By Joshua Farnsworth
In the above video, and in the below steps, I teach one of the most basic and essential skills in traditional woodworking: how to square, flatten, & dimension your own rough lumber into finished boards.
To build quality traditional furniture, you need to start with perfectly flat and square lumber. Some people achieve this with power jointers, planers, and table saws. While the electrical power route is more economical for a commercial woodworking workshop, I prefer the safety, exercise, quiet, and historical feeling that comes from dimensioning my boards by hand. Plus, it just makes you feel cool.
Sure it takes a little longer, but why did you get into woodworking in the first place? To hurry and build a bunch of stuff, or to enjoy yourself? It’s therapeutic to take some things slowly. And with practice, squaring lumber by hand won’t take all that long…ask your ancestors.
TOOLS THAT YOU’LL NEED
Even though I have a nice tool buying guide (here), I’m still often asked for links to the tools that I use in my videos, so here they are:
- Lie-Nielsen Low Angle Rabbet Block Plane
- Vintage Stanley No. 5 Jack Plane
- Vintage Stanley No. 4 Smoothing Plane
- Vintage Stanley No. 4 1/2 Smoothing Plane
- Vintage Stanley No. 7 Jointer Plane
- Vintage Stanley No. 6 Fore Plane
- Vintage Stanley No. 8 Jointer Plane
- Vintage Wooden Jointer Plane
- Vintage Disston No. 16 Cross Cut Panel Saw
- Vintage Disston No. D-8 Rip Panel Saw
- Vintage Millers Falls Miter box and miter saw
MARKING & MEASURING:
- Starrett 6-inch combination square
- Vintage metal try square
- Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge
- Lie-Nielsen panel gauge
- Wooden Straight Edge (see my tutorial)
- Staedtler Mars 780 Technical Mechanical Pencil
- Winding sticks (don’t buy…make your own)
- Vintage Metal Try Square
STEP 1: CUT THE BOARD TO ROUGH DIMENSIONS
Use a longer try square (12″ +) to mark your rough board’s approximate length.
Then use a Cross Cut panel saw to cut your rough board to rough length (across the grain). Keep in mind that this isn’t your final length. You’re just removing any messy wood, and getting to a manageable length; somewhat close to what you’ll eventually arrive at.
You can also use a Rip Panel saw to rip the board lengthwise (along the grain) to get a manageable width, if needed. Here’s an old chart that shows the difference between Cross-cut saw teeth and Rip saw teeth:
STEP 2: FLATTEN A REFERENCE FACE WITH HANDPLANES
Place the board between the bench dogs with the arced side facing up, to avoid rocking. You may need to use shims if your board is in really bad shape. Use a scrub plane or a jack plane with a cambered iron (8 degree camber/arc). This plane is going to be doing rough work, so don’t worry about tuning it extensively.
If you have an extreme arc in the board, plane down the length of the board, removing the high center:
Before planning across the grain, bevel the edge that is farthest away from you, to prevent major tear out:
Then plane across the grain, from one end to the other.
Adjust your plane so that your shavings are as big as possible, while still being able to move the plane.
You can also take some diagonal passes both ways, to aid with flattening:
Tilt your jack plane on its edge and drag it along the board to get a rough idea of your progress toward flatness:
STEP 3: TEST FOR TWISTING WITH WINDING STICKS
Set a pair of winding sticks (pronounced “why-nding”) parallel to each other on opposite ends of your board and site along the winding sticks. The winding sticks will make any twisting appear more exaggerated, showing you which corners need to be lowered.
Having dark ends or bars on one winding stick makes twist easier to spot. You don’t even need to make fancy winding sticks, but can simply use two straight pieces of wood that are the same size.
Use your pencil to mark the high corners. Because of how boards twist, the high corners will usually be opposite each other.
STEP 4: REMOVE THE TWIST AND FLATTEN THE FACE
Place your straight edge on the high corners to verify how much wood needs to be removed. (See how I made this straight edge here).
Use a longer fore plane (No. 6) or jointer plane (No. 7 or No. 8) to remove the high corners and check your progress with a straight edge.
If you are getting “tear-out”, that means that you are planing against the grain. Flip your board around and plane in the other direction.
