Chris Schwarz's Blog

Names for Planes: Try This on For Size

I like it when the name of something is eponymous, it fits. Was there ever a woodworker who was more aptly named than the late “Art Carpenter?”

When I was working as a newspaper reporter, I dealt occasionally with a spokesman named “Woody Forrest.” I don’t even know if that guy was a woodworker. Why isn’t my name “Woody Forrest?”

Instead, I’ve had to endure a name that (according to our dog-eared dictionary of baby names) means: A Christ-like war-monger who is black in color.

So when it comes to the names of handplanes, I get frustrated with names such as “jack” plane, “block” plane or “Jenny” plane. Those names don’t really describe what the plane does. I much prefer names such as “rabbet” plane or “smoothing” plane.

To that end, I’ve been trying to clean up my language when talking or writing about planes. It’s easy to get mired in even less-helpful terms such as “a No. 6 plane” or a “Stanley No. 141.” As someone remarked to me once: “I’m sorry. I don’t speak ‘Stanley.'”

So here’s how I organize my bench planes in my mind using historical names that imply their function.

Fore Plane: Sure, it sounds a bit ribald, but Joseph Moxon tells us that this tool, which is about 18″ long, is called a fore plane because it is used “before” the other planes. You could call it a roughing plane if you like, but the name “fore plane” implies its function to me.

Try Plane: According to Charles Holtzapffel, a trying plane is 20″ to 22″ long and is used for flattening a panel or “trying its accuracy.” The modern term for a tool that’s this length would be a “jointer plane,” but that’s actually a confusing term in my book. When you make a board flat, you are trying it. So what better plane is there than a “try plane?” Thanks to the encouragement of Don McConnell at Clark & Williams planemakers, I now call my 22″-long metal-bodied plane a try.

Long Plane: In several old texts, a plane that is about 26″ long or so is called a “long plane.” What was it used for? Trying large surfaces with greater accuracy than a “try” plane. While “long” plane certainly describes the tool, it doesn’t really describe its function. Maybe a better name would be a “long trying plane.”

Jointer Plane: These tools are 28″ to 30″ long, according to Holtzapffel. Think about that for a minute. Do you have a metal plane that long? Probably not. That ginormous size is outside the Bailey metal-plane system. These super-long tools were intended for creating edge joints. Hence their name. I don’t own a plane this long.

Smoothing Plane: The old-school definition of a smoothing plane is a tool that is about 6-1/2″ long to 8″ long and is the last plane to dress the wood. So “smoothing plane” is an apt word. Smoothing planes have gotten a little longer in modern time — up to about 10″ long. Even so, their job is the same: smooth the wood for finishing.

Other Planes
These purpose-driven names don’t end with the bench planes. Rabbet planes make rabbets. Moulding planes make mouldings. Hollows and rounds make round and hollow shapes. Fillister planes supposedly cut “fillisters,” a word that supposedly means a cross-grain rabbet.

The names of other joinery planes don’t quite make the cut. The name “router plane” isn’t ideal, but I’m at a loss for what else to call it. (“Old woman’s tooth” or “hag’s tooth” are equally odd names in my book.) Yes, the router plane “roots” like a pig looking for truffles, but that doesn’t really capture its function. Perhaps it does so many tasks that it’s hard to describe.

The plow plane does indeed plow the wood. But why not call it a “groove plane” instead? Well, this is where things fall apart for me. I like the alliteration and assonance in the term “plow plane.”

So what should we rename the oddly named “block plane?”

Holtzapffel suggests “modelling” planes. So are these planes suitable only for making wooden models? We can do better than that.

– Christopher Schwarz

 

29 thoughts on “Names for Planes: Try This on For Size

  1. Lewis A. Saxton

    Hummm…for the block plane-how about "handy pocket plane" or for today "handy bucket plane". When I did general repairs in New York City and had very few tools my block plane did anything imaginable. Mostly fitting doors, especially end grain; forming small pieces of wood to any shape to fill cracks; replace missing pieces of banisters; quickly shaping missing chair rungs; making dowels; etc.; etc..

  2. Anonymous

    Back when I was in school, we had a guy who announced one day that he had decided that a block plane was a "useless tool."

    There were those of us who decided that while that moniker didn’t quite fit the tool, it did seem to fit the person. So that’s what we used in conversation when we referred to him… that useless tool.

    Probably not very helpful, but it seemed worthy of being passed along.

  3. Joseph Sullivan

    Christ-like warmonger?

    Christopher was a saint until they officially decided he was a legend. He lived near a river and helped (as in carried) travelers across. One night he carried the Christ Child (or didn’t as he is really only a pious legend)

    Anyway, the name Christopher means Christ-bearer or Christ-carrier.

