Would Like to Chuck Wood
November 5, 2010 7:27 AM   Subscribe

What is the best path towards becoming a competent woodworker? I would ultimately love to build myself built-in book shelving, a bar, or a deck. I am not looking to build fine furniture. The problem is I don't have a clue about woodworking. Where do I start without embarrassing or mauling myself?
posted by jasondigitized to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Community college courses are usually pretty good. A good friend of mine was pretty hopeless with tools until he took a beginning woodworking class. He's turned out some pretty nice furniture since then. Nothing too crazy, but a nice danish modern end table and some shelves.
posted by electroboy at 7:35 AM on November 5, 2010

New Yankee Workshop. It's not all fine woodworking, though a lot of it is. I can tell you that he's definitely done two of those three projects (built-in shelves and a bar), and probably the deck as well.

You'll find that the principles involved with building a Shaker side table are just a scaled-down (as in miniaturized) version of what you'd use for something larger, like a bar. Precision is precision, even if over the span of a 10-foot deck, a quarter inch is an acceptable error, whereas with a small table or nightstand, the acceptable error is much much smaller.

Tools are a big initial investment, and Norm Abram uses the cutting-edge, top-of-the-line equipment. Lots of crafts co-ops have the tools, and you simply have to be a member to use them.
posted by supercres at 7:36 AM on November 5, 2010

Look for adult education center offerings. Years ago I took a basic class at a community center and learned enough that I was able to teach myself everything I needed to know from there on.

New Yankee Workshop requires knowledge way beyond basic, knowledge of tools, techniques, and terminology. If you can't find a class nearby look for books in your local public library and/or videos. Consider asking a friend who does woodworking to help you learn.

I hope you find woodworking as enjoyable as I have.
posted by mareli at 7:42 AM on November 5, 2010

If you find that you have some natural tendencies towards working with your hands, you can teach yourself a lot through books, websites and magazines... I'm a self-taught woodworker in this way, but I come from a family of experienced tradesmen..

Lumber Jocks is a great website to check out and ask other folks questions.. The projects section is usually good for some inspiration, etc.. The best part is, when you see a project you like, you can ask the creator how they did it.

There are a number of woodworking magazines out there ("Popular Woodworking", "Fine Woodworking"..) that will learn you on the different types of joints and what you can do with them.

I would spend a lot of time researching the tools. If you're not made of money, and this isn't how you make your living (meaning you can't write any of it off) then you'll probably be able to spend less on tools than someone who will be making profit from their work. That doesn't mean you should buy the cheapest thing you can find... There's only so much you can do with a cheap Ryobi or Craftsman table-saw :P You ultimately need to find tools that are known for being accurate and staying accurate. There's no point in saving 200 bucks if all your work comes out shoddy because your chopsaw has a ton of blade-wobble...

You can do most tasks with just a couple tools:
Table saw
Miter saw
Circular saw
Some kind of hand saw for finishing cuts..
Cordless drill

Other than that you'll need basic layout and safety tools (squares, clamps, eye and ear protection..)

In my opinion, Bosch has the lead as far as portable table saws go. For a sliding compound miter saw, I'd go with either Bosch or Makita... You'll find most serious contractors are running either Makita or Milwaukee cordless tools.

Expect to pay about 300 each for the lower end of the decent miter and table saws. A lot of times you can get drills and circular saws cheaper in combo packs
posted by Glendale at 7:57 AM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think you're best off looking for a way to have in-person guidance and supervision, at least at first. A class would be best, but you might try volunteering for Habitat for Humanity if they're active in your area.

You don't need a lot of expensive tooling for the projects you're contemplating, but doing without the "right" tools means you'll be improvising with the "wrong" ones. You'll be pushing their limits in terms of safety and precision. An experienced guide will be extremely helpful. If you try going it alone, you'll find that you don't know the difference between dull and sharp, between a fault that lies with crappy technique and one that lies with crappy tooling, or between a move that's relatively harmless to attempt and one that could go seriously sideways in an instant.
posted by jon1270 at 8:06 AM on November 5, 2010

Lumberjocks are ridiculously helpful and their forums range from beginner to craftsman, they are very mellow people in general. The wood whisperer has good videos. For me as a total clueless beginner I found youtube pretty helpful, Fine woodworking is a great channel.
posted by shinybaum at 8:20 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really like this site . Its a lady who basically taught herself how to make most of the furniture in her house, it has all kinds of tips on getting started without a full complement of tools, plus lots of awesome plans and user submitted photos of projects completed.

I build stuff all the time, its a lot of fun and not nearly as intimidating as people like to make it out, just be careful and keep hair, sleeves, and fingers away from anything sharp or moving!
posted by stormygrey at 8:21 AM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also there's value in starting by making small step stools and tool boxes. You learn how stuff works and don't waste huge amounts of wood on bad joints. My first thing was a knife holder that looks ridiculously childish now but I loved it and it gave me a lot of confidence.
posted by shinybaum at 8:27 AM on November 5, 2010

I'll second the LumberJocks recommendation. Lots of good ideas and community over there.

My local woodworker's association is amazing. Mostly professionals. I go stand in the back of the room and soak up the awesome, and end up with the occasional tidbit I can use and a hell of a lot of inspiration.

My own shop is fairly space limited right now. My replacement for the table/miter/circular saw combo is a Festool circular saw on a rail with the table that has a fence and a rail on a swing. It's quite a bit better than a table saw for dealing with sheet goods (ie: plywood for cabinets), it's portable and fits in a small shop, is, IMHO, quite a bit safer than a table saw (My Dad's got a few short fingers, so I'm ultra conscious of this), and you can still get some decent precision out of it. There are now DeWalt and Makita knockoffs of the Festool saw (though they're no cheaper, and it can be very good to make friends with your Festool dealer as they'll likely be happy to have you come into their shop and try new joints and such in the hopes that it'll help sell you additional tools), and there's another rail system, EZ Smart, that may be worth looking at.

And, what Glendale said about tool prices: you can't put your finger on why one sander costs $39.00 and another costs $390.00, but use 'em for a while and... My wife helps out with the finishing and such, and I now have to justify non-Festool tools to her. Bringing home Ryobi, Craftsman or B&D would subject me to much scorn, and if I ever complained, lots of "told you so"s.

I still consider myself a beginner, but I'm making progress by picking a project and building it, buying additional tools when I need them. Lots of people do amazing things with hand tools (discover a dozuki or other Japanese pull saw early, you'll wonder how they ever managed to lose WWII), I'm a power tool person so to Glendale's list I'd consider a bandsaw long before a table saw (that's the tool I miss in my shop right now), and add a planer (great things happen when you can surface your own wood which, admittedly, you can do with a hand plane too) and a router table (build it yourself, if you're short on cash you can get one of the 2¼ HP routers with the integrated lift that's also small enough to use handheld) with which you can do edge jointing and other fancier cuts, and a drill press (build a table with a fence for it!).

The other series that helped me a lot in changing how I think about tools was Dave Gingery's Metalworking Shop From Scratch series, not because I've actually built a blast furnace yet, but because it got me to thinking about ways that I could mount my existing tools in new and interesting jigs to help control cuts.

Aaaand: Your local high school has an adult ed program (as electroboy points out, your local Community College may as well). It's an excuse for people without big fixed machinery to come use the school wood shop. The guy who runs it is also happy to help you learn. That's a great cheap resource!
posted by straw at 8:30 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Without a lick of experience, last year I found myself having to make a chicken tractor (a mobile chicken pen and henhouse) from scratch. I made three before I finally got it right. But damn, that third one is still going strong! I'm pretty pleased with it. Which is a great feeling.

Along the way, I learned a lot simply by observing how other things are built. Examine how things are put together. Understand that they were put together that way for a very good reason, and try to deduce what that reason might be.

Also examine things that are obviously put together badly, or have broken. Why did they break? What could have prevented it from happening?

For example, if you have ever broken the shelf of an Ikea Billy bookcase. Usually this happens because you put too much weight on the shelf, and the corner that holds the pin shears off.

All that weight relying on a few square inches of particle board. What could prevent that from happening in the future? (Spoiler alert! Support blocks.)
posted by ErikaB at 8:48 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I signed up for a class through adult education. For a couple years before then I had been working with hand tools (plus a circular saw and a cordless drill). I also read a lot - online articles (the websites others have mentioned are great) and books checked out from the library. I also watched a lot of videos (New Yankee Workshop, Wood Whisperer) and DVDs checked out from the library.

I mostly took the adult education class so that I could learn power tool safety, should I decide in the future to buy some power tools. Most of it is common sense and obvious (don't stick your fingers near the table saw blade!), but some is less obvious (e.g. how to avoid kickback).

