Wood varies greatly in color and figure – even wood of the same species and boards from the same tree. You need to pay attention to how boards look when you’re putting then next to one another in a project. Otherwise, you may end up with color and figure differences that will detract from the appearance and be difficult to disguise with a finish.
Whether you’re choosing boards at a lumberyard or from your own inventory, look through the supply and imagine how different grain and figure patterns would look if placed in various parts of your project. Be conscious of knots, splits, checks and other defects and determine how you would either use them to advantage or work around them. If you’re using veneered plywood or plan to veneer the wood yourself, think of how the figure in the veneer can be used to best advantage. Above all, pay attention to color variations, unless you intend to paint the piece you are making.
For a table or chest top, lay the boards out in different groupings, flipping and turning them, until you find the best arrangement. Then mark the boards so you won’t mix them up as you prepare them. If you’re making the top from veneered plywood, decide what part of the 4×8 sheet you can use most advantageously. On a chest of drawers, give the same attention to picking the drawer fronts. When people look at what you’ve built, they won’t see the wonderful joints you’ve spent so much time and effort making. They’ll see the design, which includes your choice of boards and their positioning and they’ll see the finish. You won’t regret the time you spent selecting and arranging your wood.
Before you begin working your lumber, make sure your tools are sharp and your machines are adjusted properly. Dull planer, jointer, or shaper knives and worn-out router bits will leave pronounced washboard-like mill marks in your wood that will require extra effort to remove. Chipped knives will leave unsightly ridges. And if the cutters on your machine tools are dull enough to burn or glaze the wood, they could ruin your project altogether. Poorly adjusted machine can snipe the ends boards and also cause glazing or burning. Always work toward the smoothest surface possible.
If you’re joining a number of boards together to make a tabletop, you may want to use splines, dowels or biscuits to line up the boards so the surface is as flat and even as possible. If, after glue-up, uneven alignment is more than you want to try flattening by hand and you don’t have power equipment large enough to handle the job, look for a local millwork shop that will run the top through its wide-belt sander for you. The price and the trip are often worth it. If the top is too wide for any of the sanders in your area, plan to make the top in several sections; flatten each section separately, then join them together with splines, dowels or biscuits to line them up.