    Joseph Sullivan

    (who is named for St. Joseph and whose surname means either dark eyed or one-eyed depending on how you translate it Someone who has only one good eye also has one that is "dark.")

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    Dave,

    Like the term "try square," a "try plane" attempts to bring the surface into "truth." Some say this is the origin of the idiom "tried and true." So you use a "try plane to make a surface true and you use a try square to test it for truth.

    This is, I think, how it works.

    All the best,

    Chris

  5. Rob Holden

    I am not sure where I heard this but for the origin of the block plane, was it not named that for the fact that it was used to plane the blocks that the butcher would use in his shop? The varied (usually end) grain was extremely difficult to smooth with the planes normally used in the cabinet shop. This is how the plane was named but it should be something else because it is much more versatile than just for planing end grain. Just my .02 worth.

    Rob

  6. Jeroen v d Berkmortel

    Well Chris, I think the name Schwarz suites you perfectly. When old people here in The Netherlands and Germany speak of a black person, they are talking about there haircolour. So they would describe you as a tall slender black man.

  7. PAUL (But I'm Much Better Now)

    Chris,

    Regarding your dilemma, I remember David Marks of woodworks & the host of American Woodshop(cannot recall his name, forgive the “SeniorMoment”), both folliclely challenged! Use # 7, for most everything. Such as #7 bit, #7 plane, #7 scroll saw blade, etc.
    Methinks it makes scripting the show easier.

    Perhaps we should fix the “Drill” next!

    Do not overlook "Fillet"

  8. Metalworker Mike

    A very interesting discussion, here.
    Where the fillister is concerned, perhaps it was so called because it cut out the recess where a fillet could be installed at the end of a piece (similar to a bread-board end).
    I liked the notion that only two-handed planes should be called bench planes.
    If one has a ‘jack’ plane, then it is sensible that a similar plane, but a bit smaller, would be a ‘jenny’ plane because a male donkey is a Jack, and the slightly smaller, but somewhat sweeter in disposition, female donkey is a Jenny or Jennet. Perhaps the hard-working, universally-applicable nature of the donkey helped to name the jack plane in the first place?
    If anybody has an old inventory listing a Jennet plane then I would say that would nail down the notion.

    M.Mike

  9. schreiberbike.blogspot.com

    This reminds me of the traditional names for golf clubs. You might tee off with your brassie, hit again with your baffing spoon or perhaps a mashie, then use a niblick to get up on to the green. Like now, a putter was used to putt.

    Re. planes and their names, I think the proposal above is full of flaws, but is at least as good as any alternative. The name should say what the tool is intended to do.

    Just to add confusion to the club names, the brassie and spoon are made of wood and the others are iron.

  10. Peter Follansbee

    Chris:

    I like "I don’t speak Stanley" – I wish I had said it.

    re: filester/filetster plane. I know little about their history; but Randle Holme, published in 1688, mentions them, if only to confound us. He does not say what the tool is for, and I would be interested to hear if anyone can make sense of his note to himself. I gave up years ago. I copied the note below from the CDrom "Living & Working in the Seventeenth Century":

    "The Phalister Plain. [An undated note in the copy of Randle Holme in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, reads "Carpenters have a plane called a phalister or feliciter, a corruption of the Italian falcitello."]"

  11. Jesus Arocho

    Chris,

    Great article; as usual. One comment regarding your name. Black and Schwarz part is correct, but not so the Christopher (Christophorous) part. Christo part does indeed derive from Christ. The pher part is from the greek verb phorein which means to bear or carry; so the proper rendition is Christ bearer. Similar English word is semaphore where sema derives from greek semain or signal and, again, phorein, or bearer of signal.

  12. Greg

    Quoting Adam Cherubini, from his article in PW "Arts & Mysteries" a year or two ago discussing an inventory of Charles Plumley’s tools in 1708:

    "Plumley had a variety of what I consider to be modern tools. ‘Strike blocks’ were low-angle planes with short rectangular bodies used to trim joints. These planes are probably the real reason we call small, low-angle planes ‘block planes.’ "

    This by far pre-dates Stanley’s marketing literature that Patrick Leach refers to. It seems that the name "block plane" is older than we realize.

  13. Jeremy Kriewaldt

    Perhaps your concern about the block plane threw me off, Chris. The name is certainly old enough and we all know a block plane when we see it. And if you want the satisfaction of "eponymity", there is the explanation that a block plane is a plane for ‘blocking in’ as contained in Patrick Leach’s notes on the #9 1/4:

    "Stanley, in their marketing propaganda, claimed that "A Block Plane was first made to meet the demand for a Plane which could be easily held in one hand while planing across the grain, particularly the ends of boards, etc. This latter work many Carpenters call ‘Blocking in’, hence the name ‘Block’ Plane." This, if it is to be believed, dispells the myth that block planes are so named because they were first used on butcher’s blocks. "

  14. dave brown

    I’d like to change some major naming conventions. With power tools, there are stationary tools, bench tools and hand tools.

