A bit of detective work

Here’s a short break from the usual fare to help you train your eyes for the next time you’re around a woodworking shop. Perhaps you’ll see old photos of folks working at a shop, or you’ll come around our shop when people aren’t actively working, and you’ll see piles of wood shavings. If you’re like me, your mind may start to imagine what kind of work was being done to make those shavings. Well, here’s a little primer on wood shaving identification to bring out the detective in you.

When most people think of wood shavings, they think of the sexy ribbony things you see in woodworking tool catalogs. The folks at Lie-Nielson Toolworks, for instance, are crazy for showing these kinds of shavings.

They conjure up images of master craftsmen making beautiful things. Mmm.

The detective brain will soon be bored with that golden-lit vision though, and start to wonder, just what were they actually doing? The shavings can tell you a little about this.

Around a modern shop, you’re likely to see lots of shavings that look like this.

These are a little crumbly, and the grain usually runs perpendicular to the long edge. They’re often found in great quantity. Sometimes they’re small and broken up.

They come from this tool (or one that works like it):

Yep, a power planer. The power planer has a pair of blades on a rotating shaft that just nick the wood as the tool passes over them. The shape of the shaving comes from the scooping action of the blade as it rotates down into and then up out of the wood.

Here’s another shaving, that’s just about as opposite the power planer shaving as you could imagine. That’s a planer shaving on the left for comparison.

You’ll often see these in large piles too.

These big shavings come from a ship’s adze.

That’s Walt shaping a curved stern plank. You can see how close he’s getting to his layout lines. In the right hands, an adze can be a very precise tool. He’ll finish with a hand plane, but this tool will do almost all of the work.

And on a side note, he’s not using the adze to be old-timey or traditional. He’s using it because it takes off a large amount of wood quickly, efficiently, and accurately. In other words, it’s better than any other tool we’ve got, modern power tools included.

The shavings that most people think about come from planes.

(I know, not nearly as sexy as the catalog photos!)

What you may not know is that the same plane can make very different looking shavings. When you see round, curly shavings like this, you know that the plane has been pushed straight down the work with the blade perpendicular to the direction of travel. Like this:

However, if you skew the plane a bit, like this,

and push the plane along the wood with the blade now slicing the wood at an angle, you get long spiral shavings.

This is called a skew cut, and it adds a slicing component to the normal paring action of a plane blade. It’s a useful technique for dealing with tough woods or end grain.

Some planes have the skew built into them, so you get a skew cut even with the plane body held parallel to the direction of travel. Here’s an older rabbet plane set up like that,

and a modern side-rabbet plane.

Lastly, you may see shavings that are rather flat. They’re very thin, and if you handle them, they fall apart. That’s what end grain shavings look like.

The Renaissance Woodworker

If you think of wood as a bundle of straws glued together, the end grain is where all the holes are. It’s very tricky to plane, and your tools need to be razor sharp to get these kinds of shavings.

So, there you go. Piles of short, broken shavings: power planer. Big chips: an adze (or broad axe). Curly shavings: a plane running straight down the wood. Long twisted ribbons: a plane with the blade skewed. Flat shavings that crumble easily: a plane working on end grain.

And lastly, a little something to tweak the jealousy of any woodworkers reading this. Sometimes we can’t help but marvel at the absolutely beautiful wood we are working with. This is the edge of a section of white oak that became a bow plank recently.

The ray fleck pattern lets you know that you’re looking at a quartersawn section. The light and dark coloring show the differences in moisture content. This is very green wood, and you can see how it’s been drying. You’re looking at the edge of the plank, and the light areas are the top and bottom faces that are drying as they’ve been exposed to the air. The darker inner wood hasn’t dried yet, and it’s moist to the touch. That darker color is close to what the wood would look like if it were oiled after drying.

We’re pretty lucky around here.