One of the most common questions I am asked is how I flatten the large pieces of wood I often use in my work. This table top, for example, is approximately 45 inches wide and 96 inches long.
Machinery is Not the Answer
Perhaps one of the quickest ways to surface a board is to feed it through a thickness planer which removes material from the top. The bottom of the board rests on the bed and the cutterhead above removes material until the board is of an even thickness. However, the thickness planer is ineffective at making material flat unless the bottom is already flat.
When flat is the objective, the jointer is the answer. This machine specializes in making one face flat, and one adjacent edge straight, flat and square to the face. The board is slid across the flat tables and over the cutterhead between them. Although you can establish four flat surfaces with a jointer, they likely will not be parallel. The jointer and thickness planer need to work as a team to produce flat material that is even in thickness.
Another drawback of machinery is capacity. To thickness the top of Relationship Study, I would have needed machinery with 48″ of capacity. Most woodworkers have never seen a thickness planer that size, and I’m not even sure that a jointer that size even exists. Machines also require the material to be brought to them and handling large pieces of wood gets tiresome quickly.
Hand-Held Tools Have No Limits
Unlike the jointer and thickness planer, hand-held surfacing tools have no capacity limits (but to require more skill and stamina).
When I am faced with a lot of material that needs to be removed, especially over a large area, I start with my power planer. This one is made for large-scale work and is capable of taking a cut wider than many small-shop jointers. It has a long sole which helps ensure that it leaves a flat surface.
After having done the preliminary flattening with the power planer, I use hand planes to refine the surface, removing any ridges or tearout. I start with a long plane equipped with a convex blade which allows me to work fairly quickly, then I progress to a shorter plane with a straighter blade for a more even surface.
To get the second face parallel, if required, I use a cutting gauge or combination square with a pencil to mark the desired thickness on the edges. Then I turn over the material and plane down to those lines. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s all worth it in the end. It’s also a great fitness regime.
Pencil, Sliding Double Square, and Cutting Gauge
Hand-held tools, while not always as efficient as machinery, allow me to work with any size and shape of material I choose. If I were to limit myself to working with material that I could surface with machinery, my work would look very different.
Machinery has its place, but so do hand-held tools.