Chris Schwarz's Blog

Planing a Dovetailed Box

There are lots of people who will show you how to handplane the edge of a board. A few less who will show you how to really flatten the wide face of a board. A smaller number will show you how to flatten a glued-up panel (stay tuned , that tutorial is already written) and even fewer who will demonstrate how to plane an assembled carcase.

After lunch I dressed a small dovetailed box I’m building and took some photos along the way. Have a minute? Get the alcohol!

Really, get the alcohol. A dovetailed carcase has a lot of end grain, so moistening the end grain with denatured alcohol will make the work easier.

Set up a planing platform for your carcase. Big carcasses can be sleeved over the end of your bench. Small carcasses and drawers can be worked on a platform that’s clamped to your bench.

As with all aspects of hand work, everything begins with stock selection. I try to pick boards with the straightest grain so I can plane them in both directions , from the ends and into the middle of the carcase. This avoids blowing out the end grain of the pins and tails.

If the board has a pronounced grain direction (which stops me from planing both directions)  I’ll use a plane with a high pitch to do all the smoothing work , this also allows me to work from the ends and into the middle. High-angle planes can ignore grain direction. And, despite what you’ve read, you can plane end grain with them. Sharpness fixes almost anything.

Trim the Pins
I trim the pins with a sharp block plane. The reason I prefer a block plane is that it’s quite narrow, so I can work in small areas without planing away stuff I want to keep. You can skew the blade to make the cut easier. And don’t forget the alcohol. Work from the end toward the middle , but just trim the end grain, not the face grain.

With the pins trimmed on both ends of one face of my carcase, I need to make a decision. If I’m going to attach moulding to the carcase, I want to ensure those areas are dead flat. (Bending moulding = no fun.) I’m attaching base moulding around this box so I trued its lower section with a jointer plane. Note that I start the plane at the end, work into the middle and lift off in the middle.

Check your work with a straightedge to make sure you’re not creating a hill in the middle of your panel. If you are, work the center only until you get it flat.

Smooth the Face
Then use a smoothing plane to dress the face. Start from the ends and work to the middle, lifting at the end of the stroke. At the moment your joints’ baselines disappear, you’re done.

One difficulty people have here is with boards that have a pronounced grain direction. Here’s how I deal with it: Plane “with the grain” on the carcase face for the majority of the panel. Lift off only at the very end.

Then come back and dress the other direction with a high-angle plane, working only a short distance. That way if you have to scrape, it will only be a small area. Now plane the other side of the carcase using these same techniques.

Trim the Tails
Now trim the end grain of the tail boards. Moisten the end grain with alcohol and work from top to bottom (or bottom to top). This prevents you from having any blowout on your tailboards. When the tails have been trimmed, grab the jointer plane and smoothing plane and work from the ends and into the middle again, just like you did on the other two faces.

Note: There are other ways to tackle this job. You can plane a small chamfer on all four corners and plane straight through on all four faces of your carcase. This is faster but risky. If your chamfer isn’t big enough, you’re toast. You also can fetch the belt sander or random-orbit sander. But you wouldn’t be reading this blog entry if you sleep with your sander.

- Christopher Schwarz

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7 thoughts on “Planing a Dovetailed Box

  1. Adrian

    I was trying to set up a plane optimized for end grain. So based on the general claims I have been trying a low angle in a bevel up plane but I’m experiencing rapid edge failure at 25 degree bevel angle (with A2) cutting cherry, so I’m not sure what to think. (I’ve seen the claims that A2 requires a 30 degree bevel to hold an edge.0

    Regarding scraping end grain, I’ve done it quite a bit with a card scraper, but I’ve found that I have to scrape in the right direction. I never understood what determined the right direction, but it seemed like there would be a direction where I could scrape and get a nice polished surface and if I scraped in the opposite direction I would get a kind of rough, sort of fuzzy surface. (How can there be grain direction on end grain???)

  2. David

    Your comment about planing end grain is amusing, because it puts to rest the final (and only) advantage to a low-angle plane – that you can plane end-grain efficiently with it. Everything else (low center of gravity, adjust on the fly with a BD plane, etc…) is just preference, but you wouldn’t think it by reading the BD vs. BU wars on the ‘net forums. I’m thinking the article title on the latest issue of Pop woodworking (if it indeed is accurate) will generate more controversy in your editor inbox than any other topic you’ve ever written about. Sort of like the uproar when FWW profiled Norm Abrams a few years ago.

    Should be fun to watch – or maybe just tiresome. ;-)

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Steve,

    The cutting angle of the block plane I used today was 47° — so sharpness is more important than the pitch. A low angle reduces the force needed to execute the cut, but it doesn’t draw the line between do-able and impossible.

    Chris

  4. Steve McDaniel

    Chris,
    Thanks. That helps as I begin the sander banning process.

    So high angle planes can be used. When doing the initial trimming of the end grain with a block plane, do you find a low angle block plane helps (as I’ve read), or will a standard angle block plane do just as well?

    Steve

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Steve,

    Scraping end grain is difficult at best. At some point you reach the point where the resistance of the end grain is too much. It skates rather than cuts. I have yet to determine that exact point in angle term.

    And yes you are right, most workholding wheezes are for small pieces and panels. The carcasses require some thought. More to come on that, too.

    Chris

  6. Steve McDaniel

    Wow, great tutorial! This is a big help to me. I’m looking forward to the tutorial on flattening the glued up panel.

    You said, "High-angle planes can ignore grain direction. And, despite what you’ve read, you can plane end grain with them. Sharpness fixes almost anything." If you can plane end grain with a (sharpened) high angle plane, what a (sharpened) scraper plane? I’ve read you can’t, but I’ve also read you can’t do that with a high angle plane.

    On another note, it seems that most of the work holding devices and doodads out there are designed for individual boards, and not carcasses, boxes, and drawers. I’ll have to think about that one.

  7. dave brown

    Definitely grab the alcohol as the solvent of your choice. I grabbed some real turpentine at the store, thinking it’d be more organic and better smelling than mineral spirits or alcohol. I was sorely wrong. BLECK!!! It took weeks to get that smell out of my nose.

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