    With planes, any plane that takes two hands to operate should be a BENCH plane. Bench planes function best when the workpiece is somehow affixed to or supported by . . . a BENCH.

    Any plane that can be used one-handed should be a HAND plane.

    Just my .02 😉
    Dave

  15. Mike Siemsen

    Ruminating more on the topic as I was working I got to thinking about printing. I recall you having once used a Hammond Glider "Trim-O-Saw" so you know what kind of accuracy printers strove for. It is possible that these planes are a cross-over from the printing trades where tight fitting blocks of wood of a fairly accurate thickness are used. If I recall correctly end grain blocks were used to make tighter longer lasting printing blocks, The end grain held a finer line and could be carved in any direction. This nomenclature would then harken back to the days after Gutenburg, (who must have been a pretty fair woodworker if you look at his press). Since Moxon was a printer maybe that shoots the theory all to hell.

  16. Mike

    Sounds like someone has been reading a particular thread on SMC entitled "Plane Confused."

    Oh, I don’t know, Chris. I think more people know the metal plane numbering system than people who know the older descriptors you are harkening back to. At least for the #s 2-8 (smoother through jointer in the Stanleyesque numbering system).

    Either way it seems a writer needs to assume the reader can find, or translate, what length a plane one is writing about as regards bench planes (another descriptor that has long been used).

    I pretty much use the categories above unless I know I am speaking with a person using Stanley nomenclature (i.e., on the forums). Where you have the "Other Planes" moniker, I grossly divide the remaining planes into "Decorative" and "Joinery" planes.

    Despite good intentions to simplify or clarify, woodworking has a language of its own. Unfortunately for writers such as yourself, it is a language of multiple terms from different eras/traditions to describe the same thing. Pick one "system" and stick with it. You’ll still be answering emails about what you mean or using precious ink in the mags to explain yourself.

    Traditional names describing function? Nearly a fools errand perhaps. Which tradition? Mostly a mix and match of differing eras, writers of western traditions are used in the blog entry.

    It seems to me that most times a joinery plane descriptor such as "moving fillister" is used, it is used in conjunction of the task it is performing–the cut it is making. That is a built-in explanation. At least enough for people to hunt down further information.

    As for "block plane"? If someone is so new to woodworking that this term isn’t sufficient to describe what the plane is, it takes but a minute or two to find out. What the person is going to find, if they take the time, is likely the Stanley designation of block plane. This is a plane that really didn’t exist in the size and configuration that we commonly use the term before metal planes came into being.

    My farthing for the day, for what it’s worth.

  17. Jim Paulson

    Thanks Chris for the insights on the planes and the background on names. I have to admit that the difference between a "long plane" and "joiner plane", seem almost insignificant to me. If nothing else your article helped me to discover that I have both types according to length, 26 inches versus 28. Truth be told, I find my No. 7 Bailey ("try plane")at 21-22 inches plenty good for creating edge joints as well as for truing surfaces.

    Jim

  18. Greg

    The names you assign to bench planes above really decribe the operation that they are currently being used for, and not the plane itself. A 22" plane could – for example – be used for roughing (a "fore" plane), truing a surface ("trying"), truing an edge ("jointing") or even producing a finished surface ("smoothing"). So these don’t precisely identify the plane either.

    I think of a "block plane" as being any bevel-up plane, including the longer planes now available – they’re still block planes in my mind. On the other hand, the tiny #101, #102 etc (how do we not use Stanley’s numbers here) are NOT block planes because they are bevel-down. Maybe what we generally understand a "block plane" could be re-designated a "one-hand" plane? I think "trim plane" is also quite appropriate.

    I partially agree with the "I don’t speak Stanley" argument, especially when it comes to the more unusual offerings such as #141 or #14 (that’s a Stanley "in" joke, just in case you don’t). But considering that the same or similar numbering schemes were used by many other manufacturers for the common bench planes, any hand tool woodworker worthy of the title should know at least what we mean by #3 – #7, and maybe also #9 1/2 and 60 1/2".

  19. Christopher Schwarz

    Jeremy,

    I am sticking with traditional names. I’m just picking traditional names that reflect function.

    So I’m with you. I’d hate to see Kinko’s get the naming rights to block planes…

    Chris

  20. Jeremy Kriewaldt

    As Julliet said:
    "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet."

    Woodwork is full of strange, sometimes overlapping, sometimes inconsistent, names. Let’s revel in this and the history that got us here, but to try to achieve a new and accepted nomenclature for tools is an errand destined for failure – at best we may have another set of synonyms for tools with already enough names!

