Thursday, December 22, 2011

[Basics] Shooting End-grain

More than a couple people have asked me to slow down and explain what I am doing.  Lots of folks with very different backgrounds are reading along here, and its hard to make it readable for all.  To that end, entries detailing operations which might be old hat for seasoned woodworkers will be prefixed with [Basics] from now on.  Unless, of course, I forget.  Pros, feel free to correct/augment in the comments.  Civilians, feel free to ask for more clarification.

So without further ado, this is one way to square a board after cutting it close to length.  Explanations are under each image.  We start with a board that has been cut, but not to our exact length nor cut square enough for ready use.

This is the workbench set up to cut the board to length.  The board, about 3.5" wide, is laying along the length of the bench, resting on two benchhooks.  The benchook to the right, where the sawing actually happens, has a fence rising up on the back edge to hold the board in place while the saw pushes forward.  The benchhook on the left has no obstruction (so that it can hold boards of all sizes) but acts as a platform to hold the board level with the front hook.  You can also see holdfasts, which are candy-cane shaped metal hooks that fit into holes on the benchtop and act as clamps when hit with a mallet.  There are several holes all over the bench for these (and other "workholding" devices) to fit into.  This is a question I get very often: "what are all the holes all over your workbench?".  There is no shame in asking this.  Modern woodworkers often do everything with clamps.  I find workholding one of the most interesting backwaters of woodworking, and I hope to discuss many of the various solutions in the future.

Here you can see the bottom fence on the bench hook.  This is pushed against the bench in use, and since Western saws cut on the push, the harder you work (the harder you push the saw), the more securely the hook is pressed to the bench. Very clever and efficient.  Where it gets weird: since Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke, these hooks will not work.  You would need one which reaches all the way to the back of the bench and hangs on when pulled.

Here I am using a square to find a right-angle to the length of the board, right at the spot we want it trimmed.  While this board was cut before, you can see that its not a very square edge. I use a 6" square for most cuts.  I would love a 12" one, and plan to make a wooden one at some point but for now this must do.  I should note that I have a few squares, and they do not all agree.  This is a relatively new square from Starrett (a premium tool company in Maine), and my grandfather's old machinist's square from his automotive engineering days likes this one, so I do too.

I use a marking knife along the square.  A marking knife is a bit like an X-Acto or hobby knife, but its special in that it is totally flat on one face and beveled on the other.  The flat face is what is drawn against the reference (the blade of a square, the face of a joint socket, or a piece of wood, whatever). This leaves a very straight and accurate knife which has an unexpected advantage - its three dimensional.

Here I have used a holdfast to clamp the board in place on the sawhooks.  By hitting the top of the holdfast with a mallet, its pressed into the hole at a very slight angle, compressing the hook onto the work.  The more you hit it, the harder it holds.  I use a scrap pad of wood between the tip of the holdfast and my workpiece.  You can also see here the saw I use for small crosscuts like this.  Its a fairly new saw, about 5 years old, but is based on designs from the 1800s.  Its made of very thin and light steel, so it has a "back" along the top of it to add rigidity and strength.  This saw is very smooth, very pleasant to use, and very accurate.  I am still fairly new to precision handsawing and I am able to cut a pencil line in half most of the time.  I love this setup and feel something almost like resent towards the fact that I was never shown how to saw like this in the several shop classes I took in Jr High and High School.

The saw drops right into the knifeline, taking advantage of the three-dimensional quality noted above, making it very hard to miss the mark.  As it gets going, the saw is slowly lowered backwards, into the groove.

This cut is very close to the line, and very straight.  You can see the very crisp edge the knife left on the bottom half along with the fuzz the saw left.  A pencil wouldn't deliver that crisp edge, and we will deal with the fuzz in just a moment.

When tested, the light under the square reveals all.  This cut is not satisfactory.  A little bit needs to come off the right corner.  As seen above, a little fuzz needs to be shaved along the whole face.

Enter the shooting board.  This is a jig for planing edge-grain.  Like a miter box, it guarantees that the resulting trimming will be square.  The holes in this unit are for changing the angle of the fence, but right now it is set up at exactly 90 degrees (and true according to the square from Gramps).

The workpiece is held up to the fence, with just a wee nip of it sticking out over the edge.

The right face of the jointer plane (#7) is waxed with a plain ol' parrafin block.

The edge of the work is moistened with denatured alcohol.  This makes working on end grain much easier, though it may not be traditional.  Water works too, but it is not wise to let water onto your steel tools.

The plane put into position.  Turned onto its side 90 degrees from normal use.  Perhaps now the parafin makes sense.  The plane is pushed back and forth in the track of the jig, making a telltale sound as it shears the end grain.  Then it makes very little sound as it slides back and forth.  This indicates its work is done.

A check by the square... Much better!  Thanks, shooting board!

With a square board, we can do do all kinds of fun things...


  1. I like your shooting board with the variable angle fence - did you design that?
    Alaos, I never heard of using denatured alcohol to ease planing the end grain - where did you learn that one?
    Good post!

  2. Alaos? Oops, I meant 'also'!

  3. Rob-

    The shooting board is from, also made by a Rob. Its the kind of thing that is simple to make with experience (and if you already have a shooting board) and I also liked the idea of supporting artisinal toolmakers as I stocked my shop.

    Using denatured alcohol was a tip from Chris Schwarz, he mentions it in the Joiner and Cabinet Maker but near as I can tell it is a modern technique although surely someone in the past has tried using water and realized it helps. As mentioned, water is a hazard for the tools, where the denatured alcohol evaporates quickly. Try it, it really works!

  4. Great post, very informative for a total newbie like me. Cheers!

  5. 'Fun things' indeed - What ya making?
    Merry Christmas to the Apprentice & his family.

  6. KKZP - thanks for reading along.

    Simon - Since you asked, that joint was just a few practice cuts. I thought box (finger) joints would be a little more straightforward than dovetails for practice. This post was actually going to be about doing the practice cuts, but there was so much setup that I thought I would share that process first. Stay tuned for a practice program for sawing and joinery! Happy Holidays to you and yours.

  7. A fun way to prove to yourself just how precisely shooting squares up the board is to stand it up on the end. It should stand up unsupported. You can tap it or bang on the bench and it won't fall over (at least if it's not too long), because the end grain is dead flat!


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