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A c. 1920s Frank J. Clements, American Number 4 1/2 planer powered by a 1950 VAC Case tractor. Source: Iowa Woodworks

A planing machine employs revolving metal cutters to shave or chip the rough surface of a board or a timber in order to reduce its dimensions or to produce a smoother surface. The piece to be planed can be fed by hand or by a self-feeding mechanism and can pass over or under the cutters. By 1800, Samuel Bentham received various patents for planing machines in Britain. These patents established an important principle of using rotating cutters to allow for the continuous cutting of wood. In theory, this process was much faster than the ancient method of using various hand planes to smooth boards.
Planing Machine, Facts On File, inc.

The first reliable record we have of an attempt to supersede hand planing by machinery is contained in a patent granted to Hatton in 1776, but this seems to have been only a series of crude mechanical ideas which were never put into practice. It was left to Bentham to express practical ideas for development.

In 1827 Malcolm Muir, of Glasgow, invented an improved planer. It had for its object the preparation of complete flooring boards. The operations of sawing, planing, tongueing, and grooving were all combined, and a number of the machines were put into operation.

John Cumberland, an American, brought out many improvements in 1847, but the development in this country was greatly retarded by the tyrannical restraint of the holders of a patent which was known as the Woodworth Planer.

William Woodworth, an old carpenter residing in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and known familiarly as “Uncle Billy,” invented in 1828 a Planing Machine which he described as “the combination of rotary cutters and feeding rollers and of rotary matching cutters so as to form a tongue or groove on both the edges of the lumber at the same time that the principal surfaces are planed.”

At this time his patent extended for fourteen years, but was extended from the day of its expiration for a further term of seven years. Woodworth is not supposed to have profited by his invention. The feeling against the machine by the carpenters was very strong, and the mill in which the first machine was used had to be watched both day and night for several months.

After the patent extension he decided to sell it out for what he could get and succeeded in interesting Samuel Schenck, who later controlled the sales in the New England States, John Gibson, of Albany, N.Y., who handled the Middle States, and Samuel Pitts, of Detroit, Mich. It is reported that Woodworth received not over $5,000 for this valuable patent.

Gibson started a large shop at Albany for manufacturing the machines, and a planing mill nearby where he could demonstrate them in operation.

In July, 1843, the original patent was surrendered and a reissue obtained which included “a small hold-down roll.” From this time the prejudices of the workmen ceased and the demand for planing machines increased rapidly.

The owners, through a mutual understanding, licensed a certain number of machines, giving each mill owner the exclusive right for a given amount of territory for which they charged a royalty. In New York State the price was $7 per thousand feet, collected by the mill owner, who paid $3 as royalty. Each mill owner was required to render an account every three months for the amount of lumber dressed and verify the same under oath, paying a royalty within ten days thereafter.

Efforts were made to circumvent this patent because of the strong feeling against the tyranny of those who owned it. Joseph B. Andrews invented “two endless feed aprons.”

The Beckwith and the Gay machines in Pennsylvania and the Brown machine in Massachusetts were all developed for the purpose of evading the Woodworth patent, but their development was stopped by injunctions and declared infringements. A man named Norcross, however, was partially successful and withstood the suit of the Woodworth patent holders.

By the time the first reissued patent expired, Gibson is supposed to have been worth $1,000,000 and spent over $250,000 as his share of the expenses in getting a further renewal. He succeeded.

Congress assembled December 1,1856, when the extended patent had but twenty-seven days longer to run. Gibson and others interested with him were there and succeeded so far as to have a bill introduced early in the session to extend the patent for a further term of seven years from December 27th, but when the remonstrance was presented it resembled a roll of carpet more than a public document. Officials concluded not to read it, but to unroll and measure it, when it was found to contain two columns of closely written names fifty feet long.

Thus ended the career of the Woodworth patent.

Gibson’s prosperity ceased, and he was obliged to sell out his business to Daniel Doncaster, who had for many years acted as his foreman and was well liked by his former customers. Gibson later retired to a farm owned by his wife and died there comparatively poor. Mr. Schenck removed his patterns to Matteawan, N. Y. This company also ceased through failure after the expiration of the patent. Mr. Pitts, of Detroit, never manufactured many machines, but permitted his customers to buy them from either Gibson or Schenck.

