Are Winding Sticks Necessary?

Editor’s note: Today we have a guest blog from John Leko, a furniture maker in Huntsville, Ala. Visit his web site at jleko.com.

When I’m milling rough boards into lumber, I have never employed winding sticks. Instead I have a long(ish) straightedge that is used to try the board in three positions.

First, across its width. I start with the board “cup up” and traverse it with my low-angled jack plane. When I’m taking a shaving across the entire width throughout my board’s desired length, the cup has been removed, and I switch to planing down the long-grain. This proceeds until all of the cross-grain “tracks” have vanished.

To address the long-grain furrows left by the jack, I switch to the jointer, which also happens to be a bevel-up tool. Using good technique (or at least trying to…), I flatten this face, checking it with the straightedge at several points across the board’s width.

Finally, I cant the straight edge skew to the grain, and test along the board’s length first in one direction, then askew in the other. If either direction reveals a gap, the jointer plane is employed to remove material along a perpendicular skew line until the gap closes. Mind the gap!

In this fashion, I have always been able to produce true flat stock without the aid of winding sticks. This method removes any subjectivity from the determination. Can I see a hint of white (on the rear stick) still? For me, it’s a great deal easier to see the gap between the straight edge and the board’s surface.

For really long boards, I can see where winding sticks could be helpful, but I debate theirs usefulness for most other stock. Maybe I’m wrong?

— J. Leko

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30 Responses to Are Winding Sticks Necessary?

  1. Charles says:

    Sounds like a simple, great method, but how do you keep the board from rocking if you start cup side up? Or does this matter as long as you keep contact with the surface?

    • J. Leko says:

      Charles,

      In the most severe cases, I use wedges or shavings to prevent this. However, if the board is that bad, I’ll by-pass it altogether and reach for a more suitable piece of stock.
      Thanks for asking.

  2. As with just about any operation in woodworking, there seems to be just as many ways to get there as there are people doing it. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the process feels efficient enough to be enjoyable. Something about getting that twist out of the board first using winding sticks works better for me.

  3. billlattpa says:

    I use two pieces of angle iron that I took from some 400a panel boards. I don’t generally plane stock from the rough by hand. I use the angle iron to basically make sure my bench is reasonably flat. I was always under the impression that it’s just about impossible to get a perfectly flat board. My aim, however low it may be, is “relative” flatness.

  4. David Pickett says:

    If you’re doing it by hand, you want to use the least effort to get the result you need. If you identify high points on a board, you’ll know where you have remove the most amount of wood to leave a flat surface, so you’ll want to attack those first. When the high spots are gone, you have to bring the rest down to just kiss the low spots. Use whatever method works to identify the high spots and low spots. If winding sticks help to find the high and low spots (and a decent winding stick is a straightedge as well) then use ‘em. If you can identify high and low spots with a plane sole edge, do that.

    Just do what works.

  5. Julien Hardy says:

    I agree with John as I work the same way. A few shavings under the board if iot’s warped, cup-up and scrub-up. A hand is a winding stick. I’ll even add that a shooting board is mostly useless as the part that needs to be trued is inside the joint, but I only do dovetails, tenon and mortise and open slot mortises. But that’s another debate.

  6. It would be great to see a video of the technique. I’m having trouble visualising it from the words alone.

  7. Dave says:

    Level one end with your libella check he other , or any other spot. if its level the board is flat

    • Steve Jones says:

      Agreed. It’s much easier to see a bubble, especially when you’re standing right over it. If the bench isn’t level, no matter – just make sure the bubble is in the same spot at both ends. I use a 20″ Stanley Antichoc (made in France, no idea where I got it). For narrow boards, any old torpedo level would do.

  8. aschenher says:

    winding sticks are not just useful for planing a board though.

    winding sticks are important for checking cabinet construction to make sure it is not twisted, same thing goes for table tops or large panels, or anytime you to a laminated glue up. So, though this technique works for small boards, winding sticks are still needed to check other operations in woodworking. I wouldn’t just go without them in my shop.

  9. Rich says:

    I use the same method, though I usually employ a couple winding sticks as a final check, just for luck. (My winding sticks are anything handy: a long plane turned on edge, combined with a level usually does it for me.

  10. abtuser says:

    I use the same method too. I also have a long level that I can also swing across a surface to feel any high (hard to swing) and low (too easy to swing) spots. I thought I saw Chris do that once somewhere too. Anyway, I’ve never trusted winding sticks, or rather, I’ve never trusted myself using them.

  11. Floss says:

    Winding sticks present the effects of planing in a very graphic nature. You are not required to place a stick across the board in 3 places in order to see what is going on with winding sticks.

    I have used the method you describe for boards less than 12″ with good results. I have found winding sticks to be far superior to help locate twist and other defects more readily than a straightedge.

    It just depends on preference.

    If you surface a lot of boards then I believe that naturally you will tend to use winding sticks. If you are surfacing a couple of boards for a project over the course of a year, then time is on your side.

    For what it’s worth, I use the surface of my bench to act a a true surface in order to get a face “flat” = does not rock significantly before getting out the winding sticks.
    F.

  12. Peter says:

    John,
    I was with you all the way…..except for the phrase “perpendicular skew line”. Can you help me out with that meaning? (I’m flattening an old wavy oak butcher block into a work bench, and I’ve been using a sturdy 2-piece extruded aluminum straight edge I got back in the 70′s).
    Thanks, Peter

    • J. Leko says:

      Peter,

      If when I’m checking the diagonals, gaps appear between the straight edge and the surface, you’ll have to run your plane at a right angle to the orientation of your straight edge to rectify this. Hope this helps.

      J.

  13. Ron Dennis says:

    John – I’ve used your approach to check the flatness of my tablesaw top, and joiner, so I don’t see why this will be problematic. Although your blog didn’t mention it specifically, I would assume that you use the same approach on the other side of the board.

    However, in my experience, my winding sticks tell be more about my stock in less time than using the straight edge approach that you prefer.

    • J. Leko says:

      Ron,

      Once the first face is flat, it’s a simple matter to run your marking gauge around the board’s perimeter at your specified thickness, then plane down to your lines. If you obey your lines, then there’s no need to involve your straight edge again.

      Thanks!

  14. Steve S. says:

    I’ve built quite a few projects from hand-planed lumber without ever using winding sticks. For one, the human eye is pretty good at seeing flat, square, and plumb. Seldom do I need a board so precisely flat that my eye needs mechanical assistance in determining flatness and straightness. I do sometimes use the edge of my jointer plane as a straightedge to check flatness, as you suggest.

    Still, I’ve found winding sticks occasionally useful, especially for boards that are too long to be easily checked with a straightedge.

  15. Paul B says:

    I just need contrasting winding sticks for narrow, longish boards because my eyesight isn’t good enough to see to the far end. On short, wider pieces, I find that I use something similar method you’ve described.

  16. Rich says:

    Winding sticks check primarily for twist; a board with equal cup at each end could check out perfectly, provided the cupped board was not twisted also. Or, imagine a board with a longitudinal cup (is that warp?). It too would check out perfectly with winding sticks.

  17. Brett says:

    I think winding sticks can make flattening stock more efficient by identifying high corners on a twisted board. This allows you to concentrate your initial efforts on those spots, which reduces the amount of planing that has to be done and perhaps wastes less wood, too.

  18. Wes Smith says:

    Chris, Did you buy those sticks from Pittsboro ED?

  19. Paul says:

    Ho Hummmmmmm, boring,

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