When you get started in woodworking there are many paths to follow, forks in the road, dead-ends and shortcuts. It's a journey that our forebears would make with the help of a living, breathing guide: a master, a grandfather, a shop teacher.
Sadly, the guides are fewer in number today. And so you are left with people like me to help. Like the making of meat byproducts, it's not a pretty sight. Getting your woodworking instruction from books, magazines, television and an occasional class is a slow way to learn a complex task. In fact, many woodworkers spend a long time (years!) Simply accumulating machines and tools before they ever build a single stick of furniture. And when they do begin to build, they inevitably discover that they actually need different machines and tools to make what they really want to make.
So they buy more tools and machines.
I want you to know something important that does not get said much: There is another way to begin building furniture. You do not need a table saw, a workbench or even a shop. You do not need to spend $ 1,000 to build your first birdhouse. You can go to the home center in the morning and build something in the garage on the same day.
I'm not talking about building junk, either. The difference between a nice-looking set of bookshelves and a rude assemblage of 2x4s is not a table saw. The difference is clarity, sound design and just a wee bit of patience.
To build nice furniture you need three things: A handful of decent tools that you will not outgrow, some help getting started and some realistic projects to build.
The core of "I Can Do That" is a free 79-page manual you can download at popularwoodworking.com/icandothat that will help you choose all your tools and introduce you to the skills you need to cut wood and put the pieces together. The other essential component – project plans – can be found on many woodworking websites.
Occasionally, we think you will outgrow this approach to construction as your skills improve. I bet you will want a table saw someday. And a drill press. And a smoothing plane. When that day comes, however, you will also have a house full of well-proportioned, well-built projects under your belt. You will be ready for those awesome tools, and the learning curve will be mercifully shorter.
If all this sounds like something that a bunch of idealists cooked up at a corporate strategy meeting, you're wrong. Although I had some carpentry training from my father and grandmother, I started building furniture on my back porch in Lexington KY, with a similar set of tools. Probably the only major difference is that I had a circular saw instead of a miter saw (at the time I did not know those implemented). I built a lot of stuff with my simple setup – some stuff we still have today and some stuff was long ago abandoned at the curve.
So this, dear readers, is a valid path.
My only regret in following it is that I wish that I had this manual (or a master woodworker) to make my journey easier.
Rules for Tools
I am not an emotional guy. I do not get nostalgic about high school, my first car or my first dog. I do not much hugs from family members at holiday gatherings. But I do have the deepest respect and affection for my tools. The care you give tools will gush read into the things you build with them. None of the tools in the kit we recommend should be disposable; if you take good care of them, they will last.
First, take a look at the list of tools in the box on the previous page. You probably have at least a few of these tools already, even if you're an apartment tenant. The reminder can all be bought at any home center with a minimal investment. But before you rush out and spend your beer money, take a moment to read about my tool-buying philosophy.
You want to be careful when buying tools because these tools should last most of your lifetime. You will not replace these tools with fancy machinery when your skills advance, so you do not want to buy the cheapest tools on display in the tool crib.
So what's wrong with that $ 39 jigsaw? Everything. Chances are the motor is underpowered, the bearings (if it even has bearings) are flimsy and the electronics are poorly insulated. Push the tool a little hard and it will – no lie – catch fire.
That said, you also want to avoid the tools that are loaded with lots of gizmos and features (with the price tag to match). In general, tools with lasers, bubble levels, wrist straps, micro-adjustable doo-dads and digital readouts are not necessary for accurate work. In fact, they might actually make life harder for you.
So I recommend you do two things. First, before you go shopping, visit toolseeker.com and browse around so you can see what brands and models are out there. Toolseeker.com also will help you figure out what to expect as far as price. Second, when you go shopping, seek out the brand-name tools, but choose a brand's stripped-down version of the tool.
Here's an example :: Let's say you want to buy a random-orbit sander, and you like the Porter-Cable brand. The company offers the 343 model for $ 69 and the 344 for $ 79. The more expensive model has variable speed. And while variable speed may sound helpful, it's not useful in a sander, really. Skip it and spend the $ 10 on wood, glue or finish.
This philosophy extends to blades, bits and wallpaper. Buy brand names. Nothing is more expensive than cheap sandpaper, bargain blades or no-name drill bits. But do not buy the fancy professional accessories with plastic cases and flashy graphics. Flashy graphics are provided to impress the guys on the job site. At home you will impress only the family dog.
Once you get your tools home, treat them like shards of the true cross. Never ever let your tools rust. Rust spreads like a cancer in ferrous materials (iron and steel) and can make your measuring and cutting tools difficult to use. There are a lot of products out there to prevent and remove rust, but the best thing going can not be found on the shelf: a small can of vigilance.
When you are done with a tool, wipe down the metal surfaces – especially the cutting surface – with a rag that has been soaked with WD-40. Always keep the rag nearby (mine is seven years old) and renew it with a squirt of WD-40 when it gets dry. Wiping your tool down does two things: First, it removes dust from the tool. Dust can carry salt. Salt contracts water. The combination of salt and moisture will start breaking down your iron and steel tools.
Second, the WD-40 helps prevent rust by forming a thin protective barrier, albeit one that must be constantly renewed to be effective. Other people will disparage WD-40 (I once did). Ignore them.
Another key component to the "I Can Do That" philosophy is that all the materials come from a home center. You do not have to buy your materials there, but you also do not have to trek out to some exotic hardwood supplier, learn the foreign language of lumber and spend a ridiculous sum on wood for a purpleheart planter box.
The truth is, you can build a lot of nice things with the run-of-the-mill (literally) lumber and plywood from a home center. You just have to learn how to shop for it.
