Squaring Up Rough Lumber

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This article is from Issue 23 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Joe Hurst-Wajszczuk

Straight, flat, square boards aren’t born that way. Master this step-by-step sequence to make any stock shop-ready.

Want to be a better woodworker? Start with better wood. 

Simple but true. The fact is that wood moves. After a few weeks (sometimes days) even the best boards can go bad.

Taking total control of the dimensioning process does more than provide you with squarer stock. Using your machines to tackle the jointing and planing processes will enable you to buy boards directly from the sawmill. Doing so will mean better color and grain matching because you can make sure that your boards are sawn from the same log. You’ll also save money. On average, rough sawn boards cost about half as much as S4S (surfaced four sides) stock.

(The same steps also work with pre-dimensioned stock. Just bear in mind that milling removes thickness. Depending on the board, jointing and planing will chew about 3/16" of stock into sawdust.)

For pointers, we caught up with Eric Matson, fine woodworking instructor at the University of Rio Grande, whose 8-step sequence turns any board into foursquare shop-ready stock, guaranteed! We’ve also included a few of his favorite jigs that really come in handy when working with extra-wide and highly-figured boards.

STEP1  Cut to Rough Length

After selecting your planks, you’ll want to start cutting them down to size. Crosscutting the boards to rough length not only makes the stock more manageable, but also can actually save wood. Cutting a bowed board into shorter lengths (see Figure 1 below) is more efficient than attempting to flatten it via the jointer and planer.

Using your material list as a guide, mark out the parts with chalk or a wide felt-tipped pen. If you aren’t short on material, add 8" to the finished length to account for planer snipe and at least ½" in width for ripping and jointing.

Take time to carefully inspect your stock. Staples, nails, and knots are fairly easy to spot, but other defects may require some detective work. For example, boards frequently develop end grain cracks, or checks, as they dry. Hairline cracks can run several inches past the visible split. To make sure that you’re working with solid wood, start slicing back from the split as shown in Photo A.

At this stage, there’s a chance that a board may move and grab the blade. This can be jarring enough to knock your saw out of alignment. To protect his miter saw for more precise cuts, Matson uses an old radial arm saw to do the rough work. Alternately, you can use a jigsaw, circular saw, or handsaw.

Slice off one end to check for cracks. Tap the cutoff against your bench; if it splits, keep slicing until you reach solid wood.
Use the chalk line guides to make rough rips. Equip your saw with a splitter to prevent the board from pinching in and stalling the blade.

STEP2 Cut to Rough Width

Ripping to rough width not only slices away defects, but as shown in Figure 1 below can also correct cupping, straightening stock before it gets lost up the dust chute.

Rough rips are best made on a bandsaw, but you can also use a table saw. Set the rip fence so the blade cuts through your chalk line. Depending on the straightness of your stock, you may not need to joint an edge, but it’s important to equip your saw with a splitter (Photo B).

STEP 3  Face-Jointing

The splitter (see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide, page 68) helps steer the board straight and prevents the kerf from closing in on the cut and stalling your saw.

You’re now ready to see what your stock looks like. Set your jointer to make a light (only about 1/16") cut and slide the fence completely out of the way. If the board is cupped, place the cup, or concave face down. Now feed the board across the cutterhead, as shown in Photo C. Always use rubber-faced push blocks (see Buying Guide, page 68) to keep your fingers safely away from the blades.

To minimize chipping, you want to try to orient the board so that the knives cut with the grain, but it’s not always easy to read grain direction. If you happen to get a lot of tear-out, simply spin the board and make a second pass. (Realize that you don’t need a perfectly clean surface. Your goal is simply to establish enough of a flat surface area to support the board as it’s fed through the planer.)

Flattening a wide board can be tough, especially when working with a 6" or 8" jointer. Rather than ripping the board into narrower strips or flattening the board by hand, Eric has come up with another option. As shown in Photo D, he removes the blade guard and rabbetting fence and flattens as much as the blades allow. From there you can remove the remaining ledge boards, you can try the T-square planing sled shown in the next step.

Shift your weight from the infeed to outfeed side as you feed the board over the cutterhead. Use push blocks to get a safer, stickier grip.
Remove the guard and rabbetting fence to flatten wide boards. Try to flatten the face in one pass. You won’t be able to take advantage of the knives’ full width if the lip catches the table.

Rest the jointed section on the sled so that the planer can flatten the top. Press the board against the base at the beginning and end of the cut to prevent tipping.

STEP 4  Plane to Width

Planing isn’t rocket science, but a few tips can yield a smoother and flatter finished product. First, set the machine to take light cuts (about 1/16" per pass). If the board has figured grain, try feeding it on an angle. Skewing the board changes the blade’s angle of attack and can help it slice instead of tear-out the grain. Once you get the top face flat, plane the stock from both faces (flip the board end over end so that both sides are fed with the grain). Removing stock from both faces helps equalize the board, reducing the chance of future cupping.

To thickness the boards that are significantly wider than his jointer, Eric uses a T-square planing jig. As shown in Photo E and Figure 2, this jig allows the board to ride on the jointed face while the rough lip hangs off the edge. To prevent the board from tipping, take very light cuts.

Adjust your angle of attack when jointing figured wood. For a smooth skew, cut the tapered fence a few inches longer than the metal fence.

STEP 5  Joint One Edge

After you’ve planed a flat surface on the top face, remove the jig, flip the board, and plane off the lip.

From here on, your cuts count, so take time to check the settings on your machines, and occasionally double-check your work. Before jointing, use a square to make sure your fence is perpendicular and adjust the height of the infeed table to make a 1/16"-deep cut.

As you joint the edge, simultaneously press the board against the tables and fence. The cutterhead will tell when you have a straight edge; after one or two passes, you should be able to hear the knives as they begin cutting the leading edge and remain in contact with the edge throughout the cut.

Getting a smooth cut in figured stock requires a slightly different strategy (Photo F). To make the add-on fence, dimension a 4×32"  piece of 7/4 or 8/4 stock, then use a bandsaw to taper the board as shown in Figure 3. Joint the sawn face and flush-mount the rare-earth magnets (see the Buying Guide, page 68) with epoxy to secure them to the fence.

Use Both hands help to keep the jointed edge against the fence, but don’t let your left hand go past the saw’s front edge. Use a push stick to finish the cut.

STEP 6  Rip to Width

To provide a little extra stock to plane or remove residual saw marks, set the fence a hair wider than your finished width. As you feed the board, use your left hand to keep the stock firmly against the fence (Photo G). Hooking your left thumb along the front edge of the saw and keeping your right hand in contact with the fence is a good way to ensure that your hands don’t follow the board into the blade.

check your saw and work habits to ensure super-square crosscuts. Make sure the board is firmly secured so that it can’t creep into the blade while sawing.

STEP 7  Square One End

Two tips for square cuts. First double- (or triple-) check the saw for square. Second, always use a stop block or clamp, even when cutting the free end (Photo G). According to Eric, “The blade can pull in the board, slightly but enough to affect the squareness of the cut. Treating both ends with the same care prevents problems from creeping into your work.”

STEP 8  Crosscut to Final Length

Using your chopsaw, carefully measure your cutline, then use clamps, a stop block or both to set the board on your saw and make your final crosscut. Now, you're ready to move on to the next board in your cut list.

The best-looking boards may warp if they’re given half a chance. This step ensures that your stock may be flat, straight and square. If you’re not able to use them right away, stack and sticker your stock on a dead-flat surface. You may also want to add a few weights to the top of the stack. This step will ensure that your stock remains flat until you’re ready to work.  

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