MILLING LUMBER: Five Tips for Great Results With Jointer and Thickness Planer

Milling rough lumber for workshop projects saves money, and it also opens more creative possibilities than standard, pre-dressed wood ever can. That’s why I generally use rough lumber for woodwork and why people move in this direction as the gain experience. That said, success demands more than just running boards through your jointer and thickness planer. The quality of milling your own lumber ultimately depends on careful craftsmanship with the right machines. The five how to tips I’ll show you here are the kind of thing you won’t find in power tool owner’s manuals.

  • Reading Time = 7 minutes
  • Video#1 Watch Time = 9 1/2 minutes
  • Video#2 Watch Time = 4 minutes

Lumber Milling Tip#1: Crosscut First, Joint Later

Lumber as it comes off the sawmill isn’t just coarse to the touch, it also twists, cups and bows to varying extents as the high-moisture wood moves towards final drying of boards. That’s just what happens to wood as it dries after sawing and before the milling process. And if this wasn’t enough, rough boards also show a surprising variation in width and thickness from board to board right from the get-go. Sawmills aren’t exactly precision instruments and things get wonkier during final drying.

Jointing and planing is all about how to mill boards flat, edges square with surfaces smooth, and that’s why you’ll do yourself a favour by cutting project parts to rough length before milling. The shorter a board is, the less material has to be removed to make it true, all else being equal. That said, never try to joint and plane lumber shorter than 12” for safety reasons.

Lumber Milling Tip#2: Allow Enough Extra for Milling

In theory, unmilled lumber is sold for woodworking in increments of 1/4” of thickness, but in practice you’ll find 1”, 1 1/2” and 2” thicknesses are the most widely available. Rough hardwoods are available in 1 1/4” thicknesses, and you’ll occasionally discover 1 3/4”- or 2”-thick boards. These thicknesses are usually expressed in quarter-inch increments and written as 4/4 (pronounced “four-quarter”), 5/4, 6/4 and 8/4.

Whatever you find for your woodworking, make sure you choose boards at the lumber yard with enough extra thickness to let you mill lumber flat and down to final part sizes you need. Depending on how long final parts need to be, and the actual thickness of the wood you’re buying (not all 1 1/2” wood measures a full 1 1/2” thick), you’ll need to allow more or less extra thickness for milling. Long boards used to make parts from bowed wood, for instance, could need 1/2” of extra thickness or more to make them straight. The shorter the pieces needed for a given part, the less extra wood you need.

Lumber Milling Tip#3: Orient Cupped Surfaces Down

Most boards have one concave side and one concave edge, and you’ll get best results if you orient either kind of concave surface downwards during the first stages of milling. Concave surfaces offer two contact points and a more stable stance for the lumber as it passes across jointer and planer beds. Convex surfaces, by contrast, are especially bad on the jointer since they encourage wobbling of wood and ever-increasing levels of inaccuracy with each successive jointer pass.

The video below shows how to use a jointer properly for great results.


Lumber Milling Tip#4: Dust Collection Improves Results

Most benchtop thickness planers and jointers use only the spinning action of the blades to eject shavings, and this isn’t always enough. It’s not unusual for shavings to build up around the cutterhead during heavy cuts, leading to pockmarked wood surfaces, especially with a thickness planer as drive rollers press shavings down into surrounding wood.

All this is why a vacuum system is so valuable as part of your milling set-up. By mechanically extracting shavings from the planer, instead of just hoping they’ll blast out completely on their own, you’re much less likely to have shavings build up internally in the planer, clog and cause trouble. A dust system also keeps your shop a whole lot neater. Planers are messy.

The video below shows the essential tuneup steps for keeping your planer working well.


Lumber Milling Tip#5: Do Final Milling in Stages

There’s no such thing as completely dry lumber because wood is always picking up and losing moisture from surrounding air, depending on relative humidity levels. And here, where I live in Canada, the most likely stability problem you’ll face is caused by wood that’s too wet. Outdoor storage of lumber is one reason why. Even covered storage areas allow wood to pick up moisture that’ll cause shrinking of boards and twisting later when the wood comes inside during heating season. This dynamic is why it makes sense to give your wood time to stabilize at stages while milling, all on your way to dry lumber without a drying kiln. Instead of jointing and planing down to final sizes immediately, joint one edge and a face of each board, let the wood sit in your shop or some other heated space for 3 or 4 days, then complete intermediate planing. You’ll want to leave excess wood available for final milling steps in case some cupping, warping or twisting sets in. Although this trouble is quite likely when working with unmilled lumber, it’s no problem as long as you allow for it.

Lumber Milling Tip#6: Travel With a Handsaw

Rough lumber often comes in lengths that are much longer than necessary for furniture projects, not to mention the trouble of transporting big boards home from the lumberyard. That’s why I like to travel with a good handsaw when buying wood. Coupled with a rough-cut list, a handsaw lets me rough-cut boards to size for easier transport and quicker milling when I get home. Shorter wood lengths are also easier to get into the workshop. A hard-point, Japanese tooth design with a conventional handsaw handle is surprisingly effective. I really like one particular Irwin handsaw for this work. It takes less than 30 seconds to crosscut a softwood 2×12 with this tool, and you never need an extension cord or battery.

How-to skills aren’t as mysterious as it looks. It’s nothing more than understanding why crucial details are important and how to put them into practice. Rough wood is my favourite choice for many projects because it gives access to more interesting and varied woods, it costs less and it allows creative control over thickness dimensions. Learn how to take off the training wheels and give unmilled lumber a try for yourself.

Milling Lumber FAQs

Q: What does milling lumber mean?

A: Milling lumber is the process of transforming rough wood to make the edges of a board parallel, to create a flat surface and to make at least one edge straight and square to the board faces. Time to allow for drying is key, too. This work used to be done with hand tools only, but the how to skills for final milling involves machines and equipment. The jointer is used to begin the milling process, and a planer used to complete the process.


Q: Is milling your own lumber worth it?

A: Yes, for many woodworkers with a small shop it is. Advantages of lumber milling is three-fold:

  1. Save money with lower wood costs.
  2. Make use of species and thicknesses of lumber not available pre-planed and milled.
  3. Greater creative control over project design.

Q: What is the process of milling lumber?

A: There are three main steps that need to happen with boards after the drying process:

  1. Mill one face of a board on the jointer so it’s flat.
  2. Use the jointer again to create a straight, and true edge that’s 90º to the board face.
  3. Use a planer to mill lumber smooth and down to final thickness.

Q: How long should logs dry before milling?

A: Logs don’t need to dry at all before sawing into boards on a sawmill, but those boards do need to dry before milling with a jointer and planer before it can be used for fine woodworking. The rule of thumb is one year to make the wood air dry for each inch of thickness. In practice, this can be sped up a lot if air blows over a pile of lumber from a fan. I’ve gone from fresh log to finished project in 8 weeks with this method.


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