To a Fore-Plane

“It is called the Fore Plane because it is used before you come to work either with the Smooth Plane or with the Joynter.” Joseph Moxon, The Mechanics Exercises Or The Doctrine Of Handy-Works. 1683-1685

A busy summer, (W.A.R.P. Fellowship all of June and July, publishing an article), turned into a busy fall, (Center for Art in Wood exhibition, August 2 – October 23, prep for the W.A.R.P panel discussion on October 3, making a box for the Center’s Bandsaw Bash fundraising auction on October 20) that turned into a busy winter, (continuing my experiments in wood plane-making I began during the fellowship, making x-mas presents) left little time to work on blog posts.

This first post of the new year is about bench plane making and research during last summer’s fellowship. It was not my first foray into plane-making. Decades ago, I made several wood mouldings planes. I learned to anneal, harden, and temper the irons to make planes with profiles I needed for restoration and building. 

I made these wood moulding planes in the late 1980s. Cherry and maple bodies, an ovolo, an ogee, and two complex moulders.

But I had not made a bench plane. There were many reasons for this. I already owned historic wood and metal planes that worked for me, high quality quartered beech in the size needed for bench planes was not easy to come by in the past, and I was reluctant to devote time to researching, tool gathering, and ultimately making bench planes. But when I learned I would be participating in Center for Art in Wood’s fellowship, I knew making tools would be part of the practice. I thought, why not start at the beginning, with the first tool you reach for when bringing sawn boards to the bench? That would be a fore-plane, and wouldn’t that be an interesting and different type of object to have in an exhibition at the Center when our fellowship ended? I had never worked with a wood fore-plane that was not very worn, had a warped wood body, or had replaced parts. Lately, I have been using a modified Stanley/Bailey #4 plane with a cambered iron as a fore-plane. I looked forward to being able to work with a new plane that I made to my specs. But I would not be making just any wood fore-plane, but a version of the earliest planes that began to be made by professional English plane makers at the end of the seventeenth century. A plane that Joseph Moxon would recognize and that the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century joiners in Philadelphia would have used. After all, the exhibition would be installed around the corner from where John Head’s shop was located. 

If you are not familiar with the history of Western woodworking tools you may not know that there are only a handful of English or American fore-planes made before 1745 that survive. This fore plane was was made by Cesare Chelor (w. 1753 – d. 1784), the Black slave of the plane maker Francis Nicholson (1683-1753). It was made after Nicholson’s death in 1753, when Chelor began to mark his planes with his own name stamp. But he had been making planes of this form during previous decades that were stamped with Nicholson’s name. I would make my plane based on the design and size of Chelor’s plane. I was keen to get a sense of how the subtle differences in plane design of bench planes made before the middle of the eighteenth century affected their feel and working properties in use. Collection of Colonial Williamsburg.
Beginning the process of creating the cavity in the plane body for the iron and wedge that holds it. Working at the maker-space NextFab North.
At this stage, with the cavity excavated and the wedge and sharpened iron fit, you get to try the plane out for the first time. An exciting moment in my woodworking career, its performance exceeded any worn out, beat up, and warped-wood nineteenth century wood fore-plane I had ever used.
The completed fore-plane with a first coat of linseed oil.
Three planes and two squares made during the W.A.R.P fellowship and a back saw I made several years ago in their own vitrine in the “Overlap” exhibition at the Center for Art in Wood. I planned half of a rough sawn, cupped board of yellow poplar to a flat surface so visitors could begin to understand what a fore-plane does and the marks it leaves on the wood. In this image it is difficult to make out the undulating surface of the board. But visitors were able to hold it to the light to see and feel the rippled, flattened, surface produced by the fore-plane.

Over the last century and a half there have been hundreds of books and articles published on the subject of western furniture history. Until recent times there has been little attempt to deeply explore tools and their evidence of use in furniture making and how that evidence informs us about an object. This is something that I strive to do in these posts.

There is more to say on the history of planes and plane making, what it has meant to me in my work, and why such a seemingly simple object made of only three elements should be of interest to someone studying furniture history. This is the first of several posts on the topic. Up next:

The Center for Art in Wood adds its first handmade wood planes to their permanent collection.

7 thoughts on “To a Fore-Plane

  1. Hi, Chris,

    As always, a fascinating post.

    How does the fore plane’s shape and use compare to that of the “jack plane?”

    Also, is the term “a jack of all trades” related to the jack plane?



    • Moxon answers that for us in his section on House-Carpentry. “Jack-Plane, called so by Carpenters, but it is indeed the same that Joyner’s call the Fore-plane.” He doesn’t say why the trades had different names for the same plane. In a future post I’ll discuss the naming of the plane over the years. Today, jack-plane is used much more often than fore-plane, though I’m not sure why.
      “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” The full phrase, and not related to the jack-plane.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I am curious about the offset tote. Would you kindly comment on using the plane vs. one with a centered tote?

    Paul Dzioba

    • Yes, I plan to do that in a one of the upcoming posts. The combination of the tote being offset to the side along with the tote being stubbier/shorter than planes made after the 1770s or so, creates a very different experience in use. One of the surprises I didn’t anticipate is that is much easier to teach a novice how to plane with this design. More later.

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