The Origin of the Stanley #40 Scrub Plane: A Hypothesis

In 1896, Stanley Toolworks began manufacturing the #40 scrub plane. The origin of this plane has always been something of a mystery for hand-tool enthusiasts.

Before the advent of machines for jointing and planing, boards were planed straight, flat, and smooth by hand.  In England (and therefore in the United States), the process of flattening a rough-sawn board began with the fore plane, a plane about 18″ long that was used either directly across the grain or diagonally to it.  But in Continental Europe the process began with what we English-speakers now call the scrub plane, a plane about half the length of the English fore plane but used in the same manner.

In 1896, when Stanley introduced their scrub plane, there were already expensive wood-flattening machines–powered jointers–on the market, so it seems strange that Stanley would begin producing another plane for flattening rough lumber just as the industrial need for such a tool was diminishing.  What was Stanley thinking?  It wasn’t just short-sightedness.  The #40 was produced continuously until 1962.

Apparently somebody was buying this tool, but who?  And why?

A 1925 Stanley catalog states that the scrub plane is useful for  “planing down to a rough dimension any board that is too wide to conveniently rip with a hand saw . . . .” In other words, instead of sawing a 1/2″ strip off the edge of a board, the extra wood could be quickly planed off with the scrub. That, according to Chris Schwarz, explains why the plane was produced.  It was a worksite tool made to be used by trim carpenters, not furniture makers who were still dimensioning their own lumber with hand planes.

That’s a plausible theory, but it’s based on evidence that comes nearly 30 years after Stanley introduced the plane.  It explains why Stanley continued production–as far as catalog copy can be trusted–but not necessarily why they created it in the first place. I think that the #40 really was produced as a scrub plane, and that there was a larger market for a new scrub plane than we might think.

In the 1890s, the United States was receiving large numbers of European Immigrants.  According to US Immigration records, between 1892 and 1900, European immigrants were coming through Ellis island at the rate of 180,000 to 400,000 persons a year. (The influx into Ellis Island peaked in 1907 with over a million immigrants in that year alone.) Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Scandinavia were nearly always in the top six regions of origin, with Poland and other eastern European regions also heavily represented. Among such immigrants would have been skilled craftsmen who brought Continental tools and methods to the United States.

I think that Stanley saw a marketing opportunity.

Continental European woodworkers were accustomed to using wooden scrub planes to dress rough lumber, but such planes would not have been very widely available in the United States.  Some craftsmen brought their own tools from the Continent, but many others were forced to leave their tools behind, bringing only their skills with them.  (Wooden scrub planes can still be found on the used tool market, but they are nearly always European-made. These are probably tools that immigrant craftsmen brought with them.)  If Stanley could make iron equivalents of the wooden planes that these craftsmen had been accustomed to using, they could not only make a buck, but potentially induce the craftsmen to buy additional iron planes from Stanley as they replaced their old tools with American ones.

Could the Stanley #80 really be based on old Continental European models?  At first glance, they don’t look much alike.

A German scrub plane

A Stanley #80 scrub plane





Yet they work in essentially the same way.  Hold it with two hands and use quick, short strokes to remove thick shavings from a board clamped to a benchtop.

Here is Peter Follansbee using a European-style scrub plane. Click on the photo to go to his blog, which has loads of information on pre-industrial woodworking methods.

In theory, it should have been easier for Continental European craftsmen to get used to a slightly different scrub plane than to get used to the much-larger iron jack planes and fore planes that Stanley was producing at the time.

Did immigrant craftsmen from Continental Europe take to the new planes as eagerly as Stanley may have hoped?  I have no way of knowing.  But if they didn’t, it would explain why Stanley’s 1925 catalog indicates that the plane was intended for rough work on the edges of boards rather than for dressing the faces of rough lumber.  It could be that Stanley discovered that their scrub planes had found a new use on job sites, or perhaps they just wanted to promote their tool to a wider market.

Whatever the reason for the catalog blurb, I am convinced that Stanley originally conceived the #40 with European immigrants in mind.

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6 Responses to The Origin of the Stanley #40 Scrub Plane: A Hypothesis

  1. John Vernier says:

    Interesting hypothesis. I can vouch from personal experience for the job-site trimming explanation: Working on a house built in 1914, in Los Angeles, we found scrub plane marks, and the shavings in situ, beneath the base frames of built-in cabinets. The scrub plane was used to fit the bases to the irregularities of the subflooring on which they sat. Somebody suggested, rather cleverly I thought, that the Stanley scrub plane was coming in at around the time that carpenters’ hatchets were going out, and that the more precisely controlled tool might be more practical given the increasing use of dried, machine milled lumber around that time period. Yes, we often had that sort of conversations on the job.

  2. Joel says:

    Great Article!

  3. Freddy Roman says:

    Great Post. The post was well thought out, had great flow and kept me looking for more. Thank you for sharing.

  4. The way to determine this is to find an 1896 Stanley catalog, and see what it has for a description of the #40, if it has one.

  5. handmadeinwood says:


    Very interesting.

    Many workers still sharpen a spare Jack plane iron with a pronounced curve that imitates a scrub plane. In the days when Elm was plentiful enough to use as Windsor chair seats I used such a plane iron for exactly that reason. Elm seat billets always came thicker than we needed and Elm was quite forgiving when cut cross-grain and tends not to splinter.

    I also wrote about a Cooper’s Stoup or ‘round-both-ways’ plane in my blog a little while ago that can be used in the same way at a pinch.

    German style planes with a front horn are still produced on the continent, as you probably know. They never caught on in the UK much….
    My Grandfather called all planes with a front horn a ‘Bismarck plane’ and I think that he got the idea from his father who served his apprenticeship in the 1880s, but strictly speaking it meant a German-style plane with a curved scrub sole -a term that has almost disappeared nowadays.

    All best from Wales

  6. Carl Jara says:

    I have to say, this sounds like a perfect reason! John Vernier makes a grand point as well.
    I personally use the LN version, and find that it is far better bringing lumber down to size than its European counterpart, and in addition it does a remarkable job of removing a quarter to half an inch off the edge of a board. Nice, thought out article and great comments, cheers!

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