What Should I Do?

Woodworking

Tuesday, January 18, 2011, 1:59 PM

I grew up in a house in rural central Wisconsin that didn’t have central air. My father started woodworking when he was a teenager in his parents’ basement. So after he moved out and got married, he started acquiring the tools for his own woodworking shop that resided in the basement. My father has been building furniture and cabinets for people for as long as I can remember. My mother is a wood carver who has won several awards at the International Woodcarver’s Congress. So to avoid the heat on those hot summer days, I headed down to the cool basement and there started on my woodworking education. 

My first project was a table that I built with my brother. I think the table lasted about a day before it fell apart. But with each woodworking project, I learned something (like you can’t just glue legs onto a table top and expect it to last). By the time I graduated high school, with some instruction by my father, I had built chess sets, furniture, models, candlesticks, and even semi-automatic rubber-band guns. After graduating college and moving to Minnesota, I started slowly buying tools for my own shop. Now I have a basement full of tools, ranging from hand tools to a CNC. Because my house now has central air, most of my winters are spent in the basement working on some woodworking project or another.  

I find woodworking to be one of the most challenging of my hobbies. There is so much to learn, ranging from properties of specific types of wood to the numerous types of joints. Woodworking also takes a lot of practice to get the cuts just right and the joints to fit perfectly. After woodworking for 29 years, I still have a lot to learn on the subject.

Wood

Wood, as everyone knows, comes from trees. But just because the tree has been cut down and the lumber had been dried doesn’t mean the wood stops changing. Wood movement is one of the most challenging parts of woodworking. When water from humid air is absorbed by the fibers in wood, they expand widthwise but not lengthwise. As boards dry and age, they can cup, crown, and warp. A large part of designing something made of wood is finding a way to account for these characteristics. 

United States domestic hardwoods expand and contract, on average, one quarter of an inch per every 12 inches of width from summer to winter, due to humidity changes. If you have hardwood floors in your home, you may have noticed gaps between the boards in winter but no gaps in summer; this is the reason. There is an old woodworking adage that addresses this: Build loose in winter and tight in summer. Large surfaces of wood, like doors and cabinets, are built using panels. The reason for this is that the panels sit in a groove in the stiles and rails with extra room so that the panel can expand without changing the outside dimensions of the door or cabinet. Table tops made of solid wood are usually constructed of small strips glued together to limit the effects of cupping and crowning. The tops are also attached to the base with some method, usually slots with screws, to allow for the expansion and contraction of the top.

When a log is cut into boards, there are two main methods used for lumber (veneer and plywood differ). The first and most common is called "flat sawn." With this method the log is basically sawn by slicing boards top to bottom. Picture tipping the end of the log up so it looks like a pie, then slice the pie as if you were slicing a loaf of bread. While flat sawing is quicker and there is less waste, the slices towards the top and the bottom of the log have a greater tendency to cup or crown. 

The second method of sawing lumber is called "quarter sawn." Quarter sawing is like taking the pie and cutting it in four quarters (instead of slicing it), taking each of those quarters and standing them up on the round side, and then cutting those quarter pieces into slices from top to bottom. With this method there is more waste, and it takes longer, but the resulting boards have little tendency to cup or crown. Quarter-sawn boards also are more likely to expand and contract in their thickness rather than in their width. Because of its superior properties, quarter-sawn lumber used to be a much more common when furniture was built to last a lifetime. Rough sawn lumber is usually sold in thicknesses based on quarters, and you will always want to buy a board one quarter inch thicker than the desired finished thickness. So a two-inch-thick board is sold as 8/4 (eight quarters) and will generally plane to a smooth board on both sides of 7/4.

Wood can be placed into one of four categories: hardwood, softwood, plywood, and particle board. Hardwood, with some exceptions, is wood from a tree that looses its leaves in winter. Some of the common hardwoods used for woodworking are oak, maple, ash, walnut, cherry, birch, and mahogany. 

Hardwoods are usually stronger and denser than softwoods; however, some softwoods are actually harder than some hardwoods. 

Softwood is wood that comes from a tree that retains its leaves/needles in winter. Some common examples of softwood used for woodworking are white pine, yellow pine, cedar, and red pine. Softwoods are fairly strong, but the wood is easily dented or marred. 

Plywood can be made up of either hardwood or softwood and consists of gluing together many thin layers of wood together. Plywood is actually dimensionally stable because the manufacturer glues the layers together with an alternating grain direction from lengthwise to widthwise with each layer. 

