In Chris Schwarz Blog, Handplane Techniques, Handplanes

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For me, there is something that is far more interesting than the purported uses of “the nib” of a handsaw. And that is: The origin of the term “jack plane.”

In my book “Handplane Essentials,” we reprinted a short bit about the origin of the term. For those of you who don’t have the book, here it is:

The Jack of all Planes?

Many hand planes have nicknames that describe what they’re used for: smoothing planes for smoothing, jointer planes for jointing, shoulder planes for trimming shoulders etc. But what does “jack” have to do with a “jack plane?”

Ever since I got into woodworking, people have told me that the “jack” refers to the expression “jack of all trades.” The jack plane, it was explained, was a good all-around plane , so that’s its nickname.

So I asked Graham Blackburn, the author of “Traditional Woodworking Handtools” (The Lyons Press) and a longtime hero of mine, about jack planes. According to Blackburn, “jack” is an expression used since the Middle Ages to describe something that is common, such as jack boots or a jack knife. The jack plane is indeed one of the most common sizes you’ll find on the shelves of hardware stores. However, it could be argued that the “jack” refers instead to the most common sort of carpentry and construction work performed with this plane.

Indeed, Blackburn explained how carpenters called the plane a “jack plane” while cabinetmakers called the same instrument a “fore plane.”And to make things even more complex, the premier English plane manufacturers of the day tried to separate their products from the common ones by calling the same-size plane a “panel plane.”

But in the end, the people spoke, and in this country we call it a jack plane , no matter if the tool is used for the coarse surfacing of a piece of rough lumber, for fine furniture work or for trimming an interior door to fit its jamb on the job site.

So today Carl Bilderback, a woodworker, tool collector and angel-tongued carpenter, called me with another theory that he had heard repeated many times. It’s a good one.

According to Carl, the term “jack” refers to “jackass” or “donkey.”

“On a farm, it was the donkey that got in all sorts of jobs,” Carl said. “You use a donkey for everything.”

And a jack plane can be used for almost any bench plane operation: jointing, smoothing or hogging off material.

As evidence that he might be correct, Carl said to look at the Stanley literature for its line of “transitional” planes , those tools with wooden soles and metal blade-adjustment mechanisms.

Stanley called the Nos. 26, 27 and 27-1/2 planes their “jack planes.” These planes were all 15″ long.

However, Stanley No 37 called the No. 37 plane its “Jenny” plane. It was a little shorter than the jack plane. So what’s a Jenny?

A female donkey.

One last thing: Carl also gave me a little talking to about my signature. Or, more precisely, the scribble that represents my signature (my kids joke that it looks like “C-star Slimy”). I promised to practice and do better. Here is my first attempt (which looks like that of a 15-year-old signing his first driver’s license).

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Showing 13 comments
  • Kevin

    OK. I goota set you city boys straight. A male donkey is a jack. A female donkey is a jenny. If you breed a Jack (donkey) with a mare (horse) you get a mule. Male mules are Johns and females are Mollies. Reverse that scenario a stallion (horse) and a Jenny (donkey) and you get a Hinny. Hinnies are usually smaller and finer boned.

  • Dan Lumpkin

    We were just talking about this at dinner recently – no kidding! A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse,so sterile Jacks don’t matter. I’m surprised that Chris didn’t set this one straight, being the Arkansas farm-boy that he is.

  • PAUL

    You really started something now.

    Jacks(mule)are sterile, Jenny is female(mule). So where do mules come from?

    The nib is a sight? May be I will fit laser to my trusty disston ripsaw!

    I have a headache, lol.



  • David Yancey

    A Jenny is a female mule.


  • Woodworking

    Great lesson! I always enjoying reading your articles.

  • Bob Rozaieski

    Another possibility for the difference between the cabinetmaker’s calling it a fore plane and the carpenters calling it a jack plane might be the common carpentry term "jack", used to describe something having a height or length less than that of most of the others in a structure; for example, jack rafter or jack truss. Perhaps the jack plane was so named simply because it was just a shorter version of another toted plane (fore/try/jointer)?


  • Matt Walton

    But where can I see C-star Slimy?

  • dave brown

    The nib?

    Oh that’s for clearing out your saw kerf. It’s like a skip-tooth blade but it’s hard to file a skip-tooth panel saw so they moved it out of the way. It’s also used for lining up your cut — sort of like squinting at your thumb to take aim.

    Where’s the icon for tongue-in-cheek? 😉

  • Louis Bois

    ^^^^ I almost saw that one coming ^^^

  • Stephen Shepherd

    What about the nib?

  • Jeremy Kriewaldt

    I know jack sh1t about why it’s called a jack plane….

    But on signatures: my father was a bank manager who was in charge of training staff for many years for one of the main trading banks in Australia. He said that the hardest signature toforge is your own name in full in your own handwriting. If it’s a squiggle, it’s pretty easy to forge. If it’s got a weird shaped or dominant letter, that’s what the bank will look for, so it’s easy to forge. If it’s just you writing your name, the bank will tend tosee any variation and ask questions.

    Of course that leaves the question – is it worth anyone’s time to learn to forge my signature?

  • Rob, The Tattooed Woodworker

    I like the old sig better- it looks like a busy man’s signature. This one? Well, barely literate comes to mind…

    😛 Just kidding (but not really).


  • Greg Humphrey

    Another thoughtful lesson from the master….Thanks.


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