Making Wood Smooth and Square
It makes sense to start by refining the table top and shelf parts first. These wide parts will always be made from multiple pieces of wood, so they will need to sit in the clamps as glue dries. Might as well have that glue drying while you’re jointing and planing the legs and rails later.
Are you building your table from rough lumber, as I did? Then you’ll need to start by squaring up your rough-cut parts using the jointer, thickness planer and tablesaw. Rough lumber never comes off the shelf square enough to make decent furniture without a lot of help. That’s me running lumber through the thickness planer in my own workshop. While you don’t need to work with rough lumber to make great furniture, it’s nice to have the ability to do this if you want. Besides saving money, milling your own rough lumbers allows you to control the thickness of the wood you’re building with. This is difficult to do without a thickness planer.
No matter what kind of woodworking project you’re building, there are four main steps to the process of milling rough lumber. This is standard woodworking practice, so you can use your new skills for many other projects. If you’re dealing with pre-planed lumber that’s flat and true you can start at step#2. Otherwise, these are the four steps to lumber milling success:
Here’s the procedure in a nutshell:
- Joint one face of a board
- Joint an edge at 90º to the face
- Plane the remaining rough face using a thickness planer
- Rip to width on a tablesaw with a blade that’s 90º to the saw surface.
Lumber Milling Step#1: Joint One Face
While jointing one face of a board is always the first step when working with rough lumber, which face to choose? Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but if one face has any kind of a concave cup shape, orient it downwards onto the jointer bed and begin there. The cupped face is the one you see facing towards the left side of the image here.
A cupped surface is less likely to rock and move than a crowned one, so it’s easier to joint. Concave faces down are the most stable, so that’s what you should put downwards against the jointer bed for the first step in milling. If both faces are flat, then it doesn’t really matter which one you start with. Take as many passes over the jointer as necessary to make that first face of each board flat and smooth. This is the one and only objective of this first milling step. If you’re working with pre-planed lumber and you’ve already got a flat face, skip step#1 and go right to step#2.
Looking to buy a jointer but don’t have a lot of money or shop space? A small benchtop jointer like the one you see here is surprisingly useful. It’s not as effective as a stationary jointer, but even a small jointer will make a huge difference in the accuracy of your work. I filled my house with furniture made from rough lumber milled with the very same benchtop jointer you see here. It’s parked on the floor of my workshop when I had the shop set up in the attic of my house. The larger the pieces of wood milled on this machine, the handier it was to have it parked on the floor.
Rough Lumber Milling Step#2: Joint an Edge 90º to the Smooth Face
Square edges are crucial for crisp work, and that’s why it’s important that your jointer fence be exactly 90º to the jointer bed. A 4-inch machinist’s square is the tool of choice for this in my book. That’s what I’m using here to the right, on my small, benchtop jointer. This little machinist’s square is small enough to keep in your tool apron, and much more accurate than any of the typical woodworking squares. Some of those metal-and-wood try squares have really ghastly accuracy.
In addition to checking your fence for accurate adjustment, check the jointed edge of your parts with this same machinist’s square, as a double check on results. And just like with Step#1: Jointing a Face, choose to joint a concave edge if all all possible. It’ll sit flat and more stable than a rounded edge.
Lumber Milling Step#3: Plane Rough Face on a Thickness Planer
Now’s the time to run parts through the thickness planer to make them smooth and bring most of them down to final thickness. Just don’t bring all parts down to final thickness yet. Plane the legs and aprons fully now, but leave the shelf and tabletop parts about 1/8-inch thicker than the final 3/4-inch and 1 1/8-inch dimensions in the materials list. You’ll see why in a minute. After planing and before you call you quits for the day, pile all project parts with thin strips of wood between each layer. Every time wood is planed it exposes fresh cells that often has some drying to do. You want to speed that drying with air circulation.
Rough Lumber Milling Step#4: Rip To Width on Tablesaw
This ripping to width business needs some explanation. If you’re working on pieces to be edge glued to make the top and shelf, then it’s especially important that your tablesaw be cutting at exactly 90º. It’s less important for skirts and legs, but still worth checking and adjusting your saw with that good old 4” engineer’s square in hand. If your ripping blade leaves some saw marks (and it almost certainly will), smoothen edges with a very light cut on the jointer as a final step.
Watch the video below to see the whole milling process in action.
Before going on to the next phase, you should have:
- Legs and aprons cut to length, width and planed to final thickness, ready for final sanding.
- Table top and shelf parts ready for edge gluing.
- A clean and swept shop.