Why remove the Arris?

Anchor your wood corner to corner between the jaws of the vise and the upper corner above the vise jaws and benchtop.

What’s an arris anyway? Some new to woodworking might be asking this to themselves and it’s a fair enough question simply because what’s common enough vernacular in our wonder-filled woodworking world is not common in the great big world beyond our workshop doors. I just asked two people working in the office what an arris was and both had no idea. Perhaps that makes some feel better if they too did not know. The arris is the sharp corner between two adjacent planes or surfaces. The angle need not be a 90º, though mostly they will be. It can be a round plane meeting another round surface or simply a round tabletop meeting the edge at an angle. Think arête as in the top of a mountain with a stretch of ridge or just ridge alone if you like, but arête does correspond to arris as in it being the root word for both.

This morning I removed every missed arris from the two cabinets I am making in the shop. My favourite tool for in situ arris removal is the Stanley #90 bullnose plane. I straddle the plane with my hand and let the fingers and thumb centre the plane at its tilt on the corner, tracing my fingers and thumb on the adjacent surfaces. One or two strokes will remove the corners flawlessly and the bullnose stops about half an inch from the corner where no one touches or sees anyway.

The simplest way to remove the arris is before any assembly takes place as in this case above, but sometimes we have to fit or plane down a piece and this causes a new arris. In this case, we have to remove the arris in situ.

So what are the reasons for, as the Americans say, breaking the edge? Well, there are many, so here we go!

The arris gone results in a 45º flat and that is up to the plane stroke depth and then the number of strokes taken one on top of the other. This single-stroke arris removal gives a width of half a millimetre but look how crisp and even it is. “““surprisingly, though so narrow a band, the wood suddenly feels very comfortable and yet retains the square look when seen a foot or so away because you cannot actually see the bevel on the corner.

As an apprentice of just 15, George said, “Knock the arrises off, Paul!” and I did what you might have just done and said, “What?”

He took his Woden #4 1/2 and took down the corner in a single swipe and said, “Less likely to get a splinter now.”

n mass-made furniture pieces like these where a machine operative watches a machine load the wood at one end of the conveyor belt and another take off a finished chair and the outcome goes by the thousands to a final destination. Routing off the arris gives the maker and the buyer exactly what they want. A comfortable shape, a fracture-free transition and an easy-wipe surface.

Whereas that alone is a good enough reason, we have several reasons for doing this. Furniture is rarely left square-cornered right into a sharp arris. Mass-made furniture is almost always rounded to a greater or lesser degree — usually greater. They also use moulds to take down the corners by using moulded stock so generally, they use anything from a simple side bead to a more classic mould including astragals, ogee and a massive range of others from the classical Roman era of design. It’s also common to use any combination of shapes and indeed adapt them by using only a portion of the machine cutter be that a power router, shaper or spindle moulder. Adding decoration of this type is still fairly popular but used less in some European countries than say in the USA. I put this down to the ubiquitous use and availability of the power router. If we amateur woodworkers had to mould their stock by hand then moulding wood would disappear overnight.

Almost any combination of moulding will work to ‘soften’ the impact on the human body. In this case, my desk, the edge is fully rounded so that wrists are critically saved from the hardness of an angular corner.

Handmaking is very different than machine making: throughout our process of hand-making a project like furniture it is our common practice to plane our flat faces true and then take a single swipe along the corner with a bench plane to take the arise off all four corners there and then. This minimises the possibility of splinters, takes away the hard corners that can damage other aspects of our work by a slipped piece and prepares the work for sanding where when the corners are left on, as in machining, sanding often results in splinters.

Before I removed the arris the corner had begun to fragment just by moving the piece around the bench, in and out of the vise and so on.

Another key reason for arris removal is one less known and less obvious. A hard corner in almost all woods is a weak corner. Because the corner is unsupported when created, any knock by bumping or dropping something against the corner or a corner against a something will almost always break. When we are in making mode we are constantly shifting the pieces from benchtop to vise, across the benchtop to leave it there while we work on another piece and also to work it into our piece. I just made two drawers for my two cabinets and I am sure I picked up the pieces for the drawer a hundred times each over the two days it took for me to mill the wood from rough stock to the finishing and fitting of the drawers. These sharp corners times four would be 2,000 times handled and remember I made two, so, 4,000 all told.