Let's talk about home-center wood. In general, you are going to find lots of construction lumber – white pine, yellow pine, Douglas fir and perhaps hemlock. This is sold in thicknesses best for construction 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s and so on. There are times you are going to want to pick through this stuff, but when you do, you need to know that it is usually too wet to be used immediately for furniture. If you buy construction lumber, take it home, cross it to rough length and let it dry out for a couple weekends before you dive in. You'll be glad you did.
In addition to construction lumber, you'll find hardwoods and softwoods that are thinner and designed to be used for trimwork in a house and even furniture. This stuff has been planned to 3/4 "thick and is in convenient furniture-sized hunks.
Well, first off, this stuff is far more expensive than wood will be at an old-fashioned lumberyard – convenience costs, I tell you. And though it's quite expensive, the really flat and clear boards are just as overpriced as the warped, knotty and split ones.
So sort though the entire pile of wood when looking for boards. Yes, you might get dirty looks from the employees; but if you are going to pay $ 30 for a pine 1×12, then by God you should get the best one in the store. When you are done, re-assemble the store's wood pile so it is better than you found it.
What sort of furniture woods are you going to find at the home center? For the most part, lots of pine, red oak, poplar, and sometimes maple and aspen. You can build a lot of nice stuff using this wood, especially if you are willing to paint your projects (we will talk about finishing next).
Also, do not forget to visit the molding section of the home center. You can get away with a lot of store-bought molding when building furniture – you do not have to have a router. And the nice thing is that most stores sell the molding by the linear foot, so you can cut what you need right there (and get some practice with a handsaw.)
As far as fasteners go, let me put one little bug in your ear. The worst thing you can do is to buy screws and other fasteners in those little boxes and plastic bags. You know, the ones that have five wood screws in them. Those are, for the most part, made from soft metal and cost too much. If I have to buy screws at a home center, I will buy a box of 100 or more that are intended for home builders. Heck, I would buy drywall screws before I would buy the little plastic baggies.
And as far as glues go, you're in luck. Home centers have a great selection of glue. Just do not buy the no-name stuff. It might be great. It might not. The name brands (Titebond, Probond, Gorilla) do not cost much more.
When it comes to finishing materials you are in wonderful luck when it comes to shopping at a home center. If you know what to look for you can achieve almost any kind of finish you desire.
First, let me say a word about paint. Do not let other magazines or woodworkers bully you out of using paint. A lot of excellent and well-made furniture is painted (for example, virtually every Windsor chair ever made). Personally, I love paint on certain pieces. It allows the graphic lines of a project to really stand out. Paint allows you to easily get the color exactly like you want it. And it's a finish that is hard to mess up. In general, I find that latex semi-gloss paint works very well for furniture. It's durable, does not stink up the house like oil-based paint and is easy to clean up.
But what if you do not like paint? Again, you're in luck. Home centers carry a wide variety of stains. And here's a trick that you do not hear a lot: You can mix two (or three or more) stains to get the color you are looking for. Just be sure to mix oil-based stain with oil-based stain, and water-based with water-based.
And while we are talking stains, I recommend you avoid the products that both stain and protect your project. These "one-step" products are usually just stains with a little more binder material in them. They offer little protection to your project, and I do not think they look good, either.
Instead, you should protect your wood with some sort of film finish. In general, you are going to find three samples of products at the home center that will do this.
There will be Watco, Danish oil and tung oil. These usually are a blend of boiled linseed oil and varnish. It's OK stuff, but you need four or five coats to build up a nice film.
You'll find lots of polyurethane. In general, I think polyurethane is harder than necessary; plus, it does not bond well to itself. So sometimes a coat can flake off. If you use polyurethane, be sure to sand the finish thoroughly between coats with # 320-grit sandpaper or sanding sponges.
You'll also find varnish or spar varnish. This is the good stuff. It's a lot like polyurethane, except it's a bit softer and bonds more easily to itself. Buy a can of varnish and a can of paint thinner / mineral spirits (they are the same thing). Thin your varnish with three parts varnish and one part paint thinner and you can then apply a nice thin coat with a rag. After three coats or so, you'll build up a nice sheen. Just be sure to sand your finish between coats.
Finally, get some paste wax and some way to apply it. I like the fine synthetic steel wool, which is a gray pad. The gray pad will smooth your finish to the touch and the wax will give the whole project a nice consistent sheen.
Do not Forget Your Workmate
The last important piece of your toolkit is a Workmate. This is a portable workbench that you will never outgrow, even if you become obsessed with workbenches, build 10 of them and write a book about it.
The Workmate is one of the greatest woodworkingventions of the 20th century. It's a big vise, a worktable, a clamping surface, a stepstool. With a Workmate, you can work almost anywhere in the house or yard.
When you buy one, get the nicest one in the store (I know that this contradicts my earlier advice on tools). The plastic ones are not so nice. In fact, the best way to buy a Workmate it to pick up an old one from a garage sale. My Jimmy Carter-era one cost me $ 30 and even included the plastic dogs, which are great for holding panels.
Now Get to Work
Once you buy your tools, pick out a project and get your materials, you should go immediately into the project. No matter how daunting the joinery journey ahead, I promise you that most of the barriers in woodworking are mental. The first step is always the hardest, and that's true when it comes to cutting your first pocket-screw hole or sand-shading your first piece of inlay.
'I Can Do That' Tool List
The foundation of the "I Can Do That" approach is the small number of tools you need to build nice and sturdy furniture. Here's a list of the basic kit.
– 12 "combination square
– 16 'tape measure
– 10 "miter saw
– 7 1/4 "circular saw
– electric drill
– scratch awl and brad awl
– bastard-cut file
– file card
– palm-grip random-orbit sander
– block plane
– pocket-hole jig or a biscuit joiner
– 16 oz. hammer
– nail sets
– 4-in-1 screwdriver
– F-style clamps
by Jason L. Martin