Lessons From the First Year: A Woodworker’s Notebook

A few years back, I had an epiphany. I realized suddenly that my memories of ninth-grade shop class weren’t as horrifying as I’d thought. In fact, the idea of woodworking sounded downright appealing.  My daily work is in the telecommunications sector, and the prospect of fluffy piles of aromatic wood shavings and the feel of a bronze-bodied precision plane might drag me away from my workstation.

I started back in woodworking the same way I’ve started with so many hobbies – by reading about it.  Reading has always been central to my life, and I’ve even been known to unwrap coffee grounds and potato peelings to read “continued-on-page-eight”.  My investigation quickly led me to Woodsmith, Shop Notes, Fine Woodworking, and the many useful websites that share people’s experiences and project discussions.

I quickly found two dozen sets of instructions for cutting tapered legs, plans for a lot of different things I might try in a few years when I’m more experienced, and more table saw jigs than I’d ever dreamed existed.  Designs for cabinetry, articles on safety issues that were so terrifying I almost switched to stamp collecting, endless arguments on food-safe finishes, and comparative reviews of three-thousand dollar table saws I’ll never have room for. But many basic things just aren’t taught in books or magazines – or learnable any way except by the cycle of hours in the shop – and those are what I was looking for.

It didn’t take long to figure out that there was far more to remember than could be retained by any means except a lifetime of experience… but it couldn’t hurt to take notes.  The ideas outlined here are the distillation of my experiences from the first year or two. I’ve omitted items I’ve seen repeatedly in numerous excellent publications, in favor of other thoughts that I haven’t seen in print.

Your most important tools are your hands.

A couple of years ago, my friend Bill Baldwin and I were bringing his Chris-Craft back from the Chautauqua Boat Show to his dock, when we ran into an unexpected fog.  Honestly, I am a boating enthusiast, not an experienced boater. I do know the best ones are made of wood, they float (usually), and the good ones say “Chris-Craft” and have cool names like Merlin.  This fog was completely outside my experience. But Bill assured me that everything was fine, as long as the boat stayed safe. If the boat wasn’t damaged, then we probably wouldn’t be damaged either.

This wisdom applies to your hands, as well. If you protect your hands properly, nothing too disastrous is likely to happen. Your hands are the one set of tools that you’re guaranteed to use every single time you work in your shop. They actually damage quite easily. Replacements are unobtainable through the manufacturer’s website. They only come two to the set, and no spares are issued.

Figure 1: This is not the best way to find that screw you dropped.

Your second most important tool is your shop. It makes no sense at all to spend hours building safety jigs, if you’re going to trip over a pile of lumber and break your wrist. Every single safety measure you take is compromised by working in a sloppy, disorganized environment. Leaving dropped screws on the table can gouge up the face of that cabinet you’ve slaved on.  Why ruin your best work by dragging it through a sloppy environment?  (Please see Figure 1)

Fumbling a circular saw and dropping it on your foot because the cord got hung up on something is a mistake you make exactly once.  Cutting your hand on a sharp chisel while digging through a pile of tools to find the one you want will not make your day any better.

A disorganized shop is dangerous, and becomes frustrating place in which to work. My rule of thumb is to spend one day working on shop organization and maintenance for every five or six days spent on projects. That ratio of work-to-maintenance improves continually, as I build the jigs and storage I need. (Please see Figure 2)  Which leads me to…

Figure 2: A place for (almost) everything, and (most) things in their (approximate) place.

Anything in your shop that causes you frustration is dangerous and should be avoided. It risks your safety; it compromises the quality of your work. Frustration causes a craftsman to attempt to force things that don’t fit, to jerk tools around instead of making smooth motions. It means you’ll gouge your work; you’ll make even more mistakes, and do things that are inherently unsafe to attempt to get through the rough spots. Such as trying to force a board through a rapidly spinning blade when it’s trying to bind: poor idea.

My frame of mind is important. If I’m stressed, depressed, rushed, or angry, then I’m probably not being safe, and I certainly won’t do my best work.

Sharpening is a Zen process. When I’m frustrated, or my work isn’t going the way I want it to, then it helps if I stop and sharpen something. There’s always something that needs touching up – chisels, a plane, something. The routine and discipline of sharpening focuses my concentration.

Find a way to sharpen, and stick to it. There are a lot of different methods: oil stones, water stones, powered sharpeners – all of them seem to produce excellent results. Find the one you want to use, and practice it until you can produce consistent results.  In fact, you might as well learn to enjoy it, since it’s something you’ll have to do on a regular basis anyway.

For crying out loud, plug the glue. It dries out if you don’t. Duh! Glue roughly equals money, and I have better things to spend my project dollars on.

Cyanoacrylate instant glue is wonderful stuff for filling small cracks, reinforcing knots, and all sorts of tiny repairs. Put the cap back on it, too. And if you’re using a spray accelerator with it, put the cap on it before you start spraying, or yes, you really will catalyze the whole darn bottle. Which has almost got to be funnier to read about than to experience.

Did I mention about taking care of your hands? Sawdust dries everything out. The custodian in my elementary school collected sawdust from the shop to spread on messes to soak them up.  I had continual dry skin problems on my hands until I started moisturizing them. Personally, I like Burt’s Bees Hand Salve. It works extremely well, and has no perfumes to clash with “The Manly Experience of Shop Work”.

Figure 3: Your shop apron is one of your best tools.

One of the secrets of producing repeatable results is to develop good work habits. Nothing adds to frustration like having two hands full with an assembly, and groping around for whatever tool you had just a moment ago with yourthird hand.  Wearing my apron and dropping an apron plane, pencils, tape measure, marking knife, and 6” ruler into its pockets instead of on the workbench spares me no end of headaches.  Unplug your power tools when they’re not in use.  Put your hearing protection and dust mask around your neck when you stop working, so you don’t have to break off and go get them. Clip the remote for your dust collector to the apron. (Please see Figure 3)

Just like cooking, it’s easiest in the long run to clean up as you go along. Keep a brush handy on the workbench, and dust it off periodically as you work. It makes the environment more pleasant, and dropped hardware – and even chips – don’t mar your work or get in the way of assembly.  Slipping on a pile of sawdust and twisting your ankle isn’t fun, either.

If I have any doubt that what I’m doing is perfectly safe, then it probably isn’t.  Think about how the cut works, the motion of the blade, and the possible motion of the workpiece. Examine all angles of stress or pressure of the workpiece through the cut. Is there any chance it will close up on the blade, and cause kickback?  Can the weight of the wood cause it to lever off the table when the cut is complete?

An operation that is truly safe feels safe, and doesn’t fill the operator with anxiety.  Remember, gravity works.  It makes heavy items hard to lift, causes cutoffs to fall, and can force your work in directions you wish it didn’t go.  Don’t overbalance or put your weight against a workpiece during a cut, or if something goes wrong, gravity can force you into the blade. If you reach over the spinning blade of a table saw and you lose your balance, what happens?

Figure 4: If you can't guard your hands, guard the blade.

If you can’t protect your hands, protect the blade. A blade doesn’t have to be in motion to be dangerous. Properly sharpened plane blades and chisels are sharper than many surgical tools.  One of the nastiest cuts I’ve had happened when resetting the blade of a circle cutter. The hex wrench slipped, and I cut the palm of my hand on the blade. Now I keep a set of fingers cut from a leather glove, and use as temporary guards on sharp blades when making adjustments. They also make it much easier to remove router bits from a collet that’s a little tight. (Please see Figure 4)

Nobody’s perfect. We’re even less perfect with missing extremities. Make sure that you have the safety guards you need, and keep a first aid kit in the shop.

Most articles in shop magazines seem to be written for Yankees, not Southerners. Y’all up North may be worried about keeping your shops warm, but I assure you, we don’t have that problem in Texas. Instead, we have to worry about overheating and getting dehydrated.  Keep your water bottle handy, and your sweatband firmly in place if it’s hot. Getting sweat in your eyes while making panel cuts with a circular saw is frightening at best, and can be terribly dangerous.

Working in a warm environment changes several things. It reduces setting time with glue joints, so switching to wood glue with a longer open time may help. Shelf life for glue, tape, and finishes is substantially shorter in a garage that gets up to over 100 degrees on a regular basis during the summer.

Figure 5: Making your own tools, like this Krenov-style plane, is great motivation to improve your hand-tool skills.

Hand tools take practice to use well, but they’re worth it. Flattening a surface with a hand plane is much more difficult than doing it with a belt sander, but the results feel terrific. And it kicks up a lot less dust, which is always a plus.  In fact, consider making some of your own tools.  Lots of project plans exist in books and on the internet for making everything from hand planes to marking tools.  Completing a project with tools you made yourself is an amazing feeling. (Please see Figure 5)

You can never be too rich, too pretty, or own too many clamps. When doing a dry assembly of a project (which you should always do, just like the instructions unvaryingly say), clamp it up at the same time.  That way you can make absolutely sure that you can clamp it properly when the glue is applied. Once the glue is on, it’s too late to discover that you don’t have enough clamps to hold it securely.

Figure 6: Keep clamps in strategic locations, where you don't have to drop what you're doing to go find one.

