Gluing Up a Panel Requires More Words Than I Realized

Previously, I wrote about the dead-simple half-lap joinery for the legs. The top is nothing more than a round panel, 48″ in diameter. Easy enough, but I have a small shop, and the workbench is only two feet wide and integral to the wall. To make things easier, I started by gluing up two 24″ wide panels, each from three individual boards. I finish-planed both halves prior to the final glue-up. That’s a lot of edge joints, but if all goes well, I’ll just have a bit of cleanup right in the middle of the panel.

Gluing up a panel is one of the most basic skills in woodworking, but it’s also one that takes a fair amount of time and frustration to master. It doesn’t help that there’s metric buttload of nonsense on this topic that for some reason gets repeated ad nauseam by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I’ve fallen prey to pretty much every hare-brained theory at one point or another, so let’s get started by clearing the air:

  • You don’t need biscuits/dowels/Dominoes or any other silly crutches to make an edge joint that will outlast you.
  • It doesn’t matter how many Bessey bar clamps you own. Clamping pressure will not overcome a poorly executed joint.
  • Wide boards are not inherently prone to warping. Just make your lumber is dry and don’t do stupid things that are bound to cause problems, like leaving it out in the sun or laying on the wet grass.
  • You don’t need to alternate the direction of growth rings to prevent a wide panel from warping.
  • You don’t need to cut apart a wide boards so they can be flattened with your jointer and planer. You do need to learn how to use a hand plane.
Legend has it, the ghost of George Nakashima will butterfly your buttcheeks together while you sleep if you cut apart wide boards so they’ll fit your jointer and planer.

Okay, now that the unpleasant bits are out of the way, lets talk about what you really need to know to make a satisfying edge joint. First, forget about grain direction. I mean, not entirely. You still have to plane boards the right way. But since hand planes are still the ultimate tool for flattening and surfacing a wide board or panel, it’s trivial to turn the board around (or the tool – Western planes can be pulled quite nicely) to plane in the appropriate direction.

Just find a way to orient the boards so that the resulting panel is aesthetically pleasing. That usually means trying to match up the grain for a seamless joint. Or it may mean bookmatching consecutive boards, which creates a pleasant symmetry, but will always result in a panel with the grain going different directions (unless the grain is perfectly straight).

Now let’s discuss the tool you need to cut these joints. You need a jointer plane. Usually 22-24″ long, but most importantly with a well and truly flat sole. I struggled with a number of vintage planes over the years. At first, all I had was a Stanley No. 4 and a Craftsman No. 5. The 5 can do a short edge joint just fine, but not if the blade is cambered like it should be (if you’re using it primarily as a jack plane for rough surfacing). I was short on cash, so bit by bit I added tools to try to address this obvious shortcoming.

First I tried a cheap wooden jointer. The price was right, but the mouth was rank and the sole wasn’t flat. I inlaid a patch for the mouth and did a neat job of it, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to flatten the sole. Eventually I sold that plane and bought a Stanley No. 6. The 6 is one of my favorite planes. It’s always on my bench and it follows my 5 for face-planing. Unfortunately, the sole has a belly of a couple or a few thousandths (I haven’t measured it, I just know that it always planes a slightly concave surface). I finally realized my need for a real jointer and bought a Stanley No. 7. It was a beautiful plane. But it wasn’t flat. Not perfectly, anyway. So I bought another Stanley No. 7. And a Stanley No. 8. And a Millers Falls No. 22 (same size as a Stanley No. 7). All of them were lovely planes, and I spent a good bit of time fixing them up and sharpening the irons and tuning the chipbreakers. None of them were flat. And none of them could cut a seamless edge joint.

I really should have just bought a Veritas or Lie-Nielsen jointer from the beginning. No, they’re not cheap, but it would have saved me so much time and effort on all of those old planes. If there’s one thing that I learned from my experience, it’s this: You cannot cut a a perfect joint with a non-perfect plane. Yeah, you can get close, and I built a lot of furniture with joints that wouldn’t have closed without the help of clamps. They were close and I’m sure they will last, but I’m not happy about it. I was never happy about it.

