surface textures & tool marks

I have been meaning to shoot photos in the shop of tool marks; and how they are made. I have not got to the pictures yet, but recently a reader asked about some difficulty he’d been having with tear-out in white oak. Some tear-out is common, especially in white oak that is near the juvenile wood (the section of a board nearest the center of the tree).

What is acceptable, and where it falls in a piece of furniture varies widely. Here’s some examples of just a few tool marks; mostly riving, hewing and some planing. We have seen some of these photos here before, but a review never hurts. First, one of my favorite shots; the bottom boards of a joined chest, Dedham MA c. 1640-1670. Here we have a lot to see. Riven material, never touched by anything other than a wedges and a froe for some of the bottom boards. Others have hatchet work. Iron/tannic acid staining where the nails secure the bottom boards to the rear rail. this staining also needs moisture present to occur. The sawmarks where the joiner trimmed the floor boards at the back of the chest. His saw ran against the outside rear rail, scratched it to a fare-thee-well. So, an extreme case where close-enough is good enough. but none of this shows on the finished piece.

joined chest, rear view of bottom


Here is a view of a joined stool showing the contrast between the surface that shows and those that don’t – the molding on the upper rail, and in the background, hatceht work on the inner faces of the adjacent upper rails.

joined stool detail


 Here’s some plane chatter (or scratch stock tear-out) in the moldings on this English cupboard (Lakes District, 1691) flatsawn wood, another culprit.

torn-up moldings on cupboard door panel, 1691

 Torn-up grain, mostly from riving, inside the till space on a joined chest from Ispwich, MA. (till is missing, of course)

inside till space, Ipswich chest

 How about tear-out on the front of a piece? See the background (i.e. the panel) on this chest with drawer, Salem MA. 1630s-1690s.

tear-out on panel etc

 Inside a Plymouth Colony chest with drawers, (from a slide, so not the best shot)

interior Ply Colony chest w drawers

That’s enough to get us started. Soon I’ll do one with photos of really first-rate work. It exists, even in New England.

Most of these surfaces I showed tonight result from the riving process, but some of them are from planing. The causes for these torn-up surfaces from a plane can be many; wood that’s too wet/green; It needs to lose some moisture before you can “finish” plane it. Twisted stuff near the heart of the tree;  this juvenile wood is fibrous and tough. It often is wavy also, not as straight at that stuff our neared the bark. Plane irons that need honing will also effect the surface you produce.

5 thoughts on “surface textures & tool marks

  1. looking at the cupboard it appears one side of the mitered mouldings were cut in place, the joiner overcutting into the stile. very interesting

  2. Peter:

    As you say, the marks on the Salem Chest panel with the applied geometric molding are most often caused by too high moisture content when planed. What we often call ray fleck on oak is really the side view of bundles of ray fibers that run radially across the stock. The smoothing plane blade runs perpendicularly across these fibers. When they are still too moist, they are ripped out of the surface. This occurs no matter how sharp the smooth plane blade. I call the stock “smooth able” when it is dry enough so that little tear out occurs. I would like to know from a moisture meter owner what smooth able mc is and if it is a constant. It is also interesting that a close examination of panel in question tells the us the direction of the planing. Ray plane tear out is fascinating. Each time I think about it I have to go and actually inspect some oak smooth planed on the ray plane. I recall that we photographed this chest at Williamsburg. The surface is quite ripped up. It appears the joiner finished this panel much too early.


    • It could be that planing oak on the radial surface is more prone to tear out when the wood is still green. However, careless planing or a dull iron is also a large factor in this kind of planing defect. I have often seen ray fleck tearing problems on kiln dried oak. I have also successfully smooth planed ray fleck figure when the oak had just been split from a green log the previous day and was still really wet. I do not think there is any moisture threshold for planing radial surface oak.


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