Guest Column: A Hand Plane from the 17th Century

Model of the Vasa
I went to Stockholm for some work, and while there I had the chance to go to the Vasa Museum. Herein lies the story, partly about Vasa, and partly about hand tools. Ok more about Vasa and a little about hand tools.

Vasa was a largest wooden war ship built in Stockholm in 1628. It was built at the behest of king Gustav II Adolf, who not only happy having a large ship, but wanted the tallest ship as well. The story goes that on August 10th 1628 all the people from Stockholm were given a holiday to see this ship being launched and sail from the shipyard to the main Stockholm harbor.

Needless to say everything went off well at the beginning, until slight wind caught the sails as it left the shipyard and the ship listed to port. The sailors were quick to release the sails, and the ship righted itself. As it progressed further into the channel, the sails caught an even bigger gust. Not by much, but little bit bigger. The ship listed to port again and, because all the gun ports were open, started to take in water. And a lot of it. This further accentuated the list, and more water came in. It is said that within a few minutes the ship sank about 50 meters from the coast. Some 30 odd people died.

And it remained there for over 300 years until salvaged, almost intact in 1961.

This part of the nautical history, though appealing, was not interesting. What happened next was that an inquiry was held, under the chairmanship of the king's cousin, to determine how this could have happened. As usual the contractors blamed the tendering process, the sailors blamed the quality of material and the high command blamed the contractors, the sailors, the tendering process and the quality of materials. Eventually nobody was brought to book for this very visible, very public, and very international catastrophe. Does this remind anyone of a handy political party today that has done a similar whitewash on a very visible, very public and very international debacle?

OK enough of that. Amongst the wreckage they found people's skeletons, some with their clothes still on. They also found large number of tools from carpenters, shipwrights, and other trades. Some of these were found almost intact. The picture on the side is an example of one such tool. It's a smoothing plane. It's a beautiful little tool, little more than about 6 to 9 inches. It was made of a dark wood, looked heavy, and was wonderfully shaped.

Vasa's Wooden Plane
What was evident was the obvious attention and pride that somebody took to make this tool. Notice the ornamental carving in the front, and the curved bevel handle in the rear to make it easy to hold this tool. Imagine also that on that huge ship there was somebody whose job it was to smoothen all the woodwork. I find this very compelling.

By Umaji Chowgule
20 September 2014

Somu Padmanabhan of has posted a blog on how I took to woodworking. It is available at his website:


  1. Thanks for sharing this info Umaji. Wonderful write up.


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