bars. The roller was presumably indexed round automatically between cuts, but this action is not described. The frame was moved by a rack and pinion, and Goodrich sketched and described the mechanism which automatically reversed the motion. The pinion shaft was equipped with two loose pulleys, one turning clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. A dog clutch was keyed to the shaft and was slid into engagement with one or other of the pulleys. The movement was obtained from a system of levers actuated by strikers on the machine's moving carriage.[24].

The same basic principle of oscillating the table was used by Fox of Derby on their planing machines (see photo above). It is tempting to speculate that Fenton, Murray & Wood's fluting engine was made by Fox. We know that James Fox was advertising fluting engines in 1787 (see advert above), and that Murray and Fox had a working relationship (both firms supplied machinery to equip a factory in Russia, and a Murray-designed steam engine made by Fox is on display in the Science Museum.

In 1802 a 'Fluting Engine with different Indexes to it' was included in the sale of worsted machinery formerly belonging to William Twamley, Thomas Darlaston, Edward Twamley, Samuel Twamley, and Zachariah Twamley'[25]

A sale of machinery in Manchester in 1805 included a double' fluting engine (and a slide lathe).[26]

One later maker of fluting engines was Buckley, Sisters and Co of Hilton-street, Manchester. An 1819 sale of their business included 'six slide lathes, two double fluting engines, two hand ditto, two squaring engines [?], .... A casting for a fluting engine not fitted up'.[27]

Some fluting engines used circular cutters. A machine by Maclea and March, illustrated in 1842, used a circular cutter for fluting short boxwood rollers. Effectively an early form of plano-milling machine. For brass this was replaced by a fixed tool.[28]. The table was apparently reciprocated by a scotch crank (yoke) mechanism. An 1828 sale notice of a water mill in Bromsgrove, with carding and other engines, included 'a superior Fluting Engine, with circular cutters for rollers, wheels and couplings'.[29]

Towards Maturity

Richard Roberts observed that after making his first planing machine in 1817, and trying to interest others in its adoption, 'it was nine years before we made more than two'.[30].

In 1826 Sharp, Roberts and Co were advertising planing machines for sale, and in August 1826 they produced one for Andre Koechlin et Cie of Mulhouse, France. In 1827 the Bialogon Machine Works ordered a number of machine tools from England, including a planing machine from Sharp, Roberts and Co. Several early machines from Bialogon have been preserved at Sielpia Wielka, including a large and a small planing machine. Both are chain-driven, but are otherwise of very different design, and it is not known whether either came form Sharp, Roberts.

James Fox was probably the most successful early producer of planing machines. In 1826, a German visitor to the works in Derby wrote about Fox's beautiful lathes and the famous planers[31]. In 1829 Fox was advertising a range of planing machines with bed lengths from 5 to 40 ft (capable of planing lengths from 3 ft to 20 ft 4").

The relative novelty of planing machines in 1832 is perhaps illustrated by this snippet: 'The Shotts Iron Company beg to announce, that, as they have lately got a complete planing machine from Messrs Sharp and Roberts, Manchester, for straighting the surface of cast and wrought iron, they have every facility in manufacturing these and similar machines [printing machines] in the most correct manner.'[32]

c.1834 A large 'travelling standards' metal planing machine was introduced in France. Some sources credit this to M. de la Morinière. This is discussed in the following section.

Reliable information is lacking about early American planing machines. One source credits Edward Bancroft as the first maker of an iron planer in America 'in about 1830' [33]. Gay, Silver and Co were said to have made their first planer in 1836. It had a granite bed to which cast iron ways were bolted. The table was moved by a pitch chain.[34]

From another source (1857) [35]: 'The original of the present planing-machine was imported from England, and purchased by the West Point Foundry Association, for their Works in West street, New York. Patterns for a similar machine were made after this model, and several sets of castings made. One of these, purchased for the Richmond Works, was fitted up here, and started about 1836.'

