How to Flatten Wood Without a Planer

How to Flatten Wood Without a Planer

Not all wood stock will come to you flat, square and smooth.  This is, of course, true of rough lumber purchased directly from a sawmill.  But it’s also true of your neighborhood lumber yard. 

For serious woodworking, whether making furniture or cabinets, this becomes especially important.  Square edges and parallel surfaces are necessary for the best results.  But, what if you don’t have a jointer or planer in your workshop?

We’ve written of jointers and planers in a previous piece, and you’ll find that piece here.  Now, we’d like to go deeper into the subject and discuss what to do if you don’t have a planer.

What Is A Thickness Planer?

Let’s start with a basic – – what is a thickness planer?

It’s a machine, a power tool, that you run a dimensional board through to remove, or plane, some of its surface to create a smooth and level surface. Then, by flipping the piece over and running it through again, with the flat reference surface now on the bottom, you plane the other side.  This creates parallel surfaces and a uniform thickness to the board.

But what if you don’t have this power tool?  How do you thickness wood without one?  Are there workarounds that will produce that same piece of lumber?  For that matter, how do you flatten wood without one?  By hand?

What Can I Use If I Don’t Have a Jointer or Planer?

Table Saw

If your woodworking shop doesn’t have a planer, you likely have a table   With a little bit of forethought and ingenuity, your table saw can become a suitable substitute for a planer. 

That forethought and ingenuity involve making a jig first.  In this case, the jig will be a device that guides your board through a blade. 

On YouTube, the jig master is Izzy Swan.  He loves jigs.  A simple search on Youtube for a video from Izzy will generate a long list to choose from. 

He also has disciples, and we found one who addressed this very question, and you’ll find it below.  He’s from down under, and he doesn’t have a planer in his shop.  So, his forethought and ingenuity really shine through in this video. 

Router

Perhaps you also have a router in your shop.  This, too, can substitute for a planer with the assistance of a jig.  Here’s an example of this process in video form.

The router won’t get quite the level and smooth surface your table saw will (again, with the assistance of your jig), so be prepared to do a little sandpaper work to finish the task. It will require a bit more time, but the finished product will serve you well.

Hand Plane

A third alternative is a jack plane.  What did woodworkers use before power tools?  Hand tools, of course.  

A jack plane is a general-purpose woodworking bench plane powered by – you guessed it – your hands. You’d use it to create your board’s desired thickness or to prepare an edge for jointing.

Jack planes are numbered to identify the length of their base.  The higher the number, the longer the base, and the longer the base, the greater its ability to smooth out imperfections in the wood surface.  A good jack plane can be found for under $100, certainly much less than a power planer.

Here’s an excellent video on using a jack plane for this purpose.  As a bonus with this planer substitute, no jig is required.

Water

Let’s move away from tool alternatives and discuss flattening a piece of warped or cupped wood with moisture.  To do so, you will need to alter the moisture level on one side.

The inside face of the cupped wood has dried faster than the concave side, and drying means shrinking. Therefore, the balance of moisture must be restored to lessen the tension of the board and allow it to flatten.

Dampen the dry side with a wet towel or spray bottle, making sure you do not leave any standing water on it.  The thicker the piece of wood, the more water it will need; conversely, the thinner the piece, the less water needed. 

Allow it to stand for 24 hours, wet side down. A bit of weight on top of the board might help but is not essential.   If after 24 hours it has not flattened to your satisfaction, repeat the process. 

Lesser Alternatives In The Absence Of A Planer

For a semi-old school alternative, a wide-belt or drum sander can substitute for a planer if your shop has one.  It’s more work and much slower than those options above, but it is certainly suitable.

Belt Sander for Flatting Wood

The same can be said for simple hand-sanding.  Time-consuming and strenuous, a sandpaper block will nonetheless do the job if you have both the time and the patience. A jack plane and hand-sanding combined effort will cut down on some of the time and give you a good result.

With the cost of a planer upwards of $700 for a good quality 13” benchtop model, all the way up to $6,500 for a 22” model, finding suitable alternatives for many is an economic necessity in the home woodworking shop.  You’re likely to have a table saw already; routers are much less expensive than planers;  and muscle, time, and patience are pretty much free.

We’ve given you several options to fill in for a planer, and the videos are very helpful.  Keep in mind, too, that for many of us, woodworking is a hobby, and we’re meant to have fun with our hobbies, no matter how passionate we may be about them.