203 – Invisible Panel Joints

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Whenever I glue multiple boards together, my ultimate goal is to hide the fact that it is indeed a glueup. If I can make it appear as if the panel was cut from one super wide board, I’m a very happy boy. The first step in achieving this lofty goal is to make sure the edges are milled properly. If the two mating surfaces don’t complement one another perfectly, you’ll have a noticeable glue line. But if the two edges are clean and square, the joint will have minimal visual impact. You’ll also have the added benefit of a solid glue bond and a panel that won’t fall apart 100 years from now.

While the joint itself is an important factor, it isn’t the primary thing I’m looking at when trying to create the illusion of a single wide board. For me, it’s all about the grain. If the boards are properly color-matched and the grain is aligned so that it looks like it continues through through the joint, the average person will NEVER know the joint is there. Of course, woodworkers should be able to spot it. But I’m not building my furniture for woodworkers. I’m building it for regular people. So if I can make a joint that meets a woodworker’s approval, I can be confident that the vast majority of the population will be fooled by my efforts.

Here are two good examples. Below you’ll see two table tops that are being used for my Tilt-Top Table project in the Guild. Can you spot the joints? Click the image to see a graphic that shows you exactly where the joints are located.

panels

Now let’s take a closer look. In these two images, it’s still pretty difficult to make out where the joints are. When you have to strain to see it, you know you’ve hit the mark.

cherry-joint walnut-joint

So how did I accomplish this? It’s all about color, grain, and distraction. If the color and grain look the same on both sides of the joint, it becomes harder to notice the glue line. Also, if you can draw the viewer’s eye AWAY from the joint, you essentially nullify its visual impact. If you’re clever and careful, you can also create visual “red herrings” as I did in the examples above.

Match the Color and Grain

The first step is board selection, and this is something that should be happening well before you cut any wood. While selecting your boards at the lumber yard, think about the most visible glueups in your project and plan ahead. Inspect each board for color and grain. If one board has straight grain and another board has wavy grain, you probably don’t want to use them together. If one board has an overall lighter color and a second board is darker, again, these are not good bedfellows. Always try to select boards with the same color and similar grain patterns. If you can, use chalk and a tape measure to mock up your eventual cut plan. As long as you plan on buying the boards, the lumber yard won’t care much if you mark them up.

Use the Same Board

I certainly can’t claim to have a highly-developed eye for color and grain matching. I am getting better and I’m always trying to hone that skill. In the mean time, I like to cheat! Well, it isn’t so much cheating as stacking the cards in my favor. Instead of trying to match color on a board by board basis, I always try to get my smaller boards from one larger board. Since most boards retain grain and color throughout, there’s a good chance that any child boards that come from a parent board will be similar.

Use Distraction

The secret to being a good magician is using distraction to divert the onlooker’s attention. So I try to be a woodworking magician. If possible, I like to include visually prominent elements in the vicinity of the joint line. Whether it’s a knot, some sap wood, or even a dark streak of grain, anything along these lines will help distract the eye from the dead straight glue line and will cause it to be lost in the shuffle.

panelsSo now let’s take another look at those two table tops. To ensure color and grain matching, the smaller boards were cut from one long board. The boards were flipped and rotated in various positions to find the layout that looked the most natural. You’ll also notice I relied heavily on the distraction concept. I really wanted to showcase the sapwood in the cherry boards and the light streak in the walnut was too cool to resist. So by including those features right at the joint, the glue line becomes invisible. We aren’t always able to employ distraction, but when done properly it can indeed be a magical thing. At the very least, mill your joints accurately and match up your color and grain and you’ll be well on your way to invisible panel joints.

Categories: Techniques, Whisper Minis, Wood

Comments

  1. What a great video! Outstanding quality! This is a topic that is so important and very rarely discussed. One can even use the grain orientation to create different looks. For instance; the gain curving outward creates a more narrow look, whereas the grain curving inward creates a more rounded look. This is using the grain as a canvas for the work. So many woodworkers try to engineer wood (worrying over silly tolerances) instead of working with the living material to create. Nicely done!

  2. Greg June 10, 2013

    As a n00b woodworker, I find it difficult to think this far in advance but you can really tell when a good woodworker has thought it through before he starts. I tend to notice mismatched grain only after the finish is on and I stand back to take in the big picture.

    I’ve actually been a n00b for many years – probably because I don’t work wood enough to get better. I imagine Marc would advise taking one of those week-long classes where you can go someplace and immerse yourself in it for days.

  3. jlaviolette June 10, 2013

    Great tip and something I often struggle with. Any suggestions for dealing with the end grain portion? I imagine the visibility of the joints are lessened with a round top, but on a square one, the end grain portions stick out like a sore thumb (to me anyway) – especially if you alternate growth rings. There are many times I felt a piece matched well with just 2 boards, but because they were both different widths, the seam wasn’t symmetrical and that puts me in OCD panic mode. I can’t put breadboard ends on EVERYTHING.

