Fine woodworking without a full shop, advice?
March 14, 2012 8:31 AM   Subscribe

I want to do some fine woodworking to build a portfolio to apply for jobs in furniture shops. But I don't have a fully equipped shop to do this in, what kind of projects should I be looking to do and what tools do I need?

What are some small fine woodworking projects I can do in my ~200 sq/ft studio space without access to a larger shop with a table saw, etc?

I am actually fairly knowledgable about woodworking and have a considerably large set of tools, but they aren't really for doing the kind of high-end work I would like to get a job doing. In the past I have always done more functional carpentry using 2x4s and plywood, now I would like to get a better handle on the finer aspects of woodworking so that I can build furniture for myself, and hopefully for money. Honestly, I don't really know where to start and I don't think I am going to have much success trying to build something like a table with a circular saw...

Any advice as to helpful tools, books, websites, tutorials, etc. would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Bengston to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm using a set of carefully honed Japanese chisels, a collection of hand-trued and sharpened planes (antique malls. Be always on the lookout) and Japanese handsaws. A set of Japanese waterstones for grinding and honing.

You'll also need clamps, a small and a larger hammer, pliers of sorts, screwdrivers, and some type of workbenchy appliance where you can clamp stuff. A box for scrapwood and other re-usable ends and bits. Depending on the type of projects you're envisioning, you might eventually invest in a small tablesaw or a bandsaw (if you make many curved cuts, like for chair backs). On the other hand, I'm doing mostly everything with my handsaws, and it works amazingly fine.

There's tons of written material out there about fine woodworking, I don't even know where to begin with recommendations. A good guide to sharpening and one to traditional-style joinery is paramount.
posted by Namlit at 8:48 AM on March 14, 2012

Fretwork & inlay, applied to small decorative boxes and the like. Goes well with Japanese joinery techniques, and the overall small sizes involved means minimal cleanup, minimal tooling, minimal work-area.
posted by aramaic at 8:54 AM on March 14, 2012

This is just way too open-ended a question. If you can post a link to some work that's similar to what you'd like to do, we'll be in a much better position to steer you in the right direction.
posted by jon1270 at 8:58 AM on March 14, 2012

I'd recommend getting a miniature belt/disc sander. Sanding is often the key to precision because you have much better control over the removal of material. As an added bonus, a flat fixed disc sander with a table is a nice way of squaring up a cut when you don't have access to a table saw.

Combine that with a benchtop drill press and a benchtop bandsaw and you're probably set on power tools for most projects.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:00 AM on March 14, 2012

Is there a hackerspace in your area? Many of them have woodworking facilities, though some are purely tech focussed. Membership is much cheaper than outfitting a shop, plus you may make some good contacts for your job hunt.
posted by chapps at 9:10 AM on March 14, 2012

Even if there isn't a hackerspace nearby, it's somewhat traditional for local high schools to have open shop nights where anyone can rent time on their woodworking equipment. It might be worth looking into for those occasions where you absolutely need to use a jointer or a lathe.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:24 AM on March 14, 2012

Maybe a community college/tech class? They will have many tools for you to use and try out. Years ago, I took a welding class for $60. There were about 20 people in the class. 75% of them had been in the class for years, and were just in there building boats and stuff, for themselves, using all the tools available. Kinda like a rental space with tools and instruction for very, very, cheap.
posted by Vaike at 9:42 AM on March 14, 2012

My workshop is 270 square feet, and it's a huge step up for me from the 1947 one car garage that I shared with the washer and dryer that I had been working in. In that smaller space, with a circular saw (albeit a track saw, but you could build a track for your saw), I built things like this chair and this table and this toolbox and these cabinet doors. I don't claim art or craftsman status for any of these, I'm a duffer hobbyist, but there you go.

But when I go to various events sponsored my local woodworker's association (including the annual exhibit at the local museum), the guys who recognize each other by which famed teacher they studied under (ie: "You must have gone to College of the Redwoods") do so based on relatively small boxes.

