Friday, December 5, 2014

Beyond The Vise, Part Deux: Shooting Boards

Squaring up the end of a workpiece on a shooting board.

At the end of my Popular Woodworking University webinar, Beyond the Vise: Workholding for Hand Tools, editor Megan Fitzpatrick suggested a followup on shooting boards. She said she gets so many questions about how to make perfect saw cuts. She always tells people, "You don't, no one does, you use a shooting board."

That's the magic of shooting boards. They allow your sawing to be rough, then they clean up the cut to a dazzling degree of precision. That works for square crosscuts and all manner of miter cuts.

Even if you are able to saw perfectly, a saw can never match the surface left by a sharp plane and a shooting board. That's the other magic. You can get end grain almost as smooth as edge grain. Mitered end grain comes off the shooting board with an amazing glassy surface.

In my followup webinar, Beyond The Vise, Part Deux: Shooting Boards, December 17 at 8:30pm EST, I'll cover everything you need to know to start using shooting boards to take your hand tool woodworking to the next level of precision. If you missed the first one, you can get a bundle of both.

Shooting boards are the precision secret weapons of hand tool woodworking. They really are that good. Not just an aid, they're vital members of the team formed by saws and planes. As shop appliances go, they require more care in construction and use than most to avoid wasting the precision they provide.

Shooting boards come in four basic flavors:
  • The bread-and-butter shooting board for shooting square end grain, used constantly for the EL (End, Length) steps of the FEWTEL sequence to produce precision dimensioned parts.
  • The flat miter shooting board, for mitering the corners of flat frames and moulding.
  • The angled bed shooting board, for mitering inside corners along edges or ends.
  • The donkey's ear, for mitering outside corners.
The most common miter shooting boards are for square corners, but specialized fixed or adjustable versions can handle other angles. These are used to produce multi-sided figures or segmented approximations to curved surfaces.

For each style, there are a variety of designs that have evolved over the years. Some include strategies for micro-adjustability to dial in the angle perfectly. For those that don't, a few judiciously placed layers of blue tape can fine tune it, acting as temporary shims.

Many shooting board designs are a variation of the basic bench hook. They have a front hook that catches on the front of the workbench, and a rear stop to catch the workpiece. The main difference is that the rear stop is very carefully fitted to an exact angle. This makes the shooting board a precision instrument, as opposed to the crude bench hook.

For speed and efficiency, you can use this setup just like a bench hook: just hook the board, hook the piece, and plane away. However, if this gets to be too much loose stuff to manage, you can secure the board's hook edge in a vise, or clamp the rear stop down with a hold fast. This extra stability is especially helpful for beginners, reducing the number of things that can slide around.

You can use a variety of different planes for shooting. There are specialty shooting planes, but they tend to be relatively expensive, so are much less common. Large bench planes work well because they have a lot of mass. This provides momentum to carry them through the cut across tough end grain. Block planes also work well, because they have a lower cutting angle for shearing the end grain, and they cup nicely in the palm for a good power stroke.

Whatever type of plane you use, the iron needs to be sharp. A freshly sharpened iron makes a huge difference in the quality of surface left behind on the wood.

Shooting miters is great fun, very satisfying. Mitered joints can be fussy because they require high accuracy to close up properly. A well-tuned shooting board makes this easy.

I'll go through this and more in the webinar, and you can ask questions live online. You can sign up for it here (or get the two-webinar bundle here). It'll make your hand tool woodworking much more precise.

For a micro-shimmable miter shooting board, see my companion blog post at Popular Woodworking Magazine.

You can also see videos of one method for making shooting boards at this two-part post. The combination shooting board in the second video is featured in the webinar.


  1. Steve, the link to the webinar doesn't work. Are they still available?


    1. Hi John, thanks for pointing that out! I've updated the links to the download purchase pages. They changed once the live webinar was over.


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