Can you help me build...anything?
November 13, 2020 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I want to become more handy - and I especially want to feel confident building basic things out of wood (like this, for example). However, I have no experience with most tools or techniques, and I don't really have a mentor available to teach me such things. What are some beginner- (and budget-) friendly ways to work up to those projects?

My experience level with most handy stuff is more-or-less nil. I've built a lot of flat-pack furniture (which I actually LOVE doing), hung a couple shelves, and one time I recaulked my bathtub. That's pretty much it. I'm a renter, so I don't do a lot of DIYing to fix many things around the house (and I don't love my current rental so I'm not super motivated to make improvements anyways).

The only tools I own are a couple hand tools and a drill, and I'm open to investing in a few more, but I don't really want to do so unless I know that I'd use them, and it seems like a lot of projects use a wide variety of tools (along with tables and such) that the upfront investment is pretty high. I also have very limited indoor workspace - but I do have a yard I can work in.

I'm open to any and all resources you can suggest - beginner-friendly projects? youtubers or other social media to learn from? basic equipment lists? basic skill checklists?
posted by mosst to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
maybe watch some old episodes of This Old House spin-off The New Yankee Workshop.
unlike most home improvement shows, they focus on the actual skilled work and call out what they are doing.
posted by wowenthusiast at 10:01 AM on November 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Build a bird,bat,or bee house.
posted by aniola at 10:09 AM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Question: Do you see recipes as instructions or guidelines?
posted by aniola at 10:10 AM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

You can do basic stick joinery with a saw or two, a couple of chisels, sandpaper, and a simple plane. If you don't care a whole lot about the final result (what with this being beginners practicing) you can probably ditch the plane too. Maybe get a whittling knife as well, for random as-the-mood-strikes shaping.

It can be kinda fun to just ... randomly join sticks of wood together for no reason, ending up with some sort of weird jumbled tangle thing.
posted by aramaic at 10:12 AM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ana White! Free plans, ranked by difficulty, everything laid out very plainly so there's no "figuring" you have to do yourself. Lots of videos and illustrated guides.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:14 AM on November 13, 2020 [18 favorites]

Tool libraries are a thing. If you've got something you'd like to try building but don't want to buy new tools, see if you've got a tool library in your area and rent them.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:21 AM on November 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

On preview, seconding kevinbelt: see if there’s a tool library in your area. Mine also used to hold workshops (prepandemic) with projects that demonstrate different tools and techniques.
posted by tinymojo at 10:24 AM on November 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

There are A LOT of great woodworking YouTube channels out there. I’m not going to suggest any specifically because the best option is to look at lots of how to’s for specific jobs you’re doing. You’ll learn quickly there’s a dozen ways to do everything, and you’ll be able to extrapolate the best way FOR YOU to do a thing with what you have in hand.

The hardest part of starting off woodworking is self auditing your needs and skills and learning what tools you need. Woodworkers seem to have a gear bug where they like using the latest and greatest and lots of uni-taskers. It makes this hard to do. Do you have a tool library nearby? They have lots of great tools that you might only need once. I’m incredibly tool averse: if I know I’m not going to use it a bunch, I don’t want it. Renting tools is FINE if you’re a casual woodworker. You probably don’t need a planet, but if you do, just rent it for a weekend. Tools that I use regularly? Compound miter saw, skillsaw with a cross-cut attachment and a track-saw attachment (both from kregg, but there are other options. I find that track saws are just as versatile as tablesaws and much safer. Sanders get used a lot in a variety of projects. I have a tendency to use several different kregg jigs, but that’s probably a byproduct of what I build. When it comes to saws, sometimes a shitty saw can work GREAT if you replace the blade. I throw DOWN on blades and keep them stored well.

But clamps. Oh god. Clamps. Every clamp. All the clamps. You will never regret buying another clamp and you will curse all the way to the hardware store when yuh need a specific new clamp. Clamps are easily the best bang for the buck when starting woodworking of any scale. Clamps clamps clamps.

The best advice I ever got was “build boxes.” Boxes teach you a great deal of skills that translate to a number of projects.

Don’t by expensive wood. Cheaper wood can look wonderful if you take time to finish it properly. When you feel better about a project you can always redo it (with all your new knowledge) with better wood.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:26 AM on November 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

Congratulations! Wanting to do something is the first step. A lot of people feel like they should be more handy but they don't really want to be more handy. Nobody should do things they don't have to if they don't want to. Not right now, anyway. It's good that you want to do these things.

Go to YouTube and search for Jimmy Diresta. Just watch all his videos. Maybe not the ones where he uses a plasma cutter but even those are fun. He is an artist and a maker who can build just about anything. Watching him you will have a lot of moments of "Oh so THAT'S how you can do that!" His video style is really well done with no wasted time. They're mostly silent and speeded up. He builds with just about any material you can imagine.

