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Tips for Working With Wood Figure

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Go Figure

Figured wood gives your projects pizzazz. These tips will help you work successfully with this sometimes uncooperative material.

Figured stock brings excitement to woodworking in more ways than one. Wood figure, such as the dramatic, glowing waves of curly maple on the green jewelry box above and the striking beauty spots of bird's-eye maple in the sides of the picture frame and the car's body, can turn a project from ho-hum to hoorah.

But this visual excitement comes at a price-the sometimes hair-raising experience of working with unruly material.

Figure on some workshop challenges with this stock

The very thing that gives figured wood its beauty-grain that twists and turns its way through a board-makes it demanding to work with.

One of woodworking's basic rules-go with the grain-still applies when jointing or planing figured stock. But it becomes more difficult to follow with figured stock.

In the curly maple board left, for instance, the grain in the vicinity of the pen point appears to run to the left. Under the ferrule on the pen, however, a fold in the grain lines seems to indicate the opposite grain direction-at least for a short distance.

When surface-planing or jointing figured stock, make your best determination of grain direction. Then, adjust your machine to take a light cut-maybe 1/32" or even 1/64". (Needless to say, the knives must be sharp.) Feed the stock steadily at a moderate speed, then check the results.

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If you see a lot of chip-out and torn grain, as in the pieces of stock right, try running the material through the machine in the other direction. A lighter cut might help, too. For final machining, choose the feed direction and depth of cut that gives the cleanest results, and mark your stock so you'll always feed it through the same way.

Sanding figured stock to thickness rather than running it through a surface planer often proves most effective. Drum surface sanders handle irregular grain with greater aplomb than thickness planers.

The ornery grain of figured wood can make sawing troublesome, too. You'll make your best cuts on figured stock by installing a zero-clearance insert in your tablesaw's throat. And when crosscutting, back the stock with scrapwood to prevent chip-out on the exit side of the cut. You'll want a sharp blade here, too.


A good approach to machining parts from highly figured stock is to cut all parts slightly oversize, then sand or plane them to finished size. A low-angle block plane like the one shown left does a great job of planing figured wood.

go figure

Keep the figure in sight when finishing your wood

Sand figured wood to about 180 grit. Sanding to finer grits won't bring out the figure any better, and may actually lessen its impact.

Here's a method that produces a beautiful figured surface. First, sand to 120 grit. Then, instead of further sanding, clean up the surface with a cabinet scraper as shown right. The scraper's edge, when properly dressed, shaves the wood down to a smooth, glassy surface without tear-out. (We follow this procedure on figured wood and burls in the WOOD® magazine shop.)

When you must stain figured wood, rely on dye stains. While pigment stains can highlight figure, they also can obscure it if applied too thickly. Dye stains accentuate the figure more effectively than pigmented stains, no matter how dark the stain color. Gel stains usually mask the figure.

A clear, film-forming finish, such as varnish or lacquer, enhances the depth of a figured surface. This can give it a more dramatic appearance.


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