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Hand Planing Elm

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Andy Kev.

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I've just bought a board of elm because even in its rough sawn state the grain looks spectacular and I thought why not give it a go and see what happens.

I intend to use hand planes and of course they will be sharp but I was wondering if there are any particular things about elm that one has to bear in mind when planing it. It's obviously going to lie around for a month or two so that it has a chance to settle before I have a go at it.

I was actually a bit surprised to see it in the timber yard because I had a vague memory of the Dutch having wiped elm out or something.
 

Sheffield Tony

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A friend of mine found somewhere with 24" elm boards for chairmaking. IIRC they came from Scotland. Perhaps Dutch elm disease doesn't like the weather up there.
 

marcros

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There is some elm around. I got a couple of boards a few weeks back. British hardwoods must have boarded a couple of logs.
 

ED65

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I don't think you'll find any special difficulty with elm. But like always the ease of working depends on the individual board; ash is generally an easy-planing wood but it's perfectly possible to find a hellish piece. As you describe the grain as spectacular this may mean it's more likely to be tricky to plane than not.

The particular nature of this board aside, I think the thing to be focussed on is are you set up to deal with going from rough-sawn to smooth, i.e. do you have a traditionally set up jack or fore plane, or a roughing plane/scrub? If you do, just proceed as normal and see how you get on. Whether you encounter tricky grain or not you can employ the cap iron to mitigate it, and deal with any small-scale tearout that remains by scraping or sanding.
 

shed9

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Andy Kev.":3beuycfn said:
It's obviously going to lie around for a month or two so that it has a chance to settle before I have a go at it.
It's lovely wood but I'd leave it longer than two months personally. I've used a fair bit of Elm and it it loves to twist as it adjust to its surroundings in my experience. This may be just a function of my shop environment (climate controlled) so would appreciate any other opinion on this myself as well.

As for planing, a camber will help somewhat IMO. The specific grain of the board will dictate how you proceed. Have a play around getting to a finish before taking the stock down to size and doing it for real.
 

Sam R

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You don't say whether it's Wych Elm or common elm. It's probably the former as the beetles that carry the Dutch disease fungus don't like the cooler temperatures of the north where wych elm is prevalent. Climate change will see to that. The easiest way to tell is wych elm has characteristic green streaks. It also has more vibrancy, and is classed as medium stability vs low stability of common. It's fantastic wood.

Contrary to the advice doled out above, it can be a pig to hand plane. All that wild grain looks great but picks up & tears. We could have a cap iron argument were it not for that fact that the very high mineral context makes it almost as bad a tropical timbers like teak for dulling an edge. I have just delivered a dining table, the top of which were 3 boards of wych elm. When edge jointing, 1 pass of the plane was enough to dull it and by pass 3 it was skipping & juddering. A big heavy no 7, not that I think that is really key. I had to joint it off the surface planer. Some of the same tree has been easier going & there is a variance in hardness - brown wood that has been stressed in a crotch for example is like iron, lighter coloured areas noticeably less dense & more wooly. Make sure it's around 10% moisture before you start final dimension cutting as it moves a lot during drying. It takes longer than many timbers to dry too. Persevere however, and you are rewarded with one of the truly great European timbers.
 

Sam R

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I would add that if you know what you are making, cutting out the components 10-20% oversized and planing all round helps with stress release and drying time.
 

Andy Kev.

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Thank you all very much for the replies.

ED65: I'll be planing conventionally as you describe. I have a No. 5 set up as a scrub, then it will get the lightly cambered No. 6, possibly a tweak here or there with the LAJ as necessary and an overall flattening with the No. 8 just to be on the safe side.

Shed9 and SamR: I guessed that it might want longer than a month or two. That said, I'm thinking of making a blanket chest based on the plan by a chap called Peter Turner which appears in Chests and Cabinets (pub: Fine Woodworking). His plan is for a Hickory and Ash chest but mine will be Oak and Elm. Also I probably won't/can't cut the fiendishly clever angles which he describes. The good news is that the elm panels which will run around the chest will be broken up by oak dividers which means that the longest panel dimension will be about 14". The top will be one massive piece which will obviously take longer to dry out.

So the short term plan is to cut this board into oversized panel-sized bits, then leave it for a while and check the moisture content regularly and then give the planing a bash. I'm going to have to get some more elm from the timber yard in any event.

I haven't a clue whether it's normal or wych elm. I selected the straightest board from the pile. Some of the boards were like donkey's hind legs. (My reference to the spectacular grain was based on all the pieces I saw.) My piece has cathedrals which run bang up the middle, so I'm cautiously optimistic that planing might be relatively straightforward.
 

custard

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I use a fair bit of Elm, here are some Elm boards in my workshop,
Elm-1.jpg


Elm,-Windsor-03.jpg


You're lucky to find Elm, nowadays most of mine comes from Scotland where Wych Elm is a bit more common, but it's still not an everyday find. Make sure you don't get caught out buying American Red Elm, in my opinion that's the least desirable of all the Elms.

