The Meaning of Making

Edward Preston model 1347(?) Bullnose Rabbet Plane

Edward Preston model 1347(?) Bullnose Rabbet Plane. The iron is marked “Preston (EP) Trademark,” so at least the plane iron was manufactured by the Edward Preston Company of Birmingham, UK, founded in 1825.

There was a time, not long ago, when a “maker space” was not a room in the local library or community centre, but the whole world around us, when “making” was not a privileged, technology-supported western-hemisphere leisure-time activity but a necessary part of daily life. Outside of the commodified and consumer-driven boundaries of large North-American and European cities, where most things are bought and “making” is for the most part relegated to big-box craft stores, “making” continues to be part of daily life. This small steel plane prompts consideration of what it means to make and the changing dimensions of making through time.

The artifact itself is a mass-produced cast-steel rabbet plane. Most major 19th and 20th century tool manufacturers offered one or more models of such planes in their catalogues. It is called a “rabbet” plane because the blade extends the full width of the sole, allowing it to be used to make, deepen or clean up a rabbet, rebate or dado such as would be found on the back of a picture frame moulding or in a window sash.

 This particular model is a called a “bullnose” plane because the blade is very close to the front of the body, allowing it to be used almost up to the vertical edge of a cut. Such a plane would have been commonly found in the tool chest of a carpenter, builder, joiner, boat builder, carriage builder, wheelwright or any other craftsman who routinely worked with wood.

The use and users of this type of plane over time reflect changing notions of work, artisanship and craft. Craft skills have passed through several phases, beginning with the practical activities of tradesmen. Later in the 19th century they were elevated to near-mystical status by proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement, such as William Morris, and the founders of utopian craft-based settlements like the Roycrofters and the Oneida community. In the later twentieth century, most manual tools were relegated to being curiosities as portable power tools came into widespread use.

 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an anti-establishment, anti-industrial movement, fueled by publications such as The Whole Earth Catalogue, took people “back to the land” and prompted renewed interest in traditional skills and tools. Older trades such as wooden boat building and timber-framing were revived, albeit most often as avocational, leisure-time pursuits rather than ways to make a living. British woodworker David Pye’s 1968 book The Nature and Art of Workmanship offered a scholarly perspective on what it means to make. More recently, both Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, 2008) and Matthew B. Crawford (Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2010) have pursued this line of thought further.

What does this plane say to us in 2017, at a time when scarcely one person in a thousand would recognize it or be able to hazard a guess as to its use? For many, it will remain a curiosity, a “collectible” to be picked up on a weekend “antiquing” trip and placed on a sideboard or shelf beside other old things. For tool collectors, it might be one of many planes that they own but seldom, if ever, use. For community museums, it might be part of an entomological-style display of old tools, arranged artistically on a display panel but not otherwise identified. In these cases, it is an example of Levi-Strauss’ “floating signifier,” an object cut loose from its original context and emptied of innate meaning, open to interpretation and re-interpretation by anyone who comes upon it.

For those who wish to enquire further, however, who pick it up, hold it in their hands, begin to explore its care, maintenance and use and recapitulate its original meaning, it can offer a tangible connection to the material world. This will not come without effort, but as with many things from the era of history this plane represents, the effort will be repaid. By breaking through the theatrical fourth wall of the museum exhibit case and returning the object to use, its purpose and meanings can be understood in a way that is not possible if it is simply studied from a distance.