Flattening Panels With Planes

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 & Cabinet Maker,” by Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz. The original short, book released in 1839, 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. The book was written to guide young people who might be considering a life in the joinery or cabinetmaking trades, and every page is filled with surprises.

Unlike other woodworking books of the time, “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” focuses on how apprentices can obtain the basic skills needed to work in a hand-tool shop. It begins with Thomas tending the fire to keep the hide glue warm, and it details how he learns stock preparation, many forms of joinery and casework construction. It ends with Thomas building a veneered mahogany chest of drawers that is French polished. However, this is not a book for children. It is a book for anyone exploring hand-tool woodworking.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

In our expanded version you’ll find the unabridged and unaltered original text; a historical snapshot of early 19th-century England; chapters on the construction of the three projects that show the operations in the book, explain details on construction and discuss the hand-tool methods that have arisen since this book was originally published; and complete construction drawings (you can download those files here).

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.

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.

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.

Traversing is a powerful hand-tool technique. You can remove a lot of material quickly and make the board flatter than when you began.

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.”

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.

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. 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.

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.

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

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 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.

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