Woodworking. There’s nothing like seeing a few pieces of wood – flat, rectangular, unadorned – becoming a creation to be proud of. For thousands of years, it has drawn artisans to create for necessity and pleasure.
And there is nothing like the smell of newly sawn wood. Pine, oak, poplar, walnut, maple – they all have their distinctive smell.
The First Tentative Steps
I don’t remember the first project I built, but I’m sure it was quite simple. We all start that way. I do remember taking a woodworking class in high school where Mr. Irving Stiber taught us skills like planing a board, gluing and sanding.
I remember making a book holder – an interesting piece where the shelf was mounted to a single side piece. The shelf sat at an angle, thanks to a riser under the opposite end. Books stayed in place on the shelf courtesy of gravity.
I also well remember making a clipboard of alternating strips of different types of wood2. The pieces were edge-glued and then we had to hand-plane the surface flat and even. I thought back to that project years later as I acquired power tools to accomplish the same task easier and more accurately.
But from Mr. Stiber’s class, I was hooked. Woodworking has been a part of my life since.
Basic Woodworking Tools
If you are interested in starting in woodworking, there are a few tools you should invest in. For this discussion, I will assume we are talking about cabinetry – building shelves, cabinets, storage units, and other pieces that might be used in our homes. This category also includes smaller items such as bookends, clothes trees, and small storage boxes.
I will assume that you have already purchased basic hand tools such as a hammer, hand saw, a screwdriver set, a basic combination wrench set, pliers, a combination square, and a measuring tape. These items are essential for any type of woodworking and handy for many types of minor home repair that might be needed.
While it is possible to construct nice furniture using a basic hand saw – it was done that way for centuries – a power saw makes the process easier and more precise. It is also possible to build furniture using a circular saw, the handheld equivalent to the table saw. In fact, I once built a nice headboard for my bed using only a circular saw for cutting parts. However, it was a challenge.
Table saws come in a wide variety of styles – and costs. For the beginning woodworker, I recommend a table saw called a contractor’s saw. It is larger than a bench saw. As the name implies, the bench saw is quite portable and is attached to a workbench or table for use.
At the other end of the scale are cabinet saws. These are large saws with an enclosed cabinet, requiring dedicated floor space. Most often, these saws require a 220-volt power source.
Woodworking Contractor’s Saw
The contractor’s saw usually comes with a lightweight stand. Some models also come with wheels attached for ease of movement. And while most contractor’s saws use a 10-inch saw blade – a good choice for cabinetwork – they usually require only a standard 110-volt household current.
There are numerous manufacturers, but my recommendation are saws by Delta3. They are a good compromise between more expensive brands and cheap “discount-store” brands, which may lack accuracy and durability.
If you have a little extra money, move up to a contractor’s saw by DeWalt. These are the ‘Cadillacs’ of woodworking power tools and will reward the extra expense by long-lasting usability.
Personally, I have a Delta contractor’s saw similar to the one in the photograph. I’ve had it for more than 25 years and have used it to build every project shown in this article.
A good contractor’s saw will cost about $700. But if it is maintained, it will last for years.
Some beginning woodworkers opt for a circular saw, the handheld version of a table saw. While a circular saw can do many of a table saw’s tasks, accurate cuts are much more difficult to achieve.
Cordless Electric Drill
This almost ranks as a basic required tool for any application. In recent years, cordless drills have increased in power and reliability to the point where corded drills are unnecessary in most applications.
Because of the universal nature of the usefulness of a cordless drill, I recommend spending a little extra to buy a DeWalt drill. There are several sizes and options to choose from, but with the DeWalt name, you will likely get several years of use from your drill.
If price is a factor, my next recommendation are drills by Craftsman. Sears formerly carried this brand and the entire Craftsman line had a reputation for being fine products. Since Sears has moved away from their tool line and are rapidly closing stores, the Craftsman line has been acquired by Lowes.
I recently bought a Craftsman cordless drill from Lowes as a backup for my DeWalt. So far, I’ve been happy with it. A good cordless drill will cost about $100-$150.
In many projects, you will be gluing pieces of wood together. In order for a glue joint to hold together and look nice, the edges of the wood being glued have to be flat and square.
There are several power tools which help accomplish this, but the work can be done with a good hand plane.
