Many have asked what Winding Sticks are, how they’re used, and why we are making them. In short, winding sticks locate and exaggerate twist in a board so a woodworker can plane it flat. Hand planes alone do a great job of automatically (with proper technique) flattening a board in its width and (within reason) its length. Twist, however, typically requires a little more feedback, especially on long boards. That’s where winding sticks come in. Place the sticks at either end of a board (inlay facing in on both sticks), then sight over the top of one stick and compare the inlay on the other. If the sticks are parallel the inlay will be evenly exposed at both ends. If more inlay is visible on one side than the other, the sticks are not parallel and twist is present. To demonstrate, here’s a typical example of how I use winding sticks and what beneficial features we’ve incorporated into the sticks we sell.
The board I am flattening is an air-dried piece of cherry, 4′ long and a little over 6″ wide. It came with excessive twist (more than I would expect from a decent lumber dealer), but this board was free from a friend who had a tree come down and milled it into boards. Here’s what I was dealing with:
Notice on that last picture that sticks are showing the near-left-to-far-right corners of the board are higher than the near-right-to-far-left corners. This tells me where to focus my planing efforts. Another point to make is winding sticks not only locate the twist, they exaggerate it. How much? That depends on the length of your sticks and the width of your board. These sticks are 24″ long and the board is about 6″ wide, so the sticks are exaggerating the twist by roughly 4x in this case. If I think there’s 1/2″ height change in the sticks over their 24″ length, I would expect there to be about 1/8″ twist in the actual board across its width. We are offering three standard sizes, 18″, 24″, and 30″. I tend to like sticks that are 2x-4x the width of board I’m working. Less than 2x works (and for wide surfaces like a table you may not have a choice, who really owns 8′ long sticks after all?) you just won’t get the exaggeration effect that makes spotting twist easier. Too much length is usually not a problem (though excessive exaggeration of twist can leave you chasing your tail), but storing and maintaining sticks much over 30″ can be a hassle in itself. So when choosing sticks, think about the typical width of board you work on, multiply by 2x-4x and see where you land. We also offer a couple wood options. This is purely a decision based on looks and what you think will be easier to see in your shop: light wood with dark inlay or dark wood with light inlay.
Moving on, I now begin the planing process. This “process” is obviously a huge area of confusion (especially beginners who think they know nothing) and a huge area of debate (especially for seasoned workers who think they know everything).
Since this post is not about how to plane, I’ll just say you should start with a jack, taking heavy shavings (maybe 0.010″+). Plane until all the rough, off-the-mill marks are gone. Do your best to get things as flat and twist-free as possible before switching tools. The biggest mistake for beginners is switching tools too early. You may feel like you’re making progress faster because you moved to the next tool in the series, but if you weren’t done with the jack, you just added a lot of time to your jointer. When you are done with the jack, move to the jointer for final flattening, checking your progress periodically with your straight-edge and winding sticks. Finish off with a few passes from a smoother to leave a clean surface and you’re done. The video below is a rushed, but entertaining demonstration of the procedure.
So how do you know when your board is truly done? I check for three things. Is the board flat over its length? Is it flat across its width (checking several locations)? Is the twist removed (proven by parallel winding sticks)? When all three of those criteria are met, you have a flat board.
So there you have it, that face is now flat and work can begin on the opposite face and edges. If winding sticks are new to you I hope their value is evident when flattening boards by hand. They can be made as simply or extravagant as you like and any two parallel sticks will do the job. They can be metal, wood, or something else entirely. They can also make a great project for beginners. We sell them because not everyone has the time or interest in making tools, they’d prefer to make furniture with their time. Others have simply never heard of winding sticks before, so whether we’re selling you a pair or simply exposing you to their existence, we hope more woodworkers will add them to their collection.
Have a great day (preferably in your shop)
Note: depending when you’re reading this, our winding sticks may not be listed on the website for sale. We are shooting to have the website updated between Feb-Mar of 2014. Until then, you can have your name put on the waiting list by emailing email@example.com