As we’ve progressed through the “Tools of the Trade,” series we’ve covered sharpening, layout, and work holding. We can now finally move on to some of the actual work needed to produce everything from wainscoting to waterwheels. The first one we’ll be looking at is the fore plane.
What is a Fore Plane?
The Builders Dictionary or Gentleman and Architect’s Companion defines it as: “a very long [plane], and is usually that which is first used, the Edge of its Iron, or Chissel, is not ground [straight]; but Rises with a Convex Arch in the middle, to bear being set the ranker: the use of it being to take off the greater irregularities of the Stuff, and to prepare it for the smoothing Plane.”
As with most direct quotes from an original source, this bears some unpacking. But before we dive into it, we need to cover some of the terminology used to describe planes in the 18th century, many of which are still in use today!
To begin, we’ll look at the parts of a plane. Strangely, while Moxon provides us with a list of all the parts of the plane, which correspond to an illustration, the illustration doesn’t seem to exist. Because of this, I’ve provided an image of our own fore plane, which hopefully will suffice.
a) The Tote – This is the handle
b) The Mouth – This is where the iron extends out of the plane in order to cut the workpiece.
c) The Wedge – This holds the iron in place
d) The Iron – This is the blade
e) The Sole – This is the base of the plane and where it contacts your workpiece
f) The Fore End – The front of the plane, today usually called the toe.
g) The Britch – This is where you strike the plane with a hammer or mallet to advance or retract the iron.
h) The Stock – The body of the plane
In addition to the parts of the plane, there are two terms we need to be familiar with: set and rank. “Set,” at least in this context, is how far out of the plane the iron extends. And “rank” essentially means coarse. So, an iron “set rank” is an iron that sticks out of the mouth a significant amount. This is an iron set very rank, it extends just a bit less than 1/16” from the sole.
How is the Fore Plane Used?
Now that we’re familiar with the terminology of the plane, let’s take a look at how it’s actually used. Moxon explains that the fore plane is to be used before all other planes (thus the name). The user sets the iron on the fore plane more rank than they would on the jointer or smoother (we’ll be covering these other planes in future posts) and uses it to remove the irregularities, such as warp or high spots from the workpiece. 
Take this piece of poplar; its surface is very rough:
While we could smooth it with a finer plane, such as the jointer, that would take some time. It’s far faster to use the fore plane. Moxon supports this approach and adds: “as a General Rule, that the Iron of the Fore Plane, is for the first working with it, to be fit as rank as you can make good work with; and that for speed sake.”
To start, we move across the grain of the piece, or “traverse it,” as 18th-century joyners would have said. This allows us to remove cupping and give a more even surface:
The rank set and arch of the iron produces what Moxon calls “dawks” in your piece – that is, round grooves rather than a nice flat surface. While this piece is nowhere near being done, we’ve taken down much of the irregularity on the surface and made it ready for jointer and smoothing planes.
But we don’t just use the fore plane on such small stock!
Each of the cypress boards for our flume had to be edge-jointed before we could plane in the groove and insert the battens. This starts with our fore plane, as the boards are quite rough, and working them down with just the jointer plane would take too long. But with the fore plane set rank, it makes quick work of them.
The fore plane is a highly effective tool for any hand tool worker, and when used well it can quickly process lumber and prepare it for finer tools. It was an essential piece of the 18th-century tool kit, and certainly still has a place in the Millwright Shop today.
Again, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!
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 Bettesworth, A., Hitch, C. and, Austen, S, The Builder’s Dictionary: Or, Gentleman and Architect’s Companion, London, 1734. “Fore plane” Google e-book, accessed May 8, 2020.
 Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Page 65, Google E-Book, accessed May 5, 2020.
 Ibid, Page 66.
 Ibid, Page 67.
 Ibid, Page 69.
 Ibid, Page 66.
Bettesworth, A., Hitch, C. and, Austen, S, The Builder’s Dictionary: Or, Gentleman and Architect’s Companion, London, 1734. Google e-book, accessed May 8, 2020. https://books.google.com/books?id=cMQ9AAAAcAAJ&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&dq=The+Builder%27s+Dictionary+Or+Gentleman+and+Architect%27s+Companion:&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Google E-Book, accessed May 5, 2020. https://books.google.com/books?id=t_IRCzjTf08C&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&dq=Joseph+Moxon&source=gbs_navlinks_s