There are several good models of hand planes similar to the photo. Stanley makes a good model although they can be a little expensive. The Kobalt brand from Lowes is reasonably priced and well constructed. The model shown is about $38.
Although many people put off the purchase of a router, it is invaluable for making decorative cuts in projects such as drawer fronts and picture frames.
With a straight cutting bit, a router can also do the work of a hand plane in squaring a board edge to the face of the board. However, a router by itself cannot make a board edge flat across its face so it can only do part of the job.
For my money, Porter Cable makes the best hand router. A model similar to the photo will cost about $100, although good quality bits can cost $20 or more. This is the one I have. Even though I now have another router mounted to a cabinet table, I still use my hand router on occasion.
Pocket Hole Jig
This is a recent addition to the ‘must-have’ tools for cabinetry. Traditional woodworking relied on dowel joinery or tongue-and-groove joinery to fasten boards at right angles. However, in recent years, pocket joinery has eclipsed these methods, particularly if one face is rarely seen. A picture frame or drawer front are good examples of joints where pocket hole joinery works well.
Kreg is the leading manufacturer of pocket hole joinery jigs, although there are a few other manufacturers. A basic jig like the one shown will cost about $40.
How Do I Know What To Build?
When starting out, it’s best to look for prepared project plans within your level of expertise. So where do you find project plans? There are numerous woodworking project plans available online. While there are a few sites that offer free plans, I haven’t found one that provides plans in much detail.
One of the best sites for plans is Woodsmith Plans. While their plans aren’t free, they are relatively inexpensive – $8.00 – $15.00. But I think they are well worth the expenditure. The plans from this site are comprehensive but easy to understand.
While I have accumulated enough experience to build many of my projects straight from a concept without using detailed plans, I still use them when the project depicted interests me.
Grow Your Woodworking Tool Inventory
As your expertise increases, you can add to your tool inventory to make the job easier. But keep in mind that woodworking, as with any other endeavor, isn’t about having the fanciest equipment. Rather it is about the artisan’s attention to detail and technique. Tools merely add a level of precision to what you already have learned to do.
After the basic tools I mentioned earlier, I suggest the following for purchase as your expertise grows.
Also called a chop saw, this tool is designed to cut precise angles in wood pieces. A good miter saw can be an immense help in constructing anything with corner joinery such as picture frames, drawer fronts, and cabinet doors.
Because precision is the name of the game here, I recommend getting the best you can afford. My first miter saw was a Delta, and I was happy with it for several years. However, when it came time to replace it, I found that the comparable model now had some serious deficiencies in the way the angled table locked into place. I wound up spending a little extra and buying a DeWalt. I haven’t regretted it.
This is the power equivalent of the hand plane. The joiner’s forte is making the edge of a board precisely square to the surface. In some cases, for narrower boards, it can also create a flat surface area.
However, in my opinion, there are better options. I have a joiner made by Delta, but it is a small table-top model, and I rarely use it.
Instead, I use a planer to get board surfaces smooth and, just as important, parallel with each other. For edging – getting the sides square to the surface – I use a router with a straight bit mounted on a table.
Next to a table saw, this is probably the most expensive tool you will buy. But I also use my planer quite regularly. As with other tools, I purchased a DeWalt brand, since I knew it would be getting a lot of use.
As previously mentioned, the planer is a great tool for making the surface area of a board flat and smooth. When you want to smooth both sides of a board, it will also do a great job of making sure the two surfaces are parallel.
I often use my planer to make thinner boards. Wood planks most often come in a nominal ¾ inch width. But in some cases, that is more than you want. With the planer, it is a simple matter to remove wood from a board’s surfaces until it reaches the thickness you want.
For example, for the mantle clock project listed below, I needed ½ inch thick walnut boards. But those are difficult to find – not to mention relatively expensive to purchase if you do find them. The solution was to purchase ¾ inch boards and plane them to ½ width.
But isn’t that wasteful? At first glance, yes. But if you can find ½ inch material – particularly in more exotic woods like walnut – you will be paying a premium because someone else has already done what you are going to do with your planer4.
