Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Bodger's Guide To Woodworking

     I've had a few questions about the shelves -- tools, methods, materials.  There are people with a real knack for woodworking; my Dad was one.  He rarely used cutting guides other than a penciled line, rarely questioned a measurement, and drew up sketchy plans if any -- yet the end result was square, straight and true.  He'd had a lifetime of weekends working at it, he'd grown up in a family where slapping up a toolshed or treehouse was a casual activity and he knew what he was doing, how to do it and no tool was a mystery to him.

     Me, not so much.  I work things out on paper, having learned the hard way that it's costly to do so with lumber.  I spend a lot of time setting up for every cut, and always use a guide -- a nice straight piece of 2x2 and a few clamps can spare years (or dollars) of regret.

     Safety glasses and gloves are your friends.  Wood is not kind to your hands and you will find a good pair of gloves will make the work easier and faster -- no matter how tough you are.  (I should not need to lecture about eye protection.  You only have the one set.  Keep them safe.)

     I use power tools:
     - A sliding compound miter saw for most of the cutting, a gift that has made a huge improvement over a circular saw and guide: it is much simpler to get a square cut and a lot simpler to support the work.
     - A router to cut dados and rabbets.  This is possibly the most useful power tool I own.  They're not terribly expensive.  Using them is mostly a matter of measurement and getting to know what the thing can do.  (We're talking about an exposed, sharp cutter whirling at high RPMs: a guide makes the difference between a ruler-straight cut and a meandering trail -- or a chopped-up fingertip.)
     - Cordless drills to make holes and drive screws.  You can use a hand-cranked drill, a Yankee driver or a brace for this, and I often do, but for a big project, a battery drillmotor or two saves time and effort (in an Indiana August, they also reduce sweat).  I like Dewalt; I have one of theirs and a small Makita, plus an electric screwdriver and here's the trick: load each one up with one bit necessary for the job, so you're not constantly changing -- or buy a quick-change drill-driver set.  You need a couple of spare batteries; with a total of three, you'll be be able to have one in use, one charging and one ready to go.

     I use hand tools:
     - Buy good-quality drivers and use the right one.  Phillips drivers come in graded sizes from at least 000 (tiny) to 4 (big) and the rule is "fill it or kill it:" the driver tip should make full contact with the fastener recess.  "Anti-camout" or JAE (Japanese standard) Phillips drivers often work better.  Straight-blade drivers also need to be a good fit -- "hollow-ground" bits are best, and a set of "gunsmith" bits are an inexpensive addition to your tools.
     - Japanese-pattern hand saws cut quickly and cleanly (and on the pull stroke).  For most  work, you can't beat them.  One backsaw and one combination saw (rip and crosscut teeth on opposite sides) are almost essential.
     - You cannot own too many clamps.  Pipe and bar clamps are especially useful.

     I don't push myself: a project takes however long it takes.  When you get into "gotta get this done today" mode, you will try sloppy shortcuts, make mistakes, leave things out.  Don't do it.  Divide the job into a series of smaller jobs, and set achievable benchmarks: cut all the pieces one day, set them up for routing the next, and so on.  Elaborate set-ups that have to be taken down and reset should be avoided: I usually route both uprights in a single pass by clamping them side-by-side but I usually clamp them and then temporarily screw them to pieces of scrap wood, so the clamps can be removed and whole assembly can be stored as a unit if I need to knock off for the day (or even a week or two).

    Work to acceptable standards of accuracy -- and not beyond them.  Not sure how to explain this, but time spent measuring and setting up pays off in the finished work; time spent fiddling with the work once cut to make it "pretty" is generally wasted.  Get it close, plane it down, don't fret the small stuff.  Only you know how good is good enough for your application -- but stop yourself from chasing decimals.  Clean, square and straight covers a multitude of sins.

     Anyone can build "good enough" utility furniture.  The trick is taking the time to do the job right -- and that includes learning materials, techniques and technology, getting your ideas fully worked out before you head off to the lumberyard with a handful of cash, and not trying to rush the actual work.  There's no trick to it; all you need to do it take one -- and only one! -- step at a time.


Mark Philip Alger said...

On precision. Even using a Diablo blade (carbide-toothed, high tooth-count), and with clamped-on guides to the workpiece, I have found basic saw cuts to be a tad sloppy, so have developed the practice of using a bearing-guided straight bit in the router to fair cut edges. Doing this, I can get 1/32-1/64" out of a hand-held 7" circ saw on a Workmate as a bench.

You're dead right that the router is a most valuable tool. My router bag is the fullest of accessory kits. I also believe that spending for a top-quality router is worthwhile. I use a Bosch, but Craftsman, DeWalt and all the other name brands perform. I'd stay away from Harbor Freight for this one.

And love me some Japanese saws. Clean, quiet, precise, quick-cutting, THIN kerf...


aczarnowski said...

Nice run down.

After remodeling our previous house for 13 years we moved a lot of tools into our new place. One item I never had was a sliding compound miter saw; they just take up so much space. I got by with an antique Stanley, hand, miter saw my Dad found for me. Amazing tool considering its age. A serious downside is finding somebody that can still sharpen the tiny teeth on the saw.

