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Wood Finishes Guide for Beginners

​There are lots and lots of different wood finishes to choose from. For the most part what looks good is subjective. Some people prefer a more natural finish whilst others like a dark wood stain on wood that has been smoothed and sanded to perfection.

There’s something to be said for creating with your hands. Our fingertips, after all, have an amazing number of nerves and sensors, allowing us to feel even the slightest imperfection in a surface.

Go to an arts and crafts show, or an antiques mall, or a furniture store, close your eyes, and run your hand over a piece of woodwork. Is it smooth as silk? Fine as glass? Or do you feel small scratches and bumps?

Granted, not all woodwork necessarily merits the time spent on the finest finish you can muster, but for those occasions when you want it, you’ll be happy you learned how.

Keep in mind, this is an article for beginning woodworkers, as well as intermediate woodworkers looking to improve their skills. There are much more advanced techniques involving scrapers, various compounds and generally a great deal more time involved.

wood finish

Why choose a wood finish instead of leaving the surface raw? Finishes protect the wood; over time, changes in humidity shrink and swell the wood, but finishes can help lessen this effect.

You've bought all the tools; saws, workbenches, clamps and sanders​. You've learned the different types of wood jointing techniques and have learned how to measure and cut wood with great accuracy. The finishing touches are the ones that you'll actually see and getting it wrong at the last hurdle may haunt you forever.

A durable finish will keep your piece looking as you intended. Imagine spilling a glass of wine on a table you built lovingly by hand. If you finish it with a nice, durable protective surface, there’s nothing to worry about. However, if you left the wood natural, you now have a permanent purple blemish in the middle of your work.

Untreated wood acts like a sponge. Wood finishes are often used to show off the characteristics and grain patterns of that wood. Stains and oils will often complement and enhance the look of different species of wood.

The Science of Sanding

As a quick note on safety, rosewood and many other species can cause lung irritation and even greater medical problems if their sanding dust is inhaled. When in doubt, wear respiratory protection.

Eye protection is important as well, especially when dealing with a palm sander; the air vents will always find a way to blow dust in your eyes. Whether sanding completely by hand, or with a palm or random orbit sander, start with a coarse grit and work through stages.

Every project needing a smooth finish should have at least three or four different grits used. The number designations for sandpaper stand for the approximate number of abrasive particles per square inch; the more particles, the finer the grit. In the majority of cases, a progression of 80, 160, 240, or any numbers in those general groupings should suffice.

One other option is using sanding sponges, available in a variety of grits. These are best left for projects with curves, or where it’s okay if the edges get slightly rounded. Two of the most commonly used materials from which sandpapers are made are aluminum oxide and garnet, although there are many others out there.

Sand with the grain of the wood – although this may seem like commonsense, any amount of sanding done across the grain is going to leave scratches when the finish is applied. Think about how you want the finished product to turn out – are the edges meant to be crisp and sharp, or do you want to relieve the corners a bit? Is the item meant to look brand new, or is it going to have some “distressing”? (This is the subject for another article.)

Use a sanding block behind your paper when sanding flat surfaces. This can be a commercially available sanding block, or something as simple as a scrap of wood – the purpose is to press the paper evenly into the surface.

Check your sandpaper once in a while. It will eventually “clog” with sanding dust and be less effective. Slap the paper against your hand or a workbench to remove some of the sanding dust. If too much of the abrasive seems to have worn away, get a fresh piece.

Work your way up through the grits. The coarsest paper is for removing material, saw marks and tooling marks; intermediate grits remove scratches and sanding marks from the previous operations; the finer sandpaper will put a near-finish smoothness on the surface of the wood.

I say near-finish, because we still have a final step in the sanding process. Using a spray bottle of plain water, mist the entire surface of the work-piece. It doesn’t need to be saturated, just enough to get the surface wet to the touch.

Let the piece completely dry, and then run your hand over it. It’s rough again! All that careful work for nothing, right? Wrong. The water swells and raises the wood’s grain slightly, and when you use the fine grit paper on it again now, it will knock down the raised grain. This can be repeated more than once if necessary before finishing.

