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Why you need a Shooting Board..

Updated: Jul 3

Question. If you have a piece of wood that you want to square one end of perfectly. And if you don’t own a drop saw, table saw, fancy hand saw guide or a disk sander, how do you complete this task quickly, easily and accurately? Best answer, use a hand plane and shooting board.

No doubt you have heard of shooting boards by now. It seems that everyone is planning to build one or is using one already. This is because the humble shooting board is probably the most useful jig you can have in your workshop. Yet if you are one of those rare ones who is not familiar with shooting boards, here’s the deal. These are a simple jig designed to hold a board in position while you hand plane around its edges. You can plane across the end grain of your board trimming and squaring it at ninety degrees to the leading edge. Or you can plane along the length of your board creating a jointed edge. Both your edges are also planed at ninety degrees to the board face. If you are an enthusiast working in a small shop without access to cross cutting or jointing machinery, welcome to the promise land.

Your shooting board will soon become your best friend.

There is nothing particularly difficult about making your own shooting board. The real challenge for the average enthusiast is probably sourcing the materials. Shooting boards are best made from composite materials that are available mostly in sheet sizes of 1200 x 2400mm. These are a little hard to get on the roof racks and as the average shooting board requires less than a square metre of material to make, you will end up with a workshop full of leftovers. You can purchase your materials cut down to size from the big box hardware stores, though the quality there can be a little off. Alternatively, you could simply use solid timber, not a bad idea, yet there’s a few challenges when using solid timber for a shooting board, more about that later.

Shooting boards have a straightforward design. The usual construction is two pieces of composite material laminated together face to face. The bottom part I call the running board. It should be heavy and thick to provide your hand plane with a solid stable base to run along smoothly. 25mm thick MDF is perfect for this part. The upper part I call the top plate. This can also be made from MDF, though an all MDF shooting board is not particularly wood-workery. Better to go with some 9mm thick quality plywood which is far more attractive and will certainly help to improve your woodworking image. Plywood is also very durable. This is important as your top plate requires a little rabbeted edge along its length to accommodate the offset of the blade in your hand plane. This little edge will cop a lot of action throughout its life so the material must be robust. You can harden this edge by adding a coat or two of CA glue sanded back smooth. The fence and underside stop block should be made from some sort of stable straight grained hardwood, both are glued and screwed to the MDF running board. To reduce friction when planing, finish the running board with polyurethane and wax regularly to protect and polish the surface.

The little Rabetted edge will cop a lot of action.

There are three things you must get right when you build your own shooting board. Firstly. Make it long enough so that your plane mouth runs right through and past the fence. This will help you keep your plane running straight and not kicking out at the end of the cut. You will find this particularly useful as you are learning to use the shooting board. You can use practically any type of plane on a shooting board, the Jack being the most common. You could use a number seven if you wanted to complete more jointing type tasks. You can also use a block plane for more detailed work. Whatever you plane choose, just make sure your shooting board is long enough to accommodate its action. Woodworkers will often make several different sized shooting boards to accommodate different types of planes.

Secondly. Your shooting board must a slight bow along its length with the high point being at its centre. The bow only needs to be a couple of millimetres of deflection, yet this is critical to its performance as this bow ensures the hand plane will always run perfectly vertically at ninety degrees to the top plate. If the board bows the other way, the plane may tip slightly during the cut and ruin your cut. A perfectly flat shooting board would work I suppose - however this is woodworking people so keep in mind that nothing is ever perfectly flat. This takes us back to the idea of using solid timber to make your shooting board. Composite materials are generally more stable than solid timber, and it is a straightforward task to laminate composite materials into a bowed shape. Whereas with solid timber, shaping out a perfect curve with two to three millimetres of deflection along a length of up to 700mm can be a challenge. Solid timber may also twist a little as the weather changes. I suppose you could do a full lamination using solid timber to get around the bow and movement issue, but why would you bother with that? Go with composites and rest easy.

Make you shooting board long enough to support he plane right through the cut.

Thirdly. The fence must be set at a perfect ninety degrees to the rabbeted edge of the top plate. Well der! I hear you say. Getting this right depends on the way you assemble your shooting board. My humble advice would be once you have laminated the running board and top plate together, resist the urge to mark out the position of the fence and fix it into position. Better to set your hand plane down on the running board hard up against the rabbeted edge as if you were going to use it. Then place your best carpenters square in position against the sole of your plane and use this setup to position the fence. Once you are happy with the layout, add some glue and hold the fence in place against the square until it tacks off, then fix it with screws. Oh! Be sure to pre-drill your fence and stop block, otherwise it could get messy.

Like everything in woodworking, the best way to learn how to use your shooting board is to just get in and use it, all I can do is offer a couple of tips. Your plane blade needs to be sharp. Very sharp. Particularly when planing end grain. And by design, because you are using the same part of the plane blade over and over, be prepared to hone up your blade regularly. You can moderate this sharpening regime by setting your running board on an angle allowing the full width of the blade to be used. You can also take pressure off sharpening by purchasing a shooting hand plane featuring an angled mouth and blade. These work well as they shear cut the material, though keep in mind that it is just another blade you must maintain. I clamp my shooting board to the bench when in use by fixing the underside stop block in my bench vice. This is not completely necessary, however when you are focused on the job and get a rhythm going, or if the plane catches on the draw stroke for some reason, the board may slip a little. I do not want to see my Veritas Jack laying on the floor with a big ding and broken handle. Stuff happens and that ain’t covered by warranty.

Avoid dramas and clamp your shooting board to the bench just in case.

Ok. Picture yourself standing there with your sharp plane, shooting board fixed to the bench and a piece of wood that needs planing, now what? To answer that question thoroughly would take at least another thousand words so I’ll go with the short version. Push your material up against the fence either along the grain or across with less than a millimetre of material sticking out. Make a pass with your hand plane and see what happens. Probably nothing life changing. You may need to adjust the amount of material sticking out. You will no doubt need to adjust your plane setting. Maybe you will panic and just go use the jointer instead. Whatever. Like I said, learning to use your shooting board simply comes down to just using it over and over until you work it out.

If you are planing across the grain, you will often encounter tear out on the far edge. It’s not reasonable to expect the fence of you shooting board to resolve this problem as it is inevitable that there will always be a tiny gap between the end of the fence and the tip of the blade. You can support the far edge by using a sacrificial block, alternatively scribe or chamfer the far edge to relieve the grain. If you are jointing along the grain, the workpiece may slip occasionally particularly if your board is longer. I sometimes use a block clamped to the fence to stop the work slipping, however this method can be a clumsy. Over time I have learned to pin the work in position using my body weight. If you are jointing a narrow piece and are holding it in position by hand, make sure your fingers are well out of the way. Planing them really hurts. Convention says that the plane sole should always be up hard against the top plate rabbeted edge. This is certainly true when planing across the grain to create a ninety-degree end. Yet there are times when I allow my plane to slide all over the running board shaping and trimming the work depending on the type of edge I need. I use this approach when I want to knock a rough or bowed edge into shape before I make those crucial final passes.

From here the world is your oyster. Use your shooting board to trim and joint fine edges quickly, easily and accurately. No need to switch on a machine and don earmuffs. You won’t miss a second of your favourite tune or a single ball of the cricket. And it feels good using a shooting board. The action. The sound. You are close to the material - this is woodworking. There is no need to clutter your workspace with a big machines or endless gadgets. Keep it simple and live in the moment.

To learn more about shooting boards consider attending our upcoming Shooting Board mini-Masterclass at the Wood Play Studio. If you want to build a shooting board, check out our Shooting Board Kits available from Wood Play Studio.

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