Woodworking for Beginners Part 41 [2023 Updated]

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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.

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(Updated 2023)

Figured Woods vs. Plain

how-to-become-a-woodworker-for-beginners-full-book-41When it comes to planing and using edged tools, figured wood presents a much bigger challenge than plain wood. When you use figured wood, you are no longer able to use grain direction to your advantage in many cases.

You instead have to do other little tricks in order to use your edged tools without destroying your beautiful piece of wood.

When you are using a thickness planer and figured wood, most people would say to stop right there. In many cases, using a thickness planer on heavily figured wood is a recipe for watching the planer eat one of your boards and throw nothing but shavings out the other side.

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I have had this happen before on really thin pieces. I fed in a solid piece, and out the other side came chunks and nothing else. I might as well have tossed that piece in the trash right after I bought it.

The trick to using power tools like a thickness planer on your figured pieces it to take excruciatingly thin passes until you reach your target depth. You can use a thickness planer for figured wood, but you really need to be careful, and be prepared to lose a piece or two until you get the hang of the process.

When I say very thin passes, I mean so thin that it looks as though you are shaving the board with a razor rather than actually removing material. It will take a long time and tons of passes, but if you very slowly buzz off material, you will come down to final size.

If you want to avoid the trouble of learning how to work figured wood with edged tools, you can buy a thickness sander, or a belt sander to complete the same process by hand.

Figured woods respond to sanding much more forgivingly than they do edged tools. Since sanding is a grinding process, the threat of digging into the surface all but disappears.

For thinner pieces of wood, using a thickness sander rather than a planer makes the process very easy. You still have to take thin passes, but that is the nature on a sander anyway.

You can however use a more aggressive grit, and in that way you will power through the material much faster than you would have. In this way you also reduce the risk that you will remove anything that you do not intend to remove.

Figured wood is some of the most beautiful wood in the world. You can make your projects from this incredible example of nature’s beauty, but you have to make some good decisions about how you build.

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If you are going to use edged tools, go very thin. Try your best to not take off any more than a sliver at a time. Once you get too deep, you run the risk of popping out small pieces, and this can ruin your board.

When in doubt, sand your figured piece to be on the same side. As a beginner, doing some things that minimize risk, even though they do add work, can reduce your stress level. If you approach the project carefully, you can trade time for success when working with figured wood.

Make Thin Pencil Marks

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Woodworking will require that you measure and place marks on your pieces. You later use those marks to make cuts, and to create individual parts.

It’s important that you know how to mark a board in order to make the coming cut as accurate as possible.

Most of the time, new woodworkers will mark right on the spot where the measurement resides. This is a mistake, and here is why.

When you mark right on the spot, you actually cover it, and it makes the process of cutting a bit more of a guessing game than it should be. Instead, make your mark so that the outside edge is where the measurement is located.

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If you are measuring for the miter saw, make the mark so that the entire mark is visible on the same side of the blade that you are going to be standing while you are cutting.

This way, you can clearly see the end of the mark, and you don’t have to estimate the width of the blade.

Now, cut with the saw so that the edge of the blade closest to you just makes contact (like a thousandth of an inch contact) with the outside of the mark. When you remove this board and take a follow up measurement, you will notice that the piece is extremely accurate.

This is because you are no longer guessing about the exact location of the cut. The mark itself terminates the length of the board, and the saw cuts off everything that is past that termination point.

What many new woodworkers do not see right away is that their pencil marks have a width themselves. They are not a fine, single mark that only captures the exact location of the measurement.

A poorly made mark can actually cover 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch, which is a ton of wiggle room. This can mean the difference between a good fitting project and a poorly made project.

Unless you are making a project that has a very loose tolerance, like making plant stakes or something like that, make sure to use the measurement trick that was just explained, because it will make your pieces come out much better than without.

For example, if you were making a box, and all of your miter cuts were plus or minus 1/8 inch, it would mean some really big gaps in the final look. You would have to cut some of the pieces again, and fill in the rest of the openings before finishing.

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The project would look poorly made, and it would take a lot longer to prepare for finishing than if the pieces all fit.

When you are measuring, make the mark so that the outside of the mark is tangent to the final measurement, and cut the board so that you preserve the entire mark and nothing more.

Measuring like this allows you to make much more accurate cuts, and produce much more accurate pieces. When you build your project, you will also notice that it goes together much easier. This means less time spent repairing mistakes, and filling gaps before final finishing.

Try Building Before Buying

Before you buy anything, you should at least look into what it will take to build it. Then, for cases where you have the materials and the ability, build the item yourself.

As you add more and more tools and jigs to your arsenal, you can really benefit from making things yourself.

If you are capable of making the project, then odds are you are capable of making the tools and jigs that go along with the project. Before you go out and buy something that is pretty easy to make, try making the item first.

This practice will increase your woodworking skill, because you will be creating a project, and it will also give you more of an understanding of the tool itself when you finally use it.

Some great examples are simple jigs, basic hand tools, and anything else that appears to be easy enough to make in your shop. Begin by looking around for some plans or an idea of where to start.

