The Shooting Board

by Norman Pirollo

The following is a short discussion and description of the shooting board in its various configurations. As much as we work towards getting the perfectly square joint, it is often difficult to achieve with the tools and machinery we have at our disposal. One or a few bad adjustments can multiply and instead provide us with a close but not perfectly square joint or miter. The time-proven method to ensure that corners and miters on smaller boards are square is to use the shooting board. The shooting board was developed over a century ago to address this very issue.

The shooting board is especially suited to thinner work which cannot be hand planed easily due to the narrow bearing surface. A good example of narrower stock is the components of a small drawer for a jewelry box or small cabinet. Another example is the face frame of a small cabinet with thin, narrow rails and stiles.

a shooting board

Shooting boards can be assembled to be as simple as possible or assembled with a few extra features which make it a greater pleasure to use. In this photo there are two levels of baltic birch plywood attached together with the top level (baseboard) being narrower than the bottom. This creates a lower runway at the right which enables the side of the hand plane to have a surface to glide on and be guided along from the front to the back of the shooting board as in the second photo below.

You can decide to avoid a runway and simply use the bench itself as a surface to glide the hand plane along. If you decide this, ensure that the bench surface is flat. The runway provides a guarantee that the hand plane side will be gliding along a perfectly flat surface. The position of the fence should be somewhere between the end and the middle of the shooting board, this to provide a continuous motion of the hand plane well past the board being squared. A cleat is also visible in the photo above which hooks the shooting board onto the edge of your bench , effectively using the bench to clamp the shooting board. The shooting board can be oriented for left-hand use by shifting the runway to the left of the shooting board assembly.

planing a small piece of cherry on the shooting board

Shown is the actual shooting process with a No. 6 hand plane being run along the runway. There is a small piece of cherry being squared in the photo.

Any number of different hand planes can be used for this operation, but ideally a larger, heavier plane is better suited because of its increased mass and stability. Once a momentum is established, the actual shooting process is pleasant and simple.

The depth or adjustment of the blade should be initially be minimally set with very small adjustments to get it just right. We are striving for very thin shavings off the end of the board. It will be harder to push the plane with thicker shavings, and the hand plane will likely bind.

partway throught the cut

Another piece of cherry is being held in position against the fence below. The hand plane is in the middle of the operation here. The board is held against both the fence and against the sole of the hand plane. Very light pressure is necessary as the hand plane itself pushes the board against the fence.

The hand plane also only needs light pressure sideways and any rocking of the hand plane is to be avoided. The only real pressure in this operation is the forward motion of the hand plane along the runway. I should mention that hand planes with larger wings or side surfaces fare better on shooting boards as they are more stable and easier to keep square on the shooting board runway.

same operation, different plane

An alternative photo of the same shooting operation being performed with a 17 in. long wooden jack plane. This wooden plane is particularly well-suited to this operation as the sides of the plane have a large surface almost as wide as the actual runway itself. A little more pressure is necessary with wooden planes as they weigh less and therefore develop less momentum going forward.

end of the road

The wooden jack plane has just passed the hardwood fence and is at the end of its travel. I next pull it back and begin the next forward stroke. Upon every stroke, since there has been a shaving removed from the board end, the board needs to be advanced slightly into the sole of the hand plane. This operation becomes a part of the process and after a while you can actually feel when complete shavings are being removed.

Complete shavings are generated at the end of the shooting operation once the end of the board is relatively square and flat. Until this point, partial shavings are generated indicating the end of the board is out of square.

tape shows the parts that aren't cut

A question which gets asked from time to time is how we manage to avoid planing the edge of the baseboard with the continuous forward motion along the edge of the runway. This is the inherent magic of the shooting board. Here you will notice a strip of blue tape on the lower part of the runway edge. This is meant to highlight the portion of the ¾" edge which is never planed. The width is approximately 316" and coincides with that portion of the plane sole with no blade protruding.

When the hand plane rides along its side, the edge of the sole with no blade is the portion which contacts this lower area (blue tape). The blade which protrudes slightly then shaves everything else in the path above. Initially, when the shooting board has been newly constructed, gliding the plane along the runway will actually shave the upper side of the runway and the end of the fence. Once this has been performed, there should be no more shaving until a board to besquared is placed against the fence and along the sole of the plane.

tape shows the part of the sole that doesn't cut

The portion of the plane sole with no blade is highlighted ( blue tape). This also applies regardless if the shooting board is set up for left or right hand operation, as the sole of the hand plane is identical on either side. This is the area of the sole which doesn't slice into the runway edge therefore keeping the plane sole away from the fence the exact distance the blade protrudes from the sole.

If the blade depth is increased another shaving or two will likely be removed from the shooting board fence. Pulling back the blade will also leave avery small gap between the sole and the fence area of the shooting board. When alternating between different planes you will notice an extra shaving being removed if the blade depths are adjusted differently. Also notice the cleat at the front of the shooting board which serves to brace it to the bench edge.

plane at work

A hint of a gap between the fence and upper edge of the runway and the sole of the hand plane can be seen. This gap is typically the width of a shaving the hand plane will take, between one and three thousandths of an inch. You can also see the edge of the blade shaving the cherry board while just sliding by the fence.

