Essays: The Plane – A case of unplanned obsolescence

It all started with a show. A vintage market. Some items were yanked out of their temporal context and plopped down as eye candy for the patrons. Once useful, the items are now disconnected relics, a mini time machine, a proverbial tchotchke. People were as dense as a subway car, rotating as they passed to expose their narrowest dimension.

I couldn’t help hearing a collage of phrases, squeals, gasps, and anecdote fragments wafting around the space. I like the fact that it’s easy to hide a wry smile behind a COVID mask. It had the feeling of it being like a Black Friday at Kohl’s but a softer, gentler cacophony. 

Overheard: “What’s that?” 

“I don’t know, but it looks cool”

There in front of me, was a plane. Not the TWA kind, an old woodshop tool. It was about a foot long, looking like a small part of a 4X4 post. It was made mostly of wood itself, with telltale niches and grooves suggesting its function. The only metal parts were its shaving blade and some screws. 

Used for decades, only a blade sharpening periodically was needed to keep it, well, sharp. The wood had aged ‘nicely’, as a result of years being caressed by leathery hands guiding its path. That patina is collector gold. Each scratch, wear mark and divot were there as proud scars. The deep auburn hue was a product of absorbing the sweat of the maker.

Its job, as I understand it, is to shave small chips of wood off a larger piece to shape it for its destined purpose. Holding it with two hands as you smooth the imperfections with repeated swipes of your arms. Now our wood products come to us like packaged meat, disconnected from their source. From China and IKEA.

“Yeah, it looks cool. I like the color”, said the other.

Somehow I knew this plane was not going back into the woodshop. Its years of work were over. It wasn’t broken per se, but has been replaced by electrified versions which perform consistently better. It was destined for a table or shelf to be displayed as a ‘work’ relic. A ‘conversation starter’. The two women moved on.

So there it sits. An anachronistic tool from an earlier time when making things by hand was the main way it was done. Appreciated now for its form–not function. From a shaper to a paperweight. Its sculptural form trumping its utility finally, at the end.

I could imagine them buying it and placing it out ‘for atmosphere’. “Wow–what’s that?” 

I don’t know, but it looks cool.”

The plane, once used for work; changes planes.