Threshold techniques

Σκάνδαλον (skándalon) Greek – properly, the trigger of a trap (the mechanism closing a trap down on the unsuspecting victim); stumbling block.

Caution – danger of stumbling

I have come to understand that there are certain techniques in every field that present themselves as thresholds to novices even as they are mindlessly routine to someone more proficient. They are stumbling blocks long before they become stepping stones, and learning to shoot the ends of work square and straight seems to be one of those places for people.

When I switched over to hand tools I didn’t know enough to be intimidated by shooting stock. I built myself a bench hook that doubled as a shooting board when flipped over and I got to work. Shooting small stock with my block plane was a breeze but I soon became frustrated with larger and wider pieces realizing that to shoot well (or at least to the standard I was seeking) I really needed a slightly more dedicated setup than a jack plane and my bench hook.

I’ve been through all sorts of make-shift shooting scenereos and this is what I’ve learned: The act of shooting is as simple as having a method to hold the work square while a sharp blade trims the end square to the side, but this is all easier said than done (well).

Shooting is easier with a stationary target, but there are a lot of moving parts here. First of all, the blade needs to be very sharp and it needs to be returned to that order of sharpness regularly. The method of holding the work also needs to be secure so as not to move around freely when you’re trying to figure out how to simultaneously manage lateral force against the work, driving force past the work and the lateral shear that is sometimes induced by the edge of the work as it is brought into square. Finally, there’s the secret that no one tells you but everyone figures out very quickly – that bench planes aren’t really designed to be used on their sides and are difficult to use this way without an additional holding apparatus or some alien contortion of your hand.

For a time, I put all that together the best I could and I was having some moderate success using a no.6  bench plane set up as a dedicated shooting plane, but my shooting board still left a lot to be desired and it was hard work.  And then shooting enlightenment finally came to me last fall at a Lie-Nielsen hand tool event in Durham NC  when Zen master John Parkinson got out the shooting board and no. 51 shooting plane. A few passes with that monster on some soft maple and I understood life, the universe and everything.

When I came back down the mountain, all of the shortcomings of my setup were apparent, but learning to work with what you’ve got teaches you some very important lessons about what you need:

  • Lateral control – Unless you’re a masochist you really benefit from some way of trapping the plane in a track to fight against the lateral forces pushing it away from the work. This saves the muscles in your hand and arm all sorts of problems and makes good results more repeatable. Regardless of the plane, a good shooting board will offer this sort of control.
  • Adequate work holding capacity – I know some people can shoot on skinny little bench hooks but in my experience, you really gain an advantage if the bed of your shooting board is wide and flat. You don’t need the bed to be 3′ long  (along the fence) and 2′ deep, but 18″ long is not unreasonable and 12″ is about  the smallest measurement (from front to fence) that I have found to be adequate.
  • Accurate work holding capacity – It goes without saying that the bed of the shooting board needs to be flat and the fence needs to be dead square to the plane. This isn’t really hard to achieve, but it requires attention right from the get-go.
  • Stability – Like a good bench hook, a good shooting board will have the capacity to anchor itself to your workbench solidly. Better designs incorporate some way for the bench vise or planing stop to play an active role in anchoring the shooting board so that lateral movement is eliminated.

As I was waiting for the panels on my current commission to dry last week, I set out to build myself a better shooting board. I started off by researching other shooting boards for a while and there are some very impressive designs. Inclined boards seem to be very popular at the moment. So do boards with movable fences. I understand the allure of both, but designs of that order have always seemed needlessly complex to me. I finally came back to a design that has been on my clip board of future projects for a while (you keep one of those hanging in your shop don’t you?) and began working off of the shooting board plans from Lie-Nielsen.

I made some alterations by eliminating the left hand track and increasing the dimensions. Including the track my board is roughly 15″ x 24″ although there’s some room to trim that width back. I also used 1/2″ birch plywood instead of MDF because, well, because I hate working with MDF. It also cut back on the weight and let me make a bigger board.


I cut one piece 15″ x 24″ and face glued another 15″ x 18″ board to it. I let that sit in clamps overnight.


After making sure all the edges were dead square I cut a fence from red oak. The oak was scrap from my leg vise, and made a good fence because you want something that wears well over time. I glued and screwed my fence to the board. You can also just screw this down in case you want to adjust it (or replace it) later, but that seems like an Achilles heel to me. If you can move it intentionally, you can move it unintentionally and I don’t want the fence to move. If it ever gets so worn I need to replace it I’ll build a new board.


Oh, and adjusting it is easy. It takes almost no time to square it with a shoulder plane.


I also had a piece of 1/4″ red oak waiting to become the track fence for the plane itself, but I needed the plane in hand to do the final fitting on that.

That means there’s more to come…


One Comment Add yours

  1. erikhinkston says:

    Anxiously waiting for the next chapter, I have felt this was a missing skill set for me. I’ve been considering the LN and the Veritas versions as the remedy for this. As my father used to say ” the right tool for the right job makes all the difference in the world”.

    Liked by 1 person

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