Appendix 5: Abiel F. Walker, planemaker of Alna, Maine

The Davistown Museum was fortunate in being able to obtain a small collection (+/- 20) of Abiel Walker's planes directly from the attic of the house in which he lived most of his life in Alna, Maine, in September of 2001.  What at first glance was a group of generic run of the mill planes -- planes, which if sent to a local auction in Maine would sell for $5 to $20, -- are shown upon closer inspection have a historical significance because many of them were signed by the person who made them.  Due to the location in which they were found and the family provenance, the identity of Walker as a planemaker as well as a craftsman was and is clearly known.  Abiel Walker was a carpenter, boat builder and planemaker who spent most of his life in Alna, Maine (1808 - 1875).  A number of the planes he made and signed can be compared with other planes in his tool collection that he owned but did not make. A comparison of the planes in his small collection illustrate the change from the era of owner made hand planes of the 18th and early 19th centuries to the factory made hand planes that became prevalent with the mass production of companies such as the Union factory at Pine Meadow near New Haven, CT.  Three planes in Abiel Walker's tool kit appear to be late 18th century tools and pre-date the planes that Walker himself made.  These unsigned planes, which appear to be made of mahogany, are all by the same hand but vary in size: 8 5/8" long bead, 9 1/2" molding and a 10 3/8" bead.  All have matching wedges, wood, patina, beveling, etc.  Prior to making his own planes, Walker may have obtained these from another carpenter or boat builder in the Alna area who made his own planes.  All are signed with Walker's initials "AFW".

AFW mark
Abiel Walker planes

The next grouping in Walker's tool kits are those planes that he apparently made himself.  Along with the double sash, panel raising, and skew panel planes already noted in the Davistown Museum Maritime III Collection are three additional planes.  One is a 9 3/4" long molding plane constructed out of beech; the other two are a particularly intriguing matched pair of tongue and groove planes made out of oak, with a brass lower plate instead of the characteristic iron plate of the factory made tongue and groove planes.  Clearly hand made, and with Walker's characteristic wedge style, Walker must have seen and used the factory made prototypes of these pistol grip tongue and groove planes, which by 1850 were widely available (e. g. T. Tileston, 1802 - 1860, A. Cummings, 1848 - 1854, H. Chapin, Union Factory, 1828 - 1860).  For whatever  reason, Walker made his own tongue and groove planes that appear to be equal in quality to the factory made specimens of the time.

In addition to the planes that pre-date the period of Walker's planemaking activities, other factory made planes were found in Walker's tool kit.  Of particular interest is a signed J. T. Jones Philadelphia 9 3/4" complex molding plane, also marked with Walker's initials.  Pollak lists J. T. Jones as working in Philadelphia between 1831 and 1846, which is also the likely period of Walker's most productive planemaking activities.  Also in Walker's tool kit is another signed Union Factory H. Chapin molding plane with boxwood spline, 9 3/8" long.  Interestingly enough, this plane is not signed with Walker's initials, raising the possibility that it was added to his tool kit late in his career or after his death, circa 1875.  Also in Walker's tool kit were two other Union Factory planes, a quarter round molding and a small sash plane, both signed with Walker's initials.  Also found were three other early molding planes without initials and a number of undistinguished later molding planes.  No information is currently available about who may have used Walker's tool kit after he passed away.  His small tool collection is significant in illustrating the activities of a small noncommercial planemaker who built tools for his own use as well as possibly for the use of others in the local community, and who also made practical use of planes that obviously predate his active years.  The appearance of factory made tools manufactured after 1840 in Walker's tool kit is symptomatic of the rapid changes in technology and in social and mercantile relationships that characterized the period before the Civil War.  While thousands of Maine ship, boat and house carpenters continued to make their own planes throughout the 19th century, the increasing intrusion of factory made planes in Maine tool kits and tool collections signals the rise of the factory system and the mass produced planes of both the wooden plane manufacturers noted above and the more practical steel planes of the Stanley and other companies that soon supplanted wood plane production.