Surface raw lumber by hand


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Hello all. Long time lurker, first time poster here. 

First of all, I should caveat that I'm very new to traditional woodworking, so I'm constantly reading/watching various resources to improve my techniques with the tools I have. My biggest point of frustration at the moment is that no matter what technique I use (cross grain on the cup, or addressing twist), I can't seem to get a consistent surface of raw lumber to even make a registration face. I'll take a few passes with my #7, check for level, take a few more and when I think I'm close, I'll grab my #4 to make the finishing passes. But it never fails, that in the end, I have a discrepancy (sometimes HUGE) in the thickness of the board. Currently, I'm using a beautiful piece of spalted white oak to make a gentleman's valet, and I'm near the point of lighting a match and walking away. It's frustrating to think that I'm destroying this beautiful lumber much less compromising my brother's birthday present. Any help/advice would be greatly appreciated.  

I get questions all the time about why I chose to take the traditional route, and the answer is simple....I get a lot more education and experience out of the process than I would with power tools. I knew frustration would always be an issue no matter the route, but it seems to be more of an obstacle that anticipated as I can't even get a project started with the materials I need. 

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  1. Flatten the bottom (dead flat!)
  2. Use that reference with a marking gauge to scribe a line on the sides.
    1. I prefer a wheel style gauge for this. If you can't see the line darken with a mechanical pencil.
  3. Chamfer the edges to form a peak on the non flat side.
    1. I like a block plane for this.
  4. Grab your #5 and remove most of the waste.
  5. Then the #7, then smoother.

I left out the process on how to get the edges true as you stated thicknessing was your issue.

*this is an overview, not a book on how to woodwork. I am sure something has been glossed over but this should fill the gaps.

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9 minutes ago, GingaNinja said:

 I usually address the cupped side by going across the grain

This is the way I do it also. This video was a very big help to me.

The concept for surfacing is simple: Find the high spots and bring them down. In practice this is very hard for a beginner. I am far from a veteran at surfacing by hand but I like to think I have graduated beyond beginner. So I'll add my 2 cents.

One thing that helped me a lot was going slow, using a scrub plane, then a #5 and using LOTS of chalk (a fat pencil will also work).

Hog off the obvious high spots with the scrub plane. Things like the high sides of a cup (like you mentioned) or maybe even the high corners of a very twisted board, anything that sticks out like a sore thumb. It's easy to go overboard with a scrub plane so take your time. I know Paul Sellers and other people you see are taking shavings very fast, but you're not there yet, slow it down. Once all the obvious high spots are knocked down (notice I said "knocked down" not "flat") you can switch to a #5 (a #4 could work if set for a heavy cut, also a #6 could work here too, I just prefer a #5).

Using your strait edge find the high spots. Mark those high spots with chalk (I like to use scribbles). Plane away just the area with chalk on it until most of (if not all) the chalk is done. Should only take a pass or two. Check with the strait edge to see if the high spot is still high. If it is still high, mark it again and plane it again. And then again. And then again. Taking it super slow. This is also how to treat twist.

What you are looking for with this step is "very flat", but still a little bit of light leaking under your strait edge, but no spots that are real high or real low. I wish I knew how to define "real high" or "real low" without showing you but I can't. You should know it when you see it though.

Then (and only then) is it time to break out the #7. A plane this size is not used for spot fixes. I suppose spot fixes can be done but this plane is not good at it. Now what you want to do is use your strait edge to find any LOW spots. Mark the low spots with your chalk. Time to start making full length passes working from one side of the board to the other with just a bit of overlap. What should be happening is that the chalk is being removed a little by little with each pass as the level of the surface gets worked down to those low spots. Do not be scared to take an aggressive shaving here, unless you are getting tear out of course.

Once all the chalk from the low spots are gone stop and check with your strait edge and winding sticks. At this point you should be so damn close, if not perfect. Now you stop. Do not use the #4 to smooth it. Smoothing comes at the end of the project, or at least just before glue up. At this point a nice smooth surface is of no value, the only thing that matters at the beginning of the project is flatness.

Hope that helps.

Oh, one more thing: I know it's super frustrating (I have for sure been there more than once) but don't get too caught up on that piece of oak that you may be "ruining". Nice pieces of wood come and go, you will see hundreds of fancy boards over the years. Remember it's just a piece of a dead tree. But the skills you are learning will last the rest of your life. You will get so good at this that you can do it in your sleep. There is a day in the future that surfacing a board will take you 5 minutes. You're not there yet, so don't expect to be. You have my permission to go buy yourself another piece of oak. You've earned it.

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Here is a link to a thread here of me flattening a glued up panel with hand planes, that includes a video.   I keep a couple of no. 6's for this job.  This is the belly up in the middle version.  You might not be able to tell, but I try to hold the plane level, and only hit the high spots.


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It doesn't really matter which plane you use, other than for efficiency.  The job could be done with any plane.  I just ended up with two no. 6's, almost by accident, but they work out pretty good for me.  I keep about a ten inch radius on my no. 5.  Those two 6's have cambers of about 15 thou, and about half that.  I would only use the 5 on a piece worse than that panel.

I had picked those boards out, and glued them up months before finishing those panels.  I picked the flattest boards out of a large batch we used.  That particular panel was probably about the worst for moving of the 16, so I saved that for the video example.

One problem I see people having is using the plane all the way across a hump, and expecting it to lower the hump.  Try to only hit the high points, and don't tilt the plane any at all.

Kind of like sculpture, that only takes away the part that is not in the figure being sculpted, you take away only the parts that aren't flat

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On 9/13/2019 at 10:32 AM, GingaNinja said:

When you say flatten the bottom, how do you determine which side will be the bottom? I usually address the cupped side by going across the grain, but if there's a better way to do it, I am all ears. 

It is best to have the smile facing down. This provides the best chance for a reference surface. Be sure to get the rock out of the side resting on the bench before trying to do anything. The easiest way to do this is take a few swipes where it's obviously high, flip it over and rub it on the bench, this will burnish the high spots. This means you may have to plane down so it sits reasonably flat. If it's rocking around, you lose efficiency. You want your planing effort to go into removing material, not chasing the wood around.

On 9/13/2019 at 1:22 PM, Tom King said:

It doesn't really matter which plane you use, other than for efficiency.  The job could be done with any plane.

It depends on the task you're working on. You do need a long soled plane to act as a reference surface or you will be chasing the humps. The closer you get to the final surface, the length of your plane should get shorter. The correct sequence is #5 for rough removal, #7 to flatten, then #4 to finish. Some people use a scrub plane to rough out.These take a decent amount of skill and I think should really only be used to reduce the width of a board not it's thickness.

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  • 1 month later...

I do not want you to be discouraged, but I suggest setting aside the oak for a while and get some nice 8/4 sugar pine or yellow pine that is relatively free of knots. By some, I mean maybe 50 to 100 board feet. Use that to practice on. You will find it easier to make a flat surface from one that is already relatively flat. When I started with hand tools, a friend dropped off a pile of waterbed frames from a second hand store. This was my raw material. I cut off the metal pieces, cut out the big knots, and went to work making usable lumber out of it. The wood cost nothing; nobody wanted the stuff.

A late present well-done will be more appreciated than one poorly made. Get him a tie and attach a note that something much better is on its way.

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Ooh, I forgot to mention, if things are more than about 1/32 to 1/16 inch out of whack, you want to start with a scrub plane. You can make one with an old #3. Move the frog way back, put a wicked camber on the blade, set the chipbreaker about 1/4 inch from the edge, set for a fairly deep cut, and go at 45 to 90 degrees across the grain to knock off the high spots.

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