This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next month, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
Find Something to Make
Odds are that you already have something in mind that you want to make. That’s probably how you discovered you would need to learn about woodworking in order to accomplish it. That’s great. If you don’t have something you are thinking about making, then you will need to do a little work.
Most of what I teach about woodworking is based on a project that you want to make. Knowing what you want to make will help you with tool selection, shop setup, and many other aspects of woodworking. If you are still struggling, spend some time thinking about it as you continue reading.
One of the easiest ways to get your project off the ground is with a good book. Pick out a book in the genre that you are interested in, one that has several project plans inside. You can get lots of great ideas for projects this way. Make sure to pick one that is at the beginner level, but something that still interests you.
Picking out a boring beginner project that you have absolutely no interest in making will not work very well, because it will be hard for you to get into the work. If you need to pick something a pinch outside your comfort level, feel free as long as it interests you.
Once you have your project, or several projects, it will help you as you make the next series of decisions. In the beginning, most of what you buy and set up will be geared towards the project you are making. These first few projects set the pace for tool selection, which is going to be one of the largest expenses as a new woodworker.
If you still do not have a project, you do have time to pick one out. Before you buy any large and expensive tools, spend a little time deciding what you want to start making.
Make Tools in the Beginning
If you truly cannot think of something to make, then start with tools. You can learn a lot about woodworking by making woodworking tools. There are many tools that can be made by hand, and each one of them will add to your arsenal as you make future projects.
Some of the easiest projects are things like sanding blocks, hand planes, and clamps. All of these smaller projects reward you in the end with more tools. That’s a double win because you will learn as you make the tool, and then be able to use it on future projects.
Also, when you make a tool and use it, you will have a much deeper understanding of how the tools works. It will be much more familiar to you, and much easier to work with.
In many instances, the tools that you make can end up being the some of your favorites. Even store bought models will not compare, because they just don’t feel the same.
I have a hand plane that I made following the Krenov method (which you can find all over the internet) and it’s absolutely hideous. The Krenov design is wonderful, my execution of the design is what made it hideous.
Even so, I use that hand plane more than any other I have, because I fully understand it inside and out. That deeper understanding and feeling that I have while using the tool makes it my favorite. Even though it makes no logical sense, it makes me feel like a better woodworker when I use it.
I recommend that you make several tools in the beginning, especially until you find out what projects you want to start making. Each of them are great to have for several reasons, and together they make a nice set.
Every woodworker uses tons of clamps, and over time you will accumulate many of them in your shop. The bad thing about clamps is they are expensive. Even those that you can buy in a discount tool store add up when you buy several, and the name brand clamps can really set you back when you need a whole set.
Instead of buying clamps, you can make them, and truly enrich your shop right out of the gate. Besides, there are clamp designs that do not require any gluing, which means you don’t need clamps to make clamps.
I use a lot of cam clamps for my woodworking, and I just make them when I need more. They are super cheap to make yourself, and they are extremely versatile. You can’t get a ton of power from them like a bar clamp, but you get enough force for most gluing applications.
Plus, you can set the depth of the jaws as big or small as you want, which means you have more control over the size of clamps that you are making.
If you buy the materials carefully, you can make cam clamps for a tiny fraction of what they cost new. Plus, you will get some quality time in the shop. Cam clamps in particular are not an incredibly difficult project, and with a nice finish they can look professionally made even for a first project.
Next, I recommend that you make a sanding block, which will help you develop good sanding habits right from the start. It’s a very useful tool, and you deserve far more than a rubber block from a home improvement store.
When you make your sanding block, find a piece of wood that really looks nice. Pick out something exotic, and even if it’s a few dollars more than normal you only need a small piece. Cut it to dimensions for a 1/8 sheet of sandpaper, which is about 2” x 3-1/2” on the faces.
This is large enough for most things but small enough to get into tight places as needed. You can also make a few of these in different sizes based on your anticipated needs, and you’ll always have the right size.
The great thing about a sanding block is that it forces you to sand a larger area, and prevents you from digging your fingers into the surface and causing an indent. It also targets the high spots automatically, so you will naturally level out the surface as you sand, which is the goal.
After you have a sanding block, make a small hand plane following the Krenov model. This is a tried and true method of making a great looking and very functional plane from wood.
You can buy the iron from a home improvement store, or splurge on a name brand iron from a well known maker. Either way, you are going to end up with a great tool that you will enjoy using.
The beauty of this style of hand plane is that you can make them in several sizes, and you can adjust the plane with a small tap of a hammer.
