Alburnam's Archive

Ó 2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd


Staining and dyeing are methods of changing the color of wood.  The distinction is that a stain is a pigment carried in a vehicle and binder that are deposited on the surface of the wood of just into the fibers.  A dye is a solution that changes the color of the wood rather deeply into the fibers.  Dyes can have fine pigments to provide the color, the only difference is that the dyes have finer pigments than stains.  Dyes can also be chemicals that react to the wood and that reaction changes the color of the wood.  Both can be permanent or fugitive.  Permanent colors will not fade while fugitive colors will fade for exposure to the atmosphere or sunlight or for other reasons.  Traditional stains are made form finely ground earth pigments such as raw sienna, raw umber and ocher as well as chemical compounds such as red lead, ferric ferrocyanide and zinc oxide.  Dyes are mostly chemicals that change the color of the wood such as alkanet root, logwood and ammonia.  Dyes can also be very finely ground pigments with a binder, the line between stain and dye becomes obscure.  What ever you call them, they change the color of the wood.

Wood takes stains and dyes differently.  Even one species of wood will take stains depending upon the cut, how the tree grew and the relative density of the wood.  Certain woods like pine, poplar and aspen do not take stains well because of the pitch or sap contained in the wood.  Woods that will not take a stain well can be stained by using a pigmented surface stain such as varnish or shellac that apply the color to the surface of the wood in a translucent film, a glazing stain.  By applying thin tinted coats, the desired color can be achieved.  Do not try to get the final color with one coat, it is better to have several thin coats than one thick coat.

My favorite method of staining is an oil based stain.  A mixture of linseed oil and turpentine in equal parts is a standard oil base.  The oil is the vehicle and binder for the powdered pigments that are the materials that impart color.  The turpentine thins and causes the linseed oil to be driven further into the wood, it carries the oil deep within the wood fibers.  The pigments must be finely ground, the finer the grind the better the penetration and more uniform the color.  The method I use to control the staining process is to first completely coat all surfaces being stained with just the oil /  turpentine mixture without any pigment.  While it is still wet, I dip the lint free cloth that I applied the oil with into the pigment and start rubbing it into the surface of the wood.  Move the pigment around until it covers the wood.  Add more pigment by dipping and apply until the desired color is achieved.  Use a circular motion to first apply and evenly distribute the pigment over the wood and into the pores.  Then your final motion should be in the direction of the grain and the pigment smoothed out until it is even.  I then wipe off all excess oil and pigment and smooth out any streaks until the staining is uniform.  If the color is not dark enough another coat can be applied after the stain has had 24 hours to dry.  By putting the oil on first and the pigment after will give you better control of how the stain is absorbed, especially on end grain which usually takes up too much stain and always turn darker.  The oil on the end grain of the wood will allow for a lighter stain to be applied to the end grain for better control.

There is a problem commonly encountered when staining called bleeding or leaking.  Certain open ring porous woods such as oak, chestnut, elm and ash will bleed back the stain after the excess is wiped out.  This can occur immediately after staining or hours later.  The oil goes into the pores and causes the wood fibers within the pores to swell up, decreasing the size of the pores and squeezing the oil and stain back out the pores forming small balls of stain that can dry and harden on the surface.  When staining woods like these and others it is always a good idea to go back and check the staining several times after you have applied the stain and wipe off any that may have bled out.

All woods turn color with age, either yellow or red.  Walnut will lighten with age.  Some exotic woods like purpleheart will turn from a rich purple color to a dull brown.  Osage orange turns from bright yellow or orange to a rich brown color.  When attempting to match an old color on a new piece, examine the color and determine whither it is a red base or yellow base.  Then do your staining with two colors either the red or the yellow and allow to dry.  Then apply the final staining color over the first.  This two step process will produce a richer color than just a one step staining process.  When I stain ash or maple, I always put on a yellow ocher and allow it to dry.  I lightly sand the stain and give it a light coat of burnt umber and allow it to dry.  The second coat of stain will take differently from the first.  The first is staining the wood and the second coat is staining the wood that already has a dry coat of stain.

For woods that do not take stain well such as poplar and pine a thicker surface stain can be made with spar varnish and pigment.  I usually mix spar varnish with linseed oil / turpentine and add the pigment to make the stain.  You will need to experiment as to how much pigment to add to the mixture.  You can also use the dip method to add the pigment as needed.  If you mix the pigment into the varnish / oil / turpentine solution you will need to constantly stir the mixture to keep the pigments in suspension.  They tend to settle out.  When you wipe this stain on, it must be smooth with no streaks left by the rag.  The excess will not be wiped off but is left on the surface to dry.  After 24 hours you will be able to lightly sand the varnish stain and apply a second coat if necessary otherwise the final finish can be applied.  Do not sand through the stain to the wood.

Water based stains are as the name implies stains whose vehicle is water with pigments and a binder of some sort.  One type of binder, the material that fixes the stain to the wood is Gum Arabic.  Any water soluble gum can be used.  Egg whites made into glair is an excellent binder.  Egg whites are separated and whipped up until they form a foam like material.  This is placed in a sieve over a bowl and allowed to stand over night.  The clear liquid collected in the bowl is called glair. This can be mixed with pigment and thinned with water.  Gum Arabic is covered with water and allowed to dissolve.  You may need to strain these mixtures to insure that any large pieces of foreign material are removed.  You need enough pigment to bring the stain to the desired intensity.  You need enough binder to fix the pigments to the wood and enough water to thin the mixture enough that it can be applied to the surfaces.  Too much binder will cause a shine to happen as the stain dries.  Too little binder and the pigment will not be bound to the wood and will rub off.  Water based stains will raise the grain of the wood, so it will require sanding after the staining.  If stain is sanded off, it can be carefully re-stained to match.  While gum Arabic can be re-solved if it comes in contact with water the final finish usually protects these stains.  Stain made with glair are waterproof and quite durable but will last longer with a final finish over these stains.

