Fair Woodworking

August 5, 2013

How I flatten a board with only hand tools. Picture heavy!!!

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 7:04 pm

What have I gotten myself into here?!

It all started when I wandered into my shop while thinking, “I need something to write about”.

This board here called out to me. It said, “Flatten me, flatten me”.

And like a fool, I listened.  With over 40 pictures, and the writing in between, this is a long, long read. If you are viewing this on your blackberry, I’m sure your browser has crashed long before you made it to this point, so if you ever choose to come back and read it on a real browser, I do apologize.

Here we go…….

Editors note. What I’m about to show you is totally TOTALLY different from what anyone else that I know of would teach you. The most common and endorsed methods rely on traversing, or planing at a 90 or 45 degree angle. I found them to be a hot mess, with plenty of pitfalls and so I developed this method on my own, by accident. If you are happy with traversing, stick with it. If not?

Keep reading.

Another Editors note 07/19/16. Just rediscovered an old post that clearly describes the traversing method and it makes a lot of sense to me. I have not yet tried it, so I do not yet endorse it.

Follow up to Another Editors note 07/15/17. I have become a big fan of traversing… It is a very useful tool that I have incorporated into my regular workflow. The thing is, it is NOT how you flatten a board, it is just one technique of wood flattening. I’ve found it borderline useless with smaller pieces, or boards that are thin enough to flex.


Read, try, decide.

Preferably in that order.

There is a common misconception with beginner hand tool users about how hand planes flatten wood.

They don’t.

The truth is, hand planes remove wood that makes contact with the blade.  A skilled woodworker uses the sole of the plane to restrict unwanted contact between the wood and the blade, or they avoid planing over areas all together if they don’t want that material removed.

I’ve heard many people say that you want to “trick” the plane into only planing the points you want it to. I think this terminology is misleading. You are not at odds with your planes, you need to work with them. There is no slight of hand involved, you simply find the high point, and remove it. Find the next high point, and remove it.

The only trick is that it’s not the planes job to find the high point. It’s your job.

The best way I know of finding the high points, is actually finding the low points…

The key to this process for me is what I always think of as “the tap, tap method”.  This is something I will do throughout the flattening process. If you don’t get what/why I’m doing it, figure it out before you proceed, or you will have a hard time understanding this whole post.

I’ll tap the opposing, corners/ends/sides of the board. If either point is not resting firmly on the bench, when I tap it, I will hear a small cracking noise as it hits the bench.  This method finds us the low points on the board quickly. (assuming your bench is flat in the first place… If you don’t have a flat bench, I hate to say it, but flattening boards may be as hopeless as trying to clean honey off your pants with your hand.)

So let’s try to visualize just how unflat this board is. This board by the way, is a former part of a 2×10, before I resawed it in half.

When I set a straight edge on it, you can see it has a bit of a high spot in the middle.

High spot…

So here is the plan. Plane away the scribble, but DON’T plane away the X’s. I do this by starting the pass with the blade past the X on the right, and lift off before the blade reaches the X on the left. I’ll do this with the plane square to the wood, not skewed like how the plane is displayed below.

To do this, I’ll be using one of my favorite planes. My #5 (jack plane) is a wonder at this job. The blade is cambered, but not nearly so aggressively as a scrub plane. It cuts material away quickly, but does not seem to remove project ruining amounts of wood like a scrub can.

Blam, blam, and the scribbles are gone. Next, I flip the board over to do the tap, tap. I always flip the board like a barrel roll, not end to end. You can do either, but be consistent! Pick a way to flip the board, and stick with it, or you will get confused.

When I tap the board, I get the most movement when I tap the sides vs. the ends. (Don’t be alarmed.  I don’t have 2 right hands, I’ve just blended 2 pictures so you can see where I’m tapping.)

When I flip the board over, I draw a squiggle down the middle of the board. Ignore the X’s now, they don’t matter anymore. I need to plane a couple of passes down the middle of the board.

