The First Step:
You've made the decision to begin the pastime of woodworking, or at least you have given the topic some thought. In either case, you may have lots of questions about what lies ahead. Hopefully this article will give you some guidance and provide some thoughtful insight into your new hobby. This is not intended to serve as a woodworking tutorial, nor is it designed to be a blueprint or how-to for the pastime. Rather, this article should be viewed as a primer, to help steer you in the right direction and help you apply some critical thought to the subject. I have already written and posted an article about the selection of power tools, which I highly recommend. While this article will briefly address the topic of power tools, I do not wish to re-invent the wheel by repeating ad nauseum the content found in the tools article. There are many more sources of information out there, and I encourage you to build up your knowledge in the subject.
[Warning: If you are a tradesperson or an experienced woodworker, you might want to stop reading now, as I can almost guarantee that you will be bored to tears with this article.]
The reader assumes all responsibility and liability associated with the hazards of woodworking. The author has no control over how a reader will act as a result of obtaining information in this article. The author shall not be responsible for any errors or omissions that may be present in this article. Accordingly, the author shall assume no liability for any action or inaction of a reader.
This article is directed toward a hobbyist audience and is not intended for application in a commercial, institutional, or industrial setting. Commercial woodshops are generally governed by a complex set of worker safety regulations, such as those mandated by OSHA. Satisfying the compliance of such regulations is beyond the scope of this article.
What do you want to do?
This is the first question you need to consider. Actually, you should ask yourself a number of questions:
Let's apply these questions.
Types of projects. Perhaps this question is more appropriately posed: what is your passion? Do you want to tackle large projects, such as furniture or cabinetry? Or something more modest, such as birdhouses, woodcarving, or picture frames? Woodworking covers a broad range of possibilities, limited only by your imagination (and your wallet). Give this question some serious thought -- delving into something half-heartedly will only lead to disappointment. You will quickly lose interest and end up with a lot of costly equipment gathering dust.
Power tools or hand tools? If you like power, speed and efficiency in creating your projects, you are probably a good candidate for working with power woodworking tools. This is especially true if you wish to get your projects completed in a limited span of time. On the other hand, if you like a more hand-crafted approach, have the time to work the wood and don't want the noise and dust associated with power equipment, you may gravitate toward hand tools. Keep in mind that one approach is not necessarily cheaper than the other. You can spend a lot of cash on power tools, and you can also spend a lot on nice planes, chisels, scrapers, etc. Understand that the two categories are not mutually exclusive. I use power tools quite extensively for my projects. However, I also use many hand tools, such as chisels, coping saws, files, etc., for various operations.
Setting up shop. My belief has always been that if someone really wants to do something, they will find a way. Woodworking is no exception. If you have a basement, spare room, garage, or shed, you can easily set up shop. However, there are limitations to consider and we need to be realistic. Obviously, it wouldn't be practical to build large cabinets in the spare room down the hall. On the other hand, living in an apartment, condominium or small house should not preclude you from crafting small woodworking projects. Many apartment complexes rent out garages (make sure it has electrical power). Some types of projects, such as pen-making or scrollsawing, can be performed with very little mess or noise on a kitchen table. If there is simply no place in your home for a woodworking shop of any kind, look into your local woodworking guild or club. These organizations sometimes have shops available for the use of their members. A woodworking club is also a great way to meet fellow woodworkers and pick up skills and ideas from them.
Regardless of what kinds of woodworking projects you plan to create, be thoughtful of your neighbors. Loud power tools, dust, finishing fumes, and unsightly piles of materials lying around can create tensions in a neighborhood, and potential legal liability. If you plan to set up shop in a shed or garage, check with your community's zoning and building inspection people to make sure you will be operating within all applicable laws and regulations. If you plan to make any modifications to the facility, such as remodeling or electrical wiring, you may need to consult your locality's building inspection department and obtain any necessary permits. There may also be private covenants through homeowners' associations that restrict the uses of the property you reside upon. Make sure your proposed activities are cleared with any HOA whose rules you may be subject to. And if you rent, be sure to check with your landlord before proceeding.
Making the most use of your free time. If you are like me, you find yourself balancing a career, family and other obligations. There never seems to be enough time to do all the things we would like. Fortunately, woodworking is the ideal pastime for busy people. Your projects, whether simple or complex, can be worked on a little at a time. If it takes you a whole year to complete that end table, so what? The idea is that you enjoy your available time spent working with wood. Of course, there are myriad shop jigs and aids that will help you become more efficient in your work as you build up your skills.
