[estimated reading time 35 minutes]
there is a traditional phrase in buddhist teaching that usually gets translated to english as “beginner’s mind” — an openness to new ideas and willingness to approach every moment as if it’s a new, unfamiliar experience and start there. this is both excellent advice for life and dramatically impractical — it is this dichotomy that makes buddhist teachings difficult for many to grasp at first but so revolutionary and impactful when they finally click — the idea isn’t to forget your experience or suppress your past but to fully accept that there are things in your past that make you think how you do but to take a new situation at face-value, calmly breathe and work through it, not simply act automatically but allowing yourself to be guided both by your wisdom in the moment and your past experience to guide that wisdom.
as with any craft, woodworking relies on this mixture of openness and experiential practice to be done well. actually, woodworking is the oldest of all crafts. i’m not sure if you’ve ever thought of this but it’s quite significant when you put your mind to it and allow the thought to penetrate. woodworking is the only craft that predates our solidification as genetic humans more than three-hundred-thousand years ago. you are engaging in a practice that is potentially millions of years old, continuing an evolutionary experience that is older than our species. if that doesn’t make you feel something, you’re probably deader than your lumber. why do i say this? our closest relatives in the animal world, other large primates, intentionally create tools from trees. they break, chew and combine wooden parts to make their food easier to gather and prepare to eat and to engage in other daily tasks. as humans became agriculturally-advanced about sixty-five-thousand years ago, we started to create tools to work the land and were already building shelters. the only materials available were stone and wood — wood being the easier of the two to work and frequently the only sensible choice. the first craft almost every human culture regardless of location has developed at its inception has been woodworking. there is traditional woodworking craft in mesoamerica and africa, on pacific islands, across asia and europe, even in the asian and north-american arctic tundra where wood is sparse but people walked literal thousands of kilometers in their lives, bringing it back with them because it was such a fundamental part of surviving as humans. i know this is a pretty distant tangent but it’s sometimes good to reflect on the fact that we’re not just the continuation of a european tradition of the last few hundred years (horny planes, joinery benches and the evolution of the metal plane) or an asian one of a couple of thousand (everyone loves a good torii in the garden).
what i want to look at today, though, is something that requires a lot of introspection and, perhaps, some admission. what are the typical mistakes i see beginners make? this is a topic i’ve wanted to discuss for a long time and it’s something i often tackle in individual situations or classrooms but it’s not one i’ve really written much about and there’s a good reason for that. as soon as i talk about a mistake, it makes me sound like i’m being judgmental — “you’re making this mistake and you should be ashamed of yourself!” — and that couldn’t be any more distant from the truth. so i want to preface this by saying most of these mistakes are things i’ve also done and there’s absolutely no shame in making errors. we’re humans — we can’t be perfect and as much as we try we’ll never get there. we may someday be master craftspeople, though i’m not sure i’ll ever achieve that. what i can do, though, and what i feel is my purpose in these distributed lessons is to help people avoid errors whenever possible without causing them any shame or embarrassment. believe me, we have far too much of those in our lives already. so if these are things you’ve done, join the club — i’m guilty of most. if they’re things you might do and will now avoid, even better. let’s go with that.
1 not being careful
i think the absolutely-most-common error woodworkers make, especially beginners but not restricted to only those of us new to the craft, is not being careful enough. actually, i think this is pretty generalized in daily life. but specifically in the area of woodworking this manifests itself in two ways — lack of attention to detail and lack of safety precautions. the first causes bad results. the second causes bad days at emergency.
attention to detail
this isn’t about safety (i’ll get to that in a minute) but results and design. there is a frightening (ok, aesthetically-frightening) tendency, especially in beginners, to ignore the details. is this process going to lead to gaps in my joint? what can i do about it? don’t just cut the thing and deal with the problems later. that just leads to disappointment in the work and annoyance at lack of skill development and learning. if you let yourself keep making mistakes you’ll never stop making them. make mistakes. then learn to anticipate and prevent them. keep cutting slightly skewed? assume it’ll happen — don’t just hope for the best.
so let’s think about the details that are typically ignored.