If you can find a workshop or a class you'll be better off. I've never had a mentor and I'm someone who assumes I can learn anything myself but every single time I've taken a class it has been worth every penny.

Yes, I know we're in COVID right now so this sort of advice doesn't fully work, but it will work again some day and some people are offering classes on-line.

Rather than take a generic woodworking class I would look for a workshop that teaches you to build a specific thing. Birdhouses, spoons, shaker tables, etc. You'll come away with a finished product you can be proud of and some skills that you can use with other projects.

Buy tools as you need them. Never buy a "complete" tool kit unless it's a tool list that you need for a class you're taking and the list has been curated by the instructor.

Learning to build a basic wooden box is a good place to start. Birdhouses are fun as well. If you can get access to a bandsaw the you can build bandsaw boxes.

Learn to sharpen. Everything in woodworking comes down to using a sharpened steel chisel to cut wood fibers. A plane is just a chisel in a holder. A saw is just a bunch of chisels in a row. A table saw is a bunch of chisels that spin really fast. A chisel only works properly when it's sharp. A sharp tool is an absolute JOY to work with. Sharpening is pretty easy to learn but takes a long time to master. I'm still working on it. Don't let anyone tell you their way is the RIGHT way. Everyone has their preference. People will argue about types of stones, grades of sandpaper, etc. It all comes down to getting a mirror polish on two sides of a bevel. Whatever way gets you there is the right way.

Have a place to work and a means to hold your work down to the work surface.

Scour YouTube. Find the people you like. There are a lot of really bad teachers on YouTube. There are also some really good ones. You'll find them. I like Marc Spagnuolo and David Pucuitto, among others.

You're going to make mistakes. I swear 80% of woodworking is just finding new ways to fix your mistakes.
posted by bondcliff at 10:34 AM on November 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

I subscribe to two channels that I think you might enjoy.

See Jane Drill has a no-frills approach to teaching basic home improvement tips, tricks, and techniques

April Wilkerson has a great presentation style and builds some truly cool projects
posted by cursed at 10:45 AM on November 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

Here are some inexpensive tools to add to your tool bag that you can use on a variety of different projects. Don't underestimate the importance of precision.

1. A speed square
2. A good tape measure that has written with no slop on the hook
3. Box of carpenter pencils
4. 3 quality levels 9" , 24", & 48"
5. A quality claw hammer

These tools are good to have for general house hold carpentry
1. Articulating chop saw
2. Circular saw with a laser guide
3. Set of saw horses
4. 4' T square
5. Chalk line
6. Jig saw

As someone said above keep your tools sharp always have spare blades.
posted by jmsta at 11:24 AM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's a place near me that offers woodworking classes, and access to the workshop with a membership. They've got all the big power tools that don't make a ton of sense in a home setting. Of course with COVID this isn't such a great solution anymore.

A lot has been covered above, but really do think about what you're interested in. E.g. furniture: do you care about traditional joinery, or is screwing everything together ok for you? Size: the longest plank you'll need to work on will dictate what gear you need to deal with it. Physical exertion: some people love planing by hand, but holy shit it's a workout if you have to do much.

The part I found frustrating while learning is that there's at least five ways to come at basically every operation. Screwing them all up a few times, learning what can be fixed and what can't, and getting to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach will take a little while. Good in-person instruction was essential for me to start getting this- youtube is great, but it's usually showing you one person doing things their favourite way, with no or minimal discussion of all the other approaches, or how to do it with different tools, etc.
posted by Jobst at 12:42 PM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I got into woodworking entirely via YouTube. I'm not good, but I built an understanding of how the important tools work and how to do a lot of the basic stuff just by watching lots of videos. Bonus: they're often pretty soothing! Here are some recommendations not already mentioned. Many of these folks make complex and beautiful furniture and other projects, but in a lot of cases their old videos are more basic. I'd suggest exploring the early stuff on their channels to get used to the concepts involved.

Jay Bates
Neil Pask
Keith Brown
Darbin Orvar
John Peters
Rex Kreuger
Fix This Build That
Robin Lewis
Crafted Workshop
posted by that's candlepin at 1:15 PM on November 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Like FirstMateKate, I came here to suggest the project plans from Ana White.

Here is her beginner's guide, which includes information and advice, with links to her plans (starting with the workbench, I think):

Her plans are straightforward, easy to execute with basic tools & skills, and don't look crappy. I'm a big fan.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:43 PM on November 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Family Handyman has always been helpful for me, with some more ambitious projects there, too.
posted by Caxton1476 at 1:51 PM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Go to your store that sells lumber and walk up and down the lumber aisle and see what they have before you plan your first project. You may find that they mainly sell rough construction lumber and a few pre-made parts and not much of the wood you would want for cabinetmaking. After you see what is readily available, look for plans of things you can make with those things. This will save you outlaying a few hundred dollars on carpenter's clamps and the bandsaw etc, only to discover when you request 10 inch wide mahogany planking the best they can do is eight inch pine.