Wooden planes are a pleasure to use, because you can make micro adjustments to the blade that really dial in the cut. It’s easy to make small adjustments and end up with plane shavings that are so thin you can see through them.
With any edged tool, it’s important to make it razor sharp to get the best experience from it. When you buy your iron, buy a nice combination sharpening stone that’s meant for sharpening and honing.
A good combination is a 800 / 4000 water stone. The 800 powers through the metal and the 4000 creates an edge you can shave with.
After the clamps, sanding blocks, and hand plane, if you are still struggling on what to make, take a look online for more tools. There are tons of great tools that people make by hand to use in their shop. If you really like something that you see, and you can make it to add to your tool set.
Some people enjoy making tools so much that they find their heading from it. There are also lots of independent woodworkers that make and sell tools to other people and enjoy the craft tremendously.
You can not go wrong making tools for yourself. Even if you have a direction that you want to go with your woodworking as a beginner, the sheer savings over buying tools is worth the effort in making them.
Find a Space to Work
You do not need to have a gigantic shop in order to turn out great looking projects. You don’t even really need to have a shop exactly, but you do need to have a space to work. There are a lot of areas that qualify as a space, and you might be surprised what some determined individuals have done at their kitchen tables.
In the ideal world, you would have a space at least the size of a single car garage where you can set up your shop and work. It would be somewhere you can leave your tools and materials, and that you would not have to relocate after every session.
It would have nice lighting, spaces for your tools, and be a comfortable place to build your skills.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of working in a dedicated shop. That’s ok. It’s not the shop that makes the projects, it’s the maker. A good woodworker can build a dining table in an outhouse. What really matters is having as much of a shop as you can.
One of the most interesting stories that I ever read was about a man that made an acoustic guitar on his kitchen table. Every day he worked he had to haul out all of his tools and set up shop. After the work for the day was completed, he had to take down everything and put it away.
Daily he cleaned, and restored the kitchen to the point where it looked like he had never been there. It added so much time to the build, but it was worth it for him to have a handmade guitar.
That is an extreme example, but you can really do a lot with just a small space and some determination. There are woodworkers that only have a small table on a porch, or a single bench in a garage, and they still make beautiful projects.
If you can, try and find a space that you don’t have to vacate after every woodworking session. This is simply an area where you can set up your tools, and store your materials at least semi-permanently.
When you don’t have to set up and take down every time you work, you can devote more time to learning and building.
Once you have that space, organize your tools and get your shop set up to where you are comfortable. There is more about shop setup in Chapter 4 if you are already at that point.
If you cannot have a space like that, start looking for a place that you can work where you are comfortable, and where you can quickly store away the things that have to move out each night.
Maybe there is a compromise space where you can store a few things and bring in the rest in tool boxes? Either way you do it, the closer you get to having a small space for yourself the better.
One of the most important aspects of your working area is that it’s comfortable. I know that I have mentioned that several times already, but it’s important. Having an area that you feel good working in will make a difference in how well you learn your craft.
For example, if you are working in an area where the ceiling is very low and you have to duck down a lot, that is going to interfere with your ability to learn. The small stress in being uncomfortable will build up over time, and it will leave you with a negative feeling that you associate with woodworking.
The same goes for a space that is poorly lit, too hot, too cold, or hard to move around inside. All of these things cause stress, and they slowly add up over time. Plus, conditions like that are not safe, and can lead to injury.
If you can, take over a small part of the house for your shop. Set up your tools, and make yourself at home in the space. You are going to be spending a lot of time in there, so make sure you are comfortable.
You Might Surprise Yourself
Lots of new woodworkers struggle with trying new things, and they worry if they are going to be able to accomplish a new aspect of woodworking. In reality, unless there is a very expensive tool purchase involved, most new projects are only worth their expense in materials, which is typically low.
This is not enough to prevent trying something, and you may just surprise yourself and find out you can do more than you thought. It’s through trying things that you develop skills, and figure out what you like and what you don’t.
If you are interested in a particular aspect of woodworking, just give it a try. Look for a way to get into the space for a low price, and start out small to see if you really enjoy it. Some types of woodworking look like a lot of fun until you try them.
If you already have a huge investment made and discover you don’t like the new project, it can make you feel bad about trying something new in the future.
Also, not wanting to try things because you may fail at them is a paralyzing thought process. Like most things, anything new will be scarier and bigger looking than it really is. Once you get through the process a couple times, it shrinks down and becomes more manageable.
