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How to Make a Wooden Straight Edge for Woodworking

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Blog entry by WoodAndShop posted 07-21-2014 02:20 PM 2528 reads 7 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch

In the above video I show a simple tutorial on how to make a wooden straight edge for traditional woodworking.

A straight edge is an essential measuring tool used when flattening & straightening your boards, and a perfect beginner’s project to hone your traditional hand tool woodworking skills!

WOODEN STRAIGHT EDGE vs. METAL STRAIGHT EDGE

Why would traditional woodworkers want to use a wooden straight edge when they can purchase precision-ground metal straight edges? While metal straight edges are useful, they simply don’t have the same advantages as a wooden straight edge. Why?

1. MORE REPAIRABLE: Wooden straight edges can easily be retrued or flattened if they are ever dropped or if they ever go out of true. Accidentally knocking a metal straight edge off your workbench is a death sentence to that tool.

2. LESS EXPENSIVE: Wooden straight edges are practically free to make (or very inexpensive). All you need is some good stable quartersawn hardwood. Good metal straight edges start off around $50 and shoot way higher than that.

3. LIGHTER: The wooden straight edges are quite lighter than metal straight edges, and don’t weight down your already-hefty tool chest.

4. SOFTER: It’s less likely that you’ll ding your workpiece with a wooden straight edge than with a metal straight edge. Believe me, the sharp corners of a metal straight edge can mess up a project.

5. MORE BEAUTIFUL: A wooden straight edge is much more beautiful to look at than a manufactured piece of metal.

6. MADE BY YOU: A tool made by you is much more special to you and your posterity than something that you purchased.

TOOLS THAT YOU’LL NEED:

Even though I have a nice tool buying guide (here) I’m still often asked for links to the tools that I use in my videos, so here they are:

-Lie-Nielsen’s Tenon Rip Saw
-Lie-Nielsen cross cut back saw
-Chris Yonker’s 12″ bow saw on ebay or a simple coping saw like this.
-Lie-Nielsen low-angle Rabbet Block Plane
-Vintage Stanley No. 7 Jointer Plane
-Auriou course 10 grain / 9″ cabinet rasp
-Auriou 13 grain / 7″ modeler’s rasp
-Irwin Quick Grip Clamps
-Staedtler Mars 780 Technical Mechanical Pencil

1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT WOOD FOR A STRAIGHT EDGE

Stability is the most important factor when choosing wood for a straight edge. I recommend using well-seasoned (dried) 1/2″ or 3/4″ quartersawn hard wood. Quartersawn wood will have vertical grain…see the above photo’s vertical end grain. Notice how it runs straight up & down, and extends mostly straight down the face of the board. Also avoid any lumber that has knots.
Good wood species include beech wood (see above photo), walnut, hard maple, cherry, mahogany, etc.

2. DIMENSION THE WOOD

Use hand saws & hand planes to flatten, square up, & cut your board down to roughly 36″ long, 2-3″ wide, and around 1/2″ thick. Not sure how to square a board? See my tutorial here. You can make your straight edge most any size, but the longer the straight edge is, the more accurate it will be.

Take special care to “true” the bottom edge of your straight edge. If it ever goes out of “truth” then use your jointer plane to bring it back.

3. CUT OUT THE PROFILE

You can leave your straight edge rectangular, but it will most likely get mistaken for scrap wood! So I add a nice profile. The profile can be whatever you want. Some people argue that adding an arc helps by exposing more end grain, thereby stabilizing the wood. I’ve heard debates on this subject, but I like the look of an arc so I do it anyway. In my video I show how to setup a simple template to draw a perfect arc on your straight edge:

I love to draw an ovolo on my arc (see below). I borrowed this design from renowned traditional woodworker Bill Anderson:

Click here for the PDF scan of the above profile (which I promised in the video).

Cut the profile with a simple bow saw or coping saw. I use a tenon saw and a cross cut saw to make relief cuts prior to using the bow saw.

Then I use a sharp block plane to smooth out the curve. Keep your eyes on the curve that you drew, and make sure to not plane past it much.

I clean up the ovolo profile with french cut rasps and 220 grit sandpaper. I use this course 10 grain / 9″ cabinet rasp for rough removal and this finer 13 grain / 7″ modeler’s rasp.

A couple years ago, if you would have told me that I’d spend over $100 on a rasp, I’d laugh at you. Now I’ve purchased two at that price, and use them all the time. These Auriou French hand cut rasps make quick work of shaping profiles like this.