Alcohol or spirit based stains have the three basic components: pigment, vehicle and binder.  The pigments are the same, the vehicle is alcohol and the binder is shellac, copal or other gums and resins that are soluble with alcohol.  These like oil based stains do not raise the grain like water based stains.  Again the amount of binder is critical, too little and the pigments will not be properly fixed and too much and the stain is shiny.

Sometimes when applying a second coat, the first coat of stain will be softened and can be dissolved if too much is used or you rub the second coat too much.  Also the first stain coat must be completely dry before the second coat is applied.  One problem with commercial premixed stains is that the intensity of the stain is determined by the manufacturer.  You might be able to thin and lighten a stain but making one darker is difficult without buying another container of darker stain.

You can mix stain types to avoid lightening the first coat of stain.  You can start with an oil based stain, allow it to completely dry and use an alcohol based stain as a second coat.  You can start with a water based stain, allow it to dry completely, sand and stain with an oil based stain.  When you use this technique it can not be overemphasized that the first coat of stain must be completely dry before the next coat of different type stain is applied.

There is nothing like completing a fine hand built piece of furniture and then applying a stain that you also made, it makes your work more personal and unique.  You can get colors that are your own, your signature, specific to you.

When applying stain, use a circular motion to deposit the pigments into the stain evenly over the entire surface.  Then wipe off the excess stain with a straight motion in line with the grain of the wood.  Wipe off in the direction of the grain.  If the grain is wavy or curved, follow the waves and curves so that any streaking will not show.  Smooth the stain as you are wiping it off to make it uniform with out streaks or over laps.  If you have wood such as walnut with a noticeable difference between heartwood and sapwood, you will want to spot stain.  In other words you want to stain the lighter parts of the wood darker than you stain the darker parts of the wood.  By using an oil based stain, the oil applied first without pigment will bring the wood to a uniform color as it will appear when it is finished.  Then you can dip into the pigment and apply it to just the areas required.

Remember certain woods will change color by oxidation all on their own.  Walnut will lighten with age and can be stained.  Cherry on the other hand will darken with age and there is nothing you can do to stop it.  Varnish will slow the oxidation down but eventually it will turn dark and therefore I always recommend that people do not stain cherry but let it darken on its own.  I have seen cherry stained dark and after a period of time looked black, you could not see any grain and it could have been made of pine painted black.  See The Matter of Cherry.  Remember most all woods will turn either red or yellow with age.

Woods, which have great depth and luster such as curly maple, cherry and some birches, need to have a deep penetrating stain to bring out the depth of the wood.  Thin light stain that is allowed to soak into the surface will make the wood grain stand out.  Thick surface stains will not bring out as much of the natural beauty of the nature of wood.  Stains are used to enhance the appearance of wood as well as hide the natural variations in grain and color.  This is not the place for short cuts, study the wood and determine the best method to produce the final results that you want.  By using this controllable method of staining that I have delineated you will be able to get those results and have projects of which you will be proud.

When staining woods with inlays and you do not want the stain to alter the color of the inlayed material, a light coat of bleached clear shellac can be applied to the inlay to prevent the stain from altering the color of the inlay material, which is usually a lighter color.

This has concentrated mainly upon changing the color by using pigments and binders; another method of changing the color of the wood is by chemicals.  These methods require more attention to detail, experience and precautions that preclude it from being included within this discussion.  See Chemical Staining and Historic Pigments & Dyes.

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Making and Using a Scratch Stock

Power routers are handy tools, but require a substantial investment for all the accessories necessary to accomplish what can be done with this simple tool, some carbide bits equipped with guide bearings can cost as much as a cheap router.  Also, the power router requires considerable time in setup and can be difficult to use, and there are severe limitations to the kinds of profiles (moldings) that a router can make.  When making traditional reproductions of antique furniture or proper restorations there just are not the correct router bits to cut all of the moldings needed.  A scratch stock is a simple tool that can be made for next to nothing, and provides the option to create unique moldings or faithful reproductions of existing moldings.   This versatile tool can be used to easily create even the most complicated and intricate moldings.  Another advantage is that the molding can be cut or scraped on wood that is highly figured, e.g. birds-eye or tiger striped wood, and unlike routers and molding planes, this tool can be used against the grain as well.  With the scratch stock you only need to be careful that the fence remains in contact with the edge of the wood and that the cutter (scraper) is properly sharpened and correctly positioned.