This drawer has 22 corners to remove the arrises from. It takes only a fraction of a minute to do four or five using a plane, a chisel or a spokeshave. No need for sanding that’s a bonus as it keeps the atmosphere clear and dust free.

A corner of a drawer or a dovetail in its recess, a panel sliding into a groove and a dozen more such situation is indeed another ‘sticking point’. In some more resinous woods the two surfaces stick as a sort of continuous friction. Removing the arris really helps here too.

And then there is the reality that paints and varnishes when applied shrink and stretch in a single continuous movement until cured. That results in the ‘skin’ of finish being stretched to its thinnest point. If the arris is still in full form the weakened corner will not hold up to water, atmospheric humidity and spillage of liquids, damp dishcloths and such. Within a short period, the thinned corner separates and pulls in from the corner to expose the wood. A single stroke to remove the arris means a 45º and a continuous skin of equal thickness to maximise protection. Now I know some of you might say just sand off the corner and that is fine, but it is far less efficient, you create dust and the work itself is covered in unnecessary dust too. better the plane, I think! These are small and ordinary things and yet they are big and extraordinary things that make our work different.

My favourite plane for arris removal in in situ situations is very much the bullnose plane used as shown here

As a closing reason, though there are many more I know of that I might add later as I sometimes do to flesh out my blog posts, I became very aware of something when I began to sell my work as a designer-maker back in the 70s. I am trying not to be sexist here but when people come into a sales area where handmade pieces are being sold, would-be buyers run their hands and fingers over the work. Half of those visitors went more meticulously by running their fingers and hands under the rims of tables, along the aprons, places like that, the under-edge corners of chairs and along the insides of door corners too.

So don’t forget the undersides of shelves and places you might think don’t matter. When you pull large objects from the insides of cupboards you are likely to catch the backs of your hands as well.

And if those hands or fingers snagged on anything they might consider even slightly splintery or rough they never bought the pieces. Now in our work, we are concerned about the physical appearance differently than a fully machined product from the factory. Everything gets rounded over like an American two-by-four. There is little to consider crisp and precise. Huge gaps surround the doors whether recessed or overlaid and overlaid doors are inevitably made with a quarter-inch radius to a corner round over as are tabletops, the tops of sideboards, bedside tables and so on. there is a place for that but, hmm, not too much! In a kitchen where sweeping and mopping is a common occurrence, a big radius or wider bevel works great.


      1. I’ve managed to do a few dovetail perfect fits right off the saw. Hopefully one day I’ll accomplish it consistently. In the meantime the joy in the journey is wonderful!

      2. The master I worked under simply called it “breaking the edges”. I always learn something new from you sir, thank you.

  1. This might be a beginners silly reason for taking off the arris – but the edges of a planed piece of wood can also be remarkably sharp! I have had a few (minor) cuts to back of fingers etc, from the edge of freshly planed wood. It’s not a splinter, it’s just the edge of the wood I think. Taking the arris off prevents these cuts. And it certainly makes the edge feel nicer (including on a plane itself if one takes the arris off the plane parts for example – makes it feel lovely to handle with a trivial change).

  2. One more thing: they are sharp and can cut our skin! I’ve cut myself on an arris before I removed it… it’s sharp!

    1. This happens even more so cutting laminated board with a machine saw which leaves an edge like a serrated knife. Another plus for hand tools.

  3. Like yourself I was always taught to knock the arris off for all the same reasons as you, I also think like many other things, it makes a project look far more professional and shows care was used in the finish

  4. I am so excited to see this project once it’s complete. All of these in progress photos are looking fantastic.

  5. When my daughter was a bit younger (around 4 or 5 at the time), she really liked the little curls of wood that would come off when removing the arris and ask if she could keep them. How could I say no to such a sweet request. I do like the curly pig tail shavings as well that they make. Not sure why but I really do. It’s one of those little pleasure of working the wood.

