What’s In A Name?

I’m sure there must be some confusion among those who don’t study the history of woodworking tools, as to what, if any, is the difference between a fore-plane and a jack-plane. I remember being confused about it when I started in woodworking. The metal bench planes of Leonard Bailey’s design still that were still being sold by the Stanley Company were described not by name but by number, the famous #1 – #8. That’s eight planes to the four that Moxon lists. I didn’t know then about Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises. (There were no modern reprints yet, and of course no internet where today scanned facsimile copies can be accessed.) 

My first entry into the nomenclature of planes came when I purchased With Hammer in Hand by Charles Hummel in 1983. In the catalogue of wood and metalworking tools used by multiple generations of the Dominy family of cabinetmakers and clockmakers, Hummel covered his bases when two planes were listed as “Fore or Jack Plane.” The first sentence of his entry is the quote from Moxon also used in my first blog post on making 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.” Further on in the entry Hummel writes, “Over the years much confusion has arisen about the names of bench planes used by woodworkers, especially in connection with the fore, or jack, plane.” He gives a brief history of the two differing names for the same tool but stresses that “What is most important is the fact that the purpose of these planes, whatever the name, was identical.” 

A fore-plane stamped with Nathaniel Dominy IV’s (1737 – 1812) mark. The earliest dated plane in the collection made by Nathaniel Dominy IV is dated 1763. This fore-plane was likely made around that time. It is 15 inches long. Hummel does not give an iron width but the body is 2 1/8 inches wide. Nathaniel IV made another fore plane, stamped with the date 1792. After 30 years of use, the earlier plane was worn past its usefulness. Most planes showing this much wear wound up in the fire. A remarkable and astonishingly rare survival. It is a testament to his descendants we have this plane to examine today. Winterthur collection.
Nathaniel Dominy IV’s fore-plane has the appearance of planes made in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In this view you can see he retained the extreme offset of the tote. He also appears to have rebated the right side of the tote tenon as I did to allow the tote to be radically pushed to the side without weakening the body. Winterthur collection.
The cambered or convex iron of the Dominy plane. The iron is stamped WELDON and is likely a replacement. Winterthur collection.

I have not researched how long the terms “fore-plane” or jack-plane” were being used in the English language before Moxon’s publication. I assume they turn up in earlier joiner’s inventories, advertisements for the return of stolen property, poems about the woodworking trade, and, no doubt, in Shakespeare. Moxon was familiar with both designations, writing in his section on house-carpentry, “The Jack-Plane, called so by Carpenters, but it is indeed the same that Joyner’s call the Fore-plane,” though gives no explanation why there are two names for the same tool and does not assign a length or width for either. Richard Neve in The City and Country Purchaser’s and Builder’s Dictionary, London 1736, makes no mention of a jack-plane but describes the fore-plane as about 18 inches long, with a cambered iron set rank. 

The remarkable of Benjamin Seaton tool chest contains tools purchased in 1796 from C. Gabriel & Sons, London along with an inventory taken by Seaton of his new purchases. His “1 dble (double iron) Jack 3/ and 1 Single d(itto) 2/1” are both 14 inches long with 2-inch irons. Also listed in the inventory but missing from the tool chest is “1 d(itto) Fore 3/6.” By the end of the eighteenth-century plane-makers were selling both jack and fore planes. The higher cost of the jack plane may indicate a longer body, 17 or 18 inches. We don’t know why Seaton needed three similar planes or how he intended to use them.

Planes from Benjamin Seaton’s tool chest. 1796. The single and double-iron jack-planes are the two mid-length planes with single totes. On the whole, this is the form wood fore/jack planes would take until they ceased to be made in the mid- twentieth century.

Peter Nicholson in The Mechanical Exercises, London, 1812, lists both jack and fore planes but only illustrates the jack-plane, describing it as seventeen inches long.

We now know that “fore” and “jack” have been used for centuries to describe the same plane, one 14 to 18 inches long with a cambered/radiused iron used to take the rough surfaces off boards coming from the mill or pit-saw. We know the terms were used interchangeably throughout the eighteenth century. The 1708 inventory of the Philadelphia joiner Charles Plumley lists 4 “Jack Plains.” (He had at least two indentured journeymen working in his shop.) In 1779, the cabinetmaker Jeremiah Cresson had for sale in his shop in Chestnut Street opposite Carpenters Hall “One double-iron fore plane” among other woodworking tools. It would have looked very much like Seaton’s double iron jack or fore planes.