Finally, I ended up with a vintage Stanley No. 7 that was precision-ground with a surface grinder. It’s as flat as any of my straightedges. I bought it from a old fellow at the Woodnet forums who goes by the handle “Tablesaw Tom”. I don’t know if he still hangs out over there – I haven’t been around there for a year or more. But his work is well-regarded, and for good reason.

The precision-ground No. 7 was a revelation. No more measuring, planing, re-measuring, re-planing, re-re-measuring, cursing under breath, re-re-planing, cursing out loud, throwing tools and clubbing baby seals to quell my frustration. A flat plane cuts a flat joint. The point is this: Buy the right damn plane from the beginning. Your jointer plane is absolutely one of the most important tools in your chest. It is more important that your smoothing plane and your dovetail saw and your marking gauge put together and multiplied by π. Please, I beseech you. Learn from my mistakes and not your own. Buy a good jointer plane.

Alright. You have a good jointer plane. It’s long. It’s flat. The iron is honed straight across What else? You need a try square. A straightedge. Some winding sticks. That should pretty much do it. You’re done when the try square, the straightedge, and the winding sticks all agree that it’s done.

A few tips on how I get to “done”:

    • I always clamp the two boards to be edge-glued together and plane them as a pair. It’s not hard to do, and it has a few benefits: The extra width makes it easier to hold the plane squarely on the joint. It also makes it easier to see when your joint is out of square. The most oft-repeated benefit is that, if your joint is not square, the errors will cancel each other out and you’ll still end up with a flat panel. I shoot for square anyway.
    • Set the plane to take a very fine shaving when dialing in a long joint. Almost like a smoothing plane. So it doesn’t take forever, I use my No. 6 to get the edge close, taking a fairly coarse shaving, then I true it with a finely set No. 7.
Finely set jointer
Plane both boards at once, folded like a book from the position that they will be glued in. The blade is set for a fine shaving to dial in a long joint.
  • I’ve read silly things about how when your jointer takes a full-width shaving along the length of your edge, that means it’s true. It’s not true. Well, your edge might be true, but the adage is not true. It’s very easy to plane a slightly convex edge without realizing it. Probably easier than planing a perfectly straight edge. So use your straightedge to see how far you are from straight, and plane the high spots. It’s often best to intentionally plane a very slight hollow, then take a couple of full-length strokes to get it straight.
Straightedge on a straight edge.
There should be no light peeking in from under your straightedge. Also, make sure your straightedge is actually straight!
  • Same thing applies to twist. You can take a full-length shaving from an edge that twists slightly from end to end. This is where your square and winding sticks come in handy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read about someone using winding sticks for edge jointing, but I’m sure I’m not the first person to do it. It’s a bit of a belt-and-suspenders approach. If both tools agree that the edge is square and free from twist, then it probably is.
Square on Edge
Check the edge for square frequently, and in several places. If your iron is just slightly misaligned with the sole, the edge will get more and more out of square with each stroke. If you’re taking more strokes in one area to remove a high spot, that’s a recipe for creating a twisted edge.
Winding sticks amplify twist
Your winding sticks amplify inaccuracies and make any twist apparent. Since they take a moment to set up, I use my square to check the edge frequently, then set up the winding sticks only when I think I have it close.

Damn, that’s a lot of words to spill and I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface. This opus obviously assumes that you’re already fluent with hand tool lingo and relatively experienced at hand planing. The reason I felt the need to put it into writing is because, even though I’ve been using hand planes for 8 or 9 years, it probably took 5 years before I felt like I could reliably create a good edge joint. Hopefully this message finds its way to someone who’s facing the same struggles that I did.

tl:dr? Fine, here’s a one-paragraph summary.

1) Don’t skimp on your jointer plane. Get a good one, and consider it an investment in frustration avoidance. And 2) Don’t trust. Verify. You have measuring tools. Use them to make sure that you’re planing accurately. 3) You’re done when the boards meet so seamlessly that you feel confident the joint would hold with glue alone, no clamps.

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And one more thing. I’m sure fancy bar clamps are nice to have, but I’ve never met a single panel that couldn’t be clamped with my $2 garage sale pipe clamps. Spend your money where it counts – on the plane.

3 thoughts on “Gluing Up a Panel Requires More Words Than I Realized

  1. That Nakashima joke is probably the funniest thing I’ve read in any woodworking book or blog. And the blog itself is great, thank you for putting this together,


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