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, 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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:
- A Case Study in Creating Community (SagerXX)
- Peak Certainty, Food Resilience, and Aquaponics (Farmer Brown)
- Creating Healthy Snacks from Your Garden (EndGamePlayer)
- The Essential Gardening and Food Resilience Library (Old Hippie)
- Installing A Solar Energy System (rhare)
- The Keys to Transitioning Healthcare: Empowerment, Education, & Prevention (suziegruber)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers – Part 1 (Cycle9)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers – Part 2 (Cycle9)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 – Fire Starting (Aaron Moyer)
- Raising Your Own Chickens (Woodman)
- Dealing With a Reluctant Partner (Becca Martenson)
- Making the Urban-to-Rural Transition (joemanc)
- Prepping on a Shoestring (Amanda)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 – Water (Aaron Moyer)
- Small-Scale Beekeeping (apismellifera)
- Making Soap (maceves)
- Woodworking (bklement)
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.