A story appeared in the American Machinist in 1903 concerning the Providence, RI firm of Thurston and Green (USA), in which John R. Abbe recalled: 'It is probably not generally known where the first planers in this country were introduced, or how. This, as told me by Mr. Thurston, Sr., was about 1845, when an iron planer was shipped from England to go inland from Providence. It came over in a sailing vessel and landed on a dock below the Thurston & Green shop, now known as Fox Point. It stood on the dock for some time, and they being in want of some quicker method of smoothing iron than the hammer and chisel, took some tools and a patternmaker to the dock and took all the dimensions of the machine so they could build one. This planer was operated by a chain working around a drum at the back end on the same shaft as the driving pulleys, the drum having a spiral on its outer surface for the chain, the slack of which was taken up by a turnbuckle nut. One of these planers was at work in the shop when I went there in 1861. The work done by it was of the smoothest kind.' (continues).[36] Note: Perhaps Mr Abbe's recollection of 'about 1845' was wrong: it is improbable that a British maker would still have been making planers with the crude chain system in 1845. Further, it was in 1845 that Mr Green of Thurston & Green went to England to buy urgently-needed machine tools, including a planing machine, after their factory had been destroyed by fire. For more information, see Thurston and Green (USA) entry.

Shaw[37] provides an illustration of a planing machine patented in 1838 which shows a high degree of maturity (see image above). The table is moved by rack and pinion, with two racks and two pinions having staggered teeth for smoother transmission. A vertical rack imparted motion to the automatic cross feed (a system probably introduced by James Fox). A tilting toolholder allowed cutting in both directions. Shaw wrongly names Richard Roberts as the patentee of this machine. In fact it was designed by John Roberts of Manchester. He was a maker of planing machines and in 1838 he patented an action for planing machines to cut both ways[38] [39]. John Roberts used a stepped rack and pinion for a smoother table drive. William Collier of Salford went one step further with a triple stepped rack and pinion drive for the table [40]

By the early 1840s the metal planing machine was firmly established, with a number of makers offering machines with features which stood the test of time. Two 1842 planing machines by Joseph Whitworth and Co are displayed in museums. On the example in the Science Museum, the leadscrew motion is transmitted to the table by the rotating disc arrangement covered by Whitworth's 1835 patent, whereas the machine at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry (MoSI) has a more conventional nut (see photos). Whitworth's method of cutting in both directions utilised a cord-operated rotating toolholder which acquired the name 'jack-in-the-box' or 'jim crow'. This is found on the Science Museum example. The MoSI example has a conventional clapper box toolholder, but the cord has been utilised to provide automatic feed to the toolholder or the cross slide. The 'jack-in-the-box' received mixed reviews. James Simpson and Co were still using one in 1897 on an 1839 planer. It was said that it worked well if the ropes were in good condition, but a boy was employed to make sure it kept turning![41]. In a letter to 'Machinery' in 1897, J. W. Hartness recounted problems with this device on a Whitworth planer at the Lowell machine shop in 1854/5.[42]

As an alternative to cutting in both directions, loss of productivity could be reduced by speeding up the return stroke of the table. One method used two different sizes of pulley on the table's pinion drive shaft, the slow drive belt being automatically shifted onto its loose pulley while the smaller return drive belt was shifted from its loose to its fast pulley. An example by Archibald Mylne was featured in an 1847 publication [43]. One source[44] implies that this arrangement was introduced by Haley (presumably Joseph Haley).

An alternative way of obtaining a fast return, when the table was moved by a leadscrew, was to drive the leadscrew by two different sizes of bevel gear. Thomas Shanks of Johnstone is credited with introducing this arrangement on planing machines [45]. Such an arrangement was eventually adopted by J. Whitworth & Co and can be seen in this photo of an 1880s Whitworth planer at Underfall Yard in Bristol. This arrangement was also widely used by Mazeline and Co. and shown by Heilmann, Ducommun & Steinlen in the 1885 Antwerp exhibition.[46]

Mention has been made of planing machine tables being driven by rack and pinion or leadscrew. Other methods used chains, wire ropes, or steel belt. A later arrangement, introduced by William Sellers in the USA, used a 'spiral gear' engaging with a rack. A completely different arrangement, applicable to small machines, used a crank to reciprocate the table. This was introduced in the 1840s. Fast return motion could be obtained using Whitworth's quick return linkage or elliptical gears.

J. Nasmyth and Co produced small planing machines with a drive arrangement usually associated with 'box mangles'. It had the merit of simplicity, if nothing else. 1856 drawing here.