Once you have your starting point, combine ideas and think about what you really want your version of the tool or jig to look like.

Make any changes that are necessary and come up with a working drawing that you can take into the shop to start building. Make your tool or jig, and then test it out to see how it works.

Make any changes that are necessary and you will be very happy that you made the project yourself rather than buying it. If you need multiples of the same tool, you can set up a step by step assembly line and crank out several at one time.

Use Even Clamping Pressure

When you are gluing up several pieces, or when you are gluing up only two pieces, it’s important to think about clamping pressure. There are some virtues to the clamps that can produce hundreds of pounds of clamping force, but there are also times when that is not a good idea.

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If you are going to glue a couple pieces together, it’s more important to use even clamping pressure than high clamping pressure.

There are a couple downfalls to using too much clamping pressure. First, you can actually squeeze out so much glue that the pieces create a very poor bond. This runs the risk of falling apart in the future, and all because you wanted to tighten the heck out of the clamps thinking it would do a really good job.

Second, if you are gluing several pieces together, too much clamping pressure can cause them to slip apart, sending the pieces flying across the shop. This almost looks like a trap of some kind, and it’s fairly comical seeing a set of stacked pieces for a cutting board buckle and fly apart.

It’s comical way after the fact, not when it happens, and not if you get hurt from a flying piece.

Lastly, you can cause damage to your pieces by applying too much clamping pressure. Some woods are pretty soft, and you can easily sink the heads or the metal ends of clamps into the surface.

These impressions will not come out easily, and you might end up having to sand for a long time to remove them. This adds time to your build, and makes the project take longer.

As you are clamping your piece, remember that it is more about getting the clamps in the right places, and evenly distributing the force. Very heavy pressure is not necessary in a good clamping configuration, and you really only need to have medium pressure to accomplish a good glue job.

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The point of the clamps is to hold the pieces together so that a very thin layer of glue can set up in between the two layers. You only need enough force to get the two boards very close to one another.

Anything more and you are just squeezing out so much glue that you might not have enough on the piece in the end.

Get a portion of your clamps into position, and then start adding pressure. Add pressure evenly, and work around the clamps. As you go, you can add more and more until you get to the point where you have a nice, firm clamping pressure that is securely holding the pieces.

Inspect the glue-up and make sure that the pieces are still where they need to be. Make any adjustments while you can, and while the glue is still wet. Check your clamping pressure, and make sure that all the clamps are evenly tightened around the piece.

Now, let it cure, and when you remove the clamps, you will have a well prepared surface that is ready to go on to the next steps. Avoid high pressure at all costs, and stick with even, medium pressure for your clamping tasks.

How Boards are Measured

Boards are referred to by length,, width, and thickness when you buy them. They are also given the same terms when other woodworkers talk about them. For the purposes of buying wood, and effective communication, it’s important to know which dimensions are which.

Also, they are not what you might think they are.

The length of a board is measured with the grain, and is not always the longest dimension. The faces of the board will display the grain lines, so it is easy to look and decide which direction the grain runs.

As you speak about the board in terms of length, the measurement in the direction of the grain is what you are taking about.

The width of a board is always measured across the grain, no matter if this is the shorter measurement or not. Most of the time, the width will be shorter, but there are times that the width across the grain will actually be a longer measurement than the length.

It’s in this way that wood can be different than measuring other things. Most of the time, the longest measurement is always the length, and the next longest is the width. With wood, the grain matters.

Finally, the thickness of a board is measured face to face, and is the last dimension used in identifying the look and size of a board. Combine the length, width, and the thickness, and you will be able to accurately tell someone how big of a piece of wood you need.

Rip Cuts and Cross Cuts

There are two very common types of cuts that are the bread and butter of all woodworking. Yes, there are more, but for the purposes of a beginner, you really only need to know how to cut things to width and length.

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Just like in measuring a board, the grain comes into play again in how the cuts are named. No matter the size of the board, the cuts are always based off the direction of the grain.

Rip cuts are mainly done on the table saw, and are a way of cutting a board to width. Any time you cut with the grain of the board, you are making a rip cut. You also change the width of the board when making a cut like this.

A cross cut is made on the miter saw typically, though you can use other methods. This kind of cut goes across the grain, and is a way of setting the length of a board. Even if the cross grain section is not the narrower section, all cross cutting happens across the grain, which makes it easy to remember.

The big two cuts in woodworking are rip cuts and cross cuts. By remembering that cross cuts go across the grain, you will remember that rip cuts go with the grain. As you talk about your process, you can now use these terms to accurately describe what you are doing.

You will also be hinting at the tool that you are using because the majority of rip cuts happen on the table saw and the majority of cross cuts happen on the miter saw. This is how you communicate better about your process.

Don’t Dig with the Sander

It is very tempting to encourage the sander to work better by digging the edges or corners of the pad into the surface of the wood. While this can be used in a controlled manner, and assist in removing a larger defect, it can leave behind some marks that are very hard to remove.

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It can also create a valley that will end up needing even more work to sand out before your project can be finished.

There are really not many rules in woodworking that you cannot break from time to time, but in general sanding with the edges or corners of the pad can create more work than it eliminates.