if you can’t cut straight with a saw every time, you’re not alone. nobody can. seriously, nobody. if you talk to someone and they say “yeah, i can cut a straight line”, they’re lying. they can definitely do it sometimes. but they can’t do it every time. i can’t. you can’t. nobody can. we’re humans and we don’t do perfect without exception. if that’s your standard, you’re living in a fantasy-world. but there are ways to guarantee straight, accurate lines. you can using a saw-guide. you can use a saw-mount (i hate using these things but they definitely work but they’re so annoying to set up!). you can saw a few millimeters away from the line without a guide, knowing you’re going to ignore the saw’s results and use a chisel. but you’re not going to saw guaranteed-straight lines every time.
why not? because body mechanics don’t work that way. inhuman accuracy is called “inhuman” for a reason. we have variation in our movements, even with extensive practice. how often does a professional cut an out-of-square line? not often. let’s say maybe 1 or 2%. what does that really mean, though?
in a project like a chest of drawers, for example, you might have five drawers and an outer case piece and a faceframe. let’s do the math. for each drawer, if you’re using traditional construction, you probably need to cut 3 or 4 (let’s assume four cause it’s probably a large peice) dovetails on each corner of each drawer. tails and pins. each tail requires 2 cuts. each drawer requires 16 tails. there are 5 drawers. that doesn’t count the cuts to remove the waste if you’re using a fretsaw. we’re already up to 320 (16 tails + 16 pins x 2 cuts x 5 drawers). wait a second, though. you had to cut the drawer pieces to length. so that’s another 8 cuts for each drawer (four pieces) meaning 40 for the piece (assuming you planed the tops and bottoms of the faces and we don’t need to count those). that’s 360 in our running count. your case pieces — we’ll assume they’re solid, though they might be glueups, leading to far more cuts — only need 8 to get them to length. and each piece probably has a few dovetails (let’s just say 8 because that’s fairly reasonable for a large piece) so that’s 8 tails, 8 pins, 2 cuts each, 4 boards (128), taking our total to 488. i won’t get into all the internal components like dividers and drawer runners but let’s assume there’s a faceframe and that’s got integral tenons. you’ll cut the mortises with a chisel but each piece needs a tenon on each end with 4 cuts. so that’s 2 sides of 4 cuts on 8 pieces (top, bottom, 4 between the drawers, 2 sides) plus each piece being cut to length (2 more cuts for each) — 80. our total is now 568 saw cuts for this one piece. and that ignores dividers, runners, feet, back-supports, bracing stretchers, etc. ok, let’s assume you’re a serious master and you only screw up straight on 2% of your cuts. which i don’t think is reasonable. but what is that? you’ve just made 11 mistakes. eleven. and you’ve only made one chest of drawers.
what’s the moral of this story? you won’t make it perfectly if you do it freehand. and i suspect you’re not counting in 98% accuracy. i’m certainly not. i’d be happy with 90% and i don’t know if i’d even expect that without a guide. maybe. hard to predict. but i can get 100% accuracy with a guide and that’s what i’ll do. every time.
there’s no need to go into the details on this like i just did for sawing because it’s the same. errors are cumulative and compounding. it doesn’t matter if you can get it right most of the time. you’ll kick yourself for the times you don’t get it right even if they’re rare cause those are the ones you’ll notice — those are where there’ll be gaps. so let’s pay attention to the detail and using a paring block. and don’t rush. get close to your line tiny bit by tiny bit. be gradual. treat the piece gently and you’ll get paper-thin shavings from your chisel and never compress or tear the wood. hog off material (yes, like a pig) and you’ll make a pig’s breakfast of the board. no irony required.
how long is my board?
measurement is usually unimportant. doing things using reality is typically the best approach. but that means you need to use stop-blocks and hold pieces together for marking. thinking “oh it’s about a meter” isn’t going to get you accurate joinery. you might not care if the table is a hundred centimeters long or a hundred and four. but if the front and back are even a tenth of a millimeter from being exactly the same length you’re going to end up out-of-square and that’s going to look … well, it’s going to be a shitty table. and you’re not going to be happy with yourself for making it. but that’s totally avoidable. for example, clamp your stretchers together and shoot them as a single part. rough-cut your pieces then attach them together to do your final shaping or adding curves.