  6. I like removing the arris because an applied protective coating does not, because of capillary reaction, remain adhered to any sharp arris with the same thickness as on a flat surface .

  7. If you are teaching us about a word such as arris you should check the spelling of the other words in the definition: an arris is formed by the intersection of two planes, not two plains. Proofread or get an editor!

    1. Hello Jim. Why did this seem so vitriolic? I don’t think that it’s that I don’t like being corrected. The article took hours to write and to the best of my knowledge, nothing could be misunderstood when autocorrect changed the word from planes to plains. Also, you didn’t mention the other place where I got it write, or should I type ‘right’? It’s a sad day when people do these things. You’re the only one and there were a couple of other autocorrect items and genuine mistakes in there too. It is likely that of the hundreds of thousands of people who will visit this, 98% will not know what an arris is and it is equally likely that they will misspell the word you pick me up on too. Did you gain nothing from the fifty or more insights in there? How about an alternative? Something like this:
      Hey Paul, Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together for everyone. It must have taken a couple of hours or more. I can’t believe you do this for us and then for free too. Wow! I’m not sure if autocorrect changed the word from plains to planes but just thought I’d mention it. Have a great day and don’t work too hard!
      There is an arrogance there Jim. I mean, “Proofread or get an editor! As I said, why so vitriolic?

      1. I have to agree with Paul on the ‘autocorrect’ or even ‘mistaken spelling’ question.
        Aside from the fact that it seems ungrateful to mention these slips in what is a very useful and interesting post, I sympathise with errors such as these, which can come, even from the touch-typing process.
        The brain is a curious organ, when it comes to typing. It sometimes shows us what we *meant* to write, rather than what is actually there in front of our eyes. This is why proof-reading is so difficult. Some proof-readers (so I am told) will read a piece backwards, starting at the end, in an attempt to avoid the brains own ‘auto-correct’ facility.
        So, thank you, Paul, as ever, for taking the trouble to share your knowledge and experience.

        1. I’m with Paul and Peter. I’m a professional writer and enjoy studying English grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. As I read almost anything, including your comments, Jim, I notice all kinds errors in good writing. Yet, even though I write for a living, I cannot proofread my own work. Most writers can’t. My mind interprets what should be there, not what is. So, as a professional, I depend on an editor. Of course, not everyone has an editor at hand. As I see mistakes in others’ writing, I say to myself, this person is not an expert writer, nor does he pretend to be. He’s simply doing his best, in Paul’s case a very fine job, to convey what he is an expert in. Then I let it go. You and I wouldn’t be reading this if we were expert woodworkers. If Paul referred to a “frog” in connection with a hand plane and I plead ignorance, neither he, nor anyone with good manners, would berate me in public and order me to look it up and return only when I understood this basic terminology. Since you now have benefitted from Paul’s expertise on the arris, just thank him for making you a little bit smarter on woodworking and let the rest go.

        2. YES reading my engineering test lab reports backward before I released them used to blow my guys minds, but it gets your eyes and brain to not skip across what it ‘expects’ to to be there, because you ‘know’ how a sentence should make sense.
          Unfortunately autocorrect in both spelling and grammar sometimes does very unexpected but sublte changes and you just don’t see them.
          I’ve spotted lots of such minor ‘errors’ in Paul’s posts and just read it as it would have been, had it been handwritten. and Paul does have a very nice handwriting style of penmanship, but that’s would be a tougher job to post, for free, as is his altruistic gift.

        3. I’ve done a lot of proofreading and yes, reading backwards is a standard technique which helps spot the mistakes the brain ‘autocorrects’

          and I’ve read many poorly written but grammatically correct texts with perfect spelling and punctuation, and many fabulous and very well-written ones with any number of proofreading issues… give me the latter any time

          Paul conveyed his meaning perfectly to the point where my hyperlexic brain didn’t even notice the mistake… I was too busy absorbing the content

          “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

          the brain is indeed a strange and wonderful thing



        Happy Halloween!

