Jointers are the most useful tool you don’t really need.
Yes, they save time…
But decent jointers are big, expensive, and have high voltage requirements — making them the last tool many woodworkers buy.
But don’t worry.
You can easily mill lumber using tools you already have.
In this post, I’m sharing 6 ways to get perfectly flat and square boards without a jointer…
But first, let’s define “jointing” (not to be confused with my favorite college pastime).
TABLE OF CONTENTS
WHAT IT MEANS TO JOINT A BOARD
Jointing a board means cutting one flat face and one flat edge at 90° to each other.
These jointed edges can then serve as parallel references for their opposite sides.
It’s all part of the milling process (a.k.a squaring or truing), where rough or misshapen lumber is cut square, meaning all faces and edges are at 90° or parallel to each other.
Milling is the first step of any woodworking project — and jointing is the first step of milling.
With a jointer, you first flatten one face of a board, then flatten an edge at 90° to that flattened face.
HOW TO FLATTEN A BOARD WITHOUT A JOINTER
Jointer or not, the milling process always starts with flattening one face of a board.
HOW TO FLATTEN A BOARD WITH A PLANER
This method is quick, easy, and accurate.
All you need is a thickness planer and this insultingly simple jig.
SIMPLE PLANER JIG
For the base, use a stable and flat material like MDF, melamine, or plywood.
Cut the width of the base so it’ll fit through your planer (if you have a 12.5 inch planer, around 12 inches wide should do).
The length needs to be longer than the board you're flattening — but not so long you smash lightbulbs whenever you pull it out.
Glue a piece of scrap wood (thinner than the board you’re flattening) at one end of the base.
This works as a stop and keeps the sled moving through the planer with your board.
NOTE: Don’t attach the stop with screws or nails, unless you want to inadvertently demolish your planer blades one day.
Now that you’ve got your jig, here’s how you’ll flatten one face (pictures below):
- Place your board on the jig against the stop.
- Find any spaces between the bottom edge of the board and the jig base. Shim the spaces so the board doesn’t rock and can't be pressed out of shape.
Don’t shove the shims in so far they lift the board — just enough to keep it from rocking.
- Run a bead of hot glue along the bottom edge of the board, fastening it to the jig. Pay special attention to the area around the shims so they don't shift when planing.
- Scribble pencil lines all over the top face. This will make it easy to know when your board is flat.
- Run the jig through the planer, first feeding in the side without the stop.
- Repeat step 5, lowering the planer about 1/32-1/8 inch at a time (planer power depending), until all your pencil lines are gone.
Once your pencil lines disappear, the board face is flat.
Now you can run the board through the planer without the jig, placing the flattened side down.
WHY CAN’T YOU PLANE THE BOARD ON ITS OWN?
Thickness planers have rollers that push down on boards to move them through the blades.
These rollers exert a ton of downward pressure, and can flatten twisted and cupped boards as they go through…
But as the boards come out the other side, they'll spring back to their warped shape.
Shims supporting the board make sure this can’t happen.
HOW TO FLATTEN A BOARD WITH A HAND PLANE
With a bit of practice, hand planes can give you dead flat faces.
The bigger the hand plane, the better — but any size works (rest assured, gentleman).
Start by dragging your plane sideways along the board face to identify high spots, then take them down.
A few tips for success:
- Use a super sharp blade (this video shows how to sharpen hand plane blades)
- Put a bit of wax on the base of your plane to reduce friction
- Use a pair of winding sticks to help spot twists in your board
Winding sticks are two equally sized pieces of wood, one of which has a colored strip along the top. They’re used to find irregularities in a board face.
To use winding sticks:
- Center each winding stick at the ends of your board. The one with the colored strip goes on the edge furthest from you.
- Crouch down so your eyes are level with the winding sticks as you look down the length of your board.
- If your board is perfectly flat, the colored strip will disappear evenly behind the first winding stick.
If one side of the colored strip disappears before the other, the side where the strip is still visible is higher and needs to be planed down.
James Wright of Wood By Wright has a much more in depth explanation of how to make and use winding sticks.
But this video shows the easiest and cheapest way to make a set of winding sticks — plus a more in depth explanation of flattening boards by hand.
FLATTEN A BOARD WITH A ROUTER
This is especially useful for boards or panels wider than your planer, and is often used to flatten slabs.
You’ll need a handheld router, a good slab-flattening bit, and the jig below.