I didn't learn a lot of new information from the class, because I was already familiar with most of the different joints, but the chance to practice power tool safety with someone looking over my shoulder made it worth the price.
posted by chndrcks at 9:10 AM on November 5, 2010

Yeah everyone's got great advice.. When I said I was self taught, I already had the basics (had been running saws working with my father since I was a boy) and so some of that is already ingrained for me.. It would probably be a good idea for you to find a mentor that can at least teach you all the safety basics of the different tools. Even the oldest, most experienced woodworkers are runnin short fingers...

You should know, you're getting yourself into an expensive hobby. You might be better off with a cordless drill, a circular saw and a Kreg Pocket Hole Jig to get yourself going for about 400-500 bucks. If you decide you like what you're doing, you can start investing in large tools that you're going to need some garage or shop-space to use..

I'll reiterate, if you start off with a cheapo 50 dollar circular saw, you're probably going to regret it down the road! Do yourself a favor and start out with some midrange name-brand tools...
posted by Glendale at 9:39 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

(I should qualify my previous comment by pointing out that New Yankee Workshop, for the most part, is lousy for actual basic instruction, as was mentioned before. It's great for inspiration and soaking up more advanced techniques, though: "Ohhh... that's how I get my homemade plugs to not look like crap!" or "He's right, that is the best way to joint X to Y at Z angle!" There are more basic episodes though, where he goes through things like, "This is what tool A does. This is how to use it." Those are few and far between, though.)
posted by supercres at 10:03 AM on November 5, 2010

So one clarification might help: Are you the sort of person who thinks a reasonable hobby can cost four or five thousand bucks a year (ie: you're trading off vs a private pilot's license, or sailing a keel hulled boat, or you ride a high end road bike, or drive auto-cross or on a racetrack)? Or are you going to be scraping for every fifty bucks? There's room in the hobby at both places, but that'll help us guide the decisions a little more.

Second, are you in the SF Bay Area? I'm in the North Bay, and if you drop in on me for an hour or so I can show you stuff I built a few years ago with a $50 circular saw, a $40 router, a few tens of bucks in bits and clamps and such (sucks less than you'd think), and I can show why I've gone and spent many thousands of dollars on tools since then.
posted by straw at 10:20 AM on November 5, 2010

One warning about community college courses though. We took a metalworking course, and our desire to learn about EVERYTHING kind of overrode our original goal of actually MAKING stuff.

So we ended up doing a lot of learning about each of the machines and not doing a lot of making things on them. By the time we actually started making things, the people who took the class because there was a specific thing they wanted to make and had been working on it since the second or third week were pretty much monopolizing the equipment.

If you take a CC course, be sure to have some simple ideas of a thing or things you want to make, so that your time is well spent.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:25 AM on November 5, 2010

Best answer: I started out a few months ago with a $150 circular saw, a $130 router, a drill I've had for years, ~$150 in router bits, clamps, straigtedges, and squares, and some library books. Following plans in the books, I built two bookcases, both of which are now in my garage as very functional though aesthetically imperfect pieces. By the time I was done with these, I had learned so much that I was ready to start something marginally more advanced. I bought a $100 miter saw and started making picture frames out of $8 oak 1x2's. I bought a $140 pocket hole set and made two accent tables, from plans. By this point, I knew I enjoyed the hobby enough to start investing more serious money in it, and have since purchased lots of other tools, including a $2300 table saw.

I would start by building something, even if it is of no apparent or immediate use to you (but whose garage couldn't use an extra set of shelves?). You'll learn tons; there are scores of mistakes that you'll make exactly once, and it's good to get those out of the way. If money is not a problem and you are certain this is something you'll take seriously for years to come, by all means start with a table saw. If you want to try out the hobby for a while before you jump in, I'd buy a circular saw, a drill, and clamps, make a few basic pieces, and then add tools from there (miter saw, router and bits, jigsaw, table saw) as funds become available and you think up pieces you might like to make.

Don't go overboard with books initially. Certainly read enough to have at least a vague idea of what you're doing, but the return to reading about this stuff is much higher once you know a little bit, in my opinion, so get some experience before you really dive into the books.
posted by deadweightloss at 11:36 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

So in my comment I started to write out a "how you'd make a built-in bookshelf, what tools you'd need" and all of that, but I realized that having grown up around a lot of home remodeling projects and my grandfather's machine shop I had a background with tools that gave me a certain level of comfort with them that jasondigitized doesn't have.

So, yeah, start with one of those bookshelves, and you can actually do a passable job making them with a cheap circular saw and a basic fixed-base router (especially if you're gonna paint them), but having a mentor to say "this is a climb cut, if you must do it here's how to do it safely" is important.
posted by straw at 12:00 PM on November 5, 2010

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