Just think how upset you’d be if you had painted or stained without doing the final grain raising with water! Take your time, do it right, and you’ll be pleased with the results. Now, we’re ready to move to the next phase of the process.

​Wood Finishes

​Entire volumes could be – and have been – written regarding specific types of finishes. In this case, without going into brand names, I’ll discuss a few of the most general types of wood finish available at almost any home center. Afterward, we’ll take a more in-depth look at how to actually apply these products to your work piece.

As stated above, we need to take a moment to regard safety precautions. Most acrylic paints these days contain few, if any, VOCs and harmful fumes. On the other hand, many other products, either oil-based,or with certain drying agents, can put off dangerous fumes. Please pay attention to all safety advisories on the products’ containers, including using in well-ventilated areas, with supplementary respiratory protection

Wet Process Wood Finishes – The Products

Paints are available in a range of surface types, from matte and eggshell, to the semi-gloss and full gloss. This is strictly a personal preference based on your project. For purposes of this writing, we are going to stick with latex/acrylic paints, as they are water-based, with a much faster drying and curing time.

Oil-based paints, while great in some applications, have generally a longer drying time, often are filled with volatile chemicals (VOCs), and require some sort of solvent such as mineral spirits for cleanup.

cabinet finishes

Stains and dyes are transparent colorants that allow the grain to show though and enhance the look of the wood, but offer no protection to the surface. They come in a wide variety of shades and tints, and even in vivid colors. Generally speaking, the more coats of stain applied, the deeper the tone. Depending on the manufacturer, these products have varying degrees of VOCs and solvents. Since they are not wood preservatives, stains and dyes must be used in combination with some form of surface protectant, a couple of which will be discussed below.

Polyurethanes, both oil-based and water-based are widely known as excellent wood protectants. Since the water-based variety is slightly less tolerant to high extremities of heat, it shouldn’t be used in applications where it might have hot dishes or mugs placed on it. Both types are versatile in their uses, and can even be applied over paint as an additional preservative. Keep in mind that polyurethane will lend a slight amber hue to most woods, as well as to lighter colors of paint.

Varnishes are essentially resins dissolved in a liquid, and form a hard,durable surface when cured. One of the most common types of this product, known as spar varnish, is perfect for outdoor projects, especially in locations around water.

Stain/Protectant combinations are very common today, and afford the user a bit faster finish, since there is no need to apply the sealer, then the stain,and then two or three coats of wood preservative. One of the most common of these combinations is stain mixed with polyurethane.

There are two major types of oil finishes I will mention at the moment, since oil is somewhat more difficult to work with. Tung oil and boiled linseed oil are both traditional means of preserving wood, but take some practice in getting used to their application. Be sure to use boiled linseed oil, as raw linseed oil will take weeks to fully cure.

There are many products sold as “wiping varnishes” that are in reality an oil mixed with different metallic dryers or other agents. Again, use a sample board for practice.

Laying it Down

First, it is advisable to start with a coat of sanding sealer. In painted applications, this primes the wood, and helps make the paint adhere better to the surface.

With oil-based wood finishes, sanding sealer helps provide more even absorption of the finish solution, preventing blotches and uneven coloration. This is a common problem with many species of wood, including pine and cherry.

With all finishes, it is best to make a test board, a sample piece made out of the same material, sanded with the same grits of sandpaper.

The rule of thumb for applying the finish product is to use slow, even strokes of the brush, keeping a wet edge at all times. If the edge of the last strip applied by brush is allowed to dry out even partially, it could leave small ridges in the finished surface where the brush strokes overlap.

Brushing too quickly can cause more air bubbles. While it is normal to see some bubbles in the wet finish, it is better to stir oil-based products, especially varnish, instead of shaking them.

Staining wooden surface

Allow the first coat to dry completely, then go over it with ultra-fine sandpaper, or better yet, 0000 grade steel wool. This will help to smooth out any bubbles or imperfections. Be careful not to sand too deeply, nor get down to bare wood. A second coat should suffice on most surfaces. Buildup of too many coats may cause the loss of detail in some woodworking projects.

Wet Wood Finishes – A Note about Brushes

The generally accepted convention is to use synthetic (usually nylon) bristle brushes when using acrylic paints and finishes.

