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.
(Updated June 2023)
You Can Make Anything
You will never be an expert at every level of the craft, because woodworking is so wide, but you will eventually get to a point where projects don’t make you nervous anymore. This is a fun place, because you will be a lot more confident.
You will probably not notice when it happens, but at some point, you will no longer feel apprehensive about making a new or different project.
You will be able to see through the design, and immediately pick apart how it is made, the methods, and the materials. This comes from building so many things that you understand how certain processes are completed, and how to make certain kinds of joints, cuts, and elements.
At this point, you will feel really confident, and your woodworking will branch off into other areas, or you will advance the project that you mainly make. The confidence is the key to this entire process, and it will unlock a different dimension of woodworking for you.
Having taught furniture repair, I noticed that one of the biggest factor to whether or not someone would succeed, and how fast they would succeed, was their willingness to try the repair.
The techs that were apprehensive about trying a new repair, or the ones that wanted to stick to the easy repairs never really branched out. The few that actually did took a long time, and they were far behind other techs that started at the same time.
The difference was confidence, because not a single one of my students started with any furniture repair experience. Some had previous experience working with their hands, but none of them had ever repaired a piece of furniture, or repaired a finish. Since it was all new, it was a level field.
The confidence to try new things is really where the best woodworkers out shine those behind them. They are confident to try something, and rely on their previous experience to make it work.
This will happen to you too at some point, and you will all of a sudden feel like there is nothing you can’t do in woodworking.
Don’t rush this point, just let it happen naturally, and you will be surprised one day. The nervousness that you have right now thinking about a beginner level project will all of a sudden be gone one day.
This is a nice thing to look forward to, because you will eventually not have to struggle as hard to learn about woodworking.
For now, enjoy all you can about woodworking and don’t worry. The struggle to understand things will eventually go away for most things, and be reduced for others.
Once this happens, you will find that your next projects go even easier, and you make it to the end faster and with better results. Keep that in mind as you struggle to learn to build what you are currently working on. As you get better and better, the level of difficulty of each new project becomes less and less.
One of the best ways to keep you going into the shop on a regular basis is to always have a project.
If you always have something you can be doing out there, you will go out there more often.
When you give yourself long breaks, you allow your skills to erode. After years and years of woodworking, you might think that you can take a break for a year and be just fine.
The reality is that even a very skilled woodworker will slowly lose their skills if they do not practice often.
The easiest way to get that practice is to have an ongoing project. Going back to the doll house example, that could be something where new pieces of furniture are added every now and again.
After all, what doll house would be complete without handmade furniture in every room? An ongoing project like that gives you all you need to head out into the shop and start building.
In the beginning of any project, or when you are between projects, coming up with something to make can end up keeping you out of the shop. After a long hard day at the office, sometimes you might be too tired to go out there and think of something from scratch.
With an ongoing project, you always have something that you have ready to make, all you need to do is go. This keeps you sharp in those longer periods where you might not get as much time in the shop. When you are prepared well, these small interruptions will not cost you your hard earned skills.
Cutting Edge Woodworking
With all crafts, there is a frontier. This is the area where innovative and creative people are advancing what the craft is capable of producing. These are newer thinkers, and they are bringing new ideas to add to the cannon of woodworking.
If this is something that excites you, it is well within your reach to push the boundaries of what woodworking is and does.
There are so many new advancements that happen all the time, that even writing about individual things seems like a waste. By the time this book is out for a year or two, there will already be new things that are being done in the world of woodworking.
While it can be difficult to be a pioneer, the best thing that you can do is go back to combining ideas, and see what you can come up with. There are so many great ideas out there, and so much powerful machinery and computers that you can really do a lot with simple things.
Start looking at the newest woodworking tools that are available and see if they give you any ideas. Think of things that you need, and see if they can be solved through woodworking or something made from wood.
Try to incorporate wood into designs that are traditionally made from a different material. There are so many ways that you can be a pioneer in woodworking so if this is what you like, you have plenty to work with. Enjoy the process, and take your time. New ideas are not easy things.
Old Fashioned Woodworking
Going in the opposite direction of cutting edge woodworking, is taking a step back in time and looking at older methods and tools. There was a time when someone with less tools than you, no power, and no lights, was making exceptional pieces of woodworking that still marvel people to this day.
They knew something that we do not anymore, and they were able to take their very small array of tools and turn pieces of wood into beautiful projects.
Researching older methods of woodworking is a fun process, and can connect you to the older woodworkers that were pioneers themselves at one time. Once you dig into some of the older work, especially that of the older instrument makers, you can really start to see what skill and beauty look like.
It’s amazing to think that three hundred years ago there were people making violins by candle light, with only a few tools, using wood that they harvested from behind their shop.
They knew nothing about the advances in machinery that we have today, and how easy it would be to find timber from around the world. They were local people, living in local economies, doing the best they could with what they had.
It surprises people to learn that there were once older tools that did the very same things that modern day tools do. In fact, once you learn about older methods, you will notice that woodworking itself has not really changed much other than the tools that are used.
We still make surfaces flat, join pieces together, add decorative trim around ends and edges, and apply color and clear finish layers. How we do it has changed quite a bit, but we are still essentially making furniture and boxes, which has been about the same for a very long time.
One tool that many people think is a complete revolution (I did that on purpose) is the router. It surprises some to find out that the profiles that a router can put on the edge of a board with all the different bits is not a new thing.
The router is a new thing, the profiles are as old as woodworking. Back before the router, they used a moulding plane instead.
A moulding plane is a form of a hand plane that is used to transfer a decorative trim design to the edge of a board. Instead of using a router bit, the plane iron has the pattern on its edge, and through pass after pass, the pattern is created on the board.
