What does #9½ mean?

Ever wonder where tool companies got the numbers they associated with planes from? Did they make them up? Where did the nomenclature of a No.9½ come from? Or 9¼ or 9¾ for that matter. The first “block” plane Stanley numbered, the #9, likely was given that number due to its development after the bench planes 1-8. Although technically a miter-type plane, the No.9 was actually 10″ in length. The 9½ was 6″ in length. So there doesn’t seem to be real rhyme nor rhythm for the numbering  scheme, other than the fact that it was sequential.

The Stanley No.9½ in the guise of the Excelsior block plane was introduced in 1873, at the same time as the No.9¾ Excelsior – which really only differed by having a Rosewood detachable rear handle. The No.15, appeared in 1876, being 1″ longer than the No.9½ – as did its sidekick, the No.15½ sporting the same detachable rear handle as the No.9¾. One would like to believe there was a pattern here, but that would imply a “whole” number for the core plane, and a ½ or ¾ appended for some improvement, be it a handle, or different finishing. The No.9¼ when introduced in 1947 had less features than the No.9½.

  • 9¼ (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) – adjustable mouth
  • 9½ (6″, 1¾” blade)
  • 9¾ (6″, 1¾” blade) + detachable rear handle

We see a similar situation with Stanley’s low-angle (12º) block planes, although here the indication of ½ implies a reduction in features (i.e. quality):

  • 60 (6″, 1½” blade, 1-3/8″ after 1914)  nickel plated trim
  • 60½ (6″, 1½” blade) – japanned trim
  • 61 (6″, 1-3/8″ blade) – adjustable mouth, + rosewood front knob

Another interesting group of block planes are the No.18’s. Whilst they used prefixes to denote a change in the material used to form the plane body, the No. 18¼ again signified a reduction in features:

  • 18 (6″, 1¾” blade, 1-5/8″ after 1909) knuckle-joint lever cap
  • A18 (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) aluminum version
  • S18 (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) pressed steel version
  • 18¼ (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) – adjustable mouth
  • 19 (7″, 1-5/8″ blade)

Leonard Bailey had a similar numbering system for his Victor series block plane (introduced in 1875), and there is somewhat of a progression in the schema (No.0 is the base model).

  • 0 (7″, 1¾” blade) japanned
  • 0½ (7″, 1¾” blade) + blade adjustment
  • 00 (7″, 1¾” blade) + nickel-plated
  • 000 (7″, 1¾” blade) + nickel-plated, blade adjustment

Bailey had a similar schema, where the No.1 is the base model).

  • 1 (6″, 1¾” blade) adjustable mouth, adjustable blade, polished
  • 1¼ (6″, 1¾” blade) + detachable rear handle
  • 1½ (6″, 1¾” blade) + detachable rear handle, nickel-plated
  • 1¾ (6″, 1¾” blade) + nickel-plated

NB: In the examples above, bold denotes a base model, a – denotes a feature lost (or downgrade in the case of finishing), and + denotes a feature gained, (or upgrade in the case of finishing).

What is interesting is how so many other manufacturers copied not only Stanley’s plane, but also their nomenclature, including the Ohio Tool Company. Holdouts include Sargent, whose block planes started at 1XX, and Millers Falls whose numbering seemed all over the place. For example, the MF No.9½ was actually a scrub-plane, the MF equivalent of the Stanley No.9½ was the No.16, and the MF equivalent of the Stanley No.15 was the No.17. Somewhat wacky, but maybe that was to make them stand-out as they were latecomers to the plane-making game (and their bench planes did not conform either). When it comes to numbering planes, maybe Sargent had the best approach – here’s an example of the Sargent No.306 and its derivatives (with reference to the Sargent catalog of 1910):

  • 306 (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) adjustable mouth, adjustable blade, polished trimmings
  • 1306 (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) + nickel-plated trimmings
  • 4306 (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) + knuckle-joint lever cap
  • 5306 (6″, 1-5/8″ blade) + knuckle-joint lever cap, nickel-plated trimmings

Numbering of block planes may seem like a trivial thing to think about, but it goes to show how a simple modification to a block plane sprouted a new number, and led to the profusion of block planes on offer. Why did manufacturers develop such a variety of different block planes? Would not have one or two done the same job? Stay tuned.



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