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.
Square Your Stock First
It can seem like a chore to square up your stock before you start building, but it makes a big difference in the success of your build. Working with square wood simply means that all of the faces are perpendicular to the next face, and that the pieces are nice and straight.
When you take the time to prep your lumber before you use it, the time you invest comes right back to you.
If you have ever worked with really bad lumber, or warped wood, you know the struggle. It’s sometimes hard to bend pieces into line, and even harder when you have to twist them.
The project itself becomes distorted, and over time those stresses can lead to failure. Even a project made from bad wood that looks ok on the day it was completed can fall apart over time as those forces inside the wood resolve themselves.
Working with square wood becomes especially appreciated when you are making any kind of box or enclosed structure. Boxes are fun to make, and they are often an early woodworking project.
A well made jewelry box is a staple of woodworking, and you will probably end up making something similar in the beginning. When you have wood what is not square, you will find making a simple box to be one of the most challenging things you do as a beginner.
This is where new woodworkers sometimes think that the craft is not for them. After all, they can’t even make a simple box and it only has six pieces. The reality is that they fell into an old woodworking trap, and did not make sure that their wood was square before starting out.
In fact, if you never know that’s the problem, you could end up walking away from woodworking because it just seems like too much.
Making a box is actually a very simple exercise, as long as you take some time to square up your stock before you cut out the pieces. Once that happens, you will find that the parts go together really well, and that the gaps between them are minimal at most.
This means an easier assembly, and far less filling to conceal mistakes.
Squaring wood does take some machines that many beginners are not going to have. A thickness planer and a jointer are two of the most common tools, though a table saw and a router table can be set up to do a similar job if that’s all you have.
For those without any of those tools, buying your wood already squared is a huge start to better projects.
There are varying degrees of “finished” that wood is sold under, and the more work performed at the mill the more expensive the wood will be. In the beginning, you may have to just go with it and spend more to get squared pieces of wood.
Over time, you can start adding in more tools that allow you to perform these operations yourself, saving you money.
Some of the least expensive wood comes right off the pile and has only been surfaced on two faces. There are even more pieces that have only been rough sawn to thickness.
If you are starting out with a good shop, and you have the tools, you can save some money and mill the pieces to final dimensions yourself. Some people enjoy this part of the process quite a bit. If this is you, then enjoy all the savings over buying wood that has been surfaced on all sides.
If you appreciate the value of working with squared pieces of wood, but you are not the kind of person that likes the prep side, you can still make this work. When you buy wood, make it a point to do the squaring before you need to use the pieces.
After you buy the pieces, just bring it into the shop and perform the milling operations a few days before you plan to use them.
Sometimes people can let small things get in their way, like squaring their wood. If you have to do all of that before you can make something, you may decide that it’s too much of a hassle and skip the shop for a while.
On the other hand, if you do the prep work first, before you ever need the wood, you eliminate that burden.
When your wood is all pretty much ready to use off your shelf, you take away an excuse for not spending time in the shop. The parts of the project that you do not like are already done, and you don’t have to think about them getting in the way of your project.
Just make it a habit to square up your wood when you buy it, and you will always have a nice selection of ready to use wood right in your own shop.
The Ends of Boards
No matter how they look, the ends of long boards from the woodworking store are not square.
They will nearly all be off by a degree or two, and when making something where the ends are important, this will present itself as though the piece were cut at 45 degrees. Thankfully, there is an easy way to fix the problem.
First, when you are buying wood, it’s always a good idea to buy pieces that are a little longer than you need them to be. This allows for making cuts, making a small mistake, and cutting off planer snipe if you have it. One thing that you can also do with that extra length is take a cut with the miter saw and square the ends.
If you are cutting pieces off the board in order, you can get away with only cutting the one side square.
Use that same side to measure from, and make all of your cuts from that same end. The first cut only needs to be deep enough to cut a fresh face on the end, effectively squaring the surface.
After that, the first piece you cut from the board will leave you with another fresh 90 degree end to make your next measurement from.
