Jefferson Bookcases #7: Smoothing and prep for shellac

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Blog entry by Dave Polaschek posted 08-10-2020 06:19 PM 329 reads 0 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 6: A back for the oversized case Part 7 of Jefferson Bookcases series Part 8: Cleaning up a dovetail »

I had planned to blog about applying shellac next, but realized that getting ready for finishing is more important than applying the finish. So let’s get a case ready for finishing.

I have two primary tools for this prep work. A wooden smoothing plane I made and a block plane. The first is for planing long grain, and the latter for end grain, though if I just have a tiny bit of end grain to do and it’s well supported so I don’t have to worry about blowing out the edges, I’ll use the smoothing plane. When I’m cleaning up the (long grain) rabbets on the back of a regular case, I’ll use the block plane because it gives me better control at the mitered corners.

I start with the front of the case, using a block plane to even up the miters. I generally lay out the case with the front aligned, so this is just a swipe or two on each mitered corner so it feels level.

Next are the longer sides of the box. I can work on them on the bench and it’s more comfortable work. I first lower the end-grain if needed, then use the smoother to plane from the end of the case to slightly beyond the middle, lifting off to end the stroke.

If I encounter one of the cathedral grain bits that wants to lift off, I will lift it with a knife, put a little glue under it, and then come back and carefully plane or sand it smooth. Best to pick the lumber to avoid these if you can, though.

This is also when I take care of the seam between the two back boards, leveling it if needed.

While I have the case laying on its front, I will also clean up the rabbets or chamfer the edges of the back boards, whichever is appropriate. The block plane gets used for this.

While I’ve got the block plane in my hand, I’ll move the case to the floor, gripping it between my feet and knees, and clean up any end grain on the smaller ends of the box.

Then plane from the ends to the middle, smoothing out everything else. If there’s anything that needs patching or a quick shot with some sandpaper, I do that now. Usually I use either 150 or 180 grit, and I’m just cleaning up things like a lumberyard chalk mark that didn’t quite get planed out when I was cleaning up the sides. I’ll also use sandpaper on any rough spots on the inside of the case, since getting in there with a plane is tough.

For a 30×17x11.5 box, like this oversized case, I’ll end up with a couple gallons of shavings in a five gallon bucket. If I were a little better at dovetailing, I wouldn’t have to plane off so much material, but I’m not really too worried about it.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

9 comments so far

View Arlin Eastman's profile

Arlin Eastman

4529 posts in 3409 days

#1 posted 08-10-2020 10:28 PM


When you come upon grain like in the second picture who do you deal with that???

Me I would have just put glue in it and let it dry and sand it but would love to know what you do.

-- It is always the right time, to do the right thing.

View Oldtool's profile


3026 posts in 3038 days

#2 posted 08-10-2020 10:40 PM

You made two points I am in very much agreement with: the first is finishing the wood with hand planes, the second being the selection of wood.
I have not used sandpaper to finish any projects to date, the finish a well tuned plane puts on a board can’t be matched by any sanding. Slicing the top of the wood with a very sharp smoother, skewed slightly for a slicing cut, leaves a glass like finish that doesn’t require any product application to provide a shiny surface.
Wood selection is a very important consideration to a quality project, for appearance and structural soundness. There have been many books and articles written about the correct selection of the wood, all quite true.
Nice work, nice write up.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View MrWolfe's profile (online now)


1055 posts in 971 days

#3 posted 08-10-2020 10:41 PM

Nice blog Dave,
Very cool to illustrate your process especially with the difference between long grain and end grain. By the way, That is a terrific smoothing plane you’ve made. There is something about making a tool that is super cool.

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5839 posts in 1430 days

#4 posted 08-10-2020 10:53 PM

Arlin, I will lift it with a knife, put a little glue under it, and then come back and carefully plane or sand it smooth. I prefer planing, but sanding will work sometimes when I don’t have the skills or patience to plane it.

Tom, I’m not always good enough or patient enough to finish with planes. I will still use a belt sander on small mitered boxes, for example. But yeah, when possible, I prefer a planed finish and for these bookcases, if I have a little tear-out here or there because I wasn’t paying attention to changing grain direction, I just figure I’ll hide that side of the wood.

Oh, and I use sandpaper while finishing with shellac. 320 grit to knock down the grain and any dust. Could use a brown paper bag, too.

And yeah, buying good wood is better, but for these, I ordered from the lumber yard and they selected the boards. There have been two I’ve found so far that I would’ve rejected, but with the virus and social distancing and what-not, I’m pretty happy with the selection.

Thanks, Jon. It was actually a prototype for one I made for a swap, but after tweaking it a little, it’s turning out to be very useful. I’m especially liking the way the ipe sole is wearing in.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View JohnMcClure's profile


1074 posts in 1488 days

#5 posted 08-11-2020 01:58 AM

Awesome blog Dave. You’re becoming a second Paul Sellers!

-- I'd rather be a hammer than a nail

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5839 posts in 1430 days

#6 posted 08-11-2020 02:08 AM

Thanks, John. Don’t know as I’d go that far, but it’s much appreciated.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5839 posts in 1430 days

#7 posted 08-11-2020 09:10 PM

And five boxes are complete. The pieces of numbers six, seven, and eight are on the bench. I’ll get back to the blogging when #6 is ready for shellac, probably on Thursday.

I have now officially unpacked all of my unread books, and will start working on the ones I’ve read with #6. My honey keeps saying, “you have a lot of books.”

“Yes, dear. Yes I do.”

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View splintergroup's profile


3978 posts in 2070 days

#8 posted 08-12-2020 11:05 PM

Great work Dave! At first I thought they would be a single piece, this is so much more amiable to redecorating 8^)

The shiplap is perfect, gives some visuals to the empty spaces (which I assume you will quickly stuff 8^)

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5839 posts in 1430 days

#9 posted 08-13-2020 12:50 AM

Not only redecorating, but also (gods forbid) should we ever move. Jefferson’s plan for his bookcases was that you could pack them with paper or straw to fill up any empty spaces, screw boards to the front, and you’re ready to move. Much better than hiring movers who then fold paperback books in half in order to fit them into their cardboard boxes.

And yeah, the shiplap both gives the back boards room to move, plus offers a visual break. Trying to decide how I’m going to handle that for the smaller cases, which could be spanned by a single 1×10 or 1×8 – but maybe it would be better to use a pair of 1×4s instead. I think I’ll probably go that way, but I’m still figuring out exactly what sizes I need.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

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