Take me from woodworking zero to woodworking hero!
April 3, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I'd like a better working knowledge of practical furniture design for wood, along with general woodworking best practices—and I feel like there's probably a better way than my current system of building lots of frustrating projects and learning what not to do one thing at a time. Please point me to the resources—books, magazines, communities, etc.—that got you over the hump.

I started with quick, cheap pocket-hole projects but am starting to make more sophisticated projects with hardwood and non-fastened joints (mostly indoor furniture), and I've definitely reached the point where my knowledge and skills fall way short of what I want to do. I'm happy to build from plans as I learn but I wish I could better parse how and why they work (or won't!). And eventually I'd like to be able to draw up plans myself and prototype them with reasonable confidence that the basic ideas are sound.

Here are the kinds of things I'd like to understand:

1) Mechanics and how to think about them. Stuff like, the factors that help you decide apron depth on a table. Or how joinery and bracing stabilize a chair. Or why this table has a stretcher plus diagonal trusses but that one works with just a stretcher. And why you'd choose this joint over that one in a given application. I guess I want to understand the jobs the parts are doing in a deeper way.

2) General specs or standards—like, dining table height vs desk height, how much knee room, shelf depth, seat and back angles, etc.. Surprisingly hard to find!

3) General woodworking wisdom/shop knowledge/best practices. As with all my self-taught solitary pursuits, I feel keenly that I don't know what I don't know. Like, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that sameness of multiples is usually more important than precise length, and so you use stop blocks—I was seriously measuring and marking and cutting table legs one by one and wondering why they were never exactly the same. That you don't just cut something on the table saw and break out the glue. That you should probably do most of the major surface sanding before assembly. SO MANY THINGS like this.

Woodworking pushes all my problem-solving buttons—from design to assembly to coming up with just the right jig to do a weird specific thing—and I wish I could get better faster at it and start making projects I love sooner. I'm considering taking a class at my local Rockler—the only thing that seems remotely appropriate for me is woodworking 101 (small bookcase with dados and half-lap joints), but I feel like even that might fill in some of my holes—are Rockler classes worth it? And/or Is there a great reference book or blog that you found helpful at the same point? Do you particularly like any of the magazines? I've really been enjoying ShopNotes, even though I don't really have a shop and like 60% of the content doesn't apply to me—I love how much detail they give when explaining design decisions, it really helps me connect the dots and understand why something works.

Thanks, AskMe woodworkers!
posted by peachfuzz to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
You might find this community useful - /r/woodworking/
posted by pyro979 at 12:36 PM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

The series of books published by Taunton are legendary. I can often find random ones at Half Price Books - often new or nearly new.

I liked the TV series "Wood Works" by David Marks. Also good (but I like it less maybe) is The New Yankee Workshop. Both of these guys go from rough wood to finished product over a show or 2.

If you're making something sort of traditional you just go by what looks right from looking at pictures and samples of the thing, more or less. If you're building something new you experiment a little bit. I like drawing programs like Sketchup for tinkering with ideas. I will draw the rough shape first to start and then start worrying about joinery later.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:37 PM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Actually hit up a used bookstore like HPB for sure - even non-taunton books. Just get what looks good. Don't get books like "how to get the most from your router" unless you have/want a router and are trying to figure out how to use it. Get general purpose books. There are ones that cover just joints, or just wood species, or just bookshelves, or just tables. Some of my favorites are a book on workbenches and a book on tool chests, even though I'm probably too lazy/busy to really do either justice.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:45 PM on April 3, 2015

I have gotten some good insights and inspirations from the community at LumberJocks.

The Sagulator is essential for "how much skirt should I put on this table" or "edging on this shelf" or...

In my area, we have an amazing local woodworking club. The monthly meetings always have some good presentations and take-aways. It helps that the fallback presenter is David Marks (he had a "Wood Works" show on the DIY Network for a while, and is a really good teacher and presenter).