unequal visible spacing
one of the main reasons a piece looks odd isn’t because technique was bad or joints have gaps — it’s that the spacing isn’t quite right. when cutting dovetails, for example, if you’re aiming for even spacing, parallel angles and straight baselines, your eye will tell you in a fraction of a second if they’re not quite right. three equally-spaced dovetails and a fourth that’s a millimeter closer is going to disrupt your internal harmony. how can you avoid that? paying attention, of course. this isn’t expert skill. it’s not inhuman accuracy. and it has nothing to do with being able to cut a straight line. it has everything to do with making sure you mark the thing properly (you’ve got a good-quality combination square, right? and a .5mm mechanical pencil? good. if you don’t, get those now. like right now. then come back — it doesn’t have to be a starrett and a gold-plated writing tool — just get yourself an i-gaging or empire or irwin for ten or twenty bucks and a five-pack of bics) and cut on the correct (waste) side of your marks. draw your lines in the right places. chop on in the right places. pare very carefully and slowly to the lines. you really will end up with perfectly-spaced and parallel lines every time.
trusting your tape-measure
your tape-measure is shit. and it doesn’t understand you any better than your third-grade teacher. stop measuring things with a tape-measure and expecting them to be accurate. if you have to measure, use a serious metal ruler or square with etched marks (yes, starrett is nice but you don’t need to spend all that money if you can get a cheap one — though i do love my starrett 300mm combo and you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands someday). if you can avoid it, though, just put your pieces together and mark from the actual workpiece or use a template (paper is good, card is better, 2-3mm material like door skins is awesome) and you won’t go wrong. again, much like with everything else in this domain, this isn’t about skill. and it’s not about experience. it’s about paying attention to what you’re doing. and you can do that even on your first day in the shop.
“woodworking is inherently dangerous”
one of the most common set-phrases in woodworking magazines (yes, it shows up in several including fine woodworking and popular woodworking — i think i’ve even seen it in wood magazine a few times) is “woodworking is inherently dangerous”. and i’m sure it began as a disclaimer. you know, they tell you how to do something and if you do it and cut off your finger it’s not their fault cause they warned you it was dangerous to even walk into the shop. and that’s fine. but it has a much deeper meaning. it’s dangerous because we’re choosing to do something that, in our world, is mostly an industrial, hands-off process and we’re not really used to living in a world without a safety net. when you go on the internet, you have the ability (and frequently indulge, though you shouldn’t) to scream and yell at people, communicate fake and misleading information and hurt thousands of others with your words and actions without consequences. consequences are actually pretty rare in our daily lives. when you pick up a tool, they’re far more present and sometimes that shift comes back to bit our collective asses rather firmly and aggressively.
i’ve written probably more than most people are prepared to read about specifics of tablesaw, bandsaw, router, jointer and cnc safety. and you’re welcome to go and take a look at the specifics if that’s something that interests you. but i think there are more fundamental problems beginners tend to make and they fall into a few specific areas.
expecting the tool to be safe
when you buy a tool, you can’t assume it’s safe if you use it correctly. it probably won’t be. a saw is perfectly capable of cutting off your hand if that’s what you tell it to do. or even if you take your eyes off it for a second, if it’s a powered saw. these are not inherently-safe objects. of course, you need to be aware of that. but i hear so many people say “if you use it correctly it won’t hurt you” or “it’s safe if you follow the instructions”. no. it’s not. it’s safe if you think everything you’re doing through and anticipate potential problems. if you blindly follow the instructions, you’re going to get hurt. you can learn this from experience or you can avoid the pain. i recommend avoiding the pain.