I have no idea how that translates to making a living with your woodworking, but my gut feel is that if you want to really flash your chops, boxes are the way to go. A couple of good hand saws, chisels and planes (and the latter you can make yourself) and the skills to sharpen 'em, and you can blow some minds.

And, yes, if you need the bigger stationary tools, I'll reinforceRonButNotStupid's high school shop comment.
posted by straw at 9:45 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I follow what you're saying about what you want to accomplish, and I understand that you have limited space. But you probably won't be able to make what you need, when you need it, if you are relying on hacker space, rented space, or high school wood shop open nights. You have the space, you need to make it work. Google compact work shop design or compact wood shop design and that will get you started.

In my opinion, if you want to make projects worthy of a quality portfolio that would be submitted to a furniture shop, you darn well need to figure out a way to incorporate (at minimum) a table saw into your tool collection. DeWalt makes a $400, compact ten inch table saw that could fit comfortably in the smallest of workshops, including your 20x20 space.

BTW, if you are looking for tools but don't have the money, pawn shops are great places to take advantage of the reality of the contruction trades nowadays; tons of tools have been pawned to pay bills. Sad but true.
posted by lstanley at 10:10 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey everyone!

Thanks for all the advice so far. To clarify things a little I would like to work in a shop doing simple, but nicely finished furniture work like this.

Although I could probably do some of it in the space I have, I don't want to convert the space over to just a woodshop because it is my art studio. So ideally working on smaller things with less sawdust, etc. would be the plan. Right now I hate my job, but I like woodworking, so the goal would be to get a job somewhere doing woodworking and keep my studio primarily for art making. Likewise, I already shell out money for an apartment and a studio, so joining a hackerspace and having another monthly bill doesn't sound reasonable. I rather invest in good hand tools, which it seems should be something like: a couple good japanese saws, some good chisels, and a good hand plane to start. I actually know how to use most major shop tools, I just don't have anything to show for it.

Because I already have a full time job, and am trying to be an artist, I don't have tons of free time to invest in traveling to other locations to use a shop, etc. Furthermore I am in NYC, so I don't think the local schools have any cheap shop nights, they would just be way too popular. I guess what would really be most helpful for me would be any resources people have used to get themselves started doing small scale woodworking. Maybe this would be a book on building simple boxes with hand tools or something of that ilk.
posted by Bengston at 10:33 AM on March 14, 2012

In that case, I recommend any books/dvds by Roy Underhill of the Woodright's Shop.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Looking at the furniture you linked I can see some trouble ahead if sawdust is a problem for your art studio. Any large tables or similar generate a ton of sawdust while you are dimensioning and finishing; dust control would drive you batty. Even with hand tools the problem doesn't disappear (you'll still need to rip and flatten those big boards at some point) and if your objective is to acquire useful skills for a job in a furniture shop that may not be the best approach (very, very, very few shops work predominantly with hand tools on pieces like that as the labour costs are just too high).

If you are completely ruling out a co-op or high school shop and are limited to your studio and hand tools then go small. Boxes, wall cabinets, spice or jewellery cabinets all work for showing off your talent, are friendlier for hand tools and your skills will scale to those 10 person dining tables.

Some articles I found useful (though sadly behind a pay wall) on small shop/hand tool work can be found here and here. (My heavy use of Fine Woodworking links is just familiarity - there are a ton of other excellent resources on small shop woodworking out there, you just need to do a little filtering). Have fun.
posted by N-stoff at 11:45 AM on March 14, 2012

If your end goal is to get a job in a furniture shop, what do they need to see in your portfolio? You should call one and ask, if you haven't! You may not need an exhaustive portfolio of tables, they may be quite satisfied with a few small boxes, and a few examples of your ability to execute all of the common furniture joints.
posted by sawdustbear at 12:06 PM on March 14, 2012

