Prepping Stock with Hand Tools

Hand plan of wood stock

Even in a shop full of power tools, preparing stock using hand tools proves a valuable skill. For a workpiece too small to run through the planer or jointer, hand tools can get the job done. All you need is a solid workbench, a few common hand planes, a saw, and a shooting board or shop-made bench hook. With these simple tools, you can true up a workpiece in no time. This process takes some practice, so hone your skills on scrap woods easy to plane, such as walnut, mahogany, clear pine, or poplar, before tackling woods with wild grain, such as maple. 

Rough it, then flatten one face

Start by cutting your workpiece about 18 " oversize in width and length [Photo A, below, left]. You’ll trim to final dimensions as you plane the piece later.

Cutting the cleat to length.
Cut the piece to length guiding the saw on a shooting board or bench hook. The end of the cleat keeps the saw square and aligned with the cutline, which means less work when shooting the ends later.

Check the rough-cut workpiece for cup or twist by placing it on a flat surface and looking for gaps [Photo B, below, left]. Contact points indicate high spots on the face where material needs to be removed. Mark the general location of the high spots on the bottom face to provide a visual guide when shaving them down with a plane. 

Board doesn't lie flat.
This slightly twisted workpiece rocks on diagonal corners. A cupped board will show a gap in the center or rock on a high point somewhere between the ends of the board.

Before you begin planing, make note of the grain direction along the edge of the board. Orient the workpiece so the grain runs “uphill” with regard to the direction of the plane to eliminate tear-out that can occur when planing into the grain. 

Secure the workpiece, marked side up, using bench dogs that act as a planing stop [Photo C, below, left]. For narrow pieces, a thin strip of wood between the workpiece and the dogs provides more bearing surface. Or clamp the workpiece using a tail vise.  

Sanding in one direction.

Using a sharp hand plane, begin paring down the high spots. A no. 3 or no. 4 smoothing plane proves ideal for this job. Its smaller size makes it easy to concentrate short strokes in just the high areas. Check your progress periodically with a straightedge or by sighting along the corner of the plane’s sole [Photo D, below]. 

Checking for high spots.
Tilt the plane on its edge to use the sole as a straightedge. Sight underneath to look for gaps, mark the high spots, and keep working on those spots.

When the face nears flatness, switch to a hand plane with a longer body, such as a no. 5 jack plane. The longer sole contacts more of the board’s surface, acting like the bed of a power jointer to ensure a flat surface. 

As you make overlapping strokes with the grain, working your way across the width of the board, you’ll eventually see the shavings becoming longer and wider until you create full-width shavings the entire length of the board. At this point, you have flattened the face of the workpiece. Mark this face [Photo E, below] to identify it as the reference surface for squaring the edges and planing the opposite face smooth, parallel, and to final thickness.

Marking board to indicate it's flat.
Make a mark on the face near one edge to help you remember that this surface is now flat.

Square up one edge

Using thumb as a fence when planing an edge.
Use your fingers as a fence. With the thumb of your leading hand on the top of the toe of the plane, your index finger acts as a guide when planing an edge.

To smooth and square the edge to the reference face, choose a no. 5 or longer plane. Make a couple of passes with the plane until you generate a full-width shaving down the entire edge, using your hand to keep the plane square to the reference face [Photo F, above, left]. Periodically check for square [Photo G, below, left]. Make additional passes if needed, checking your progress, and either tilt the plane or cant the blade to compensate for any error. As before, mark this edge [Photo H, following]. 

Square shows edge is tilted.
Tilting the plane created an edge out of square to the original reference face. Compensate by tilting the plane to remove the high edge, working your way down.

Mark the squared edge adjacent to the face mark.

Parallel edges at final width

Next, plane the opposite edge parallel as you trim the workpiece to final width. Start by marking the width with a line down the reference face [Photo I, below, left].

Use a combination square or marking gauge to strike the final width.

Planing this edge follows the same process as squaring up the first edge, with one notable exception: Keep your eye on the layout line and make passes parallel to it. If you start to see a taper, concentrate more of the planing on the wider portion, making a longer stroke with each pass until the edge becomes parallel to the layout line.

As before, check your progress with a square, making sure you reference off of the original flat face. Work your way down until the plane just splits the line.

Let’s face it

With one face flat and two edges square to it, plane the remaining face parallel to the first and bring the workpiece to uniform thickness. Mark the final thickness along both edges and both ends [Photo J, below].

A wheel marking gauge leaves a crisp, scribed line.

For this task, start with a no. 5 plane. Depending on the amount of material to be removed, you may want to set the plane to take a thicker shaving. As you did on the reference face, check for high spots and flatten them first, being mindful of the grain direction. Gradually take longer strokes, eventually working across the width of the board. Watch the scribed lines and adjust accordingly to keep the face parallel to them. 

For the last few passes, switch to a no. 3 or no. 4 smoothing plane set for a thin shaving. Make overlapping strokes with the grain to create a glass-smooth surface. Take this opportunity to also dress the other surfaces with the smoother if needed.

The means to the ends

With the faces and edges flat and square, it’s time to square  up the ends. As when cutting the board to rough length, a shooting board makes this job simple and precise. If you don’t have a shooting board, a bench hook works just as well if the cleat is square to the edge where the plane will be used. The cleat of the shooting board holds the workpiece square to the sole of the handplane as it shaves the end grain [Photo K, below]. With a sharp hand plane, it doesn’t take long to square up the ends and leave a smooth finish.

A shooting board guarantees clean, square cuts along the end grain.

Squaring up a workpiece using hand tools can be quite a rewarding experience—it just takes a little practice. And it eliminates the noise and dust that power tools generate.

SKILL BUILDER

Your bench gives you an edge

To help ensure a square edge, use your bench as a planing aid. This works well for a workpiece too long for a shooting board or bench hook.

With the reference face down, place a 14 " spacer under the workpiece. Press the end of the workpiece against bench dogs. With your plane lying on its side on the benchtop, trim the edge square. 

Elevated workpiece.

Hand plan of wood stock
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