Dressing Stock

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This article is from Issue 77 of Woodcraft Magazine.

An accurate, organized approach to straight, flat, and square

The vast majority of parts we prepare for woodworking projects need to be dressed straight, flat, and square. Well dressed stock is ready for the party, and everything you do becomes more fun. Edge-gluing boards to create panels is a snap. Parts tend to automatically align. Assemblies square themselves better when parts are pushed together. Sweet.

This process of dressing stock involves jointing, planing, and sawing parts in a particular sequence to ensure accurate geometry. I’ll walk you through an approach to milling stock that is both efficient and effective. For our purposes here, we’ll be taking the machine approach, using the holy trinity of table saw, jointer, and thickness planer. If you decide to use hand tools instead, the same basic procedures and sequences apply.

Note that I’m using rough-sawn lumber here, which is the preferred material for furniture projects and other fine woodworking. That’s because the extra thickness allows enough material removal to dress even warped boards straight and flat. Badly warped pre-milled lumber from home centers often can’t be flattened without losing too much thickness for the job at hand.

Milling Stock: The Basic Sequence

  • Trim away end checks
  • Rip boards to rough width
  • Joint one face
  • Plane to thickness
  • Joint one edge and rip to final width
  • Crosscut to final length

A few words about warp

Warp is a deformation resulting from internal stresses in the wood, often caused by the way the tree grew and/or by a change in the cell structure during the drying process. For a discussion on dressing stock, it’s important to recognize the four major forms of warp: bow, crook, cup, and twist. It’s also important to understand that whenever a board is cut, it can release some of the stress, causing the wood to move further. That’s why letting rough-sized pieces “relax” for a few days to a week before dressing them to final size helps ensure their ultimate stability.

Flex for checks. After sawing away any obvious checks at the end of a board, take one more thin slice. Gently flex the slice; if it bends, you’ve cut away all the checks. If it snaps easily, remove more wood, and test again until all the checks are gone.

Check for hidden surprises

The first order of business is to check your boards for any lurking defects, and either mark them or cut them away. This includes any subtle cracks or splits that may compromise the finished piece. Make sure to scrutinize for checks, which are splits at the ends of boards. Sometimes they’re obvious; sometimes not. If a board is deeply checked in only one area, try to lay out around that check to maximize stock usage.

Safe, straight ripping. Feeding a crooked edge against your table saw rip fence is begging for trouble. When ripping live-edge planks or other boards with crooked edges, always begin by establishing a straight edge. One good approach is to tack a plywood strip to the edge of the board to serve as the initial fence-bearing edge.

Rough-size the parts, then let ’em relax

Lay out your parts, making them at least 1/4" oversize in width and a couple inches oversize in length. To maximize yield, look to cupped boards as a source for narrow parts, and try to use bowed boards for shorter pieces. As for pieces shorter than about 8", gang them end-to-end to produce rough-size parts long enough for safe machine feeding. (You can cut them to final length after jointing and planing the blank to finished size.)

To ensure safe feeding when ripping, it’s important that the fence-bearing edge of the stock be straight. A slight crook can be removed with a couple passes across the jointer. For extremely crooked boards, either cut to a gauged line on the bandsaw before jointing, or tack a wooden panel to the board to establish a straight fence-bearing edge, as shown. When ripping cupped boards, feed them with the convex face against the saw table.

Sticker all your freshly rough-sized pieces for at least a few days to let them “relax” before milling to final size. (See “A few words about warp,” page 29.)

Convex face down. When ripping cupped boards, feed them with the concave face up, pressing down firmly near the fence. That way, the offcut will safely fall away at the end of the cut. If you feed with the concave face down, the two halves of the board may collapse near the end of the cut, and pinch against the blade.
Stickered to relax. Sawing stock can release internal stresses, causing pieces to warp further. Therefore, it’s important to stack the boards after they’ve been cut to rough size, inserting stickers between them to allow air circulation. A few days of this (a week is better) lets the wood attain equilibrium before dressing the pieces to final size.

Flattening the first face. When jointing, cut with the slope of the grain, and orient the board’s concave face against the table for feed stability. For best control, use a long pushblock with a heel that hooks over the trailing end of the board. For twisted boards, try to balance the board on its two high spots for the first pass or two.

Joint one face to create the primary reference surface

Begin milling pieces to final size by dressing one face flat on the jointer. However, before reaching for the switch, organize all of your pieces by orienting them so that the jointer knives will cut with the slope of the grain. And, for stability, a cupped face is typically fed against the jointer table. (For more on jointer fundamentals, see onlineEXTRAS.) As final preparation, transfer any part-identification marks from the face of a board to its end.

Take enough passes to entirely flatten the face. Finally—and this is important for efficiency—as you lay the parts down afterward, keep them oriented as they were leaving the jointer. That way, everything will be organized for feeding in the same direction through the planer in the next step.

Planing the second face. Plane the pieces to final thickness, orienting the previously jointed face downward. Feed pieces randomly across the width of the planer bed to prevent excessive sectional wear on the knives. However, on the final passes feed all stock through same section of the knives to ensure consistent stock thickness in spite of uneven knife wear or adjustment.

Mill to consistent thickness with the planer

Next, you’ll use your planer to bring the stock to final thickness. But first, if you have any resawing on your agenda, now’s the time to do it. Then, in preparation for thickness planing, sort the pieces in piles of common target thicknesses, keeping boards oriented as they were when they left the jointer. Then ready the stacks for feeding into the planer, orienting them for cutting with the slope of the grain. Set the cutting depth for the thickest board, and feed all boards of similar thickness. Creep up on the final cut, carefully measuring the thickness. Make your final passes light, and feed all stock across the same section of the bed to ensure consistent stock thickness.

Joint one edge, and cut to final width

Now you’re ready to cut your pieces to final width. Begin at the jointer, having made sure that the fence is perfectly square to the table. Again, before hitting the switch, orient your boards for feed direction. If a board has a crook, you’ll want to feed it concave edge down for stability. Then joint one edge of each board, checking occasionally with a square to make sure you’re cutting accurately. As you stack the pieces afterward, make sure to always orient the jointed edge to the same direction for the sake of organization.

Next, cut the pieces to width. If a cleanly sawn edge is adequate for the piece’s application, just set your rip fence to yield the final finished width. For truly clean edges, I typically set the rip fence for finished width plus 1/32", removing the extra afterward with a single pass on the jointer.

First finished edge. Before ripping a board to final width, joint one edge straight and square. Make sure to hold the piece firmly against the jointer fence and table throughout the whole pass.
Final rip cut. Feeding the first finished edge against the fence, either rip the board to final width, or leave 1⁄32" excess to be removed on the jointer for a very clean edge.

Crosscuts complete the job

It’s time to finish up by crosscutting your pieces square at each end. For efficiency, arrange the pieces before you start cutting, orienting the “best” ends all to the same side. Then trim those ends first as shown. Lastly, cut the parts to final length, preferably registering them against a stop, which ensures accuracy of common sized pieces, and minimizes cutline layout.

Trim the best end first. If there is a “better” end to a board, trim it first, as your second cut will then remove more of the “bad” end. When trimming, make sure there is material on both sides of the blade. Otherwise, it can deflect, causing a slightly out-of-square cut.
Final cut. When crosscutting parts to final length, it’s best to register the previously squared end against a stop. Then cut all similarly sized pieces against the stop for dead-on consistency of length.


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