For those without a miter saw, use a miter box and a hand saw to square the end. Yes, it’s another cut by hand, which can be exhausting, but it will save you a lot of time in the end. Instead of filling in gaps, and making adjustments, you will only have to make one or two extra cuts to square the ends of your boards.
Test With Cheap Wood
Especially if you haven’t made a project before, or you are unsure about your ability to make the project, working with cheap wood will give you the chance to experiment without breaking the bank.
Testing on cheap wood lets you make models, test joints, and build a complete project in an easier and less expensive fashion before you tackle the real thing.
One way to use cheap wood is to find a locally available soft wood that you can buy for a deal. In the USA, Pine is typically the least expensive, and it’s also a soft species that is easy to work.
Sanding, cutting, and building with Pine is far easier in most cases, and you can ramp up to working with a more difficult wood by starting with Pine.
Since the process is faster, and the working is easier, you can focus on learning new techniques rather than fighting the wood. For example, if you are making wooden hinges, the process itself can be tough.
If you are fighting the hardest species of wood in the world on top of learning to make wooden hinges, you are actually fighting two fights in one. This is a losing proposition, and you face an uphill battle the entire time.
Instead, use a softer and more easily worked species of wood to test out your build. Make your hinges, drill them, and assemble them to see if they work. Make any changes to the process, and make another set using the new method.
Once you have the system down, and you know your steps, you can then focus on making the real thing with the actual species you want to use. Now that you have the practice out of the way, working with the actual species will not be nearly as much of a chore.
All of the effort will be focused on creating the project, since the planning and learning stages were accomplished on the Pine.
Another place that Pine really shines is when you are practicing on the lathe. Many times, making the project from Pine is far easier on the lathe, since the wood cuts so easily.
You can make up a larger block if necessary, and then turn it on the lathe the same way that you would the actual project. Work out all the kinks, and then you will be ready to use the actual species you want, and make the final project.
Again, this is to get the techniques down without worrying about ruining your nice piece of wood, which makes the process a lot easier in the end.
If you have to run through a couple Pine blocks on the lathe in order to get the process down, feel free. They are inexpensive, and will help you learn what you need to know before you make the actual project.
You can keep your Pine creations or toss them, depending on what they look like. Some people like keeping everything they make, so they keep their mock ups and test pieces too.
If you are making something simple, where the species is more of an aesthetic choice, you may enjoy using your Pine version as your own, and give away or sell the final project made with the target species.
Don’t Build With Wet Wood
Don’t build with wet wood. Wood that has not been seasoned can cause a lot of problems over time, even as you are working with it.
The nature of wood is that it has moisture in the material, but there are a few things you can do to ensure that you are working with the right levels, and not with something too wet.
Wood is a living material that is cut down and dried out for use in many different industries. When alive, the wood is very wet, because the tree brings water and nutrients up the trunk and out to and from the branches and leaves.
A newly felled tree will still have a lot of that moisture in the wood, which can cause problems over time.
Problems that frequently occur when working with wet wood are pieces shrinking, bending, and changing shape as they dry. When a piece shrinks, especially a piece that is glued or attached to other pieces, it pulls those pieces with it.
If too much force builds up, the joining methods or the wood will give up, and the pieces will come apart. As wood bends, it also pulls on other pieces and builds up pressure inside the project.
Once the pressure exceeds the ability of the joining method to hold it together, the project breaks, cracks, or falls apart to relieve the pressure.
Wood mills and wood sellers have processes in place where the wood is dried out and then sold. In some cases, the wood is not dried, and instead the pieces are waxed or coated to prevent moisture loss. It’s important to know the difference, and be able to spot wet wood.
For wood turners, lots of the blanks that they buy are freshly cut and coated in wax. This slows down the drying process and in some cases stops it. When you see pieces of wood that have wax on all surfaces, you can assume that those pieces are wet inside.
You may also see pieces that are waxed on the ends only. These pieces are still drying, but with the ends waxed they dry slower, which helps control the distortion.
If you are making things from boards, you will hardly ever see pieces that are waxed. You will however run into pieces that are still too wet to use. There are a few ways to tell, and they will all help you make a good buying decision.
