Standing Desk Part 2: 18th-Century Stock Prep

Facing is the term Nicholson used for flattening one side of a piece of stock. I begin with my fore plane, working in the direction of the grain. I often hold the plane askew or at a slight angle to the stroke. I like a lightweight wooden plane. I use my upper body to press down on the plane, controlling both the cut and the stock below it. My fore plane has a cambered blade which takes a thick, but narrow (1″) shaving. It will remove rough saw marks quickly, but leaves shallow troughs in the face of the stock. These are acceptable for the insides of my furniture, but I like the exteriors smoother. Depending on the piece, I’ll either use my smoother next, or my try plane followed by the smoother. A wide carcase side needs to be smooth but perfect flatness usually isn’t required. Legs such as those for this desk need to be worked straight with the try plane. If they are not straight, you’ll be able to notice it from a long way away, and I’ll also have problems with my joinery.

In the modern lexicon, shooting an edge usually involves holding a plane on its side. But both Moxon and Nicholson use the term more generally. For them and likely all English-speaking 18th-century craftsmen, shooting meant edge straightening. In my shop, this is done with the board held on edge and typically completed in less than a minute with my try plane. I’m not getting aerospace tolerances in one minute. But a perfectly straight edge is rarely required. I square and straighten simultaneously. It’s a trick you probably know. Like my fore plane, my try plane has a curved blade. By positioning the plane side to side, I can take off a wedge-shaped shaving. But again, I don’t typically need a perfectly square edge.

With one face flattened and one edge straightened and squared, the stock is said to be squared. This is the time to do any ripping required. Ripping thin stock is easily done with a good saw in a matter of a few moments. I tend to leave the line, as shooting the ripped edge will be required anyway and is very quick work. Ripping thick stock is more difficult physically. Variations in the angle of the cut are magnified due to the thickness so it’s more difficult technically. What I do is mark both sides and flip the board over every six or so inches. In time, you will master a perfectly plumb rip. In the meantime, or whenever your stock is very thick, I recommend flipping the board over.

Tried Up
Stock that has had its four long-grain sides squared was called tried or tried-up in the 18th century. Though I typically remove the saw or planer marks, I very rarely try-up or “four square” my stock. The degree to which I four square stock varies according to the needs of the project. In this case, only the inside faces are mating surfaces. But I’d like my carcase to be flush with the outside faces. So I’m stuck cleaning up all four sides.

Crosscuts and End Grain
Eighteenth-century craftsmen had planes they used to clean up end grain. They were called strike or straight blocks. But frankly, I don’t like them. No matter what, planing end grain will always be a problem. For this reason, I prefer to do my crosscut sawing very carefully and as accurately as possible to limit the amount of planing I have to do. Crosscutting is usually the last thing I do before I start the joinery. I have long suspected that once that fresh end grain is exposed from the center of some long board, the board will move. End grain is very often covered in all sorts of traditional woodwork. Because glue joints involving end grain don’t work well, it’s rare to find end-grain glue joints. For this reason, thes
e surfaces often needn’t be perfect.

The wide range of surface treatments found on any given 18th-century piece of furniture, indicates period craftsmen planed their stock with each piece’s specific use in mind. While modern woodworkers, willing to use hand tools, have focused their attention on getting “the most” from their planes (which usually means the finest shavings), a look back tells us period craftsmen were instead focused on getting “the least.”  Like our approach of optimizing our planes and developing our techniques to produce flawless hand-worked surfaces, period craftsmen clearly optimized their tools and developed their techniques to produce surfaces that we might consider barely acceptable.

From my perspective, both approaches are equally valid and are equally challenging. They are, as the poet said, like two roads diverging in the woods. But I can tell you what’s ahead along the road less traveled: For me, 18th-century stock preparation is not a collection of techniques, but rather an opportunity for me to express my wit and judgment and experience. The resulting surfaces are like footprints on a path; a record of my passing. I know preparing stock with machines requires less effort. But the well-trod road leaves no trace of those who’ve traveled it. So is it worth taking? PW

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In addition to woodworking, Adam enjoys drawing and painting. He studied art at the Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia