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A dark horse of cutting rabbets by hand


These short paring cuts into the previous chop cuts are a fast, reliable way to create consistent rabbets. The block limits the thickness of remaining tongue, providing a physical stop to your cuts.

If you cut rabbets by hand, there are some tried-and-true methods. Vic Tesolin covers three wonderfully in Handwork: Three Ways to Cut a Rabbet Joint. Megan Fitzpatrick weighs in, too, in Three Planes for Cutting Rabbets. Megan and Vic are whip-smart pros, and any hand-tool worker would do themselves a favor by getting familiar with their strategies. Before I got a router table, I used all of these methods and tools. Among them, a moving fillister plane was my favorite. But these methods have some catches.

The chest’s panels are rabbeted around their front faces. If any of the shoulders were off, it would be glaringly apparent.

The catch when using a moving fillister plane—heck, almost any plane—is grain direction. With a rabbet, sometimes you need to cut downhill, especially if you’re using a fenced plane. (A router plane may avoid this issue, but it also doesn’t leave much reference surface for the sole.) The plane’s fence is the second catch. When I work by hand, I don’t square the ends of a board unless I absolutely have to. It’s just a ton of effort. But if you rabbet the end of a board using a fenced plane, that end should be square. Otherwise, the rabbet ends up askew. Even if you don’t use a fenced plane, planing across the grain can still leave a raggedy surface unless your iron’s skewed and/or light-saber sharp. This was exactly my dilemma when making a frame-and-panel toy chest whose panels were rabbeted on the show face. This is also where the dark horse entered the race. Will Neptune covers it in Strong and Stylish Dovetailed Dividers, but I want to bring it to the fore here.

A chisel chopping down into the end of the end of a narrow piece of light-colored wood.
By chopping the shoulder, grain’s no longer an issue since you’re severing the fibers instead of slicing them, like you would with a plane. As a result, you’re more likely to end up with a clean shoulder. It also means your ends don’t need to be square; only your knifed shoulder does—a boon for hand-tool users.

Behind the dovetails on the show face, Will’s dividers have stub tenons. On one type of divider, that stub’s a rabbet. The way he cuts it is brilliant. For one, he chops the rabbet’s shoulder, relying on a knife line to accurately lay out and register his cuts. Then there’s departure from the planing methods: He uses a paring block to accurately control the thickness of the remaining tongue (and, alternatively, the depth of the rabbet).

Because it’s a cinch to plane the block to the exact thickness you want (and little is lost if you have to chuck it and start over if you go too far), this method is almost forehead-slappingly simple.

Two hands pressing a short block of wood into a recess in another board. The short block fits tightly in the recess.
The paring block should be a press-fit in whatever joint you want to match. For this photo, it’s a dado. For my toy chest, it was a groove. No matter your choice, the block’s just a block, albeit a carefully sized one.

It also circumvents the shortcomings of using a plane. First, grain direction becomes much less of a concern, since rabbets aren’t normally wide, and you’re chopping stop cuts anyway. Second, the board’s ends no longer need to be square; only the knifed shoulder does, which is standard handwork. It also provides plenty of reference surface for the cuts, unlike a router plane.

This isn’t about which method is better or worse, which is right or wrong. In fact, on my aforementioned blanket chest, I still used my moving fillister for the long grain. The paring block didn’t come in until the end grain. So I consider it another tool in the tool chest­—one I’ve painted yellow and labeled so I can quickly find it. I recommend you give it a shot next time you’re in a hand-tool jam.

A thin, narrow, short, rectangular piece of wood with writing on it and yellow paint around its perimeter.
If I ever accidentally toss this in the scrap bin, I’ll feel like an idiot—then take two minutes to make another that works just as well.

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