Stock Preparation By Hand

Stock Preparation By Hand

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.

Knotty Wood


Perfectly Flat?
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.

Milling Stock By Hand

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.

Have Fun!
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.

 — Graham Haydon


PWM Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs
Graham Haydon

About Graham Haydon

Graham Haydon is a Joiner based in the UK, working in the same woodworking business his great grandfather started in 1926 alongside his father, brother and a small team of craftspeople. The business makes custom architectural joinery, simple furniture and custom kitchens along with a variety of other woodworking projects. He served an apprenticeship in both Joinery and Carpentry and also gained a National Certificate in Building Studies. During his spare time he enjoys woodworking mainly with hand tools.

24 thoughts on “Stock Preparation By Hand

  1. eviewalczak

    Excellent video, and a helpful memory refresher. I’m curious: Should one always move from a jack plane to a trying (jointer) plane prior to using a smoothing plane? Would you have been able to get the same or similar result from skipping the trying plane? Why or why not? (Yes, I’m wondering if I must purchase a trying plane, which wouldn’t be the worst thing.) Thank you!

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Hi eviewalczak

      The three plane approach is perhaps the situation you might find yourself in when the tool kit has fully matured or your work demands it. The reason the trying plane works great is that it trues up the surfaces nicely. Also the smoother is less well suited to the big broad shavings you can peel off with a try plane. If you do smaller projects you could likely do jack planing and trying with a #5 with two different irons, one radiused one straighter.
      As you don’t have a trying plane yet don’t feel the pressure to go out and spend but when you find you have longer boards to true up, edges to joint and the like it’s a good time to think seriously about what try plane will suit you best. Thanks for the question!



  2. mbacklund

    My dad, who was an engineer, made life a little easier with his oft-repeated comment: “Close enough for government work!” Nowadays most of my projects are apparently being done for “the government”, because I allow for the occasional “fudge” where it’s not essential. Or as the Navajo or Hopi indians do…I’m told each of their blankets contain intentional “mistakes” or flaws, on the theory that nothing made by humans can be “perfect”.

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Thanks mbacklund

      It’s a hard point to discuss but I think we’re on the same page. Comments like “Close enough for government work!” is not perhaps lack of quality just the right quality for the task at hand. Nice story on the Navajo and Hopi, it’s the same reason we enjoy things that are hand made.



  3. polaski

    I’m following a certain fellow, Paul Sellers, whose projects often call for 7/8″ timber. Well, I can easily (read that as “inexpensively”) get 3/4″ lumber. Timber, lumber, the difference is only 1/8″, and anyway, the little old ladies I make canes for at my wife’s church are, by definition — “little”.

    Good enough. I’ve done that for years and made a living elsewhere. Why not enjoy it now, also?

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Hi polaki

      Nice skills. Being able to review a project and choosing appropriate alternatives pretty much essential. Even in these times of post industrialization there is variation from region to region in regard to what we can use for projects. And isn’t good enough actually pretty close to perfect?



  4. TikhonC

    Thanks very much for this post!

    Honestly, I almost just skipped it, thinking that I’ve seen/read enough about the topic. But I wanted something to ‘entertain’ me while I ate lunch, so I played it. It was well worth while. So glad I didn’t skip it! Beyond your central point about dimensions, which I appreciate, I picked up a couple of tips I didn’t know, or at least had forgotten.

    So thanks again!

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Thanks TikhonC

      It’s hard to cover a well discussed subject so I tried to focus on a few other points. I’m looking forward to my next project that’ll have some much milder timber.



  5. buoyd

    In some future video or blog, would you discuss your bench, why you chose/built that style, etc. I’m particularly interested in your face vise, which is wider than many and has a screw that appears offset from the typical center position. Thanks for all the info you are sharing.

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Hi buoyd

      Happy to. I’ll do a more detailed one soon. In short it was because you can build this bench easily without a bench, the vice was chosen because I didn’t fancy bending down to operate a vise pin. No worries on the info, it’s all old news but it’s fun to share my experience of well walked paths.



  6. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

    Also, it’s an excellent workout, and no matter how much you might not enjoy it, it beats the heck out of a treadmill.

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Agreed Megan!

      I’ve never done well with physical training. When I did moto x I would always prefer riding the bike to get fit rather than running.