Below are several options for handplanes for flattening the board’s face (from left to right): A Stanley No. 6 “Fore Plane”, a Stanley No. 7 “Jointer Plane”, a Stanley No. 8 “Jointer Plane”, and an 18th century style wooden jointer plane (I built it, so it’s my favorite!):
Your shavings will still be somewhat heavy in this step, but not nearly as heavy as with the scrub plane / jack plane.
Just don’t remove too much on the corners or you’ll have to lower the rest of the board to match your new low corners. Once the straight edge lies flat across the previously-higher corners, move onto flattening the rest of the panel face.
The longer handplane will uniformly bring the surface downward, skipping all the valleys that a smaller handplane would fall into. As you’re planing be conscious about not introducing a lengthwise arc.
Here’s how to avoid getting “valleys” in the middle of your board when planing: When your handplane starts on the board, keep the downward pressure on the front knob of the handplane only:
When your handplane is in the middle of the board push downward on both the front knob and the rear handle:
When the front of your handplane moves over the edge of the board, remove the downward pressure from the front knob, and only push downward on the rear handle. For practice you can even remove your hand from the front knob:
Use diagonal passes, then lengthwise passes, periodically using a straight edge and your winding sticks to check your progress toward perfect flatness.
When you’re getting full length and full width shavings, and your board’s face starts to look flat and smooth, then you’ll know that the board is about ready.
The straight edge should show no gaps no matter which way you turn it on the board’s face.
STEP 5: SMOOTH THE REFERENCE FACE WITH A SMOOTHING PLANE
Use a finely tuned smoothing plane (like the below Stanley No. 4 or No. 4 ½ handplane) and take a few passes lengthwise to give a better-than-sandpaper surface to your reference face.
You will want to produce very thin and fine shavings in this step, referred to as “gossamer” shavings (like a silk scarf).
A slightly cambered (i.e. arced) iron (i.e. blade) will prevent “plane tracks” and give you a glassy surface. When I say “slightly” I mean “barely”. Chris Schwarz has the best tutorial on tuning & sharpening handplanes on his DVD: “Super-Tune a Handplane”. You can buy it here or here.
Now that your reference face is perfectly flat & smooth, make a traditional squiggly mark to notate the reference face:
STEP 6: JOINT THE REFERENCE EDGE WITH A JOINTER PLANE
You will use a long jointer plane to “joint” (i.e. true-up or flatten) the first edge of your board, to provide a perfect 90 degree angle between the reference face and edge. You can either use a metal jointer plane, like the Stanley No. 7 or Stanley No. 8 jointer planes, or a quality wooden jointer plane.
Place the board in your workbench vice, with the reference face toward you.
The process used to joint a board’s edge is essentially the same as I used to flatten the reference face in step 4. The main difference is how you hold the plane. To achieve a reference edge that is 90 degrees to the reference face, pinch the jointer plane with your thumb and index finger, and use your other 3 fingers (hopefully you still have that many digits…I’m talking to you table saw users) as a fence to maintain the 90 degree angle:
Push the handplane lengthwise, producing moderately thick shavings, until the board’s edge is flat. Adjust your plane so that your shavings are ejecting from the middle of the jointer plane.
You’ll gauge the flatness by placing your straight edge on the board’s edge:
Look under the straight edge to see if there are any gaps. It is common to create a valley from improper planing techniques. Just refer back to step 4 for a review on how to avoid valleys:
Periodically use a small combination square or try square to check for the 90 degree angle along the entire edge of the board. Don’t ruin your combination square by dragging it, but just take incremental measurements.
Use your pencil to mark where your high spots are:
Then tilt your jointer plane to take down the high spots with a pass or two, then take another full pass or two. Then recheck until the entire edge is square to the reference face.
When you first get started, this process can take a little while to figure out, but you’ll eventually be able to quickly achieve a true edge that is square to the reference face. You can also look into making an “edge shooting board” to speed things up when truing edges. I haven’t had much luck with the fence attachments for handplanes. Use your pencil to make a traditional “V” mark on the edge to indicate that this is the reference edge:
Now you will see a perfect 90 degree angle, from which you will circumscribe the other faces & edges.
STEP 7: CREATE A PARALLEL EDGE WITH A PANEL GAUGUE
Use an accurate panel gauge to make the next edge parallel to your freshly trued reference edge.
