Panel Prep with Handplanes

Before you can begin traversing with your jack plane, you should bevel off the far edge of the board with a few good strokes of your jack plane. This bevel reduces the “spelching” on that edge. (Spelching is the fun English word for “splintering.”)

The following is excerpted from “The Joiner & Cabinetmaker,” by Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz (this section is by Schwarz). J&C is a short book written in 1839 by an anonymous tradesman; it tells the fictional tale of Thomas, a lad of 13 or 14 who is apprenticed to a rural shop that builds everything from built-ins to more elaborate veneered casework. It was written to guide young people who might be considering a life in the joinery or cabinetmaking trades, focusing on how apprentices could obtain the basic skills needed to work in a hand-tool shop. However, this is not a book for children. It is a book for anyone exploring hand-tool woodworking. In it, Thomas builds three projects during the course of his journey in the book, and there is enough detail in the text and illustrations to re-create these three projects just as they were built in 1839.

In addition to the complete original text, you’ll find an historical snapshot of early 19th-century England by Moskowitz, chapters on the hand-tool construction of the three projects (a Packing Box, a dovetailed Schoolbox and a Chest of Drawers) by Schwarz and complete construction drawings.

Plus, there’s an audiobook available of the original 1839 text, read by none other than Roy Underhill!

Before traversing a panel, check the panel using the edge of your plane, which is a fairly good straightedge. If the panel is cupped across its width (typically on the bark side of a board), then the work should be fairly easy to accomplish. If the board is crowned in the middle (typically on the heart side of a board), you need to watch what you are doing. Sometimes traversing and diagonal strokes aren’t enough to flatten a crowned surface.

Flattening Panels With Planes
With the glue dry, it’s time to flatten one face of all of your panels. Thomas begins with the jack plane then moves to the trying plane, yet the details of the operation are sketchy in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”

Early workshop practice was to use the jack plane (sometimes called the fore plane) across the grain of a panel. This operation, which Joesph Moxon called “traversing” in his “Mechanick Exercises” of 1678, allows you to remove a good deal of deal without tearing the grain too deeply. Working the grain diagonally in both directions allows you to get the board fairly flat – Thomas checks the board with a straightedge as he works, which is always a good idea.

Traversing is a powerful hand-tool technique. You can remove a lot of material quickly and make the board flatter than when you began.
Diagonal strokes, as shown here, allow more of the plane’s sole to touch the panel. After some overlapping, you’ll find the panel is pretty flat once you can take a shaving from every point on the board.

Note: When you work at 45° to the grain of a panel, you will typically see more tearing in one direction than in the other. This is normal. Just make sure you finish your diagonal strokes in the direction that produces less tearing.
Determining when a board is flat can be a challenge. After some practice, you learn to tell by the way your planes respond when dressing the panel. The shavings become consistent in thickness, width and length all along the board. A straightedge can help. So can winding sticks, which aren’t mentioned in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”

Check the panel using the wooden straightedge. Look for light as you hold the tool diagonally one way, then the other. Work the remaining high spots using the jack plane until the panel is close to flat.

Winding sticks are two identical sticks that are longer than the board is wide. They are placed at several points across the width of the board and compared by eye. When the panel is twisted, the sticks aren’t parallel. And because they are longer than the board is wide, they exaggerate any wind.

Then dress the panel using the trying plane (sometimes called a jointer). I use diagonal strokes first. Then I finish up with strokes that follow the grain of the panel.

The author of “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” has a novel solution: Compare your panel to a known flat panel. If your panel rocks on the flat one, it’s in wind. Of course, the trick is getting that first panel flat. It’s possible to create two panels that are in wind but don’t rock on one another – the high spots of one panel nest into the low spots of the other and result in a false reading.

The top panel is flat. By placing it on top of the panel I am working and trying to rock the panel at the corners, I can test for wind. You do have to be careful here. Sometimes you can miss a problem when you have one low corner but the three other corners are coplanar. Keep a sharp eye.

However, once you get one panel flat, the method explained in the book works well.

Dressing Panels to Identical Thickness
With all six panels flat on one face, it’s time to dress the mates to the same thickness. The exact dimension isn’t important (3/4″, 13/16″ etc.). What you seek is to get all the parts you are going to dovetail together (the sides and ends) to the same thickness. Then you want to get the bottom in the neighborhood of 1/2″ thick. And with the top you want to get it flat and clean. Then stop.

