Preparing Wood For Use

If you're like me, as soon as you bring home some wood from the lumberyard, you want to get started on your project right away. But if you take a few steps to prepare your lumber, it will help your project go much smoother. It is difficult to cut accurate joints if your wood is not flat, straight and square. In this post, I'll tell you how to get your lumber that way. While this post discusses power tools, the same sequence of steps applies if you are using hand tools.

1. Acclimate the Wood

The first thing you should do with your lumber when you get it to your shop is...nothing. That's right, you shouldn't do anything with your wood yet. You should let the moisture content of the wood equalize with the humidity in your workshop. This is especially true if the lumberyard stored the wood outside or in unconditioned buildings. If you jump in right away and start cutting up those nice boards you spent all that money on, they're likely to warp the first time you start milling them. If you live in an arid climate, or the wood is moving from an air-conditioned space to another air-conditioned space, it's not necessary to let the wood rest long. But if the wood was stored outside, you'll need to let it dry out for several weeks, perhaps months, in your shop before using it.

2. Cut to Rough Size

To reduce the amount of material you have to remove, first cut your boards to rough size. There is no point making an entire eight foot board flat if you are only going to use two feet of it.

3. Face Joint

The remaining steps all depend on having a flat face to use as a reference point. So the first milling operation is to joint one face flat. This is usually done at the jointer. However, if you don't have a jointer, it is also possible to build jigs to face joint a board using a router or even your planer. If your jointer isn't wide enough, you'll need to rip the board in two and then re-glue it back together or else use a hand place to flatten the surface.

4. Plane to Thickness

Once you have one flat face, it's off to the thickness planer. The planer's job is to make the second face parallel to the first and give the board a uniform thickness. Place the jointed face from the previous step against the bed of the planer, so the cutter head removes material from the opposite side. Once the second face is flat, flip the board end for end after each pass as you bring the board down to it's desired thickness. By removing roughly the same amount of material from both sides of the board, you keep the moisture content about the same on both sides, which helps keep the board flat after you're done. Depending on how much material you're removing, you may want to stop before the board is it's final thickness and let it rest a few days, giving it a chance to adjust the moisture level before continuing.

5. Edge Joint

Now that we have two faces that are flat and parallel, we're going to turn our attention to the edges of the board. We return to the jointer to make one edge straight and square to the faces. Before you start, double check that the jointer fence is 90 degrees to the bed. Hold one of the freshly jointed faces tight against the fence as you run the board across the jointer. If possible, joint the concave edge first, as that is easier to straighten than a convex edge.

6. Rip to Width

Placing the freshly jointed edge of the board against your table saw rip fence and rip the board to the desired width. Some like to leave the board about 1/64 inch wide so that the freshly sawn edge can be run over the jointer.

7. Crosscut to Length

You now have a board with two parallel faces and two parallel edges that are 90 degrees to the faces. The last step is to crosscut the board to length. Using your miter gauge or sled on the table saw or a chop saw, cut one end square. Measure for the desired length of the board and cut the other end.

Congratulations! You should have a board that is flat and straight with square edges and ready for use in your project.

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