There are so many different types of woodworking that you can find something that makes nearly any personality type happy. Fast paced builders may enjoy pallet and 2×4 furniture.
Meticulous, detail driven people might enjoy inlay work. If you are used to a faster pace and looser measurements, trying inlay work or marquetry may be quite a shock in the beginning. This is an example of when making a small investment in the beginning is a wise choice.
It may turn out that you like just about every kind of woodworking that you try. If that happens, you are fortunate. However, you will never know unless you give it a try, and see what types of woodworking you like.
You can do more than you think, especially after you have learned a little about making things from wood. Each new thing you try out will become progressively easier, because you are always adding to your skill set.
Before you decide that you don’t like an aspect of woodworking, do yourself a favor and make sure that you were not doing it incorrectly. It can be easy to do things wrong in the beginning of anything. Before you decide it’s not for you, do a little research and make sure you are doing it the right way.
There are times when something seems really difficult, but in reality you are just not doing it the way you are supposed to. In a case like this, you can accidentally think you don’t enjoy something when you really don’t even know for sure.
In cases where I decide that a particular aspect of woodworking is just not my style, I put it on the shelf for a while and come back to it later. Sometimes I am right, and sometimes I was just not ready for it yet at the skill level when I tried it.
There have only been a couple woodworking styles that I have not taken up again. Picking up a project after walking away for a while can change your perspective, and you may end up liking it after all.
Either way, give things a try in the beginning to really see what kind of woodworking you like to do. You will never really know unless you give it an honest try.
Get used to the idea of making a lot of mistakes as a beginner…and an expert. Woodworking is all about making mistakes and recovering from them. There is an old joke about how woodworking is really a series of small adjustments to the plan you made to cover up all your mistakes as the project unfolded.
While it’s not like that all the time, you are going to make mistakes, and woodworking is all about learning how to pivot really well when they happen.
The only bad thing you can say about making a mistake on a project is when you don’t learn anything from what you did. Don’t be frustrated about making mistakes, just use them as learning opportunities and move forward with the project.
You made a mistake, but you also learned at least one way not to do the step or process. You learned something, and that’s a positive thing.
Thomas Edison famously said that he never failed, he just found out thousands of ways that didn’t work. This is the best way to look at a mistake. When you are making mistakes, you are figuring out the limits and the boundaries of your craft. It’s through learning these lessons that you develop your understanding of your particular style of woodworking.
It’s going to be really difficult, especially when you ruin a project right near the end, or apply a finish that never dries because you used an old can to save money. However, you will get over it, and you will have learned a valuable lesson in woodworking.
Most of the really painful lessons (mental pain, not physical pain) you only have to be taught once. They hurt, but they just showed you one more way that you were not supposed to do it.
Smaller mistakes are different. Lots of times, you will think that you have everything perfect and then something small comes up that needs to be worked around. Maybe a board was cut too short, or maybe a miter didn’t mate well and you now have a small gap.
Things like this are going to happen a lot in the beginning. They happen less as you become more experienced, but they still happen enough to be noticeable.
The key to getting through the small mistakes is to learn how to pivot really well. Pivoting is making small changes to the design, replacing pieces, or adding things that correct mistakes made in previous steps.
Knowing how to pivot really well is something that takes time, but you will naturally pick up the talent as you spend some of your woodworking time figuring out how to get yourself out of the jam you just got yourself into.
For example, I once made a box that I used brad nails to hold together. I thought I was shooting them close enough to the edge for the decorative banding to cover them later in the build, but I was literally just missing the size by about 1/8.” This meant that just about every nail indent from the gun would show.
Instead of starting the build over, I just increased the size of the binding strips by 1/8” to add the extra width and cover the brad nail holes. The project nearly looked identical to the plan, and I did not have to worry about the mistake I made with the nail gun.
Pivoting well can result in less wasted materials, more successful builds, and less stress. Mistakes are going to happen, but you can think of them as chances to showcase your design skills and plan around them.
Some woodworkers use inlay work to pivot around mistakes that are not easily removed by sanding. A deep gouge is hard to fill and hide, but adding an inlay makes the project more valuable and still fixes the mistake.
This is a win for everyone involved, because the customer gets a better piece and the maker does not have to put out a poor looking item.
Don’t worry about your mistakes. Consider them lessons learned, and think of creative ways to pivot around them to complete the project. Each time you do, you will be adding to your skill set, and becoming a more confident and capable woodworker.
Part 3 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 3 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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