I mentioned earlier that commercial production of wood bench plane ended in the mid-twentieth century. That is true, but there is more to the story. In the late 1990s, Bill Clark and Larry Williams established Clark & Williams, plane-makers, in Arkansas, reproducing mid-eighteenth century style single-iron bench planes for sale to the public. Don McConnell joined them in 2005 and in 2010 the company was renamed Old Street Tools. Recently, they have discontinued the production of bench planes while continuing to take orders for moulding planes until their supply of suitable beech for those planes is also exhausted. Today there are few commercial makers of wood bench planes made in the traditional style for sale in the United States, the two most well known being Red Rose Reproductions (side escapement planes, panel raising planes, and more) and Steve Voigt (specializing in double-iron bench planes). (There are several businesses making “Krenov” style planes and woodworkers around the world make solid body planes for their own use.) Hats off to them for continuing the tradition, and to Larry and Don for laying the foundation for traditional wood plane-making and who Dan at Red Rose Reproductions and Steve have praised for their generously sharing knowledge as Dan and Steve began their careers in plane-making.

Next: Using the Fore-Plane.

6 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. Thanks for the background. RE makers of wooden planes – Terry Gordon, of HNT Gordon, has been manufacturing wooden planes since 1995. His planes are mostly made of gidgee (a hard Australian desert acacia) and single iron, with the irons at a relatively high angle. His planes draw from an Asian heritage, rather than a European heritage. I have several of his planes, including a jack plane. They are a joy to use!

    • Good to know. A large selection of products. Planes with high bed/iron angles can be helpful with twisty grain though they are harder to push so if you are working relatively straight grained wood or are using a fore-plane as a first step in getting to a finished surface, a lower angle iron -45 degrees or so – will make planning all day not as tiring. An iron at a higher bed angle dulls more quickly than a one at a lower bed angle. It’s always a compromise based on the results you want.

  2. Hi, thanks for your fascinating posts.

    I have a few of old beechwood planes. Most are moulting planes, bit i have one I have always known as a scrub plane. It is similar to your fore plane but is shorter in the body, has a very small but wide tote which projects just above the rear of the plane body, and a front handle. It is very comfortable and effective to use.

    I always thought the difference between a scrub plane (or fore plane) and a jack plane was that the former have radiused blades, and the jack plane has a (very near) straight cutting edge like the shorter smoother or longer, wider and heavier jointer. Was I mistaken? It seems so, at least in the opinion of a couple of historical authorities.

    I find planing probably the most theraputic of all woodworking activities, when it is going well. When everything is right and you get beautiful even, thin ribbons coiling off with that lovely swooshing sound.


    • Ah, the scrub plane. I have not mentioned it yet but it is part of the fore/jack plane story. “Scrub plane” is not mentioned in any 17th, 18th, or 19th century text in English on the woodworking trades that I’m familiar with. In the last years of the 20th century, Stanley Tools began selling a simple 9 1/2 inch metal plane with a heavily cambered iron. By at least the mid-20th century, 9 1/2 wood body “scrub planes” were being imported into the United States from Germany and are still available today.
      See: https://www.highlandwoodworking.com/ecescrubplane.aspx
      There is a possibility that Stanley introduced their scrub plane to supply the demand of Europe immigrants who preferred a shorter, narrower plane with a heavily cambered iron.
      The fore and jack are indeed the same plane, wood body 14-17 inches long with a 2 inch blade that is cambered to a radius determined by the user. A scrub plane is the European version of the jack/fore plane, 9 1/2 inches with a 1 3/8-1 1/2 inch cambered iron. The purpose of all three planes is the same, to remove saw kerfs and flatten boards before the use of the try, smoothing, or jointer planes.

  3. “I mentioned earlier that commercial production of wood bench plane ended in the mid-twentieth century.”
    Not at all in continental Europe.
    Look for ULMIA or E.C. Emmerich in Germany, or as another example Pinnie in Czechia.

    • Yes, that should read “in North American and England.” I have a link in one of the to the Emmerich planes that can be purchased today at Highland Woodworking among other vendors in another comment on the post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s