4. APPLY A FINISH

You can apply your favorite finish, but I prefer to keep with a more natural look rather than a “plastic” shiny finish (like Polyurethane). I typically use a traditional finish recipe (boiled linseed oil, beeswax, and turpentine) but lately I’ve been trying a surprisingly nice finish made by Minwax called “Antique Oil Finish“. Here is the best price I found.

I had originally thought that mass-produced finishes weren’t very desirable to traditional woodworkers, but was recommended to me by Bill Anderson. Larry Preuss, an expert plane maker from Michigan, recommended it to him.

Don’t worry about applying finish to the bottom “true” edge. You’ll eventually re-true the bottom. That’s it folks!

CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO JOSHUA’S FUTURE ARTICLES & VIDEOS!

-- Joshua Farnsworth - Free Traditional Hand Tool Woodworking Tutorials: http://WoodAndShop.com



5 comments so far

View Greg In Maryland's profile

Greg In Maryland

422 posts in 1742 days


#1 posted 07-21-2014 07:19 PM

Joshua, what a gorgeous tutorial. Well done!

You have inspired me to give it a try.

Greg

View WoodAndShop's profile

WoodAndShop

145 posts in 254 days


#2 posted 07-22-2014 08:32 PM

Thanks so much “Greg in Maryland”! I live in Virginia, so not too far away.

-- Joshua Farnsworth - Free Traditional Hand Tool Woodworking Tutorials: http://WoodAndShop.com

View WhoMe's profile

WhoMe

1127 posts in 1988 days


#3 posted 07-23-2014 05:01 AM

Joshua,
Liked the video and I will most likely make one in the future but I have a couple questions/comments. Now, I am FAR from perfect and am always learning as a woodworker but curiosity got the best of me to comment and ask questions.
When you were using your #7 (or #8) to plane the face of the piece, it seemed like you were struggling. My first thought was “why is he taking such a heavy cut” based on what appeared to be really thick shavings. Then the second thought was “Or was the blade a little dull”. In my past experience, when making cuts like that, if I’m struggling, I take a thinner cut to help things out.
Then later you were using the block plane to help shape the top of the straight edge but you were planing against the grain or climbing up the grain. Whenever I have done this, I quickly find out that it causes rough surfaces and chipping of the surface grain.
I know you are a very capable woodworker and have posted very helpful videos but this one kind of struck me funny with the two examples above. I would love to hear your comments to help me out.

Also, what is your process to “fine tune the straight edge. Do you use line of sight or do you use a reference edge in which to ensure it is flat for use? Other than the surface of the plane, I don’t remember seeing anything on that. And, I know QS wood is quite stable but if it does go out of flat/square, do you have any preferred methods in which to “re-tune” the edge?

Thanks again for the video as I plan on making something like this for my shop as soon as I find some suitable wood and I look forward to reading your tuning and maintenance hints.

-- I'm not clumsy.. It's just the floor hates me, the tables and chairs are bullies and the wall gets in the way.. - Mike -

View WoodAndShop's profile

WoodAndShop

145 posts in 254 days


#4 posted 07-23-2014 12:20 PM

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your questions. My jointer iron was just sharpened, and when I’m trying to take down more substantial amounts of wood (like that bowed piece of wood) I take a bit more bite. I had tried a lighter cut, but wasn’t removing enough. Also, wood type is another factor. Beech is a little harder to plane than pine or poplar, for example.

Regarding the block plane on the top of the straight edge, it left a perfectly finished surface. I was using a low angle block plane, which seemed to cause no problems whatsoever.

Regarding the maintenance of the straight edge, as shown in the video I use a square to check it’s squareness and I use a known flat surface (like another straight edge, a piece of mdf, etc.) to check it’s “truth”. I didn’t show that, but I think I mentioned it…at least in the blog. You retune the edge using the same method as when you originally trued it…with a jointer plane.

I don’t always get everything in the videos, so sorry for any confusion. Thanks!

-- Joshua Farnsworth - Free Traditional Hand Tool Woodworking Tutorials: http://WoodAndShop.com

View WhoMe's profile

WhoMe

1127 posts in 1988 days


#5 posted 07-23-2014 02:11 PM

Joshua, thank you very much for the clarifications. That all makes sense now.
And I only watched the video and didn’t read the blog (my bad but this thread is bookmarked) so that probably would have cleared some things up before I posted things.

Thanks again.

-- I'm not clumsy.. It's just the floor hates me, the tables and chairs are bullies and the wall gets in the way.. - Mike -

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