A Nicholas Taber Panel Raising Plane--with a Story.
This note stems from a woodworking plane purchased at a Rhode Island tool auction. The plane was made by Nicholas Taber, who was an early New Bedford plane maker living before 1800 in Fairhaven, across the Acushnet River from New Bedford. Nicholas was the father of another plane maker, John Marshall Taber. John M. Taber made planes in New Bedford for over 50 years (1822 – 1873), apparently at the same location -- 20 Elm Street--across the foot of Elm Street from the current Standard-Times building.
Nicholas Taber was not as prolific a plane maker as his son, but is perhaps better known in local history since his interests and achievements were more catholic. For example, he is listed as one of the "Proprieteri" of the "New Bedford Academy" (in what is now Fairhaven) founded in May, 1800. He was given the task of visiting this early school at regular intervals in order to ensure that it was being maintained and run effectively.
He later served as treasurer for the school, and kept the ledger pictured above. Before this he is listed in the school’s account book as having sold "moulding shaves" (for $0.50) to the school.
At some point he converted his Fairhaven home (which still stands) into an inn—the Sunrise Inn—and there are records of a liquor license being awarded to him. The sign that graced this inn still exists. It is noteworthy in that the font and style of his name on the sign , "N . Taber" mirrors that with which he marked his planes.
Taber lived from 1761 to 1849. While his earliest planes were made about 1785 in Fairhaven, at some point he moved his shop to the New Bedford side of the Acushnet River. Perhaps this occurred as early as 1797 when a bridge was first built across the estuary, connecting the Fairhaven side to the New Bedford side (then known as "Bedford Village". By about 1820 he was out of the plane making business and had given his shop to one son, John M. Taber, and his tools to a second son, Allen Taber. By 1830 Allen had moved to Augusta, Maine, where he apparently made planes, but no marked examples have been reported. John M. Taber went on to become New Bedford’s most prolific plane maker, and an important teacher of apprentices in the art and craft of plane makers. However, he seemingly never achieved the social record of his father, and consequently we know relatively little about him.
A second reason for my purchase of this plane was that it is a style of plane known as a "panel raiser." This is a plane used to "raise" panels that are inset as design elements into doors and larger furniture such as cabinets and shelving units. The center of such a panel is "raised" above the edges with wide chamfers of those edges, terminating in shallow tenons that are fitted into the horizontal and vertical grooves surrounding the panel. The backs of these panels are often chamfered with other tools, such as bench planes, draw knives, shaves, or chisels, but special panel raising planes are used on the fronts of the panels to provide a consistency from one edge to another that is difficult to achieve with ordinary planes or other tools. Because two of the edges of a panel require cutting across the grain of the wood, panel raising planes commonly have blades bedded in a skewed position. This facilitates cross-grain planning. Panel raising planes are not particularly common, but are favored planes of today’s woodworkers who desire to raise panels the "old fashioned way."
The plane is a fairly small panel raiser. It is 13 inches long, with a body that is 2 ¾ inches wide. It has a skewed blade, held by a wedge that has a rounded "tombstone" shape with slightly chamfered edges. The plane is made of American beech, and the top of the body has rounded chamfers. There is an applied "fence" on the right side, and an adjustable fence screwed to the left side of the sole. This allows its use on raising panels of various sizes—but most of its use would have been on smaller panels, typical of furniture rather than full door sizes. The plane has a handle known as an "open" tote, which is centered on the width of the body. The totality of the features of this plane suggest one that was made about 1800, which by American standards, is a relatively early plane.
When I returned home with the plane (which is dirty and dusty—this patina should never be removed from an early plane), I found that the blade was marked, "Brades Co." with a deep "hot stamp" mark that is upside down as you look at it. Incidentally, Nicholas Taber also marked his planes on their fronts (toes) with an upside down mark—as did his son, John M. Taber). But over this mark on the blade , was another, lighter, cold-stamped one that reads, "W.S. Wall" in an arc, and "New / Bedford."
Now, in 15 or 20 years of looking for tools related to New Bedford tool makers, I’ve never seen the mark of one "W.S. Wall." So, I called Michael Humphrey who has an extensive collection of wooden planes, including a number of those made by Nicholas Taber. Mike confirmed that this must be a very uncommon mark, and could recall no Taber plane in his collection with a similar one.
At the same time he asked if this panel raiser had a sole that was slightly convex in its cross-sectional outline. The answer is "yes", this plane has a convex sole. He pointed out that this is fairly unique to N. Taber planes, and would produce chamfers on the panel edges that are slightly concave—different from the flat chamfers found on most panels. This would make possible the identification of a panel, in an early New Bedford piece of furniture or door, as likely having been made by Nicholas Taber plane.