i’ll give you an example. if you are ripping a board at the tablesaw, you may have seen all the instructions and know how it’s done but still experience kickback. so it’s something you need to be prepared for with every board you feed through the blade. know what might happen and what to do about it in the split-second if it does. if you feel resistance or pinching, stop right away and immediately hit the power switch with one hand while continuing to hold the wood stable in the other. let go and it will go flying. keep pushing and it will probably hit you in the face. there’s no need to be terrified it might happen but you have to be aware of the risks. even if you do everything right, a twitchy board (remember we work with organic materials and they’re not always uniform — this is why we have safety gear!) might pinch the blade or get stuck against the fence. yes, there are precautions. and you should take them all. featherboards, segmented fences, etc. but that’s the point. do everything right as much as possible. and anticipate problems. just because you follow the rules doesn’t mean it’s safe. i’ve seen guide bearings fly off with no notice, blades sheer off teeth from bad welding or even damp storage conditions, boards get stuck on tables because there was a tiny flake of glue or (yes, in one case) a fly that got crushed under a board and made the table surface slightly uneven. you can’t predict everything. but you can do some prethinking and that will save you a lot of pain and regret. you can’t put the fingers back. but you can be smart in advance.
getting too close
while we’re on the subject of removable fingers, something i see from beginners is a distinct lack of awareness of proximity. some stay really far from the tool like it’s going to bite them. like so far from the tool it seems like they’re in another time-zone. that’s not very useful or particularly safe. because they’re probably using a process that involves a lot of balance and leverage that could suddenly shift and send things soaring through the air because of lack of control. the other side, though, is that people who are twitchy for the first few hours develop a sudden bravery around tools (not just powertools) that gets their fingers very, very close to spinning or cutting surfaces.
i’ve seen students paring with brutally-sharp chisel edges literal millimeters from their hands, knowing a single slip or lapse of concentration will lead to a deep gash. i’ve seen people with their hands so close to the sawblade when making a tenon i’m shocked if they don’t actually slice into their fingers — and they usually do before i even get close enough to tell them to stop. i’ve seen body parts get awfully close to router bits, especially on the table, spinning jointer heads and pass between the blade and fence on tablesaws and bandsaws with the excuse “i’m not even moving in the same plane as the blade” as if you can’t suddenly move your body a centimeter or two without thinking about it if a sudden noise happened or someone accidentally knocked something against the saw, not exactly an uncommon experience in a shop where wood and tools are being moved all around you all the time.
so while keeping distant from parts can cause some serious potential problems it’s generally a good idea to at least keep a healthy safety distance. this is what i usually recommend — if any part of your body is within 15cm of a cutting edge, it’s too close. imagine there’s a big orange “danger-zone” drawn around the spinning bit on a router table or cnc, the blade on a tablesaw or bandsaw, the cutter-head on a jointer, the spinning quill and bit assembly on a drillpress. don’t make exceptions. there’s no shame in using a pad or stick to push the board. for handtools, this distance is definitely smaller but avoid getting your fingers within about a centimeter of a cutting edge in every direction, including side-to-side. if you’re resawing (like when you cut the walls off a tenon) and removing very little material, make sure you’re keeping your hand off that outside edge. you can break through. you can slip with the saw. it can jump out the cut. it’s sharp. if it’s not, you’ve got other problems. assume it can take off some serious skin very quickly. and don’t forget handtools can do you some serious damage — if you don’t have a friend who’s stabbed themself with a chisel, just stick around here a little longer and i’m sure you’ll meet a few. i’ve done it. more than once. no stitches so far from that particular mistake but i’ve come awfully close.
not securing the work
we have a tendency to rush. i’ll talk about this a little more deeply later but it often means we think it’s unimportant to make sure a piece is solidly-attached to the bench before working on it. for example, you see experienced people shove something against a planing stop and not secure it from lateral movement. this is unwise. yes, people do it all the time. but you’re asking for trouble and a safer method is to actually clamp the piece in a vise or stabilize it between wedges on the benchtop. if the piece can move, it probably will. and if the piece moves unexpectedly you’ll have to react to that. with many years of experience, that may not be a disaster. with a few weeks of messing around with a plane, you’re courting problems. and if you’re doing it with a handheld router or circular saw, expecting friction to save you where vises and clamps would have provided more security, this is a day you’ll likely remember for all the wrong reasons just waiting to happen. lock that piece down securely in all directions before you even pick up a tool. every time. i’ve learned this the hard way. more than once. i don’t mess with this hard-and-fast rule anymore.