I subscribed to the online version of Fine Woodworking, but recently dropped that. After a short time it's just reworking the same topics over and over again. Might be worth doing for a while, though, and note that the online subscription gives you access to PDFs of their back catalog.
posted by straw at 12:52 PM on April 3, 2015

My dad is a hobbyist woodworker who takes his hobby pretty seriously and makes indoor furniture and things like the shutters and fencing at my parents' home. He subscribes to Popular Woodworking and some other magazines (endless articles about planning and mechanics) and goes to weekend woodworking workshops a couple of times a year. Once a year he flies somewhere we've never heard of to go to -- I swear to God -- a week long woodworking camp.

Look, woodworking is a traditional craft that has been taught through millennia from father to son (or sometimes daughter) or by formal apprenticeship. You can learn a lot on your own, but there is no real substitute for standing side by side with an experienced wood worker. Workshops, community college, a local woodworking club, whatever -- you're at the point where this maybe needs to not be so much of a solitary pursuit.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:10 PM on April 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, that's a good point too. I learned a lot by talking to a guy I know who was a carpenter for a long time professionally. I learned some things just by looking at his shop. I could see where he placed stuff, what he used all the time and what he had on hand for particular one offs. I could also see that the whole place was stuffed to the rafters with home made jigs, fixtures, etc.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:15 PM on April 3, 2015

You can learn a lot on your own, but there is no real substitute for standing side by side with an experienced wood worker. Workshops, community college, a local woodworking club, whatever -- you're at the point where this maybe needs to not be so much of a solitary pursuit.

This is exactly right. I tried doing it on my own, reading lots of books and trying to apply them, and it was just painfully slow. I ended up taking a summer off work and attending a great fine woodworking school, and there I learned more in the first week than I had in a couple of years of solo struggling. A mentor who already knows what he is doing can save you so much time by recognizing when you're heading off the rails and setting you straight again. It might be as simple as their being able to glance at the chisel you're using and telling you it's not nearly sharp enough to do what you want it to do. They might suggest you stand or hold a tool differently. Lots of lights will be switched on, but it's more coaching than the conveyance of theory.

I've never taken a class at Rockler, but my guess is that they're awfully brief and narrow. You'd benefit far more from a situation that has you working with the same people over and over again, trying out ideas, trading criticisms, getting and giving help. Books and websites will be a lot more useful after you have your legs under you, but at this stage I don't think you'll find a substitute for experienced, in-person guidance.
posted by jon1270 at 4:50 PM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would read "By Hand and By Eye" which teaches how proportions and ratios have been used in design since forever. I'm a hobbyist woodworker and found it very interesting.
posted by oddphantom at 7:59 AM on April 4, 2015

I found The Essential Woodworker to be a turning point for me. It's a hand tool book but I think it will answer many of your questions. It covers the basic constructions of most furniture; an aproned table, dovetailed carcass, drawers, doors, etc. I have always found The Woodwright Shop to be full of great info and Paul Sellers YouTube channel is excellent. He offers fantastic subscription videos as well. They only cost $15/month for full access.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:18 PM on April 4, 2015

Forgot to mention that The Essential Woodworker is available as an inexpensive DRM free ePub. That goes for most of the LAP catalogue, including the Chairmaker's Notebook, which is very well illustrated with tons of practical tips specific to chairs (though I haven't built anything from it yet).
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:49 AM on April 5, 2015

The last time this came up I recommended "Shop Savvy" and the woodworker was thrilled.
posted by mearls at 6:25 PM on April 5, 2015

I'd also suggest Dave Gingery's Build Your Own Metal Working Shop From Scrap (It's also available as a 7 paperback set for less than that).

Not because you're going to build your own metal working shop, but because in demystifying a lot of tool processes, it changed how I approach jigs and shop-made tools. It's a fascinating read on its own, but it also very much changed my shop methods of work.
posted by straw at 12:52 PM on April 6, 2015

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