The Almost-Forgotten Fore Plane
by Christopher Schwarz
Kevin Drake, a furniture maker who trained under James Krenov, stood before his wonky-topped workbench one day many years ago and hesitated.
His urge was to start flattening the benchtop by planing across the grain instead of along it. But that urge defied everything he had learned at the College of the Redwoods and afterward.
“I thought I was going to go to hell if I did that,” Drake told me many years later. But he gave it a go, and has never hesitated since then.
Flattening surfaces that are cupped, bowed or twisted had traditionally been the job of the fore plane, a tool that is used mostly by working across the grain of the wood. And sometime in the 20th century, the fore plane fell out of favor among woodworkers as the prices of electric jointers and planers dropped to the point where almost anyone could afford machinery.
But I think the fore plane is a tool that belongs in every shop, even ones that are fully mechanized, because it allows you to do things that no typical machine can do – such as flattening a 20″-wide slab with ease. It is the most common and inexpensive bench plane – used examples can easily be found for $20. And the tool is a workhorse – it can remove up to 1⁄16” of wood in a pass without great effort. It is the opposite of fussy. And it requires no great skill to use it like a pro.
So what’s the trick? Setting it up correctly and using it correctly. During the pre-Industrial age, fore planes were the most-used plane in a woodworker’s kit. But the knowledge of how to prepare them and use them was almost lost for the modern woodworker. This article will tell you everything you need to know to get started.
What is a Fore Plane?
A fore plane is one of the three broad types of bench planes – smoothing planes and jointer planes are the other two types. Generally speaking, it is a plane that is 14″ to 18″ long with an iron that has a visibly curved cutting edge and a wide-open mouth.
A fore plane can have a metal or wooden body. It can have a mechanical adjuster or be adjusted with hammer taps. It can be beat-up or worm-eaten and still work fine. It does not require a sole that is dead flat.
In Stanley’s numbering system for handplanes, a fore plane would be a No. 5 or No. 6. Some of you might be wondering: What’s the difference between a fore plane and a jack plane? The answer is: The difference is who was pushing the tool. Old sources say that carpenters called the tool a jack. Furniture makers preferred the term fore plane, meaning that the tool was used “before” the other planes.
From the August 2017 issue, #233