Give Your Work the Edge it Deserves

Shop Skills: Edge treatments help frame a table or cabinet’s top and legs and can have a huge impact on the overall appearance of a piece. Before you reach for your router, take time to consider what message you want to convey. You’ll find the return on this investment is time well spent.

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Give Your Work the Edge it Deserves



Photos by Marty Schlosser; Section 2 Photos by Chris Wong; Illustrations by James Provost

In this article, I’ll outline the various edge treatment options available to you for both solid and veneered edges. I’ll go far beyond the simple roman ogee-routed edge and explore the use of hand planes to modify routed edges as well as how to use jigs to guide routers for crafting edges that vary in thickness. Although today’s shops are sometimes filled with the sound of routers, I’ll also show you why there is still an important place in the craftsman’s lexicon for a quieter and less dust-filled way.
 
Safety Considerations
Unlike their big brother the shaper, routers are not designed to hog off lots of material with a single pass. How much a router bit will remove will depend on many factors, but the type of wood you’re machining, the size and profile of the bit you’re using are the main two. When in doubt, remove less material with each pass. Be sure to also respect the rotation of the router bit. It may get away from you if you attempt to “climb cut”. Curved or serpentine fronts are best routed freehand using router bits equipped with bearings to guide the bit along the edge.
 
The Basics
Fortunately for us, manufacturers responded long ago to the call by restorers to produce router bits, which mimic the hand-planed shapes championed by Stanley and others at the turn of the century. Or centuries. These traditional edge effects include: cove, oval (or round), chamfer, ogee, bead and flute, as well as many other less popular profiles.
 
Special Effects
When designing your furniture, be careful not to over-use these “out of the box” bits, else your pieces may appear too commercial. After all, part of the idea behind making your own furniture is to ensure it’s unique and not like anything you could find at the big box stores, right? To keep this from happening, let’s now explore other ways to “punch up” edge shapes.

By adding a simple fillet, which in most cases only requires you to slightly increase the router bit’s depth of cut, many of these edge shapes can be gracefully modified. Dropping the bit below the surface of the top by as little as ⅛" creates a shadow line, which can emphasize the thickness of the top and add depth. This is known as a fillet, and although they can be used in many edge treatments, I find them most particularly useful with the cove, oval and ogee.

You could also use hand tools and modify an already routed edge. Do you find that rounded edge of the ogee a bit too short for your liking? No big deal – take your block plane and “stretch out” the curve by planing away more of the upper section of the curve, then follow up with some judicious sanding by hand to remove any tool marks left behind by the plane blade. There are also times when you may wish to combine various bits to achieve an interesting effect. Try, for instance, following up on a filleted ogee with a cove to replace the lower section of the ogee. You’ll be amazed by the number of unique edges that can be achieved from a basic set of router bits.


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Another Pass – Making multiple passes on an edge with different bits can produce interesting results.

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Modifying a Routed Edge – Don’t be afraid to take some hand tools to an edge to fine tune it.

Advanced Effects & Techniques
Okay, so you’ve done everything you can think of using your tried and true “out-of-the-box” bits and you’re still left hungry for something more exciting.

You’re ready for the big time, mon ami. Let’s explore the world of multi-profile router bits and the use of jigs to guide routers for crafting varying-thickness edges.

Multi-profile Router Bits. These bits offer more than merely another set of shapes. By simply raising or lowering the bit in your router table, a near-endless variety of shapes come into play. These bits should only be used in router tables. Like all large bits, they cannot safely be used in hand-held routers.

Jigs for Varying-thickness Edges. If you’re looking for a way to enhance the effect of an otherwise boring, straight chamfered edge, how about varying the depth of the chamfer as it moves along the edge? Simply make a curved edge guide for the bearing to follow and, voila! You can also run the router’s base along the curved jig if the bit doesn’t have a bearing. The otherwise straight edge appears to be curved and more alive. Just remember to keep a few of those leftover pieces at hand to play around with when setting up the curved guide and adjusting the initial bit depth.
 
Lighten the Look
Why not rout the underside of the edge using a raised panel bit mounted in your router table? Although raised panel bits aren’t usually thought of as being an edging bit, they can certainly come in handy for this specific purpose.

Again, though, these large bits can only safely be used in router tables, and in all instances do not try to hog off more than your machine can comfortably handle in any single pass. How much is too much, you ask? Although a general rule of thumb is 1/16" at a time, if your router speed drops dramatically and it sounds as though it’s labouring excessively, it probably is. Immediately slow down your feed speed and if the machine continues to sound like it’s excessively labouring, it’s telling you that you’re attempting to take off more wood than it can handle. Stop; readjust the depth to take off less material, and start over.
 
