Trade education and workforce development are two initiatives we value highly here at Dunn Lumber, so it should come as no surprise that we have close ties with Seattle Central College's Wood Technology Center (WTC). With roots dating back to the early 1900s, WTC's history intersects with ours at Dunn Lumber at various points (our very own Ed Dunn Jr. took some classes at Edison), and we're proud to be connected with such an exemplary educational institution.

Throughout the episodes in this series, we'll be speaking with Dave Borgatti, a long-time faculty member at the WTC, about the center's history, program offering, and various topics in woodworking education. Dave got his start in woodworking as a boat builder in Portland, Oregon, for Schooner Creek Boat Works, and ended up at WTC as an instructor in 1992. Since then, Dave has helped countless students—from boat builders to carpenters and cabinetmakers—learn the woodworking craft.

In today’s talk, Dave and I cover the difference between planers and jointers, the process of turning rough lumber into a finished material, and how people can actually do some of this work at a job site instead of a millwork shop.  

Watch our discussion in the video above, or keep reading for a detailed recap. 

The difference between planers and jointers

Planers and jointers are similar, but they cut wood in slightly different ways, so you need to use both when surfacing wood. 

It’s a common beginner’s mistake to use a planer to straighten wood—the name makes it sound like it should work. But if you put a piece of rough wood through a planer, it won’t come out straight, just a little smoother.

The jointer helps you actually straighten wood. It takes a little bit of experience to use it correctly, but once you get the hang of it, you’re able to make the first flat plane on a piece of wood. The planer then parallels that first plane. Between the two tools, you come out with S2S (wood surfaced on two sides). 

On a planer, the cutter head is on top; on a jointer, it’s down low. Each tool has an infeed and an outfeed table; however, on a planer, the infeed and outfeed tables are at the same level. On a jointer, the infeed table is slightly below the cutter and outfeed table. This means that you can adjust the infeed table based on how much wood you’re trying to take off with each pass.

How to take rough lumber to a finished product 

You need both a planer and a jointer to take a piece of rough lumber down to a finished product—typically either S2S or S4S (wood surfaced on four sides).

These are the basic steps to turn rough lumber into a finished product (see more detailed steps here):

  1. Clean the wood to make sure there isn’t anything in the wood, like steel, that could mess up the tool’s cutters. 
  2. Observe the wood’s grain to identify any steep grain runoff or weirdness, like a knot, to determine which side you want to joint first. At the same time, reduce the size of the wood to something that’s manageable to work with. 
  3. Joint the first face.
  4. Plane the opposite face. 
  5. Joint an edge to create a 90º surfaced three sides piece of wood.
  6. Use the table saw to rip it parallel. 
  7. Finally, use the jointer (with the wood on its edge) and make a light pass, resulting in surfaced four sides. 

Wondering how to choose which face of the board to start with once you’ve prepped the board and are ready to give it a first pass on the jointer? You want to look at the grain. 

If you have a plain sawn board, you may notice that the grain is going along the board then steeply cutting up. If the wood is very gnarly, you’re going to take a light pass—maybe removing 1/32"—and go very slowly over the jointer in order to get the board flat. A piece of softwood lumber typically presents no problems and can be done pretty quickly.   

Surfacing wood at a job site versus a millwork shop 

Though it’s often easier to prepare and surface wood in a millwork shop, where you have larger and more powerful tools, some work can be done directly at a job site, like for a house remodel. Finish carpenters, for example, will often have a combination of a small jointer and a planer on site, with which they can do some impressive work.

Smaller jointers can be set up onsite; however, they tend to have 4-6” heads versus the 8-21” heads available at the shop. Like standard jointers, portable jointers also have infeed and outfeed tables, but they’re smaller, which means your support surface is also smaller. If you’re trying to joint an 8' piece of wood, it’s difficult to do with a smaller jointer. In this instance, it’s possible to use a track saw to do the jointing. Track saws’ tracks can be joined together to make them longer, and they can take the place of some of the jointer’s tasks since the track saw creates a straight edge. It doesn’t, however, give us a flat face or an opposite paralleled flat face. 

Interested in learning more about woodworking? Check out other posts in our Wood Technology Series, including about how lumber sizing and naming have evolved over the years, or this post that’s all about engineered lumber.