Are you just getting started in woodworking? Do you feel overwhelmed? Use these tips before you start your first projects for better success.
You’ve likely seen the projects in magazines and online that look almost impossible to replicate. They use expensive, rare wood species, complex joinery, require a whole woodshop full of tools and require several weeks to apply a hand-rubbed finish of multiple coats.
As a beginner, you shouldn’t attempt a complex project. You likely will end up overwhelmed, frustrated, ruin expensive lumber and end up with a project that doesn’t look good.
You can of course procrastinate, with excuses that you can’t start until you’ve watched enough YouTube videos or have a fully-equipped woodshop with all the tools. But that isn’t going to get you the hands-on experience you need.
You need to start building. Get a few simpler projects under your toolbelt and your confidence level will increase.
And there are a few things you can do when picking and building a project for the first time to make it easier. Especially when you are still learning the craft and just getting started in woodworking.
Use less expensive wood species
For your first few projects, pick wood that is relatively inexpensive.
Not only are you investing less in a project, mistakes you make will be less heart-breaking. You’ll be more willing to scrap a piece that doesn’t turn out well and redo it.
You don’t necessarily need to stoop down to using construction lumber, although there are lots of examples of projects that have been built using standard spruce or fir 2×4 framing lumber.
If you go this route, you’ll need to spend time selecting the straightest, most knot-free lumber and be prepared to cut off the rounded edges (ideally requires a table saw.)
Or the ever popular palette wood projects. I’m not a big fan of those, mainly because of some of the safety risks of using palette wood. I would say if you need to practice, then this is a cheap way to get wood you don’t mind ruining.
But again you need to be super-selective in choosing the best boards.
So what does that leave for the beginner woodworker getting started in woodworking?
Pine is relatively inexpensive, easy to work with and available widely. It is a softwood so is susceptible to dents.
Avoid the more expensive hardwoods such as cherry, maple and oak. Cheaper hardwoods include birch, alder and popular.
Cost of wood is very regional. So you may find that because of the prevalence of one particular species that grows in your area, it may be less expensive that what normally would be the least expensive species.
Avoid using the really inexpensive sheet goods such as particle board. It’s worth spending a few dollars more on quality plywood.
Buy pre-surfaced lumber in the right sizes
Experienced woodworkers generally have the tools and know-how to turn a warped, twisted, rough piece of lumber into a beautiful wood product.
It’s a difficult and time-consuming process if you don’t have the right equipment such as jointers, thickness planers and bandsaws for re-sawing boards thinner.
So as a beginner woodworker, your best options are to buy lumber that is already prepared and sized for your project. For hardwood that would be S4S (surfaced on 4 sides).
If you have a table saw or a circular saw with a good straight guide, you might be able to get away with S2S where the two faces of a board are surfaced and then you just need to rip the edges straight and parallel.
A well-stocked lumberyard or specialty lumber supplier will have various wood species in different dimensions. In most cases all you’ll need to do is cut the lumber to length, add some simple joinery such as dados and rabbets (see below for more info) and assemble.
Even plywood can be purchased in smaller sizes such as 4×4 and even 2×2 and you can size your project to use one of these sheets in full or simply cut in half. A lumberyard can also cut a full sheet of plywood for you so that you can get it home in a standard-sized car and don’t have to cut it at home.
Sometimes I’ve had to change the type of wood I was going to use for a project so that I could get the correctly dimensioned lumber from my local lumberyard.
The other alternative is if you have a friend who is a woodworker with the proper equipment you can arrange with them to have your lumber prepared up to a certain point where you can take over.
And also don’t overlook stock moldings. If you buy the standard molding, unpainted, it can be used to embellish an otherwise plain looking project.
As a beginner getting started in woodworking, you really don’t want to start off making blind dovetail joints for your first projects.
There are many other joinery options that you should use for your first projects. Pick joinery that doesn’t require specialized jigs, tools and knowledge to create.
Butt joints where you literally butt up two pieces of wood are the easiest. It helps to reinforce them with nails or screws. Or you can use dowels, biscuits or dominoes to reinforce without visible fasteners.
If you have a router or table saw, you can also cut rabbets and dadoes to join boards at right angles. Take it slow, plan out the joints well and cut them undersize and keep test fitting until you sneak up on the perfect fit.
Now is NOT the time to design a project that uses Greene & Greene design or any of the other iconic furniture designers.
Usually these projects have complicated design elements that require special joinery and construction that will simply overwhelm you.
Instead stick with clean and simple lines. Avoid curves, turned parts such as legs (unless you can buy them already turned) and decorative accents such as plugs, tenon wedges, etc.
Once you become more proficient and experienced, you can add some simple embellishments to your projects. Maybe a subtle curve here and there to start.
There are some very time-consuming, complicated finishes that you can apply to a wood project.
They tend to use expensive products that are hard to find or in some cases you have to mix up a concoction yourself.
Applying them is not easy either and often it requires multiple coats with laborious hand sanding in between. And a final wax job to finish it off.
As a beginner getting started in woodworking, you want to keep your finishes simple as it can be quite disconcerting when the final step in your project is difficult and has the potential to ruin the project.
Wipe-on polyurethanes and varnishes are popular for furniture. They may require a light sanding between coats but this is easy to do. They tend to dry quickly so you can re-coat and have the project finished in a few days.
Danish oils are also popular and literally are a wipe-on, wait a short period of time and wipe off the excess.
Painting or staining is also relatively easy, especially if you are using a wood species that you want to mask the colour or grain of.
Once you become more confident, you can then experiment with more complicated finishes.
Less visible project
Your first projects won’t likely be perfect. And considering all the other tips above, they’ll turn out to be plain and not what you’d see in design magazines.
You won’t be building fancy sideboards or dining table sets for your dining room at the beginning for instance.
Or a showpiece coffee table for your living room.
So focus instead on projects that are a bit less visible.
If you want to get into cabinet building, consider a closet organizer. Or if you’re building furniture, make a simple bookcase for a spare room.
For smaller projects choose trivets or cutting boards that can be stored in a kitchen drawer until you need them.
And until you become a bit more experienced and have refined your craft, avoid making presents for people. One tip is to make the same project for yourself first so you can become familiar with it and then build more of the same for others.
So now that you have some tips on how to have greater success as you are getting started in woodworking, set aside some quality time and get out into the woodshop and build something! After all practice makes perfect. You won’t get better if you don’t get started.
Wishing you all the best with your projects!
Victoria, BC, Canada