There’s something both primal and eminently satisfying about working with wood, especially when you get to sit back and see the fruits of your labor once you finish the job. If you’ve never picked up a hammer for anything other than hanging a picture on the wall, it might seem a little intimidating, but we’re here to help. Here are some easy-to-follow steps to help you get started in woodworking.
First, A Note
Before we get started, a quick note — prepare to mess up. Woodworking is not a skill you’ll pick up and immediately become an expert in. It can take months or years to learn, so don’t feel discouraged. Pick yourself back up and try again!
Now, on to the advice.
The first thing you need to do is make safety your priority. You’re going to work with a lot of sharp tools that can do some severe damage if you’re not careful. Make sure you dress appropriately and wear closed-toed shoes. Consider wearing steel-toed shoes if you’re prone to dropping things on your toes.
Unplug any power tools before you try to change the bits or blades. A power tool switched to ‘off’ can still cause harm if accidentally tapped ‘on.’
Make sure to protect your eyes and ears too. Even hand tools can fling wood chips at high speed, potentially costing you an eye. Plus, many power tools are loud enough to damage hearing.
Finally, keep your tools sharp. Similar to kitchen knives, you’re less likely to cut yourself with a sharp chisel or saw because you don’t have to push as hard to achieve the same result. We’ll discuss how to keep those tools razor sharp in a moment.
Choosing Your Tools
You won’t build anything without tools, so this should be your first step — acquiring the tools you need. You may have some of these tools in your garage already, so let’s take a closer look at the equipment you need to turn a block of wood into a display piece for your house. First, hand tools:
- Tape Measure
- Speed or T-Square
- Carpenters Pencils
- Hand Plane
- Draw Knife
- Crosscut Saw
- Rip Saw
- Miter Saw
You may find that power tools are more your speed for woodworking. If that’s the case, you may only need the first eight tools on this list. Numbers 9-13 are strictly for hand woodworking. You will, however, need to add a few more tricks to your toolbox, including:
- Circular Saw
- Drill, Preferably Corded
- Orbital Sander
- Table Saw
- Air Compressor — useful for clearing away sawdust or powering pneumatic tools.
- Miter Saw
Each of these tools will take some getting used to as you learn how to manipulate them with different types and hardness levels of wood. Once you scour your garage or workshop for all of these tools, — or purchased the ones you didn’t already have — it’s time to start
Learn From the Experts
Search “woodworking” on YouTube and you’ll find thousands of videos to set you up with everything from beginner techniques to advanced projects. Spend some time learning the basics from these videos, then try them out in your workshop! A few channels we recommend include:
- Roy Underhill, The Woodwright’s Shop — Underhill has decades of woodworking experience under his belt and has hosted a successful show on PBS since the 1970s.
- Wood By Wright — This gentleman focuses exclusively on hand tools but releases new videos three times a week and has plenty of new techniques for you to learn.
- Woodworking for Mere Mortals — This guy has a great sense of humor, and his channel focuses on providing skills for beginning woodworkers.
There are easily hundreds of more channels to sort through so choose the content creators that speak to you.
Learn to Sharpen Your Tools
We previously mentioned how sharp tools will keep you safe, but how do you sharpen those chisels or saws? First, stay away from the bench grinder. While you can get a sharp edge on your tools, it also heats the metal which can alter the temper of the steel and cause it to lose it’s edge much faster.
You’ll need to pick up a few things, including:
- Diamond sharpening stones in at least three different grits — corse, fine and extra fine
- A strop, preferably leather
- Polishing compound
- Files — flat, triangle and round
- A honing guide — a must for beginners
Each tool will have a different sharpening method, but in general, the process will look something like this:
For plane blades and chisels —Flatten the back of your tool on the stones, then put them in your honing guide. Move them in one direction across each of the stones until you have your perfect edge, then put some polishing compound on your strop and move the blade back and forth until you remove the burr that’s developed from the sharpening process.
For hand saws — File the tips of the teeth off with a flat file, then use a triangle file to restore the teeth. For rip saws, you want to hold the triangle file at a 90-degree angle perpendicular to the saw blade. For cross cut saws, you’ll need to alternate at a 75-80-degree angle since the teeth face different directions.
For circular saw blades — Sharpen each tooth with a diamond file. The easiest way to do this is to secure the blade in a bench vise and turn it as needed. Don’t try to sharpen your saw blades while they’re in place on the tool.
If you can’t find a leather strop — though barber supply websites usually carry them — all you need is a scrap piece of wood about 3 inches by 14 inches, some spray adhesive and an old piece of denim. Glue the material to the wood, pull it tight to remove bubbles and viola you have a makeshift strop.
Picking Your First Project
You can make some amazing things with wood, but you don’t want to tackle something too ambitious for your first project. That’s a great way to get discouraged and give up before you begin. Instead, pick something simple for your first project.
You can craft simple boxes, wall art or other useful tools to get a feel for your tools and the wood you chose. You might even consider making a joiner’s mallet — a simple tool that you’ll use in your workshop as you improve your skills.
As your skills grow, you can move on to more ambitious projects like furniture or more delicate ones that require a lot of patience and practice.
Choosing Your Lumber
Finally, you need to select your lumber. There are thousands of different species of trees, but only a few are readily available at your local hardware store. We suggest starting with softwoods like pine which you can easily find at a Lowes or Home Depot. It’s easy to work with, easy to find and not too expensive so you don’t have to worry about losing a lot of money if you make a mistake or have to start over.
As your skills increase, you can make the transition to hardwoods which can help you create some beautiful projects. These trees are harder to work with, though, and tend to dull tools reasonably quickly — so keep your sharpening tools handy.
You can also work with fresh-cut wood, but you need to make sure to dry it out well. Otherwise, as it dries, cracks will form in your project, or it could split in half if placed under too much pressure. You can air-dry it for a year per inch of thickness while monitoring the moisture content, which requires some patience. Cut it as thin as you can — 1-inch boards are ideal, but if you need thicker pieces for larger projects, you need to wait it out.
We suggest starting with pre-dried lumber found at your hardware stores to get a feel for it. If you want to work with new or fallen trees, give them plenty of time to dry before you start your project, or buy raw-cut wood that’s already been dried and seasoned.
Practice Practice Practice!
When it comes down to it, the only thing that’s going to make you a better woodworker is practice. Don’t get discouraged if your first attempts don’t look like you bought them at the store. The more you work with wood, the better you’ll begin to understand it.
The best advice we can offer is to practice as much as you can. If a project totally fails, take it outside, start a bonfire, crack open a cold one and start on something new the next day. Stay safe, and enjoy this new skill as it develops!
Scott Huntington is a writer from central Pennsylvania. He enjoys working on his home and garden with his wife and 2 kids. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington