Mousam Ali - Plane Maker


Highway running through Dadri town

About 15km from my house in Greater Noida is the old town of Dadri on the Grand Trunk Road. This is a typical north Indian town, cluttered, overcrowded, its roads usually jammed with undisciplined traffic and sides lined with shops, workshops and godowns.

I generally find such places unpleasant, unremarkable and tedious. Yesterday I took a motorcycle ride down to the place in search of a local hand plane maker. It was time for namaaz prayers and the plane maker, a Muslim, was away at the local mosque.

As I waited, I watched a chubby little puppy gambolling around the place, trying to get at the goats and generally looking very happy. The very next instant I heard a heartrending yelp; a car had swung in and run over the puppy's rear legs. The puppy shrieked like a child and tried to drag itself away, I couldn't bear to look as a crowd quickly gathered.

The crowd stood around contemplating the poor puppy; some were grinning, others looked on with macabre curiosity, the car driver looked somewhat uncomfortable and most lost interest almost instantly. Fortunately almost immediately the puppy fell silent. I could not bring myself to part the crowd to see what had happened. I should have intervened, I blamed myself but couldn't. It was hugely distressing so I decided to leave.

I returned to the plane maker this morning unable to shake off the memory of the unfortunate puppy and the reaction of the locals.

Mousam Ali - Plane Maker

The plane maker was somewhat of a relief; a small man with a white beard and bird like movements. He spoke softly with a slight stammer and invited us into his dingy workshop. He said he has been making hand planes and other tools since 1977.

Mousam Ali, the plane maker, was delighted to learn that I wanted him to make a 24 inch wooden plane for me. He told us to sit and offered us treacly tea in paper cups while to he got down to making the plane from a piece of seasoned Sheesham wood.

Deisel Motor
Ancient Table Saw

His dark workshop was worthy of a museum with its ancient tools, piles of seasoned wood and pitted cement walls. I spotted a drill press that looked at least a century old, a table saw of sorts and other difficult to identify pieces of machinery. All of them were apparently run by a single diesel engine with a flywheel for a belt that could be attached to individual machines.

The table saw looked ancient and dangerous. The plane maker said he used it only for making rough cuts; most of the work was done with saw, chisel and hand plane.

Mousam Ali at work

He worked rapidly and had the plane ready within an hour. The handles were made earlier and attached with two screws; the blade and cap iron had to be bought separately.

It took him about five minutes to finally fettle the plane after attaching the blade and adjusting the wedge to keep the blade and cap iron in place. I tried it on a piece of Sheesham and it seemed to work like a charm even though the blade was far from razor sharp.

A sackful of handles

I also spotted an assortment of other old planes lying in a dark corner of his workshop; they turned out to be plough and moulding planes of different kinds. I bought one recently made plough plane.

Old Plough and Moulding Planes

Mousam Ali was delighted by my interest in his hand planes. Very few people these days used wooden hand planes he explained. It was now the age of machines and cheap metal planes, he lamented.

He made very few hand planes these days and said he had switched to making wooden trowels for applying and smoothing cement plaster. Trowels had a large and steady market and he made about a hundred a day.

He said he would prefer to make planes like his father and grandfather had before him. They knew how to make dozens of different kinds of planes.

Mousam Ali stood at the doorway of his workshop to wave us goodbye. He looked a frail misfit, an anachronism with a workshop full of ancient tools, goats and stray dogs loitering outside, and motor cars and lorries roaring past. It was a miracle he hadn't been crushed to oblivion by now.

Indranil Banerjie
5 October 2015

Comments

  1. Unfortunately, there are many craftsman of exceptional quality, here in our country who go unnoticed. Somehow, their desire to expand,innovate and go to the next level dies early, maybe due to financial and social circumstances. It is a sad state of affairs in out country. Fundamentally, lack of education, and schooling kills your imagination. Now take a look at these German wood planes. Their ancestors too, must have started like this only. But see how it has grown.
    http://www.ecemmerich.com/images/ece_catalog_12_english.pdf

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    1. Innovation thrives in a culture where people are prepared to pay good money for a good tool. In India people like me and you will bargain with poor artisans and express outrage if they demand high prices. Woodworkers in India must get their work done fast and at the cheapest rate possible. Mousam Ali must make a plane in one hour flat - and he does that. These are no frills planes but they work admirably. People like you can afford Ememrich planes and should buy them. Mousam Ali and his kind are not for the likes of you.

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    2. Indranil, thanks for identifying this chap. I'm in Dadri, can you please help me with his contact or exact location. I need to source some rebating planes. Also am incubating a social enterprise for hard wood & ceramics work.. so was keen to meet this chap as well

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    3. His shop is on the main GT Road half a kilometre towards Sikandrabad from the main crossing.

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  2. Awesome writeup sir. And you pointed out correctly that there is little value of trade skills in India among the general populace.

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  3. Great article sir about a traditional craftsman.Its bitter truth that we people are ready to spend money on MNC tools without a question, but think twice about investing in such great handmade tools.slowly these art of making hand tools are disappearing in our country I feel.But its good that you have got one!!

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    1. Thanks! Yes, I am very happy with the planes.

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  4. Hi Indranil,
    great article! I'm also making a few wooden planes at the moment and would love to get a couple made by Mousam Ali. Have been searching for people who make planes around where I live in Gurgaon, but have been unsuccessful! Any number one can contact him at? Or would you be game for another visit to his shop?
    Cheers
    Karan
    Bigfoot Guitars

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    Replies
    1. I have some spare ones made by him - drop me a line at indian.woodworker@gmail.com

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  5. Hi Indranil,

    I am starting to do some woodwork and have a lot of neem planks from a tree in our compound that suddenly died. The planks have all kinds of cups, bows, warps and I would like to use a hand plane to fix them. But I find normal jack planes very heavy (I am not very strong) so would find a wooden jack plane useful. An equivalent of a #4 1/2 smoothing plane would also be useful. I really like the idea of supporting a traditional craftsman like this. Unfortunately, I live in Chennai and cannot meet him directly. Can you help?

    Thanks,

    Arvind

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    1. Seek and you shall find someone as good as Mousam Ali in Chennai. Ask local carpenters where they get there tools and so on.

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  6. Yeah, better to find local talent. Do you think it will be useful to have a directory of craftsmen so that other diy'ers can buy from them? Given that your site is a tremendous resource for the starting woodworker, anyone searching is likely to land up here. Also, do you have a forum where people can post questions to each other or just find other people near them interested in woodworking?

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    1. Yes, it would be very useful to have such a directory. Maybe we can collabrorate in creating one for my blog. As for a forum, try http://www.diyable.net/forum/.

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  7. Lovely description of the old plane maker. Have been to India and on several ocations passed by and stopped in villages as described. Cars and noise all over, and then, in a small shop someone is sitting cuietly making cloth, sewing, preparing paneer or building furniture or windows. Love to go and visit and the always friendly owners tell stories and proudly show the work of their craft.
    A shame there is no one buying planes from old Mousam Ali any more.

    Enjoyed this read and hope to see more!

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