Luther and Joseph Metcalf

The following information is courtesy of Bob Wheeler:

As is now becoming apparent to rhykenophiles, many cabinet makers of the Colonial and Federal periods were not only skilled but versatile as well.  Many were skilled toolmakers and often made many of the hand tools in the personal tool chests.  Others, when time or inclination allowed, made woodworking tools for craftsmen in the local area.  Such work would provide important supplemental income, particularly when orders for furniture slacked as often occurred during the winter months or periods of economic slowdown.  Many names upon wooden planes of this period have been identified as those whose primary occupation consisted of working with wood (furniture, chairmaking, coopering, carriage building, house construction, etc.) but who also practiced planemaking as an important secondary trade.

We have recently found clearly marked wooden planes that we believe will add two more names to the growing list of cabinetmakers/planemakers of Colonial and Federal New England.  Two moulding planes marked L. METCALF in large embossed letters have surfaced in a group of planes that included one made by C. Chelor, two by F. Nicholson and one unmarked "Nicholson clone."  These circumstances certainly suggest that L. Metcalf may well have lived and worked in southeastern Massachusetts. The design of his planes is typically 18th century; 10" long, birch, flat chamfered and with a wedge nearly identical to that of C. Chelor.  Perhaps as many as 8 or 9 early planes marked J. METCALF in large embossed letters are now known, resident in both a private and museum collections.  In appearance, they are very different from those of L. Metcalf and are characterized by rather crude workmanship, a greater length (11"), birch wood and flat chamfers.  Their overall appearance would suggest either a date rather early in the 18th century or the work of a planemaker less skilled than some or simply producing tools quickly in some haste.  All of the J. Metcalf planes known to us were found in Maine and that fact provided the first hint as to the identity and locality of the maker.

We believe L. Metcalf to be Luther Metcalf of Medway, Massachusetts, born in 1765 and died in 1849.  His apprenticeship to Elisha Richardson of West Wrentham began in 1770 and was interrupted by military duty during the Revolutionary War during which he attained the rank of major.  His training was completed in 1778 and in that year he opened his own shop to make chairs and furniture.  An 1801 advertisement in the Columbian Mercury is known in which Luther asked for apprentices and a windsor chair maker.  In 1816, he helped make the chairs and communion table for a new Medway meeting house.  Such are the known facts of his life, almost as sparse as his planes are rare.  A visit to the Norfolk county courthouse only revealed that there is no surviving probate docket for Luther Metcalf so we have nothing to add to the brief biography given here and published previously.  Considering that only two of his planes are known to have survived, his planemaking activities must have been very sporadic and brief.

Of his brother, Joseph Metcalf, there are not only more planes but more biographical information as well.  Joseph was born in Medway, MA, in 1756, and apprenticed to his brother.  He went to Hallowell, Maine, by oxcart for reasons unknown in 1789, and in the same year went to Winthrop, Maine.  He immediately began to build a workshop, which was finished in 1789, and a simple center chimney Georgian home, finished in 1792.  His house still stands in good repair and is currently occupied.  In the 1960's, his entire shop with lathes and many hand tools was moved to the Fort Western Museum [Augusta, Maine].  He trained Samuel Benjamin, who became a well known furniture maker in Winthrop.  In 1780, Joseph Metcalf bought 79 acres and became a farmer.  In 1801, he became a deacon in the Congregational Church, a post he held until his death in 1849.  As deacon, he was active in the American Anti-Slavery Society that was founded in 1833.  In that year, he actively supported the anti-slavery sermons of Rev. David Thurston of Winthrop and with the minister organized the Winthrop chapter of the AASS in 1834.  In 1813, he supervised the construction of a mill for the Winthrop Woolen and Cotton Manufactory, which interestingly, was not a wooden but a brick building.  Joseph turned out the wood for the looms in the shop of his former apprentice Samuel Benjamin. He served the town well as moderator, clerk, treasurer, selectman and assessor.  He married Olive Fairbanks in 1790 and they had 14 children, one of whom, John Calvin Metcalf, became a noted university professor, author and editor.  Judging from the crude 18th century design of his planes, Joseph Metcalf's brief involvement with part-time planemaking ended about 1800.  We were able to obtain his probated estate inventory and out of total value put at $642, the one line item of tools (lot of old cabinet maker's tools) is valued at only $6.42, barely 1% of the entire estate.  Clearly, planemaking was an activity of Joseph's younger years.  It does seem, considering the available evidence, that he deserves the title of Maine's earliest documented planemaker were it not for the ironic fact that Maine did not become an autonomous state independent of Massachusetts until 1820.

Pollak, E. & M. (1987). American wooden planes and their makers. Astragal Press, Morristown, N.J.
Blumenberg, B. (1989). Newbury/Newburyport Massachusetts: A unique cluster of American Planemakers and Cabinetmakers. The Gristmill. 54(2,3). pg. 10-13.
Bjerkoe, E.H. (1978). The cabinetmakers of America. Schiffer Ltd., Exton, PA.
Lovejoy, A.A. et. al. (1971). Winthrop. Kennebec Journal, Augusta.
Stackpole, E.S. History of Winthrop, Maine. Auburn, ME.

This plane is signed "J. METCALF".  Its description is found in the Maritime I Collection: ID# TBW1009 along with a link to a photograph of the other side.