I am amazed by the things people are able to do with wood. Even simpler things like making a bookcase which stays together without any glue, nails, or screws. Something I’ve wanted to do for years, and one of the few things on my list which I tried and put more than a few days into once I started, is to learn woodworking.
It’s a very general subject once you look into it, so there is plenty to write about. There are so many different categories of things which can be built with wood and for each category there’s the ever present argument of hand tools or power tools.
As much as I would like to take to time to learn how to do everything with hand tools, I use power tools for most of the things I do. I will say though that I have a great appreciation for anyone who has put in the time to learn and perfect the use of hand tools for woodworking.
A Work Surface
One of the most important things to have which everyone can agree on is a sturdy work surface. Some people will do things on the floor or on saw horses but nothing really beats a nice workbench. It doesn’t even need to be big. My current bench is 6 feet wide 2 feet deep. And I’m sure I could work with less, because I have worked with less.
You can either buy one or build one yourself. Having done the latter it is what I would suggest. It feels great to use something you’ve built yourself. Also when you find a huge flaw in the design while using it, you won’t waste any time getting angry at whatever idiot designed this piece of crap, because you’ll know who did it and why they didn’t do it that way. Another wonderful learning experience to build a better one next time.
The next most important thing to have would be clamps. I’ve written out a formula to show how to determine the amount of clamps required for any project. It isn’t always 100% accurate but it will give you a good idea so you can plan ahead.
Yes, that is a joke. But only slightly. I started out with only four clamps and somehow managed to make it work for a while but anyone who has done a large woodworking project will tell you to buy more clamps before you start.
Cut It Out
The next thing I would suggest is a saw. There are many different kinds here but whet her you are using hand tools or power tools I would suggest having at least one hand saw. Sometimes you’ll need to just make a short cut so it won’t be worth the effort of getting out a power saw and tapping the button for a second and being done. It can also be helpful with getting the insides of corners which, unless you opt for a jigsaw, can be difficult with many power tools.
If you are going with power tools and can afford one, I would suggest getting a table saw, as it will be most efficient with cutting down large pieces. I spent a year working with a combination of a circular saw and a few different types of hand saws and after I got a table saw, not only am I able to make things which require large pieces of wood easier but it takes me significantly less time for most of my projects.
More Important Things
Next is something to measure with. I have 30 foot tape measure which I use for everything I make. The reason being, one inch on one tape measure may not be the same as one inch on another. It’s just a fact we have to live with. You can have as many as you want but if you start a project with one, don’t use a different one, or you might end up a bit off somewhere.
You’ll also want some kind of straightedge for marking and cutting straight lines. Something to try squares. I would suggest a combination square. If you are using power tools which create a large amount of saw dust you’ll want a dust mask and/or some form of dust collection so you aren’t breathing it in. You’ll also want some eye and ear protection if you use power tools. Eyes don’t grow back and hearing doesn’t get better as time goes by.
I’ll try to find some time to put together a list of the tools I have with some feedback of how much I use them and whether I think I should have gone with something else.
Now that you have tools you need to start practicing. Figure out how the tool works and get used to how it feels in your hands. Use a bit of scrap wood to do some initial things with each tool. Measure and cut some things just to get used to doing so consistently.
But don’t spend all your time practicing. While it’s fun to learn how to do something, it’s even more fun doing it. And nothing quite beats the feeling of getting all your cuts made and holes drilled to put something together just to have one piece an inch shorter than intended. I still think back to the first workbench I built and laugh at the mistakes I made. But I never would have made them to be able to learn from them if I had spent all my time practicing.
Speaking of practicing, you’ll also want to practice sharpening tools. Everything used to cut can go dull, and most things can be resharpened. And some tools like chisels will not come sharp so they will need to be sharpened when you get them. When I first bought my chisels I spent three days (about an hour each day) just sharpening them before I even tried using them. And it turned out that although I had gotten them sharp enough to use, I hadn’t done a very good job so I got to practice sharpening some more.
Once you’ve gotten some practice and feel comfortable with some tools, try building something. It could be from plans you’ve found online or something you’ve drawn out yourself. There are hundreds on free plans online to help get started, but it feels good to build something you’ve designed yourself. Also, going back to building a workbench, you’ll know exactly why a design flaw happened if you did it yourself.
One quick note on learning how to design things yourself. There is a good chance that like most people you’ll be starting off with wood from your local hardware store. Just know that the wood you buy there isn’t always the labeled size. A 2″ x 4″ board is the size they cut it before they smooth the edges and do everything to prepare it for sale. That’s called the nominal dimension.
The actual dimension you want to plan on will be smaller. Expect about 1/4″ to 1/2″ taken off from the nominal dimension to have a guess what the actual dimension might be. The 2″ x 4″ board is actually a 1.5″ x 3.5″ board. And when you start to finish your own boards from raw lumber it gets even more complicated to figure out what to get. Which of course makes it more fun!
If you would like some more information from people who know a heck of a lot more than me you can check out Paul Sellers, who is truly a master of hand tools. I’ve also learned a lot about power tools from different people. If you are interested in power tools there seems to be no limit to the number of people on YouTube who post videos for them.
Make sure before you do anything with woodworking, whether you are using hand tools or power tools, you get used to the proper use of the tool and take every precaution to stay safe.
Disclaimer: Although I have done a significant amount of research before preparing this post, I am not an expert on this subject. My intent is to help people who may be interested to find some more information. If you decide you would like to try this yourself, please do some additional research and use common sense.