      1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

        Well maybe it’s just me…I dropped six pounds when helping out in a hand tool tool chest class. But it was 90+ degrees in the shade, and I was sawing parts to length for 12 students…

      2. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

        You forget Bill, you’ve been “Looking Like Captain America” since 2014. If like me you’ve been looking like Waldo from birth it’s a workout.

        1. Bill Lattanzio

          That serum really does work! And Megan, you are right, if you woodwork 4 or 5 days per week for 6-8 hours per day it will certainly keep you in shape. Unfortunately I only woodwork on the weekends, and I found it just wasn’t enough to give me muscles that keeps my wife interested.

  7. Bill Lattanzio

    A few things I’d like to add…I agree with you completely considering stock thickness. Work with what you have. If your stock is 7/8 use it. If your plans call for 3/4 and your finished stock is above or below that, go with what you have. I rarely follow woodworking plans for two reasons, one being that most of them aren’t very helpful, and secondly they are far too arbitrary and are far too often based on “nominal thickness” stock.
    As far as not preparing lumber by hand at all, I once again agree. If you don’t enjoy it you likely never will. Of course there are times when it’s necessary, but to reiterate, if you need to plane off 1/16th of one board to make it presentable and only 1/1000th from another, don’t worry too much about making them both uniform.
    I try to purchase most of my lumber as prepped as I can get it and work with it from there. Even in the golden era of furniture making (18th-19th centuries) many shops purchased their lumber pre-dimensioned from the sawyer.

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Hi Bill

      These are good points. It might seem like we are discussing ordinary stuff but it’s the reality of working creatively. You have to adapt and enjoy what you do. I did think of mentioning the quality of sawing and seasoning of the stock. I can imagine poor sawyers would be light on work if they presented poorly prepared stock on a regular basis, a source of lumber that presents the same issues should be treated accordingly. Thanks for the constructive feedback.



  8. snkenai

    Very practical advice/encouragement.

    As part time (as needed), wood worker, I agree, that “perfection”, is the desire, but not always necessary or achievable. It’s no reason to get all “in a bother”, or quit. My crude attempts, sometimes cause me great discouragement, especially since I’ve lost nearly all the sight in my left eye. To give up is (tempting), but not acceptable. So, I live with “good enough”.


    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Thanks snkenai

      I’m glad you found some encouragement. Perfection needs definition and if in the pursuit of perfection it leads us to overwork a project then for me, 9 times out of 10 that is not the perfection I’m looking for. It’s all a balance! Good enough is often likely to be perfect.



    2. LGJohnnyAce

      My father spent his entire life using only his right eye; he had amblyopia as a child. Funny thing was that he could see a straight line better than anyone I ever met. More than once he told me that a fence was out of plumb by 3/8 of an inch when he was 50 yards away from the spot. The biggest compliment I ever got from him was when my brother and I put up a fence and he told my brother, “That’s the straightest fence I have ever seen.” He was a talented wood carver and won a few competitions in his day. He also built Windsor chairs, dulcimers that people still covet, competition winning model airplanes and wing ribs for full size airplanes that hang in the Smithsonian. Congratulations on not giving up. Please keep trying to make sure that the “good enough” for this project isn’t “good enough” for the next. I will try to do the same.



      1. amoscalie

        A great bit of excellent advise. This seems to follow an article a few years back in PWM entitled “Rule Are For Fools.” Graham you keep driving home to think smart and don’t try to be a machine. I think that too many people don’t do either one and spend a lot of time trying to be absolutely perfect. Reading the grain of your stock and adjusting your planes is great advise that only a human can do, a machine just plows into the wood irregardless of the grain and many times will just cause tear out. It is very satisfying to be able to prepare your own stock without all of the noise and dust that comes with machines.

        1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

          Thanks amoscaile

          I find it difficult to share my point sometimes, cautious perhaps that I don’t want to offend. But your read me well. Knowing tactics that you can deploy makes us pretty versatile. In addition being able to judge if the stock is just fine for a project takes a bit of experience but is important. As an extreme case we would not french polish studwork that was to be covered or guild enclosed floor joist. I think it’s easy to come to woodworking for “perfection”, I just feel it worthwhile to understand what perfection is to us. Thanks for the feedback.



      2. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

        Hi LGJohnnyAce

        Your Father sounds inspirational and it’s pleasing to hear of his legacy that people enjoy to this day! Indeed there is always room to improve and to work smarter, this will never change. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.



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