Please Hand Me the E. africanus asinus Plane
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).