Real World Hand Prepping

by | Aug 12, 2015 | 17 comments

How to use hand planes to flatten a board

For someone who hand planes everything when building furniture, I find that I traverse (or plane across the grain) very little.

I avoid it deliberately as I find the action suits neither our workbenches nor our bodies particularly well.

The reason that I thickness by hand is not because I’m stuck in the past, but because I believe the skills it requires are valuable throughout our work, and it adds a considerable depth and dimension to your finished pieces. Planing boards by hand is a part of my work that I’ve practiced, experimented with and researched, probably more than any other.

Much of the resources readily available in books or online cover the subject from a very fixed perspective of a single board, and I find this only adds to the sense that this type of work is laborious and time consuming. It doesn’t leave you feeling like you want to go out and tackle all of the timber needed for your six board chest.

The approach to hand preparing boards should vary almost as much as the timber you’re planing; no two pieces will be identical.
Traverse planing is one of the tricks that you should have up you sleeve, but I don’t feel that it should be called upon perhaps as much as people seem to feel today.

I”ll prepare most boards without any cross grain planing at all. This might seem unusual, but I can guarantee that it’s the most energy and time efficient way to get the job done in the real world (not the one board race).

A small amount of traversing goes a long way. One example of where I use it is to ensure absolute flatness on very wide boards (e.g panels) but only after I’ve taken down all of the high spots and I’m within a close tolerance of flat.

Anyone who exercises, will understand that if you go about something in the wrong way – e.g running with poor technique, then you’ll be burnt out almost instantly.

The same applies to hand planing. Understanding the term ‘the long haul’ and pacing yourself are absolutely fundamental, no one won a marathon for sprinting.

Hand planing should not feel like a marathon or a sprint, it should feel like a nice brisk walk, and once you find your pace you can walk all day.

It’s this progressive pace that gets hindered by cross grain planing, along with any technique that falls upon shoddy body dynamics.

Learn More About Hand Planing Techniques

An introduction to hand thicknessing is covered in Chapter One of Spoon Rack Series and in addition the Series includes a ‘Response Rant’ video, (our way of answering member’s questions in detail.) Traversing is discussed in this ‘Response Rant’ along with other thicknessing questions on seating the board and the choice of camber on my irons. There’s a quick extract in the video above. Details of the full Video Series can be found here.

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About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  1. Ken Haygarth

    Brilliant thanks for this one Richard, and not forgetting Helen 😉

  2. Len Aspell

    Helpful as ever. Thanks to you both.

  3. Paul Chapman

    Excellent explanation, Richard.

  4. Ed

    Do you have, or would you consider, a video series dedicated to stock preparation, e.g., surfacing and thicknessing by hand? Or, is this material only going to be embedded in other videos? With respect, and no offense intended, but I’m not sure I want to purchase the spoon rack series, especially if just for the stock prep, but I’d very likely purchase a stock preparation series especially if it went through your catalog of experience.

    Maybe you’re going to answer that you can’t separate the stock prep from the project, for example using layout techniques from reference faces so that all your stock doesn’t need to be exactly to thickness. I could accept that. Not sure that means a stock prep series is impossible, just that this would be one of the topics…how layout or even design interacts with stock prep.

    Actually, I thought you mentioned wanting to put up stock prep videos a long time ago :-). Maybe I’ve just missed them.

    • Richard

      Hi Ed,

      Yes it’s in the works to do a fully detailed stock prepping series. Where we can go from the humble board to the table leg to the panel etc. The plan is to do a lot more technique based videos in the future, whilst the project based ones provide an insight in to workflow and putting those techniques in to action.

  5. Harper

    Thanks Richard , Helen and of course Jeremy.
    I’ve just watched the video (at work) and wanted to come on and say what an excellent video series it’s been so far. I Found myself having to watch this video twice to get all the details, as I ended up laughing so much through the first watch! The humor is excellent, only Maguire could so naturally relate traverse planing to knocking somebody out! I know I’m echoing others but wanted to show my support. Thanks again and I wish you all the best in this venture.

    • Len Aspell

      Haha I agree Harper. I creased up when Richard said about giving a good welly if you want to knock someone out! I think the humour is excellent in all his videos and rants or maybe we are just on the same wavelength. The music is jaunty and the illustrations by Helen are first class when they appear.