Planing Machines with Moving Tool and Fixed Workpiece

c.1834 'Travelling standards' metal planing machines (Machine à raboter à fosse - pit planing machine) were introduced in France. The machine was located in a pit such that the slides were level with the ground. The workpiece was fixed on the static table, while the standards (comprising columns, cross slide, toolholder, etc.) moved over the workpiece on V-slideways. This arrangement became known in France as the système français, in contrast to the type with fixed standards and moving table which became known as the système anglais. When machining heavy components, it avoided the need to reciprocate the large mass under the cutting tool.

De la Morinière of France is credited with introducing, or at least conceiving this arrangement, with a wooden-framed prototype c.1834. Shortly afterwards, François Cavé constructed an all-metal machine to produce casting tables for de la Morinière at Saint-Gobain glass works. [47].

A 1/5 scale model of a machine was presented to the Musée des Arts et Métiers. This is described in detail here, and the museum's description and photograph are available online.[48]. The model is on display in the museum (2019), and is ascribed to de La Morinière, 1834. However its origin and date will be discussed further here.

The standards were pulled back and forth by endless pitch chains, one chain on each side of the machine. The tools were self-acting, being fed transversely by a ratchet acting on the cross-slide's leadscrew, or vertically by another ratchet working a worm on a transverse shaft which engaged with a wheel on the top of the vertical slide.

The machine at Saint-Gobain was used to plane cast iron cooling tables for casting glass sheet, the tables being 4 m long by 2.73 m wide. This type of machine was produced by a number of French manufacturers, including Cavé, Mariotte, and Decoster. Machines in the naval arsenals could accommodate workpieces 9 m long, with a cutting speed of 4 m/minute.

Another source identified Cavé as making the first planing machine of this type in France, in 1835, and identified Mariotte as the maker of de la Morinière's later machines.[49].

As mentioned earlier, Joseph Whitworth patented a travelling standards planing machine in 1835, but he did not pursue the idea.

A large travelling standards planer by Cavé was illustrated and described at length in 1848 [50]. In differs in many respects from the de la Morinière machine. The column is traversed by racks and pinions rather than by chains.

Benjamin Hick and Sons made a travelling standards planer driven by steel belts, some time before 1841. It could plane surfaces up to 30 ft long and 9 ft 6" wide. [51]

In 1843 Armengaud Ainé described a travelling standards planer made by Decoster (Paris)[52] . In many respects it resembled de la Morinière's machine as made by Cavé c.1835, but it incorporated a tool holder which revolved through 180 degrees for the return stroke, similar in principle to that used by Joseph Whitworth.

In 1843 Ernest Nillus of France made a 24 ft long pit-type planing machine to the design of James Paul. Drawings here and here, and description here.

Another type of machine was the 'wall planing machine', in which the slideways were bolted to a wall, carrying travelling standards. An early example, installed at the Soho Foundry of Boulton and Watt, was preserved, but lies dismantled in the Birmingham Museums reserve store. After the sale of the works in 1895, the machine remained in use by its new owners, W. and T. Avery. A photo here shows the machine set up to plane the platen of a weighing machine. Some sources claim a date of c.1800, but this can be dismissed.

See also Slotting Machines and Shaping Machines below.

Table Drive Arrangements

Various arrangements for providing reciprocating motion have already been mentioned, namely chain drive, rack and pinion, leadscrew, and crank.

Some improvements to the rack and pinion have been mentioned, namely the use of double and triple stepped racks and pinions. A further improvement, apparently introduced in the USA, was the use of a large diameter instead of small diameter pinion. Although this required the addition of extra gearing to provide a lower pinion speed, it was introduced to provide smoother transmission to the rack and also to address the possibility of the table being lifted a minute amount by the reaction between pinion and rack teeth under heavy cutting forces. Whether the reaction was actually sufficient to lift a heavily-loaded table is not clear. One hand planing machine, made by an unidentified British maker in the 1840s, had a curious feature, which may have been introduced to address this possibility. The rack was mounted below the pinion, with its teeth facing upwards.[53]

Uptake of Metal Planing Machines

We have seen that planing machines were late to arrive and slow to gain acceptance, despite their obvious advantages over the manual production of flat surfaces. It might be thought that once they had proved themselves, they would have rapidly brought about a revolution in engineering production, freeing manufacturers from dependence on highly-skilled craftsmen using chisels and files. That there was no rapid revolution is suggested by Richard Roberts's observation about the lack of demand after he showed his first planer in 1817, and the fact that for more than 10 years from c.1825 Joseph Clement was able to charge a premium for work undertaken by his manually-powered planer.