Now don’t stress out that some of the squiggle is still there. It looks to me that the squiggly part that didn’t get removed is actually not a high part. The best way to test is to go back to the Tap, tap…

This time I get the most movement when tapping these two corners. That means that there is a bit of twist or wind.

When I flip the board over I quickly mark a new X in those corners marking the low spots. (I find, I have to really pay attention, when I’m marking these spots.  When you flip the board the corners in question change sides, and that often confuses me.  If that statement confuses you. Chew on it.  Either you are smarter than me, and this kind of confusion won’t be a problem. Or, it will click, and you will know that you need to pay attention as well with this step.)

Here is the first pit fall of trying to flatten a board. The other side of the board is not flat. Look at how much it rolls under the pressure of one finger.  How we plane will be just as important as what we plane. As I mentioned before, don’t skew the plane. Keep it square to the cut.

This step, IF done correctly will remove wind from the board. Because of the width of this board and the plane I’m using, I will do this next step in 4 maybe 5 passes. If it was wider I’d do more passes. Narrower, less. The first pass is on the far edge, but I stop/lift the plane when the blade reaches where my finger is pointing.  If I continued further I’d be removing both a high point and a low point. That would accomplish nothing other than to make the board thinner. I do full passes down the middle, and the last pass on the closest edge starts with the blade past the X.

Here, I’ve freakishly grown 5 right hands as I tap some critical areas. I hear noise when I tap in the middle (so that’s now a low spot). I also get noise when I tap the back left corner and the front right corner. When the board is at rest, I only get noise when I tap the front right corner.

I flip the board over and mark the 2 major low spots with an X, but I also circle them. Why?

Because I have these 2 old X’s that I don’t want to distract me. In this next step, while they may or may not be low points, they are higher than the two areas I just marked, and that makes them high points. I will do my usual 4 to 5 passes, but first I need address a common mistake that beginners make. If you look again, at the picture above, you may notice that a corner that once was a low spot, has become a high spot. That is a result of my jack plane removing too much material from what was a high spot. If I just keep going, the low spots will dance back and forth on the board forever, or until I plane the whole board into shavings.  The only way to stop this from happening is to start taking a less aggressive cut. I could simply retract the blade a little, but with the blade being  cambered, that would also reduce the width of the shaving, and that would mean I’d need to do another 2 or 3 passes to cover the whole board.  Instead, I’m going to switch to another plane with a less cambered blade.

This is a #3 smoother, but I’ve used it as a mini jointer for a while. Now don’t go out and get a #3 because I said you needed one for this step. I’ve simply set this plane up (for now) to work in this step.

So I go ahead with planing, taking care to start the first pass on the edge, with the blade past the circled X, and in the middle passes lifting the plane before I hit the circled X, then starting the pass again with the blade passed the circled X.  I’ve drawn arrows pointing to the old X’s. The plane removed some, but not all of the X’s. That’s ok.

However, I did make one Dumb, dumb move.

I said before with the 5 handed picture, that I there were only two low spots, but that is because I was only using one finger to tap. Having already explained in the beginning that you have to tap back and forth two opposite ends or corners to find the low spots, it doesn’t matter that only one corner makes a noise when the board is at rest. I forgot that we look for the low spots not to find the low spots. We do it to find the high spots. I’ve now added the third circled X, and now I can see that the other two corners are the high spots to be planed down.

And yes, the last round of planing was a complete waste of time…

With that out of the way, I’ve marked some squiggles where I DO want to plane, and I have the circled X’s that I don’t want to plane. Some of you may want to question the logic here. Logic would suggest that if the circled X in the middle was truly a low point, the blade of the plane should pass over it while removing the high points around it. Well smart guy, I’ve thought that myself a time or two.

So let’s test that theory.

