Chris Schwarz's Blog

In the End, End Grain Bites

Whenever I get into some serious handwork, I always try to boil down the processes so that I can 1) remember it myself and 2) occasionally explain it to others (including a couple children who are slack-jawed with boredom).

Today as I was cleaning up the half-lap joints for the Stickley 603 tabouret on my workbench, I was reminded of one of the guiding principles: Don’t work the end grain unless you have to. End grain is unruly. It is usually confined to small surfaces that are hard to work accurately. And working it poorly will rip out chunks of precious face grain  as well.

This is why I don’t own any side-rabbet planes. In all my years of working wood, I have honestly never encountered a situation where I had to have those tools and no other tool would do. (Boy they look cool, though.) If a dado is too skimpy, I’ll thin the mating shelf’s face grain instead. The face grain is so much easier to plane, my tools don’t have to be as sharp, my work is less at risk and it is another chance to remove tear-out in the shelf.

So when I was fitting the first half-lap shown in the photo above, I cut my shoulders just a hair tight. So I took two swipes of the edge of the mating piece. Perfect fit.

One side item: In the magazine world, we’re supposed to ignore our competitors. It’s a time-honored tradition. We’re supposed to pretend they don’t exist so that readers don’t flee our product in droves. So with that in mind, I’m actively ignoring an interesting new workbench plan in the newest issue of Woodsmith magazine (No. 173). I suggest you also ignore their quite excellent and robust plans for a wagon vise (what they call a tail vise in the book) in that issue.

, Christopher Schwarz

11 thoughts on “In the End, End Grain Bites

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Alan,

    I think it’s better to cut to the line and go for perfection from the sawcut. The more you fiddle with a joint, the more likely you are to botch it.

    My skill level these days gains me about a 75-percent success rate with tenons and laps (I have a much higher success rate with dovetails, oddly). So one in four joints requires a little trimming.

    Rarely do I overcut a joint. That’s because I set up the cut so that if there’s error, it will be be an error that gives me a little waste to trim with a chisel or plane.


    Christopher Schwarz

  2. Alan

    Chris,

    To expound on my riddle above, several months ago I was cutting some tenons, and I had subconsciously cut the shoulders a bit proud as I didn’t want them to fit loosely. Oddly, I didn’t try to cut the cheek proud…

    As I was trimming them to fit properly, I started pondering if I had cheated myself by not going for a perfect fit with the saw the first time. It seems that deep down I will often have a similar situation and cut a bit proud but trim back to get just that comfy fit. Maybe I was being too critical of myself?

    As I continued to cut the other tenons I tried to focus on sawing more closely to my mark so that I wouldn’t need to trim the shoulders. They ended up looking pretty similar, the ones that had been trimmed after a proud cut, and the ones that had been cut as close to the line as possible. That could be due to my skill level…:-/

    I realize your lap is a bit different but similar, but it begs a question that from a craftsman standpoint should we cut just a bit proud and trim, or should joinery be cut as close to the mark as possible so that it fits without trimming?

    I admit that I do try and hit my saw mark more closely after that point in time a few months ago, but haven’t had enough time to tell whether the joinery fits as good or if I might end up with some that are not as tight as they would be if I was to trim with a plane. To be fair, trimming too much after cutting proud will offer similar results as over cutting in the first place.

    Overall it could be better to go the trim route, should you end up with even one sloppy fitting joint, but the very reason I enjoy using a handsaw for joinery is that it is so precise when done correctly, and possibly what intrigues me so much about dovetails.

    The most fascinating use of dovetails for me are the ones used by the Appalachian pioneers in building log homes. Gravity allows the water to drain away from the joint to prevent rot, and one critical point that has helped some of the old structures stay intact to this day. While some refer to those Appalachian pioneers as being hillbillies, somebody did their homework on the joinery. It is interesting to note that some craftsmen to this day will cut the dovetails on the Appalachian style homes a bit proud and trim them down for a perfect fit, and some will recess the face so that the edges will fit tightly the first time. Large timbers are obviously different than those used for cabinetry work though.