Financial considerations. How much money does it take to get into woodworking? That's like asking what it costs to go on a vacation. It depends on many factors. The best advice I can give is this: it's not cheap. But nothing worthwhile ever is. You can save a lot of money by planning your shop and making some smart choices. My power tool selection article delves into the many choices available for power tools. For retail tool purchases, there are many choices. Depending upon where you live, there may be home improvement stores nearby, such as Home Depot, Lowe's, or Menard's. There are specialty stores catering to woodworkers, such as Rockler and Woodcraft. These specialty stores carry many of the hard-to-find items that are sought after by woodworkers, but due to their niche marketing, they tend to set rather high prices. There are countless mail order companies to be found on the Internet. I have many of these are linked here. Many still offer free catalogs. And of course, let us not forget the granddaddy of all Internet marketers -- Amazon. They offer a huge selection of tools at very competitive prices, and no shipping charges for most orders over $25.
You can look around and find good used gear for a fraction of new. Check out local auctions, yard sales and flea markets. Be sure to know your prices going in, as some unscrupulous sellers will try to pass off used goods for close to what you would pay for new. Be aware that many tools, particularly those that had been used in a commercial setting, may have endured extensive use and abuse. Look over the tool thoroughly and insist that the seller demonstrate it before buying. Online auctions and buy-sell sites, such as ebay and Craig's List are good places to look, but be careful buying goods sight-unseen from a distant seller. Scams abound on these sites, and sending money to an anonymous person, only to never hear back, will provide a stinging lesson in trusting strangers. It is better to deal with sellers who live in your area, so that you can visit in person and look over the goods before buying. Don't be afraid to haggle, and walk away if the deal doesn't sound right.
Your abilities. As with any hobby, one cannot expect to gain immediate proficiency; there is a certain learning curve involved. Such is the case with woodworking. All that is needed to get started is a basic level of mechanical aptitude and good hand/eye coordination. Unless you are a total klutz and fall over your own untied shoelaces, you should do just fine. If you are a bit afraid of tools and other sharp objects, don't worry. A healthy bit of fear, developed into a healthy dose of respect for the hazards involved, will help ensure a safe woodworking experience. I will discuss safety later in this article.
If you are mobility-challenged, don't let that steer you away from woodworking. Many people with differing abilities have successfully overcome this, adapting their wood shops and deriving great enjoyment from the hobby. As you will soon find out, woodworking is a very accessible pastime.
Getting the most out of this pastime. This is really a question of personal satisfaction, related somewhat to the first question addressing the types of projects you want to do. Perhaps a bit philosophical, it should be incumbent upon you to try to get the most out of this rewarding hobby. What's the point if it's not fun? Woodworking is more than just building things with your hands; it becomes a means of expressing your creativity. If you choose to build an odd-shaped chest of drawers with neon lights and non-parallel sides and stain the wood day-glo orange, who are we to criticize that? Let your imagination run.
Woodworking is dynamic, and it carries inherent risks. Power tools can cause serious injury if misused or if operated without giving them your undivided attention. Hand tools, such as chisels, hand saws, and planes, can inflict serious cuts. Many operations in woodworking, including sanding, routing, cutting, and applying finishes, can create breathing hazards from dust and fumes. The dust of some species of woods can cause severe allergic reactions in some people. Many finishing products contain toxic solvents and other chemicals. Dust and solvent fumes, and oily rags can also present a fire hazard. The sound generated by many power tools can damage your hearing over time. Electric-powered tools can deliver a serious, possibly fatal, shock if the user comes in contact with an energized conductor. Flying dust or chips of wood can injure your eyes. Spinning tool bits and blades can sometimes disintegrate, sending fragments in many directions.
With all of these hazards, it is prudent to take reasonable precautions. Make sure that your tools are kept in good condition and that all safety guards and other protective shields are in place and in good working order. When purchasing used tools, look them over carefully to evaluate their workability and safety. Insist on having the seller plug in and demonstrate the tool before you hand over the cash. Before operating the tool, make sure you are very familiar with its structure and its operation. Read the user manual. Read it again. If you bought the tool used and it came without a manual, try to find a downloadable manual from the manufacturer on the Internet, or call the manufacturer to ask for one. If this is your very first time using a particular tool such as a table saw or nail gun, consider getting a how-to book or video on the use of the tool. Your local library or woodworking club may have these for checkout.
If you are considering converting a room, garage or outbuilding into a wood shop, make sure to include adequate safety features. Good lighting and good ventilation are a must. Be certain that the electrical outlets will deliver the power necessary to run your tools. Make sure that the electrical circuits are properly grounded and consider installing a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to reduce the hazard of electric shock. Having the overhead lights on a separate circuit will help ensure that you won't be standing in the dark with a spinning blade somewhere if a circuit breaker trips. Keep your shop clean -- don't let mountains of sawdust pile up. Consider a good shop vacuum, or better yet, a dust collection system. You can incorporate other devices to reduce the dust in your shop, such as downdraft tables and ambient air filtration units.