Elm tend to come in very wide boards, too wide to fit through my machinery, so I'm used to dimensioning Elm by hand planing. Here's a big chunk of English Elm that's destined to be a windsor chair seat, it's far too big even for my 410mm planer.
Elm,-Windsor-01.jpg


The very interlocked grain can cause problems, here are close-ups of the board in the first photograph above,
Elm-2.jpg


Elm-3.jpg


The problem is that any tear out is tricky to deal with because Elm doesn't scrape too well. I should clarify that, it's not absolutely hopeless like pine, it's just that Elm's a bit too soft and wooly to scrape really cleanly. Consequently when I'm planing Elm I tend to sharpen my iron a bit more frequently, take a shallower cut, and if you really do hit serious tear out problems then try a close set cap iron.

It's great to see someone working with Elm. Good luck!
 

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Chris152

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I wanted elm for table legs last year and couldn't find any, so was surprised to see some lovely boards at Wentwood timber when I visited a few weeks ago. They're supplying to Axminster who also have some in stock (in Cardiff, anyway - but apparently they're shipping all over so other Axminsters may have some boards too), but they seem to be splitting - maybe the air-conditioning? Might be worth a call if anyone's interested to get some.
 

woodbloke66

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Andy Kev.":1j4r0lmd said:
I've just bought a board of elm because even in its rough sawn state the grain looks spectacular and I thought why not give it a go and see what happens.

I intend to use hand planes and of course they will be sharp but I was wondering if there are any particular things about elm that one has to bear in mind when planing it. It's obviously going to lie around for a month or two so that it has a chance to settle before I have a go at it.

I was actually a bit surprised to see it in the timber yard because I had a vague memory of the Dutch having wiped elm out or something.
There's lots of it around if you look for it; happens to be one of my fave timbers. If it's been air dried it will be wonderful to plane; sharp edge, close mouth on a jack, but you'll find it tough going. I stuff mine through the p/t several times so I 'sneak up' to the finished dimension as elm has a predictable and nasty habit of warping, twisting and generally behaving badly, but once it's settled down it's great stuff.
This...
DSC_0002.jpg

...was the last thing I ran up it elm, with solid 'waterfall' panel (just like Custard's above) at the rear 350mm wide. If you're unfortunate enough to get hold of kiln dried elm (as I did once) save it for the bonfire - Rob
 

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shed9

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Chris152":3s5w27cg said:
I wanted elm for table legs last year and couldn't find any, so was surprised to see some lovely boards at Wentwood timber when I visited a few weeks ago.
My last batch came from there and I was surprised they were selling it as well. They have started updating their FB page a lot recently, worth keeping an eye on them.
 

Andy Kev.

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Custard, thanks for the detailed info. I don't think I would be prepared to take on boards with as wild grain as those in your pictures.

Woodbloke, out of interest what finish did you use on that cabinet? It's a lovely piece but I imagine it weighs a ton!
 

woodbloke66

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Andy Kev.":2wkngw3u said:
Woodbloke, out of interest what finish did you use on that cabinet? It's a lovely piece but I imagine it weighs a ton!
Thanks and yes, it's a tad weighty :D The finish I used was matt Osmo PolyX followed by an application of good quality beeswax applied with a grey 1500g Webrax pad, which just gave a little bit of a shine on the otherwise matt surface - rob
 

Bedrock

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A long time ago, I had some Wych Elm which I intended to use for the seat of a chair for one of my then small daughters. I couldn't touch it with a hand plane, nor with a power plane. The woodman from whom I had it, said that it had been felled and left in a field for some time, hence the hardness. Eventually, it succumbed to woodworm.

Not sure how true this was.
 

D_W

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Custard - would you describe the issue as weak in the early wood (soft, crumbly, etc?).

I noticed when I was testing different planes in order to decide what to make that the worst wood to plane is wood that's got hard late wood and really soft early wood. As you say, it doesn't scrape well (it gets scuffed, etc), and ultimately I'd plane it as well as possible and sand it if I had to make something for someone for pay unless they wanted a hand finished look.

I asked a question about quartered spruce at one point in a luthier discussion place and they described it as too difficult to plane by hand :lol:

It was extremely easy to plane and took a good finish with a fat shaving off of a jointer (a deep shaving more than half a hundredth) that nobody would ever finish with.

I never really figured out the woods with a bigger contrast and early wood that's fragile on top of being soft, though. Sand, I guess. (some quartered cocobolo comes to mind. Not all of it, but some. Sanding that isn't a great idea, either).
 

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Andy Kev.

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By way of update, having had the elm lying around for a couple of months I decided to plane up one small piece (destined to be a panel) of about 12" x 10". I gave it a coating of Dictum's wood balsam and while I had expected decent grain, I have to say that I was amazed at what it produced. Here it is next to another untouched piece from the same board:

Elm raw and finished (s).jpg
By way of update

Sorry about the photo quality. I'm still trying to get a grip of the relevant software.
 

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