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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 allow accurate work and a reasonable metal removal rate. The earliest surviving example was made by Richard Roberts, who stated that he made it in 1817. It has most of the essential elements which characterised later machines. See photos. 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. They could also be applied for flycutting components bolted to the cross-slide, although we do not know when this process was 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....'. 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, ....' 
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. . 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 , 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. 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.. 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.
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.
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.'
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.'
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. These machines were commonly included in notices of sales of textile-makers' machinery. Surprisingly, no illustrations have come to light. 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'.
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 . 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 factor likely to have delayed the introduction of machining tools 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.
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 impair the surface finish obtainable.
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.
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'..
In 1826 Sharp, Roberts and Co were advertising planing machines for sale, and in August 1826 they produced one for Andre Koechlin 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. 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.'
c.1834 A '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' . 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.
Shaw 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 names 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 .
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!. 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.
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 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 . 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.
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.
c.1835 '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, M. Cavé constructed an all-metal machine to produced casting tables for de la Morinière at Saint-Gobain glass works. .
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.. The model is on display in the museum (2019), and is ascribed to de La Morinière, 1834. However its origin and date will be dicsussed 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..
A large travelling standards planer by Cavé was illustrated and described at length in 1848 . In differs in many respects from the de la Morinière machine. The column is traversed by racks and pinions rtaher than by chains.
As mentioned earlier, Joseph Whitworth patented a travelling standards planing machine in 1835, but he did not pursue the idea.
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.
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 themeselves, 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? In the absence of information to answer that question, it may be worthwhile looking evidence of the growing supply and use planing machines on the basis of limited descriptions 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 press advertisements, but we do find quite a wide range of makers and users in the UK c.1840. Some examples are listed below, identified as either makers of planing machines or companies who used them.
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.
1826 Andre Koechlin, Mulhouse, ordered a machine from Sharp, Roberts and Co.
1827 Bialogon Works, Poland, ordered a machine from Sharp, Roberts and Co.
1831 R. Cowen and Co, (user: machine by Fox of Derby)
1831 Kendall and Sewell, Nottingham (users)
1832 Adamson, Cadogan and Son, Southwark (users)
1832 R. and W. Hawthorn, Newcastle (users)
1833 John Drane of Birmingham (makers)
1833 Ringsend Iron Works, Dublin (users).
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)
1837 Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co (makers)
1837 Thomas Askam, Leeds (users)
1838 Hay, Walton and Co, Leeds (makers)
1838 Joseph Priestley (Leeds) (makers)
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 J. Ruthven, Edinburgh (users)
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 Vulcan Iron Foundry (Liverpool) (users - machine from W. Collier and Co)
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)
1841 George Wilson and Co, Salford (makers)
1841 Elce and Cottam, Manchester (users)
1842 John Booth (of Manchester) (makers)
1842 Naes Iron Works, Norway: machine from Fox of Derby.
1843 Wilmshurst and Batho, Manchester (users).
1843 Mather, Dixon and Grantham, Liverpool (users).
1843 Robert Oram, Salford (users).
1843 Great Bridge Foundry, (user)
1843 Horseley Ironworks, Tipton (users)
1844 Bridge Foundry, Warrington, (users)
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 using 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.