So, now the next question for me was, "Who was W.S. Wall" that marked tools with this stamp about 1800? The answer was not long in coming. A Google search for "’W.S. Wall’ New Bedford" turned up just a few hits, and one of these was a reference to an Ohio historical site ( http://www.massillonmemory.org ), which operates out of the Massillon, Ohio Public Library. This site contains a digitized letter written in 1802 from one "Wm. Sawyer Wall" in New Bedford to Thomas Rotch, perhaps living near Hartford, Conn. Both Wall and Rotch are names firmly embedded in New Bedford history. The family name, "Rotch"(pronounced, Roach) is notable for the father and son team of William Rotch, Sr. & Jr., who moving to New Bedford from Nantucket after the Revolutionary War, were instrumental in establishing the city as the pre-eminent American whaling port in the 19th Century.
Thomas Rotch (a brother of Wm. Rotch, Jr.) came from his ancestral home in Nantucket about 1790 to marry Charity Borden Rodman, a resident of Newport, RI. The couple then moved first to Nantucket. After their first (and only) child died, they moved to New Bedford about 1792. Here Thomas joined his brother, William Rotch Jr, in a whale oil and spermaceti candle business. He is recorded as being one of the preceptors (and treasurer) of the New Bedford—Fairhaven bridge, built in 1797. This is the bridge that Nicholas Taber probably walked or rode across each day to make planes. In 1800 Thomas and Charity moved west to the region of Hartford, Connecticut, and Thomas established farms for raising sheep, an "oil mill," and a mill to manufacture woolen cloth. His intentions were to operate as a Missionary for his Quaker faith. This is when Wm. S. Wall, sold the scythes to Rotch, and asked for further references and help.
The letter written to Thomas Rotch by Wm. Sawyer Wall reads as follows:
New Bedford 3 Mo, 23, 1802
Bot [bought] of Wm. Sawyer Wall
3 patent Cast Steel Scythes @ 13/ -----------------------$ 6.50
Agreeably to thy intimation I now forward the above to thy care: and hope that they will not only be reliable but give satisfaction to the purchaser.
Should the quality prove such as to cause persons in your neighborhood to be solicitous of procuring them: on information I can undertake to have them made in any pattern. I shall be obliged to provide them with little trouble.
If thou wouldst provide with me as much broom-corn as is sufficient to make 20-30 brooms and send by Captain Delano on his return, I propose sending it to England to a person who informs me he can find a market for a great quantity annually should it answer the description he has had of it. But prior to giving any order he wishes to have a specimen of it. Please likewise to inform me of the terms on which it is sold & whether by weights or otherwise.
I have thy press nearly finished but having sold my vise, I have not been able to complete it to send this trip, but hope to do it by next.
My affectionate remembrances to thy Wife remains
This letter contains a lot of information about Wall (and Rotch). First, Wall is marked as both "W.S. Wall", and ‘Wm. Sawyer Wall." So this is almost surely the "W.S. Wall" who marked the plane blade. The approximate date of the plane (ca 1800), and the letter (1802) agree in this regard. Next, Wall is billing Rotch for three scythes that he had shipped to him, ostensibly via a vessel whose master was one, "Captain Delano." There is also a concordance here, between the sorts of goods involved, plane blades and scythes (edge tools). But, it is also possible that Wall may not have made the scythes. They are described as "patent" scythes, and Wall can "provide" (not "make") them. And, Wall did not necessarily make the plane blade. He put his mark on the blade, but it is also marked, "Brades Co"—the firm that probably made the blade.
At time of this letter, Rotch was living near Hartford, Conn. The Massillon, Ohio, Historical Society owns a trove of at least 996 letters to and about Thomas Rotch, from the early 1790s, until his death in 1823. John Bullard drew upon this trove of letters for his book, "The Rotches", (published in 1947 by The Cabinet Press, Milford, NH). It seems that he moved to this region of Ohio from Hartford in 1811 in order to establish farms dedicated to sheep husbandry, and for reasons of Charity's health--she suffered from Spotted Fever, contracted in Connecticut. Wall’s request for "broom straw" confirms that Rotch was living in a farming region, such as near Hartford. The information that Captain Delano was delivering the scythes and carrying the broom straw is feasible, given that Hartford is below the head of tide on the Connecticut River, which was fully navigable by sailing ships to that point.
The Captain Delano mentioned in this letter probably refers to Captain Calvin Delano who was a Fairhaven resident about this period. I once owned a ledger that belonged to a Fairhaven cobbler named Jethro Delano, who as early as 1802 made shoes for Captain Calvin Delano. Captain Calvin Delano was a merchant seaman who carried goods along the east coast, and across the Atlantic to Europe. Indeed, still as a young man, he died in St. Petersburg, Russia while on a voyage. The New Bedford Whaling Museum owns a portrait of him. Of course, the Captain Delano mentioned in Wall’s letter could have been a different "Capt. Delano." Two other possibilities include Capt. Seth Delano, and Capt. John Delano, both of whom also appear in Jethro Delano’s ledger.
