Jointing, Unplugged

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This article is from Issue 48 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Simple, safe ways to plane short, thin, or narrow stock

For truing edges, nothing beats the speed and efficiency of a power jointer. But there are times when you need to pull the plug. For example, short stock (most manuals specify 12" long or under) can tip into the gap between the infeed and outfeed tables and kick back, leaving your hands with a clear path to the spinning knives. Similarly, narrow boards, thin boards, and veneers can bend into the opening, catch, and kick back, or deflect just enough to create a bowed edge.

For these reasons, I’ve marked my jointer’s fence to remind me that stock must be at least 14" long, 2" wide, and 1⁄2" thick. Nothing under the “legal limits” touches the infeed table.

This rule doesn’t render

short boards useless, provided you have an alternate method for jointing them. When the going gets short, I simply reach for a hand plane. Once the only means of achieving a straight, square edge, a well-tuned plane still tackles boards a power jointer can’t, and it does it quietly and safely.

With the tips and jigs shown here, the learning curve for truing short boards is surprisingly quick. If you can sharpen a plane blade, you’re ready to start making great projects from small stock.

Note: Jointing an edge is the last step of the stock milling process. In order to join boards successfully, your stock should be dead-flat, meaning no bows, twists, or cups.

Planing both edges at once ensures complementary edges. Use the shavings to check your progress.

Jointing Short Stock – 3 Ways

If you want to glue up two boards edge to edge for a box or other small project, perfectly perpendicular edges aren’t as important as a joint that mates perfectly along its length. The easiest way to ensure a tight joint is to match up the boards, unfold them so that the mating edges are side by side, and clamp the pair in your bench vise. Now plane both edges at once, as shown in Photo A. Even if the angle isn’t precisely 90°, the two angles will complement each other when butted together, as shown in Figure 1.

Learn to read the shavings (Inset). For example, a broken shaving indicates a low spot; a narrow shaving indicates a low spot on one edge. A pair of full-length, continuous shavings should indicate that the boards are ready for glue-up, but check the gap between the mating edges to be certain.

Running a plane against a shooting board eliminates any tendency for the plane to tip.

For short, square edges, nothing beats using a shooting board. As long as you’re planing with the slope of the grain, squaring the long grain edge of a short board can be even easier than planing end grain. My 16"-wide × 24"-long shooting board was designed primarily to tune up ends, but it’s equally well suited for edge-jointing boards up to 14" long that are too short to ride on my jointer.

A little prep work can make the planing a lot easier. Before shooting, saw off any wavy or rough edges at the tablesaw. Squarely crosscut the back end so that the board can register solidly against the planing stop. Of course, orient your stock so that you’re planing with the grain.

Set your plane for a fine cut and make certain that the blade is parallel to the plane’s sole. Now run the plane on its edge as shown in Photo B. 

Once you achieve uniform, full-width shavings, check the edge with a double or combination square.

Clamping the plane in a bench vise creates a muscle-powered jointer of sorts. Skew the stock for a smoother cut.

If your stock is too short to plane in a bench vise, try clamping the plane instead. Turn your plane upside-down, and clamp it in the face vise, as shown in Photo C. Position the plane so that the clamping pressure is against the sides of the plane’s sole. (If you exert too much clamping pressure on the upper edges of the sidewalls, you might crack or distort the casting.)

The only downside to this technique is that it isn’t self-squaring. I find that it works best for cleaning saw marks off material that is already square. Set the blade for a very light cut, aim for full-length shavings, and watch your fingertips. Check your progress frequently with a square.

Jointing Narrow and Thin Boards

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. If I have one or two narrow boards in need of a jointed edge, I’ll often secure a piece in a handscrew clamp. If the stock is tall enough, the handscrew can be clamped directly to the benchtop. For narrow stock, I’ll use an auxiliary stop board, as shown in Photo D.

