Processing Your Project Wood

If you use rough sawn wood for your projects there are steps to take that will ensure the wood is as straight as possible when you get to your joinery. This process will work even if it is weeks before you get to cutting the joints.

The first step is carefully studying your project drawing or doing your own drawing. Become familiar with the construction and joinery of the project. You should come away from this step with a thorough understanding of the project as a whole and all of the pieces that make up this project.

Now it is time to make a cutlist. This is a critical step in the building process and one that is too often over looked. I’m not going to go into this step because Robert W. Lang wrote a great article on the cutlist in the April 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. I suggest you get a copy of this magazine and read this great article or wait for it to appear online, but please do yourself a favor and read this article.

This is the antique hand saw I use to crosscut my rough boards

You now have a good understanding of your project and you have produced an accurate cutlist. This has given you a familiarity of all the parts, and their sizes, that make up your project. It is now time to select your wood, get it into your shop and start breaking it down into your projects pieces.

I use the antique crosscut panel saw shown above to break down rough sawn boards to their rough length. In the beginning of my woodworking career I used my father’s vintage Stanley tools circular saw. Then I switched to a jig saw. Both were noisy and spewed dust all over the area.

Looking for a better way I sharpened this old saw and gave it a try. I was very pleased with this tools performance. It is quiet and it leaves just a small pile of dust on the floor beneath the cut. This saw has cut 16/4 walnut with ease. Being a panel saw it is a bit short so I am restoring an old Disston 26” crosscut saw for this purpose.

Once the wood is crosscut to rough length it is ripped to rough width. I like to use my band saw for ripping. It is safe and cuts a thin kerf wasting less wood than a table saw. Also, it allows the board to be cut at any angle needed to produce grain that is parallel to the long edges if need be. This is important for parts like table legs, rails and stiles, and table aprons to name a few. This ripping operation can be done with a table saw, but I think the band saw is a better choice. Better yet may be a rip sharpened hand saw. If any of your stock needs to be resawn now is the time for that operation. Here again the band saw is my tool of choice for the same reasons stated above. Of course there is no reason that resawing can’t be done with a hand saw.

After allowing the parts to rest and acclimate they are now ready for jointing and planning. I like to do this operation in two stages, rough and finish. However, if there is a large amount of material say ¼” or more, to be removed three stages would be better. These would be rough, semi-finish, and finish, allowing at least a day preferably more between operations.

All wood has internal stresses caused by many things that it has encountered throughout it’s journey to your shop. Every cut we woodworkers make on a piece of wood releases some of these internal stresses causing it to move in unequal ways. Thus we end up with cup, twist, warp or crook or any combination of these. This movement can be very minor or very great depending on the degree of stress involved. This is why I process lumber from rough to project ready in stages and advise you to do the same. Allowing the wood to rest between milling stages gives these stresses time to work out before going to the next operation.

My preference is for air dried wood. Bread is baked. Wood should be air dried. The finest furniture the world has ever seen was made from air dried wood. I may not be able to reproduce the quality of the old masters, but I certainly can use the same wood. This is just my opinion and there are many who would disagree with me. Usually wood that has been properly air dried exhibits less internal stress than kiln dried, but that is not a rule.

Here is some project wood awaiting the next milling step

Whenever I have my project wood resting between processing stages I have it “stacked and stickered” as you can see in the picture above. This allows air to circulate completely around the boards. Thus they can “breathe” equally from all sides minimizing movement. When possible I will even stand boards on edge to allow complete exposure of the large sides. Never leave a board lying flat on your workbench for an extended period. This can cause a board to cup from unequal moisture movement. Moisture can move freely from the boards exposed side, but is drastically slowed on the side in contact with the workbench.

For the “stickers”, the sticks placed between the boards, I use 1” x 1” of whatever I have on hand. Just be sure it is thoroughly dry. Never use green wood for stickers.

Whether your wood is air dried or kiln dried if you process it in stages as I have outlined here you will have fewer problems and you will achieve better results. The other method that I have used that also works well is the fast method. With this method you work as fast as you can and go directly from finish milling to joinery and glue up. This method does not give the wood time to move before it is constrained by the joinery. Many professional furniture makers use this method. For me working in stages is my method of choice.

Thanks for coming by and let me know which method works for you.


Professional furniture maker and restorer. Dealer and collector of vintage and antique woodworking tools.
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