I decided to avoid giving a written comprehensive lesson in how to prepare stock by hand (although I did record a video for you to watch – see below). I want to instead discuss the mindset of the process and things to consider with the aim of maximising your time in the shop. If you want the full written process you could do worse than read any decent woodworking book from mid 20th century or earlier (“The Practical Woodworker” is a good example – and there are numerous others. My copy was an eBay find but the stuff inside is just the same.
So I’m not going to tell you the the best plane for the job, the best radius for your jack plane or if you really need a scrub plane. If you stick with woodworking long enough you’ll develop your own preferences that work best for you, your material and projects. As I reflected further I also realised that the tips are very similar for stock preparation using machines; it’s just you feel more aware of your choices through your body when you do the process by hand, and it’s nice to feel like you’ve not been through 12 rounds at the end of the process.
The first point is remember you are a human; play to your strengths, or even weaknesses, depending on how you look at it. Face it: You’ll never be able to prepare stock like a machine. Not gonna happen. And why would you? Machines excel in powering through work quickly and making everything totally uniform and consistent. They were designed from the ground up for only one task. We, however, can be versatile. Let me be clear before I move on, what I’m proposing is not shoddy work, cutting corners and lowering quality. It’s working smart, working appropriately for typical woodworking projects and maximising time. It’s a view to prevent overworking the job.
With that in mind here are my tips.
Choose Timber Wisely
If you are able to pick your timber in person, do so. Look for straight and consistent timber, hopefully with the figure you require, and pick it for the best surfaces. But that’s the same for machines right? Yes it is – but you’ll want to be a bit more critical when working by hand. When I’m using machines, I care much less about the grain direction and straightness, because I know the machine won’t break a sweat getting it into shape. I picked a pretty grim piece of wood for the video, Quercus robur (English oak) with a stinking great knot and a snake-like wiggle along the length of the board. If I’d had the choice of standing in the lumberyard, I’d have looked for something a little better.
Accept What You Have Picked
So the project calls for all 3/4″ stock – you could fall into the machine trap here. Does it need to be 3/4″ thick? Will the design look any worse if it finished a trifle thicker? Most likely, it’ll make no difference. Just bearing that one thing in mind could save anything from minutes to hours depending on the project. Again, this point also applies to machine work, although making another pass on a board with power at hand takes only moments, with virtually no impact on project time.
Maybe, on some areas, it’s essential to get the stock perfectly flat; on others, less so. I had some feedback on the video along the lines of how difficult it can be for people to judge how straight a component should be. The proposal was a guide of how much gap beneath a straightedge is OK. The trouble is that this is the machine or the engineer in us. That’s not a bad thing; there are a lot of exciting things happening in woodworking right now with CNC and those mindsets will unleash something new by maximising the potential of those tools. If you are unsure on how flat something needs to be, go back a few steps and don’t mill yet. Pick some easy projects (a tool tote perhaps!). Have some fun and get a feel for it, discover how wood will change on you overnight, and how you have to adjust to get the best out of what you have.
Not All at Once
Try to use the wood as you go if at all possible. Milling a stack of boards by hand might be rewarding, but if you don’t join it together within a reasonable time frame, it’s likely to move on you and you’ll be breaking a sweat again.
Know When to Stop
If the grain is tearing, if you are in pain, if it’s not happening for you right now, take a break. Reflect for a moment – could you spin the wood around and work with the grain a little better? Is that cap iron set well and the iron sharp? Is the planing height right for you? (If not, add blocks under the bench or cut a few inches of the legs.) Pausing for 60 seconds might feel like a long time, but it’ll allow you to work smart and adjust.
No Need for Micrometers
Above you’ll see my winding sticks, artisan MDF with hand-applied Sharpie. Joking aside, they are as good as anything else. Yes, I’ve got nicer ones. But the point is, they meet the criteria. The gauge will be your eyes; trust them and act accordingly. In addition, a straight edge is a straightedge; a pragmatic solution might be a spirit level.
Think about your project, if it’s a reproduction, try to look at some genuine furniture from the time period you are interested in. You’ll find tool marks, gaps and imperfections. You can reflect on what you see and transfer what you feel comfortable with to your project as it unfolds.
Be Prepared to Fail
Sometimes things don’t work out. You’ll go past a gauge line, rip out a chunk of grain or hollow out a board. Accept that, see if you can work around the issue and accept it. If not, it’ll come for something else. Plenty of practice on easy-planing woods such as pine will dial you in nicely; the nasty stuff can come later.
It’s Not Pointless
Having this skill can be very useful. When the stock is too big or too small to machine safely or conveniently, being able to do the task at hand with planes will make you a more versatile woodworker.
If you hate it, don’t do it. Find a friend, club, guild or lumberyard that can prepare stock for you with machines. No shame in that at all. Or invest in some machines. Never prepare wood by hand because you think you should do it; do it because you want to do it.
I hope that I’ve conveyed something about the process, some of the softer things that technical write-up might not have. If you have any tips please leave a comment.