  21. Danny Guegueirre

    In reguards to the try plane, I wonder if that’s the origin of the phrase "tried and true".

    Danny G Toronto

  22. Sean

    When I was young, there was a small corner store in our neighborhood that still operated in the way shops did before the advent of large grocery stores. Two brothers, Ara and Jimmy ran the place. Ara was the butcher. He had giant butcher block (presumably maple) table in the back he did all his cleavering and chopping on. It had stout legs and and a top that seemed to be like 18" thick. While I don’t remember seeing him use a plane to dress that top, I could easily imagine that it needed to be renewed from time to time to remove the worst of the blood and cuts. Being all end grain, I can imagine a block plane perhaps being useful to sort of scrub the top once or twice a week? In short, could the ability of block planes to deal with end grain – most often encountered in butcher blocks – have contributed to its name?

  23. Mike Siemsen

    The German name for a Recorder (whistle type wooden flute) is blockflote. Short pieces of wood are still called blocks. Maybe the "block" refers to the block of wood it was made from, like a glue block. "Wolfrick,Cut a block off of that billet so I can make a small plane". Maybe it was just the plane used to hold the door open during deliveries.
    Mike
    Who once new a Woodrow (Woody) Wood

  24. Andy

    Graham Blackburn in Traditional Woodworking Hand Tools argues that the correct spelling should be plough plane since that was the spelling in vogue in America when most of the plough planes were being made.

    He defines a fillister as a rabbet plane with a built-in fence and depth stop.

    He also mentions that the first written reference to a sash fillister is in Nicholson’s Mechanical Exercises.

    In Planecraft, by Hampton and Clifford, a fillet is defined as "a narrow strip of wood fastened upon any surface to serve as a support, etc. …"

    This definition would apply to the strips of wood used to hold the panes of glass in a sash window. A fillister plane would ensure all the rabbets were of a consistent depth and width.

    I would call the block plane a chamfer plane, or perhaps a trim plane.

  25. Bob Rozaieski

    Chris,

    We had a discussion on SMC a few months back on the origination of the name fillester. I searched in earnest to find a reference to a joint caller a "fillester" but to no avail. All the references I could come up with called cross grained rabbets, well, rabbets. However, there was an interesting point brought up by a linguist that made a lot of sense and since that discussion, I am convinced that his explanation is likely the correct one.

    Here’s a snip of that discussion. The gentleman’s name that made this post was Dave Cottrell (to give proper credit):

    "One way in which existing words are assigned new meanings is the narrowing of a broad meaning. This is what happened to the term rabbet. It is an Anglicization of a word in French that we directly borrowed in another area as the word rebate. So, when a vendor offers a rebate on a product’s price, he is removing a portion of the price. (French speakers still refer to the process of removing material with a plane as rabotage) Woodworkers cannot just say "you need to remove a portion of that piece of wood!", so they have developed specific terms to communicate how and from where to remove the material. We have assigned the term rabbeting to the process of removing wood in a very specific way. A rabbet is the "rebate" off the corner of the wood when you make a "rabbeting" cut.

    The term filletster has a larger pedigree. The "-ster" ending signifies that this is something that makes or "does" a fillet (think "roadster"). Fillet is a variant of the term filet. Of the many instances of these two terms in various crafts and trades, the most famous is in butchery, where a fillet (or filet) is a boneless cut of meat. In order to produce a filet, one takes cuts around the edges of an area of meat in order to create a section without bones. The filet is the piece that you pull off after making "filleting" cuts. Usually this cut is a long strip of meat. (BTW, the modern English word flay, which sounds very close to the French pronunciation of filet, is actually an Old English word, and, while not related, does have a similar meaning. This is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night!)

    Other instances of the term refer to this strip or thread. Architecture, when talking about strips of molding or areas around the bottom or top of columns, both decorative, refers to a fillet as a flat area (strip) used to set off raised areas. Fillets are the flat spots of an astragal which surround a half-round. As a stretch of these concepts, mechanical engineering defines the term as a raised portion around the bottom of a post or other vertical cylinder used to ease perpendicular lines, kind of like a reverse countersink. A nun’s wimple (head cloth) is set off with a white strip of cloth called a fillet.

    So, in woodworking (as I understand it), the fillet is the piece of wood that remains when you make a filleting cut. It could be a strip of flat in a molding or, as when cutting a window sash, a strip between two grooves. A fillet-ster is the tool that makes the fillet."

    I personally like this definition.

    As for the block plane, I think it’s name comes from the "straight block" or "strike block" as defined in Moxon and Nicholson. However, the origins of these names are in themselves somewhat of a mystery.

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