I tend to lump OSB, particle board, chip board, and melamine all together under the category of particle board. Basically all these consist of small pieces of wood or sawdust glued together to form a sheet. Particle board is extremely susceptible to water damage. Generally speaking, something built correctly out of particle board will last 20 years, while the same item built of plywood or softwood will last 50 years, and something built out of hardwood will outlast the builder and their descendants.

Wood is strong in the direction of the grain and weak against the grain. So if you take note of the items made of wood that you encounter, you’ll notice the grain is oriented so that it is in the direction of the longest dimension or where the most strength is needed. If the item is made out of plywood, the grain direction doesn’t matter, due to each layer alternating grain direction. Anyone in a martial art with experience attemping to break boards can most likely testify how big of a difference grain direction matters.

Fun fact: In mining, the Romans used to take wedges of wood and drive them into holes in rock and then soak the wood with water. The wood would swell and create a force great enough to crack the surrounding rock.

Types of Tools

There are thousands of different woodworking tools, but I’ll give a quick overview of some of the most popular tools. I lump tools in one of two groups: power tools and hand tools.

Power Tools

Table saw: The table saw is perhaps the most useful of all power tools in furniture building. A table saw can be used to rip boards to the width needed, cut a board to length, cut grooves or channels, cut tenons, cut angles, and even create cove molding. If you are just starting woodworking, and want to build furniture, this is the tool I recommend buying first.

Router: The router is the second most useful tool in furniture building. A router (with a router table) can be used to shape edges of boards, cut dovetails, create signs, duplicate a pattern, cut channels, and create interlocking joints. This is the second tool I’d recommend buying once you have a table saw.

Chop saw/miter saw/sliding miter saw/radial arm saw: These tools are used to cut boards to length with either a straight cut, angled cut, or compound angle cut. These are quite helpful for doing trim work, building a deck, or any other job that requires cutting boards to length. Almost anything a chop saw/miter saw can do, a table saw can also do.

Band saw: A band saw consists of a blade in a flexible loop (a "band," if you will) that revolves on two pulleys and goes through a cutting surface. A band saw is mainly used for two things: cutting curved shapes out of wood and resawing lumber. Resawing lumber is basically taking a board that is thicker that what is needed and slicing it into two or more thinner boards that can then be planed smooth.

Thickness planer: A planer is used to surface lumber. When you buy lumber, it usually either comes rough-sawn or surfaced. "Surfaced" has been planed smooth and "rough sawn" still needs to be planed. Surfaced lumber is usually a little bit more expensive than rough sawn because someone else is doing the planing work for you. Planers are also quite useful if you want to make a board be a thickness that isn’t commonly available, or if you want to smooth boards that you’ve glued together.

Lathe: A wood lathe is used to spin a piece of wood at a fairly fast rate so that chisels can be applied to create a round object. Lathes are commonly used to create table legs, wooden bowls, pens, candle sticks, or chess sets. Working on a lathe is an art form in itself, and some woodworkers concentrate solely on turning wood.

Scroll saw: A scroll saw consists of a small, straight blade mounted between the ends of a fork that alternates moving up and down quite quickly. Scroll saws are used for cutting very intricate patterns in thin pieces of wood. The scroll saw was invented in 1874 and its impact is seen quite often in the woodworking of the Victorian era, where fretwork and gingerbread cutouts were quite popular.

Drill press: A drill press is simply a drill mounted to a carriage that can be raised and lowered over a table. The drill press allows for much straighter holes than using a freehand drill, as well as drilling holes to a specified depth. Attachments such as sanding drums add to the drill press’ versatility.

Planer joiner: A planer joiner is mainly used to create straight edges on the sides of boards. It can also be used to surface narrow boards.

Some other popular power tools include drum sanders, palm sanders, belt sanders, mortisers, CNCs, jig saws, and circular saws.

Hand Tools

For every power tool there is probably 10 to 100 times more hand tools. To replace the variety of work that a router can do, it would take hundreds of specialty planes, several saws, and numerous chisels. However, some hand tools can do things that no power tool can replicate, and they still have a place in a modern woodworking shop. There are so many hand tools that I’m just going to take time to mention one. 

Chisels: Of all my tools my chisels are by far my favorite. Chisels are used to simply cut small chips of wood, but they allow the wood worker to sculpt almost anything out of wood. If you plan on carving a fair amount, chisels are one thing you won’t want to skimp on when it comes to quality.