Sharpening and shaping of the cutter is simple and can be done with a grinder or just a file.  The cutter is sharpened straight across without a bevel, dressed in the same way as a scraper blade being readied for burnishing.  The difference is that the scratch stock blade does not receive a burr, the cutting action coming from a sharp 90-degree edge formed on both sides of the tip, scratching away the wood as it is worked in a push and pull fashion. Unless the cutter becomes very dull with rounded edges at the tip, the scratch stock seldom needs attention and is capable of producing many feet of molding/detail without re-sharpening.  To re-sharpen the cutter, it is removed from the scratch stock and the flat sides are made perfectly flat on a sharpening stone or with a file.  Sandpaper held on a flat surface, such as a table saw casting, and also works well.  The edge is dressed either with a stone or better yet, a file.  To ensure that the blade is in the correct position with respect to existing molding or detail, the scratch stock is placed over the molding and held in place.  The cutter (which has been shaped in a like manner) is then inserted into the scratch stock and positioned over the detail so that no light passes between the molding or detail and the scratch stock.  The screws or bolts are tightened to secure the cutter, and the molding can then be made   Trying to shape a plane blade which is at an angle is very difficult.  Grinding a power router bit can be difficult in tool steel and nearly impossible with carbide.  The cutter on a scratch stock is perpendicular to the wood and therefore easier to form and sharpen to the desired profile or contour.

The usefulness of this versatile tool cannot be adequately realized without making and using one.  Once you make one, you will make another and maybe another.  It is handy to have at least one large and one small.  As easy as this tool is to make, you can have half a dozen.  For instance I use a small 3/16” bead that I filed into the edge.  A bead relieves tension on a board and helps prevent warping.  I keep this one set up just for that purpose.  After using the scratch stock for a while you will begin to see how truly amazing this tool is, and you’ll wonder how you got along without it before.  A scratch stock can make grooves or dadoes for joinery, fitted with a finely serrated cutter it can be used as a toothing or keying cutter to score surfaces prior to gluing.  A flat-bottomed cutter can be used to smooth groundwork for inlays, veneer repair or hinge mortises.  Moldings can also be repaired in situ by replacing the damaged wood and then with a carefully matched scratch stock cutter re-cut into the new wood.  With the cutter set at an angle showing the corner where the leg meets the fence, the scratch stock can be used to trim new veneer or even to trim and finish plastic laminates.  Use caution when trimming laminates as they can heavily score the fence and damage the tool.  If you do a lot of laminate work, face the fence with a hard material.

 One advantage that a scratch stock shares with a power router and has over a molding plane is the ability to do moldings that stop and or start within the edges of a board.  In other words, the molding or detail does not run all the way to the end of the board.  This can be done simply by stopping the cutting at the desired place or clamping a board or just a clamp and running the scratch stock up to the stop.  When the molding is complete, the stops are removed and the ends of the molding finished as appropriate.  One method of finishing is to rock the scratch stock to produce a tapered or feathered ending of the molding.  This is easier to do if you work toward the finish molding by tipping or rocking the scratch stock as you begin to cut toward the molding.  If you are making a large molding it might be easier to remove excess wood with a hand plane to make less work.  Let your imagination go and you will discover new uses for the scratch stock.  For instance an acquaintance of mine asked how he could make the moldings on the fore stock of fine hand made flintlock rifles without having to hand carve them.  The use of power tools or molding planes was out of the question.  I built him a special scratch stock with a cylindrical fence that rides within the ramrod channel.  With this he was allowed to easily make the fine moldings that are frequently found on both sides of the ramrod channel on original Pennsylvania-Kentucky firearms.  By merely reversing the scratch stock in the ramrod channel, identical moldings can easily be cut even in the most curly tiger striped maple without chipping out the difficult ever changing grain in this as well as other woods difficult or impossible to cut with routers, hand planes or other conventional tools.  The scratch stock can be used on cross grain or end grain but requires special attention on the initial cut to prevent chipping.  Scoring the wood prior to cutting cross grain will prevent the chipping from occurring.  Try it, you’ll like it!

Scratch stock with two fences

Another variation is to have a scratch stock with two adjustable fences that are placed on both sides of the work being molded.  This prevents the scratch stock from twisting and damaging the molding as it is being made.  This is useful when the molding is not near the edge of the work.  Another variation is the molding box.  This is an open topped box into which a tapered or turned leg is secured, usually by a threaded screw at one end of the box.  The box has parallel sides and is long enough to hold the tapered pieces.  The tapered item being molded is secured in the center of the box, the top being level with the top of the box.  This allows tapered stuff to be molded that could not be done with a normal scratch stock.  A special scratch stock with two fixed fences, one on each side of the molding box and keeps the cutter in one place relative to the sides of the molding box and keeps the cutter in one place relative to the sides and top of the molding box and prevents drifting during the cutting operation.  The scratch stock is then passed back and forth until the area is molded.  It can then be readjusted to mold another side or segment acting as an index to repeat moldings on different facets of turned or tapered pieces.Scratch Stock

Scratch Stock

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Sawing and Other Shop Appliances

This is a discussion of devices, appliances, contraptions and auxiliary instruments to use in conjunction with other shop tools.  Most of these are constructed of wood and can easily be made in the workshop to your own specifications.

                The first and most common appliance used in the woodworking shop is the Bench Hook #1.  This simple tool is almost indispensable, I have worn out several in my career.  A flat board, about 8 inches wide and 12 inches long is selected.  The board needs to be rectangular with absolutely square ends.  I have made them from pine, poplar, alder, oak and maple and prefer the ones made from softer woods.  A cleat is glued to one side on one end and another is glued to the other side at the opposite end.  I also secure them with dowels to take the shearing force exerted against the bench hook.  One cleat is over the front edge of the workbench and the work is placed against the other cleat.  As you work into the piece held by the bench hook, the front cleat holds the bench hook in one place and the back cleat holds the work.  If made accurately the side of the bench hook can be used for crosscutting with a handsaw and the square sides will produce a square cut.  Some people have the cleat set back from the side edge and others have square or miter cuts made in the cleats and used as a miter-sawing box.  I have seen other hooks that are much narrower and used in pairs.  The bench hook is also reversible, when one side gets worn, you have a clean fresh surface on the other side.

