Woodworker's Central
Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 4/3/98

So You Want to be a Woodworker: by Rick Fox

Welcome to Woodworking!

You have just embarked on a lifetime journey of happiness, joy, peace, satisfaction, and complete and utter frustration. Since I have accumulated literally weeks of experience since the latter part of the 1990's, it is only fitting that I should be willing to give back to the trade something in return. Namely, tips.

Chapter #1 - Set Up

One of the first decisions you must make as a new woodworker is how many tools you can afford. The more, the better. Don't be preoccupied with worrying about what the tools will be used for. Remember: you are only a beginner - how could you possibly know at this early stage?

While you are considering how much you can spend on tools, it is best not to involve any other members of the household on such an important decision. After all, YOU are the one who has the ambition to create beautiful works of art from dead trees, so you should make all the purchasing decisions.

Once you have come to a conclusion on the total amount of money available, proceed to the next step: "What can I sell?" With a little looking around the house, you will find many things that at one time seemed to be worth a considerable amount of money to you, but now have gone unused for days. Like the kitchen range. You do have a microwave, right? How often do you cook nachos in the oven, for crying out loud? Get rid of it. After all, life is a matter of priorities.

I will leave the rest of this step up to you. Just walk around the house examining everything you see. Can you justify owning that? If another family member gives you a quizzical look while you are considering the value of, say, a toilet, just make up an excuse quickly - like, "Oh, I was just admiring the plumbing, Honey." She'll probably just shake her head, roll her eyes, and mutter something like, "It's been sitting there for eight years, and he just noticed it"

After gathering all your funds together, it is very important to buy the tools you will need all at once. Otherwise, considerable objections from people less interested in beauty than you will hinder any additional purchases. When you get home from the tool store or woodworking show with all your tools still in boxes, you will understand one of the true joys of woodworking - buying cool stuff.

Chapter #2 - Getting Started

Now on to your first "project". Since I happen to have completed mine, I consider myself to be totally qualified to give advice on yours. Don't be concerned that you have blown your total budget on tools. All you need now is wood, anyhow. How expensive could that be? Answer: "Do you really need two cars?"

Unfortunately, the syndicate who owns all the trees also knows how desperate you are to actually build something with all those tools you just bought, and has jacked the prices up to just below that of a new Jaguar. But don't be discouraged. Most woodworking project plans can be customized to use common, everyday pine two-by-fours. The prices on these are actually less than a used Toyota.

When selecting your quality lumber, be sure to pick up each piece, examine it carefully, look down it from both ends, sigh, shake your head, and put it back on the stack. If any other woodworkers are in the area, this will quickly establish you as a discerning craftsman. Then just walk around the lumber area until they have left, and then go back and grab the few that are only moderately twisted. If there aren't any left, just buy a sheet of particle board.

I suggest that your first project should be a workbench. Since you are the only one who will be using it, you won't have to listen to other members of the family make snide remarks about its aesthetic value. Like, "Is it OK if we hide whatever that thing is when company comes?"

The only problem with building a workbench is that you need a workbench to build it on. Don't worry - once again I have an important tip for you. Write this one down: "The Dining Room Table". Chances are, there are a bunch of useless items cluttering up what could be a suitable substitute for a workbench. Silly flowers, frilly place mats, coasters, etc. These all can be removed while you are working, and then replaced before she retur... um, I mean when you are finished. (Tip: always use a depth stop on your drill bits.)

After cutting out the pieces for your project, be sure to rout the corners off everything. No self-respecting woodworker would allow a 90-degree corner on a piece of wood. You did buy a router, didn't you? And a roundover bit? That one tool, above all others, is what separates true craftsmen from just "wannabes". (If you didn't buy a router in chapter one, don't fret. Just ask yourself, "Do I really NEED that gas grill?

Chapter #3 - Assembly

This is the step where you realize that you didn't label all the little parts you cut out. So, in order to not look like a fool in the presence of your family, just announce, "Hey, everybody! Let's see who can solve this puzzle I made in the shop!" The trick here is to immediately distract everybody as soon as the project gets assembled correctly. Like, "Oh my God!!! The house is on fire!! Everybody outside - Quick!!" Then, while they are running and screaming, grab your air nailer and nail everything together. Excuse me? What do you mean you didn't buy... Oh, never mind.