Over time, you will learn how to carefully and delicately break this rule and still leave a surface behind that looks good. For now though, it’s a better idea to leave the sander flat.

When you sand with the power sander and leave the pad flat on the surface of the wood, the sanding pad works much like a sanding block. Since the rigid surface cannot make contact with the depressions in the wood surface, it only sands the peaks.

In doing so, the sanding pad levels the surface by reducing only the areas that need to be reduced.

You should also take care not to ding the surface with the sander while it is on. This is more important for disc sanders that rotate at a high speed, because the edges of the paper can cut like a knife and really make a mess of the nice surface you are trying to create. As you begin to sand, practice carefully landing the sander on the surface.

You want to make good contact on the first touch, and not land with a corner or an edge first. In this way, you minimize the risk of making an unintentional dent or divot that you will have to sand out later.

The majority of sanding problems can be eliminated by choosing the right grit. If you feel as though you have been sanding forever and you are not getting anywhere, don’t be tempted to dig the sander into a defect in order to speed up the process. Instead, simply switch to a rougher grit and see if that makes a difference.

You will have to work through more paper in order to remove all the scratches this way, but you will power through the defects much better with more coarse paper.

Also, if you work in sections and don’t leave an area until you are fully satisfied with the results, you will feel more accomplished as you more around.

One of the momentum killers in sanding is when you skip around so much that you only do a little of everything. In a case like this, you also do all of nothing, and it can feel like you wasted a lot of time to get nowhere.

When you are sanding, try to knock out a complete section or area before moving on to another. This way, even if you don’t complete the entire project in one session, you can look back and easily tell that you actually did some work.

In this way, you will build confidence, and it will feel like you are actually getting somewhere on the project, rather than just sanding forever.

Add Texture With a Wire Wheel

One way that you can add some interest to a wood surface is to add texture. This can be done in a number of ways, but one of the most versatile is the wire wheel. The different looks you can get are really interesting looking, and you don’t need a ton of practice to get really good at the application.

First, you need to buy a wire wheel if you do not already have one, and then you need a method of making it spin.

There are tons of wire wheels out there, but the type that look like a tire, with the bristles pointing straight out from the center are the best for this process. Look for stiff bristles, but not so stiff that you cannot move them by hand.

Next, look for how you are going to make the wheel turn. You can use an angle grinder, drill press, lathe, or hand drill. With the right attachments you might even be able to use a buffing motor.

Select the wheel so that you are able to turn it in the shop, and you have everything you need to start applying a texture to your wooden pieces.

The way that you use the wheel determines the look, and you can do a lot of different things with only the one basic wheel. The process is similar, though you vary how long you make contact with the wood.

To begin applying a texture to your wooden piece, turn on the machine and the wheel will rotate quickly. Then, briefly make contact with the surface, moving the piece under the wheel as in buffing.

As you move around, you will see that the wheel removes material from the surface very quickly.

The more time you linger around in the same area, the faster the material is removed. You can cut very deeply in seconds, so be careful not to stay in any one place too long unless that is the look you are going for.

Apply the same treatment to the entire piece, or only the sections that you want to have textured. Then, you can evaluate the work and see if you want more texture.

The big difference between looks is how long you keep the piece in contact with the wheel. For longer contact times, you can create a deep and sharp looking surface that really looks interesting.

With less contact, you end up with a thin set of grooves that almost look like more grain lines, or defined grain lines.

Experiment with the wire wheel, and be careful with your hands. The wires are really sharp when they are moving quickly, and they can remove skin as fast as they remove wood.

You will know when you make contact, and it’s nothing like accidentally touching a sanding belt. The wire wheel has some sting, and can leave scratches that take a few days to heal.

Different woods react differently to the wheel treatment than others. In general, the softer the wood, the deeper the wires will go, and faster too. There are benefits to this property of softer woods though, and they make for some of the most interesting looks that you can create using the wire wheel technique.

Soft woods like Pine are some of the most fun to work with. Pine in particular because of the differing densities in the grain.

Pine is a softer piece of wood, but the darker grain lines are much harder than the surrounding wood. When the wire wheel is used on the surface, it erodes the softer material at a much higher rate.

This leaves behind deep deep valleys with tall pointy peaks. If you are trying for a really deep looking texture, a soft wood like Pine is the way to go.

Harder woods tend to take the treatment less promptly, and they tend to wear more evenly. That’s not to say that they process does not look good on these kinds of wood. it just looks different.

Try out a wire wheel the next time you are in a hardware store and you are looking for ideas on how to spice up your woodworking. So many people finish their projects, but very few add a texture before they finish.

Once you work with the wire wheel a few times, you will be hooked, and you will really enjoy the different looks that you can accomplish.

Over time, you can experiment with harder wheels, differently shaped wheels, and others made from a different type of metal. As you learn and play with your texturing, you may end up creating a look that is very unique, and truly your own.

It is through experimentation that new techniques and ideas about woodworking are discovered and shared.

Part 41 – Wrap Up

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I hope you liked Part 41 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. 

Happy building.

Continue to Part 42 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking Here!

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
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  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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