                Miter Block #2 is a variant of the bench hook with the back cleat cut with saw kerfs to form angles for cutting small miters.  Unlike a miter box there is only one saw guide and care must be taken to make sure that your saw is cutting properly.  Both 45° kerfs and one 90° kerf are made to cut any miter or square cut.  You must accurately measure, layout and produce this tool to insure that your subsequent cuts will be accurate.

The Miter Box #3 is a wooden device to aid and assist in cutting 45° miters as well as 90° cuts.  There are two basic types of miter boxes, the American version, which we are all familiar, a U-shaped channel with saw kerfs cut in both upright sides of the box.  The bottom of the box holds everything together and the sides need to be properly secured to the bottom with glue and dowels as most of the structure of the wood is cut away in the kerfs.  The upright sides are usually attached to the sides of the bottom and one side is sometimes wider than the other and hangs down below the bottom and acts as a cleat similar to the bench hook to hold the miter box in place as it is being used.  Reinforcing cross members may be added to the upright sidepieces, spanning the opening and securing the sidepieces together on the top of the box.  The second type, less common is the European or French Mitre Box, #4.  Similar in construction to an American miter box, there are not any kerfs in this miter box.  The bottom board is usually longer and extends beyond the sides on one end or the other or in some cases both.  One end of the sideboards is cut at exactly 90° and the other end is cut off at an angle of 45° .  The angle cut is not square down as with an American miter box but at a 45° angle from the top of the side rails down at an angle to the bottom.  These angles on both upright side rails provide a place for the saw to run when held flat against the bearing surfaces formed by the angle.  There is usually not a bottom cleat as the box needs to be reversible to be able to cut from both sides.  The box is secured to the bench with a clamp or holdfast.  A reinforcing cross member is placed on the top of the two uprights to hold the sides in place.  This is an extremely useful miter box when mitering wide moldings such as crown moldings and wide baseboards.  While it is difficult to get use to using, the saw just lays on the angled sides, it is intended for use with a regular hand saw unlike the American Miter Box that uses a backed saw to do the cutting.  A backed saw cannot be used on the European version.  The European version, seems to last longer than the American Version and can be refurbished by re-facing the surfaces upon which the saw blade rides.

Select a saw to use on these various appliances that does not have very much set to the teeth.  Excess set will prematurely wear out these devices by enlarging the saw kerfs and rendering the device useless.  When the kerfs become sloppy it is time to replace the appliance.  Wax the kerf pure beeswax to help lubricate the cutting process.  If you can't get wax into the kerf, wax the blade, which will come off in the kerf and keep it operating smoothly.  Gently hold the saw but do not force the cut.  Forcing the cut will cause the blade to follow unruly grain and pull the blade into the kerf damaging the box.  Let the saw do the work, the miter box is there to gently guide the saw blade and it should be a smooth operation without binding.

                Round Stock Cradle #5 is a handy device when you are working on large dowels or turned pieces.  It is just a long block of wood with a deep V cut in the top edge but not all the way through.  The two 45° angles forming each side of the V cut provides a rest for holding and working round material.  It is also handy for holding square stock when working the edges such as chamfering.  Some have stop blocks set into one end.  Mine is made of one-piece poplar with no stop.  You can make them from three pieces of wood and glue them together to form the V.  The flat bottom piece holds the two 45° angled pieces in place, they should meet in the middle and form a sharp inside edge.  The bottom can have a small space or groove for fine sawdust to settle and not effect anything in the cradle.   If I am planing or working along the length, I can use a bench dog to hold both the work and the cradle.  It can also be used to stabilize round stock while you are drill and you will find many other uses for this handy implement.

Another handy sawing device is a Jack Board #6.  This is a simple tool made of two pieces of hardwood about 4 to 5 inches wide, 12 inches long and ¾” thick joined at two of the narrow ends with tight through dovetails forming a 90° angle.  On one narrow end a V notch is cut back 5 or 6 inches forming a fork.  This jack board is clamped to the workbench and used for handwork with a coping, marquetry or jeweler’s saw.  By placing the work against the board, the cutting can be done in the V notch and depending upon which side the work is on, it can be cut on the push or pull stroke, which ever is more comfortable to use.  The jack board can be used vertically or horizontally.

                A Carving Stand or Bench #7 extension is a simple tool that can make carving easier by raising it up above the workbench for ease of work.  The size varies but two hardwood boards about 12 to 15 inches long and about 6 inches wide and 1 inch or thicker are joined together using a dado, mortise and tenon or sliding dovetail to form a T shape with one board joined to the center of the other.  A tight joint is required and use plenty of glue in the joint.  The lower stem of the T is secured in a bench vise or with a holdfast to the front of the bench; this stem can actually be longer if necessary.  This gives you a platform that carving or other small detail work can be elevated above the workbench and the stuff being worked is clamped to the top.  This allows you to work around the carving or other work and it can quickly be turned around to work on all sides.  In this raised position it is easier to get around the work especially when carving or other intricate work.

                The Clamp Extension #8 is a tool I discovered quite by accident.  While looking through a book there was a picture of a model of an early nineteenth century shop.  These models were used to teach young European nobility of the common trades.  Hanging on the wall of the model, which was done in intricate detail, were a pair of these objects and I could not at first figure out what they were.  After some consideration, it came to me what they were used for.  These are simple, yet very handy gadgets.  Similar to a bench hook, which was my first clue, these boards of strong, stout material such as maple or beech.  Instead of cleats, you can glue these up, but I prefer to make them from solid stock, there is a notch cut so one end has a hook on the end and the rest of that side is flat.  On the opposite side is a series of notches at the other end, an inch or two wide with a square cut on the end of the notch.  These clamp extensions are placed over the work with the hook capturing one edge of the item being clamped.  A regular clamp is used from the notch to the other opposite edge of the item being clamped.  This allows you to use short clamps to clamp long objects.  The flat side of the extension on the hook side is a good guide to make sure your clamping is flat.  I always coat this flat side with a good covering of beeswax to prevent any glue from sticking to the clamp extensions.  You can make these in various sizes and I always make them up in pairs.  This allows you to use you smaller handier and more commonly used clamps for clamping larger objects than the capacity of the clamp.  Long clamps are nice to have, but you do not use them that much and these extensions do the same as a large clamp without the investment.

                Go Bars #9 are another handy shop device that is easy to make and simple to use.  Made of a springy straight-grained wood such as hickory, ash or Osage orange, these thin straight sticks are long enough to reach from the ceiling to the workbench plus a few inches.  These are used to clamp pieces down to the workbench.  Especially useful for large objects that cannot be clamped using conventional clamps.  The work is glued and the go bars are placed from the ceiling to the work and bowed to create a downward pressure.  The point on the ceiling should be directly over the point being clamped to insure greatest pressure and to prevent sliding.  If necessary, extra blocks can be used to spread out the pressure on the work and prevent marring.  Adding additional blocks will cause the go bars to exert greater pressure on the work.  You will have to measure for your particular location of where you will be using these and make them to length accordingly.  The thicker the go bar the more pressure it will apply during use.  Ash needs to be thicker than hickory to exert the same pressure, you will have to do some experimenting.  A wooden plate attached to the ceiling above the bench can provide a bearing surface for the go bars.  Notches cut at intervals along the plate prevent the top of the go bars from slipping when the go bars are bowed when used.  The ends of the go bars can be pointed but square cut ends work as well.

                These appliances, devices, contraptions, gadgets and tools will aid and assist you in you pursuit of the love of woodworking.  They will make your work easier and more enjoyable.  Anything you can do that will make your endeavors more convenient and rewarding.  See Saw Sharpening for information about keeping your saws sharp.

Sawing Appliances

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Hand Planing Appliances

                The hand plane has been a fundamental and essential tool of the craftsman since Roman times.  The plane is used to smooth, shape and mold wood into the desired product of the original craftsman.  Hand planes are versatile tools and are used for a variety of purposes.  Since man first put a sharp blade in a block of wood, they have also made appliances, devices and contraptions to assist with hand planing. 

                The most common device developed for hand planing is the shooting board, #1.  While a common bench hook will do about the same thing, the shooting board is made to 'shoot' or plane a square edge on a flat board with a hand plane.  The device is a long board, I make mine from maple to take the wear, with a raised step where the wood is placed and a stop on the end to keep the wood in place.  The length of the board should be long enough to handle the lengths of boards you commonly use.  The width should be 8 inches or so and the raised step should be half that wide.  The plane runs on the flat lower section on its side and the blade facing the step.  The raised step should be enough to place the wood to be planed, near the center of the plane blade.  Before you attach the step to the board, slightly chamfer the bottom edge were they meet.  This provides a space for any shavings to go so they don't build up in the corner, effecting the action of the plane.  At one end of the raised step is a stop at 90° to the length of the board.  This must be perfectly square on the side that stops the board, the backside is tapered and this stop is held in a tapered dado cut into the step.  This allows the stop to be adjusted as it is worn away or chipped during planing.  Some boards also have a cleat on the bottom side that will catch the edge of the bench, holding the shooting board in place as you are planing the square edge on the board.  When you make your board determine which direction you feel comfortable working and construct your board accordingly, either left or right handed.  I wax my boards with beeswax to make the plane slide smoothly,  It is important that the plane iron is set into the plane square to produce a square cut on the shooting board.  Place the board on the upper step against the stop and place the plane on its side on the lower step.  The squareness of the plane and shooting board will produce boards with square edges.  Slide the plane against the flat lower step and the blade will gradually straighten and square the board.  The edge of the board should hang over the edge of the upper step as the initial cuts are made.  As you are finishing up, move the board until it is just proud of the step and gently plane until the board is perfectly straight and smooth.  If you are squaring off end grain, you may want to place a piece of scrap between the work and the stop.  This will help prevent splitting.  You can do this without a scrap of sacrificial wood if you carefully plane the end grain and have it properly supported by the stop.  End grain requires that the plane iron be set for a very fine cut.

                Wedges and shims can be put under the board you are planing in order to plane angles other than 90°.  These wedges are placed in such a position to hold the board at an angle and it is held against the stop and the angled joint is easily planed.  This is handy for coopering or barrel work.  A slight wedge can also be used to angle the work along the length of the shooting board.  This ramping is done to allow the entire surface of the plane to be used to engage the work and places the work at a slight skew to the plane blade that will produce a finer cut.