On the other hand, if nobody in your family (or any of the neighbors, either) can figure out what the thing is, be sure to console them and say, "What a bunch of idiots! - I guess I'll have to make the next puzzle a little easier".

Now, some people will tell you that beautiful woodworking projects shouldn't be assembled with an air nailer. There are even some fanatics out there who say you shouldn't even use nails. HAH! Isn't that a riot?

If anyone asks you if you are going to use dovetails, avoid that person at all costs. Dovetailing is a method of joinery that is only used by traveling magicians who set up booths at trade shows. They use sleight-of-hand to create marvelous patterns of multiple dovetailed corners, and then try to get you to buy a $400 jig that will allow you to do the same thing at home. Right. And if you buy a brush and some paint, you can also paint the Mona Lisa on your deck.

Chapter #4 - Sanding

Now that you have cut your wood, rounded off all the edges, and blasted it all together, it is time for the work to begin. Yes, it is SANDING time. You did buy a sander, didn't you? Do I have to tell you everything???

The artistic use of a sander will quickly advance the status of your project from mediocre to average. Sanding by hand is extremely limited, and is recommended only for sissies who are afraid of taking a risk. Real Men will throw caution to the wind and use the loudest, buzziest machine that they can hang onto. With a sander, you not only can make wood "almost as rough as it was before", but in tight spaces you can use the vibrating action of its frame as a tool to cut little dotted lines onto the nearby surfaces. Try doing THAT with just sandpaper. (Besides, if your project doesn't have little signature beauty marks that cause passersby to ooh and aah, you are a miserable failure anyway. Where would Cindy Crawford be without her mole? Flipping hotcakes down at the Awful House, that's where!)

The sanding stage of your project is very important. It is the one step that allows you to Christen your workshop. Until now, all you had was a collection of tools, but after sanding, you will notice that everything in your shop looks different. There is a light tan shade to all you can see, and all you cannot see. Now you have a REAL workshop. (Sanding should not be attempted in the dining room, since there is not enough time to clean up when she com... umm... I mean when you are through.)

Chapter #5 - Finishing

Congratulations! You have just finished the drudgery portion of your first project, and you can now proceed to the final step: ruining it. Actually, among experienced woodworkers like myself, we refer to this as "Wood Finishing".

Wood finishing is a complex art, and as such, it should never be attempted by the beginner. But, since this is only a workbench, we will proceed as if we didn't know any better.

There are two steps to finishing:

1. Making the wood a blotchy mottled brown, known as "staining", and

2. Giving it a shiny, bubbly, coarse texture, often called "polyurethaning".

Staining the wood is rather enjoyable, since there is no way to screw it up while you are putting it on - splash it, dunk it, spray it - it doesn't matter. Just wait a while, and then wipe it off. From my experience, it seems to improve the appearance of the piece if you don't let it set overnight before wiping it off.

Proceeding on to the polyurethane stage, it's just the opposite. Instead of there being no way to screw it up, there is no way to get it right. So don't try. The people who make polyurethane have designed it to have a mind of its own to give experienced woodworkers a challenge, which will only overwhelm pathetic untrained beginners like yourself (no offense). "Poly", as we in the trade call it, will go on evenly, smooth and slick - while you are watching. Once you turn your back , it changes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, and destroys your project. Beautiful, even coats turn to sags and runs, and that smooth texture is now like 12-grit sandpaper. But don't let it worry you. It was designed that way. It builds character, and helps you to grow into a skilled artisan that others will look up to, and tell their children, "Son, if you apply yourself, maybe you can grow up to be like that someday" Women will crowd around you, asking for autographs; heads of state will travel around the globe to umm... where was I? Sorry, I must have dozed off.

So there you have it. Woodworking isn't that complicated after all. And it doesn't cost nearly as much as some hobbies, like diamond collecting. Best of all, YOU can learn how to do it. Just be sure to keep your eyes open for new tools that you can't possibly do without.

Good luck, and don't hesitate to call.

Rick Fox

Copyright 1998. All rights reversed. No one under 17 admitted. No animals were harmed in the production of this document. Not responsible for injuries or damages even if it's my fault. No reproduction without consent. Violators will be persecuted. Prosecutors will be violated. RF

Back to the Gazette

Contact Us
We encourage all our visitors to send us
their thoughts, suggestions and complaints.