Natural bristle (also called China bristle) brushes are best when applying oil-based wood finishes, including oil-based paints.

The best advice when learning how to use a new finish is to test, test, test. Take a few pieces of sample wood. Sand them with different grades of sand paper until you find what works best. 

Then apply the finish. For the different pieces of test wood apply a different number of coats. Apply sealer to some and not to others. And sand in between coats and not others.

This experimentation means that any mistakes you make will not be on your finished project only on a few pieces of off cut wood.

When you find what you like then start the same process on the least visible part of your project. See how it looks and then if you like it continue on to the rest of it.

Over time you will learn how to get the best wood finish for each scenario. By experimenting like this you can greatly speed up your learning process and reduce the amount of mistakes on your projects as you finish them.​

Now that we’ve figured out the mysteries to a good wood finish, what are you going to build next? Challenge yourself to improve your skills, and really pull out all the stops on that finish. If you don’t love the results, sand it down a little and keep on trying.

Types of Wood for Woodworking

Visit your local home improvement store – let alone a specialty lumberyard – and there are so many types of wood for woodworking, it’s enough to intimidate the beginning woodworker.

Questions start popping into your head, such as,
“What kind of wood would be better to make a …?”,
or “I wonder what that wood looks like when it’s stained?”
Frankly, it can be a little overwhelming without some guidance. The bottom line is, none of these woods is necessarily better or worse than the others; it matters mainly what you intend to make or do with the wood.

Let’s consider six of the most common, most popular species based on the type of projects they’re best suited for. Keep in mind, this isn’t a definitive list, but more a set of guidelines to get you started in the right direction.

Our list, in this case, goes from least expensive to most expensive types. Typically speaking, when buying thicker pieces, such as stock for table legs, the more expensive the piece will be.

Wood sold by specialty lumberyards (not generally in home centers) is priced by the board foot. One board foot equals 1 inch X 12 inches X 12 inches. Hypothetically speaking, this means a less expensive wood such as pine might be sold at $1.00 per board foot, while a more expensive hardwood like oak might go for $2.00 per board foot.

Now, let’s look at the wood types themselves:

Wood Types

Pine ($)

pine wood

There are well over 100 species of pine, some of the most common in woodworking being white, yellow, and ponderosa. It is a fairly soft wood, although yellow pine is slightly more durable.

Unless you’re paying for “clear pine”, the wood will have a proportionate number of knots, depending on the grade. On the extreme side, this is known as “knotty pine”. While these knots can have a certain design appeal, especially for rustic looking projects such as folk art and furniture, they do make the wood somewhat weaker. You’ll want to stay away from using highly knot-filled woods for anything structural.

Pine is a great wood for making boxes, toys, cabinets and furniture and as such is a good for woodworking for beginners. It can be carved, but tools need to be kept very sharp, especially when cutting across the grain to avoid tear-out. Is easily cut using any basic hand saw.

Poplar/ Tulip Poplar ($$)

poplar wood

This wood is on the softer end of the scale as hardwoods go, but is beautiful to work with. It may be streaked in color, with purples, browns, and greens in the heartwood. Of course, this coloration is a matter of personal preference; many people finish the wood, depending on the project. Since it is a particularly stable wood, it is often used as secondary material in furniture. It works well for drawer sides and glides, structural members, and internal bracing in furniture where more expensive wood is used for the exterior.

Oak ($$$)

oak wood

While there are many varieties of oak, the most common in woodworking are red and white, having a relatively straight, tight grain . Red oak is a popular choice among woodworkers for furniture, architectural trim work, and cabinetry. White oak is also used in furniture building, but is somewhat less available, and therefore more expensive.

It’s one of the most prevalent types of wood that was showcased in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century; white oak is still commonly used in boat building and outdoor furniture due to its greater resistance to moisture.

Maple ($$$$)

maple wood

This wood is generally referred to in terms of hard or soft, although both are harder than many of the types of wood commercially available to woodworkers. Since both have typically long, straight grains, they tend to be very strong.

