There is something deeply and dangerously engrained in our culture about the expression “going with the grain.”
Not to get philosophical, but I consider that expression to be the embodiment of our civil culture. That is, if we cooperate with the other people around us, then everything will be OK (taxes get paid, kids go to school, wooden boards get smooth). And If you go “against the grain,” then bad things happen (cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria, tear-out).
Here’s why this thinking is dangerous: It assumes there are only two ways to accomplish things – either you work with the grain or against it. That’s ridiculous.
Some of a handplane’s most awesome powers can be unlocked by working across the grain of the board. Working across the grain – what Joesph Moxon calls “traversing” – allows you to easily remove the cup out of a board. Think about that for a second. If you take a cupped cabinet side and plane it “with the grain” all across the board then you will end up with a nicely planed cabinet side that is still cupped.
Working across the grain has another amazing and distinct power: It eliminates tear-out. Working cross-grained means that your cutting edge is not going to lift up the grain, lever it upwards and tear the wood fibers ahead of your cutting edge (that’s the long-winded description of how tear-out occurs). Instead, working across the grain simply severs the fibers. They don’t get lifted.
Now, the resulting surface isn’t ready to finish. It looks wooly and dull. But it isn’t torn out. And your board will be flat.
That’s an ideal place to be when you are working difficult woods. To understand why, let’s look at how I worked the slightly cupped front of a curly maple blanket chest this week. First, let’s plane this board “with the grain.”
Working with the grain: First take your jack or fore plane and work the high edges down so the panel is fairly flat. Working with the grain on curly maple will produce some tear-out. Then work the panel with the jointer plane to remove the rough surface left behind by the fore plane. Working with the grain will continue to leave tear-out behind over the entire surface of the board. Then take your smoothing plane and remove the tear-out and tool marks left by the jointer plane. If the tear-out is deep, you will typically need to make 10 to 15 passes over the panel to get most of the tear-out removed. Deep patches will have to be scraped or sanded.
Working across the grain: Flatten the panel with cross-grain strokes of your fore plane. No tear-out will be left behind. Now follow up with cross-grain strokes with your jointer plane. Begin to work diagonally across the grain, but take care not to work at an angle where tear-out appears. Again, done correctly, you will have no tear-out. Then follow up with your smoothing plane and plane “with the grain.” Because there is no tear-out to remove, you only have to remove the hollows and high spots left behind by the jointer plane. With my tools, that typically will be four or five passes over the board.
Working across the grain reduces the amount of work I have to do on a board and it reduces the amount of sharpening I have to do on my smoothing plane. Both are good things.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two disadvantages of working across the grain. First, you will splinter the far edge of your board or panel. To remedy this, you can plane a small 45° bevel on the far edge, or leave your board over-wide and rip it to final width after planing. The other disadvantage is that working cross-grain tends to dull your tools faster. But this isn’t as big a deal because you are dulling the fore plane and the jointer plane, which don’t have to be hair-splitting sharp anyway.
In addition to working across the grain, here’s the other weapon you should consider: a small high-angled smoothing plane. Tear-out can be localized on a panel. If that occurs, you have several choices: Plane the entire panel some more to remove the tear-out (laborious), scrape or sand the torn-out area (then you’ll have to sand the entire panel to make the panel look right), or plane out that small area by working localized.
Short and narrow smoothing planes allow you to sneak into these areas without a lot of extra work. I like to use my little Wayne Anderson high-angle smoothing plane for this job (it’s about as big as a block plane). You don’t have to invest in a beautiful plane like this one to do the job, however. Any low-angle block plane that has been sharpened with a high angle and a curved cutting edge will work wonders.
— Christopher Schwarz