Ron Swanson me.
January 14, 2012 7:30 PM   Subscribe

I have decided that I want to start doing some basic woodworking, but I have absolutely no clue what I'm doing. Where to get started?

For a long time, I've wanted to be the kind of guy who can build a bookshelf rather than heading to Ikea. Now, my partner and I are going to be moving into a house with space to work, and I need a hobby, so I figure the time is right to learn. Maybe I'll even build us something nice while I'm at it.

I've been browsing this site all night, and it's started to make me think that maybe I can actually do this. I've found a number of "beginner" plans that don't look TOO intimidating—the whole site is full of things like "it really is that easy!" and pictures of people's first projects that just look amazing to me. But, when it comes to the directions, I'm still at a loss: what the heck's a construction fastener? How do I hold this thing together while I'm putting it together? How do I make sure my cuts are straight and everything joins square? How do I not look like an idiot to the guy at the lumber yard?

The limit of my building experience is putting together Ikea furniture. How can I get started in doing this kind of stuff? What should I read? What kind of tools must I have just to get started? Can anyone point me in the right direction?
posted by synecdoche to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of what makes things easy, is having the basic tools. Ergo, dont realize you need a clamp etc, after you are already in the middle. One way or another, get to know your local hardware store guy.
posted by timsteil at 7:34 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine teaches at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine and they have a one week introduction to hand tools which is very popular.
posted by shothotbot at 7:37 PM on January 14, 2012

I just need to say that table in the "beginner" link is a piece of crap. The legs are thin boards that will warp and the corner braces are cheap little scraps of 2x2. You could put it together perfectly and after the wood dries out, it"ll be a wobbly pile of junk, and you'll feel like you did something wrong. There's a huge component of the woodworking tool market that is built around selling crap to beginners.

I think you should look for a class.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:45 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

don't be so worried about exact terminology. you can always google a definition. be most concerned with tool safety. protect with great jealousy, your eyes, fingers and lungs. definitely start with hand tools, if you have 0 experience, but keep on mind almost all woodworking tools are cutting tools or high impact tools. my Delta 220 v tablesaw does the same thing as a good handsaw, just way faster. my Senco nail gun and air compressor is just like hammer and nails, but, way... you know. start small. most of the same theory is in play for a pencil box as a nice wall cabinet. without much tool experience, be prepared to spend money, like any hobby. with some tool experience, always get the best you can afford, if you intend to stick with it. the right tools will be with you for life. there's lots more and metafilter has many great woodworkers in it's midst. any good woodworker will be flattered and delighted to give their advice*. feel free to memail me, or any of the others who I'm sure will flock to this post, with as much detail as you care to indulge in

*some restrictions may apply. not valid in all states
posted by Redhush at 7:56 PM on January 14, 2012

Have you built a bird house? Can you measure exactly? It is a critical skill.
You should try a small project to see if you have the basic skills to work with wood.
It can be satisfying but you don't say that you have any experience with woodwork.

It will be a huge waste of money and time if you don't understand the basics.
Putting together Ikea furniture is no help at all for building anything.
posted by JayRwv at 8:11 PM on January 14, 2012

Go to the bookstore or Home Depot or Lowes, and pick up all the magazines specializing in woodworking and handyman projects. There are also magazine format special edition collections of their best or most popular articles.

Like Wood Magazine (referenced above), Woodworking, and possibly Family Handyman, and Holmes, and also their special editions. (Holmes magazine was pretty good but it looks like they're having problems right now.)

Read, scan, absorb, try the smallest projects and work up. Get subscriptions if you stay interested.

As paper magazines you can use them right in your workshop as you work.
posted by caclwmr4 at 8:17 PM on January 14, 2012

Two things - first, there is the process and the product. The product - bookshelves, tables, and so on - is rewarding but if you don't enjoy the process - making sawdust - you'd be better off going to IKEA. That said, I enjoy the hell out of the process!

The first question you might want to ask yourself is how you're set for tools now, how much you want to plow into the hobby and what, exactly, you're interested in doing. You can do a class but a lot of times it's easiest just to talk to fellow woodworkers.

There are maybe half a dozen woodworking magazines out there and they all pretty much have an article that applies to the beginner in every issue (and an article that makes veterans quake in their boots.) Make a habbit of looking through these at the hardware store and picking up those that interest you, or even subscribe to one. A tip that saves you a couple hours of fumbling around is easily worth to cost of a subscription.

A work bench is a good first step as holding things in your lap while you work on them is not typically a good idea. If hand tools appeal to you (and there is a lot to be said for a working knowledge of hand tools, even if you are mostly into machine woodworking) I heartily recommend "The Anarchist's Toolchest" by Chris Schwarz. (That he's related to Jessamyn is just an odd little "It's a small world but I'd hate to have to paint it" fact.)

My best advice for starting out is for you to noodle around on stuff that does not matter. Made a dozen brid houses and just give them away. Brids don't care if things are straight or if there are knots in the wood or what have you. Spending a lot of money on wood your afraid to touch for a project you don't yet have the skill to do is a trap!

And, as Redhush said, feel free to mefi-mail me if you have specific questions.

If it makes you feel better, I have no idea what, precisely, they mean by construction fasteners and I spent my day reading "Making Traditional Wooden Planes", which is woodworking geeky as one could ask for.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:17 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, see this
good stuff in here if you dig for them
Just the tag Woodworking makes for some great perusing, and that's just on Metafilter!
posted by Redhush at 8:20 PM on January 14, 2012

My observation is that there are two kinds of amateur woodworkers. The first group are the people who are outcome-focused. They want a nice bookshelf, so they learn the necessary skills and buy the necessary tools and build a nice bookshelf. Later they need a side table, so they learn the skills, buy the tools, etc.

The second group are process-focused. They geek out over weird variations of joints, or spend weeks building jigs for their table saw in order to be able to make a certain kind of cabinet face. Then, with these skills and tools they figure out things to make -- but the bookshelf or table are secondary to the enjoyment of the processes along the way.

If you can figure out which group you are in, I think you'll know whose answers here to listen to, and what kinds of books and classes would be the best for you. Personally, I really like the Taunton Press books, but there are many others.

As has been said above, be very, very aware of safety issues. It's farcically easy to lose fingers (and worse) with power tools. I'd argue that one aspect of safety is never buying poorly-designed or -made tools -- you aren't nearly as safe when you have to hold down the loose part with your elbow or lean awkwardly to reach the piece.
posted by Forktine at 8:46 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're just starting out and want to put together some fairly easy pieces, I recommend looking into pocket screw joinery. The Kreg kits are really good. I've tried all sorts of means to fasten wood together--dowels, nails, glue, mortise & tenons. But the fastest, sturdiest and easiest way I've found has been the pocket screw. That, a hand drill, some kind of saw to cut your wood to length and some clamps will be enough to start making all sorts of things.

Folks above recommend hand tools, but there is a steep learning curve. Yes, it's fairly quick to cut a board to length, but it's a lot harder to learn how to cut precise 90 degree angles in all directions.
Hand tools don't really save you any money either--in fact I'd say it costs more. I am a big hand tool fan, but it's for those as interested in the craftsmanship as the final product. Watch some of Roy Underhill's Woodwright's Shop to see if that seduces you.

That being said, here is a review of a supposedly good ~$10 saw if you wan to try it out and see.

Lastly, while you're beginning, take the time to find straight pieces of wood at the store. If you stick with it, you'll end up buying tools (jointer/planers) to make your wood straight, but for now start with sighting down each piece. Nothing more frustrating in starting out than working with curvy wood.
posted by jsmith77 at 9:21 PM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some more thoughts:

What Forktine said about poorly designed (and hastily set up) power tools. The guard on many table saws, even high end machines, is often surprisingly crappy. Having the miter slot and rip fence parallel to the blade is vital, both for work quality and for safety. Continuing on the table saw theme, everyone realizes that the blade will cut them, but they often forget that the back of the blade will cheerfully throw their work at their head at an appreciable percentage of the speed of sound. Here are some tips on avoiding that. A crosscut sled is a wonderful thing.

Another tip - for any power tool you're thinking of buying, put "(tool name) review" into Google. Read some of these and, in addition to what is said about particular brands, look at the things the authors keep talking about. A lot of novices get wowed by essentially useless features and big (inflated) horsepower numbers, but as you go along, the precision a tool is capable of will matter more and more to you, while most of the gee wiz features will matter less and less.

With hand tools (and even power tools) keeping them sharp is absolutely vital. For power tools this usually means going with quality carbide blades and find a reliable sharpening service. For planes and chisels, a water stone and a honing guide.

What Razdrez says about hand tools not necessarily being cheaper is absolutely true for many hand tools - particularly the exotic ones. But you can get a lot of good basic hand tools on Ebay quite economically - notably a block plane, jack plane (like the Stanley #5) and chisels. You are likely to want these, even if you are doing the lion's share of your work with power tools. Another hand tool that you should look at if you do much of anything with hardwoods is the card scraper. Here's a really premium one for less that $12. If you're trying to take the planer scalop out of a large flat piece of hardwood, it will absolutely spank a random orbit sander. (Not that the random orbit sander doesn't shine elsewhere. I mean, I'm not throwing mine away any time soon.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:27 PM on January 14, 2012

Woodworking is largely about making joints. Get some scrap wood, some framing nails, some little finish nails and some screws, and practice nailing and screwing pieces together tightly. Get a feel for where you can drive a nail without splitting the wood. Learn about pilot holes and how to make a screwed joint that pulls pieces together tightly.

What constitutes a 'basic' set of tools depends on what materials you'll use and what you hope to make out of them. Beginner plans typically call for prepared lumber that is sold in big-box home improvement stores, 3/4" thick and in standardized widths. For the rectilinear projects found on that site you've been browsing, all that needs to be done is to cut the boards to length and fasten them together. Many plans suggest that you have the store cut the pieces to length for you so that all you need to do is nail (hammer) or screw (rechargeable electric drill, drill bits, screwdriver) them together. Those tools, plus a tape measure, pencil, bottle of glue and a couple of small clamps will get you started sticking bits of wood together.

Once you've done a project or two this way, you'll start to see the limitations. You'll have to sort through a lot of very bad lumber to find a few usable boards in the stacks of cheap pine that these projects call for. The store's saw won't cut square, and pieces that are supposed to be the same length will come out slightly different, so screwing the boards together will twist and wrack the structure into something less than you'd hoped for. Improvement will require an investment in more expensive and dangerous tools, and it will make all kinds of sense to take a class or get in-person guidance from someone who knows what they're doing before you start spending hundreds of dollars on machinery, taking unnecessary risks or struggling with amateur internet plans that aren't as easy as advertised.

Echoing bonobothegreat, don't blame yourself for those early struggles. Many of the plans on that site are really crappy and will produce crap furniture. The descriptions of how easy it is to put something together typically fail to mention that the finished project in the photograph was somewhat harder to make than initially imagined, and the step-by-steps omit a lot of small adjustments and corrections that are always necessary. Don't get mad; get creative. Don't reject your failures; fix them.
posted by jon1270 at 4:03 AM on January 15, 2012

As said above, think safety; which means taking your time and bringing patience to each task. It's a hard rule that is easy to skip.
My best reminder of that rule is how my Granddad, a master machinist, turned to woodworking during retirement and cut off the tips of 3 fingers on his table saw. That's always in my mind when I power up a tool.

Everyone above is far more knowledge than am I. But I must say, as a terrible amateur, building things is a blast. If nothing else, you become way more equipped to repair things; therefore there's never a moment without a to-do list. It's all (mostly) fun if you bring the right attitude with you.
posted by mightshould at 4:58 AM on January 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far. I'm actually kicking myself: the local Parks and Rec department has a beginner's woodworking class, and I just missed it.

Re: the comment from bonobothegreat about the quality of the table plans at the website I linked to, can you not modify the plans to strengthen them? Obviously I am arguing from a position of ignorance here, but could you bolster the legs by using 4x4s instead of the thin 1x4s? As an extension to that, what are you experts seeing in the plans that make them weak? With that table, I can see that those legs are very thin, and was thinking about that myself before I posted the question. However, some of the other designs don't look terribly different from furniture I might look at in a store. Or is it just that these plans + cheap lumber + poor cutting makes them weak, and somebody with better materials and supplies could still do something good with them?
posted by synecdoche at 6:48 AM on January 15, 2012

Virtually all of the 4x4s you'll find at a big box store will be pressure-treated southern yellow pine. It will be greenish in color, and very wet. If it's not already twisted and cracked when you buy it, it soon will be. But more generally yes, the designs can be improved. Rather than using 4x4s, you could improve the table by adding a second 1x at right angles to each leg, as was done for the work bench you linked to.

However, some of the other designs don't look terribly different from furniture I might look at in a store. Or is it just that these plans + cheap lumber + poor cutting makes them weak, and somebody with better materials and supplies could still do something good with them?

Besides poor materials and imprecise cutting, consider that the resemblance to store-bought furniture is generally superficial. The intent is to mimic the look of properly designed furniture rather than actually BE properly designed.

What I gauge whether I'm looking at a good plan, what I'm thinking about whether the thing will be as easy to build as is implied, and whether it will hold up long enough to be worth the expense and effort it required, and a disappointing fraction of the plans on that site clear that bar. On the other hand, they're probably good learning experiences. You'd do something better if you knew better, but you can't know better until you've made some bad choices. May as well start somewhere.
posted by jon1270 at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2012

Check with your local high school. In the U.S., many schools with wood shops have evening "adult ed" classes in which you'll get a high school woodshop teacher and adults who are there to use the machines. Which means you get mentors, and someone who's otherwise just watching the shop who will be happy to help you learn and design.

Also, join us at LumberJocks (outing myself), a nice friendly online community for woodworkers.
posted by straw at 9:07 AM on January 15, 2012

Re. those designs looking like something you would see in a store - that is exactly what most of them are. The Ana White content seems to be do-it-yourself versions of various Pottery Barn and IKEA furniture designs. If the original was crap (like the "beginner" link) then the Ana White version won't be any better.

There are some quick/easy/functional plans on that website, you just need to pick through them. I'd stick to plans that are primarily made out of plywood or other sheetgoods - less worry about choosing good, dry lumber for construction. Others have thrown out lots of great advice here that I won't repeat so have fun and remember to cut on the waste side of the line.
posted by N-stoff at 9:59 AM on January 15, 2012

You could make the legs bigger but they'll look too thick. They just need to be square to be most stable. Another problem is that the legs aren't properly attached. If you look at a standard table, you'll see that it's usually fastened with a screw and wing nut that pass through a corner support. Tightening the wingnut strengthens the whole structutpre. This table skirt is held at the corners with screws and glue. It never mentions predrilling, so you're guaranteed to split the wood as you try to build these corners. The underside cross braces are also likely to split as you try to drive screws into them (unless you pre-drill). Finally, the directions seem to say that all the board should be fastened to the cross supports and end skirt boards. 4 boards, into 7 supports and 2 end skirts x 3 screws in each board = 108 screws in the top of your table. 108 screws, that all need to be carefully spaced, filled and sanded. You'll want to pitch it out the door before you're finished.

There's a reason tables aren't made this way.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:07 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Build a birdhouse, then a windowbox, then a picture frame, etc, etc, etc. Find a mentor if you didn't get the experience growing up but there's simply no amount of book learning that is going to ensure you don't make a few, potentially critical, mistakes along the way.

