Surface Work

I’m trying to be more diligent in preparing my lumber. In the beginning I’d plane my edges so they were smooth, but didn’t pay close attention to how square things were, or whether my edges were all parallel to each other.

As I worked more, I saw that this often led to frustrations later in the project, and all that stuff I’d read about how people spent a lot of time preparing rough stock made more sense.

Of course I still don’t know that I’ve got it right. Here’s what I do now:

First, I get one edge prepared square to the surface. With my lumber there’s always one edge that is a lot smoother than the other, so that’s the edge I focus on for this. It is usually pretty quick work. I test how things are going by placing the board on the bench, and look to see if there is a noticeable lean to one side or the other. I also look along the bottom where the edge meets the bench to insure that it is flat along the whole length (and I position the board in different places, flip it around and stuff to account for any unevenness in the bench itself).


Then I go to work on the surface of the board. I start out going across the grain. For this post I made marks along the board to show better what I was doing. I haven’t been doing this, and have just watched how the plane is cutting, but I like this extra visual feedback and may start doing it all the time now.


While doing this I try to set the depth of the cut just shallow enough that the plane skips across the low section, and then plane until it cuts all the way across.

Once both sides have been done, I reorient things and plane the length of the board. I back the blade off quite a bit for this, and make very shallow cuts. I don’t know if this step is necessary, but it seems right to remove the rough peaks created by planing across the board. I’ve added marks to the board so it’s more clear what I’m doing.


Once the broad surfaces of both boards are flat, I shift my attention to the last remaining edge. This is where things usually start to go awry. I work with the board in my face vise.


Testing the board as I did for the first edge, where it is high on one edge I try to over-correct and just take material off of that side.


Once I think I’ve taken off enough material I plane straight and level until I get a full width shaving for the length of the board.


Then I test the board again, scratch my head trying to figure out how it’s still not square, and repeat the process over again.

Rinse & repeat, rinse and repeat, & etc., & etc.

Eventually, it’s taken a lot of work, but I’ve finally got all surfaces square and parallel.


I haven’t begun to worry about twist yet, so haven’t been using winding sticks. This board (OK, the image above was a joke) will get crosscut three times for this project, so to my thinking (someone please chime in and tell me if I’m wrong) whatever twist exists in the full length of this board at this time won’t matter. Since the longest section will be 24″, I don’t *think* there’s going to be enough twist to worry about.

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2 Responses to Surface Work

  1. Ben Lowery says:

    Nice work! Getting boards squared up by hand is definitely a process where a lot of things have to come together to make it work. I think you’re most of the way there, but a few changes might help.

    First, I’d start by flattening the face of the board, before squaring up an edge. If you do the edge first, then when you flatten the face, there’s a good chance you’ll knock the edge you did out of square, especially if the board had any twist. Plus, when you traverse the board, there’s a good chance you’ll get some blow up (spelching) on the edge where your plane leaves the board. If you handle the edges after the first face, you can clean up the spelching while you dress the edge.

    Second, when you check the edge, I wouldn’t do it the way you’re doing it. The edge has very little contact with the bench, so it’s very easy to get tippy and get a false reading. I’d put the stock of the square against the flat face and use the blade to gauge the squareness of the edge. You can also reverse the arrangement and push the stock against the edge and use the blade against the face. This can give you a more subtle reading than the edge, especially on wide panels.

    Third, on the twist question, I would definitely work to take the twist out of the boards. The easiest way to do that is two-fold: first, knock the stock down to rough dimensions before starting any of the squaring process. As you mentioned, that can take care of most of all of the twist (and cupping / bowing for that matter) without ever touching a plane. Second, to remove twist, work the board at opposing 45 degree angles after traversing it. When your plane can take a shaving all across the board at both angles, you’re generally twist free. For smaller boards, you can try going from corner to corner if the board is showing twist (it rocks on your bench). The amount of twist you can live with depends on the use of the board. For a door frame, you want perfect stock, for a table top, you can pull a bit of twist out, but it’s better not to have any to start with. You don’t necessarily need winding sticks; if you hold the board up to your eye, you can often just see twist. Also, if you put your plane across the diagonal of the board and tip it up on one edge, you can see a gap or a hollow, much like you would when checking across a board or down a board. Just work the gaps out and you’ll be ok.

    Last, when you’re doing the opposing edge, instead of just planing it until you get a consistent shaving, you should mark a line at the desired width from your reference edge. That’s the only way to make sure the two edges are actually parallel. This is traditionally done with a panel gauge and a knife, but there are other ways to do it. You just need something to determine the distance and a straight line to gauge against.

    Last last thing, always understand which faces on each board actually need to be square and flat. Often, you only really need a flat face and a square edge. The opposing face and edge can sometimes be flattish and squareish, enough to satisfy the eye, and not be absolutely perfect. But what needs to be perfect depends on how you mark out your lines, and that’s a whole nother story.

    Wearing’s book (The Essential Woodworker @ Lost Art Press) has this all laid out in glorious detail. I’d definitely start there if you don’t already have it.

    Hope that helps!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wesley Beal says:

      Wow – thanks!

      I forgot to mention it (or take any photos) but I did at first measure from the opposite edge, mark, and attempted to take the edge down to that line. I took a 16th off of the narrowest part and drew that line the length of the piece. Of course having difficulty I ended up going a ways past that line.

      I’m not sure how it will go trying to measure how square the edge is without using the bench as a reference. Seems like a lot of ground to cover with a square. But I’m going to try to do it that way.

      Now it makes sense why I see folks planing diagonally across the board. I’ll give all of this another try, including starting on one face of the board rather than an edge first.


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