      3. well said. you got your meaning across and it’s not a writing contest

        and Jim got a well-deserved kick up the arris 🙂

        1. I suspect, and this is all it is, that there is some kind of envious or jealous thing kicking around in there somewhere. Someone who didn’t quite make it selling their work, maybe a disgruntled teacher of some kind, something like that. Who knows. I am just grateful that the 100,000 others who read it didn’t weigh in there and really let me have it. I am very happy doing what I do and like it or not I love writing and by that I mean I love it as much as woodworking. I just don’t have the time to proofread or edit my work. If I did that nothing would get done.

          1. Do you know the great American artist, Charles Marion Russell? He used to misspell things on purpose, because he thought there was a charm to imperfection. I think so too. Shakespeare often used words in a strange way, and nobody told him off for it, and it added colour to the language. And of course ee cummings, who eschewed capital letters. Language is a material, like wood or clay. It is completely a matter for us what we do with it.

      4. I am retired now but I served my time as a typesetter. At that time we also learned proofreading and as everything some are good at it, some are not and some can’t be bothered. The old “respected” papers are full of errors and this would not have been tolerated in my time and I find it so off putting that I don’t buy papers anymore. Paul’s skills and artistry are so outstanding that an error here or there in his writing is hardly worth talking about.

      5. Beautiful response…I appreciate you taking the time to ‘right’ this article, I’ve always practiced this but never ‘new’ Arris was the ‘write’ term. I ‘wood’ hope my constant misspelling makes ‘Gym’ cringe to ‘reed’

        Paul, I really appreciate you taking the time to write these articles and share your knowledge that I honestly respect and can only be acquired through years of experience and passion.

        Just a grateful follower that thinks it unfortunate you receive petty comments such as this…..I’m sure if he were to try to nitpick your woodworking rather than your grammar he would be speechless…keep up the great work!

        1. Hi Paul, I love the post! You have helped me learn a new hobby and simultaneously stay sane through the Covid isolation. I hope you continue to use your time to put as much of your knowledge out into the world as you can, and never think about proofreading or editing. Picasso never did.

    2. What a shame to see such an ignorant comment! Clearly you lack appreciation for a man devoting such a massive portion of his time to free education for the betterment of us all. Very disappointing.

    3. I am afraid that your comment comes across as pedantic and churlish.

      Paul does not charge us for imparting his knowledge and experience and, notwithstanding spelling errors, the value of that is infinitely more than the price we pay for it.

      If you are going to insist on taking him to task over this I would refer you to the words of another woodworker: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

    4. What a mean spirited comment, and rude! “That sir, is pedantry, up with which I shall not put”. (Sir Winston Churchill).

  8. Hi paul. just smiling about a arris , my mate and I are a bit older than you but do bits of work for friends. last week we where fitting a pair of doors and I took of the arris, Roger my mate says you can always tell a apprentice trained joiner by the little bits. Same as fitting hinges,locks latches and things, nothing to them when trained properly. Keep up the good work and hopefully more young people will read your site and say yes to being a Paul Sellers and working with would or should I say WO OD. All the best from a early pair of seventy plus joiners. Dave and Rog.

  9. This is going to sound weird, but I believe that once I have finished with the plane – surfaces and broken the edge – I can hear the difference in the piece when I tap it against the bench. It seems to have a musical note to it.
    Do you find that or am I just imaging things?

    1. It’s not at all weird. The more refined a surface becomes, the fewer elevated fibres there are to absorb sound and so the wood becomes resonant. The wood we take for granted is often used as tonewood in instruments ranging from cellos to guitars because no other material can make such instruments.

      1. As a builder of stringed instruments, How I wish someone had explained it (the resonance) so succinctly, and beautifully.
        Will B

  10. So true. As it happens I am currently building 2 speaker stands using Meranti for the center post (stand, pole?). Planed very smooth, as a result the edge is very sharp. Due to the nature of the wood and the grain splinters are formed easily, and I have removed a few splinters from my fingers already.
    Additionally, it is difficult to finish very sharp corners, as fluid retracts from the corners. Not to mention it wears off sharp corners just by thin air striking the arris (yes!) as it seems.