Note on Tool Quality

When starting any new hobby, most people don’t want to spend a lot of money on it until they know it is something they will enjoy doing. When it comes to woodworking, I would recommend buying quality tools the first time. Low-quality tools will take a lot of the enjoyment out of woodworking and sometimes are dangerous. If you buy quality tools, take care of them, and then find out that you don’t enjoy woodworking, you can often recoup 75-90% of their "new" value by selling them used. Poor-quality tools often fetch very little on the used market.

How do you know that you’re buying a quality tool? When it comes to something like a table saw, some things to look for are a cast-iron top, a table surface that is big enough to rip 36” wide, and enclosed fan motor, and a reputable brand name. Actually, a quick and simple check to see if cast iron is used as a surface in things like a drill press, band saw, table saw, and the bed of a lathe is a pretty good indication that the tool is of some quality. Some manufacturers try to cut costs by using aluminum or thin steel tops, which have a tendency to bend, warp, crack, and catch. The "in vogue" thing in tools now are granite tops. Personally, I’m not sold on them yet; while they do provide a nice stable smooth surface, I have concerns about them cracking and chipping.

A couple of tool manufactures I would recommend checking out (and that I have no affiliation with whatsoever) are as follows. 

  • Dewalt: They make nice tools; however, sometimes they may be overpriced for what they are.
  • Rigid: Rigid is owned by Emmerson, who used to make Craftsman brand tools for Sears. After they parted ways, Emmerson created the Rigid line for Home Depot.
  • Porter Cable: Porter Cable is pretty much the industry standard when it comes to routers. When you look to buy accessories for a router, almost every single manufacturer offers an option for Porter Cable.
  • Solingen, Germany: Not a manufacturer but a place… Some of the most wonderful steel is created in Solingen. Whenever I buy a knife or a chisel, I don’t pay too much attention to the manufacturer, but more to where the steel is made. The steel they make is a perfect balance of hardness and sharpness. I am able to get my chisels and knives sharp enough to literally split human hairs. 

Safety

When it comes to woodworking, safety is extremely important. I’m sure almost everyone knows a friend-of-a-friend or a shop teacher, who has lost some body part due to a woodworking accident. I have been woodworking for 29 years now and some tools still scare the hell out of me. I think it is healthy to have a slight fear of the tools you are working on, because it helps to keep you alert to what you are doing. I’ve had pieces of wood come flying off the table saw and hit me with enough force to cause bleeding or stick in the wall behind me. I’ve had a router go flying out of the piece of wood I was routing and come close to taking a chunk out of my leg. Safety glasses are a requirement when working with power tools and even some hand tools. Read all of the tool manuals before using them, and take note of the safety precautions.

Each tool has its own safety requirements that you need to learn before working on it. For example, the table saw has the following rules that must be followed: 

  • Never use both the miter gauge and the rip fence at the same time. This can cause binding and the piece of wood will come flying back in your face. 
  • Never rip a board that is wider than it is long; this can also cause binding and you better duck. 
  • Never use the miter gauge for a board that is longer than it is wide. 
  • Always have the blade raised just high enough to cut through the wood you are working with. Having the blade higher than necessary not only increases the amount of blade that is exposed but it changes the angle that the blade is entering the wood and can cause it to flip the board upwards (I know of someone who lost three fingers due to this).

Where to Start

Woodworking is a pretty vast topic, and where to start is partly determined by what you want to start with. There are three general categories that woodworking can be lumped into: furniture building, wood carving, and turning.

Furniture Building

Furniture building takes the greatest amounts of tools and money to get started if you plan to do woodworking at home. A good place to start before spending money on setting up a shop is to look for some introductory woodworking courses at a local technical college or community center. The classes will teach safe woodworking techniques and help you determine whether it is a hobby you will enjoy. Magazines and websites such as Popular Woodworking (www.popularwoodworking.com) and Fine Woodworking (www.finewoodworking.com) provide instructions and plans for simple to complex wood projects. Furniture building tools are readily available at stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot, and Sears, as well as specialty woodworking stores and catalogs such as Rockler.

Wood Carving

Wood carving is a bit easier to get started with than furniture, but it also takes a lot of skill and practice to become really good at it. A lot of communities have wood carving clubs that are open for the public to join. These clubs usually have a number of experienced carvers that are willing to help others who are less experienced get started. A good magazine and website for wood carving is Wood Carving Illustrated. Wood carving books, chisels, and knives are usually only available through catalogs, online, or at specialty shops.

Turning

Getting started in wood turning at home requires the purchase of a lathe and a set of turning chisels.  Wood turning chisels differ from wood carving chisels. A good place to get started wood turning is with the help of a club. Wood Turning Online provides a list of clubs based off of your location. The website also provides a forum, projects, books, and DVDs. Wood lathes and chisels can usually be found at Lowes, Home Depot, and Sears as well as specialty woodworking stores such as Rockler. 