Somehow, the plane managed to skip over many of the “high” points, and managed to remove the clearly marked low point… The problem is the other side of the board. It looks to me that the other side of the board has a small hump in the middle. When I plane over the board the hump causes the board to flex making the low spot turn into a high spot. Again, blindly planing this board will never fix this problem. And again, this was a wasted step.

This time, we will plane this board while carefully and obediently, avoiding ALL THREE circled X’s. With that done, the tap, tap test found some movement, but very little. The cracking noises that I got were very faint, and trying to remove them at this point is very difficult when the other side of the board is so unflat.

The good news is that I’ve created a much flatter surface, that will almost keep the board from moving at all when I flatten the second surface. What I’m saying is that the hard part is done. Kinda.

I’ve drawn an arrow showing the grain direction of the second side of the board. It’s pointing the wrong direction, so I better spin it around.

Remember how I mentioned that this side had a lot of curve to it? Let’s get a better look.

It’s real bad in the middle. I’m going to need to go back to using the jack plane.

You know the drill. Squiggles bad, X’s good.

This time, because the board sits flatly on the bench, I’m going to skew the plane, but not because it looks cool, or to control tear out. I start by planing down the middle. This creates a shallow trench with a ridge on either side. With the plane skewed, I can plane off one of the ridges, while the sole of the plane rides along the other ridge.  Then I plane down the middle, and then the other ridge. This allows you to bring down a ridge without losing control.

Almost done this step, but let’s have a look at those ridges.

Like I say, almost there…

After a few more passes, I’m ready for the jointer. But first let’s do the tap, tap trick to check for wind.

Planing with the jointer square to the wood, I’ll plane off more of the ridges, avoiding the circled X’s.

I get narrow little shavings, but that’s ok. I’m just going after the ridges.

Once the board is sitting flat, my goal is to plane the board in 2 to 3 passes at a time until I’m getting full width shavings, but remembering to check it with the tap, tap trick. Once you are getting full shavings and it’s sitting flat, you’re done on this side.

Now the second side of the board is flat enough that we can go back to flattening the original side, and we can also remove the what’s left of the saw kerf marks.

It’s all getting pretty routine..

Correct wind as necessary, but also watch to see that you are not hollowing out the middle, or rounding it out as well.

With the board nicely jointed, it’s time for smoothing.

To this point I think we have the tap, tap trick down, and we have learned how to read the board to know if it is flat or not.

Now let’s look at how to read a shaving to find flat…

When I plane along the edges, I get full width shavings, but…

When I plane down the middle I get very narrow, yet beautifully thin shavings. I think that most beginners think that the problem is an overly cambered blade. However, when they see how thin the shavings are, they get a little excited with being able to see through it. But then why did we get such a nice wide shaving on the edges? The shavings are telling me that there is a small hollow along the middle of this board. It is just shallow enough that only the tip of my slightly cambered blade can reach it. That is why it is so narrow, that is why the shaving is so thin.

Let’s take a closer look.

See? No light on the edges, light in the middle. In most cases this board is flat enough, but with smoothing in some woods, this is a recipe for disaster.

But this is a post about flattening, so I’ll save that thought for another time.


The trick to flattening by reading the shaving is actually pretty simple. Plane the edge, and get that nice wide shaving. Then move to the center no more than half or even a quarter of the width of the plane, and do another pass. Really you just want the next pass to result in a full shaving again. Then do the same on the other side.

And do it again, but do 3 passes on each side rather than 2.

And so on and so on until you are getting full shavings all the way across.

In the end it should look a lot more like this.

But be warned, if you use this trick too much you will round the board over like it was in the beginning.

Remember you are the one in control, not the plane.

Editors note 08/07/16. Did any of that make sense? I just finished a quick video of this very task so for those of you that were so diligent in reading all that verbal diarrhea, here is me Flattening a board,

by hand,

with only hand tools…


Editors note 02/12/17. If you would like to learn more about traversing, check out this video I just found.


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