The primary purpose of a drill press is to drill perfectly perpendicular holes in a wood surface. A cordless hand drill will accomplish the same thing, but it takes much more concentration to ensure that you are holding the drill perfectly perpendicular to the surface. However, this has become less important as biscuit joinery has supplanted dowel joinery for edge-gluing.
I have a benchtop drill press, which is mounted on a stand I built for it. While it doesn’t have the capacity to drill holes in very thick pieces of wood, I’ve found this setup entirely adequate for my projects.
If your projects include edge-gluing solid boards – as opposed to using plywood – for items like table tops, then a biscuit joiner is a good investment. This tool makes the job of reinforcing edge joints a breeze since wood biscuits are much more forgiving of minor variations that dowels.
My joiner is a Porter Cable brand and it has served me well for six or seven years.
Many people consider this a luxury item, but if you are seriously interested in cabinetry – even as a hobbyist – this can be one of your most useful tools. For example, it is almost impossible to make a raised panel door5 without a good router table.
It is possible to purchase a router table with the router unit built-in. However, for the average woodworker, I find these to be overkill – not to mention expensive. Conversely, you can find small benchtop router tables that hold your hand router upside down and bolted to a table. But many of these are little more than a rickety (and dangerous) attempt to address the issue.
There are a few models of table saw that have a space in the table extension to mount a router. Thus the saw table doubles as a router table, allowing you to use the table saw’s miter gauge with the router. I haven’t tried one of these but the concept seems reasonable.
Build Your Own
Fortunately, there are numerous plans available to help you build your own router table. Various designs can accommodate hand routers as simple as the basic Porter Cable that I recommended earlier in this article, all the way up to large, multi-horsepower models. I originally constructed my router table from a plan published by Norm Abram of The New Yankee Workshop.
In the 25 years since I first built the table, I’ve added my own improvements, including a larger and heavier tabletop. The original plan allowed dust collection below the router, but I wasn’t happy with Abram’s design’s access door. So I redesigned the dust collection area door and the collection port itself at the back of the chamber. The redesign allows better airflow for the dust collection through a vacuum hose connected at the chamber’s back.
I’ve also exchanged the shop-built fence from the original project plans for a commercial router table fence made by Incra. The commercial fence adds dust collection through the fence itself in addition to that collected in the chamber. The result is a surprisingly clean work area for the routing operation.
While I still have my original Porter Cable hand router and use it occasionally, the workhorse of my router table is a 3½ horsepower model – also by Porter Cable.
The router table is my third most used power tool, behind my table saw and planer.
Finally, I’d like to share some examples of projects I’ve worked on over the years. Keep in mind that I’ve had no formal woodworking training other than Irving Stiber’s woodshop class in my sophomore year in high school. But I have read numerous books and watched many videos. Most importantly, I’ve been willing to try, even when the outcome wasn’t fully successful.
Over the years, I’ve found it best to construct my own workshop cabinetry. Certainly, such cabinets and tables might be cheaper when purchased in a store or online, but I can design cabinets and tables to fit my needs.
I previously mentioned my router table. Here’s another example.
Flip-Top Tool Bench
At one time, I had a dedicated woodshop in my back yard. However, when I moved to my current house, the homeowner’s association would not allow the construction of a structure separate from the house, even if it was built of brick. Thus, I had to use my two-car garage as my workshop. But I firmly believe that garages should first and foremost be used to park cars. So I had to make some adjustments to the way I work.
One of those was to build one table which could house several tools all in one place. In my former shop, each of these had its own dedicated bench or stand.
I found an online plan for a flip-top tool bench and modified it slightly to accommodate my tools and how I wanted to use them. The result is that I have my planer, miter saw, lathe, joiner, spindle sander, and bench grinder all mounted on one table. The table has lockable wheels, which allow me to roll it to the side of my garage to make room for my cars but to provide a solid work surface for the tools.
This is one of the more outwardly simple woodworking projects I’ve undertaken but still had its own challenges. This was a replacement for a similar store-bought stool, which had seen better days. The metal legs were still in good shape, but the top had deteriorated.
I used the original table as a template for the size and design. The original had some simple lath strips glued across an opening to allow water to drain through. I decided I wanted to raise the design level a bit by making a lattice insert.
This proved to be a challenge, even though I had the necessary tools. The complications were the angles needed to make the insert fit the outer stool surface and where those angles fell on the latticework.
