Origin Stories: The “Palm” or Planing Stop

Tool vendor on the Rainbow Bridge in the “Qingming shanhe tu” 12th c. scroll. Image from Yale University.

Lu Ban, born some time between 770 and the 5th century BC, is the divine protector of Chinese carpenters and artisans. He is credited with inventing the basic tool kit of the carpenter and the rules, measurements and rituals associated with building construction. He and his wife* are featured in many Chinese folktales. One story, as told by the Bai ethic minority of Yunnan Province involves how the palm, or planing stop, was invented.

The Origin of the “Palm”**

When Lu Ban needed to plane a piece of wood he would call his wife to come and hold one end of the wood with both hands. She would use all her strength to hold the wood steady. But this was not a good way to evenly plane the entire piece of wood. Too light a hand and the wood would not be smooth and too heavy a hand and the plane would run into his wife. Once, Lu Ban’s strength on the planer was too heavy and the head of the plane hit his wife in the chest, the blade cut her hands and she was pushed to the ground. Lu Ban dropped the plane and rushed to help his wife.

Lu Ban’s wife sat dazed on the ground gazing at her bloodied hands while Lu Ban fretted and did know know what to do. His wife suddenly smiled and realized what she should do. She got up, grabbed a saw and  cut two pieces of wood in the shape of a palm. Next, she nailed the pieces on the bench top. She had Lu Ban place the wood to be planed between the two pieces to hold it steady and there was no longer any need for a person to hold the wood while the carpenter used the plane.

Lu Ban admired this idea of his wife and he called the two pieces a “palm.” Later, carpenters changed from wood to iron but still called this invention a “palm.”

Finding the “Palm”

I asked Chris if he could visualize the palm and he suggested placing your hand palm-up (that was the bench surface) and bend four fingers pointing towards the ceiling (the stop). But that configuration didn’t help me see a “palm.” Many images of the low Chinese workbench are hand-drawn and do not show a huge amount of detail. So, the next step was to check through the images I already had and also look for new ones.

The Arrowmaker, 19th c.

The Arrowmaker, 19th century.

The Arrowmaker has a planing stop, but it doesn’t look as though it would be termed a “palm.”

17th c. Chinese wallpaper on silk at Saltram. Carpenters making tea chests. National Trust photo.

17th c. Chinese wallpaper on silk at Saltram. Carpenters making tea chests. National Trust photo.

Four benches but no “palms” here.

Lu Ban's wife nailing a planing stop to a bench.

Lu Ban’s wife nailing a planing stop to a bench.

In this 20th century Chinese comic strip Lu Ban’s wife nails what looks like a doe’s foot to the bench. The doe’s foot, a work holding appliance, is featured in Plate 14 of the forthcoming “Roubo on Furniture” and you can read a blog post Chris did about using one here.

Doe's foot and workman using an planing stop, 18th c. From Plate 14 by A.-J. Roubo.

Doe’s foot (top) and workman using a planing stop, 18th century, from Plate 14 by A.-J. Roubo.

The notch in the doe’s foot seemed to be closer to what the “palm” might look like. The answer came from “Qingming shanhe tu,” a scroll done with ink and brush by Zhang Zeduan during the Song Dynasty in the first quarter of the 12th century. The scroll is 25.5 cm high, 5.25 meters long and is in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The scroll shows the gatherings for the Qingming celebration in a vibrant riverfront city. The image at the top of this post is one of two where a woodworker’s bench can be seen.

In a short passage in a book about 15th-century Chinese carpentry there was mention of a wheelwright’s shop in the scroll and whether the workman at the bench is using a drawknife or spokeshave.

Center: the wheelwright's shop on the "Qingming shanhe tu" scroll.

Center: the wheelwright’s shop on the “Qingming shanhe tu” scroll.

Find the large tree just off center in the scene above. The wheelwright’s shop is just to the left of the tree and partially under an overhanging roof.

Wheelwright working at his bench in the "Qingming shanhe tu" scroll.

Wheelwright in the “Qingming shanhe tu” scroll. Image from Yale University.

Given the large size of the scroll the scene is too small to discern which tool is in use but what can be seen is the workman is pushing the tool as evidenced by the V-shaped wooden ‘bench stop’ nailed to the end of the bench. This ‘bench stop’ is called a “Lu Ban qi” which translates as Lu Ban’s wife. As Lu Ban’s wife knelt at one end of the bench she held her hands on either edge of the wood. Placed together her hands would form a V. This is the “palm.”

*In the folktales of the Bai Lu Ban’s wife is not given a name, but in other stories she is called Yun.

**This story is based on a Bai folktale translated by Jessica Marinaccio for her thesis for a BA with honors in Chinese at Williams College in 2006. 