Clamps don’t just hold a project together firmly while the glue sets. They can also be used to ensure parts are aligned.  Small spring clamps are excellent to align edge banding, and to align the ends of boards for panel glue-ups.  Store spring clamps in several locations around your shop, adjacent to commonly-used tools. (Please see Figure 6)

It’s easy to underclamp, but it’s hard to overclamp. Just don’t clamp so tight that all the glue is forced out of the joint. Also, clamps should be accurate and flat-faced, so that mechanical inconsistency in the clamps doesn’t force workpieces out of true.

When starting a new section of a project, inventory your required tools. Make sure that you have all the clamps, bits, and blades you need. Stopping because you can’t find the tool you need is frustrating, and will come at exactly the wrong time.

Put the same care of construction accuracy into building jigs and fixtures that you put into the project itself. Jigs made to handle a specific dimension of cut can usually be made with sliding parts instead, so they can be used on other projects.  It’s easier to put more effort into making a jig that can be reused than to make separate throwaway jigs for each project.  Consider making your jigs out of decent materials: Baltic birch plywood and UHMW plastics are extremely stable, and often make more accurate jigs than cheap utility plywood with lots of voids.  Building a sloppy, inaccurate jig doesn’t make much sense, unless you want your work done with it to be sloppy and inaccurate as well.

The same operation can often be done with different tools. If the project instructions call for a dado stack on your table saw, you can do it with a router instead. But remember: the instructions won’t take it into account. The required parts and hardware won’t be listed in the project requirements.  If you’re going to stray from the methods listed in the instructions, be fully prepared for the operation you intend to do. That includes manufacture of any jigs that are required to work accurately.

Remember that instruction manual that came with the jointer? Where did I put it? It had better be in the file box with all the other instruction manuals for my tools, or I’m really going to be annoyed when I have to look up how to change the blades.

Get some rest, tomorrow’s a school day. Many local woodworking stores, such as Rockler and Woodcraft, offer classes and demonstrations.  A one-day class with a good teacher can provide a wealth of information that you’ll use in every single project you build.  Classes are often available in such topics as building hand planes, basic cabinetry, making cabinet doors, lathe projects, and tool sharpening.  The skills you learn there can often improve your work far more than an additional investment in tools.  Classes also make excellent Christmas and birthday gifts: they don’t take up space, and you don’t have to dust them.

Be careful of false economy. A cheap saw with good blades will outperform a good saw with cheap blades. Your expensive band saw will perform poorly because you saved a whopping $10 on the blade. Why spend $800 for a good quality, professional tool, and then equip it with a third-rate blade that doesn’t cut smoothly?

The same thing goes for sandpaper. So you saved $2 on sandpaper. Then it clogged, and didn’t sand well, and you wound up not getting a smooth finish because it took too long. You spent all this money on curly cherry and spalted maple, then scrimped on sandpaper?

Safety precautions save you time. I’ve lost two weeks in the shop because I lifted something wrong. Yes, it takes a couple of minutes to put the blade guard back on the table saw. But healing is much, much slower than taking the right precautions.

If you loosened it, retighten it. I’ve wrecked an afternoon’s work because I didn’t retighten the depth stop on the miter saw. This especially goes for locking safety mechanisms, and replacing blade guards. Get in the habit of not putting the wrench down until you’ve retightened everything you loosened. The one thing that’s cost me more damaged, wasted wood than any other router operation is not tightening the fence properly.

Figure 7: Quality measuring and marking tools are where every project begins.

Not all measuring tools are created equal. This is particularly true of tape measures, it appears. The hook on the end of the tape shifts over time, particularly if the tape is allowed to slam itself shut.  Check your tapes against a hard steel ruler occasionally.  Be especially careful when switching between measuring tools during the same project.  I’ve even found a cheap steel ruler to be inaccurate when compared against a quality precision rule. Remember that quality doesn’t necessarily mean expensive: a Stanley brass and boxwood folding rule is generally quite accurate, and will last a lifetime of woodworking.  (Please see Figure 7)

Good measuring and marking tools are where woodcrafting begins, and like all hand tools, they require practice to use accurately. Errors caused by inaccurate measurements multiply like rabbits.  A 1/32-inch error added to another part with a 1/32-inch error up against another part with a 1/32-inch error is now almost 1/8-inch off.

Nothing seems to set blades & bits as accurately as an inexpensive set of brass set-up gauges. Set them against the teeth, not the flat of the blade.  Solid brass gauges are far more accurate than attempting to accurately measure against the marks on a ruler.

Figure 8: Setup blocks are much easier and more accurate than trying to align those fiddly little ruler marks.

