Last time I talked about the availability of thinner stock in the pre-industrial periods and speculated a bit as to how much resawing pre-industrial joiners and cabinetmakers may have actually done. The short version of the story is that they probably didn’t do that much of it, unless they were sawing their own veneer, or needed really thin primary wood for small drawer fronts (like you might find in a spice cabinet). I’d hazard a guess that they did less of it than we tend to do today as they could buy secondary woods in thicknesses already suitable for drawer sides, case backs, etc. Based upon several historical records, lumber (at least secondary woods) may have been commonly available in thicknesses down to 1/2″ or even 3/8″ thick.
Today we don’t have the luxury of readily available thin stock. Most mills will only saw as thin as 1″. So contemporary woodworkers (I think) tend to do more resawing than our pre-industrial ancestors. However, with the aid of a large, well tuned, powered bandsaw, resawing really requires no more effort than ripping on the table saw or running a board through a planer. So most of us don’t think twice about doing so.
But what if a bandsaw is not available? Are there ways to handle these situations by hand? Of course there are.
The first option is to use the lumber in whatever thickness is available. If you can only purchase 3/4″ thick material, use it at 3/4″ thick. In most cases, using a thicker board won’t impact the function of what you’re making. For example, while 18th and 19th century drawer sides and backs were typically 1/2″ to 3/8″ thick, making drawers from 3/4″ thick stock won’t impede their function. Thinner stock was really chosen for aesthetic reasons. Earlier drawers were actually made from thicker stock to accommodate their side hung runners.
If you don’t want to use the thicker stock, then your only hand tool options are to plane or saw it thinner. My rule of thumb is if I have to take off less than 1/2″ of thickness, I’m hand planing. With an aggressively set jack plane, I can hog material away pretty quickly, especially in the softer timbers that I typically use for secondary woods, which are usually the ones that need to be planed thinner. Also, if I saw off less than 1/2″ the resulting piece won’t be thick enough to use anyway (after planing it to remove the saw marks and flatten it).
If I have to remove more than 1/2″ of thickness, then I look to the saw. However, what saw I reach for is going to depend on a few factors. The primary factor in my decision on which saw to pick up is the width of the stock. When I need to resaw stock that is 5-6″ wide or less, I reach for my regular 5½ PPI rip saw. I find this saw very easy to control and it tracks a nice straight line, even in stock up to 6″ wide. On the flip side, my large frame saw feels more difficult to control in narrower boards.
However, for stock that is over 6″ wide, the teeth of the 5½ point rip saw tend to clog up with sawdust before the saw can exit the cut. This causes the saw to cut very slowly, and also often leads to the cut drifting off the line. Therefore, when I need to resaw stock wider than 6″, I usually turn to a large frame saw. This saw gives me several advantages over the regular rip saw. First, the teeth are BIG. This saw has 2⅓ teeth per inch, so the large gullets take longer to fill up with sawdust and therefore are able to clear the cut and dump their shavings before they clog. Second, the blade is longer that the typical saw. This provides for a longer saw stroke, making the saw more efficient in wide stock and ensuring there is enough length for the teeth to clear the cut to dump their waste. Finally, the frame keeps the blade in tension, which helps to keep things tracking straight.
The only time that I’m sawing wide stock when I wouldn’t reach for the frame saw would be for really hard lumber like oak or hard maple. These woods don’t tend to like the very large, aggressive teeth (at least when I’m sawing) and the saw tends to grab and bind. So for really hard woods, I stick to my regular rip saw. In these woods, the cut progresses slower anyway and the gullets tend not to fill up with shavings as quickly as they do in softer woods.
Choosing the right saw for the job is only half of the story though. The process of making the cut is even more important than the saw you choose to do the work with. While you can certainly try to do so, starting and finishing the cut all from the same side is likely to end in disappointment. Usually, trying to resaw a board this way results in two twisted, wedge shaped pieces that need to be planed significantly thinner in order to remove the sawing defects. There is a better way.
To start with, make sure one face is planed flat across its width and along its length. It doesn’t need to be perfectly tearout free at this point, but it does need to be flat. I used my jointer plane to take care of this two foot long, 10 inch wide pine board in about 3 minutes. With the face flat, set a marking gauge a bit wider than the finished thickness that you need and scribe all four edges and ends from the flattened face. How much wider than your desired thickness you set your marking gauge to depends on how confident you are in your ability to saw to your line. The sawn face will need to be planed after you’re done but the closer you are to your desired thickness (without going past), the less planing you’ll have to do.
Once your board is planed and your cut line is marked, you can start sawing. The easiest way that I’ve found to get the most consistent results is to cut from the corners toward the center. If you have trouble starting the cut with a large frame saw, start the cut with a regular rip saw and then switch to the frame saw after a few inches. I saw down until the saw is about half way across the end grain, then I flip the board around in the vise and start from the other corner. When the saw cuts meet across the end grain, I know I have things going pretty well. If the cuts don’t meet across the end grain, there’s some twist in the cut. The time to fix that is now, before you progress the cut any further. Turn the board upright in the vise and use your regular rip saw to connect the two cuts properly across the end grain. Saw down a few inches to establish a nice straight cut for your frame saw to follow.
Progress the two saw cuts down the length of the board, occasionally flipping the board and sawing from the other corner. Flipping the board from time to time helps you to correct any drifting before it gets too far off of the line. You can make the corrections with either the frame saw or a regular rip saw. Continue this process of sawing a few inches, flipping the board and sawing a few more inches until you reach about the mid point of the length of the board. At this point, stop sawing, flip the board end for end and start the cuts from the opposite end. Proceed in the same manner as before, alternately sawing from each of the two corners.
As you get close to the center of the board’s length, where the cuts should connect, you might find the saw beginning to bind. This is due to the vise squeezing the previously sawn kerf closed and pinching the wood on the blade of the saw. Putting a wedge in the kerf above the blade should resolve the binding, allowing you to finish the saw cut. If you got your cuts lined up right, the saw will break through perfectly into the previous kerf. If you were a little off however, there may be a small web of wood in the middle holding things together. Stop sawing where you think the kerfs should have joined. If there’s still a bit of wood holding the two halves together, use a froe or chisel to split them apart.
Congratulations! You’ve just turned one thick board into two thinner boards. With the right saw and the right technique, it shouldn’t take too long to do. This two foot long, ten inch wide piece of white pine took me between 5 and 10 minutes, and that included stopping to take photos. Hardwoods will certainly take longer, maybe 10 to 20 minutes depending upon length and width, but the work doesn’t have to be drudgery. If your saw is sharp and you work at a comfortable pace, you shouldn’t be out of breath or have broken much of a sweat when you’re done.