Douglas fir, tearout, and Yorkies

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    Craig Alderson

    I’ve been working on a 2′ x 4′ cabinet top made from planks of quarter-sawn (a.k.a. “vertical grain” at the hardware store) Doug fir. The planks are repurposed stair treads. Glued up fine, flattened fine, but I’ve gotten a lot of tearout across the surface despite my best efforts. I believe the plane iron was sufficiently sharp, and I tried various techniques: diagonal strokes, skewed strokes, very light set, reversing direction, etc. Despite being as careful as I could, I couldn’t avoid tearout. The wood itself looks gorgeous, so this has all been disappointing. The surface is for the top of a garage cabinet and will undoubtedly get dinged and dented over time, so I’m not fretting too much, but I’d like to figure this out for nicer projects in the future.

    Doug fir seems to especially prone to tearout. This is not the first time I’ve had tearout woes when working with this wood. Would a York angle on my plane (so the blade presents at 55* instead of 45*) be a good way to deal with it? If so, how does one grind or sharpen to a York angle? If a York angle wouldn’t defeat the tearout, what would?

    Also, in Scotland, do they call it Dougie fir?


    I’ve done most of my woodworking so far in pine / fir.

    I’ve had much the same experience as you. A higher angle plane might help. I have a second iron sharpened at the right angle (bought like that).

    Scrapers might help, although not that effective on pine / fir, they do work to a point.

    I would suggest looking at the Third Coast Craftsman YouTube channel. He has an excellent video on tuning planes, much more than just sharpening the iron. It helped me a lot.

    Also, sharpen often, much more often than you’d think.

    At the end of the day though, fir / pine is often wild and hard to work in my experience. If you are able to, try things like Poplar, less expensive than hardwoods but nicer to work than pine / fir.

    Hope that helps.


    Craig Alderson

    Thanks, for the lead, Darren. I’ll check out Third Coast. That’s good advice about sharpening. Paul often talks about “sharpening to task,” but I’m not quite sure how to get a higher effective plane angle. Since the plane angle in Stanleys is fixed, it seems the only option is to bevel the back of the iron, but that also seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom about having a flat back. I could certainly try it, but I don’t want to mess up a perfectly good blade.

    I’ll be working in Doug fir and pine for a while. We did extensive remodeling of our house a few years ago, so I have a large stash of 110-year-old old growth studs that just demand something be done with them. The remodeling gutted our garage, so I’ve been slowly (painfully slowly) building a workspace from scratch. Once I finish this cabinet, I’ll finally have a place to put a sharpening station, so I can sharpen much more often. I live in a college town, and at the end of the school year our streets are littered with kids abandoning their IKEA furniture. Tip for scavengers: IKEA beds actually have some pretty good, usable wood, primarily pine and IKEA mystery wood. Takes a little more work to get the raw material I need, but, on the other hand, it’s free.

    Craig Alderson

    Oops! Grammar time. Our streets aren’t littered with kids abandoning their furniture, they’re littered with furniture abandoned by the kids.


    Hi Craig,

    I found that setting the cap iron really tight in to the edge helps, using a standard Stanley/Record plane. You’ll need very little setting on the plane and very little camber on the iron (essentially none beyond rounded edges). Shavings immediately get kind of pressed back into the board when hitting the cap iron. That prevents the tear-out. You feel a bit more resistance when pushing the plane compared to a “standard” setting. Shavings will look a bit like an accordion. The cap iron needs to be properly prepared, leaving not the slightest gap to the plane iron.


    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by tilman.
    Craig Alderson

    Hi Tilman, Thanks! I’ll definitely try that. Along those lines would closing the mouth help? I guess that would require moving the frog forward, but wouldn’t that leave the forward edge of the plane unsupported and lead to chatter? Craig

    Roberto Fischer

    My experience is also mostly with pine, including the super knotty 2nd grade stuff from big box stores. I have a #3 that I always keep with a very close cap iron, as close as it gets, and I only use it for finishing. That configuration seems to deal with the craziest grain around knots. Card scrapers seem to only make the surface of these soft woods feel furry.

    Also, a note on the cap iron: I’m not sure what angle these come prepared with, but I “sharpened” mine so it’s at around 80 degrees to the back of the cutting iron. From what I understand, high angles like this are what makes the cap iron effective. If it’s a smaller angle, it won’t really bend the shavings coming out which is what prevents tear out.

    Final note, watch this:


    Pine and fir have a lot of knots, presenting two problems. They will dull your iron very quickly and the wood near them has reversing grain prone to tearout.

    If you are able to get clear stair treads the knots won’t be a problem. On knotty woods it is very difficult to avoid tearout completely. Heavy stock removal will leave tearout around knots because the grain is so wild there. A heavily cambered iron prevents the cap iron from being set closely on a Bailey plane and there is no cap on a scrub to adjust.

    My goal with fir is to minimize tearout, not eliminate it. Try light cuts around knots to determine the local grain direction. Make sure you know the angle the knot is coming through the surface to keep the surface smooth and minimize impact to the blade. Wetting knots with some mineral spirits can help.

