The Stanley Rule & Level Company was always interested in providing its customers with the tools they wanted. They were very adept at bringing to market variations of their tools to satisfy the demands of as many workmen as possible. They listened to their customers and often incorporated their suggestions into the tools they produced. This resulted in the Stanley line of over 250 different models of woodworking planes. As any Stanley plane collector can tell you, trying to collect all of the almost infinite versions and variations of these planes is a near impossible endeavor. A surprising number of these planes (over 40) were designed as rabbets and filletster planes.
Before we begin discussing the Stanley #278 Rabbet and Filletster plane, its time for a bit of digression! The woodworking world’s use of the words rabbet (rebate if your English) to describe certain woodworking planes and filletster (fillister if you’re English) to describe other woodworking planes has over the years created understandable confusion and some controversy. So, here’s my attempt at enlightening you as to the difference between these two types of planes.
The English word rebate is derived from the Old French word rabbotre which meant to beat down or beat back. It gradually changed to rabbat in French which was defined as a recess in a wall. The English adopted the word as rabbet in the late 14th century and at some point in the late 18th century the word became rebate in England but remained rabbet in the United States. The French still use the word rabotage to describe the process of removing wood from a board with a plane, i.e. planing. If you think in more modern terms, when you receive a rebate from a manufacturer or sales person, a portion of the purchase price is removed or given back. A rabbet is simply put, a recess or step along the edge of a board. So when you make a rabbeting cut with your rabbet plane, you’re removing a portion of the board to create a rabbet (rebate).
Rabbet planes characteristically have a cutter whose cutting edge is just slightly wider than the sole of the plane. This slightly wider cutter allows the cutter to produce a sharp corner in the rabbet. This wouldn’t be possible with a bench plane because the cutter in a bench plane fits inside the body of the plane. The cutter in a rabbet plane may be skewed or straight and the gracefully designed side escapement hole of the plane allows the shavings to escape without clogging the plane’s throat (See Fig. 1). Rabbet planes do not have an integral fence, although woodworkers often tacked or screwed a piece of wood to the body of the plane to create a fence.
Figure 2. Image of a Filletster Plane from A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes, Emil & Marty Pollak, 4th Edition, Revised by Thomas L. Elliott, 2001, p. 466
The etymology of the word filletster is a bit more complicated. The word fillet meant a narrow band of fabric used on a hat in 14th century France. It was derived from the Old French word filet meaning “thread”, which was derived from the Latin word for thread, filum. The word fillet moved into the English language and has several definitions still very much in use including; a narrow band or ribbon worn around the head to hold the hair in place, the vertical strips between the flutes on the shaft of a column, or any narrow band or strip of metal or other material.[i] The addition of the suffix -ster to fillet led to the word becoming attached to a woodworking plane. Originally a feminine suffix in 14th century English -ster eventually became gender neutral and indicated, “a person associated or being something specified by the prefix attached to -ster. Think youngster, spinster, gangster, etc.[ii]
A filletster plane is then a plane associated with producing a stepped cut along the edge of a piece of wood. In effect a filletster plane also produces a “rabbet” (See Fig. 2). However, the filletster plane is a different animal than a rabbet plane. Filletster planes always have an integral fence that controls the width of the cut. The sides of the cutting iron do not extend beyond the edge of the plane body. The cutting iron in a filletster plane is always skewed and the escapement throat is straight rather than curved. Filletster planes may or may not have nickers and/or a depth stop. So, while both planes produce a rabbeting cut, there are subtle differences between the two planes. And there will always be planes that are exceptions to the characteristics described above. I’ll let you decide whether this digression was of any help![iii] Whether helpful or not, let’s move on to the topic at hand.
Stanley decided to blend a rabbet and filletster plane and came up with the production model of the Stanley #278 Rabbet and Filletster Plane (See Fig. 3). It was based on Christian Bodmer’s patent #1,201,433 granted on October 17th, 1916 (See Fig. 4). Stanley actually introduced the plane in their 1915 No. 34 catalog, a year before the patent was granted. The plane cost $1.75 when introduced in 1915, and it was in production for 38 years from 1915 until 1943.
The plane is small at only 6 and 13/16ths of an inch long and 1 inch wide. Both sides of the plane are ground flat to allow it to lay flat on either side. The plane is made of two cast iron pieces secured with a single large slotted pan head machine screw ( See Fig. 5).