Just how quickly did planers gain wide acceptance? Unfortunately, few relevant UK planing machine manufacturers' records have survived. One exception is the order books of Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co [54].

In the absence of better information, we can look for evidence of the growing supply and use of planing machines on the basis of infrequent mentions of machines in the press, and from advertisements for the sale of new and used machines. Clearly we can only scratch the surface on the basis of surviving UK press advertisements, but we do find a range of makers and users from the late 1820s onwards. Some pre-1845 examples are listed below, identified as either makers of planing machines or companies who used them.

Note that the majority of the dates below are factory auction dates, when used machines were being sold when businesses ceased trading, not the date of manufacture of the machines. The dates and sales certainly do not reflect ordinary trading patterns, because the period from the late 1830s to the mid-1840s was a time of deep depression, when many firms were closing and their machinery sold off. Nevertheless, it is apparent that planing machines were rare in machine shops before the late 1830s.

See also references above to machines by Fox of Derby in the 1820s and by Sharp, Roberts, John Roberts, and J Whitworth in the 1830s.

1822 A sale of Tools, etc., in Birmingham, belonging to a 'Gentleman in the Silver Plating Trade, who is declining the business' included 'dies, presses, lathes, stamps, a machine for planing metal ....'[55]

c.1824 Joseph Clement, London (maker)
1826 Andre Koechlin, Mulhouse, ordered a machine from Sharp, Roberts and Co.

1827 Bialogon Works, Poland, ordered a machine from Sharp, Roberts and Co

1829 Kennan and Sons, Dublin (users)
1829 Thomas Grubb, Dublin (users)
1829 Thomas Don, London (user)
1829 Robert Stephenson and Co, Newcastle (users)

1831 R. Cowen and Co, (user: machine by Fox of Derby)
1831 Kendall and Sewell, Nottingham (users)
1831 J. Ruthven, Edinburgh (users)

1832 R. and W. Hawthorn, Newcastle (users)
1832 William Morgan (of Southwark), (users)
1832 Shotts Iron Co, Edinburgh, (users, machine by Sharp, Roberts and Co)

1833 John Drane of Birmingham (makers)
1833 Ringsend Iron Works, Dublin (users)
1833 C. Walter (Birmingham) (user)

1835 François Cavé (maker - see entry for Moriniere)
1835 James Hunter (of Arbroath) (makers of planing machines for stone)

1836 Allum Street Foundry, Manchester (users)
1836 Thomas Marsden, Salford, (users)
1836 Carl Theodor Vonpier, Germany, ordered a machine from Fox of Derby.
1836 Gay, Silver and Co, USA (makers)
1836 Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co (makers)

1837 Thomas Askam, Leeds (users)
1837 Brook, Raper and Brook, Leeds (makers)
1837 Courtney and Stephens, Dublin (users - machine from Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co)

1838 Bateman and Sherratt, Salford (users)
1838 Hay, Walton and Co, Leeds (makers)
1838 Joseph Priestley (Leeds) (makers)
1838 John Bolton, Leeds (users)
1838 J. and T. Sherratt, Salford (users)
1838 Holt and Thomas, Halifax (users)
1838 Zebulun Stirk, Leeds (users)
1838 Thompson and Co (Liverpool) (users)
1838 W & J Hoadley, Bradford (users)
1838 Phoenix Engine Works (Leith) (users)
1838 Hawks, Gateshead (users)
1838 Turner and Ogden, Leeds (users)
1838 J. Ruthven, Edinburgh (users)
1838 John Holden and Co (Bacup) (users - machine by Collier and Platt)
1838 John Roberts and Co (Manchester) (makers)
1838 Paris and Orleans Railway (users - machines by Sharp, Roberts and Co, William Collier and Co, Joseph Whitworth and Co

