This beech and applewood carpentry plane – more specifically, an adjustable-fence plow plane – was owned by William E. Pumphrey (1816-1887), a Rockville carpenter and undertaker.

There are planes to level planks, cut beads and chair rails and crown molding, and join boards together. Plow planes like this one are used to cut grooves in wood boards and panels, a necessary part of the tongue-and-groove join. The main block, or stock, is 13.5″ long and has the iron bit – held in place with a wood wedge – and the toat (handle); the fence (held on with long wooden screws) is on the side. The iron bit protrudes out the bottom to cut a groove in the board. The distance of the fence from the stock can be adjusted, to accommodate different board widths. Here is a photo of the profile (minus the iron bit), plus my approximation of how it would work.  Actual carpenters, feel free to comment on whether I came close.

This plane was donated in the 1950s by J.E. Douglas of Rockville, who appears to have been a collector and relatively uninterested in the tool’s specific history. Fortunately for us, 19th century carpenters were no different than people today who worry about losing their favorite, broken-in, and/or expensive tools: they put their names on things. Many of the planes in our collection have owner’s names stamped or carved into the sides. This plane, in addition to the now nearly illegible manufacturer (someone in New York), has the name “W.E. Pumphrey” stamped onto both ends.

William E. Pumphrey is listed in the 1850, 1860 and 1870 Rockville censuses as a carpenter. In the 1880 census, his occupation is “undertaker.” The switch was not an uncommon one, as carpenters had the necessary skills to make coffins; many undertakers were also carpenters and/or cabinetmakers, and the change probably shows the trend of Pumphrey’s existing business. One of his sons, William Reuben Pumphrey (1846-1928), added embalming and other necessary functions to the practice, which eventually evolved into the Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Home, a long-time county establishment, and still family owned. According to their website, William E. began making coffins in 1854. Was this particular plane used to make coffins? It’s difficult to say for sure, but it seems entirely possible; after all, you can buy metal-free tongue-and-groove coffins today. (I checked. Isn’t the internet a wonderful place?)

William E. Pumphrey, donated by Elizabeth Owen.  MCHS Library.

Carpentry tools might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think “elaborate and decorative items.” A plane is a plane, right? Not so! (I suspect I’m preaching to the choir for some of you.) Many are made of expensive wood, carefully finished, with elegant shapes and extra decorative touches. Pumphrey’s plane would function just as well with plain knobs on the screws, but it has fancy finials and carved ends. The handle is ergonomic – the 19th century version, anyway – and shows a nice curve. A well-made tool lasts longer, but also tells the world that you use, and are worth, the best. Likewise, a well-made tool is something to be repaired, not replaced; Pumphrey (or a later user) added a twist of sturdy wire to one of the wooden washers when it split. Some of the planes in our collections have multiple owner names, added as the tool changed hands; this one has only the one, but it seems possible that it was used by later Pumphreys or their employees after William E.’s 1887 death.