The thickness of the components of the shooting board are optimally in the ¾" range. This provides sufficient bearing surface for the sole to glide on and to also keep from rocking the plane. It is important to keep from rocking the plane as this will take unnecessary shavings off the fence area of the shooting board. We need as much of the fence to remain square to the runway as the fence also serves to eliminate tearout of the board being planed. Tearout is the shearing of fibres at the back corner edge of the board.

checking for square with a...square

Here I am measuring how square the end of the small cherry board is using the straight side of the board as a reference surface for the engineers square. Make sure to create a straight edge on board being squared before shooting the end of the board square, as this is the reference surface used against the fence of the shooting board. Having both edges of the board straight and parallel enables us to rotate the board to use either edge as the reference surface providing a very accurately squared end of the board.

miter jig

A shooting board miter jig for the shooting board. This feature will enable us to create or true up a miter created along the end of a board. Boards which are mitered this way are typically used in small drawer, small box or very small case construction. The miter jig is created from a solid block of wood and a 45° ramp is cut at one side using the table saw.

The 45° ramp needs to be precise and it is advised to check it thoroughly afterwards. I use a protractor to confirm the angle of the ramp accurately set at 45°. The solid block has a backer board attached which serves as a stop for the board being planed. As with the previous shooting operation, there will be a few shavings removed from the block and backer board when the miter jig is initially used. The height, width and length of the miter jig are arbitrary and usually adapted to the size of the shooting board.

another view of the miter jig

The leading edge of the shooting board miter jig. The 45° ramp can be clearly seen along with the backer board. The L-shaped cleat at the front of the miter jig serves to hold the jig in place and to prevent it from sliding across the shooting board. Also partially visible is the front cleat used to attach the shooting board against the edge of the bench. This is simply a 1.5 inch widepiece of baltic birch ply or hardwood screwed and glued to the front edge of the shooting board.

planing a miter on cherry

This is an overhead view of a small cherry board having its end planed to 45°. The board is held in place with my left hand while I glide the plane along the runway of the shooting board. Notice the small gap between the plane sole and the edge of the miter jig. This gap should be minimal as a larger gap will contribute to tearout of the board being planed.

The shooting board miter jig is ideal to define or tune the miter angle on ends of boards, angles which have been previously cut on a bandsaw or tablesaw. A longer, heavier plane with large sides is ideal for this operation… as the increased mass helps to develop sufficient momentum to plane through thicker, wider boards.

planing another miter

Another overhead view of the shooting board miter jig setup as I begin to plane a 45° miter at the end of a board. It is important that all components of the miter jig are square to each other including the miter jig backer board and bottom surfaces.

mitering a small box side

Photo of the shooting board miter jig in operation. The end of a small box side is being planed for a 45° miter. All four sides of the box will be planed the same way ensuring the miter joints fit correctly. Light shavings are taken off the end with particular attention to keeping the board firmly against the backer board. This will ensure that the edge of the board we are tuning the miter on remains square to the side of the board.

closeup of mitering a piece of cherry

The front view of the shooting board miter jig and a cherry board we are truing or tuning a miter on. Notice the barely noticeable gap between the sole of the wooden hand plane and the miter jig ramp, whereas the cherry board is right up against the blade of the hand plane. The gap is only slightly greater than the original gap between the plane sole and the shooting board runway side. The board being mitered needs to be of uniform thickness across its width for the miter surface to be accurate.

checking the angle with a protractor

Confirming that the angle of the end miter is exactly at 45°. I use a calibrated protractor to verify the angle. Make sure to check the angle across the complete length of the miter for consistency.

an alternative method of mitering

Another attachment to the shooting board which enables us to trim or tune face miters. The concept is similar to the previous miter jig except the board end being trued lies flat on the shooting board surface. This attachment can be created from ¾" scrap baltic birch plywood or MDF, either of which provide excellent dimensional stability. After cutting the piece, I also confirm the angle is accurately set to 45°.

mitering more cherry

Here you can see a demonstration of the process to tune or true a face miter on a small , narrow cherry board. The board is held against the miter jig which is in turn held firmly against the shooting board fence or stop. This board can be used as part of a picture frame, for small frame and panel construction, or as part of a small face frame. The hand plane is run up and down the runway of the shooting board, every pass removes a shaving until the miter joint is perfect and at the correct measurement (from a previously marked line).

another plane, another miter

Another demonstration of tuning or truing a face miter joint with a metal-bodied No. 6 plane. This is a heavier plane with more mass which translates to greater momentum and it is also noticeably easier to shoot with this plane. I often lightly wax the sole of my hand planes for reduced friction. A small block of paraffin wax is ideal to be able to do this with.

checking the angle again

I confirm that the angle of the face miter is definitely at 45°. I am using the same calibrated protractor used in previous measurements. If the miter jig is set up correctly and no deviance or movement occurs while shooting the face miter, this edge should be very accurate.

. . . Norman Pirollo

© 2005 by Norman Pirollo. All rights reserved.
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