                Another variation of the shooting board is the miter shooting board, #2.  Instead of a square stop at one end there is an angled stop block placed in the center of the top step.  These do not need to be as long as regular shooting boards because you will always be planing end grain of miter cuts.  The angled block is a square block set at 45° to the shelf with a miter on both the left and right sides.  The miter shooting board is used to trim up and fit miters that have been previously cut at the miter box.  You must hold the work securely against the angled blocks as the wood tends to climb as you are doing the planing.  Your plane should be set fine to make thin delicate cuts.  Make sure you support the tip of the miter against the angled block to prevent the wood from splitting or chipping.  You might find it useful to make quick strokes with the hand plane.  This prevents chatter that can ruin the joint.  These fast movements of the plane past the end grain produce smooth clean cuts.

                Another unusual variant is the Mules Ear shooting board, #3.  This is also used for miters but at a different angle and approach.  Like the miter shooting board the stop is in the center of the top step, but it is a square stop.  The difference is that the top step is angled down and away from the plane at 45°.  The mitered work is held against the stop and down to the step, exposing the mitered end to the plane at the proper angle.  This contraption is very handy for truing up very wide miter cuts.  Again, using fast strokes will produce the smoothest results.

                Many of these boards have transverse cleats on their bottoms to catch over one edge of the workbench.  Others have cleats parallel to their length and these are secured in the bench vice.  You do not need to put cleats on if you don't want to, it is up to you, and most can be secured with a clamp or holdfast or simply against a bench dog.  The construction of these appliances should be accurate, take care during layout and manufacture to insure angles are correct as any variations will show up on your subsequent work.  Make them from a smooth hardwood, maple or beech work well.  The area on the lower shelf where the plane will ride needs to be flat and smooth to make the plane glide readily and the work easier.  The stops need to be at the proper angles for the particular application.  Chamfer all edges as your hands will be moving around and sharp edges on hardwoods can give you some nasty cuts.  Make these look good, they will be sitting or hanging around the shop, others will see them, be proud make a nice looking device, because people will ask you what these things are? 

                Miter Block or miter jack, miter vise, #4, is a more complicated contraption that is nonetheless very useful.  Requiring a threaded wooden bolt to operate one of the two jaws of the vise, this tool is also used for truing up miter joints and is capable of holding very complicated moldings such as crown moldings for fine end grain planing.  The framework of the miter block consists of lower rails with one fixed jaw at one end and a cross member at the other end through which the wooden threaded bolt passes.  The end of the bolt is captured in the moving jaw, which runs parallel on the rails and can be tightened against the fixed jaw.  The faces of the jaws are cut with at least one if not two sides cut at 45°.  These angles allow the molding to be clamped between the two jaws and a block plane is used to true off the end grain of the miter cut.  Thin sheets of veneer or sheets of cardboard are glued to the faces of the jaws to take the wear from the plane blade.  As these wear out, they are removed and replaced as necessary.

Miter Jack

Illustration from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001

                Sticking Board, #5, is much like a shooting board but is meant for longer pieces of thinner moldings.  The step is used as a backstop to keep the stick of molding straight.  An end stop at either end can be nothing more than a flat head wood screw set with just the top of the head exposed, into the lower step near either end.  This holds the end of the stick to be molded and the raised step holds the stick straight so it can be molded with a molding plane.  The sticking board is held straight by its strength and along the edge of the workbench with clamps, bench dogs or a holdfast.  With a stop at both ends you can plane in either direction depending upon the molding plane.

                Thin Planing Board, #6, is an appliance to hold very thin boards while they are being surfaced planed with a hand plane.  A wide flat board (stout not thin) with two or more slotted flat head wood screws set into one end of the board.  They are driven in until just the sharp edge of the head is protruding above the board.  The board is secured to the bench and the thin panel is placed on the board with its end grain towards the end and the screws.  The thin board is gently jammed into the screw heads, which holds the thin wood so it can be worked with a hand plane.  Always work toward the screws, reversing the thin panel if necessary.

                Winding Sticks, #7, is a handy tool for determining if a board has been planed flat or if a box has any twist or wind in its length.  They are two parallel pieces of stable wood, one placed on one end of a board or box and the other placed on the other end.  Any wind or twist will show up when sighting down both boards.  My winding sticks are made of mahogany on one stick I have placed two pieces of holly in notches on each end, on the other are two pieces of ebony set in notches on opposite ends.  This provides contrast between the two that is easier to view.  The winding sticks also have two dowels glued in one set and passing through holes on the second.  This keeps both sticks together and holds them straight.

Other Planing AppliancesWinding Sticks

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The Nature of Wood

                Wood is a complex organic material composed of cellulose fibers and lignin.  A complex hydrocarbon that forms the upper level of vascular plants of the Earth.  There are three basic types of trees: Gymnosperms, Angiosperms and Cycads.  Gymnosperms are the softwoods, conifers or exposed seed trees.  Angiosperms are the hardwoods, usually deciduous with seeds enclosed in an ovary such as a fruit or nut tree.  Cycads are more primitive trees such as the ginkgo and the palms.  The hardwood / softwood distinction becomes blurred when you consider that balsa is a hardwood and fir is a softwood, yet fir is much harder than balsa wood.  The broadleaf / needle distinction also has problems when you consider that holly is a broadleaf conifer.  The evergreen / deciduous distinction becomes a problem when you consider the larch, looses its needles every year and some tropical trees are in fact green year round.  The gymnosperms and angiosperms grow by adding wood to the outside of the tree, while the cycads add growth to the inside.  What I will be discussing here are angiosperms and gymnosperms as these are the major commercial woods utilized in woodworking.  Generally I will be talking about softwoods (gymnosperms) and hardwoods (angiosperms) and this has nothing to do with the hardness or softness of the wood.