To save money start with some smaller projects such as doll's furniture, bookends, a small shelf with corbels, spice rack, etc. Two or three of those can easily be completed, each one in a weekend and will give you a much better feel for what you are doing before you outlay lots more money for wood and additional tools.

Traditionally the first thing that you make is a tool box for your hand tools. A simple tool box is a good starter project that will amuse you much later if you pursue the skill to any extent because you will see how rough your first efforts are. But it will still be sturdy and durable so you won't despise it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:57 PM on November 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Buy a bunch of cheap wood and make boxes! I've made a handful of things but I learned that a simple box is not so simple — or rather, like other woodworking projects you can make it as complex as you want. All without anything more than a hand saw. (A chop saw is a great, compact tool for small projects.)

Build a basic box and use it for something, and you'll soon find yourself thinking "hmm, I could do that but with built-in sections... if I added casters it would be under-bed storage... if I use 2x2s in the corners I could attach the sides to those instead of each other..." and so on.

Build a long box and it's a planter. A shallow box fits under the bed. A box with a lid holds your junk in the garage. Boxes for specific sizes become album holders and coat storage. And so on. BOXES!!!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:36 PM on November 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Join your local MakerSpace and take classes
posted by Jacqueline at 3:33 PM on November 13, 2020

Isn't quite the time for it but the only tools you need for making outdoor planter boxes are a saw and either a hammer or a drill and screw driver depending on how you want to put it together. After you make your first one you'll find the need to make another and it'll end up being better than the first because you learned a couple of things making it. The third will be better (and faster) than the second, and so on.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:01 PM on November 13, 2020

I'll add Steve Ramsey at Woodworking for Mere Mortals to the list of YouTube videos to watch. His channel's devoted to low barrier-of-entry projects to get people started making things, and he's not especially precious about the process or the results.

A few other channels to check out:
DIY Creators
Toolbox Divas
posted by malthusan at 5:28 PM on November 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Seconding the recs for Steve Ramsay, David Piccuto, Jimmy Diresta, April Wilkerson, Jay Bates, DIY Creators, and a lot of the other folks mentioned. YouTube's algorithm seems to be actually almost useful when it comes to DIY & maker videos. Try watching a few, find someone you like, it will lead you to others. I think Steve Ramsay would be the best place to start, simple projects, great explanations.

Christopher Schwarz is an amazing craftsman with an inspiring ethos. His Lost Art Press features a lot of free PDFs and excerpts from their great books.

I would hesitate to call myself even a beginner making-things-with-wood-and-stuff person, but I've come up with a few axioms that have helped me get over imposter syndrome/insecurity/intimidation:

1) There are three kinds of woodworking tools: ones that take wood apart, ones that put wood together, and ones that tell you how big things are.
2) Buy cheap tools and cheap materials.
3) 89% of all wood working is making boxes.
4) What one person can do, another can do (The only useful thing David Mamet's ever written).
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:53 AM on November 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Buy cheap tools and cheap materials.

Yeah, a friend of mine (an experienced electrical, handyman, & professional machine maintenance guy) explained: buy the cheap tool and by the time it breaks and you know that you use it a lot and how to use it, consider replacing it with something you like more & can justify. There are tons of specialized tools & it's easy to overspend because you need one for some project or emergency.
posted by lathrop at 4:47 PM on November 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you have a local Habitat For Humanity store, check there first for everything from wood to power tools, to clamps to screws, before going to Harbor Freight, Home Depot or Lowe’s. If you’ve never been to your local one, go on a day when you have time to walk down every aisle, and look in every corner. Familiarize yourself with where everything is so that later you can get in and out quickly. They often have little cohesion to the layout, but treasures untold that will save you beaucoup cash.
posted by JLovebomb at 8:56 AM on November 18, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you ALL so much - I'm super excited to get started and now I have a much clearer idea of how to do so. I think I'll be starting with Ana White's picture ledge project, which is something she recommends for beginners and an item I have an active need for!

I look forward to the day when I can more safely take in-person classes and go to maker spaces, but in the meantime, I've got plenty of ideas to keep me busy.
posted by mosst at 6:52 AM on November 19, 2020

Good luck with it! When you need power tools, many hardware stores will rent tools, and places that rent things like party tents will also rent out tools.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:15 AM on November 19, 2020

Also it's possible that some of your friends or neighbours may have power tools that they aren't using at the moment. So you may be able to just borrow from them.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:49 PM on November 19, 2020

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