Wide planes made favorite Colonial moldings.
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This yellow birch crown molder dates back to the late 1700s. A furnituremaker probably used molding of this size and style.

Craftsmanship was on the rise in the prosperous English colonies of North America by the middle of the 18th century. Many colonists, enjoying affluence after struggling to civilize the new world, sought more refined surroundings.

Colonial carpenters and furnituremakers obliged them with English-style work, featuring ornate moldings. The largest were crown and cornice moldings.

Crown molding fits on an angle across the junction of the wall and ceiling inside a building; cornice molding, where the roof overhang meets the outside wall. Similar moldings also graced cabinetry and even picture frames.

To make these fancy moldings, carpenters and furnituremakers used crown molders—sometimes called cornice planes—like the one shown above. The crown molder's curvaceous blade usually measured 3-4" wide, but some were as wide as 8". The blade of the crown molder shown measures 3-18 " wide. The plane's body is 3-12 " wide and 12" long.

In practice, woodworkers didn't start on flat stock with these wide planes. The general form of the molding would be roughed out first, using adzes, gouges, and smaller molding planes. Only then would the craftsman bring out his big crown molder.

As often as not, a master and apprentice would team up to plow the wide, deep blade through the wood. The master guided the plane as the apprentice tugged on a rope tied to an eye screwed into the plane's front. (Though the eye is long gone from the plane in the photo, you can see the hole for it in the front of the plane.) Though it sounds simple, the actual procedure was anything but a romp in the shop. Often, the planing was accompanied by much hot-tempered give-and-take between the master and his apprentice.

Surviving crown molders date as far back as the mid-1700s. Some were made as late as the 1890s, but machine-milled moldings, which became common after the Civil War, finally ended the reign of the crown molders.

Because cornice planes and crown molders were tools of master craftsmen, they were uncommon items. That also means most didn't suffer neglect and abuse, so surviving tools are often in very good condition.

Today, collectors covet these fancy molding planes. "Marked 18th century models can be worth $2,000-$3,000," according to antique-tool collector and dealer Philip Whitby. "A pair of early Philadephia crown molders, one with a blade more than 6" wide and the other more than 7", sold lately for $10,000," he reports.