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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


The Curious Scrub Plane by Christopher Schwarz
Copyright 2006. This article originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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Modern woodworkers use the scrub
to thickness and texture the faces of boards.
But the tool might have been designed
for some other part of the board.

The scrub plane is a survivor in a world where even the die-hard hand tool enthusiast will own a powered jointer and planer to transform rough lumber into cabinet parts.  Dressing anything more than a few boards of rough stock by hand is tough work. I’ve done it, and I can say without shame that I prefer my powered jointer and planer.

But I own a scrub plane. I use it quite a bit. And I’m quite attached to it.

In fact, the first Lie-Nielsen plane I ever owned was the Maine company’s adaptation of the Stanley No. 40-1/2 scrub plane.  And I must not be alone in my affection for the simple tool.  VERITAS, the manufacturing arm of Lee Valley Tools, has just started manufacturing its own version of the tool that has some notable differences (including a smaller price tag).

This new VERITAS scrub plane prompted me to dive a bit into the history of this rough-and-ready tool form and compare it to the Lie-Nielsen version. In the end, what I found was that most woodworkers aren’t using their scrub planes for the tasks they were likely manufactured for.

An Odd Bird, or Perhaps a Cow

The scrub plane is unusual in that it doesn’t fall neatly into the traditional English system of classifying bench planes. Rough stock was prepared first with a “fore plane,” which is a metal or wooden plane that’s anywhere from 16”to 20” long and has an iron that has a significant curve to its cutting edge. Then you refine the board’s surface with a jointer plane followed by the smoothing plane.

The scrub plane doesn’t jibe with this English system. The scrub is between 9-1/2” and 10-1/2” long and its iron is even more curved than what I’ve seen on fore planes. In fact, the scrub plane outwardly resembles the German Bismarck plane – a wooden stock plane with a horn up front that’s about the size of a smoothing plane and is used for removing stock quickly in European workshops.

When working the face of a board with a scrub plane (or a traditional fore plane), work in a diagonal manner across the face. Then work diagonally the other way.

This action will assist in bringing all four corners of the board into the same plane.


R. A. Salaman’s “Dictionary of Woodworking Tools” (Astragal) classifies the scrub plane as a “roughing plane” and says it also goes by the name of scud plane, scurfing plane, hunter plane or cow plane. (Apparently a “cow cut” is an old country term for a radical haircut.)

Another part of the puzzle is when you consider that Stanley made the No. 40 scrub plane between 1896 and 1962.  The scrub plane wasn’t introduced until after the Industrial Revolution and the invention of powered jointers and planers.  In 1896, fore planes were fast on their way to becoming relics – so why would Stanley introduce such a plane as the scrub?

One answer might be in Stanley’s 1923 catalog.  It states that the scrub is for “planing down to a rough dimension any board that is too wide to conveniently rip with a hand saw….” 

So the scrub plane was perhaps designed instead to work on the narrow edges of boards, to quickly reduce a framing member in width before the house carpenter had a portable circular saw (an invention of Skil after World War II). 

If the plane was indeed a carpentry tool for ripping, this might explain why Stanley japanned the entire body of the plane, including the exterior sidewalls. Home sites are a lot less friendly to cast iron than workshops. It also might explain why so many of the vintage No. 40s I see look like they were dredged from the bottom of the sea.

This theory also makes sense from a workholding point of view.


The fastest way to reduce a board in thickness by hand is with a hatchet or drawknife.

But neither of these tools would be convenient to use with the workholding devices common in the long carpenter’s workbenches shown in “Audel’s Carpenters and Builders Guide” (Volume 1).

However, working an edge on a long carpenter’s bench with a plane is a natural and simple operation.

Curiously, Audel’s excellent books on carpentry don’t shed any light on this topic. The books show a scrub plane, they repeat Stanley’s description of the tool and they don’t mention a scrub in the list of tools a carpenter should own or discuss it in the chapter that deals with the coarse removal of wood.

The trail of tool catalogs had gone cold there. So it was time to head to the shop.

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