I’ve found that antique panel gauges are rarely accurate or stable, so I purchased this excellent new panel gauge at Highland Woodworking. You can also make one, but it’s tough to beat something as stable as this one:
Set the width of the panel gauge to your required width, lock in the measurement (with the screw or wedge), and run the cutting edge to make your perfectly parallel mark. This mark is where you will cut or plane down to.
My panel gauge has a slot for a pencil on the opposite end of the handle…just flip it around. Since I’m not cutting on this line (it’s just a visual guide), I prefer the pencil end.
STEP 8: TRUE UP THE SECOND EDGE
If the line you just scribed with your panel gauge is very close to the rough edge, then you can simply use a jointer plane to bring down the small amount of wood.
If you find that you have too much wood to remove (and don’t want to spend all day planing down to the line with your jointer plane) you have two alternate options:
(1) Use a jack plane to quickly remove most of the waste wood, and then finish with the jointer plane:
(2) If you have too much waste, even for a jack plane to remove, then use a rip panel saw to get close to your line, then finish up with a jointer plane:
CAUTION: If your board’s width is critical, then make certain to NOT get too close to your line with the jack plane or rip saw. Get close, and then use your jointer to finish the job. Just remember that you may need some extra wood to get the edge square:
Now you should have two jointed edges that will be perfect for gluing together.
STEP 9: FLATTEN THE FINAL BOARD FACE
Now that your reference face and both edges are flat and square to each other, use a marking gauge to scribe your final board thickness. Set the marking gauge against your reference face and scribe the thickness onto both edges and ends:
I like to follow the marks with a pencil to make them more visible for when I use the handplanes in the next step:
Now you have a line drawn around the parameter of the board.
Use a scrub plane (or jack plane), a jointer plane, and a smoothing plane to flatten & smooth the last face, according to the instructions in steps 2 through 5. But this time you will have the added advantage of guidelines to let you know when you are getting close. But I still use the straight edge and winding sticks to measure my progress:
STEP 10: CUT THE ENDS TO FINAL LENGTH
You should now have two perfect faces and two perfect edges. All that remains is two ends that are square to the faces and edges.
First set a larger try square against your reference edge and scribe your first end’s cut line on your reference face with a fine pencil. Just make sure your try square is actually square. Usually try squares have at least one edge that is true. Refer to my “marking & measuring” buying guide (here) to see how to test a try square for “squareness”.
I have found that my miter box and miter box saw are the best solution to creating perfect ends. Make sure that your board’s reference edge is pressed up against the miter box fence, adjust the miter box to cut a 90 degree cut (use your pencil line to ensure the miter box is set correctly), and saw away!
This may take awhile, depending on how wide and thick your board is. If I have several fatty boards to cut, then I wear a glove on my sawing hand to prevent a blister.
If your board is too wide to fit in a miter box, then use a cross cut panel saw to saw close to your line and use a very sharp low-angle block plane to get right down to the line:
Just make sure that you plane from both directions toward the middle to avoid planing over the edge. If you don’t heed my advice, the end grain will splinter off the edge of the board.
Use a large try square (or framing square) to look for any high or low spots, and continue to use the block plane to make the end become square to the edge and face:
Now use a folding rule or a tape measure to determine your final length. Follow the above process for measuring and cutting the second and final end. Now you should have 6 square & flat surfaces, and a very useful board for gluing-up and building beautiful traditional furniture.
This process may seem overwhelming, but it really speeds up after you’ve dimensioned a few boards. Sometimes it’s even faster than setting up & tuning the big power tools!
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Shortcut to 10 steps:
- Step 1: Buy the Right Woodworking Hand Tools
- Step 2: Setup Your Workshop & Tool Storage
- Step 3: Learn how to Tune, Refurbish, & Sharpen Tools
- Step 4: Learn how to Use Woodworking Hand Tools
- Step 5: Learn how to Design Woodworking Projects
- Step 6: Learn how to Choose Stable, Strong, & Beautiful Wood
- Step 7: Learn how to Square & Flatten Rough Boards
- Step 8: Joinery: Learn how to Layout & Cut Joints
- Step 9: Learn how to Assemble, Fasten, & Glue-up
- Step 10: Learn how to Traditionally Finish the Wood