Milling Oak…

…For My Garden Bench Parts

So it’s oak. It’s 5″ thick and you need 3 1/2″. There is no doubt that the bandsaw makes shorter work of ripping it to size but there is still plenty of labour surface planing and squaring up adjacent faces. My hands slowly and tentatively slide over the surfaces of beams.

I feel pin pricks from the surface in my fingertips, especially the forefinger and ring finger. I can tell the grain direction from this one act. In one direction and smoothness in the other pin pricks. I sense what’s not seen to determine where the grain rises against the tips and I stroke the surface with the plane according to my senses. I’m always reading wood beyond sight. My ears tell me what cannot be seen. Those subcutaneous senses sense too what’s inside the fibres and defy sight. It’s subtle. I use to take such things for granted in the same way the men I worked with did when I was a boy. I’d watch them flip boards and beams from face to face and edge to edge, this way, that way. All the time rubbing their hands over the length and breadth of it. This dark art of board and beam flip stayed with me.

At 15 I’d start doing it too. It started to become a habit. They would spend minutes searching the surface with their eyes and tracing the patterns left from bandsaw teeth and the kerf from circular saw cuts, as if listening with the ears of their fingertips. Everything revolved around the tips of their fingers and then one day I sensed what they sensed. There it was. Vibration! Echo of flexing fibres above hollows and voids. For months I tried this and the minutes of trying led to gain. The insights they had and knew meant nothing at first but with perseverance I gained insight to the inner fibres of wood. I could feel for density through weight. Compression from between my fingers and thumbs. Though at first I had no register recorded to make comparisons to.

They, George, at first anyway, chuckled. “What do you think you’re doing?” I didn’t answer. I didn’t have an answer back then. I was studying, searching, striving. I had to know what it was. I went to pick up wood this week, twice actually, and the man watched me and then asked me the same question George had fifty plus years ago. What is it you’re looking for. He couldn’t see what I was doing even though he’d worked with wood sales for years. “Just listening. ” I said. “What for?” “Oh, this and that.” I couldn’t really say ‘a sort of a voice.‘ I could hear the voids and the parted ray cells, open pores, denseness and such. I don’t know. It’s what I can’t really see so much as what I might feel and hear. I gave more explanation than I thought to be any good. I thought he understood though.

When I got back at 8pm I wanted to slice of an inch in the width to measure the moisture level. It varied between 17-20%. A garden bench lives outdoors all the time so that works for me. It will check when the sun hits it for a few days, I know that. Unless I coat it with something. But then if I coat it I have maintenance every three years and even then there are no guarantees. I had some oak beams in but they were only a year since cutting and stickering. The MC was 28%. In a years time they too will be down to around 17%. I’ll save them for a couple of years. You can always use heavy stock.

My first pass into the bandsaw was nice. A new blade always does well. get the tension right and it will keep its track. I decided on a six tooth per inch blade and it sliced without effort. One blade did all of my garden bench stock and it is still sharp so it will keep going for a while. Generally I don’t discard my blades because they will usually cut thinner stock up to an inch for much longer. Usually I will use them for freehand work until they give up the ghost. It is important to see bandsaw blades as consumables. I meet too many woodworkers when expect a year out of a blade. Though it depends on the wood, wood type, thicknesses and such, blades should last for a few hours of cutting. For around £13 I have my wood resawn from heavy stock to planeable sizes. Enough to skim off but not more than 1/32″. I use my bandsaw differently than most. We are planning a video series to show exactly what I do.

My steps give me minimal waste. My sensing helps me to make good choices. Avoiding subsurface voids as much as I can leads to make the most judicious cuts. It doesn’t always work, but if it does nothing more than slow you down and think then that’s enough anyway. Listening to that still quiet voice inside can only be a good thing, right? And if you’re right you’ve gained, if your wrong you will have tried and probably lost less at least. Prior to this I had bought some oak boards to cut down to narrower widths of 5″, 3 1/2″ and 2 1/2″. The board are 1 1/8″ to 1 1/4″ thick so with judicious cutting and planing I can just about get what I want/need. On some of it I can go thinner if I need to. Up to an eighth or so would be fine. the beams I bought must make 3″ by 3 1/2″ stock so bags of extra to cut from and enough to let dry for other products later.

My steps are pretty standard. Mostly this is observation work. My cutting list and drawing is close to hand at this point. One thing I hd noticed is that much of recent stock had never had painted ends. This means that stock kiln dried had higher levels of checking in the open ends of the boards. This results from the ends drying out much more quickly than the centre body of wood. `the end grain releases its moisture much more readily than surface grain does. Usually the mill paints the ends to slow the release in the ends down. It generally works well even though some splitting can still take place. Split, check and shake all mean the same thing. The drying process finds the weakest point and shrinkage results in an inevitable split. Only when the moisture levels drop below around 10% does the wood stabilise and the risk of splitting lessen. Even if you get the MC down to zero, were that possible, no wood can remain at that level in a natural environment unless of course there is no atmospheric moisture. People generate moisture in the environment they live and work in. Homes have high MC. Showering, cooking, breathing and living generates humidity. It’s a given. Yes you can lower MC with heat and ventilation but it’s not healthy to remove all moisture even if that were possible. Whereas my legs are at 17-19%, my thinner stock is a perfect 5-7%.

Tonight, by 5.30, my oak was all milled and hand planed on every face. 30 pieces of so and then a few spare just in case. I feel happily tired. It is still quite a work out even with the bandsaw doing the donkey work of rip-cutting, but I am not sure I want to change a thing!


    1. Not really. I just get healthily tired but never sore and my joints seem just fine. No aches or pains at moving towards 70 years old

  1. You can sharpen band saw blades (by hand) and use them longer. Good to do with expensive resaw blades.

    1. I am not sure that you can at all as 99% of bandsaw blades have hard-point teeth and cannot be filed so in other words you need a special grinder and grinding disk..

