Tear-Out II: Bronze Oak Leaf’s Bane

A long time ago; in a galaxy far, far away. . .

. . . I wrote about grain direction, tear-out, something about an epiphany; blah, blah, blah.

Well, I’ve finally decided to finish my musings on how I learned to work a board.  Please, hold your applause ’till the end, it’s sure to be a convoluted mess of an explanation.

I have finally found some time to work on a couple interesting projects here at The Bronze Oak Leaf.  Well, okay, one interesting project and one made of plywood.  The plywood project isn’t so bad, except it’s made of plywood.  Absolutely no character to a piece of wood that won’t warp, twist, or otherwise make life miserable while you’re trying to tame it.

Solid wood is much more interesting (read: infuriating) to work.  It was alive at one time, and continues to live on in the form of individual cells that still soak up and expel water with changes in the environment.  But it’s not the fact that trees were at one time alive that is the point; it’s how they grow that affects how you work.

The project I was working on when I first got the idea to write about grain direction was the bookshelf I was building for my daughter.  Solid cherry, all naturally needing surfaced from the rough.

I was, as mentioned in the preceding post, monotonously feeding board after board into the thickness planer when I realized that I was flipping the boards according to growth ring orientation without even thinking.  When you think about which direction to feed a board into a planer, run across a jointer, or work with a handplane, you need to understand one simple fact: trees are cones.  TREES ARE CONES.  Big on the bottom, pointy on top.

This is the epiphany.  The blinding white light accompanied by the three-second blast of a thousand trumpets, violins, and angelic voices.  The proverbial palm-slap to the forehead.  The single most important concept to grasp before you can understand how you can work wood with minimal tear-out.

Try to follow me here, it’s a little difficult to explain.  Trees are cones.  Trees also grow at the rate of one growth ring per year.  Which means, every year, a new cone is stacked upon the preceding cone.  Picture that stack of cone cups you find attached to the water cooler.  That’s what the layers of a tree look like; cone upon cone, stacked up from the bottom to the pointy top.  Now picture this: cutting a straight line through the length of a tapered tree. tree grain Sorry, that’s the best I can do for illustration (click to enlarge).  Notice how you cut across the growth rings when you cut a plumb line through a tapered tree, forming the “cathedral” grain pattern you see with flat sawn lumber.  Notice how the growth rings on the end of the board tell you which is the bark side and which is the heart side.  This is the key to working your board in the right direction.grain 003

grain 002

Note the growth ring orientation

On the heart side, you work with the “cathedral” grain pattern, in the same direction it’s pointing.  On the bark side, you work against the “cathedral”, into the point.  Think about the way a tree grows; the way the growth rings form, and it becomes clearer.

I did not come up with this idea on my own, and I admit, I had to ruminate on this for some time before I understood it (I can be a little thick).  But once I “got” it, it truly changed my perception of handplanes, scrapers, planers and jointers.

For handplanes, the benefit is obvious (if you’re new to hand tools or if you’ve ever struggled to make a nice surface with one), but this method also helps when surfacing misbehaving boards in the planer.  Just make sure you’re feeding them into the planer with the right side up.grain 010

Remember, the planer cuts toward you.

Well, I’m sure this is as clear as mud.  Just think about it for awhile, it’ll come to you.  And it really will change the way you work with wood.

About Sam

Young, good-looking, manly--you get the picture. Novice woodworker with just too much rolling around upstairs to keep to myself. Random thoughts, philosophical questions, the occasional flash of insight or just dumb luck that needs to be shared with anyone who cares.
This entry was posted in Nuts and Bolts. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Tear-Out II: Bronze Oak Leaf’s Bane

  1. Tom Baker says:

    I’m still wondering around through the mud you mentioned, attempting to grasp the theory. You mention when on the bark side, plane against the cathedral to work with the grain. In my mind, and taking your drawing into consideration, I can’t get it out of my mind that there exists the possibility of picking up a cathedral point, and pealing off a whole growth ring. That is extreme I admit, but I keep thinking that from the bark side, the growth rings – aka cathedrals – get more narrow because of the cone shape going up the tree.
    I’ll keep thinking about this as I continue to use my current method of planing direction, if there’s tear out, turn the board around.
    Thanks for the puzzel, Tom.

    • Sam says:


      Glad to hear it made you think! It’s a tough concept, I know. I get what you mean about peeling off a growth ring–that’s what would happen on the heart side (theoretically) If you plane against the cathedral. Look at my drawing, note that the area between the red lines is the edge of the board, and the red lines themselves are the faces. On the heart side, the growth rings are pointing up; on the bark side, they’re pointing down. Planing against them- in the opposite direction that they’re pointing, would be like petting a cat from back to front. If all else fails, get a stack of cone-shaped cups, flatten them on your bench, and cut a strip out like the red lines on the drawing. You’ll see which way the layers of cups are laying on the bark side and the heart side, and it will be obvious which direction you could smoothly run your finger along them.

      Think about it for awhile and let me know

  2. Jason says:

    Great Job Sam,
    Christine and I both enjoyed your writing on this. I will surely give this a try with handplane and surface planing. This gave me a good mental image and plenty of info to get me going.


  3. Tom Baker says:

    OK, it works. Planed some nice cherry today. Followed your method for determining grain direction, and didn’t have any problems with tear out.
    Thanks for the tip.

  4. Ronnie Paul says:

    I never thought about this before. Awesome!,,,,,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s