  4. One thing you didn’t mention was the grain direction. There are a lot of times where when you look at two boards face on in our flat shop lighting they look like they match each other but as you move at different angles they will reflect light off them differently. Now all the sudden instead of perfectly matching boards you have a light one and a dark one and then when you move to another spot the light and dark ones have switched places. The angle the fibers are coming to the surface reflects the light differently. It becomes much more apparent when the finish is applied, you really can’t see that at all in a rough sawn board. So I like to wipe it down with mineral spirits and then move around my proposed panel 360 degrees to see what it’s doing. I run into this a lot on picking boards for drawer fronts too, you don’t necessarily have to be gluing the boards together to want them to work together in harmony.

  5. Bob Rankin June 10, 2013

    I sometimes struggle with matching grain pattern with grain direction. I find that sometimes by taking two different but close matching boards and laminating them you find out later that you have alternating grain directions. Hand planing the panel then is difficult.
    On a fairly straight grain board if you flip them rotate you end up with opposite grain direction. Of you just flip you also have opposite direction. If you flip end over end and them laminate the sides you keep the same. I have blocks of wood at my desk to show me. It rarely ever works out though, wood grain switches all over.

    •  

      Yeah if you plan to work the panel with planes, you actually have a lot more to think about. Most times, I can focus mostly on the visual aspects and I don’t have to worry so much about grain direction. My scrapers and sanders don’t much care about grain direction.

  6. Nicolas Montpetit June 10, 2013

    I’m a french speaker from Qu├ębec, Canada. Just to be sure, if the cherry tabletop is made from yellow birch (betula alleghaniensis), how do you call cherry (prunus serotina)?

  7. Mark Loughran June 10, 2013

    Great video and article Marc!!! Thanks for all the great info as usual!!
    Just wondering, is the dark walnut top for the more traditional legs, and the cherry for the sleeker more modern legs? Keep up the great work!! With thanks, Mark.

  8. Mike June 10, 2013

    Marc – you forgot one more “trick” – PAINT!

    Seriously, Great video, I am glad you boiled it down two 3 key elements. Glueing up a panel can be the classic case of “analysis by paralysis.” I recently did a 36″ wide table top that was made up of 6 boards. I could have spent days rearranging and flipping the boards and still found one area I didn’t like. Ultimately, it is helpful to keep in mind that the finish will be a final unifying element. Once the piece has a nice finish with a consistent sheen, it will look more uniform than raw wood. And, if it is too perfect it looks like plywood :). That is what I tell myself when I see those straight lines.

    • Jim W June 13, 2013

      EGAD’s!!!!!! Man what kind of a woodworker are you to suggest paint and not stain or clear finish of some type.

  9. GaryO June 10, 2013

    This is a topic that is really challenging. Marc, do you find that the results are the same regardless of the species, or do some lend themselves better than others for hidden joints?

    •  

      It not only varies from species to species but from board to board. Sometimes you get lucky and the boards just work out for you. Other times, you do the best with what you have. If the joint is milled properly, the impact should be minimal. If you can employ these tricks, the joint then becomes invisible.

  10. TennesseeYankee June 11, 2013

    One thing I like to do to distract from, or hide, a glue up line is to use some type of stain, like gel or dye, that will help blend the two pieces together.

  11. Hey Marc
    Great tip. I use the sapwood distraction effect quite a bit and use the same board as much as possible as well.
    What I have been doing lately is to crosscut and rotate the piece and then match the cut ends which creates a single board effect. Almost bookmatch as well … not really but kind of.
    Thanks,
    Bobby Slack

  12. I think all three of the factors discuss apply, but what it really boils down to hiding the joint in straight grain. Either by simply using quarter/rift sawed boards or by using flat sawed boards with straight grain at the edges. Arguably, it’s quite difficult to achieve a seamless look with highly figured woods.

  13. It sounds funny but my customers say that seeing stuff like “glue lines” is evidence of the work done to accomplish the project!
    They love finding what they perceive to be a defect that I caused! To them it is a sign that it was “handcrafted” and not not by a machine or computer!
    They also see it as a sign of change as they believe, correctly, that I cannot obtain material wide enough that I dont need to glue!
    Most of the time I intentionally mix woods and or grains as they seem to really like the contrast!
    It is fun to hear their perceptions of that stuff!
    Everyone loves to stop by my booth to touch the wood! From the very young to the elderly, this is true! They feel the texture, and weigh it in their hands! And ALWAYS want to talk about it!
    EVERYONE loves wood and good work!
    I really like your videos and like most say on here, I learn something new everytime I watch one of them! Thanks for making them and keep it up!

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