This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
Any Flat Space Will Do
The important thing to do in the beginning is to get off the floor and find an area that you can work at comfortably. If you can’t have a bench yet, then you still have several options.
Though not as glamorous, there have been many woodworkers that have built things at their kitchen counters.
A counter top is sturdy, high enough to be comfortable, and typically large enough to have the space you need to work. It’s not ideal at all, but it will do the job in the beginning.
Another place that surprises people is the kitchen table. There is a guitar maker that posts online who built an entire guitar at the kitchen table, setting up and cleaning up for every single session.
Most of us don’t have that kind of dedication, but it shows that even a humble kitchen table can be the foundation of your master work if you don’t have a traditional bench. It also shows that when you want something enough, you will work even harder than you expected.
If you do have some shop space, but you don’t have a bench yet, think about making a couple sawhorses from 2x4s and then putting a piece or two of plywood over the top.
This is not ideal either, but it will work to get your project off the floor and to a height that is more reachable and more comfortable. If you provide yourself with nothing more than comfort, then you are still on the right track.
If people were comfortable working on the floor, there would never have been a need to create benches or platforms to work on.
There is another guitar maker that never really liked benches. He thought of them as vanity pieces, and would never spend the money on a bench. He always preferred to sped the money on wood to make more guitars.
Even once he was established as a great maker, and had built up quite a bit of wealth making guitars, he still never saw it necessary to buy a real carpenters bench. For the longest time he used a heavy door that was stood upon two sawhorses, and yet he was still capable of making great guitars that sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
If you can’t get a bench right away, come up with a method of getting your work off the ground, and start saving for your bench as you work.
You may find that you really like working at the kitchen table, or that you really only need a piece of wood and a couple saw horses. It does not matter, as long as you are happy ad comfortable.
Look at the few stories from above. The common theme is that anyone with the desire to create great work can do it, no matter their circumstances.
Beautiful works of art have been turned out of doors on saw horses, kitchen tables, and garage floors. Don’t ever let the scenery make you think that you can’t create something amazing in your shop, you can.
Vises are Important
Any way that you go with a bench, you are going to need a vise. Thankfully, there are so many different vises available that you can find something for nearly any setup that you are working with.
Vises are for holding the work steady as you perform certain processes, and are like having a third hand in the shop.
They are not super expensive, depending on what you get, and they are commonly found in hardware stores and in woodworking stores.
The first thing you need to do when looking into getting a vise is to consider the type of bench that you have, and the type of work you do. If you are on a kitchen table, then you need something portable.
If you are making cabinets, then you need something big. All of these factors will help you decide what kind of vise you need.
In the beginning, one of the most useful vises for new woodworkers is the standard bench vise. This is a vise that clamps on the bench top or is bolted in place, and opens enough to hold your work.
This is a portable vise, that can be installed and removed easily. If you are working in a place where you can’t screw it down, you can always screw it to a wooden block and clamp the block to the working surface. (Most people don’t drill holes in their kitchen table or counter tops.)
A bench vise is a really nice tool to have in the shop, and you can get one for a low price depending on the size you buy. Some brands are really expensive, and while they are surely a nice vise, you don’t need to spend that much to have a good piece.
Look for a bench vise that feels sturdy, and that opens and closes nicely. Get the biggest that you can afford, because it will be able to handle smaller pieces too. When you get it into the shop, consider mounting it right to your bench with sturdy bolts and nuts.
The better the mount, the better it will handle being pulled and twisted as you work pieces of wood clamped in the jaws. Pick a place on the bench that allows the jaws to hang over the edge, and gives you plenty of room to clamp longer pieces.
If you read the instructions that come with the vise itself, you will see exactly the best way to mount it.
Another great vise to look into is a bench mounted front vise. These are large vises that have a long board for the face, and use the side of the bench as the other face in some cases.
They are meant for holding larger pieces, and can really crank up the holding force. The only thing that you will need to have is a bench that you can attach it to, because it’s not portable.
If you are going to buy a front vise, pick up the hardware and mount it to your bench. Look for a nicely made set, and one that will open as wide as you need it to.
Mount this to the bench, and you will be able to hold larger and heavier things than you would in a bench top vise. You can also choose your mounting location, and take advantage of bench dogs to increase your clamping ability.
Bench dogs are little square or round dowels that go into holes on the top of the bench. They stick up slightly, and can be used as a dead stop to clamp against. The dog holes are evenly spaced along the surface of the bench top, and a corresponding pair on the vise face can provide pressure to hold long boards flat on the bench.
If you are making bigger things, and need to hold bigger pieces down flat, then think about mounting the front vise on the side of the bench. Then, you can use bench dogs that run the length of the bench to increase the clamping ability of the vise.
For those of you that are not going to need to clamp down long flat pieces, then simply mount the front vise at the front right or front left of the bench as normal.
