If you are a follower of the many DIY posts here on jackandbax.com, you’ll start to notice a fair amount of woodworking-related projects (see here, here, and here). Woodworking can seem intimidating, but I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be. Hi, my name is Brian. Jackie is my wife. Baxter is our dog. I’m the guy behind many of the woodworking adventures you see here.
But I wasn’t always handy. In fact, when Jackie decided to marry me, I had zero handy skills to speak of. I had no more than high school shop class exposure to tools, I paid someone else to mow my lawn, and my idea of DIY was building an IKEA bookshelf. About 5 years ago, I decided with little forethought and some hubris that I could build a better and cheaper Christmas Tree Ornament holder inspired by one from Crate & Barrel. The project turned out okay, but I was hooked and I’ve enjoyed woodworking ever since. I’m confident that you will too.
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Here are my top tips for getting started in woodworking:
Tip #1: Know your purpose
People get into woodworking for a variety of reasons. Some want to build furniture, others want to build wooden toys, some want to make artistic bowls, and others want to build a house. What is your purpose? What do you see yourself doing now and into the future? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you determine:
- What tools that you need. Hand tools or power tools?
- Where you should buy your wood. Lowes or the lumber yard?
- Who you should learn from. Carpenters or furniture makers?
- What techniques you should learn. Glue or nails?
- How much error your work can tolerate. Does it have to be perfect or will no one will ever see it?
If you are getting started, know that these are the questions that you must eventually be able to answer. It’s okay that you don’t know the answers now. You’ll learn. But, take a moment to figure out why you are getting into woodworking and what kind of projects are on your mind.
My purpose for woodworking has evolved from the early days of wanting to prove to myself that I could build something. Today, I focus mostly on building custom, functional furniture and house-related items that I intend to use everyday. I take great joy in building something from scratch that you can’t just buy at a big box furniture store. I enjoy taking the time to think through the design challenges and then transforming that idea into reality with my own hands. In a digital world, it is nice to reconnect with something real.
Tip #2: Wood is imperfect. Embrace it.
Contrary to what you see in big box furniture stores, wood doesn’t grow perfectly flat, smooth, and uniform. The next time you come across a tree take a moment to look it over. Is it straight? No. Are the branches all the same? Nope. When the wind blows does the tree move? Yep. Wood is imperfect. It bends, it has knots, and it expands and contracts with temperature and humidity changes. If you are starting your woodworking journey by looking for assembly line manufactured perfection, you are going to be disappointed.
You must learn to embrace that wood is an imperfect medium to work with. Master woodworkers spend years honing their skills and sometimes it’s just not in the wood. What you can learn from these masters are all of the tips, tricks, and techniques they use to cover up imperfections or mistakes that they make along the way. As a beginner, you may find it frustrating that something doesn’t fit together just right or the wood is curving in a weird way. The beauty of woodworking is the joy you will feel when you solve the problem, overcome that imperfection, and spend 30 minutes just staring at the piece of furniture that you built. Woodworkers tend to admire their work and the work of others. We all feel the struggle and joy together.
Tip #3: There are 10,000 ways to do something, find the one that works for you.
If you go to Google and search for ways to join two wooden boards together you’ll get about 868,000,000 results. On YouTube, you’ll find hundreds of hours of content on the subject. You’ll find ways to do it with hand tools and glue, a $1,000 tool, dowels, and pocket hole screws, just to name a few. As a beginning woodworker, know that there are many ways to do anything. Each way has a community of followers, pros and cons, and a variety of step-by-step instructions.
Rarely is there ever a right or wrong way to do something in woodworking and rarely is anyone an expert at all of the techniques. Master woodworkers find the technique that works best for them and their work. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how you want to do it. Pick the one that you can afford, fits your project goals, and that you feel comfortable doing. No shame, it is your project. You get to decide.
Tip #4: Start small and only buy the tools that you need along the way.
Woodworking can quickly become an expensive endeavor. When you get started, there are so many tools that you will want, tools that you think you will need, and tools that you wish had the money to buy. To keep it under control, first start with a simple project that only needs a few tools to begin with. This first project should be something that you are passionate about but that only has 4-6 pieces with simple cuts and joining pieces. Build a jewelry box or a small side table. Don’t build yourself a new dining room set or else you will become overwhelmed by the expense of the tools needed and the complexity of the project. Start simple.
Second, as a beginner you aren’t going to need one of every tool. You may find out that you don’t even enjoy woodworking after all or after spending $5000 on a professional table saw that your real woodworking passion is hand tools. So don’t buy everything that you might eventually need. Instead, only buy what you need for your current project. Following this strategy will ensure that you are more financially responsible and that your tools purchases evolve with your passion. Eventually you will accumulate all of the tools that you need, but only buy the tools that you need along the way.
For me, I accidentally started with a fairly simple project. It was a pair of Christmas ornament trees. It involved making only four cuts per tree and gluing it all together. As I mentioned before, I had zero tools, so I had to buy some. But, I also know that sometimes I can get carried away with a new potential hobby, buy a bunch of expensive stuff, and then never touch it again. So, I ended up only buying a hammer, glue, a few clamps, and a miter saw (all of which I still own and use today). These tools served me perfectly and for the next project I had to buy a few more things. Five years later, I rarely buy a new tool, but I have a long list of tools I’d like to upgrade to if I win the lottery.
Tip #5: Be safe and take your time
If it can cut through wood, it can cut through you. It is unfortunate, but very likely that at some point you will cut or hurt yourself when woodworking. Whether this is just a scrape or a life changing injury comes down to you actively deciding to be safe. Read the instructions that come with your tools. Learn the proper and safe ways to use your tools. Most of these are common sense, so if it ever feels like something is unsafe, then it probably is. Stop. Think it through. Come up with a safer way.
You should always wear safety glasses to protect your eyes, ear plugs to protect your hearing, and face masks to protect your lungs. Long-term exposure to wood dust is certainly not good for you or your lungs, so as uncomfortable as it may feel- wear that mask.
My top tip for not only being safe but getting the best results is to take your time. Almost all of my injuries (I’ve had a few) and errors have been because I was rushing to get done. When you are rushing you are focused on the end and not on what you are doing. This will nearly always result in bad outcomes for you and the wood.
I hope that you’ve found this article informative and inspiring. For me, becoming a woodworker has been a great joy. It’s a productive hobby and art form that you can do your entire life. I hope you decide to take the leap.
So, what do you think? Did you like this post? What other woodworking topics would you like to know about? I look forward to answering your questions.