      1. I’ve successfully managed to sharpen (touch-up would be a better definition) blades with a Tungsten Carbide rotary cutter in a Dremel. Although in my experience… if the set has worn unevenly it doesn’t matter how sharp the teeth are, the blade will always have a tendency to wander in the cut.

        1. Again, it is a question of practicalities. Yes, we would all prefer to be able to retrieve our bandsaw blades but the time spent sharpening and then the rotary bit cost because that’s now wearing away too make it an impractical and uneconomic option. A bandsaw blade at £13 works out cheaper than the time and emotion trying to keep up with sharpening a blade. It’s not really worth it.

          1. Come on Paul 🙂

            Sharpening a 18″ bandsaw bimetal blade with 3 tpi teeth takes me 20 minutes using a (very cheap) diamond cutter in a Dremel. A 14″ bandsaw would likely take 10 minutes.

            The cost of time is unimportant for a weekend warriors, such as myself. The savings add up. Some of these bandsaw blades run in the hundreds.

            Regards from Perth


          2. I didn’t really say that they couldn’t be sharpened but that it is not necessarily economical and many of us have to decide how we spend our time and money. 3TPI are quite large teeth so easier and less time is obvious. I am in favour of DIY of any kind. It’s just a question of working out what you want. Also, I didn’t mention other issues like skill levels, steel fatigue and so on. All issues to consider.

  2. Though not a professional by any means, I have built a canoe on my own. By this alone, I consider myself something of a boat builder. Working on boat number 2 and yacht number 1. I have come to term this act of fondling the boards, “turning timber” or “turning boards” as the mood strikes me. It’s a significant part of any project I do.

  3. Hi Paul, what is the widest and thickest board you will draw the line at of attempting to rip the thickness on with a hand saw?

    At what dimension do you resolve to the bandsaw for ripping thickness.

    Example would be a 12″ wide board x 3/4″ thick by however long?


  4. Not sure where to post this exactly…I have stated my admiration for Paul and his team on many occasions….I have learned more through The videos on this site and wwmasterclasses than I thought possible…as many others have stated it is extremely calming to watch Paul work and explain how to be a woodworker…but growing up in Northern Canada…the NWT and Nunavut to be exact…the guy who made me want to pick up hand tools was Richard Proenneke. He retired at 51 …I think in 1973 to build his own cabin in the wilderness in Alaska…his time there was documented in a book and video called “Alone in the Wilderness” . I’d be surprised if Paul and his crew were not aware of him so this is for newer woodworkers…watching Mr Proenneke build his cabin, hunt fish and hike made me itch to pick up hand tools…check him out if you get the chance!

    1. I’m a little slow sorry guys….I just figured out where I should post stuff like that…my own…meant no disrespect. Paul Sellers and Richard Proenneke are my all time favourites

  5. – “Echo of flexing fibres above hollows and voids.” and “Compression from between my fingers and thumbs “. “Avoiding subsurface voids ”
    This is new for me (although I now think of resin pockets in pine). Could you expand on this.
    – ‘I have my wood resawn from heavy stock to planeable sizes. Enough to skim off but not more than 1/32″ ‘ How do you choose you wood to avoid warping risk?
    – ” it’s not healthy to remove all moisture”
    Exactly, at 22°C, air relative humidity should be between 40% and 65%, to minimise bacterium, viruses, mildew, mites, respiratory infections, rhinitis, chemical interactions and so on. (Some like dry air others like moisture so it is a compromise).
    – it is of course better to develop finger sensitivity but I have seen somebody passing a paper towel on wood to detect gain direction. It would catch paper fiber in one direction and not in the other.

    1. Warpage is a strange phenomenon these days. Wood available commercially comes unseasoned from forceful drying in kilns cranked up for speed. Drying fast leaves excessive tension in the inner fibres of wood, hence the curves occurring in wood sections taken from straight wood after completing straight cuts. What a frustration!!! In times past when would was air dried and finished off in a slow-drying kiln the wood was more stabilised than merely dried. This measured control resulted in stable stock and cutting into and through or along a beam rarely resulted in curved subsections. How inestimable the difference and we live in an age when most craftsmen, craftswomen and such will know nothing of what I speak because they will only see curves as being the normalised condition after cuts are made.

  6. Paul,

    I, like you, have enjoyed making outdoor furniture with oak. However, have you ever tried IPE (a form of Brazilian walnut?) I discovered this wood a number of years ago when restoring the old house we now live in. We used IPE for the decking and steps. It is very dense and very resistant to rot. The decking has been down for 20 years now with no appreciable deterioration.
    At the same time, I built some outdoor furniture. It too has remained rot free and sturdy. Another benefit is it requires no finish. It starts out a chocolate brown and then turns an ashen grey as the UV strikes it.
    I will be the first to admit that it is “tough” on tools (similar to mesquite.)
    Harold Blair

  7. Thank you Paul for the wonderful article.

    Thank you for the tip about running my finger tips on the wood. I will start to try it as well. It took a while before my eye could see square, twists, etc. I suspect the same will be true of the finger tips.

  8. Well, that blog took me back to the early Eighties. I worked in one of the leading Hardwood suppliers in Glasgow and was lucky enough to run the kiln for a year whilst I was there. It helped in my appreciation of what goes on in a bit of wood and how there is no normal.
    One thing I will say is that all of our wood came in painted on the ends and I didn’t get much splitting.
    Great blog, *as usual*

  9. If you are working with IPE, make sure you have adequate dust collection. Like many exotics, it is highly toxic to a lot of woodworkers. Made a boat rack out of the stuff and developed an allergy very quickly!

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