How to Get Started with Woodworking
Woodworking is a fun and useful hobby. Because of its popularity and practicality, learning resources for the beginner are everywhere. Books, videos, online courses, live classes, and workshops are easy to find in most metropolitan areas. To get started in woodworking, it’s a good idea to take advantage of as many of these resources as possible. In addition to a rudimentary understanding of materials and techniques, you’ll also need a clean place to work and a set of basic tools. The following tips will help you get going.
Acquiring Woodworking Skills
Taking classes and workshops can help you develop your woodworking skills.
Books, magazines, and videos are excellent resources for the hobbyist woodworker. But a live class or workshop might be the best way to pick up a new skill or perfect an existing one. In a face-to-face environment, students get hands-on experience and one-on-one time with a master. A good instructor can provide guidance and might be able to identify areas of improvement that wouldn’t be obvious to the woodworker learning on his/her own.
Whether you are interested in chair making, spoon carving, or turning, you should be able to find a class near you from a local expert. Most Woodcraft and Rockler stores host weekend classes. They usually publish a list of these classes inside their weekly or monthly newsletters. If you aren’t already on their mailing lists, consider signing up.
Some of today’s most eminent woodworkers offer classes and workshops around their hometowns. Christopher Schwarz, the former editor of Popular Woodworking and current owner of Lost Art Press, teaches at his shop in Covington, Kentucky. Greene and Greene furniture maker and author Darrell Peart provides classes in his Seattle, Washington workshop. In any big city, you should be able to find one-day or weekend classes to boost your skills.
If there is a woodworking guild or a makerspace in your area, it might be wise to join. You will be able to connect with other woodworkers for project ideas and information. Most guilds sponsor classes, sometimes bringing in local experts. Makerspaces provide shop space and tools for there members. They might also put on classes and have someone present during certain parts of the day to assist members with their projects.
Hand Tools for Woodworking
To be a hand tool woodworker, you must know how to sharpen.
Whereas the power tool woodworker sends his planer knives, saw blades, and other cutting tools to a professional for sharpening, the hand tool woodworker hones his own edges. Chisels and plane irons get dull within minutes of regular use and require frequent sharpening. The hand tool user works in alternating phases of cutting and sharpening. For this reason, you must learn an effective sharpening method and acquire the right accessories. There are three ways to sharpen hand tools: with oil stones, water stones, or sandpaper. Each of these methods is effective, but you’ll have to decide which you like best. Sharpening kits containing a full array of stones or sandpaper are easy to find at any woodworking retailer. Before you do anything with hand tools, get your hands on a sharpening system and learn how to use it.
Get a sturdy workbench with dog holes and vises.
The most important fixture in the hand tool shop is probably the workbench. Here the woodworker prepares rough lumber, shapes parts, cuts joinery, assembles projects, and sands. A quality workbench is heavy and sturdy. It doesn’t wobble during planing. Dog holes in the bench top provide placement for holdfasts and bench dogs. These are essential work holding tools. Vises offer additional clamping options. Expect to spend about as much on a quality workbench as the power tool woodworker might spend on a table saw.
The hand tool woodworker needs a variety of good tools.
When starting out with hand tools, consider the essential tasks. Sawing, planing (also called surfacing), chopping, paring, shaping, boring (or drilling), assembling, sanding, and finish—you will be doing most or all of these with every project. In addition to tools, a hand tool woodworker needs some common jigs and work holding devices.
Cutting is a regular part of woodworking, and you will need tools to cut with and across the grain. A sharp tooth saw is a viable and inexpensive option for anyone looking to use one tool to do both jobs. Many woodworkers have a rip saw and a crosscut saw. Each of these does a better job at its intended purpose than the sharp tooth, but these tools aren’t cheap. The coping saw cuts curves. A set of bench chisels will handle the chopping and paring operations. For surfacing, you will require a jack plane, jointer plane, and smoothing plane, plus a block plane for odd tasks. The brace and bit handle drilling. If you need to shape curved parts such as chair legs, you will want a good spokeshave and a wood rasp. Finally, get enough clamps to handle your current project. You will often be surprised at how many you need.
Woodworking with Power Tools
You can do most beginning projects with a small collection of tools.
To begin your woodworking hobby, you need only a few basic tools. Most important is something to make straight cuts—with and across the grain. A table saw is ideal, but a circular saw can do the job too. You’ll also want to be able to cut curves, and for this, you should get a good quality jigsaw. To make dovetails and other joinery, a router is what you want. A router table is an additional necessity for many operations. You can make one yourself or purchase a ready-made version from a woodworking retailer. Sanding might be the least enjoyable part of any woodworking project, but it must be done. A random-orbit sander should be on your shopping list. Measuring tools are crucial. These include a good tape measure, a framing square, an engineer’s square, and a combination square. Your power tools will handle most tasks, but you’ll still need a few hand tools. Bench chisels, a block plane, an awl, plus a compass should do. Finally, a premium drill/driver kit is indispensable. Get a set of drill bits and driver tips to go with it. There are plenty of other useful tools, but the above will get you going.