    My typical routine for rough sawn or construction lumber is to start with a heavily cambered #5 across the grain/diagonally if the board is wide enough. Once I am flat on the first side I use a #7 with a less cambered iron with the grain but also checking for twist at the corners. Going with the grain will only be cutting the crests of the ridges at first so any signs of tearout won’t persist if you are able to correct them by switching direction. I’ll finish with a #4 or a 4-1/2 with a 50 degree frog if necessary.

    I find fir to be prone to splintering and tough. Yellow pine is also tough but I don’t find that in my area. White pine is very nice and is the dominant species for my part of the country. Same tearout issues with knots but less severe than fir.

    The usual advice: sharp iron, close cap iron when possible, the steep iron can be bought in the form of a high angle frog from LN or make a Krenov style plane with the pitch you want. Keep the plane sole waxed so you can tell what is going on at the edge.

    Where do you find clear fir stair treads?

    Craig Alderson

    Hi Cunha,

    When you’re working with reclaimed/recycled/repurposed wood, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to choose the best cuts. You often have to take the knots where you find them and do your best with them. That’s been my lot. I’ve found that some knots aren’t too bad and can be planed without too much difficulty, and the surrounding grain, while not ideal, is at least fairly well-behaved. Others are like iron, the surrounding grain is really surly, and they are truly miserable. On some newer doug fir, the late growth rings are thick and can be almost as tough as the knots themselves, and they’ll dull your edge about as quickly. I feel kinda dopey saying this, but it didn’t occur to me until you pointed it out that the stair treads were clear fir. Indeed, no knots! I got them as routine items down at my local building materials place here in the San Francisco bay area. 11″ wide, 48″ long, 1″ thick, with a bullnose along one edge. And quarter-sawn, to boot. I had to replace some rotted stair treads on my back porch around 2012, and when we did our remodeling in 2014-15, they came back up. I certainly wasn’t going to let them be taken to the dump, which would have been their fate otherwise. Perfectly good wood.

    Roberto, thanks for the link to the English Woodworker. Entertaining and useful. I watched a few of his videos and then came to this one, which was exactly on topic: “How to control tear out with hand planes — understanding the cap iron” ( This is intriguing. According to the videos, mouth size and blade angle aren’t critical factors for avoiding tearout, but cap iron placement is. So now I’ll be heading out to the garage to experiment and see whether it does the trick with the doug fir.



    A couple of items come to mind. If you are able to set the cap iron close enough to control tearout it suggests a very subtle camber. If you are trying to remove a lot of material with that setting you will have a lot of problems with clogging of the mouth and a lot of force to make the cuts. It will be very useful for later on in the process.

    A heavy camber will allow faster material removal with less effort but can result in more tearout. Most of the tearout will clean up from subsequent planing but sometimes the bad spots have some left. I had a D2 iron from Gramercy that I brought into service after giving my workhorse #5 to a neighbor. It handles the knots better but not forever of course. I am also very pleased with Veritas V11 steel.

    The other item is that if you have two CVG fir treads glued into a panel, make sure the grain direction on the surface matches in each board. If not you’ll have difficulty at the seam and will have to switch directions on each side of the panel.

    The sides of the boards don’t always tell the story for grain direction. Just yesterday I used Phil Lowe’s mnemonic “The heart points away.” If you are looking at the face of a board on the heart side the cathedral grain will point away from you in the favorable orientation. Looking at the bark side the points would be pointing back at you. The fir boards I was cleaning up had different indications from the side and the face so I went with the face.

    If you have ovals rather than points the board was cut from a curve in the trunk and the grain is in both directions on either end of the oval. Still, the heart pointing direction applies to each end.

    You seem to have a great find with those treads. Pricing on the internet is extravagant for 12″ clear fir.

    Craig Alderson

    “The other item is that if you have two CVG fir treads glued into a panel, make sure the grain direction on the surface matches in each board. If not you’ll have difficulty at the seam and will have to switch directions on each side of the panel.”

    Ohhh yeah. I’ve learned that the hard way previously. I made sure to orient them similarly this time. Thanks for Phil Lowe’s advice. Chris Schwarz has also written some articles along the same lines. He recommends looking at the end grain first to get a read on which side of the plank you’re working on and which way you’re going to want the cathedrals to go. The articles have been super helpful for me in puzzling out grain direction.

    One thing I’ve read in passing is that, if you’re planing perpendicular to the rings, the grain direction isn’t that important; that you should be able to plane in either direction. The same thing goes with planing the edges of a plain-sawn plank. I think that may be more true with pine and other woods. With doug fir, I’ve found that grain direction actually does matter regardless of which cut I’m planing.

    I can’t remember how much I paid for the treads, but I know they weren’t particularly cheap. Fortunately, I needed only four of them. Our house was built in 1916, and back in 2005 we took out the original built-in cabinets in the kitchen. The shelves in the cabinets were 18″-wide planks, and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away with the rest of the cabinet work. That was long before I had the slightest inkling of what to do with them or how to do it; I suppose that’s the wood hoarder in me. They’re still stashed away, awaiting some appropriate inspiration. When the rear of our house was dismantled in 2014 as part of the remodeling, I snagged as much of the usable wood as I could. Tight-grained, honey-colored stuff; really nice potential. Then I realized I needed to figure out what to do with it, and by one turn and another, I wound up at Woodworking Masterclasses.

    Thanks for all your help!

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