Branded Wooden Planes in India - American Analog....150 Years Later
During my professional career I've spent much of my time overseas including a 3-year period running an engineering and construction company in India, many of the projects of which were in the south. Due to the 1100 mile commute back to my family in New Delhi, I spent a number of weekends at various project sites and wandered through villages and towns of the area. As is the case for many EAIA members, I was fascinated by skilled craftsman and their tools, most of which they purchased from local shops or, more typically, constructed by the craftsman after buying critical components such as blades.
One Saturday afternoon in the industrial district of Chennai (southeastern coast of India), I was attracted to a hardware store that sold a remarkable range of locally and internationally sourced tools. Over one of the display cases was a large array of wooden planes. To my surprise they were not locally produced as was typically the case, but came from the north and were all branded “ALFA”. The proprietor of the shop told me that they are a bit more expensive than those that could be sourced locally, but were provided by a small company, EN-TECH Engineers, that wanted to develop a nation-wide brand that represented consistent quality for wooden tools at an affordable price. The owner of the company had personally traveled to Chennai with a trunk load of planes to develop the market. I couldn’t help thinking that I had fallen into a time-warp, an analog of American plane making and marketing that was occurring more than a century and half later than similar business models in the US. I also realized this was a rare opportunity to examine the model, not through records, but through witnessing the process and the people who were implementing it. I bought one of the planes.
My first introduction to the ALPHA brand
The address on a small “rack-card” that contained advertising and the entire line of products gave me enough information to track down the owner, Zakir Hussain, who I contacted by phone. I expressed my interest in seeing the entire process and meeting the people involved. He immediately invited my wife and me to come up to Muzaffarnagar, his base of operations only 80 miles from our home in New Delhi. He also suggested that we make it a two-day visit to include seeing the craftsmen of Saharanpur, a city of approximately 700,000 people of which over 75,000 were in woodworking trades, primarily furniture and carving. Saharanpur also had a number of skilled blacksmiths and edge-tool makers from whom Zakir sourced some of his edge tools.
ALFA's "rack card" with catalog of planes and prices. Note that a 20 in. jack plane (70 Rupees) cost the equivalent US $1.20.
We drove our trusty Tata Sumo, a bare-bones Indian SUV that seemed indestructible but equally uncomfortable on Indian roads, to Muzaffarnagar where we met Zakir and retired to a small hotel to rest for a very full couple of days ahead. Early the next morning we set off to the wood auction in Saharanpur to begin the journey along the pathway of manufacturing a wooden plane.
The wood auction is truly a one-stop source for every part of a tree. The small straight branches not used for firewood are sold to weave into the walls of homes, large logs are sold for sawn timber, and the remaining smaller pieces are sold to make small carvings.
Inspecting large timber at the wood auction.
Most of the wood used for planes is sheesham (Dalbergia sissoo) of the rosewood timber family which grows in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. It is both hard and wear resistant, more so than white oak. It is also used for carving and furniture, but has been replaced to a large degree by teak, both species now being plantation grown. An important characteristic of sheesham is the resistance of its heartwood to insects. However, its sapwood is susceptible to infestation, an important consideration for Indian craftsmen making or selecting a plane to be used in India.
There was a bit of clowning and dancing for the benefit of my wife, Alice, who was a great novelty; our host told us that they’d had never seen a European women at that wood auction.
A bit of pre-auction gaiety for our benefit.
The successful bidders moved their wood out of the yard to the mills or their furniture shops.
Auction winnings leave with the owners.
Zakir then took us into the havelis (old townhouses that now typically have commercial activity on the ground floor) of Muzaffarnagar to see some carving, but more importantly the source of edge tools that his manufacturing team used in making their planes.
A family edge-tool blacksmith shop
We initially went through some of the small craft shops where carvers were working but quickly moved to the source of edge tools, spending some time with an edge-tool blacksmith and some of his family.
His operation was a typical small family operation, including his young son who was turning a wheel that ran the blower for a very small forge. He should have been in school, reflecting a common problem of child labor among lower income families in India despite a constitutional prohibition prohibiting children under 14 from working.
The youngest son at the forge blower
The smith at the anvil. Almost his entire complement of forge tools are in this single photo. Superb quality with amazingly few tools. Note the rubber-band bound package of completed gouges on the face of the anvil.
His father was using discarded high speed still drill bits to forge chisels and gouges several of which I bought based on his “cataloge” burned into a small piece of plywood.