It is clear that Thomas Rotch had some sort of personal as well as business relationship with Wm. S. Wall. Both were obviously Quakers, and Wall evidently knew Rotch’s wife. About 1800 the population of greater (including Fairhaven) New Bedford was probably not much more than 1000 people, and since the Quaker community was a tight knit one, it is not surprising that they would have known one another..
Wm. S. Wall emerges from this letter as a merchant. He sells patent scythes, and is interested in establishing trade with partners in England that involve brooms or raw broom straw. Moreover, he apparently contracted to supply a "press" to Rotch. And we know that, whatever kind of "press" it was, he was involved in its manufacture, which required a vise that he had sold. So, in addition to his life as a merchant, he must have had some mechanical skills.
In today’s New Bedford, Wm. Sawyer Wall is best known as the father of artist William Allen Wall. Wm. Allen Wall was born in 1801, about a year before his father penned the letter to Thomas Rotch. By the 1850s the junior Wall was a prolific New Bedford artist painting historically--based landscapes in and around New Bedford. One of his most famous paintings, which has been printed many times, is known as "Old Four Corners, New Bedford," or "New Bedford in 1807." Another iteration, apparently later, is titled, "New Bedford, Fifty Years Ago." The scene is looking west, up Union St (then known as Main Street) from just southeast of the corner of the present day Union and Water Streets. The original painting dates to about 1855, and a lithograph made in 1858 contains the additional figures added by 1857. It is supposed to have been based on a sketch made by Wall’s father (Wm. S. Wall) 50 years earlier. The painting originally was created with depictions of historically important figures in action at the cross roads (including the Rotches). Later, additional figures were added to the picture, and in an interview about 1859, Wall identified many of them. A notable is one is a young child riding a cart being pulled by other children. It is speculated that it was meant to portray himself as a child of six years old when the picture was sketched by his father. Also shown is another figure, talking to a gentleman leaning against a wall on the right side of the intersection. Wall meant this to be his father, standing at the corner, talking to the other person leaning against a wall. This, then, is a portrayal of Wm. Sawyer Wall, the man who applied his name stamp to the blade on my plane.
It is interesting that in the historical traces of Wm. Sawyer Wall, he is most famous for being the father of his artistic son. But, in Mary Jean Blasdale’s "Artists of New Bedford" he is also mentioned in respect to having taught school, and as being a "pedagogue." Perhaps his interest in education caused him to interact with Nicholas Taber, who, after all, was involved with the New Bedford Academy. Wall is also credited with have drawing or artistic skills that might have been passed down to his son. Finally, he is described as being a "merchant," and running a hardware store. This is the side of him that we see in the plane blade, and in his letter to Thomas Rotch. Wm. Sawyer Wall died in 1815.
It is probable that Wm. Sawyer Wall did not make the blade that bears his name. The stamp reading "Brades Co." is surely the one of the maker. Brades Co. was a very old and long lived firm that mined coal and iron ore in Oldbury, England (near Birmingham) from well back into the 18th, or even 17th Centuries. Their steel products included hammers and chisels, and there are reports of plane blades made by them—but examples (except for the present one) are not forthcoming. Surely, with his English business connections (and Wm. Sawyer Wall was born in England), he would have imported his plane blades from that country. In the late 18th century, American-made cast steel plane blades were not available, either in New Bedford, or elsewhere in the fledgling U.S. and most plane makers used blades made in England.
Thomas Rotch led a life that had its remarkable aspects. Leaving Hartford about 1811, he and Charity took a circuitous route through western Massachusetts and eastern New York, and riding on horseback, they then circled down through Ohio, going as far south as Columbus, and then coming north to about 40 miles south of Akron. Here they stopped and purchased 2500 acres of land, laying out and settling the town of Kendal. There he established a herd of purebred Merino sheep that a helper had driven from Hartford, and ultimately built woolen mills for the production of high quality cloth. He was the first post master of Kendal. Kendal today comprises part of Massillon, Ohio, and Thomas Rotch is known as the founder of Massillon.
Continuing their missionary work in Kendal, Thomas and Charity gave succor to escaped slaves coming north through Ohio. Living on the edge of Indian Territory, Thomas was also active on the Society of Friends’ Indian Affairs Committee. Thomas and Charity were magnets for other Quakers wanting to move to the frontier, and they were joined by a number of families that originated from Nantucket.
Thomas Rotch died in 1823 (at a Quaker Annual Meeting in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio) at the age of 56. The whereabouts of his grave is unknown. Charity died one year later. In her will she left about $20,000 for the establishment of a residential school for orphaned children, and children "of depraved parents." That school (in her name) continues today as "The Charity School of Kendal in Massillon, Ohio."
For any tool collector, finding a story behind a tool is part of what makes this avocation so interesting. The story behind this Nicholas Taber panel raising plane has been a particularly fulfilling one, and I’ll treasure this plane for a long time.