  11. Paul ,
    I have been removing the arris since before I learned from you that it had a name. Mostly, at first, to remove dings. This article has been a real eye opener for a self taught, trial and error woodworker. I have learned so much through your generous multi media teaching.
    Thank You, John

  12. Ca.westberg – Comment on arris. Say “break” or soften the edge, this is more understandable to folks that have no classic training and is just as applicable.

    1. @CA. WESTBERG.
      You don’t want to learn the correct Technical term? Technical English has lost enough already. Call it by the name it is – whilst explaining what it means.
      If we carry on substituting words, then at some point we can no longer explain ourselves to those that need to know and are trained.
      I spent 20 years working and then teaching in a highly technical area. So I have some experience with communicating thus.

  13. Thank you continued challenges to our thinking and sharing insights and experiences- we all end up better for the experience.

    I focus on something similar- though I think it is ego based- and not so thoughtful as yours. On the finish on the underside of a bench, chair or table, I try to make the part that will be touched by someone’s hand as good as or better than the “top part”. I always feel under the wood and want that to be a satisfying experience

  14. I’ve never paid much attention to removing arrises. I’ve just used a block plane, sandpaper, or whatever plane came to hand – never a bullnose plane. After reading your blog post I gave it a try: nice. I’ll stick with it, I think.

  15. two more informative and thoughtfully articulated pieces Paul, always a delight to read, as warmth of style, love of craft and attention to the minutiae of tools and wood do all the auto-correcting for you! AND my bandsaw runs even more nicely.

  16. Hello Jim, Sorry I used the words “capillary reaction “when I should have said “surface tension”. in my comment about applied coating to arises.

  17. A different Jim
    I am always struck by the volume of output on your blog and the time you must spend on it. It is full of invaluable information from a master craftsman and is freely given.
    In this context perfect grammar is swill!

    1. I do write an average of a thousand words a day and most of it will never be seen I suppose. My stood up to work at the bench begins promptly at 9am and goes to 5pm every day for five to six days a week. I write from 7-9 in the morning, for around an hour at lunchtime and then in the evenings depending on how inspired I feel. One book I hope to finish is the book of and from a lived life that goes back to the beginning of my life in woodworking in school through to the present day or whenever I feel to stop. It’s going well enough and it is a lot easier than my Essential Woodworking Hand Tools book from 2016 for which we will shortly need to go into a 3rd printing.

      1. Dear Mr. Sellers, that is a book I will look forward to reading! Thank you for being an inspiration and for blessing us with these warm and insightful writings.

  18. In addition of making my woodworking skill dream almost a reality, Paul you became my main English teacher. I love reading you. Not only am I learning the words of woodworking, but I love your writing style. I feel that English conveys the passion of the craft better than French. Today two words for only one in French: arris and arête, with a subtle difference in meaning . Another good reason to forgive your damn imperial system of measurment

  19. I remember reading an American book on timber frame housebuilding and apparently they always chamfered exposed ceiling joists as fire prevention. They didn’t explain why but I suppose splinters on edges are easier to light? Any ideas on this?

  20. From your videos I thought you were saying “remove the iris” 🙂 I assumed it meant breaking the edge on a sharp corner but thanks for explaining the mystery of why you say that.

  21. I enjoy your work, your thoughts, and your comments. I’ve learned so very much and look forward to more. Keep up the good work!


  22. Another reason for removing the arris is too facilitate finishing.

    Paint and varnish hate sharp edges and will pull back from an ariss leaving little or no coverage.

    As a matter of interest the reverse is true of sharp internal corners, finishes will build up and leave a “fillet”. A lot on mass produced items will often have a small internal radius to avoid this.

    1. I think he mentions that in the article.

      interesting point about the internal radius on mass produced items

  23. I like taking it off on oak or hard wood more it makes the piece feel softer n smothe

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