With your marking gauge set to the thinnest area on your sides and ends, scribe this finished thickness on all four edges of all four boards.

Any other work past this point isn’t necessary and will wear you out. Remember: Few people experience furniture through their dial calipers. If it looks good, it is good.

Gather up your sides and ends and look for the thinnest area on these four boards. Set your marking gauge to that thickness and scribe that thickness on all four edges of all four boards. Then use your jack plane (first plane across the grain then work diagonally) to work that second face almost to that scribed line. Then use your trying plane to finish the job.

To thickness the top and bottom pieces, simply find the thinnest area on each and scribe that thickness all around. This should be quick work because you don’t have to get four boards to agree.

Squaring Panels by Hand
There are a number of ways to get your sides and ends to the correct length. They all involve sawing them close to the finished length then shooting them to their final length with a plane.

Rip teeth (at the bottom of the photo) are filed straight across and are fairly upright. The crosscut teeth at top have their front cutting surfaces filed at an angle (this is called “fleam”) and the teeth lean back a little bit (this means the rake has been relaxed).

When Thomas built the Packing Box, he used a handsaw to cut the boards to length and a smoothing plane to dress the ends square enough for a rough box. However, here Thomas uses a large backsaw to make the crosscut and guides his plane with a shooting board, one of the essential jigs in a hand-tool shop.

Let’s talk about these tools and jigs. Thomas employs a sash saw to cut the sides and ends to length. Despite the name, sash saws weren’t used only by woodworkers who made windows. The sash saw, as described by Charles Holtzapffel, has a sawplate that is 14″ to 16″ long and has 11 points per inch.

Of course, a modern woodworker with some knowledge of saws would ask: So is it a rip saw or a crosscut saw? The answer isn’t simple. Woodworking books of the early 19th century don’t make distinctions between saws with ripping teeth (zero rake and zero fleam) and those with crosscutting teeth (15° rake and 20° fleam is typical).

In one corner are woodworking historians who say that if fleam isn’t mentioned, it didn’t exist. So they sharpen all their saws for ripping and have to jump through a few hoops to make clean crosscuts.

In the other corner are woodworkers who say that fleam likely existed. In my mind, the evidence of this is found in the shop. If you work only with rip saws, you end up preparing the line you intend to cut by adding a trough made with a chisel. This trench prevents tearing. However, preparing the work with a chisel isn’t mentioned routinely in the early texts. So either they had some other unmentioned way of dealing with spelching created by a rip tooth, or they were smart enough to add a little fleam to their saws to make them cut more smoothly. Or perhaps they just planed away the torn-out areas, which is what Thomas does in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”

Or perhaps the hand-filing created a little fleam that made the saws cut a little cleaner. No matter how hard I try, I can’t file a saw with zero fleam – it always gets a little fleam as a result of hand sharpening.

For this book, I worked with both sorts of saws. I have a sash saw that is filed rip and one that is filed crosscut. Both are hand-filed. So the rip-tooth sash saw actually has a little fleam and the crosscut tooth has a little more fleam.

This British-made sash saw has 11 points and is filed for crosscutting. It does a superb job that requires little clean-up on a shooting board with a plane.

In truth, if I had to have only one sash saw I would be hard-pressed to choose its configuration. When it came to crosscutting parts to size, the crosscut sash saw really shined. The cuts were clean and required almost no clean-up. The rip sash, however, was much easier to use when cutting tenons (a joint that comes up in the final project). The rip sash tracked better in a rip cut, and it was faster.

Here is the result from using my crosscut sash saw. I worked only to a pencil line (you can see it faintly on the top of the board). This cut will require only one or two strokes with a plane to true it up and there is almost no raggedness left behind. One last detail: Part of this is skill, so if your cuts don’t look like this from the get-go don’t blame the saw. A steady hand and a smooth stroke contribute a lot to the result.

If I had to make a recommendation on what sort of saw to buy, I’d buy a rip sash saw with about 10 or 11 points. And I’d buy a 6″ double extra-slim-taper saw file and a Stanley 42X saw set. Then use the saw for both crosscutting and ripping and get to know it. Then try sharpening it with a little more fleam and relax the rake until it does a fair job for the work you do. This saw might not be optimized for ripping or crosscutting, but it will allow you to use only one saw.

By the way, this is a common compromise in the realm of the power saw – the carbide teeth of combination blades are ground to handle both crosscuts and rips and do a passable job. There’s no reason you cannot find this same middle ground with a hand-powered saw.