This wood is perfect for anything from cabinet facings, to musical instruments and cutting boards, and is even the wood of choice for basketball courts! There are many secondary varieties, which are truly just aesthetic variants occurring in nature. Among these are quilted maple, flame maple, bird’s eye maple, and spalted maple.

Cherry ($$$$$)

cherry wood

While not usually as hard as maple, cherry is one of the more popular woods for fine woodworking and furniture building. It generally has a tight grain and is good for carving.

This wood lends a good, classic look to any project, takes finishes and stains well, and develops a very nice patina with age. Since this wood tends to be higher in demand, it can be somewhat more expensive than other woods.

Mahogany/Honduras Mahogany ($$$$$$)

mahogany wood

This is one of the world-class species for fine woodworking, good for carving and shaping with fine details. It takes finishes well, particularly oil, and is highly weather resistant. Look at many of the antiques on the market today, and you’ll see its widespread use.

The beauty and durability of mahogany was demonstrated by boat builders such as Chris-Craft and Hacker in the early 20th century. There are several biologically related species referred to as mahogany. These other species are, in fact, less dense, meaning they’re more susceptible to rot if used in outdoor applications. It’s unfortunate that this wood is becoming more and more scarce due to the lack of sustainable farming.

​Others

There are thousands of species of trees worldwide: coloration, pattern, desired hardness (or softness) are just a few of the considerations. Keep in mind that with more exotic woods, any restrictions placed on harvesting, sustainability in farming, cost of shipping internationally, and other factors affecting scarcity can drive up the cost.

Woods such as cocobolo, wenge, bubinga, zebrawood, purpleheart, sapele, and others can add great interest to your projects as accent woods even when purchased in small amounts.There are a multitude of woods available for virtually any project, it just depends on what you want to do. Beech for example can be used a biscuits for use with a biscuit joiner.

These are just some of the more popular species, and by no means a complete list. Don’t let cost be your only deciding factor when making a selection. By doing a little exploring, you can find the perfect wood for what you want to make. Now get out there, ask questions, and start building!

Woodworking for Beginners

​Woodworking for beginners just starting out can be an overwhelming experience. There are many techniques and tools to learn. You probably have many questions such as;  When do you use a coping saw versus a fret saw? What type of wood should I buy for my project?

Where do you start:

The simple answer is start simple.......​ and build from there. 

There is nothing more satisfying in life than making something with your own hands and the project becomes an instant success. This is exactly what happens when a complete newbie uses easy woodworking projects to create something he or she is passionate about.

The feeling of accomplishing something is really uplifting and hard to replace. This is one of the top reasons why woodworking is so popular worldwide.

In fact, the great thing about learning woodworking is that you don't have to be a professional carpenter to start building objects out of wood. You are able to find many simple projects and plans online for free. This article will highlight some important points about woodworking.

The internet has a plethora of free woodworking projects which are quite straightforward and simple to follow. Even the complete newbie is able to follow these step-by-step instructions with detailed diagrams and blueprints in place. Most of the plans would include instructional videos in order to explain how to perform each step in the woodworking plan. This is why there is so much of interest today with regards to these free woodworking projects online.

Woodworking for beginners

An inexperienced woodworker should always choose an easy design to start with. Any project that gets you started no matter how basic will teach you something.

Even the simplest project will get you started in improving your skills on:

  • Measurement​
  • Cutting accurately and cleanly
  • Joining
  • Sanding
  • Wood Finishing
woodworking birdhouse

A birdhouse is one of the easiest jobs for a complete newbie. It will not have elaborate blueprints which would confuse a beginner that is working with wood. A basic design is enough to create a sound birdhouse which would not fall apart during the harsh weather conditions in winter.

Once you have completed such a simple job, you may have the confidence instilled in going for much bigger ones.

The satisfaction you get from making a birdhouse and watching the birds in your garden flock to it is quite enormous. You would no doubt derive immense fulfillment from such an exercise. Whenever there are visitors to the garden, you can proudly showcase the birdhouse as one of your own creation.

There are many websites which would teach you how to build simple woodworking projects step by step. Most of these projects are listed for free while some projects would charge a nominal fee for some of the advanced woodworking projects. It is completely worthwhile even if you have to pay a nominal fee for such projects.