                Wood is composed of cellulose a complex sugar and lignin is the polymer that glues it all together.  As wood is made as trees grow, it is added on in annual rings.  The cambium (lateral meristem) is where all growth occurs.  Some of these are distinct and others are almost indiscernible.  In the spring, when water is abundant, the growth of the tree is greater and the individual annual rings are wider this is springwood or early wood.  As the year progresses and water becomes less abundant, the individual rings are much narrower and denser this is summerwood or late wood.  Therefore every year has two growth rings one of springwood and one of summerwood.  In tropical areas where the supply of water is constant, rings become less distinct.  These annual rings will portray the availability of water to that particular tree in that particular tree.  Because there are variations of the annual precipitation world wide, these rings can provide valuable data when compared to one another when determining when these trees were growing.  Dendrochronology came about when the tree ring growth patterns from vigas in kivas were analyzed.  These ceiling beams were from a structure whose construction date was known and the connections made by the botanists and scientists gave us a window into the growth rings of trees and their growing dates to cover all known examples of extant wooden objects.  The narrowest growth rings occur between 1830 and 1870, the widest rings occur after 1900 and continue today.  This has been carried back to petrified wood, the growth rings set in stone indicating global weather conditions for tens of thousands of years.

                Cellulose is the very fiber of wood and lignin is the glue that holds it all together.  The cellulose (C6H10O5) forms in long fibers that are added in thin layers on the outside of the tree just under the bark at the cambium layer.  Together with lignin, a polymer related to cellulose that solidifies and binds the fibers together.  This is the only living part of the tree.  That layer is only living for a short while.  The wood on the inside of the tree is to support the tree and to provide moisture to the growing ends of the tree at the terminal buds on the ends of the branches.  Eventually the wood that supports the tree becomes merely the support of the rest of the tree, is no longer involved in sap transportation and is in effect dead, the heart wood.  The sap wood, the wood surrounding the heart wood is actively involved in the movement of moisture and nutrients from the roots where the water is taken up to the green leaves (needles) where the food for the tree is produced as an interaction between the chemical chlorophyll and sunlight.  In the process, trees use carbon dioxide and in return produce oxygen.  Trees and other vascular plants, the largest biomass on earth produce most of the oxygen that the earth has.  In other words we cannot live without trees.

                All trees consist of three parts.  The roots are where the water and nutrients are absorbed and where the tree is attached to the earth.  The trunk, which connects the roots to the crown, provides the support and structure of the tree and the wood that we use.  The crown of the tree where the thousands of leaves and needles of the tree produces the food on which the tree grows and thrives.  The nutrients and water flow up specialized cells with one-way valves called the xylem.  These cells allow the water to flow up by a vacuum created by the evaporation and transpiration of the water and the one way valves prevent the water and dissolved mineral nutrients from flowing back down, a sort of check valve.  The water also has a positive electrical charge causing cohesion that helps the water travel up the tree.  The food and fuel for the tree to grow is transmitted back down the tree from the leaves or needles in specialized cells called phloem where the tree stores in the roots and medullary rays within the tree itself


Illustration from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001

                As a woodworker, one wonders why these things are important.  You must be familiar with the characteristics of wood in order to understand how it is to be utilized the wood in the optimum manner.  For instance, fence poles should be placed in the ground upside down from how it grows so the natural capillary action of the wood does not suck up ground water.  The outside of the tree to the outside of the project, produces the most durable and lasting results.  Understanding wood on a molecular level allows you to know how wood will react to all situations.  You are familiar with the physical properties of different species of wood because you work with them everyday.  Know how the chemical constituents of wood contribute to the physical properties of the wood.  Be aware of the nature of wood on its most intimate level and you will be able to work that wood to better results.

                Wood is a natural material that is full of moisture.  As the tree is growing, water is an essential part of wood and this water is in the form of bound water, water within the cells of the wood and also contains free water within the fibers of the cell wall.  Wood can also contain free water, water absorbed after the wood has dried and this water is in the fibers of the wood not within the cells themselves.  After wood has been cut it must be seasoned to removed the bound water.  An atmosphere of temperature and humidity needs to be reduced from the high moisture content of green wood to a state of where the moisture is in equilibrium with the surrounding atmosphere.  The relative humidity and temperature will determine the Equilibrium Moisture Content of wood.  Wood does not start to dry until it reaches 30% moisture content, it is at this point that the free water has left and only bound water remains.  Wood is usually air-dried, that is the wood is exposed to the environment and allowed to adjust naturally to the surrounding humidity.  Wood can also be artificially seasoned or dried using a kiln to dry the wood to a particular E.M.C.  The idea is to get the wood to a point where it can be worked with relative ease.  Sometimes it is desirable to use green wood for certain applications. Large timbers are easier to work when they are green, most wood is cut when it is green. Some furniture such as chairs can be constructed from green wood to the advantage of the chair maker.  If the upright parts are made of green wood and the stretchers are made of dry wood, when they are assembled the mortises in the green uprights will shrink around the dry wood tenons of the stretcher and lock the chair together.  Because of the way that wood dries and shrinks the round green wood will become oval shaped as it dries.  Square green wood becomes a diamond shape as it dries.  Wood dries most tangential, slightly less radially and only appreciably longitudinally.  As wood dries the bound water becomes free water and then evaporates and adjusts to the surrounding environment.  This is called seasoning.  Most wood seasons or air-dries at the rate of one year drying per inch of thickness of the wood.  A 4 inch thick piece of wood will air dry in 4 years under nominal conditions.  Artificial seasoning can reduce the drying time to days instead of years.

