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JOEL Joel's Blog

What is a Strike-Block or Miter Plane?

02/24/2021

Félibien
Félibien

Félibien
Félibien

The son of a printer, Joseph Moxon (1627 -1691) was an English printer who specialized in maps and mathematical books. WIthin the woodworking world, he is celebrated for "Mechanick Exercises the first English book / magazine on woodworking (along with other important material). The engravings of woodworking tools in Moxon’s book were all copied from André Félibien's "Principes de l'architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, &c." (1676).

The plane illustrated above appears in both books. Moxon calls it a "strike-block plane" but Félibien calls a "varlope à onglet ou anglée, " which would be loosely translated to "miter or angled trying plane." I say “loosely” because up to that point in history, the words "mitre plane," "miter plane" or "strike-block plane" hadn't appeared in print, so we don't know if Moxon looked at the French text and knew what the English term was or was guessing. Was it "mitre plane", "miter plane," "strike-block plane," or "plane with no English translation yet"? As a printer, Moxon probably was not acquainted with all the weird arcana of woodworking terminology any more than a carpenter would know the weird arcana of the world of printing. And there was no place to look it up. English was a far less standardized language then than it is today and regional differences abounded. Even today, you hear both "rebate plane" and "rabbet plane"; "bevel" and "cannel"; and "mitre" and "miter" plane, depending on where you live.

Moxon spent years in his youth in Holland and might have thought of the Dutch term for the plane, "strijkblok plane," which he translated to "strike-block plane." Alternatively, Moxon might have asked someone for help and in London at the time, and the term "strike-block plane" might have meant something to a woodworker. We even can't say for sure if the plane existed in England, or Moxon listed it simply in the desire to be complete as his source material.

Moxon's explanation of how the strike-block plane was used, which is original to his book, is that it was a hand-held plane used for shooting joints. But this doesn't really jibe with a description "shorter than a jointer plane." The plane is just too awkward and long to be easily used handheld. It is also worth mentioning that at this time the unique "English" styles of planes were just beginning to develop. There was a huge Dutch influence in English tools at the time, and it is possible that Moxon wasn't far off in his translation. In "The Wooden Plane," John Whelan suggests that the strike-block plane might have been an ancestor of the English panel plane - a theory that makes a lot of sense to me.

Moxon's strike-block plane
Moxon's strike-block plane

Moxon's strike-block plane explanation
Moxon's strike-block plane explanation

Moxon's strike-block plane explanation - continued
Moxon's strike-block plane explanation - continued


And then it gets confusing.

In 1688, a good 10 years after Moxon, Randle Holme, published his opus "The Acadamy of Armory." The huge book starts out defining the nomenclature of heraldry - not a simple subject - and then evolves into a partially illustrated encyclopedia of dozens of trades. Holme conveniently lists the same woodworking tools as Moxon, but a cursory look at his material suggests that a lot of it was copied from either Moxon or Félibien. Holme's definition of a strike block plane (no hyphen) is lifted verbatim from Moxon. But then just underneath the listing for a strike-block plane, Holme lists "miter plane" with no explanation or illustration. Same thing? Different? We do not know. A possible explanation is that Holme looked at Félibien and thought the caption for what Moxon said was a strike-block plane translates as a miter plane and the former was a different plane entirely. Or his local guy actually had a miter plane of one sort or another, and this shaped his word choice. What we can say conclusively is that Moxon and Holme both describe a mid-length, bevel down plane called a strike-block plane, which can be used for shooting mitres. The geometry of the plane, however, suggests that it is less than ideal for the purpose. There is no evidence that Holme had any original information and we can't treat Holme's entry as a second source. Holme worked in Chester, not London, and it is possible that in that locality a particular plane was called a "miter plane." Holme may have decided a better translation of Félibien implied a different tool. The miter plane as listed by Holme is certainly not a metal plane of any kind. If it had been, Holme would have most certainly called it a "plane of iron" or "marquetry plane," as the term "mitre plane" in reference to a bevel up metal plane didn't arrive on the scene until at least a century later. Neither source really tells us what was used in England at the time.

Holme certainly must have thought that "miter plane" and "strike block plane" were two different things. He does list them separately. In the case of smooth planes (about which I wrote several months ago Holme recognized two styles of plane with the same name and purpose. It seems to me that if there was something called a "miter plane" in Chester and it looked like the strike-block plane in Moxon, Holme would have told us that they are the same and our discussion would center on different regional names for the same tool. (But he didn’t and we aren’t.) Another idea, which is more cynical but feels "righter," is also conjecture: I think both Moxon and Holme are referring to the plane in Félibien, but they have no real definitive practical information to add.

The real lesson of Holme is that Moxon isn't the last word. Moxon's work is of critical importance today because it is all we have with any detail. It’s a snapshot of tools, terminology, and technique. It's very worth reading, but it's not gospel.

Holmes - List of various types of planes
Holmes - List of various types of planes

Join the conversation
02/24/2021 Martin Amell
It's still not uncommon at all to refer to the same tool as several different names with clearly different uses.
02/24/2021 Jesse Griggs https://woodnbows.wordpress.com/
Is there anything about these planes in roubo? Incidentally, bench talk 101 had an interesting video about the strike block plane
https://youtu.be/3Z5KhC1Semc
02/24/2021 Tom Hitchner
Interesting blog. Not sure if I missed it, but it kind of looks like the iron is skewed in the Moxon print. Could that be why it was used for fitting joints?
02/24/2021 Tom
Also, could miter refer to angle or skew on the iron instead of on the joint itself?
02/24/2021 Tom
If you look at both prints, you can view the back end of the plane and the front of the iron. I think the iron is definitely skewed and that makes this plane better for end grain and fitting joints. No idea where the name comes from though... Tom
02/25/2021 AndyT
Interesting and plausibly argued. But now I want to know what a "Scurging Plaine" was!
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