This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by CM.com readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our Input on the What Should I Do? Series feedback forum.

If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:

This series is a companion to this site's free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the CM.com staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.  

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12 Comments

JRB's picture
JRB
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: May 17 2009
Posts: 149
Re: Woodworking

Very nice overview. 

One additional comment on table saws.  The quality of the rip fence is one of the most important factors in good, safe work.  I have a $300 fence I added to my $400 saw.  It is the best wood working investment I have ever made.  Could have started with a $1000 saw, but couldn't afford it at the time.  Maybe some day...

If you get the Woodsmith Shop show on PBS, I find they generally do a good job of describing basic procedures. 

http://www.woodsmithshop.com/schedule/

A fun source of manual techniques, with a good many online episodes is Roy Underhill's Woodwright Shop.

http://www.pbs.org/woodwrightsshop/

- Jim

mobius's picture
mobius
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Posts: 152
Re: Woodworking

A very good and timely post!  I enjoyed very much reading it.

Poet's picture
Poet
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 21 2009
Posts: 1840
Re: Woodworking

Wow, I've never worked wood, but this was just a pleasure to read. I can tell you have written this with the same thoughtful attention to detail that you employ when working with wood.

I was particularly struck by what you said: "...Something built correctly out of particle board will last 20 years, the same item built of plywood or softwood will last 50 years, and something built out of hardwood will outlast the builder and their descendants."

Where along that continuum would you place the quality of solids with veneer, or the quality of the solid wood with glue furniture coming out of IKEA and other furniture stores these days?

Also, do you have anything to add regarding stains, paint, etc? Especially when to use it or why?

I was a little confused about quarter sawn versus flat sawn, but I did a Google search and found a visual explanation.

quarter-sawn.jpg

Poet

bklement's picture
bklement
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Joined: Jan 26 2009
Posts: 108
Re: Woodworking

Thank you.

Veneered solid wood is a bit trickier.  It depends on where the veneer is and if the edges are protected.  What can happen is that if the edge is unprotected and it is on a piece of furniture that is used quite a bit like a table or desk, the veneer eventually is chipped or snagged and it starts to crack and peel around the edge.  If the edge is protected it is still can be dented through the veneer if something hits it right.  Usually if the piece is built right it will last a long time but it may or may not look as good as it once did.

The issue I see with a lot of the IKEA and like furniture is not what it is made of but how its constructed.  Their furniture is designed to fit in the smallest box possible for shipping over seas.  Where there should be joints like a mortise tenon instead you'll find screws or a butt joint with glue.  Beech (which is the one solid wood I see mostly in furniture from IKEA, Target, and Walmart) is a very strong and hard wood.  The joints, screws, pins, etc will usually be the first thing that fails in that kind of furniture.

As far as finishes go, that could be an article in itself.  My quick personal preference is that I never paint wood unless its pine, its for use outside, or if its a restore that had veneer and I had to sand it down.  Stains are mainly used to color wood (make a light oak a dark brown or red).  Stains provide a little protection because of the oil in it but not much.  Polyurethane is a popular protectant that changes the color of the wood very little but gives it a protective coating and it can be applied over a stain.  Tung oil (one of my personal favorites) is a oil that hardens and gives the wood a bit of depth and protection.  Tung oil is applied to the wood with a rag or towel, let it sit for 5 or 10 minutes and then wipe off the excess.  After waiting around 24 hours rub with steel wool to get rid of any bumps or imperfections and repeat until you get the gloss, or depth of finish desired.  Laquer is another wood protectant.  It can be clear or tinted.  Laquer can be very difficult to work with.  Shellac is an protectant finish that gives wood a reddish tint.  It is actually made from bugs.  Shellac was a popular finish before the invention of polyurethane.

That is a very helpful picture (rather than my pie analogy Smile)

bklement's picture
bklement
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
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Posts: 108
Re: Woodworking

Here's an example of some very old veneer.  I found this piano on craigslist for $50.  The ad just had a very small image that said piano $50.  I looked at it and recognized it as a Bush and Gerts piano from the turn of the century so I went to look at it.  The piano had been painted to try and look like black walnut.  I picked it up and brought home, stripped it, fixed the action, and painted the small clay pieces and then laquered it. 

