Planing with the Grain: A Quick Resource Guide

Is grain orientation during planing important?

When planing, orienting the grain correctly is critical to achieving a smooth finish. Improper grain orientation can cause chips, tear-outs, and/or additional damage. In this article, we’ll discuss how to plane with the grain to avoid damage and how to identify the direction of grain in various common wood types.

Each piece of wood you work with is as unique as the tree it once was. To help you showcase that individuality, we’ve collected a variety of tips and suggestions on how to plane with the grain. If you’re experiencing issues when planing, keep reading for troubleshooting guides and ways you can work with the grain, rather than against it.

Basic Planing Techniques

Take a walk down the lumber aisle at your local hardware store and you’ll find planed boards of specific thicknesses. Whatever combination of dimensions, each board should theoretically match those surrounding it.

Planing a board simply means “producing boards of even thickness that also happen to be totally flat on either side.” These boards are what create the foundation for treehouses, decks, benches, chairs, and everything else in-between. The two important factors to these boards are that they are (a) equal in thickness along the length of the board and (b) each side of the board is flat. To achieve these production-like dimensions, power planers have a feed roller that “grabs the board and pulls it through and past a rotating cutter head set above the bed, which removes wood.” This is a much simpler solution that hand planing boards to various thicknesses.

With both hand and power planing, the orientation of the wood’s grain is key to a solid, smooth finished product. As the Workshop Companion puts it, “you want the cutterhead to cut with the grain, shaving the slope downhill.” To visualize this, imagine a grassy hill. If you stand atop the hill and push a lawnmower down one side, you’re mowing downhill; this is the direction you should be planing in regard to grain orientation. If you were to stand at the bottom of the hill and mow upwards, it would be rather difficult. You’d be pushing against the natural slope of the hill and the grass would not cut as evenly.

Grain orientation of the wood you plane works in a similar way. Rather than pushing against the natural fibers, plane with them. Not only will you achieve a smoother finish, but you also won’t have to exert as much energy in the process.

Common Planing Mistakes—and Solutions

Now that you understand the basic process of planing, let’s take a closer look at some of the issues that may arise. We’ve also included tips and suggestions on how to avoid these issues, along with what to do when they do arise. Because as every woodworker knows—or soon learns—practice is key to building knowledge.

Tear-Out

The first and most common issue you’ll face is tear-out. You might also hear it called chip-out as well. If you experience tear-out during planing, you know the grain orientation is incorrect. Sometimes all it takes is changing the direction of the board, but let’s take a closer look at how to identify tear-out and what to do about it.

The best way to identify tear-out is to look for a fuzzy, rough surface. This is created when the planer blade picks up the wood fibers and separates them from the layers beneath. PopularWoodworking.com suggests, “The direction that the fibers go feels smooth, while the opposite direction feels rough and jagged. That’s because many individual fibers actually stick out above the surface of rough lumber.” Pet your dog or cat first one way and then the other and you’ll quickly find out which feels smoother. That’s what you’re looking for in grain orientation, to avoid tear-out.

To avoid tear-out, take a lighter cut says StartWoodworking.com. You can also try changing the direction in which you plane by feeding the board through straight on. If you still have trouble, consider re-sharpening your blade for a cleaner cut. Reducing the depth of cut can also make a difference. The Family Handyman notes that with some types of wood, tear-out might happen in both directions. In that case, “the best approach is to take a small amount of wood off with each pass; 1/32 in. is about right.” Multiple passes on one board is common in successful planing.

Chatter and Tracks

If you’re experiencing chattering or tracks in your board as you plane, there are a few things you can do. For chatter, “take a lighter cut.” Sometimes the planer can bite off more than it can chew. Alternatively, you can also re-sharpen your blade. Dull cutting edges are more apt to grab wooden fibers and pull them up to expose the layer beneath. Tracks can be mitigated in similar ways, either by reducing the depth of cut and/or sharpening your cutting blade.

Snipe

Snipe is a term used to describe the planer gouge that often occurs at the beginning and end of boards as they enter and leave the planer,” notes The Family Handyman. In most instances, this is just the mark of the tool and not something you can necessarily change during planing. However, The Family Handyman offers a solution: “the best technique is simply to leave an extra 5 in. of length on your boards. Then cut off the snipe when you cut the boards to their final length.” Alternatively, you can use a “sacrificial board” to feed in before and after the board you’re planing.

These are just a few of the many hiccups you might encounter as you plane. Each planing machine will be different, so set aside a few scraps to learn how your planer works. That way you can troubleshoot any issues on wood you’ll discard anyway before you begin work on a finished piece. As long as you can account for these intricacies, it’s just a matter of working with the machine as it stands.

Identifying Grain Direction in Various Woods

It can be said that grain, aside from color, is what gives wood the majority of its character. Our eyes love to trace the swirls and rings that form patterns in the grain. But in fact, these very same knots can offer us quite a bit of insight when it comes to grain direction.

There are two types of identifying characteristics you can use to determine grain direction: rays and vessels. “The general angle of the rays on the plainsawn face of a board invariably point in the same direction as the wood’s fibers,” says PopularWoodworking.com. In other words, rays are “wood cells that radiate from the center of a tree to its perimeter.” Most people know these rays as “rings,” from which it’s said you can tell the age of the tree. Look closely at cherry, maple, ash, and walnut woods and you might be able to see their individual rays. However, beech, sycamore, and oak all have large rays that are easy to identify.

Vessels, on the other hand, look like long, dark dashes. Appearing “most prominently in species such as mahogany, walnut, and butternut,” these vessels “align with the direction of the grain. As long as you can tell which direction the vessels are traveling, you’ll know which way the grain is oriented.

There are some woods, however, in which you cannot easily identify rays or vessels. In this case, woodworkers look to the figure of the wood. “Figure is created when the varying densities and color of the annular growth rings intersect with the surface of the board,” and oftentimes resembles a cathedral-like image. Depending on how your blade cuts, you’ll want to feed the cathedral into the planer so that it pulls the pattern in from the top.

Still experiencing planing issues? Keep reading.

Pro Planing Tips

While we can introduce you to the basics of planing here, much of what you’ll learn has to come with hands-on practice. To help you with any other issues that might arise, we’ve gathered some professional advice below. Peruse them the next time you and your planer aren’t seeing eye to eye.

Keep these hints and suggestions in mind as you work with your planer.

Incorporate Grain into Your Designs

One of the more overlooked aspects to grain orientation is the aesthetic application. For example, paying attention to the grain orientation in your wood enough to use it to your advantage in the final construction can often distinguish a rookie from a seasoned professional. According to TheEnglishWoodworker.com, you should always “alternate the growth rings on consecutive boards,” for stability of course. In addition, you should also aim for pointing the grain in the same direction throughout a glued board.

Grain means much more in woodworking than you might think. Hopefully this article has shown you that much.

Parting Words of Wisdom

Rob Cosman, shopmaster and woodworking guru, states the “three requirements to achieving the outstanding planed surface that hand planes are capable of producing are: a sharp blade, a properly set-up plane, and proper planing technique.” We hope this article has given you insight as to how to plane more efficiently, what to do when you encounter common planing issues, and what to keep in mind as best planing practices. Stay tuned for more woodworking tips, tricks, guides, project ideas, and more!

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