The perfect addition to brass setup gauges is a 1-2-3 block. A 1-2-3 block is a precision-ground steel block that measures 1” by 2” by 3”. A combination of brass gauges and a 1-2-3 block can set most common widths of cuts up to about four inches.  This avoids any inaccuracy of fence or jig settings. (Please see Figure 8)

In a larger project, group operations by type.  It saves a lot of redundant machine setup and adjustment if you do all the panel cutting together, all the thickness planing together, all the routing together, and so on.   This can save a lot of time, and ensures that the various parts were done with the same machine settings.  One thing to remember, however, is that it also means that errors are consistent throughout the project, not just accuracy.

Dust isn’t just messy, it makes you inaccurate. Sawdust piles up against fences, and forces your workpiece away from it as it slides.  Sawdust can force a circular saw or router base away from the fence, and cause your cut to drift. Blow the dust out of the miter gauge track occasionally. When building custom fences, make a small (1/8-inch) bevel along the bottom edge of the fence, to allow dust somewhere to go.

Tools are like musical instruments. The project is your symphony, and the plans are your sheet music. And like all concerts, the best performance requires proper care and maintenance of your instrument.  Wax the soles of your planes. Polish your chisels, and keep them sharp.  Inspect the blades of your power tools from time to time. Check for run-out on your table saw. Make sure the blade of your band saw is tracking properly, and the guides are correctly adjusted.

Doing these simple maintenance tasks will save you time and frustration on your projects, as you’ll avoid inaccurate cuts that could be easily avoided.

If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right. Most of us don’t do woodworking for a living. Get in the habit of doing the things that limit your frustration, and aid you in your creativity.  The joy of crafting work of which you can be proud will make all your effort worthwhile.

The moral here may be that among your most frequently used tools should be a notebook.  A woodworker’s journal is storage for his ideas, plans, project notes and modifications, and becomes an amazing tool in itself.  Write your ideas down before they escape so you can share them with others.  I hope these thoughts from my early efforts make your woodcrafting time smoother and more satisfying.   Please share your ideas and experiences with me as well, at rhenton@iname.com.

Ross Henton

October 2008

Bibliography

Of all the books I’ve read on the subject, there are a handful I come back to time and again. A few of the best are listed here.

Fixing and Avoiding Woodworking Mistakes, by Sandor Nagyszalanczy. ISBN: 978-1561580972

Taunton’s Complete Illustrated Guide to Jigs & Fixtures, by Sandor Nagyszalanczy. ISBN: 978-1561587704

Mastering Hand Tool Techniques, by Alan Bridgewater and Gill Bridgewater. ISBN: 978-1558704572

Measure Twice, Cut Once: Simple Steps to Measure, Scale, Draw and Make the Perfect Cut-Every Time, by Jim Tolpin. ISBN: 978-1558708099

Small Woodworking Shops, by Fine Woodworking Editors. ISBN: 978-1561586868

The Complete Guide to Sharpening, by Leonard Lee. ISBN: 978-1561581252

Methods of Work: The Best Tips from 25 years of Fine Woodworking, by Jim Richey. ISBN: 978-1561584680

Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking, by Tage Frid. ISBN: 978-1561580682


— This article is reprinted from the Winter 2009 issue of The Brass Bell, and appears here through their courtesy. For more information, please contact the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club. www.chris-craft.org

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7 comments on “Lessons From the First Year: A Woodworker’s Notebook

  1. tulip1810 says:

    Wow, what an article! You sure are passionate about your woodworking! I caught your page because I was looking for others who are Christmas Boaters. Somehow this got put in with Christmas because you were with your friend on his boat in the fog.

    Well if you have the time, and want to check out my blog on Christmas Ships on the Columbia, just follow my website to tulip1810.wordpress.com.

    Hope you have a Merry Christmas and continue to do an excellent job in woodworking! I was impressed. Mona

  2. Kenneth says:

    Hi Ross, nice to meet you. This is a great post, chock full of wise nuggets. 🙂

  3. Ross, I gather you live in Dallas. So do I. When you have a moment, perhaps you could send me your contact information. Thanks. Your site is help and instructive.

  4. Grumpy Badger says:

    Wow, great article. Thanks very much for the effort you put in. I am currently working on my first year of woodworking, mostly with hand tools. Been working with machines for several more years than that… but it sure does feel like starting over. It’s a long process, and I can certainly use the kind of advice and encouragement you provide. Excellent job on the whole blog overall, much appreciated.

    – Joel in Ohio

  5. Really good post, nice set of tools you have collected!

  6. Andy says:

    Love your article! It’s really a BIG LESSON from the first year! I bookmarked it.

  7. Nice article! I really enjoyed it! I like your book list!

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