The trickiest part of the operation is keeping the plane from tipping. I place my thumb in front of the knob and wrap my fingers around the underside of the plane. My fingers serve as a fence to help keep the plane centered on the board and to help guard against tool tilt or wobble.

Positioning an auxiliary stop behind your handscrew clamp can prevent a plane-to-clamp collision when working with narrow stock.
A simple strongback jig reinforces thin veneer, stiffening it so that you can joint it like thicker stock.

Getting perfect edge joints on veneer is easy with a strong-back jig as seen in Photo E. I made mine from two 11⁄2 × 2 × 24" pieces of beech. Make the clamping faces slightly convex to provide even pressure along the entire length of the jig. After counterboring for carriage bolts and drilling the through-holes, I installed the nuts and ran the plane-bearing edges across my jointer.

To use the jig, simply fold over the two pieces to be joined, insert them into the jig so that only about 1⁄16" protrudes from the face, and then snug the nuts. Set your plane for a very light cut, and shoot both edges at once.

Multipurpose Shooting Board

In this position, the wedge-shaped stop on this shooting board holds the stock vertically for unimpeded edge-jointing of narrow stock. 

Flip the fixture over to joint edges of thin stock. The plane’s side uses the bench as a reference surface to ensure a square cut.

Partnered with a sharp plane, this two-faced fixture successfully joints the boards that your power jointer shouldn’t touch. If you do a lot of work with small pieces, or have a workbench with a top that isn’t perfectly flat, investing a few minutes to make this fixture will be time well spent.

Use the top face for narrow stock. The wedge holds stock for jointing without additional clamps or stops. Simply position the stock between the fixed blocks and tap the wedge to lock the stock in place (Photo F). 

Flip the fixture over, and the bottom cleat doubles as a stop for edge-shooting thin boards. Butt the stock against the cleat and shoot the edge, as shown in Photo G.

The fixture’s dimensions aren’t critical, but in order for it to work properly, the edges of the base must be perfectly straight.

You can joint square edges without a major investment. All you need is a workbench, a square, and a plane with a straight-edge blade.

Tools You’ll Use

In theory, because the flat sole of a plane bridges low spots and shaves off high spots, the longer the plane, the better it will produce straight edges.  For edge-jointing long boards for tabletops or chests, I recommend a 22"-long No. 7, or even a 24"-long No. 8 plane. But for boards shorter than 36" you can get along well enough with a 173⁄4"-long No. 6 plane (Photo H).

Regardless of the plane you use, it should be well-tuned. (For a tune-up guide, check out “Plane Truth” online at

Make sure that your vise is square with the top. If it’s not, shim the face or install a replacement.

The shape of a plane blade’s cutting edge deserves special mention. Although many craftsmen can successfully joint edges using a blade with a slightly convex cambered edge, I prefer a straight grind (see photo above). I often use a cambered edge for smoothing to prevent ridges at the edges of the cut, but I think the slight concavity introduced by a cambered edge adds an unnecessary curve when jointing edges.

You’ll also need an accurate square to check your progress. You can get by with a 12" combination square, but I recommend a 4" Starrett double square. Compared to the larger tool, the smaller square is easier to handle and can be tucked into an apron pocket when it’s not in use.

The most overlooked tool is the bench itself. For consistent results, your benchtop must be not only flat, but also level, and the rear jaw of your vise must be perpendicular to the top (Photo I). It may seem improbable, but your senses will reflexively compensate for a board that is tilted out of square to the benchtop. Should you find that your planed edges are consistently off by a few degrees, the problem is likely the bench and/or vise setup (presuming that your blade projection is consistent).

The last step before applying glue and clamps to panel assemblies is to place the prepared edges together in front of a bright light source to check for gaps. A couple of thousandths of an inch gap in the center is acceptable, but if you see gaps at the ends, reshoot and recheck the edges.

About Our Author

Craig Bentzley has been restoring antiques and building furniture for nearly 40 years. In addition to writing, Craig also teaches at guilds, woodworking shows, and at Woodcraft stores.


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