To avoid big up-front costs, buy tools as-needed.
You can save space and reduce your initial investment in woodworking by acquiring tools as you need them. Before you start a project, spend time learning about the tools you will need to complete it. In woodworking, there are usually at least three ways to do any task, and it is up to you to decide which is most appropriate. This decision is based on your own preferences—you do not have to do things in any particular way. If you want to build a bookcase from plans in a magazine, read the article to see what tools the author suggests. Compare this article to others if you think you might want to use a different tool or process at any stage of the project. Make a list of the tools you’ll need, and get those items before you begin. When you move on to your next project, you will probably use many of the tools you bought previously. After a half dozen projects, your shop should be ready for almost kind of job.
Power tool woodworkers rely on the table saw.
The fully-equipped power tool shop consists of many stationary and portable machines. Most important is probably the table saw. Many woodworkers consider it the backbone of the shop because it’s an efficient cutting tool that’s also perfect for making joinery. Rabbets, dados, box joints, lap joints, miters, tenons, and even dovetails are all possible with a good table saw. In addition, this tool can stand in for a jointer, creating straight and glue-ready edges. There are also special wheels that turn the saw into a disc sander. Perhaps no tool is as versatile as this one.
The miter saw is essential for clean, quick cuts.
Every woodworking project requires a variety of cutting tools for ripping, crosscutting, and making joinery. In the power tool shop, crosscutting happens at the miter saw, also known as a chop saw. Clean cuts are essential for tight-fitting joints, and the miter saw does an outstanding job of slicing through lumber and sheet goods. There are several kinds of miter saw blades, and each is designed for a specific material. Some blades have few teeth and make aggressive cuts. These are usually best for rough cuts and rips in construction materials. Fine-tooth blades are more common in woodworking shops because they make cleaner cuts. 12” chop saws are standard in professional shops. The average hobbyist might get by with a 10” saw.
Outsourcing some tasks saves space and cuts down on equipment costs.
In the small hobby shop, finding adequate space for big projects is a regular challenge. More tools means less workspace. It also means more money spent on equipment, which equates to smaller project budgets and lesser quality materials. Instead of purchasing a jointer and planer to prepare rough-sawn wood, woodworkers can buy dimensioned lumber that has already been cut and planed to size by the dealer. Most retailers offer S4S (Surfaced 4 Sides) lumber that is straight, flat, and ready to use. It’s more expensive than rough-sawn material, but eliminates the need for expensive tools and extra machining time. In the long run, buying S4S is not cost effective and the price of a jointer and planer combination is justified. But during the first months or years of a hobbyist woodworker’s career, it’s a sensible strategy.
Good dealers will also cut sheet goods and some lumber to size. Contact your nearby retailer to find out their custom quoting and ordering process. Home centers will cut MDF, plywood, and other materials while you wait, provided you need just a few pieces.
A jointer and planer combo cuts down on the cost of lumber.
For the occasional project, S4S lumber is an ideal material because it frees up shop space and doesn’t require a lot of up-front cash. When your woodworking hobby builds momentum, you may start to outgrow this approach. At that point, you’ll want to consider a jointer and planer. Rough-sawn wood is much less expensive than prepared lumber. It hasn’t been flattened, straightened, or planed in any way, so you’ll need to do this work yourself. To flatten one face of a board, you feed it through a jointer, usually making several passes. Next, you flip the board over and send it through the planer to produce another flat face that’s perfectly parallel to the first. Put the piece back on the jointer—on its edge. Hold one face against the fence and run the edge through the joiner to machine it straight and perpendicular to the face. Now you can machine the other edge with the planer or cut it on the table saw.
A bandsaw cuts curves, makes joinery, and makes thin boards out of thick ones.
Woodworkers have their favorite tools. For some, it’s the table saw. Others prefer the bandsaw, even using it instead of a table saw. Both are cutting tools, but the table saw is faster and more efficient for straight cuts. Even a skilled user with a finely-tuned bandsaw will produce cuts that need to be cleaned up on the jointer or planer. But the bandsaw can make curved cuts, something a table saw can’t do. Also, a bandsaw blade is thin, which makes it an excellent tool for cutting fine slices from a thick board, a process known as resawing. Resawing is the bandsaw’s exclusive domain. The greater thickness of a table saw blade reduces yield, and the 10” diameter can’t cut anything thicker than about two inches.
Whether you want the quiet satisfaction of working wood and building projects by hand, or prefer the speed and ease of machine work, you will likely find that getting started in woodworking isn’t difficult. You’ll need patience and practice, but the same is true of any new endeavor.
Chris has spent many years working and teaching in the IT field. He enjoys spending time outdoors and learning about new topics. He likes playing golf, spending time at the beach and working on classic cars and woodworking projects.