Make an investment in a few good personal protection and safety devices. A respirator is an absolute necessity for any woodworking operations that generate dust and fumes. Make sure the respirator you buy is designed for the types of airborne contaminants you will encounter. Sanding cutting, planing, routing are a few tasks that disperse a lot of wood dust into the air. A mask that protects against chemical vapors is a necessity for working with finishes. Hearing protection, in the form of ear plugs or ear muffs, will greatly reduce the effect of noise on your hearing. A pair of safety goggles or a face shield is necessary for protecting your eyes from flying dust and debris. A well-stocked first aid kit is always a good idea for all the little mishaps that may occur. Have a pair of tweezers in there -- you will no doubt be pulling out splinters from time to time. Don't forget a good fire extinguisher. Get one that will put out different kinds of fires -- a so-called "A-B-C" extinguisher. Purchase or make push sticks and push blocks to keep your hands a safe distance from the blade while feeding wood into machinery. Keep an empty gallon paint can with a tight-fitting lid for the disposal of oily and solvent-soaked rags to reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion.
Woodworking equipment and supplies:
Lumber. Get to know the kinds of woods you will be working with and their characteristics. Different species have different properties, and appearance alone should not be your only criterion. Machinability, ability to retain nails and screws, grain patterns, smoothness of finish, changes in dimension with humidity, and chemical interaction with metal hardware are but a few factors to be aware of. Think about how the item will be used. For example, if you are building outdoor patio furniture, a wood with good resistance to decay (durability) should be used. Understanding the physical properties of the different woods will help make your woodworking experiences more successful.
Sources of lumber. The seemingly obvious choice would be your local lumber yard or home center store. However, not all lumber dealers and stores carry a full selection of different types of lumber, particularly when it comes to hardwoods. These places tend to cater to building contractors and DIY home improvement customers. If they have hardwoods at all, it is typically milled dimensional boards and trim pieces of a few key species, such as birch and oak. A better source is a hardwood lumber dealer. These companies typically carry a broad range of hardwoods, and perhaps some softwoods as well. Many dealers carry exotic imported woods. The wood found at hardwood dealers may be rough-cut, requiring that the customer plane it smooth, and they may stock lumber that is planed on two or more sides. Unlike dimensional lumber, hardwood lumber is typically offered in varying widths and lengths. Hardwood is most often sawn into 1-inch thick (four quarters or "4/4") boards, though other thicknesses are sometimes available. The 1-inch thickness is nominal; in other words, the thickness of the plank when the wood is cut from the log at the saw mill. The drying process shrinks the wood somewhat, and after surface planing, the final dimension is further reduced to approximately 3/4" to 7/8" thick. But when you buy the lumber, you are still paying for 1-inch lumber. Hardwood lumber is sold in units of board feet. One board foot equals 144 cubic inches, based on the nominal thickness. Thus for example, a 4/4 board, 6" by 24" that has been planed to an actual thickness of 13/16" constitutes one board foot. The categorizing and grading of hardwood lumber is done much differently than for ordinary construction lumber. It's good to have a basic understanding of how this system works.
Shop supplies. Just when you thought you had invested enough for all the tools you needed, you find that you need supplies for your shop. There are countless devices, components, fasteners, etc., that you can equip your shop with. I'll touch on a few basic categories and let you discover them further.
Acquiring a bunch of bar clamps or pipe clamps, in varying lengths, would be a good start. You may also want to invest in several C-clamps, and perhaps a half-dozen spring clamps. There are many specialized clamps available for particular applications, such as corner clamps for clamping pieces oriented at right angles, or band clamps, designed for drawing in the sides of an odd-shaped object. And let us not forget good old handscrews, used for centuries by woodworkers to clamp non-parallel surfaces.
For further reading:
Before spending money on books, take a trip to your local library to see what they have. Below I have listed a few good woodworking books to help get you started, with their links to Amazon.
Arno, Jon, The Woodworkers Visual Handbook, ISBN 0762102268. If you are going to buy just one book to get started in woodworking, this is an excellent choice.
Spence, William P., and L. Duane Griffiths, Woodworking Basics, The Essential Benchtop Reference, ISBN 0806909412. Another excellent book for the novice.
Jackson, Albert, David Day and Simon Jennings, The Complete Manual of Woodworking, A Detailed Guide to Design, Techniques and Tools for the Beginner and Expert, ISBN 0679766111.
Flexner, Bob, Understanding Wood Finishing, How to Select and Apply the Right Finish, ISBN 0762101911.
DeChristoforo, R.J., The Complete Book of Wood Joinery, ISBN 0806999500.
Nagyszalanczy, Sandor, Setting Up Shop, The Practical Guide to Designing and Building Your Dream Shop, ISBN 1561585556.
Nagyszalanczy, Sandor, Woodshop Dust Control, A Complete Guide to Setting Up Your Own System, ISBN 1561584991.
Nagyszalanczy, Sandor, Woodshop Jigs & Fixtures, ISBN 1561580732.
Fine Woodworking, Shop Accessories You Can Build, ISBN 1561581186.
Cliffe, Roger, Table Saw Basics, ISBN 0806972165.
Spielman, Patrick, Router Basics, ISBN 080697222X.
Duginske, Mark, Band Saw Handbook, ISBN 0806963980.