    Any thoughts? (maybe I’m digging too deeply into this)

    Regards,

  3. Tom Anderson-Brown

    Hi Chris,

    The wagon vise on the Woodsmith workbench is very similar to the one I made. It works well and it’s very simple to construct. But they should have captured the bench screw "nut" inside the endcap of the bench because the way they show it, that nut will extract itself right out onto the floor the first time the vise is used.

    But, I can’t say enough about the wagon vise. It sure works well for me. And as for sawing, you can avoid sawing off your wagon vise bench screw by using a saw bench…

    Tom Anderson-Brown

  4. Alan

    Chris,

    You just dressed up like the Borg to see how well you could saw, and you saw that you could saw as well as you could see…but you saw’d this lap tight. What gives? (LOL!)

    Cheers,

  5. dave brown

    Sorry for the many responses, I’m tired and the Dogfish Head is kicking in — last post tonight.

    For those that wanna see the Woodsmith bench in detail, check out

    good night & good luck,
    Dave Brown

  6. Paul Kierstead

    I’ll admit to confusion about that comment about end grain and side-rebate planes. I’ll give you that they aren’t really all *that* useful, but as Dave says, they aren’t called side Dado planes for a reason..

    Or has that whole Dado/groove/rebate meaning thing blown up again.

  7. dave brown

    Yeah, I’m sure you’re gonna hate that research Chris, ya tool junky. 😉

    I was in the shop messing my no78 this evening when I remembered something kinda important, well, if not important then at least relevant.

    When I was building a shelving unit a few months ago, I needed to widen the dadoes for the shelves. Not wanting to reroute each dado a bit wider, I looked through the tools I had on hand. Chisels would work but would be tedious and messy. Not wanting to order a set of 98/99 side rabbet planes, I grabbed my set of Veritas edge trimming planes and used them to widen my dadoes — a tough scene to picture mentally, but give it a try.

    The skewed, low angle blade did a great job of trimming nasty edge grain. Because I housed the dadoes, any ragged edges were hidden by the shoulders of the shelves’ tenon. It took a bit of creativity and imagination to use the planes like this but I saved some money by cooling my lust for the side rabbet planes. And, it did a lot to bolster my rational for picking up the edge trimming planes.

    regards,
    Dave

  8. Mike

    A skosh off is one reason to adjust the fit of dadoes via face planing instead of side rabbets. If, however, one saws the dadoes or dovetail housings and there is more than a skosh to achieving a good fit, the side rabbets do the work more efficiently.

    As well, they are useful in hand-sawn situations for housings to straighten them. Doesn’t take much sawing off-line to have a wonky tight spot or two along the length of the housing. That’s something which cannot be easily adjusted via face-grain planing.

    The solution, of course, is to saw straighter. Doesn’t always happen.

    I’ve had the LN pair, the Record (still have it), the Stanley 79, and wonderful woodies (still have them). Of them, the Record was kept for the odd quick ribbon to take off instead of risking face planing. The woodies because of the registration on wider housings.

    Take care,

  9. Christopher Schwarz

    The name of the side-rabbet plane has always confused me. I think that if I made a rabbet with your rabbet plane that needs to be larger, I probably would use (wait for it) my rabbet plane.

    The design of the side-rabbet plane seems most suited to adjusting housed joints, such as grooves and dados. I’m going to have to look at some olDS tanley catalogs now. Curse you Dave.

    Cheers,

    Chris

  10. dave brown

    Comment on the side rabbet planes — you shouldn’t be afraid of them because of end grain gnarly nature — they’re not called side dado planes for a reason. 😉

    regards,
    Dave

  11. dave brown

    I saw their plan after seeing it mentioned elsewhere. I rather like their implementation of the wagon vise (or whatever you call it). I can’t imagine not having one on my bench. I get by fine sawing on my bench hook or sawing bench, even though sawing off the right side of my bench would be very convenient. The versatility of the wagon vise far outweighs any inconvenience of the lost sawing station.

    regards,
    Dave

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