Planers are one of the quintessential tools in woodworking. It helps flatten rough surfaces, burrs, and uneven wood pieces. However, knowing how to plane small pieces of wood can be tricky. Most planer manufacturers don’t recommend planing workpieces that are smaller than 12 inches. So if you have small pieces to work on, you’re faced with a real challenge.
Why can’t you plane small pieces of wood?
As mentioned, most planers are suitable for wood pieces that are at least 12 inches long. To help understand the concept behind this limit, let me discuss how planers work in the first place.
Planer machines have three main parts: an infeed roller, cutter head, and outfeed roller. The infeed roller grabs the wood piece and brings it into the cutter head. As the wood piece advances, it will be grabbed by the outfeed roller to release it. This allows the planer to move the wood piece properly.
But if you have a wood piece shorter than 12 inches, there wouldn’t be enough length for the infeed and outfeed rollers to push the wood out. What will happen is that the small wood piece will get stuck in the cutter head. It could jam the planer or even damage the cutter itself.
This is the case with planer machines that automatically move the wood piece once you loaded it in. If you’re facing this struggle, there are three potential methods you can try as a workaround.
Methods to plane small pieces of wood
Method 1: Plane it before you cut it
The first thing you can try is planing the wood before chopping it to pieces. Still, I recognize the fact that this option only works if you still have the larger wood piece intact.
Woodworking takes a lot of planning. You have to list down the processes you need to perform, so you won’t cut the wood even before planing it. This would save you from a lot of trouble and extra time trying to flatten small pieces of wood.
Method 2: Tape the small pieces
If the wood is already cut into small pieces, the only way I know to flatten it using a planer machine is by taping it on a bigger slab.
For this method, you need carpenter’s tape and a slab of wood that fits well with the thickness you want to achieve. Basically, you have to tape the wood pieces into the slab, ensuring that it creates a solid shape. For example, if you have square wood pieces, you should tape them on a straight line to make a timber-like structure.
This will let you plane the wood pieces without too much hassle. Once you’ve achieved the thickness you like, you can pry the small pieces using a screwdriver. After that, remove the carpenter’s tape. There’s no need to worry if some sticky adhesive was left on the wood since you can sand it out later.
Method 3: Use a hand planer instead
If it’s not possible to tape the wood pieces, you can use a hand planer instead. Unlike stationary planer machines, hand planers are like jigsaws that you can lift and control with your hand.
To plane small wood pieces with a hand planer, you can pass the wood into the blade. This way, it wouldn’t get stuck on the rolling cutter blades of the planer.
If the wood pieces are too small and can potentially cut your finger when fed into a hand planer, you can use carpenter tape again.
Another option you have is using a jack plane. It’s available in different lengths to suit the wood pieces you have to flatten.
Tips in planing wood
Planing wood is a very straightforward process. You feed the wood into the machine, and it will come out smooth and trimmed. But for the best results, you should keep the following tips in mind:
- Prep your wood. If you have a fairly thick and rough wood, you can give it a head start by using a jack plane. This will help remove the roughest parts, so your planer machine won’t labor too much.
- Maintain your tool. As much as planer machines are powerful tools, these items still need proper maintenance. Check the cutter blade regularly and make sure that it’s sharp and not chipped. You should also replace the planer blades once it’s dull.
- Use thin passes. Thin passes are the best way to plane any type of wood. Although you’ll need to perform multiple passes, thin trims each time will prevent damages to the workpiece.
- Consider the grain direction. You have to avoid the cutter head from hitting the end of the wood’s fiber grains while planing. When that happens, you won’t have a smooth finish. This is why you should plane your wood with the fibers pointing away from the blade.
- Follow manufacturer recommendations. You should always refer to the user manual of your planer to ensure the best result on your workpiece. It includes maintenance, how to use the planer, and what to avoid.
What do wood plane numbers mean?
Hand planes are often marked with numbers, which indicate the length of the plane. This is why you’ll hear woodworkers asking for “number 5’ or “number seven” when purchasing new planes.
This numbering system ranges from 1 to 8, with one being the shortest of all the hand planes. After number 8, there are specialized planes with weird numbering systems.
To give you an idea, hand planes number 4 and 7 are smoother and jointer planes, respectively. Meanwhile, plane number 5 is a jack plane, and number 6 is a fore plane. These are the widely used planes on most woodworking shops, though you can still spot long number 8 planes from time to time.
Take note that you can also encounter planes with halves and quarters. For example, there are 4 ½ and 5 ¼ planes, which is simply a more specific take on the length of the tool.
Is a thickness planer worth it?
A thickness planer is a must-have for serious woodworkers. This tool flattens boards consistently throughout its length. It gives you control over the stock thickness across wood types.
The only downside to this tool is the high upfront cost. While you need to invest a large sum, a thickness planer will pay for itself on your projects.
What do you do if you don’t have a planer?
If you don’t have a planer yet, there are some alternatives you can try. Still, nothing beats the convenience and results a real planer can deliver.
- Use a table saw. If you need to plane a large board and your current planer isn’t big enough, a table saw will come in handy. Just make sure that you keep moving the board smoothly into the blade to prevent burn marks.
- Utilize a jack plane. For those who don’t have the budget for a planer machine yet, the old-school jack plane never goes out of style. Although it will take longer to plane an entire board with this tool, it delivers great results.
- Use a drum sander. From thin trims, a drum sander will be an excellent alternative. It will give you a fine finish since it has sandpaper instead of blades. However, this method is only practical for minimal planing since it will take a long to remove a sizeable thickness with a drum sander alone.
Use a router. Routers work similarly to a table saw. It can cut wood, but you need to set up a jig if you want this to work as an alternative to a planer.
Knowing how to plane small pieces of wood is a good addition to your knowledge as a woodworker. It’s a tricky task with an easy workaround. You can experiment with different methods to see which works best for your project. Just make sure that your planer is well maintained with sharp blades.