Users of this early machine were inconvenienced considerably because of defective construction. The cylinder boxes used to raise and lower perpendicularly, and it was necessary to shorten or lengthen the belt for each change or adjustment. The finger or star gearing that was used to connect the top and bottom rolls allowed of practically no expansion and consequently these had to be changed for each set-up.

These inconveniences were immediately overcome. In 1857 James A. Woodbury, of Boston, patented a plan for moving both matching heads by means of two separate screws.

Improved extension gears were invented by Charles Burleigh, of Fitchburg, June 15, 1866, and J. B. Tarr, of Chicago, patented a side head chip breaker, which was a valuable invention and prevented the board from slivering while being submitted to the action of the side cutters.

A dimension planer, known as the Gray & Woods Planer, was patented January 24, 1860. It was a modification of the old Daniels Planer and was developed for the purpose of straight surfacing of boards.

A Short History of Woodworking Machinery, from the 1920 edition of the William H. Field Company Field's Wood Working Machinery Reference Book, Old Woodworking Machines

The Woodworth planer patent, in its various reissues and extensions (Patent 5,315X, patent RE71, patent 80; extended until 1856), is probably the most historically significant patent for woodworking machinery. The drawing for this patent was provided in 1841, about the time that the owners were seeking to renew the original patent.

US Patent 5,315X, Directory of American Tools and Machinery Patents.

Woodworth Planer (1828, 1836), William Woodworth, Hudson, New York

There are two Woodworth patents on planers, in 1828 and 1836. The first patent was issued before the patent-office fire and the major changes to patent laws (both in 1836), and was reissued in 1845; the second patent was obtained in 1836, very shortly after the new laws took effect. The first patent is the first verifiable planing machine that used both rotary cutter heads and feed rolls. The second patent provides a series of incremental improvements on the original design.
William Woodworth, Old Woodworking Machines

The earliest successful application of this principle has been associated with a patent granted to William Woodworth of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1828. The Woodworth planer used feed rolls and a rotary cutting cylinder. Boards placed on edge were clamped to a moving carriage and were passed through metal rollers until they met with a rotating cutting cylinder that was mounted vertically. By 1831, this type of machine could plane 2.5 to 2.7 m (8–9 ft) a minute, producing 400 to 500 planks a day. It held a virtual monopoly over the large and profitable market for tongue-and-groove floor boards used in the construction of buildings. But the early machine vibrated considerably because of its wooden frame and because it required better bearing designs. Most improvements in the machine followed the expiration of Woodworth's patent in the 1850s, when the machines became larger and operated at higher speeds, with powered, spring-pressured rollers, chip breakers, and more cutting knives in the cylinder. By 1853, these machines operated at 4,000 revolutions a minute, planing about 15 m (50 ft) of flooring a minute. Cutters required sharpening about once an hour. Improved models were able to dress all four sides of a board in a single pass.
The success of the Woodworth planer increased tremendously the quantity of dressed lumber, providing incentive to develop machines capable of boring, mortising, tenoning, and shaping, especially when better steel allowed for more durable cutters. Occasionally, the principles of the Woodworth planer were adapted for special purposes. By 1880, a planer could smooth 500 doors in a day. However, the Daniels planer was more commonly used in heavier work required by the railroads and carriage manufacturers. The Daniels machine employed a vertical revolving shaft with horizontal arms, the cutters being placed at the ends of those arms. A traveling bed delivered the work to the cutters, which operated above the work at a very high speed. Most of these machines were very large and heavily engineered, with cast-iron frames.
Planing Machine, Facts On File, inc.

Emmons Carriage-Feed Planer (1829), Uri Emmons, Freehold, New Jersey

US Patent 5467

"According to PM&MinA, Uri Emmons built a carriage-fed planer in 1824. The planer used knives mounted on rotating disks, and cut on both the forward and reverse travel of the carriage. It was, incredibly, hand-powered, and was known locally as the "Flim-Flam," which isn't surprising given the limited performance that could be expected from a hand-powered machine of this size. Emmons received patent no. X5,467 in 1829 for his wood planing machine. According to an 1852 article in SA, Emmons's design was superior to the 1828 Woodworth design, and in fact Woodworth's son had his father's patent reissued in 1845, incorporating Emmons's improvements. Check out patent no. RE71 for some wonderfully clear drawings of this machine. It is not clear whether Woodworth (or his estate) bought out Emmons, or whether they simply used his ideas once the Emmons patent had expired.

Uri Emmons, Old Woodworking Machines

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