One of the fastest and least involved methods of finding out if wood is wet is to ask the clerk at the store. A good wood store will know what the moisture levels of their wood is, and will be able to tell you if pieces have been acclimated to the area or not.
They can also tell you if the stock just came in, how it was dried, and where it came from. If they can’t, or they give you attitude about asking a questions like that, it may be time to find a different store or use a different method to find the answer yourself.
The following methods are all ways that you can find out the moisture levels without having to rely on someone else. They are pretty easy, and you can combine a few of them to ensure that you get a reliable answer.
If you have been working with a certain species for a while, you can always just feel the weight. If a piece is noticeably heavier than you normally expect, then odds are it is much wetter than normal inside.
Obviously the size and the shape of the piece are going to have an effect on the weight, this is more about an obvious feeling that the piece is just too heavy. In cases like this, it can be a first sign that the wood is too wet to work with.
Does the wood feel cold? Unless you are buying wood from an outdoor vendor in December, wood should feel about the same temperature as inside the store.
Wet wood will feel noticeably cold to the touch, and this can be a good second sign that the piece has not acclimated enough to build with in the shop.
A third way to evaluate the moisture levels is to look at how long the piece has been in the store. If you are pulling from a bottom bin, and it’s dusty, has spider webs under the pallet, and just looks like it hasn’t moved in a while, odds are that your wood has been in the store long enough to acclimate to the local humidity level.
On the other hand, if you can tell that the pieces look noticeably cleaner or better cared for than the rest, that can be a sign that they are new, and may not be ready to work with.
Finally, the most accurate way to figure out the moisture levels is with a meter. You can buy a moisture meter for a low price, or you can spend more and get one that is more fancy.
Either way, even the base models will tell you how much moisture is inside a piece of wood.
Most of these units have a couple metal prongs that are pointy at the tips. The basic method is you insert the prongs into the end of a board, the device runs current through the prongs, and based on the data it tells you how much water is inside the piece.
Once you have that information, you can decide based on the species if the wood is dry enough for you.
Personally, I have only used a moisture meter a few times, and I don’t actually own one myself. As a new woodworker, I can see the value, but if you shop in a reputable place, the workers there can tell you what you need to know about the wood.
Also, you can feel the piece and see if it’s cold, much heavier than normal, and estimate how long it’s been in the shop. These methods have always proven themselves to be just fine for picking out wood that is ready to use.
The biggest reason for using lower moisture wood is that you can’t predict what the piece will do as it dries. A board might do nearly nothing as it acclimates to the local humidity level. It may also split in half.
I have seem dresser tops that have split open with 1/4 inch gaps from end to end because wet wood was glued together before it had time to adjust. Once the tops let out their moisture and shrunk, the pressure had to go somewhere.
There are also many stories about woodworkers using wet wood, and they can be pretty entertaining. I remember one about a guy that built a coffee table, and one night he heard a loud pop and some banging and thought someone might have broken into his house.
When he went to investigate, he found his table in pieces on the floor. This was because the wood had shrunk, and the pressure caused the joints to fail. It’s entertaining to read about, but not nearly as much when it happens to you.
Remember, check the wood that you buy before you take it home. Make sure that it has the right moisture levels for your project, and you will have a much safer time as you build.
For most projects, buying wood that has been in the store for a while will be enough to assure that you have the right levels of moisture. Over days and weeks, new wood will let out a lot of moisture.
Most air conditioned shops are very low in humidity unless they use machines to increase the level inside the building. In cases like this, the wood can dry out quickly, and any movement or problems will have presented themselves in that time.
Don’t think that there is a specific moisture level for every project. There is not. Some instrument makers fuss over humidity more than others, but in general you want to work with wood that is no longer changing size due to moisture loss.
Once the wood is home, you can also leave it inside the shop for a few days before you make it into something, which is another layer of security.
If your shop has a similar humidity level and temperature as the store where you bought the wood, then you can be a little more safe in using the wood right away when you get it home.
Again, the goal is to have no surprises over time as the wood moves and changes to adjust to the environment. Pick the right pieces, and you will have very few problems if any.
Part 31 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 31 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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