Now, this is obviously a very slow method when compared to how fast a router would chew through the same job, but in the end it still is the same job.
Cabinet scrapers or card scrapers are another wonder from the past, and you will love discovering them for the first time. These are flexible metal cards that are burnished to a sharp edge, and then used to flatten wood.
They can be used like sandpaper, and they will leave a very smooth finish. The tool essentially micro-planes the surface, thinly slicing off wood. This smooths out the surface and prepares it for finish.
Once people get going on the cabinet scraper they tend to stick with it for a long time. Some even give up sanding for the majority of their projects. This is all because of looking back in the past for what new woodworkers do not use anymore, and finding value.
There are a lot of reasons to look into the past for your woodworking education, but one of the best is simplicity, and the quiet of a hand powered shop. A traditional woodworking shop, without any power, is about as peaceful as it gets.
A saw cutting wood is about the loudest sound that you will ever make, and you are much more connected to the work. It’s your hands and your tools that are creating the projects, and you are not as far away from the work as when you send something through a machine.
Of the ways to find out about old fashioned woodworking methods one of the best is to look into older books. There are a number of ways to find these older works, but you are going to have to do some looking.
You may even need to look up some older terms, and research some older words that are not in use anymore. Also, in some of my reading, I have come across odd measurements, like 5/24 of an inch, or 1/12 of an inch.
These are different than the current English system, which does not have those denominators in their fractions.
Older books can be accessed in a lot of ways, but one of the easiest is to look online. There are many places that curate older books that have expired copyright licenses, so they become public works.
These books are then made available to the world in digital form, and you can read them online. In some cases, you can even download them in PDF format, and read them anywhere you want.
These old treasures are a huge resource for learning about older methods of woodworking, and you can spend the rest of your life reading through them.
Prepare yourself for a bit of an adjustment when you start reading through these old books. They are not thriller novels, but they make modern day woodworking books seem like they are.
These were written in a different time, and in a language that is different in a lot of ways from the English that you might be comfortable with. It’s like reading any older novel, but some of these will be over a hundred years old, so be prepared for a much slower and more verbose reading experience.
Another way that you can find older books for your study is to look in physical stores and in second hand stores. You will have to do a lot of digging, but you can still find older woodworking books in second hand book stores, and many times they will be really cheap.
Lots of people skip these books due to the older look, older illustrations, and older tools they describe. This is their loss, and your gain. Pick up these old gems and start reading, and you will be impressed at the different methods of solving the same problems.
Pay particular attention to the clearance section in these book stores. As mentioned before, most woodworkers skip these books, because they don’t seem to be very helpful at first glance.
After a while, the book stores will start to clearance out the stuff that has been in the main section for a long time. This is where you can save even more on older books, because many times you can get them for as little as a dollar.
Finally, there are a wealth of people that have already studied older woodworking methods, and they are not afraid to tell you all about them. If you want to get a really good head start, find someone that has already done a lot of the research, and follow them.
Read their books, watch their videos, frequent their website, and stand on their shoulders. You can pick up the front half of the craft by taking what they have already distilled for you and then looking for more past that.
In this way, you don’t do double work that has already been done by someone else, and you can then vault yourself forward to be closer to the area of study that you really want to tackle.
For example, if older joinery methods are your style, start with a book written by someone who has spent years studying these joints. You can take in decades of work in some cases just by purchasing their book.
Older woodworking methods are a pleasure to read about, and they are fun to incorporate into the shop. A step into the past is one way that you can take your woodworking to the next level.
The older master woodworkers did so much with so little, that they deserve to be revered, studied, and praised for their abilities. Pick a genre, and have fun learning the woodworking methods of the old days.
Design the Function
When you are designing a project, and you want to add something new to the world of woodworking, think more about the function than the product. If you are making something, think about what that something does rather than what it looks like.
Everyone knows what a dresser looks like, but is that really the only way to store your clothes?
When you think about a dresser, you are already limiting yourself. You are now stuck with a box and drawers, and about the only creativity that you will come up with is the shape of the box and the placement of the drawers.
This is nothing new, and there have been dressers made in every shape, and with every possible drawer configuration. Instead, think of the function. You need something to hold clothes, and some smaller personal items.
When you think about the dresser in terms of the function, you can really use a lot of different things to achieve the same result. In many ways your closet does the same thing and it looks very different than your dresser.
A big bucket could do the same thing too, although not as elegantly, and it might not match everything else in the bedroom. The moral of the story is as soon as you think about making something that already exists, you have penned yourself into a corner without even knowing.
Once you say you want to make a dresser, you already have the majority of the design chosen for you.
Instead of making something that already exists, or designing after something that already exists, start with the function first. If you are designing a chair, don’t think about any chair you have ever seen, think about how to rest the body after a long day at work.
Think about how to design something that would allow a person to rest their legs and back, and be comfortable for them. While you may still end up with something that looks like a chair, you will have started far enough back that a bright idea would still have a chance.
You can also look into how the piece is used as well as what it does. For example, night stands hold your random junk next to the bed, but maybe you design yours to do something else too. Maybe something else entirely.
When you think about the project from a different point of view, and a different perspective than just redesigning the same thing, you will come up with more ideas.
This sounds really easy on paper, but you have been conditioned so long to know what a night stand does that you may have a hard time making it do something else. It’s ok, just keep in thinking and keep on coming up with ideas as you do.
This is a long and evolving process, not something that you figure out in an evening. You will probably not reinvent the bedroom set completely, but you would never even have the opportunity if you didn’t let yourself think about it differently.
Always design the function rather than the existing product, and you will have much more of an expanded starting point.
Part 47 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 47 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.
- More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
- 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
- Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
- Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
I receive Commissions for Purchases Made Through the Links in This Post.