Woodworking will definitely help to enhance your creativity in leaps and bounds. It is great for anyone looking for a hobby which involves creativity, dedication and work. Your time would be used in a fruitful manner when you take on woodworking as a hobby or professional career.

Some of the simple designs for a complete beginner would include letter holders, magazine racks, and kitchen odds and ends. These items are quite basic in design and extremely easy to follow. There would be detailed step-by-step instructions with diagrams and videos for the convenience of the student. Most of these woodworking projects are offered for free on the internet.

All in all, there are numerous easy woodworking projects for the complete beginner listed on the internet without cost. Just doing a quick search will give you what you need. Always remember that even for a beginner, working with wood is attainable with practice and some basic tools.

Woodworking is a hobby enjoyed by men and women, both young and old. This is a hobby that takes years of experience to perfect. However, that does not mean woodworking novices cannot have a good time with it. Here are some helpful woodworking tips that can help you improve the quality of your projects.

Plan

When you are working with a project plan, always read over your plan from start to finish before you start on it. You want to know what the project entails so there will be no surprises. Make a list of supplies and assemble them before you start. That way, you will not have to interrupt your project because you ran out of something in the middle.

​Measure

Before you cut, always take your measurements twice. The second measurement is a way to check the accuracy of your first measurement. When you are cutting a wood piece, there is no room for errors. One wrong cut can ruin the piece and make you start all over again. Always follow the old adage, measure twice, cut once.

​Keep Work Area Clean

Always keep your work area clean and tidy. Each tool should have its own storage space. When your tools are organized, you will not waste time looking for something that you need. Leaving tools lying around can be a hazard because you can trip over them.

woodworking bench

Clean and organized woodworking bench

Do not allow saw dust and debris to accumulate on the floor because that can make you slip and fall. Do some clean up and straightening up during your project, and give your workshop a thorough clean up after you are done.

​Wood Storage

Store your wood pieces in a dry area. Prevent sunlight from directly hitting them. Wood has a tendency to warp if exposed to a humid environment or extreme temperatures. Store the pieces flat on the ground or work bench instead of on their edges to minimize warping.

​Safety

Always take safety precautions when you are working with hand or machine tools. Wear protective goggles to prevent injury from flying debris. Wear ear protection when operating woodworking machinery because those tools can be very loud. Avoid wearing loose clothing because the excess fabric can get caught in the machinery and cause you injury. Wear sturdy shoes with thick soles that will protect your feet from falling objects or sharp nails.

Organize a library of your favorite ideas and advice and have those at your disposal at all times. A simple binder with index tabs is usually sufficient. Keep this binder in your work area so you can have easy access to it.

Always clean your tools after you have used them. Blades may need to be sharpened conditioned with oil to keep them from rusting. Machinery should be oiled to keep them running smoothly. When you spend time in taking care of your tools, you will get better results in your projects.

By learning and applying great woodworking tips to your projects, you can perfect your skills and become a master woodworker. Even for the masters, the learning does not stop. There is always something new to learn, which makes this hobby such a sustainable pastime for woodworking enthusiasts.

Woodworking Tools for Beginners

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this article, you have an interest in woodworking. You might even have some questions;

  • “What do I need to get started?”
  • “What are the first tools I need to begin woodworking?”
  • “There are so many quality levels and varieties of tools out there, do I need to spend a boat-load of money?”

Lay down your fears, and let’s take a look at some of the basics. The purpose of this article is to examine some of the simplest tools. That is to say, woodworking hand tools for beginners. You’ll soon see that if you’re able to acquire this set of tools, either all at once or piece-by-piece, you could build a substantial number of projects and fix most things around the house, including many appliances if necessary.

Some of these aren’t strictly woodworking tools, but they are most definitely valuable in the home shop for making adjustments to tools, carrying out repairs, and finding solutions. The definition of a hand tool in its plainest terms is a device powered by the user. It doesn’t have a plug or batteries, but is guided, adjusted, and animated by the person holding it.