On the Shooting Board
Shooting boards mystify beginning woodworkers. These workshop appliances are much like a bench hook for sawing. They have a fence that you brace the work against. They have a bed for supporting the work. They usually have a hook on the front edge of the appliance that hooks over the front edge of your workbench. And they usually have a track that your handplane runs in.

The bench hook and the shooting board are so similar that I sometimes use my shooting board for sawing. There is one primary disadvantage to this approach – you can see a little more tearing on the underside of your board when sawing – but this is minor.

The fence of a basic shooting board needs to be at a right angle to the track that the plane rides in. Also, I think it’s best to have the fence about 1″ thick; that way you’ll be able to dress 1″ stock without tearing out the far edge. Finally, the fence should not be slick. At the least, don’t apply any finish to the fence. At best, cover the fence with some sticky-back sandpaper (the specific grit is irrelevant). You will be surprised by how this makes the shooting board easier to use.

The bed of a shooting board should be wide enough to handle the stock you typically deal with (and then some). My bed has about 14″ of working surface. This allows me to deal with 12″-wide stock and have some room to start my handplane on the track without it tipping. I don’t apply finish to my shooting boards (except to the track), but it won’t hurt to apply a coat of boiled linseed oil to the bed if you please.

The shooting board’s hook is fastened below the bed. It doesn’t have any special characteristics. Usually I just use some of the same size stock I used for the fence.

The track, however, needs special attention. It needs to be wide enough for the sidewall of the handplane you plan to use for shooting – my track is about 4″ wide. The track trips up a lot of first-time users because they don’t understand how the plane won’t eat up the edge of the adjacent bed.

A typical bench plane for a shooting board (which is a jack or a try) has some metal by the side of the mouth aperture that’s usually about 1/8″ to 3/16″ wide. It’s this little land of metal that prevents the plane from chewing up your shooting board into oblivion. The first time you use the shooting board, your plane will rabbet away a little bit of the bed, then you’ll never cut the bed again (unless you increase the cut of the plane).

I think it goes without saying that you should never use a rabbeting plane or shoulder plane on a shooting board. Those will indeed eat your bed for breakfast.

I apply a little paste wax to the track to keep the planes running smoothly. It’s the only maintenance required – except for occasionally confirming that the fence is true.

Using a Shooting Board
Before you trim up your panels for the Schoolbox, I recommend a little practice on some scrap pine first. Shooting boards require a little skill to use. Here is how I do it to get good results. First realize that the far end of your cut is going to get a little spelched. That just happens. You have three ways of getting around this: You can chisel a little 45° bevel on the far corner to prevent the spelching. You can plane that far corner first with a few short strokes on the shooting board to relieve that area. Or you can plan for the spelching – leave a little extra width so you can remove the spelching with a couple long-grain passes on that far edge when you are done.

A shooting board and a sharp plane result in a square, ready-to-finish end-grain surface. Plus, you can adjust the length of your boards in .001″ increments. Try that with a chop saw.

Position your board so that the knife or pencil line is right on the edge of the bed and allow the waste to hang over the track. Press the work against your fence with your off-hand. Then grasp the plane’s sidewall with your dominant hand. This hand has three jobs: Hold the plane against the track, push the plane forward and keep the plane in the cut.

This is where the skill comes in. You need to find the right combination of down, forward and inward forces to create a straight edge. The hardest part is figuring out how much pressure you need to apply to hold the plane in the cut. Too much force and your work will slide away on the fence. Too little and the plane will skitter across the end grain without cutting.

That’s why I like a plane with a sharp iron and lots of mass for shooting. Those two characteristics make it easier to keep the handplane in the cut.

Keep moving the plane forward and back until it stops cutting. Check your work. If you hit your line, you’re done. Otherwise, move the board a bit and shoot some more.

What is interesting about the description of shooting in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” is that Thomas starts shooting with a jack plane to remove the roughness of the saw. Then he follows up by shooting with his trying plane.

I have two theories here: Either Thomas has a rip sash saw that has torn out the grain, or Thomas isn’t all that good a sawyer yet. If the latter is true, Thomas had better start making some more practice joints because the next section has a good deal of sawing in it.

The following is excerpted from “The Joiner & Cabinetmaker,” by Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz (this section is by Schwarz). J&C is a short book written in 1839 by an anonymous tradesman; it tells the fictional tale of Thomas, a lad of 13 or 14 who is apprenticed to a rural shop that builds…Read MoreUncategorizedLost Art PressRead More

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