  6. Martin Belz

    Richard & Helen:
    I have enjoyed your videos & rants immensely. I want to learn how to use hand tools to augment my power tools. I’m just scared. There I said it. It’s not the money. I’m terrified
    that I won’t get the plane blades or the chisels sharpened properly, and that I’ll just get totally discouraged when I’m trying to follow the lesson and just keep screwing up the pieces. Other than the proverbial “you just have to give it a go. How else are you going to learn”. Any other thoughts or words of wisdom that will help me pull the trigger (so to speak). Oh one other thing, this old man is not very computer literate. I will probably have to have one of my grandchildren help me down load the series.
    I hope I haven’t ramble you to sleep. Thank You both for your efforts. They are truly appreciated. Marty

    • Stefan

      Hi Marty,
      of course I’m not Richard nor Helen 😉 But I feel obliged to reply.
      I fully understand your doubts. It was (and sometimes still is) the same for me.
      I’ve started woodworking 3 years ago and my profession is completely different from that. It was clear for me that I would like to follow the hand tool only route. And my biggest concerns were – will I get my blades sharp?
      The answer is yes. I have bought some sharpening stones and an Eclipse honing guide and gave it a try. I grabbed one of the used chisels and tried to sharpen it.
      “The result” you maybe will ask. Well, let me say the chisel was more sharp than before.
      It wasn’t nice nor perfect and it took a while until I was able to generate reproducible results. And meanwhile I have banned the honing guide.
      What I want to say is – If I can do that you can do that too.
      Don’t get bewildered by all that specialist. There are some people out there who are doing sharpening just because of doing excellent sharpening and not of working wood.
      Sharpening your tools is bread and butter business in every woodworking shop.
      For me it is a necessary evil to do it and I don’t spent more time then necessary with it.
      Are my blades perfect? No, of course not. Are they sharp? The surgeon in the ER meant that he hadn’t seen such a perfect cut for a while. I guess that means they are sharp 😉

      Yes, you can!

    • Jasper

      You need to think without hesitation, to move without hesitation.

      So you should get rid of the doubt first. That will help you to learn and get better, with more flowing movement. After that, “give it a go”. Because yes, it needs practise. Work on your worst tools first.

    • Richard

      Hi Marty, that’s an excellent question. I think that the thing with using hand tools is there are skills to be learnt, and it doesn’t matter how well things are explained or simplified you can’t ignore this fact, and should be prepared to put in some practise. I always find that the best way to learn is to break everything down and set yourself achievable goals. Without the odd cock up you aren’t going to learn, so expect this.
      Start off with a simple goal, say to sharpen up a 3/4″ chisel, after all sharpness is the golden ticket to hand tool woodworking.
      Once you’ve succeeded get yourself a pint. Next goal, get a plane to take a shaving. Small consistent steps are the best for progressing and then slowly implement it in to your work without making too many massive changes at once. More on this to come.

      • Martin Belz

        To Richard & Stefan.
        Thank You both for the encouragement.
        To Richard.
        I have made the plunge & ordered the
        Spoon Rack video series.
        Wish me luck gentleman.

  7. Stefan

    Hi Richard,
    both the video and your blog post were eye opening for me.
    I’m doing my stock preparation by hand due to the lack of machines (and because I want it this way). But I often had the problem that it is pretty exhausting.
    I guess it is like running – you have to find your rhythm.

    I will give it a try and follow your advise the next time.


    • Richard

      This is a race where slow and steady does win, you can’t be precise when you’re knackered!

  8. fred wheeler

    Sign of a true craftsman. You know your stuff and can put it into practice. Keep it up.

  9. Shannon

    Richard, great stuff! This is where hand tool work gets REALLY interesting and fun. In fact, it is changes in approach and technique like you demonstrate here that is why I work with hand tools. Every board is different and applying a process to all the boards is madness and bound to be inefficient. I’m sure you could point to instances where traversing could be the best way forward, but like you, I find my approach changes based upon the board at hand and whatever will work fastest for me to flatten it.

    Now regarding planing stance, I love your description. “Fall into it to start it”. That is excellent. I find taking a big step forward in conjunction with that fall helps too as it lengthens your body and prevents you from falling too far and inadvertently tapering the board with too much pressure at the end of the stroke. (and that’s hard on the back). Then with the foot forward you have leverage to push your body back up to start the next stroke. When you get in a rhythm, its much more dance than work.

  10. Wim

    Hi Richard,
    I’m new into woodworking, and trying to get the hang of hand planing. I was wondering, what for you is “within a close tolerance of flat” ? I do know that when I’m done at this point, and I look everywhere with a thin flat ruler, there are always “some” spots where you can still see the light of the other side.


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