The result – built of oak – is still in my shower five years later.
When we repainted a guest bathroom, my wife wanted a shelf to display some knick-knacks. She had seen a shelf with a vertical section below it, which had wooden pegs extending to hang towels.
While we didn’t need towel hangers, I kept that part of the original concept as a decorative element – using crystal drawer pulls instead of simple wooden pegs. I also added an inset design element, a commercially made rosette piece.
Finally, I finished the shelf’s underside with decorative molding, which I painted with the same paint color we used for the bathroom walls to make the shelf feel part of the overall design.
As I mentioned, the plans for this clock came from Woodcraft. I really didn’t modify their design at all except for minor sizing, other than using walnut instead of oak for my main material.
The original design had an enameled butterfly tile in the lower section. I wanted to incorporate something more personal, so I chose ceramic coasters with a fleur-de-lis design – the symbol of my city of Louisville. I had to modify the plan’s dimensions slightly to accommodate the coaster, which was smaller than the tile specified in the original.
My wife loves quilts, and we have several. But for her favorite one, I wanted to do something special for her to display it.
So I designed a quilt hanger with a shelf surrounded by a spindle fence. I ordered the commercially made spindles specifically for this project. Since they are made of oak, my local home center didn’t carry them. But otherwise, the project was straight-forward.
I also made the rod that holds the quilt by rounding all but the end two-inches of a square length of oak. The rod is held in place by threaded screws attached to wooden drawer pulls. The squared ends of the rod help stabilize the attachment. This allows for easy removal of the quilt for cleaning.
Note the inlaid heart on the backboard of the shelf. If I were to do this project over, I would not have stained the heart with the same color as the rest of the project.
Sometimes, the home project isn’t furniture at all. In this case, our staircase from the main floor to the second floor was carpeted. We wanted to do away with the carpet, but the stair treads were simple pressed board. They didn’t need to be fancy in the original layout but wouldn’t do if they weren’t concealed by carpet.
The results were treads I made from oak planks. They are held in place by screws, and the screw heads are covered with flush-mounted walnut plugs.
The biggest challenge was molding the edges of the exposed treads at the bottom half of the staircase so that we weren’t looking at end grain wood.
This is one of my largest woodworking projects and one of my favorites. This project was entirely my own design and actually evolved as I was building it.
The size – a center section 55 inches wide and two 48 inch side sections – was dictated by the size of the room where we wanted it to rest. The entire project is built of solid red oak, except for the tops. Those are red oak plywood edged with solid boards.
All drawer fronts are raised panel design. The center was designed to be lower than the sides for aesthetic reasons.
The center section, which I built first, features an electronic component drawer with a removable front. This front piece, assembled with pocket screws, can be reconfigured to accommodate the necessary openings for whatever equipment I use. Currently, I am using my third iteration of the drawer front.
If you compare the photo below with the one above, you can see that the lower component on the left side below – a Blu-Ray player – has been replaced by a narrower unit in the upper photo. The drawer front has been reconfigured to accommodate it.
The left side consists of six drawers which are used to store various media.
The right side has space for my and my wife’s LP record collections at the bottom. The top left drawer actually conceals a turntable to play the vintage LPs.
Because it was constructed in three sections, the entertainment center can be disassembled if we need to move it. But it’s been in place for seven years and so far, we’re happy with the placement.
Have you tried your hand at woodworking? If so, I’d like to hear about your projects. Describe them in the comments section below. And if you’d like to send me a photo or two, you can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. I may feature them in a future article.
- Some people have extended their woodworking hobby into house-flipping. I haven’t taken that plunge, but I have done some basic remodeling in my house.
- My long-time friend, Greg Morgan, started a retirement business making cutting boards using this process. His business is called Red Shed Wood Works
- Throughout this article, I recommended several tool manufacturers by name. I am not affiliated with any of these manufacturers nor do I receive any compensation for naming their products. Recommendations are my own, based on my experience with the tools listed.
- For some projects, you can even go thinner. I’ve used a thin blade on my table saw to cut a ¾ inch board in half. I then used my planer to turn out perfect ¼ inch project boards.
- A raised panel door is a cabinet door with a center panel that is a little higher than the surrounding wood. Raised panel doors may have arches or square edges.