Jointing & Surfacing
For most projects my 8″ Delta jointer is quite adequate. I typically begin by cutting stock into more manageable pieces on the bandsaw. Then I proceed to joint and plane the stock to the specific dimensions I require.
Several years ago, when faced with the need to joint several pieces of wide stock, a quick enquiry to my wife confirmed my suspicions that a 12″ jointer was not likely in my immediate future; so another method was called for. Ripping the boards, jointing them, and then re-gluing the pieces would leave visible glue lines in the final panel, which I didn’t want. For a single piece of wood of limited length I might have opted to use hand planes. However, with over 30 board feet of lumber to mill, I decided that a less strenuous method was called for.
There is not a single project that leaves my shop that doesn’t see the router at some point, so it seemed the logical tool to consider for surfacing the boards. My first surfacing jig was very basic – essentially a set of rails that fastened to the dog holes in my workbench and a sled that rode on top of the rails. I’ve made several improvements to this jig, and the one that I currently rely on is easy to use and very reliable. While its main purpose is to surface wide stock, this jig is also useful when routing dados and making mouldings. And, it works equally well with either a plunge or fixed base router for surfacing. However, for routing dados you will need to use a plunge router.
A router is an ideal tool to surface wide stock. All that you require is a method to fix the stock in place and a way to pass the router over the stock at a constant height. You can use either a spiral Onsrud or a mortising bit, and if the jig was designed properly and carefully constructed, the final surface should be straight and flat. For a super smooth surface you’ll want to finish up with some light sanding or a card scraper.
Choose your bit carefully though. I do not recommend using any bits with a ¼” shank for surfacing. The extra material in ½” shank bits make them much more rigid and able to resist breaking should you encounter a knot as you work your way across the surface of the board. When using a router in contact with a piece of wood, the cutting edge of the bit is at a distance from its place of support, namely, the collet. With the router mounted on the surfacing jig, there is additional space required under the router for the irregularities of the stock as well as the space between the underside of the router mounting plate and the top of the stock, which is determined by the thickness of the stock. This moves the cutting edge even further from the collet, adding additional stress to the bit shaft.
The method I use is based on the jig shown in another article, but the basic procedures are the same no matter what your jig looks like. Begin by fastening your stock in place on the bed of the jig, it must be held securely while the router is in use or you will damage the wood and your bit. The side clamping bars on the jig will hold most rough-sawn wood without any problem, but if you have some very irregular wood, you may need to place some support under it using wedges. With the wood set in place, determine where the lowest spot is on the stock. The amount of material you can remove per pass will depend on the type of bit you are using, how sharp the bit is and the species of wood you are working with. If in doubt, begin with a light test cut first, and then increase the depth. As the bit is moved through the wood, the cutting occurs at the side of the bit and the orientation of the carbide to the wood will determine the ease with which the bit will cut. A mortising bit with straight sides and a ½” shank is a solid bit that will do an adequate job in most cases. Choosing a mortising bit with the carbide set at an angle to the cut will produce a smooth cut on the side wall, while an upcut spiral bit will produce the best bottom surface. Solid carbide bits will stay sharp much longer than high-speed steel bits, but they are also much more rigid. This makes them susceptible to snapping off when subjected to excess stress. Because of this I don’t recommend using anything less than a ⅜” diameter bit. Once you get into the ½” and larger sizes, solid carbide spiral bits tend to get quite expensive. To surface end grain, such as on a cutting board, use a spiral up-cut bit as it will keep the end grain under tension as it cuts, resulting in a smooth surface without any torn grain and fuzz.
To avoid having accidental contact between the bit and any metal in the clamping arrangement, use a set-up block to set the maximum cut depth for your router bit. With the depth of the cut adjusted, set the router carriage at one end of the stock and use clamps to lock it in place. Slide the router across the width of the surface and return it to the start position between the stock and the clamp bar. Be sure to have the clamp bar located in the areas inaccessible to the bit along the outside edges, or set up some stop blocks to keep the bit from cutting into the face of the clamp bar if possible. Because the propel nuts are located on the inside edge of the clamp bar they will destroy the bit should there be any accidental contact.
If needed, use some thin plywood shims under the stock to raise the cut above this height.
When working on boards wider than your jointer and narrower than your thickness planer, you only need to surface one side of the board. With the first side brought into line it is a simple matter of running the stock through the thickness planer until you have arrived at the desired thickness. However, if the board is wider than the cutting width of your planer, then simply flip the stock over and use the surfacing jig to flatten the other side.
If you don’t have a jointer, or if a board is too wide to safely mill on a jointer, then you can joint the edges either on the router table or with a hand-held router.
To joint an edge on the router table you will need a fence that features two sacrificial faces like the one featured in my last shop jig article (see “Ultimate Router Fence”, Feb/Mar ‘09, Issue #58). By removing the out-feed fence and placing a shim behind it, the out-feed side is offset from the in-feed side in the same way the out-feed table on the jointer is offset from the in-feed table. If you are using a simple one-piece fence made from shop scraps, gluing a piece of laminate to the out-feed side will accomplish the same thing but the fence will now only be useable for jointing. For the best results when jointing the edge, use a solid ⅜” carbide spiral bit. A spiral bit reduces the angle the cutting edge meets the wood, much like a spiral cutter head on a jointer, and will result in a smoother cut on figured wood. Set the cutting edge of the bit level with the surface of the out-feed fence. Make multiple passes until the entire edge has been jointed.
If you don’t have a router table, or if you are working with a long board, then using a hand-held router may be a better option. To joint using a hand-held router you will need a guide for the router that is perfectly straight, as this is the edge that will be reproduced on the edge of the stock. The straight edge must be securely fastened to a flat face on the stock to be jointed before you begin. I use a length of Baltic birch plywood ripped on the table saw. Depending on the width of the board you are jointing, you can either use a piloted or non-piloted bit. If the board you are jointing is very wide, then there will be enough room between the edge of the guide and edge of the board to run the base of the router on the stock being jointed, in which case the edge of the router will run along the guide and you will not need a piloted bit. Be sure to keep the router in a consistent orientation for a straight edge. If the stock you are jointing is not very wide, then you will need to run the router base on the surface of the guide and use a piloted bit to follow the edge of the guide.
Surfacing and jointing stock with a router and a jig is certainly not as fast and convenient as using dedicated equipment such as a jointer and thickness planer, but if these tools are out of your budget or if you have some extra wide boards to mill, then using a router in combination with a jig is the next best thing. One of the things that surfacing jigs and routers are especially good at is levelling end grain cutting boards – this is simply not possible to do on a jointer, and difficult and time consuming to do with a sander.