A really honest "catalog": what you see is what you get!
We traced the next step in the plane-making process to the saw mill where the logs were sawn into slabs and the slabs were edge-cut.
Sawmill owner and sawyer take a few minutes out with the hookah.
Other than the pulleys and belts from an old “one-lunger” gas engine, the process was essentially as it was (and in some cases is) in the US. The one significant difference was the hospitality which included the elderly owner’s offer to smoke an Indian hookah. Somewhat to our surprise, it was started with cow dung which the elder sawyer assured us was quite sanitary due to the heat.
The boards were then sorted, edged, and sent off to the carvers of Saharanpur and Zakir’s shop.
Alice looks over wide slabs of clear sheesham. I drooled!
Edging planks of sheesham. I winced every time the sawyer stepped back....within inches of the drive belt.
The next step was at EN-TECH: cutting the plane blanks to length and some very preliminary shaping.
Cutting the rounded sides of the smoothing plane blank.
Clearly hand safety was not a significant concern and the electrical code was dealt with “economically” (wire in outlet without plugs!). The plane blank was then trued with a fore plane.
The fore-plane used in initial sizing. Sheesham is very hard & tough wood hence it requires a "T"-handle tied back behind the blade for the 2nd "puller".
The actual plane shaping then started with scribing the dimensions for the mouth and blade recess.
Then came cutting in the mouth and paring the bed.
All work was done while sitting on the ground....with very adept feet as the multi-position "vise".
And recessing the cheeks for the blade and wedge.
It's interesting to note that the floats, chisels, saws and files used are essentially the same as those used in early American planemaking.
Note that these operations used the craftsman’s feet as the vise, very similar to a number of craft techniques elsewhere in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
The bed was filed flat, and
Note the randomly spaced teeth on the hand-made rasp. Still the best (and most expensive) pattern even in the US!
the inlets for the wedge and blade trimmed with file and float.
And finally the mouth was trued from the sole.
Not that all marking was with a knife or blade of some sort. Not a pencil in sight.
In parallel, the blade was straightened, sharpened, and the cap trued.
I can't imagine how many miles of railroad track are used as anvils worldwide. I've seen them on every continent to forge and adjust high quality hardware, fasteners, and edge tools.
The blades for rabbeting and molding planes were cut, forged and shaped from discarded band saw blades. As was often the case in the US, bench plane blades in India were purchased from reputable edge tool manufacturers and were made from high carbon steel. I can attest that they held a very good edge having used mine for several years.
The overall body of the plane was finally and carefully shaped.
Final shaping was the one station of production that used a vise...and was generally done by the most experienced workman.
The blade, cap and wedged checked for fit. The final “QC check” was actually trying the plane which is perhaps the most important QA test: real functionality!
The planes were then warehoused for packing and shipment…..and on to the shelves of hardware stores.
Decision, decisions! I was always careful to select plane bodies that were sheesham heart wood. Sapwood was quite hard, but not as resistant to insect damage.
The stages for producing a smoothing plane are shown below.
Note the combination of heartwood and sapwood as well as the use of both radial and tangential wood on the sole.
Although the process I‘ve described is for a smoothing plane, the company produced a wide range of planes using basically the same processes.
I obtained one of each type produced under the ALFA brand.
The full range of ALFA bench planes.
Example of ALPHA plow plane. The full line included quite an array of molding planes as well.
Regretfully, EN-TECH’s ALFA brand was discontinued. The larger Indian tool firms had made relatively inexpensive copies of several Stanley and Record planes which were more durable, much easier to adjust, and relatively inexpensive. The local carpenters who couldn’t afford the metal planes continued to purchase planes from small local suppliers despite the typically inferior quality….but lower price. I believe that Zakir thought there might be an export market for amateur woodworker who wanted to use traditional hand tools. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, although some extremely high quality wooden planes are being imported from China in addition to those from Western Europe.
Although not a success in the long run, it was very interesting to witness the process and the business model of promoting quality through brand recognition. It was also very interesting to see how the parallel to the American model for plane development was truncated by taking advantage of American manufacturers’ early metal plane designs rather than going through the period of transitional planes that we did. It’s comparable to the implementation of cell phone technology in India vs. the US. India had relatively little stranded investment in “copper” ground line communication, was able to quickly adopt cell phone technology from the west, skipped the cell network development stages we went through, and now has very robust cellular networks.