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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So 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.