The Tote-ally Complete Guide to Holding a Wooden Plane
Plus, woodworking planes for your feet
"We are creatures who need to make. Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to make something — if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives. Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves." — Frank Bidart (2005)
Most first-time wooden plane users have an "oh, I get it!" moment when they discover how to hold a jack plane the right way. At least I did. Initially, it looks awkward. The back of your leading hand should be facing towards you, with your thumb on the left side of the plane (or opposite for you lefties). Once you try it, you get it. With your thumb on the right side, your left hand can't provide even pressure on the top of the body throughout the stroke. Plus your left arm has to twist into an uncomfortable position by the time you reach the end of the workpiece.
But why is the thing your back hand is holding called a tote?
The short answer is that we don't know how the word tote, or toat as it can also be called, came to mean the handle on a plane. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, tote is a dialect form of toot, which once meant to protrude or stick out. The origin of that use of toot can be traced to the end of the 9th century. But the earliest example in the OED of tote meaning plane handle dates to the late 1600s in Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises. Moxon uses the term without explanation, which I think implies it was commonly known. But Randle Holme in 1688 felt it needed clarification: "All the difference is in the Tote or Handle, which every Workman maketh according to his own Fancy."
Tote and toat in the United States can also mean to carry or transport. It's tempting to try and link this with the plane’s tote, but the OED says the source of tote meaning to carry is unknown. It first appears in print in the late 17th century in Virginia: "goe to work, fall trees and mawle and toat rails." It may not have English roots. Tota and tuta are the words for "to pick up, to carry" in West African dialects used in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.1
Tote and toat were once used interchangeably to describe a plane handle; in recent years toat has fallen out of use in the United States. Despite its long history tote has never been common enough to stand on its own. More than 300 years after Holme, we're still having to clarify that the big thing you hold onto can be called either a tote or a handle.
Keith Decent makes videos of sometimes useful, sometimes interesting, sometimes hilariously weird projects, including what he calls "Hand Plane Ice Skates." They're more like transitional planes, not Krenov-style planes as he describes it, but hey, they work? Sort of? Either way, I applaud his eagerness to answer a question no one was asking: What would happen if you put planes on your feet?
Eric Partridge. Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Kiribati, Routledge, 1991. For more on tote/toat see Kenneth E. Turner. "The Humble Tool Bass, the Tote, the Frail and the Toat." Tools and Trades Historical Society Newsletter, no. 61, 1998, and a variation of the same article found in The Chronicle, vol. 51, no. 2, 1998.