ROUTER FLATTENING JIG
If you want to get into the nitty gritty of building this jig, watch this video, but these are the basic steps.
Make the jig from MDF, plywood, or melamine — anything you know is flat.
BUILD THE BASE
- Cut out a base that’s longer and wider than the board you're flattening.
- Cut two identical rails to the length of the base. Cut them wider than the thickness of your material PLUS the thickness of the material the jig’s made from.
- Attach the rails with glue or screws — whatever gets them to sit flat (glue alone won’t be enough for melamine).
- Ensure the rails are parallel and equal height above your work surface. Take your time, as this is critical for good results.
BUILD THE SLED
- Cut the base of the sled a hair wider than your router base PLUS double the thickness of the jig material (for the sled rails).
- Then cut it long enough to overhang both rails when perpendicular to the base.
- Cut your sled rails to the length of the sled base.
- Attach the rails to edges of the sled, making sure they’re parallel.
- Cut a channel down the length of the sled for the router bit to travel through.
You can make a plunge cut and run the router along the sled — but this might unnecessarily dull your bit.
Instead, I drill a hole with a Forstner bit at either end, then use my track saw to cut out the middle between them.
Here’s how to use the jig.
1. Place your board in the base. Shim any gaps to keep the wood from rocking.
2. Fasten the board to the base using double stick tape, hot glue, or super glue. Draw pencil lines all over the top face.
If you know you are going to trim the ends, a few deeply sunk screws can speed up this process. Just don’t forget the shims.
3. Place your router in the sled and set the bit to barely cut into the high spots of the board.
Turn on the router and slide it back and forth on the sled. Push the sled slightly forward and repeat.
4. Take passes over the entire board, then lower the router bit — but don’t try to take off too much material at once.
With a 3hp router (beefy boi) and a 2 inch slab flattening bit (also a beefcake) at 12,000 rpm, I never take more than a 1/8 at a slow feed rate. Adjust your settings accordingly to your setup.
5. Once all your pencil lines are gone, your board is flat.
6. Flip the board over and repeat the process on the other side without the shims.
This method isn’t quick, and it’s definitely not clean — but it works.
Wear your PPE because you will have sawdust in every crack and crevice of your shop (and person).
HOW TO EDGE JOINT A BOARD WITHOUT A JOINTER
Now that you’ve got one (or two) flat faces, it’s time to joint one of your edges.
Here’s three ways to do it with three different tools.
HOW TO EDGE JOINT A BOARD WITH A TABLE SAW
This method uses a straight line rip jig, which is a flat board that rides in your table saw’s miter slot.
Simply set your board on the sled so one edge overhangs the zero clearance side, clamp it down, and run it through the blade.
The amount your board overhangs the sled doesn’t matter. Neither does the angle.
No matter what, you’ll get a reference edge you can run along your rip fence to square the opposite side.
I recommend using a dedicated ripping blade to give you a clean edge with no burning or tearout.
While this method is super easy, it only really works for lumber shorter than your sled.
So if you’re working with longer lumber, check out the next tip.
HOW TO EDGE JOINT A BOARD WITH A ROUTER
This is ultra-simple and works great for longer boards.
You’ll need a router, flush trim bit, and a straight edge that’s longer than your board.
Metal drywall studs work as excellent straight edges.
They’re long (usually 8 feet), super straight, and cheap.
Attach the straight edge to your board with double stick tape. Leave a thin edge of your board overhanging.
With your router base on the flattened face of the board, ride the bearing of the flush trim bit along the straight edge — flush cutting the board flat.
Keep moving at a consistent speed, and you’ll end up with a clean and perfectly square edge.
Make sure you’re cutting in the right direction with your handheld router.
If the edge of the board is facing you, move the router from left to right.
HOW TO EDGE JOINT A BOARD WITH A HAND PLANE
Hand planes are excellent edge jointing tools — they just require a little more attention and care.
Use the longest plane you have (ideally a Number 7 or 8) and get at it.
You can check for high spots using a straight edge longer than your board.
What’s important is that you cut at 90° to your board faces.
Just keep checking your edge with a square.
When any skew appears, plane down the high side until it’s flat again.
A LITTLE INGENUITY GOES A LONG WAY
While jointers are amazing tools to have — you can get by just fine without one.
And now that you know how to mill perfectly square stock with the tools you already have…
You can get to the fun part of actually building furniture.
Got your own jointer-less jointing tricks? Let us know in the comments below!
And as always, STAY SAFE IN THE SHOP!