The New Traditional Woodworker-Project #5-Straight Edge


I first built Jim Tolpin’s straight edge (p. 81 of The New Traditional Woodworker) about two years ago. Truth be told, I was skeptical that a straight edge made out of wood would hold up over time. Surely the changing seasons and time would warp it. But even though I questioned the tool’s utility, I still wanted to learn the skills Tolpin’s tutorial presents. So I built a 33” version. Out of poplar.

P16-Straight-Edge-33-inch-FIRST-One-Project Shot

No sense using the good stuff on something that might not pan out.

However, pan it did, and years hence, it’s still tryed and true. My total maintenance investment in the tool consists of two swipes by a #8 jointer to touch up the edge. As a result, I trust it. And I use it all the time. Especially to try test long boards.

You could spend $30-$80 or more on a steel or aluminum equivalent depending upon the length. But my experience with a wooden straight edge has shown me that you can keep that money in the tool-fund cookie jar.

The 33” version is useful to be sure, but I’ve frequently wished I had a less wieldy 24” version. Having been sold on the idea of wooden straight edges, I splurged and made this one out of walnut.

From wood selection to finishing, Jim’s step-by-step process accomplishes two things. It makes it easy to complete the project and it teaches you how to do basic techniques. To give you a taste of that, I’ll paraphrase Jim’s method for dimensioning stock to thickness. I’ve tried other means, but I use his technique exclusively now because it delivers consistent results for me.

The walnut stock I had was ¾” thick and needed to be reduced to ½”. Following Jim’s process, I marked the desired thickness with a gauge, and planed angles along the edges with a jack plane until they met the lines.

P01-Straight-Edge-Dimension-Thickness-PlaneAngleToGaugeLine

Then I marked the edges with a readily visible white grease pencil…

P02-Straight-Edge-Dimension-Thickness-Mark-Edges P03-Straight-Edge-Dimension-Thickness-Mark-Edges-Closeup

And planed the face with a try plane until the lines disappeared…

P04-Straight-Edge-Dimension-Thickness-Try-plane-to-thickness

…and I brought the stock to final thickness.

P05-Straight-Edge-Dimension-Thickness-Final-Thickness
Rather than going over the build, I’ll share with you what I like about Jim’s design features.

1. The curved top edge is not only pleasing to the eye, but it also reduces the weight of the tool. Using my grandfather’s draw knife to remove large portions of waste was a blast. This was a great opportunity to hone my bevel-down knifing skills.

P06-Straight-Edge-AfterCuttingTopCurve P11-Straight-Edge-Curved Top

2. Handhold. The hand hole makes it easy to hold the edge atop the surface to be tryed. And it prevents me dropping the tool given that the width at its thickest is a bit much for my smaller hands.

P07-Straight-Edge-Mark-Cut-Smooth-Shape-Handhold

3. Tapered try-edge. By tapering the business edge to ¼” it’s easier to read the flatness of the surface. The taper has the added benefit of reducing the weight further. And, it’s a lot of fun to plane an angled surface to marked lines.

P09-Straight-Edge-Tapered-Edge P12-Straight-Edge-Beveled-Edge

4. Hanging holes. I’ve found that the only convenient way to store a straight edge is to hang it. It takes up a lot less space, avoids being banged about, and makes it easy to access. This project motivated me to make room on the peg board to accommodate both edges within arms reach.

P20-Straight-Edges-Hung-For-Use

Four coats of shellac with a final coat of paste wax and this baby was ready for use.

P17-Straight-Edge-Walnut-Completed-A P18-Straight-Edge-Walnut-Completed-B P19-Straight-Edge-Walnut-Completed-C

I would encourage fellow woodworkers to give a wooden straight edge a try. It’s fun to build, reliable to use, looks great on the shop wall, and saves precious tool dollars for other goodies.

© 2014, Brad Chittim, all rights reserved.

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About The Write Biz

By day, I'm a mild-mannered copywriter who harnesses frontal-lobe creativity (right brain) to help B2B marketers generate leads and sales. By night I pick up hand tools to create wooden masterpieces...and give my black lab Bella the "red dot" laser to chase after.
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2 Responses to The New Traditional Woodworker-Project #5-Straight Edge

  1. Valerie Gee says:

    The walnut turned out really beautiful, and I love the technique of using the white grease pencil to plane the piece to the desired thickness. I can see this transcending into my craft… must keep that in mind! TFS!

  2. What are the conditions in your shop? Cellar/garage? Temp/humidity swings? I vote for the poplar one over the walnut.

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