1839 W. Collier and Co, Salford (makers)
1839 Chunk Engine Works, Birmingham (makers)
1839 Joseph Haley, Manchester (makers)
1839 James Simpson and Co, London (users - machine from Joseph Whitworth and Co)
1839 Galloway, Bowman and Glasgow, Manchester (users - machine from Fox of Derby
1839 Donaldson and Glasgow, Birmingham (users - machine from Joseph Haley and Co)
1839 Lee, Bell and Co, Liverpool (users - machine by Sharp, Roberts and Co)
1839 Thomas Hackworth and Co, Shildon (users)
1839 Vulcan Iron Foundry (Liverpool) (users - machine from W. Collier and Co)
1839 R. Hoe and Co, NY, USA (users - machine from Nasmyth in 1839, and from Edward Bancroft in 1843 & 1845)

1840 Bell and Cowen (makers)
1840 William Mosedale, Derby (users)
1840 James Walton (1803-1883), Sowerby Bridge (makers: 65 ton machine in 1840)
1840 Thomas Greenwood, Leeds (makers)
1840 Bourne, Bartley and Co, Manchester (users)
1840 Fawcett, Preston and Co, Liverpool (users - J. Whitworth machines)
1840 Dunn and Stivens, Salford (makers)
1840 Hibernian Foundry, Limerick (makers).
1840 Haley and Grumbridge, Manchester (makers)
1840 Smith and Glasgow, Manchester (users - machine by Batho)
1840 Daubhill Foundry, Bolton (users).
1840 William Billinge, Birmingham (users - machine by John Drane).
1840 Thomas and William Mole, Birmingham (users)
1840 Brereton, Vernon and Paul, Hull (users)
1840 R. Griffiths and Co, Birmingham (users)
1840 Samuel and James Monks of Bolton (users - machine by Roberts)
1840 Patent Lead Works, London (users)

1841 Barrett and Son of Hull (users)
1841 Brocklehurst, Dircks and Nelson of Liverpool (users)
1841 George Wilson and Co, Salford (makers)
1841 Elce and Cottam, Manchester (users)
1841 Marshall, Rodgers and Co, Liverpool (users)
1841 Archibald Mylne, Glagow (makers)
1841 David Howarth and Sons, Rochdale (users)
1841 La Phoenix, Belgium (makers)
1841 Turner and Ogden, Leeds (users)
1841 Walton, Morton and Co, Leeds (users)
1841 Hyde, Dockray and Ambler, Leeds (users)

1842 John George Bodmer, Manchester (makers)
1842 John Booth (of Manchester) (makers)
1842 Charles Court and Sons, Manchester) (makers)
1842 Crowther and Smith, Newcastle (users)
1842 Naes Iron Works, Norway: machine from Fox of Derby.
1842 Dockray and Pinder (users)
1842 John & Edward Evans, Royton (users)
1842 John Stanley, Manchester (users - machine by John Roberts and Co (Manchester))
1842 J. Cotterell and Co, Darlaston (users - machine by Whitworth)
1842 Wilmshurst and Batho, Manchester (users).
1842 Green, Atkinson and Co, Leeds (users)
1842 James Taylor (Leeds) (user)
1842 T. Wells Ingram, Birmingham (users)
1842 R. Mills (of Heywood) (users of machines by W. Collier and Co)
1842 Robert Parish Busk, Leeds (users)
1842 Spring Hill Iron Works, Royton (users)
1842 Wylam Iron Works (users)

1843 Crewe Works, Grand Junction Railway (users)
1843 Decoster (Paris) (maker)
1843 David Duncan, Derby (user)
1843 Mather, Dixon and Grantham, Liverpool (users - machines by W. Collier and Co, Fox of Derby, Sharp, Roberts and Co, Roberts and Co).
1843 Robert Oram, Salford (users).
1843 Great Bridge Foundry, (user)
1843 John Hague of Rotherhithe (users)
1843 Horseley Ironworks, Tipton (users)
1843 Murray and Brown, Liverpool (users)
1843 Patent Rolling and Compressing Iron Co, Rotherhithe (users)
1843 William Smith (Leeds) (users)
1843 St. George Steam Packet Co, Liverpool (users)
1843 J. Burlinson and Son, Monkwearmouth (users)
1843 Taylor, Wordsworth and Co Makers (machine included in 1843 sale of J. Bradwell's machinery at York)