Either way you mount it, the front vise can become one of the only vises that you use in the shop. It’s super versatile, and will become a favorite quickly. Be sure that you get the size that you need when you are buying a vise like this.
Sometimes, the really inexpensive vises only open up a couple inches, or they don’t hold very well. A nice vise will last you a lifetime, so don’t worry about spending a couple extra dollars.
There are so many vises that you can choose from, and each one does a great job as making it easier to hold your work. Specialty vises are no exception, and depending on what you are making, you may indeed need a vise that is purpose built for your project.
Wood carvers in particular have special vises that help hold their pieces while they are working. They are different from other vises, in that they can be custom adjusted to hold odd pieces, and they can also articulate more to expose any area of the project that needs to be carved.
There are also special vises that are meant to go on the drill press. These are flatter, and offer the ability to clamp down a piece while drilling. These vises are great to have, because they offer you a much safer drilling experience than without.
Many times, people like to hand hold a piece being drilled on the drill press. While this does not cause problems for larger pieces and smaller bits in most cases, when you are drilling something smaller with a larger bit, it can sometimes catch, and that can lead to injury.
A drill press vise takes the danger from your hand and places it inside the vise. If the drill catches, the vise takes the punishment, not your fingers. This is great for drilling smaller items, with larger bores.
Forstner bits, and paddle bits can catch sometimes, and they will rip a piece from your hands before you even know what happened. They can also catch fingers quickly too, which can lead to unnecessary injuries and shortened woodworking careers.
Look for specific vises that are common in the work that you are planning on doing. This is the best way to ensure that you get what you need and not spending money on something that is not necessary.
In most cases, people that are sharing videos or tutorials will have the holding method on display for you to see. Watch how they use the vise, and then determine what kind they are using. If the work is more common, then they are probably using a regular vise that you can find just about anywhere.
If the work is really particular, then you may have to find the vise in a specialty store or online. Either way, getting the right vise for the work will really make things easier when you actually start making your projects.
If you can’t have a vise immediately, but you have some clamps, then consider using them until you have the ability to get a vise. When working, the more you can get things out of your hands the better.
Vises, and clamps hold the work for you, which is like having a third hand. They also hold pieces better than you can, because clamps and vises are stronger.
When you are cutting a piece of wood, sanding, or any other time you need the piece to remain stationery, use a clamp if you do not have a vise. It will hold better, and give you more freedom to use your hands.
When you have the ability to get a vise, get the vise and you can use it instead of the clamps.
It’s rare that any type of woodworking does not require a piece to be held at some point in the process, and this is where the vise comes in handy. If your particular project does not, then you can skip the vises in favor of other tools that make the project easier.
However, in cases that call for a piece to be held in a vise or clamped down, it’s difficult to do that same process by hand without a mechanical method of holding down the piece. It’s also dangerous in many cases, so do the safe thing and use a clamp or a vise to hold your work when it needs to be held down.
Keeping a Clean Shop
One of the best things that you can do as a new woodworker is to keep the shop clean. This is even something that older and more experienced woodworkers can benefit from. A clean shop is a pleasure to work in, and is much more conducive to producing great work.
In contrast, a messy shop can be frustrating, time wasting, and even dangerous. Thankfully, keeping the shop clean is a simple matter of habit, and anyone can have a great looking shop with only a small amount of effort.
A clean shop just runs better. It’s easier to find things, easy to move from process to process, and stuff just works better. A clean shop is also a less stressful place to work, because you can move from step to step without having to do things in between them.
This is where the frustration comes in, and many times people don’t even realize why it’s happening.
Woodworking projects are made up of steps. Each step has to be completed before moving on to the next, and eventually the project is done. When you have a messy shop, you inadvertently add steps to the process without even realizing it.
These additional steps add time, and before you know it, you are in the shop for an hour and have not really accomplished anything. Here is a perfect example.
You walk into a messy shop to continue your project from the place you left it last weekend. The first thing you do is step over a few things to get in front of your bench, and move a few tools off to the side so you can see your progress.
You remove some clamps, and drop them on the bench, checking your glue lines and seeing how the project is going.
During the inspection, you notice that one spot is a little off, and you want to mark it with a pencil. Going to the pencil cup, you see it’s empty. Now, you start looking around for a pencil, and find one on the floor next to the miter saw, which is where you dropped it last week after making a bunch of cuts.
You step over a bunch of stuff and get to the pencil, pick it up, step over the same stuff to get back to the bench, and now you need to sharpen the pencil because the tip fell off.
You rummage through a bunch of tool piles looking for a sharpener, and after a few minutes you give up and just sharpen it with a razor knife, that you also had to search for, but found quicker than the still missing sharpener.
Now, you mark the area that needs more attention, and the search for the wood dough finally begins.
Once filled, you go to set the project on the bench but the tools you just moved are now taking up that space. A couple seconds spent moving the tools gives you room for your project, but now you need room for the other pieces that need to be glued together.
