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.
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