1844 Aspinall and Co (Smethwick) (users)
1844 Braithwaite and Milner, (users - two machines, probably by Fox of Derby)
1844 Bridge Foundry, Warrington, (users - machine by James Marsland and Son of Burnley))
1844 Beckwith Street Foundry, Liverpool, (users - machine by W. Collier and Co)
1844 William Boyack, Dundee (user)
1844 R. Bradley and Co, Wakefield (users)
1844 Birmingham Patent Disc Engine Co (users - machines by Whitworth)
1844 Crowther and Smith, Newcastle (users)
1844 Galloway and Son, London (users)
1844 Oakbank Foundry, Glasgow (users)

Photographs of the Soho Foundry of Boulton and Watt taken prior to the sale in 1895 include a planing machine which is evidently of very early date. See here. The sale inventory included several planing machines by J. Roberts, J. Whitworth and W. Collier, but the machine illustrated appears to be of relatively crude design and construction compared with what we know of the named makers' machines. Another machine, listed in the '14 Horsepower Shop', had no maker identified. Its capacity was 2 ft 6" by 3 ft by 6 ft.

Slotting Machines

In slotting machines the tool moves with a vertical reciprocating action, while the workpiece is fixed to a table which is moved in small increments to alter the depth of cut. A typical application was the cutting of keyways in the hubs of wheels.

The earliest identified machine of this type was the Marc Brunel/Henry Maudslay mortising machine, one of the Portsmouth Blockmaking Machines, although this was designed for cutting wood. No doubt its design was influenced by the Joseph Bramah/Henry Maudslay machine.

An interesting form of special purpose slotting machine was developed and installed at the Tula arms factory in Russia by P. D. Zakhavo, c.1820. Strictly speaking it was a filing machine, as it used files rather than single-point cutting tools. It was used to cut slots in the attachment boss of bayonets, the machine holding four bayonets. Each bayonet was clamped to a pivoted arm, and a weight pressed the bayonet against the vertically-reciprocating file.

The earliest known metal slotting machines produced for sale were introduced by Richard Roberts in 1835. See Sharp, Roberts and Co: 1835 Slotting Machine.

Shaping Machines

These work on the principle of a 'horizontal slotting machine'. The tool is held in a reciprocating ram. The workpiece is fed incrementally relative to the tool (in some machines the ram reciprocates in a fixed plane while the workpiece is moved, or, less commonly, the ram assembly moves and the workpiece is fixed).

Joseph Bramah and Henry Maudslay introduced a small manual machine in the 1790s for cutting slots in the barrels of Bramah locks. Its design may have influenced the Brunel/Maudslay mortising machine at Portsmouth.

The metal shaping machine in the form we recognise today was introduced by James Nasmyth in 1836. He may have been inspired by a simple machine at Maudslay's works in Lambeth. This machine only came to light during the sale of the works' equipment in 1900. See Henry Maudslay: Machine Tools. Its design was surely inspired by the horizontal steam engine!

In 1843 Armengaud described a small machine produced by Mariotte (Paris). The tool moved in a short arc, being fixed to the end of an arm oscillated by a connecting rod worked by a crank. The small workpiece was automatically moved incrementally towards the tool. In fact there were two tools, one either side of the workpiece. The workpiece was typically a square, hexagonal or octagonal nut, and two faces were machined at the same time.

Wood Planing Machines

A wood planing machine was illustrated by André Félibien (1619-1695) [56]

Joseph Moxon (1627-1691) described a hand-powered device called the 'waving engine' for producing a wave pattern on lengths of wood. The workpiece was caused to rise and fall by a profiled guide, while being pulled by a guided clamping block.[57]

General Bentham patented a wood planing machine in 1791.

In 1802 Joseph Bramah patented a quite remarkable wood planing machine, which he produced for customers including Woolwich Arsenal and for his own workshops. It was designed to produce large plane surfaces, but it did this by milling with a large rotating cutter head rather than by plane irons acting with a linear motion. It is most readily visualised as a vertical milling machine rather than a planing machine. It had two reciprocating tables carrying the workpieces, worked by hydraulic rams. The tables slid on iron bearers, so here we find an example of large reciprocating machine tools working in the early 1800s. Should these have sent a signal that reciprocating work tables were viable for metal planing machines? Not necessarily, because the cutting was done by rotating tools, and the reciprocating movements were slow and relatively infrequent.

See Also


Sources of Information

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