The nose piece has a rather unique circular portion which Bodmer describes in his patent as a “finger or thumb hold”. When the nose piece is removed the plane can be used as a chisel plane. The cutter is seated bevel up at a bed angle of 20 degrees (See Fig. 6).
There are a series of grooves machined into the back of the cutter. These grooves engage two teeth on a stamped steel adjusting lever that is held in place in the rear casting by a pin. Raising or lowering this lever moves the cutter forward or back, controlling the depth of cut. A groove cast into the uniquely shaped lever cap engages a similarly shaped rounded projection cast into the body of the plane which loosely holds the lever cap in place.
Tightening the nickel plated adjusting screw tightens the lever cap down onto the plane cutter and at the same time wedges the lever cap tightly against the triangular projection cast into the body of the plane. The Stanley “Sweethart” logo and “Made In U.S.A.” is stamped into the face of the lever cap adjusting screw (See Fig 8).
The fence rod can be screwed into either side of the plane. The adjustable fence is 6 inches long with the hole for the rod positioned in the center of the fence. The fence is secured to the rod with a thumb screw (See Fig. 9).
The plane also has a small depth stop that can ride in a “V” shaped groove on either side of the nose piece. It’s held in place by a small thumb screw and washer. Spurs are present on both sides of the plane and can be rotated into place for working across the grain.
In 2006, a pre-production Stanley Model Shop version of the #278 came to auction. Shown in Fig. 10, it differs in several ways from the production model.
The casting is a bit rougher on the Model Shop version but the most obvious difference is the shape of the rear portion of the body of the plane which does not have the peaked arch seen on the production model. This lower arch makes the plane more difficult to hold in your hand and the production committee no doubt asked for a change in its design. The Model Shop version is 6 ¾ inches long and has only one spur located on the right hand side of the plane while the production model which included a spur on both sides. Stanley accommodated this second nicker on the production model by lengthening the front casting slightly making the production model of the #278, longer at 6 and 13/16ths inches in length.
There are no marks on the cutter or the lever cap adjusting screw in the Model Shop version and there is no model number cast into the plane as that had not yet been decided at the time this plane was produced. There is a small remnant of white paint on the top of the rear casting which is all that remains of the Model Shop number (See Fig. 11). The production model is identical to the plane shown in the patent drawing, so we can surmise that this plane was produced prior to the patent application. This would date it to late 1914 or early 1915 prior to the release of the 1915 Stanley catalog and before Bodmer applied for his patent.[iv] As opposed to many of the Model Shop planes I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, this one made it into production with minimal changes and was part of the Stanley line of planes for almost 40 years.[v]
The next time you’re at a tool show look for one of these interesting little planes and see what you think. They’re somewhat scarce, and often are missing the depth stop and fence. Sometimes the fence has been replaced from a Stanley #78. It’s easy to tell the difference if you remember that the fence on the #278 had the hole for the rod in the center, while the #78 fence has the hole for the placed asymmetrically. When properly sharpened and tuned up, they’re fun to use and great if you’re making delicate rabbets for window glass in cabinet doors.
Paul Van Pernis
[i] The word fillet (filet in France) was also used in the 14th century to describe a thin cut of boneless meat or fish that was prepared by being tied up with a string. Thus “filet mignon”.
[ii] Spinster originally meant a “female spinner of thread”. Spinning was commonly done by unmarried women. The word was used in legal documents starting in the 1600’s to denote an “unmarried woman” and by the early 18th century was being used as a derogatory term to described a woman who was still unmarried and was not likely to ever be married. The suffix -ster has come down to us as well in many English names such as Webster (a weaver), Dexter (a dyer), Foster (a saddletree maker), Brewster (a beer or ale maker), etc.
[iii] Gary Robert’s did a good job of highlighting the differences between rabbet and filletster planes on his Toolemera Bog site. You can read it at http://toolemerablog.typepad.com/toolemera/2012/04/rebate-rabbet-fillister-fillitster-and-why.html.
[iv] Bodmer applied for the patent on June 2, 1916 and the patent was granted on October 17, 1916
[v] While part of the Stanley line of planes for several decades, for Stanley collectors the #278 is relatively rare. When found they are often missing the fence and or depth stops. Most of the examples seen are from the “Sweethart” era suggesting that Stanley made a limited number of casting runs of these planes primarily between 1920 and 1935.