As you progress you can start to buy more power tools to help speed up your projects.​

woodworking tools list

The list below is divided into categories of tools, and a price range given for each. It is not within the scope of this article to search out every possible source for tools (nor am I endorsing any particular seller), but simply to give a general idea of what you might expect to pay for something.

One more word about quality: It isn’t always necessary to buy the most expensive to get the best quality. A good rule of thumb is to buy what you can afford now, and add to your collection and upgrade over time as you go. I will say that if you have the means, it might be beneficial to spend slightly more when buying saws, chisels, and planes, as these are somewhat more specialized.

Before getting into the specifics of the tools themselves, I need to mention considerations for safety. Always follow the instructions included with the tools, and wear hearing, eye, and in many cases, respiratory protection.

Woodworking Tools List​

Below you will find a list of woodworking tools for the beginner carpenter. The list is by no means exhaustive ​nor are they all required. The best advice is just buy each tool as your projects require them.

Measuring/Laying Out/Marking

  1. Tape measure $6.00 – $25.00
  2. Folding Rule $6.00 – $12.00
  3. Framing Square $8.00 – $15.00
  4. Combination Square or Speed Square $10.00 – $15.00
  5. Sliding Bevel $10.00 – $15.00
  6. Torpedo Level $5.00 – $9.00

Estimated subtotal for measuring/laying out/marking = $45 to $90

Cutting

  1. Chisels either metal end for use with a hammer, or plastic/wood-butt for use with a mallet. Can be found in many places in a set with 1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″ $30.00 – $140.00+ (on up to several hundred dollars)
  2. Hand rip saw (for sawing with the grain) $14.00 – $100.00+9.
  3. Hand cross-cut saw (for cutting across the grain) $14.00 – $100.00+10.
  4. Coping saw $8.00 – $20.0011.
  5. Back saw/dovetail saw $12.00 – $40.0012.
  6. Miter box/miter saw $15.00 – $60.0013.
  7. Sharpening stone combination with coarse/fine grains, oil $18.00 – $70.00+14.
  8. Utility knife, such as a lock-blade, with replaceable blades $8.00

Estimated subtotal for cutting = $120.00 to $540.00

Joining/Fastening

  1. Claw hammer, typically around 16 oz. $12.00 – $30.00
  2. Set of 3 nail set punches $3.00 – $7.00
  3. Hand drill – these can be difficult to find sometimes, and are not meant for extensive drilling; they are mainly for making pilot-holes, so a nail or screw doesn’t split the wood. $15.00 – $40.00
  4. Screwdrivers, at least two sizes of each in slotted and Phillips head, generally come in sets $9.00 – $30.00+

Estimated subtotal for joining/fastening= $40.00 to $105.00

Finishing

  1. Block/bench plane $12.00 – $125.00+ (on up to several hundred dollars)
  2. Set of rasps and files, various profiles $18.00 – $45.00
  3. Sanding block, various grits sandpaper (80, 120, 220) $15.00 – $30.00

Estimated subtotal for finishing = $45.00 to $175.00

Adjustments/Repairs/Other

  1. Clamps, either C-clamps (2-inch, 3-inch, 4-inch, 6-inch, 8-inch), squeeze clamps, Bar Clamp, or a combination, at least two pairs $50.00 – $150.00
  2. Small socket set or set of wrenches, in both metric and standard units (These days, it seems nothing is uniform.) $20.00 – $50.00
  3. Pliers – combination set of slip-joint, needle nose, and channel locks $25.00

Estimated subtotal for adjustments/repairs/other = $95.00 to $225.00

ESTIMATED TOTAL RANGE FOR ALL SECTIONS = $345.00 to $1136.00

As you can see, there is quite the range of costs from one end of the spectrum to the other, but there is generally something to fit most budgets. Don’t let this scare you. As I said before, there’s no rule that you have to pick all these tools up at once – buy them piece-meal if need be.

Woodworking for beginners in the internet age is a lot easier than pre-internet. There are countless websites and video's displaying the essential basic woodworking skills needed ​that are required to build a solid base. Armed with just a handful of the above tools you can make a start straight away.

Figure out a project you might like to try, and see what tools you’ll need first. Now, what are you waiting for?