The piano is made out of solid maple with the exception of two veneered panels (the flat area around the 3 panels on the top face, and the flat area around the panel on the bottom face).  Everything is fine on the piano (after 113 years.. it was built in 1898) except the veneer is cracked on the top face between the center panel and the right panel.  You can see it better in this picture.

sevenmmm's picture
sevenmmm
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Posts: 108
Re: Woodworking

The piano is beautiful. Good find and great work. Smile

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
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Posts: 44
Re: Woodworking

Thanks very much for this bklement.  I wish I knew a fraction of what you clearly know about woodworking--my skills never advanced beyond puttering around.

Let me second  what you said about both the usefulness and the danger of a table saw.  A moment of carelessness with a table saw once sent me to the emergency room for stitches in my thumb. And I've seen stuck wood get shot back with amazing speed, too.  It might have killed me, I think, if it had hit me.    

Woodman's picture
Woodman
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Posts: 1025
Re: Woodworking

Thanks for sharing this article.  I think anyone can benifit from improving woodworking skills from increased understanding of how things are built as well as accomplishing more resiliency and frugality while having a higher quality life.  That's what I got from working on my family's traditional wooden boats growing up.  The best way to learn is by doing.

Fancy expensive power tools accomplish professional work today with less skill, but very good results can be achieved with basic high quality hand tools at a lower cost and lower energy use with practice.  Most of my hand planes (e.g. Stanely or Baily) and saws (Disston) are 50 - 100 years old and seem to have better quality steel for resharpening etc. than you can buy today.  My tablesaw, jointer, planer, etc. are old cast iron stuff from the 1950's by Craftsman back when they made better stuff than today.

The chicken coops shown in the earlier article I wrote I built with only basic tools and skills and spent about $200 in materials.  To buy a similar coop all built might be over $1000, so I save a lot plus got a better product at the expense of my time doing something fun anyway.

thecabana's picture
thecabana
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Joined: Feb 8 2010
Posts: 1
Re: Woodworking

bklement,

Excellent post on woodworking basics. Re: tool purchases, I started cheap and learned my lesson. Cheap, underpowered tools are dangerous and less fulfilling to work with. Plus, the total cost escalates when having to upgrade.

A great point made about using bandsaws to slice chunks of wood into veneer. Provides a way to use highly expensive, exotic woods in a more cost efficient manner. Not as challenging as it seems with the right set-up. Again, the appropriate tools are key. My Laguna bandsaw and Laguna Resaw King blade are excellent (no affiliation). Allows me to source very expensive and rare hardwoods, on our trips to Maui, ship them back, and turn them into cost effective veneers for adhering onto inexpensive plywood.

Small scale woodworking is a good place to get started, e.g., turning, jewelry boxes, etc. I'm combining my woodworking hobby with a little income potential by making burial urns for cremations. Cremations are escalating at a furious pace among the populace as burial plots are getting prohibitively expensive. A business that I've been "dying" to get into. :-)

Recently moved to the little N. Cal town of Paradise, right next door to Chico. Need to get rid of a huge collection of woodworking magazines, including a vintage collection of Fine Woodworking. Can't find a local trade school, club or college to donate them to. Don't want to contribute to the local land-fill.

They are free for the taking or, swapping for figured wood.

For those just starting in woodworking, join a local woodworking club with lots of members that are old. Cheapest way to benefit from centuries of experience

Bytesmiths's picture
Bytesmiths
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Joined: Apr 29 2008
Posts: 103
Re: Woodworking

Certainly true if you do a lot of ripping, but I'd argue that a high-quality mitre gauge is vital if you do much beyond ripping. I added a $200 Rockler mitre gauge to my $300 chinese Delta copy, and it's made a HUGE difference! The first thing I did was "face" it with a nice piece of oak, adjustable with slot-head bolts, so I can sacrifice the end periodically to have an exact edge.

If you're doing repeat work, it may be worth-while to make your own fixed mitre gauge. I made one specifically for quick, repeatable 45 degree cuts for picture frame moulding, with a stop and blade guard so you don't accidentally "push through" the fence.

Bytesmiths's picture
Bytesmiths
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 29 2008
Posts: 103
Re: Woodworking

From a sustainability perspective, I'd add linseed oil to your list of finishes.

Linseed oil can be produced locally throughout most of North America, unlike the others, that either use petroleum distillates or that come from tropical lands.

Linseed will "burn" your wood and darken it, which may be desirable if you were going to stain it anyway, or that may be distressing if you had a nice bit of blonde maple or pear that you wanted to stay light!

bklement's picture
bklement
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 26 2009
Posts: 108
Re: Woodworking

Good point, I forgot linseed on my list.  Iuse it frequently, especially for restoration work.

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