Many of today’s woodworkers, if faced with the job of cutting a miter without the aid of the trusty table saw could, no doubt, do the job by hand. After all. much of the preparatory work for any project still has to be done by hand. We have to measure with a tape or a rule, and we have to use try-squares and bevels to mark where the cuts must be made. Making the cut by hand is just a short step from bringing the work to the machine.
What happens after the cut has been made is another story. If the miter is relatively small, and has been made in a regular, rectangular piece of wood, and if the operator has used a sufficiently sharp and fine-toothed saw and a miter box with saw guides and clamps for the stock, the cut is probably quite accurate. But if the miter is to be cut in larger or irregularly shaped stock, the job may be regarded with a certain amount of apprehension. If anything goes the slightest bit askew, and you have to do some trimming, then the chances are good that the job will have to be started over or accepted as less than perfect. Taking a plane to the surface of a miter joint is an extremely risky proposition for any but the most skilled—those possessed of a keen eye, a firm hand, and a very sharp plane.
Cutting an awkward or irregular miter is the kind of operation that causes many a beginner to despair of ever producing competent work with tight joints, and also causes even more experienced workers to wonder at the apparent skill of the old-timers who worked without benefit of such marvels as the table saw and the radial arm saw.
The truth is that although they didn’t have the power tools we enjoy today and were consequently more used to working with hand tools alone and more skilled in their manipulation, the “old-timers» had a few tricks up their sleeves. While many of the tools themselves that were used in pre-power tool days are still with us and even used by us, many of their adjuncts— the jigs, gauges, and assorted implements that accompanied them—have been forgotten.
The simplest of the various appliances devised for ensuring accuracy when trimming miters is known as the miter shooting-board (see Figure 1). This operates on the same principle as a regular shooting-board for trimming square cuts; it holds the work so that a plane may be presented at the correct angle to the face to be trimmed. Whereas a regular shooting-board is fitted with a stop mounted at right-angles to the path the plane takes, the miter shooting—board’s stop is mounted at 45° and in the middle of the shooting-board. rather than at one end, so that it may be used from either direction.
Miter shooting-boards are invariably user-made since their construction is so simple. All that is needed are three pieces of fairly dense, straight-grained material —such as maple—quarter-sawn to minimize warping and wear longer (side grain wears better than face grain). The bottom piece may be from 18″ to 30″ long by roughly 1″ wide. On top of this, just as long but only half as wide, the second piece is fixed. This forms a wide rebate in which the plane rides — on its side. On the very top, the short third piece is fixed. The work is held against this stop so the face of the miter to be trimmed hangs over the wide rebate very slightly.
When making a miter shooting-board. two tips are worth bearing in mind. First, provide a dust groove by chamfering the bottom of the second piece. Without this there is the risk that the sole of the plane may be forced away by dust build-up, and you will no longer be trimming the miler at an exact 45° angle. Secondly, take the time to mortise the stop into the top of the second piece. This obviates the danger of the stop being pushed in the direction of the planing — with similarly unfortunate results to the accuracy of the trimmed face.
Providing the stop is cut and affixed carefully so the angle formed between the work and the plane is exact, and providing the bottom piece is flat and lies in a perfectly parallel plane to the top of the second piece (on which the work rests), this is a foolproof device. Of course, a plane whose sides are at perfect right angles to its sole is also required, but most of today’s low-angle block planes are usually quite exact. Before the advent of the metal block plane one would have used a miter plane with the miter shooting-board. Metal or wooden, these planes had low angle blades and straight, parallel sides, which made them easy to hold and work in the sideways position required by the shooting-board.
The miter shooting-board is ideal for trimming internal miters of relatively small stock, such as applied mouldings. However, be aware that unless the plane iron is very sharp and set very fine, unsupported comers of external moulded miters are liable to be splintered off as shown in Figure 2.
By fixing stops cut at different angles, miters other than those of 45° can be trimmed. If you have much work to do at certain angles, you may find it practical to make a series of interchangeable stops which fit in the same mortise.
An additional level of sophistication can be achieved with the use of appropriately cut wedges on which the work is rested. Used in conjunction with the differently-angled stops mentioned in the previous paragraph, these wedges permit the exact trimming of compound miters.
such as may be encountered in splayed work. Determining the shape and size of the wedges and the stops is made clear in Figure 3. Supporting the work on these wedges can be a little tricky; securing it with a bench holdfast is the easiest way, but with a little ingenuity, other clamps can be arranged to do the job.
The only limit to the size of a miter shooting-board is the width of your largest low-angle plane’s iron. If you need to trim miters that are larger than can be accommodated by the miter shootingboard, recourse may be had to two other miter trimming devices: the donkey’s ear shooting-board and the miter shooting-block.
The donkey’s ear shooting-board is used for trimming tall, narrow miters, such as are required when fitting tall baseboards or moulded skirtings (see Figure 4). It’s actually the same beast as a regular shooting-board except the bed on which the work rests is made at 45° to the board on which the plane runs and the stop is centered in the board’s length instead of being fixed at one end.