More tools, more moving, and finally you have some space. Now, you need the clamps you moved to make room for the project, and you grab those while you are looking for the glue.
I can go on forever like this, and even though it seems silly to read, it’s a very common thing in many shops. You lose a couple seconds here, a minute or two there, and before you know it, you spent more than half of your shop time just looking for things and stepping over messes.
In an organized shop, this does not happen, and you maximize your valuable shop time moving the project forward rather than finding missing tools.
It can be a real time killer working in a messy shop, because the small interruptions add time to the project and they also add frustration.
All you want to do is glue two pieces of wood together, but you can’t find the glue, your clamps are not where you left them, and you need to run into the house for a wet rag to wipe off the glue squeeze out. All of these things add time to the simple act of gluing together a couple pieces of wood.
Under the right conditions, adding several more steps often leads to people giving up after only accomplishing a few of the actual steps needed to complete the project. The problem is that the three or four project steps took ten times as long because each one had three to four additional steps that were unexpected.
A clean shop virtually eliminates unexpected steps, and leaves you with the chance to just work on your project without interruption.
A messy shop is also a dangerous place to work, and you run the risk of hurting yourself, which can add days, weeks, or months to your project as you sit on the sidelines healing.
You can easily trip over things on the floor, slip and fall on sawdust, and cut yourself digging through tool piles looking for something. Keeping a shop that is free of situations like this makes your likelihood of becoming injured as a result of your housekeeping much lower.
One of the most common things that can quickly ruin a shop is things left on the floor. When you have to step around or step over things all the time, it’s frustrating and a waste of energy.
It’s also dangerous, because the one time you forget that you need to step over something will inevitably be when you are carrying something sharp. It’s a scary situation, and one that is really easily avoidable if you just pick up after yourself.
Another danger in a messy shop is sawdust on the floor.
A light layer of sawdust on the floor can be as slick as ice. Most things in the shop are either hard, sharp, or a combination of the two. This means that any fall in the work area is going to hurt. It’s also not uncommon to reach for something as you are falling to slow yourself down.
All the machines with blades, bits, and other sharp object sticking out are perfect candidates to cut yourself with on the way to the floor. Again, this is a simple thing to prevent just by cleaning the shop.
The easy way to keep a clean shop is just to do a little cleaning each and every time you work, and don’t be afraid to clean a little in the middle of a project too.
These smaller bursts of cleaning have a lot of benefits, and they can help you create a working environment that is much more helpful, less stressful, and safer for you to work.
The best way to keep a clean shop is to lever let yourself have a dirty shop. Also, never allow yourself to walk out of the shop while it’s dirty. If you clean every day you are in the shop, the amount of cleaning becomes substantially lower.
In contrast, if you work daily and clean once a week, you are cleaning seven times the mess. Cleaning daily has several advantages, each of them will help you make better projects, and work in a safer environment.
First, cleaning every time you work reduces your time invested in the cleaning process. This translates into more time making the project, and less time cleaning. It also means that your tools will be easier to find, your footing will be more stable, and you will not have to stop and make room for things in the middle of the process.
Second, smaller and more frequent cleaning means less frustration with the process of cleaning. People that hate cleaning tend to not do it until the mess is so big that they can’t do anything else until they clean.
At this point, they clean their brains out for hours, and further cement the belief that cleaning is terrible and takes forever. In reality, the only reason they were cleaning for hours was because they let the mess get bigger and bigger until they were forced to do something about it.
This makes people hate cleaning, and hate the process of cleaning so much that they skip it as often as they possibly can. This again leads to cleaning only when the situation is dire, and the cycle repeats itself.
Do yourself a favor if this sounds like you, and break this cycle as soon as you possibly can. Make it a rule that you clean every time you leave the shop, or commit to cleaning the entire shop before you even start for the first time.
The more you keep your area clean, the easier it will be to keep it that way for the long haul.
Finally, cleaning every time you are in the shop will, over time, create a disciplined regimen that you keep with you in the shop. Discipline is doing what you have to, even when you don’t want to.
Every time you clean the shop when you would rather not, you are teaching yourself discipline. This ability to do what needs to be done will trickle into other areas of your life, and you will discover that it’s not difficult to do things that you need to do, even when you don’t really feel like doing them.
Keep your shop clean, and you will discover that you are capable of producing more and better work in a safer and less frustrating manner. You will end up making better projects too, because you will have more of your mind focused on the task at hand instead of finding tools or stepping over things.
This added cognitive ability will help you create better, design better, and execute better.
Also a clean shop will help you maximize your time in a life where time is very valuable. For most of you, woodworking is not your job. You have a real job, a family, school, and other commitments.
When you only have a couple hours to be in the shop, a clean space will mean more productive hours on the project, and less time finding tools or working around messes.
Part 20 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 20 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place.
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