Trial by fire (which is where the big failures go) is the name of the game here.

Oh and New Yankee Workshop is awesome.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:57 AM on January 16, 2012

If you can find a local CC with a woodworking class, sign up. You'll learn fundamentals of design and craftmanship and especially safety. And you won't have to spend a lot of money on tools while you're learning. From there you can decide what tools you need to set up the basic collection of tools that works for you and what you want to do.

Woodcraft stores often have classes. I've never taken any, but Woodcraft is a great resource for specialized tools and parts your local big box hardware retailer won't have. Rockler stores may do classes, as well.

The Taunton books, previously mentioned, are good, Taunton Press' Fine Woodworking magazine is also good.

The Forums at woodweb are good.

What's his name David Marks had a pretty good show on DIY several years ago. Plans and videos are available on his site.

When I helped my pal close his wood shop and move the small machinery he didn't sell into storage (stupid economy), I tried to steal his copy of Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking but failed (stupid hyper vigilant pal).


posted by notyou at 11:10 AM on January 16, 2012

There are a surprisingly large number of books on woodworking at the library. I'm in the middle of planning some built-in shelves, and wasn't having any luck finding decent info online. At the library there were so many built-in books that I couldn't possibly have looked through them all. I'm assuming that this is the case for other kinds of projects.

The illustrations, introductions, pictures of tools, etc, were way better than anything I found online, where, as you say, articles assume that you know what a router is (hint, not just a networking device!). Then, once you have some basic lingo, it's a lot easier to hunt for tips/tricks/ideas online. Plus, it's all free from the library!
posted by theRussian at 12:36 PM on January 16, 2012

Something I thought of while looking something up - Google books has a bunch of back issues of American Woodworker on line (I knew there was a reason I subscribed to this!) - bunches of this stuff won't be current (notably tool reviews and "contemporary furniture plans" they're contemporary because they will look dated in five years) but the fundamentals of woodworking have not changed all that much since the router and table saw became common and lots of older styles have achieved timelessness.

Looking some more, throwing "woodworking" into a Google books search gets you a ton of stuff, but, of course, a lot of it is hit and miss.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:25 PM on January 16, 2012

Also, for building with simple hand tools, stuff that does what it's supposed to do, my life was changed when I read Build Your Own Telescope by Richard Berry. Step by step plans on how to turn plywood into telescopes. It's a great way to learn about material strengths, planning, pre-drilling, glue up, clamping, etc. Nothing taught me how to think ahead the way that book did. Then the Krenov books take over from there.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:09 PM on January 16, 2012

Don't make furniture first -- instead, make a few wooden boxes and put your tools, fasteners, and scraps in them. That small amount of practice will save you the tangled feelings of pride, nostalgia, and whatwasIthinking in a few years when you look at your first few projects if they're still out in public. :7)

If you want REALLY basic stuff, go to Lee Valley Tools or wherever and order one of their kits for kids to build a birdhouse. Just going through the motions of lining things up and putting them together will be a great exercise. Then, if you had fun (which you will, if you can ignore the "training wheels" feel of it), tear it apart, copy the parts, and fabricate a couple more as a practical exercise.

Also, save pocket joinery like the Kreg system for after you have pounded in a few nails.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:46 AM on January 18, 2012

I think the Ana White designs are a good way for a beginner to get his feet wet. Yes, they will age gracelessly, but he'll be proud of actually having done them. If, instead, he tries to tackle one of the plans in the New Yankee Workshop books, he'll give up before he's done.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:48 AM on January 18, 2012

And as far as reviews go, troll through the Tool Monger web site and read some of the posts about specific tools and also more general topics. They review a lot of stuff in their own shop, and they also attract a lot of feedback from readers. You can search for tags like "Projects" and "Review" to find what you want. Their podcast sputtered out last year, but it was a fun listen.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:15 PM on January 18, 2012

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