The work being trimmed is frequently quite long which forces the shooting-board to be positioned close to the edge of the bench so that long pieces of wood can hang over the side of the bench. To accommodate this need, the shooting-board is fitted with a keel-like member which can be held in a bench vise. The same could be done for the miter shooting-board but is generally unnecessary since the work is usually smaller and the shooting-board can be held sufficiently secure simply by holding it against a bench dog or bench stop.
When trimming a tall miter, it’s generally best to work in from the top of the work, which will require holding the work against the appropriate side of the center stop. In this way, any tendency to split off the end of the miter is restricted to the bottom of the miter, where it will matter less.
For large miters of any size or shape the miter shooting-block shown in Figure 5 is indispensable. This device is invariably fitted with a keel that may be clamped in the bench vise. Cabinetmaker’s benches fitted with side vises and tail vises permit it to be used in a variety of directions according to whichever way is most convenient for the work concerned.
The miter shooting-block consists of two jaws: one that is fixed, and another which may be moved by a long screw so the work may be clamped securely between the jaws. The trimming plane rests on the wooden jaws, and is moved over them in any direction so the miter being trimmed may be approached from the best angle. This is usually into the miter if the work is moulded and not all sides are supported by the jaws of the miter shooting-block. To protect the jaws themselves from being planed away, glue thin sheets of card or cardboard over them.
Many of these miter shooting-blocks are found with jaws that have been abused and therefore require careful trimming to be made true. Furthermore, since they are frequently quite large, the jaws may be made up of several pieces, which may have shrunk or warped at different rates. But do not despair, for all that is really necessary is simply that both jaws be perfectly flat and lie in the same plane. Since the work is held between the jaws, it may be fixed at any angle without necessarily having to lie on the frame of the block. It is, of course, preferable if the work can be supported by the frame, and this requires that the faces of the jaws be at a perfect 45° angle to the frame, but frequently the work itself is of such dimensions that it cannot be held against the frame anyway.
Both left-handed and right-handed miter shooting-blocks may be found, but most work can be accomplished on either variety. The difference lies in which end the moving jaw is found when the sloping sides of the jaws face off the bench: if the moving jaw is to the right, it’s a right-handed miter shooting-block, and vice-versa. The vertical side of the jaws allow the device to be used as a regular shooting-board.
Although discussion of a regular (90°) shooting-board is not strictly within the purview of this article, any shooting-board that is provided with some form of adjustable stop, automatically becomes a form of miter shooting-board, since a miter is, by definition, the joining of two pieces of wood at any angle other than 90°. A regular wooden shooting-board is not easily fitted with such an adjustable stop—it’s far simpler to provide a different stop, angled as desired, than to attempt to adjust the primary right-angled stop. However, around the turn of the century, those remarkable inventors of plane technology, Justus A. Traut and E. A. Schade (without whom the Stanley Rule and Level Company would have had a far smaller inventory of tools), developed precisely such a device with a special plane to go with it that was especially suited to being used on its side. Accordingly. in 1905 the Stanley Chute Board and Plane was put on sale — and remained in their catalog until 1943.
Although the Stanley Tool Company is to be credited with having resuscitated English names for tools, it curiously chose to avoid the use of the English term “shooting-board» (which was in general use everywhere in America) in favor of the French derived term “chute board.” Despite the strange nomenclature, the device was a great success with patternmakers and cabinetmakers, as well as with printers and electrotypes, all of whom were required to work with exceptional accuracy.
Other manufacturers offered adjustable metal shooting-boards but none is so common as the Stanley model; all are worth having, and will be found to make accuracy easily attainable when trimming a miter of any angle.
Another mitering device, much smaller and usually made of wood (but which has also been manufactured in metal by various companies over the years) is the miter template. Often referred to as a “templet» (especially in Britain, where “miter” is also spelled “mitre”), this is used for guiding a chisel when trimming stuck mouldings on mortised and tenoned framing as shown in Figure 6. In section, this is an L-shaped device with both sides of the long arm making an angle of 45° from a center line. When pressed against the side of the framing, a chisel held on the template’s long arm will trim any moulding to a perfect miter more nicely than any scribed joint and without the unavoidably fragile thin edge that a scribed joint creates.
While metal templates may be more exact than wooden ones, they are also more easily bent out of true or broken when dropped. Furthermore, a wooden template is less likely to damage the edge of a chisel — or the work it is held against.
Another device that originated in the nineteenth century, but which is still made and sold today, is the miter trimmer — sometimes called a miter machine (see Figure 7). This tool actually sits on the border between miter-making tools and miter-trimming tools, but is properly used to finish an already roughed-out miter. Developed primarily for use with small mouldings and picture frames, some of these trimmers are actually large and powerful enough to cut through fairly substantial pieces of wood.
In use. the work is held on the integral table of the tool and secured at the desired angle. A powerful lever then lowers the blade or blades, set in guides, into the work.
This survey of miter trimming aids should open up vistas of new possibilities next time a miter cut on the table saw is not quite perfect; a sharp plane and the right accessory can put you back on track without wasting valuable wood.