Suzanne Ellison

This entry was posted in Asian Woodworking, Historical Images, Workbenches. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Origin Stories: The “Palm” or Planing Stop

  1. Hi Suzanne,

    Boy…you seem to really be getting into the Asian Cultural aspects of woodworking as of late?

    If you haven’t read any of Ronald G. Knapp (Professor Emeritus at SUNY New Paltz) works on related and similar topics, you may enjoy doing so. He has been a wonderful resource over the years.

    Most Westerns fail to understand the depth and breadth of Asian cultural influence on the building and Craft Arts. With a linage that was complex over 5000 years ago (far ahead of most of Europe in many, if not most ways) the range of tooling is quite extensive.

    Thanks for another great post…

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Jay! This post was a lot of fun: matching an invention in a folktale to an actual item used by woodworkers. I’ll check out Professor Knapp’s books.

    • Kansas John says:

      Its curious how Asian contributions are marginalized in western history. During my years in Architecture at University we had just one chapter in our ‘History of Architecture’ reading that combined Japanese and Chinese architecture. Of course no mention of Korean, Vietnamese or Thai contributions but a full chapter of Italian mannerism.

      • potomacker says:

        Congratulations on knowing more than most Chinese about Chinese architecture.

      • So true Kansas John…and only further illustrates…the still very strong (male) Eurocentric take on most topics…be it the arts or philosophy…

        I can understand it to some degree because of the languages being so utterly different than those of the European cultures, however, to continue today in relatively modern text and study to discount the overwhelming contribution and vastness is very curious indeed how marginalized it does get. As your further point out, this doesn’t even begin to take into account all the other Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures as well…Again much older than those of Europe, and because of that extensive age…one could argue much richer as well…by sheer volume of quantity alone.

        Now with the Internet and conversations like this one that folks like Suzanne facilitate, there begins greater exposure…

  2. David Mitchell says:

    This is a nice story.

    One thing strikes me as curious, though. We are typically told these days
    that “eastern” planes are used on the pull stroke, but In this story, and the
    illustrations, planing is on the push stroke. (Perhaps I also need to visit
    Ronald Knapp’s books.)

    • potomacker says:

      It’s only Japanese planes that use a pullstroke, not eastern planes unless they are Japanese made tools.

  3. I wonder if there is advantage to a full-bench-width palm over a straight stop (like Veritas). It would grip boards that are not perfectly square at the ends and even crush the fibers a bit before shooting (to prevent spelching). Plus it wouldn’t leave the tooth marks on end grain like a mortised bench stop.

    It wouldn’t have to be a dramatic angle, either.

    I’m going to try one out in 1/4 birch ply and see how it goes.

    • Kansas John says:

      It looks like from the drawings that it is used mostly for round stock. Maybe the two opposing contact points keep the stock from wanting to roll.

  4. rdwilkins says:

    Suzanne,
    Just wanted to let you know I love your blog posts. They are always an education.
    Thank you.

  5. daniyade says:

    Nice story!
    The “palm” called “班妻”(Ban Qi)in Chinese.its means “LuBan’s wife”. 🙂

    BTW,i am a Chinese carpenter:)

    – Ray

  6. mbholden says:

    Does this mean, that now that we have all gotten toothed metal planing stops morticed into our benches, we should cover them up with a screwed down “does foot”? Maybe inset hacksaw blades into the “does foot” for extra grip.
    Said with tongue firmly in cheek.

  7. brinkreview says:

    Great post!

    One thing I am still wondering about: the story (according to your post) describes Lu Ban’s wife nailing TWO pieces of wood to the bench, which suggests a different design from the one piece doe’s foot, and seems like extra, unnecessary work if one is simply making a “V” shape (a notch in a board would do). However, the reference to two pieces of wood used as a work holding device reminded me of an episode on The Woodwright’s Shop, in which Roy Underhill builds a cammed vise out of two pieces of wood, based on a design found in “The Young Mechanic” published in 1872. It’s on page 37 of the book and actually looks a bit like two hands holding the end of a board: https://books.google.ca/books?id=7goKAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. Underhill builds a small and large version of the vise starting at 7:08 of the episode entitled “Viceless Devices”: http://www.thirteen.org/programs/the-woodwrights-shop/viceless-devices/.

    On the other hand, a vise like that found in The Young Mechanic is a bit complicated to make when you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you, and your hands have big cuts on them from the plane.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I found several examples of late 19th and early 20th c. Western examples of two-piece “wedge” planning stops that were also nailed to the bench top…in other words using wood in various configurations as a planing stop is not unique to any one culture.

    • This is exactly what I thought when I read the post. The Young Mechanic’s vise looks like two hands with fingers intertwined. The wood is held in the palms.

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