Speaking from experience, you're almost certainly going to want to either join a class or a guild, or somehow fine a way to have regular contact with a mentor -- not for access to the machines, necessarily, but for guidance while learning basic skills. Many of the skills you'll need are quite subtle and difficult to learn from a book. Participating in web forums may help, especially if you can post clear, close-up photographs of whatever problem you're struggling with, but it's hard to overstate the value of in-person guidance from someone who knows what they're doing. I am a graduate of the College of the Redwoods program someone mentioned upthread. What I learned in the first week at school eclipsed what I'd been able to teach myself in the preceding couple of years.
posted by jon1270 at 12:06 PM on March 14, 2012

Master cutting dovetails and make boxes using fancy dovetails. And by fancy I mean something that can't be cut by machine IE: narrow pins that are irregularly spaced though if you can manage something like Moorish Dovetails it's all the better.

The advantage of a dovetail box for a portfolio is it doesn't require a bunch of large expensive equipment if you use S4S wood. You'll just need:
  • backsaw
  • marking knife
  • block plane
  • card scaper
  • square of some sort
  • a few chisels
  • a mallet
  • something study to clamp to and some clamps
  • possibly a drill depending on what sort of hinges you want to install
  • possibly another plane or two for rabbetting or a router in a table
And you can get all your practicve in on relatively cheap wood and then for final projects even expensive wood doesn't require a large quantity.

Good dovetails show patience, skill, attention to detail and are a useful skill for lots of fine furniture projects (anything with a box or drawer).

And once you have basic boxes down you can add inlays, carvings, fancy woods etc.
posted by Mitheral at 1:03 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fellow amateur woodworker here (though I have no professional aspirations in this area, it's just for fun in my case). I live in a smallish suburban house with a garage and do my projects in different places depending on what phase I am in. E.g., cutting and sawing is done in the garage. Staining and sanding is done outdoors (due to dust and smells). Small detail work (such as the bas-relief decoration on this box I made for a friend) can be done in the living room in front of the TV, etc.

All that aside, though, here is a small list of things I've discovered to be must-haves for small projects:

1.) A decent, light, rechargeable battery-powered hand drill. I've got a little Makita one that I love. Make sure to get 2 batteries so you can swap between them and never be sitting there waiting for a charge.

2.) A doweling jig. Makes dowel joinery WAY easier.

3.) A decent-sized collection of flat-head wood screws. Lengths ranging from about 3/4" to 2" are probably a good start. Countersinks for your drill are of course a must for these.

4.) A diamond sharpening stone (as in, made with diamond dust, not used for sharpening diamonds). Your chisels will get dull, and this will happen faster than you'd like.

5.) Scraps for practice. Experiment with just cutting and carving simple edges in a variety of different wood types (and get a sense of things like how to identify hardwood vs. softwood quickly). Different woods behave VERY differently in response to tools, and it's better to figure this out on bits you don't care about than on some fancy art piece. Scraps can be found everywhere for cheap/free: I scavenged some really nice hardwood slats from an old futon frame a neighbor put out during trash pickup week a few years ago.

6.) A small shop vac if you don't already have one. Small as in approx. 2 gallons -- even if you have a big one already, you're more likely to engage in ongoing maintenance if you have something you can just pick up and grab whenever you suddenly find yourself sitting in a dust pile.

7.) A high quality, COMFORTABLE dust mask. Gloves too, especially if you're going to be working with unknown hardwoods (some have irritating dust).

8.) A plastic face shield (if you're going to be chipping at hardwood) -- as an eyeglass-wearer I find these more comfortable than safety glasses.

....and that's all I can think of for now, but I will comment again if more come to mind.
posted by aecorwin at 1:26 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

An excellent book for help in picking your handtools is "The Anarchist's Tool Chest" by Christopher Schwartz. He works through a list of about 50 hand tools, why you'd need them and what to look for when buying them.

He also shows how to build a traditional tool chest to store them.

On the DVD he goes through his own tool chest and shows which brands and models he owns, which he avoids doing in the book.

I really enjoyed reading this book.
posted by toddje at 1:30 PM on March 14, 2012

I am a welder with a super minimum set up. I run my business from it. What I did over the years was decide what I wanted to make, then buy the perfect tools to make it. Then I sold what I made. Rinse. Repeat. As you grow and change, your tools will change with you. You will completely stop using tools that you thought were must haves. You will buy new ones. It's a fluid process. I would start with a project. Make what you want to make. Make sure the project can be made with some basic tools that you can afford to purchase. See what happens. Each step of a craftsman's work is a learning step. There is no automatic studio set up. It will come with time, so I recommend just taking it a step at a time. There are no absolute must haves. Create a need with a project you are into, and set up around that. That will teach you a lot.
posted by Vaike at 4:44 PM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wrote a whole long thing and then realized it might be off in a different direction, because the real goal you're looking for here is a job working in a high end furniture shop, and you should go find a high end furniture maker or two and ask what it takes to get a job there. However, I'm going to post my original message below anyway.

Having watched how the thread's evolved, I'll put my neck on the line and make a few recommendations:

Between Ron Hock's notes on sharpening (and his book is good and he's a nice guy), the "Scary Sharp" system, and whatever else you find (WorkSharp, one of the water cooled sharpening systems), pick a sharpening system and learn how to use it. This is the part of my development that I haven't done yet, and is the thing that slows me down with hand tools.

Now you have the skills and knowledge to buy and maintain a good set of chisels and planes.

Beef up your table in your studio, and buy a good vise. If possible, your table should be strong enough that you can hit the top of it with most of your weight and it shouldn't move. There's a reason people put so much effort into building a good workbench. On the other hand, if you aren't there yet, pick up a couple of basic parallel jaw clamps (sometimes colloquially referred to as "Jorgenson", and I've got a few of the genuine Jorgenson brand ones and a bunch of the knock-offs, and the genuine ones are actually nicer) and go with whatever table you've got until the flex and movement drives you nuts.

For chisels, unless you've got a lot of bank and can just go to Lie-Nielsen and buy a set, buy the ones you need (or pick 'em up at estate sales) until you know what you're looking for in a chisel.

Get a basic saw while you learn enough to figure out what saws you really want. I love my Bakuma 300 pull saw, it's probably a little aggressive for fine detailing, but you can be careful with it, and it's aggressive enough that I'll be using it to rip full 8' lengths of plywood during a 3 hour boat building competition next month.

For planes, you can actually make your own (browse further through the Hock Tools web site, he's got plans and kits), or you can buy something fairly cheaply and tune it up yourself. I think you'll want a block plane, a jack plane, and a rabbet plane. When my nephew-in-law went off to Germany to be a luthier's apprentice, part of his portfolio was a plane he made.

Add a decent coping saw and a bench-top drill press, maybe a rasp or two, make your own sanding blocks and you can do an amazing amount of stuff with that, for a few hundred bucks and a lot of sweat.

If you learn how to sharpen first, buy a straight saw (reiterating my Bakuma 300 suggestion), a coping saw, a decent combination square, and then take Vaike's suggestion and just buy what you need when you need it (ie: "Oh, look, I need a chisel this wide to clean out those dovetails, and another one to cut the groove for the bottom panel") and start with a small dovetail box, that'll get you started on building small things.

Heck, I'm not much on the business of this, but if you find the right clients I'd imagine that there's probably a living to be made in arty high-end jewelry boxes.
posted by straw at 8:33 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might reconsider what you have room for - I'm another NYC woodworking dilettante, and in my 160 sq ft basement shop I've fit: a Powermatic 66 with an extension table, a 12" Inca jointer, a full-size drill press and bandsaw, a 12" planer, a routing table, and two workbenches. And a lot of wood!

Until you really master a jointing plane, there aren't a lot of furniture projects you can do without at least a jointer. And the cut quality you get from a real cabinet saw I well worth the space it takes, especially since it can serve as a table for a lot of other work (with a sled on top).
posted by nicwolff at 5:46 AM on March 20, 2012

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