In the new place I probably have the room, but not sure I have the projects to justify the purchase.

I'm a HUGE fan of impact drivers. If you need a cordless drill buy the set that includes the impact. I'll never drive a screw without one again.

Alien said...

+1 on the sliding compound miter saw; mine has saved my bacon too many times to count. I'd like it to have a 16" blade rather than a 12", but I seem to spend more time than most cutting 6X6 stock.

A router question: how much of an advantage do you think a router table offers over clamped-on guides? I'm debating a table with a dedicated 1/4" shaft router more or less permanently attached because I'm not happy with the accuracy I'm getting on guided cuts, and having a (sort of) dedicated tool to easily perform rabbets and dados (at least more easily than blade-swapping on a portable table saw) seems attractive.

Mark Philip Alger said...


I long for a router table periodically, but on actual cuts, rather than daydreaming -- about... never. To me, operating in-site with all hand tools and, as I say, a Workmate (well, 2) for a bench, I can't spare the floor space. If I had a dedicated shop, it would be a first buy/build to get a router table/bench saw combination.


Paul said...

Pretty good advice. I second the impact driver as that does not tear up screw heads as much and allows a smaller driver to work well above its weight class. I've got a little makita 10 volt impact that can drill in a bunch of 3" deck screws.

Jim Dunmyer said...

You can learn to sharpen your handsaw without a lot of trouble and expense. Saw sets and vises are available at flea markets, etc, and you use a standard 3-corner file.

Instructions are readily available, also, I have a book, "How to sharpen anything" that gives details.

aczarnowski said...

Learning how to sharpen hand saws is on the TODO list Jim. Good skill to have. Just like sharpening chain saw teeth.

But that Stanley back saw is clearly a few belts above my current standing. The teeth on it are tiny. Someday though.

As for routers, I'm glad I have a couple but I haven't fallen love with them yet. Probably because I was doing trim more than furniture. A 1/4" in a table sounds really light to me though.

Roberta X said...

I'm no expert on table routers. They fascinate me but for the kind of things I use a router on, I'd need a huge table and a lot of room to work: a typical "Bobbi shelf" is eight feet tall!

If you are doing edge moldings, routing grooves for door panels or drawer bottoms and similar work, a table router would seem to be the way to go. (For fine work I use a Dremel in a router adapter, which works well enough.)

Robert Fowler said...

I got a deal on a Milwaukee router with a 1/2" shaft. It's a beast.

I just built a small garden shed and used a truck topper for the roof. Built over a couple of days for less than $200.

Blackwing1 said...

Thanks for taking the time to put up a post just about this! I sent you an e-mail a few years ago with a picture of the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelf I put in our house, similar in materials (generic pine 1x12) but nowhere near as nice in construction technique.

I've never owned or used a router, but judging from your post and the comments, I guess it's time to buy one. It would be nice to build some better-quality shelving using mortised joints, rather than just butting them.

Again, thanks for being so generous with your time in responding to our comments.

LCB said...

I took a class from Lonnie Bird several years ago. I learned two big things from him.

1)He rarely uses "measurements" during his build. He'd cut the long sides of a bookcase at the same time, then cut the short sides at the same time. He'd join them with dove tails, then use a plane to make the joints flush. For this part of the build, close was good enough.

2)Use the existing shell to measure the shelves. In other words, lay the shelf across the carcass and mark the length by using the opening. Cut a tad long, then use a hand plan to shave the end until you get a snug fit.

This method applies to all furniture building, and was how craftsmen did it in the 19th century and earlier. Don't measure with a ruler when you can measure with what has already been built. That way if something you have already done is slightly off from your drawing you won't compound the error by cutting the rest of you plan to the drawing. Everything is measured to "fit".

Oh, and if you can't use the existing piece because the new piece is too large, use a story stick to measure, then transfer the measurement to the next build piece.

I hope I'm making sense. Would be easier to show than to explain.

Anonymous said...

Good hand planes are wonderful tools. I used to hate them because I started with a cheap one and expected it to come out of the package ready to use. Once I learned how to sharpen and adjust one properly, they became something I look forward to using. A decent block plane should be in every woodworker's box. The Veritas apron plane is a treat for fine work and/or small hands.

Anonymous said...

I'm a reformed cabinetmaker. Later I was an electronics tech, a machinist, & I'm now a calibration tech. I'm also the son of a damned good mechanic. I'm pretty screwed: I like precision, though I'm smart enough to not go overboard.
A router table is nice to have, & needn't take up a lot of space. I made mine from an old 36" vanity & scrap countertop. Sorry, Alien, but it won't save you any clamping. Unless you get one equivalent to a tablesaw, with fore & aft bars to which the fence locks, you'll be clamping. It's still an advantage for multiple pieces, 'cause you only need clamp the guide/fence once.
Another cheap & useful tool is a contractor's tablesaw, properly mounted (that's important). It's basically a light, small table with an upside-down Skil-type saw mounted. I won't try to cut 4x8' sheets on one, even bolted down, but they come in handy. Need to make a 1/8" x 7/8" trim strip? You can. I can do it with a Skil, or a rotatable radial-arm, but...
--Tennessee Budd