Handling Veneered Sheet Goods
Veneered sheet goods are great time-savers wherever large, flat panels are called for. However, in most cases you don’t want the core – whether it’s plywood, MDF or particle board – to show at the edges. This is where built-up solid wood edging comes into play. Of course, the easiest way to go is with iron-on edging, but you can’t rout such edges without exposing the core material.

You can get around this problem by butt jointing a piece of solid wood of the same (or contrasting) species thick enough to handle the router bit you’re considering. There are, however, times when this joint isn’t considered adequately strong, such as on a dining room table top. This is where the dado comes into play. Don’t try to make the dado fit too snugly when dry, though, because when the glue swells the tongue, you may have difficulty inserting it at assembly time. The same goes for leaving some room at the bottom of the dado slot for excess glue to go; having even as little as 1/16" is enough in most cases to get you out of this “tight squeeze”.

I recently had the opportunity to use the “Burgess Edge” routing bit set, which I found to offer an excellent and relatively quick way to make near-invisible built-up solid edging. The set comes with two bits, the first of which cuts a precisely machined, rounded edge slot that leaves only the veneer exposed at the very edge of each face. The second bit is used to machine the edge insert, which mates perfectly into the slot. There are shims and an excellent set of instructions telling you how to use the set, as well as how to adjust it for a perfect fit regardless of the thickness of the “¾" plywood”, which we all know is anything but consistently ¾" thick. Three words describe this edging set: simple, fast and accurate. It doesn’t get any easier than that when you want your veneered sheet goods to appear solid and take a handsome routed edge.



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Multi-Profile Bit – Some bits will cut many different profiles by adjusting the height of the bit.

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Curves Add Life – A curved template will guide the bit along an edge, leaving a unique look.

Hand Tool Effects
There are times when routers shouldn’t be your first tool of choice though. I’m speaking here of delicate veneered edges, where just one slip by a 20,000+ RPM router bit would ruin several hours of work ... to say nothing of the one-of-a-kind veneer you had waited several weeks to receive by mail. There are also those jobs where the work is on curved pieces where the flat base of a router won’t be stable enough to guarantee consistent depth of cut. In such cases, there’s nothing safer than unplugged tools to cut a bead, which makes for a most pleasing edge feature.

As with many woodworking effects, edges offer the craftsperson the opportunity to make a subtle, yet meaningful statement. Whether your piece is of solid wood or veneered work, the edging options you have at your disposal are limited largely by your own imagination. Many of those choices would work for most pieces, but there’s likely only a few that’ll give your piece the wow factor it deserves. Instead of jumping right in and digging that ol’ faithful router bit out of the box, why not take the time to try a few different options on some scrap wood? You might be surprised what you come up with. And your work deserves nothing less.


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Burgess Edge – This set makes easy work of applying solid edging to sheetgoods.

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Slow Things Down – In some cases, it’s safer and easier to use hand tools to add details to an edge. In this case, a beading tool cuts a bead with ease. It’s a nice touch.

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Power-Carved Edges
Perhaps sculptures requiring 20 hours to carve and another 20 to sand smooth aren’t for you. Maybe you’re also tired of the same old edge left by your set of router bits. If furniture is more your thing, you can still put a power carver to work in your shop. A great place to start is on panels or edges where you would use a router and a bearing-guided profile bit.

A 4" angle grinder is best suited to areas wider than 1 ½", while the mini Arbortech or rotary tools like a Dremel work well on smaller surfaces or where more detail is desired. In harder woods, sharp tools can make a clean cut requiring no further work. For softer woods prone to leaving fuzzy surfaces or when carving smooth curves, further work with rasps, scrapers or sandpaper will be necessary.

When I was asked to carve the edges of a 2" thick waterfall bubinga table, my first step was to create some samples. Some of my ideas exploited the unique pattern of ridges and hollows left by the edge of my industrial Arbortech wheel. I also shaped some edges in a smooth wave-like curve to highlight the amazing waterfall figure and a variation of this idea was approved in the end. To shape the profile, the bulk of the waste was removed with an angle grinder and the resulting surface was refined with sanders.

These versatile tools should not be limited just to decorative treatments. An angle grinder makes quick work of hollowing out chair bottoms. When installing a vise on my bench, I needed to cut a notch on the underside. It was impractical to take the bench apart to cut it on the band saw, my jigsaw didn’t have the capacity, and using a carving gouge would have been tedious. My Arbortech finished the job in a couple minutes. I’ve also used the tool in renovations but my favorite use of the tool is by far free-form carving. My little 4" grinder fitted with the carbide-tipped industrial Arbortech blade may just be my favourite power tool.


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Complement the Piece – An appropriate carved edge will give a completely different look; something you need once in a while.

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Experiment – Grab a few pieces of scrap wood and see what happens. These were two of many samples created by Wong before the client settled on the final design.


Marty Schlosser
MARTY SCHLOSSER
Chris Wong