                The structure of wood is composed of fibrils lined up to form the cell walls and the space within, the cell holds water.  These cells have specialized structures of one-way check valves that allows the water to capillary up the tree for storage.  These are the pores of the wood and are divided into two basic types: open ring porous and diffused ring porous.  All softwoods and some hard woods are diffused ring porous, where the rings are not obviously in one plane but are throughout the wood.  Hard woods such as maple, cherry and beech are diffused ring porous.  Open ring porous woods have these pores lined up along a distinctive plane and these are woods such as oak, ash and hickory.  The tree grows on the outside at the cambium just under the bark.  It forms layers around the tree forming the annual rings.  The sapwood is where the tree is actively storing and transporting fuel and water.  As the tree ages the sapwood turns to heartwood which is not longer active for storing and merely provides the support for the tree.  The minerals deposited in the heartwood start to oxidize, therefore the heartwood is usually much darker than the sapwood.  There are some exceptions such as ash and Englemann spruce, which show no visible difference between heart and sapwood.  Another universal structure are the medullary rays that radiate out from the center of the tree and go directly across the grain of the wood.  All wood contains these but they are most visible on white oak, sycamore and beech when cut on the quarter.  These structures are specialized cells for food storage within the wood.  The thickness of the cell walls determines the strength of the wood.  Because of the long cylinder shape of the cells they do not tend to shrink much from end to end along the grain.  The space within the cells collapse as the water leaves the wood after it is harvested and the wood will shrink across the grain.  When the cells have dried out, they tend to seal off and when they are worked the cells are opened back up again.  This can effect how the wood adjusts to the environment, so wood should be worked on all surfaces to make sure the wood will be stable.  This also effects how the wood will take a finish.

                Wood after it is harvested and as it is seasoned can develop problems that are considered defects.  As the wood seasons it can warp, bow, cup, crook, twist, crack, check, collapse, honeycomb, diamond and caseharden.  These are caused by the natural tendency of the wood and how it is seasoned or dried.  One interesting twist is the result of the Coriolis effect.  As trees grow on the spinning Earth the trees will also twist as a result of this effect.  It twists one way in the Northern Hemisphere and the opposite twist in the Southern Hemisphere.  Other growing conditions can cause the wood to have a different twist, but this is the general rule.  The magnetic pull of the Earth will also effect the tree as it is growing, in the northern hemisphere the center of the tree is more towards North and the wood on that side of the tree will have different properties.  The wood from the south side of ash trees growing in the Northern Hemisphere is springier than the wood on the north side of the tree.  Sugar bush, any tree that can be tapped for sugar such as birch and maple are tapped on the south side of the tree, there is more sap on the south side of trees.

Curved or cupped grain wood when it shrinks as it dries and seasons tends to straighten out, the curves in the annual rings always flatten.  Wood shrinks more tangentially rather than radially.  Square pieces will develop a diamond shape, circles will become ovals and slab cut boards from the edge of the tree will cup.  Wood moves, it is homogenous, it adjusts to the environment and there is no stopping it.  The challenge is to know what wood will do in advance, anticipate its movement, engineer and design for changes and don’t be surprised when it moves.

                Trees can also have other defects within the wood.  Spalding is a discoloration in the form of lines or areas that are stained.  Caused by mineral deposits, insect damage or fungal infection, the wood is usually weakened by spalding.  Some consider it a defect others consider it a premium, the effect can be striking.  The butt swell of a tree will produce a different kind of grain in the wood.  Sometimes it is staining like spalding, sometimes it is dense interlocking grain.  Burls are the trees reaction to some kind of damage and the tree attempts to heal by sending bud growth to the damaged area.  Crotches are the places on trees were two or more major branches form and are cut into lumber and veneer.  These crotches and burls are unstable in solid form and are more suitable for veneers where the tension and compression factors of the wood are minimized.  The wood becomes interlocked with tight circular eyes that produces beautiful swirling grain.  Pollarding is a gardening procedure that was used to cut off all of the long branches just above the top of the trunk.  This causes the wood to become interlocked as all of the growing energy is not going into large limbs but is contained and concentrated within the trunk.  This type of wood is very dense.  It can be done to any tree but certain trees such as the oaks are trees produce the best pollard wood.  See Historical Cabinet Woods.

                Wood is a natural material and its consistency will vary greatly even among the same species.  Even boards cut from the same log will have a different look and working characteristics.  A square piece of wood will look different if it is viewed as a vertical surface or on the horizontal.  The sides will look different than the front surface that is in direct view.  The visible nature and color of a piece of wood can change depending upon the angle from which it is viewed.  Round shapes of wood have less dramatic changes as the lighting and shading changes gradually.  But wood is natural, it will look and act like it is suppose to, if what is desired is something that is uniform, consistent, unchanging, even and perfectly matching, choose something besides wood or a good coat of paint.  For a discussion on some different aspects of wood, see Unusual Characteristics of Wood.  More information on the nature of wood is covered in Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001.

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