Straight edges. No jointer. No jig.
Lots of woodworkers start out with plywood and construction lumber from the big-box store, and that’s a great way to get going in the craft. As you progress, you’ll probably start buying hardwood from a lumberyard or kiln-drying company. The boards you get at these places might come planed (or you can have them planed for a small fee), but the edges will usually be rough and wavy.
You can buy perfectly milled lumber; it’s called S4S “square four sides” but it’s a lot more expensive than wood that still needs some processing. Getting wood that planed on both sides but still rough on the edges is the sweet-spot. The cost is lower and you can finish milling it at home pretty quickly.
For milling rough lumber at home, most woodworkers start at the jointer, which is a great tool for straightening edges and faces. Unfortunately, jointers are big, expensive, loud, and at least little bit dangerous. They also need dust collection. Jointers are also a bit of a one-trick-pony. The jointers that home woodworkers can afford usually have a 6 inch capacity and that’s too small to do much face jointing. When I go to the lumber yard, I rarely see boards that are 6 inches or less. That means these smaller jointers usually get used only for edge-jointing. Buying a big machine like this just to straighten board edges is kind of like swatting a fly with a sledge-hammer. You can do the same thing and do it really well with other tools.
Tools used in this project:
Improved Dust Collector Bag
I do woodwork full-time, but I don’t own a jointer. I’m sure I’ll buy one eventually, but I get all my edge jointing done with a jack-plane and my table saw. It only takes a few minutes per board and it’s not tough.
I start by putting the board in the vise. If the board is longer than three feet, I use a simple two-clamp system to hold the board on edge. Holding the board this way also allows the wood to be supported by the bench-top, which will keep it from flexing under the pressure of the plane.
Next, I sight down the edge of the board and identify any high spots. This is tough to show on camera, but it’s really easy to see in person. Take note of the high spots, grab a jack-plane set course, and go to work. This is rough work and I really slash away at this stage. I stop often to check my progress and make sure I’m not making things worse.
Once I’ve got those high spots down, I back the iron off and set the plane for a finer cut. With the board mostly straight, my goal is to take one or two full-length passes and get a full-length, full-width shaving.
Taking these finishing cuts also requires a different grip on the plane. Let go of the knob and pinch the front corner of the sole in your thumb and forefinger. While taking your stroke, let the first knuckle of your index finger ride against the wood. With this technique, you are using your hand like a fence and the goal is to keep the plane centered on the edge of the board. If you let the plane wander side to side as you make the cut, the depth of cut will change and you’ll get an inconsistent shaving. Keep the plane in the center and you have a much better chance of getting a continuous shaving.
At this stage, I don’t kill myself looking for perfection. If I can get close to a full shaving, I call it good and move on. I also usually check the edge of my board with a long straight-edge. This can be an inexpensive hardware store ruler, or even a wooden straight-edge you make yourself. If your straight-edge rocks back and forth, you have a high spot. If you can see light between your straight-edge and the wood, then you have a low spot. Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect; you’re just creating a reference edge that will ride against the fence of your table saw. When your board edge is mostly straight, move on to the saw.
At the table saw, set your freshly-jointed edge against the fence, set the saw for a very light cut, and rip down the rough edge. The rough edge should become clean, straight edge. Now, you can rotate the board and set it back on the table saw with the edge you just cut against the fence.
Don’t flip your board over. Once you’ve made a cut with one face of the board against the table, that face has become a reference surface and you want to keep using it for all future cuts. Rotate the board each time you want to change the edge you’re cutting.
Move the fence in slightly and make another cut. This time, you’re ripping off the edge you jointed with the jack-plane. During this cut, keep an eye on the board and the saw fence. There should be consistent contact between the fence and the board throughout the whole cut. If you see gaps or waviness between the board and the saw fence, don’t worry. Just make a few additional cuts, rotating the board between each one, to square things up.
If everything is going well, rotate the board one last time and make one final cut. In theory, if the first two cuts went well, then you’re finished. In my everyday woodworking, I like to do this third cut just to make sure everything is straight and square. This last cut can be extremely light. You just need to kiss the edge of the board with the saw blade.
At this point, you should have a board with two perfectly straight edges and these edges should be parallel. You can check this with a combination square if there’s any question. If you find any problems with your board, check and make sure you have the least one good edge and then use that edge to make an additional saw cut and square things up.
The whole process sounds a little bit complicated on paper, and it does take some practice, but after a while, you’ll do it very quickly. I can probably plane my straight edge in less than 5 minutes and the cuts on the table saw only take two or three more minutes. Right now, my business tends to focus on small custom pieces and I don’t do big production work, so this technique is efficient enough for my shop. If I ever move into higher volume work, I’ll buy a jointer.