not securing the tool
the same goes for the other direction. benchtop planers, for example, are heavy enough to sit on the bench or even a rolling cart and get the job done without being bolted to the surface. yes. in theory. but if something can move it will eventually take that opportunity. and it won’t be at a convenient moment. having seen people have planers rock during a cut, benchtop drillpresses literally fall over because someone slipped on the floor and lifted the wood (they’re not nearly as heavy as you think when you’ve got a meter of board for leverage against the quill) and oscillating spindle sanders look like they’re walking away from the person using them to the point they almost fell off the back of the table before they noticed they kept having to get closer and closer to the front of the bench. it might be a pain in the ass but safety starts with making sure everything is locked in place — the same goes for jigs. screw it to the bench. clamp it down. stick it in the vise. don’t use a bench-hook that’s not actually clamped down. when you get your shooting board out, stick it in the vise. a few extra seconds of patience and precaution will go a long way. you don’t want the stories i have in my memory. i promise.
ignoring the direction of the grain
wood has grain. it’s one of the reasons we love it — and the main reason we hate it because that grain makes things more difficult and the shifts in grain are the source of wood-movement, our existence-threatening obsessive conversation-topic. if you’re planing or routing, for example, the grain determines whether the tool will catch or move smoothly. if it catches, things can quickly get out of hand. a router can rip the piece away from you and send things (including your fingers) flying. a plane can catch in the grain and knock you off-balance or even come crashing to the floor. if a drill or drillpress comes against shifting grain or a knot, it can tear the piece out your hands and that’s all kinds of unsafe. just pay attention to what the grain is doing and where you’re about to use the tool and all will be good. ignore the grain at your own risk.
not paying attention
it’s not just the grain that gets ignored, of course. i can’t describe the number of times i’ve seen woodworkers in shops listening to deafeningly-loud music, watching tv and movies, having conversations on the phone about dating advice or restaurant recommendations or whatever else they want while they’re operating a tool. yes, it’s possible to get in a zen trance while woodworking and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but distractions lead to mistakes. there’s a reason it’s not a good idea to watch a movie on your phone while you’re driving on the highway. and your car doesn’t have a big spinning blade on it a few centimeters from your paws. i won’t beat this horse any more than just to say lack of attention has been the source of myriad errors in my experience — i’ve witnessed far too many distracted people getting hurt.
thinking safety gear is optional for short operations
if you find yourself using excuses like “i only have to cut one hole!” or “it’s just one board”, do yourself a favor. just put on the damned goggles and masks already and get out the pushstick. it takes one time to fuck up. and you’re just as likely (perhaps more) to do it when you only have one item to do as if you’ve got fifty. wear the gear every time. you wouldn’t drive “just one day” without your seatbelt, i suspect. and, again, your car doesn’t want to take your hand off. your bandsaw probably does. it’s generally vindictive.
using the wrong tool
the final safety thing i want to mention in this section is actually something i see far too often but never expected to. the right tool is important not just for good results but safety. if you’re pounding on something to get it to work or pushing a powertool to the edge of its capacity (trying to resaw a thick board with a circular saw, possibly? how many times i’ve seen this shocks me even to think about it), you’re tempting fate. there’s always a better way than taking a tool out its comfort-zone and using it in an unsafe way. build a jig. mount things so they can’t shift. do it more slowly. if it feels like you’re rigging something up the designer of the tool would be shocked by, don’t feel proud of your ingenuity. expect you’re about to need an ambulance. put down the duct tape and ask yourself if you’re being smart or just living an unexpected resurgence of your childhood macgyver fetish.
2 ignoring the grain
ok, that was a lot. the other errors are just going to build on that rather than go into that much detail, i promise. safety and awareness are two of my personal obsessions in life, though, so i’m sure you’ll forgive me (or you’ve already stopped reading and that’s fine, too — i don’t like captive audiences or … well, captives — hell, i don’t even like tight underwear so free yourself from the bounds of … ok, too much. far too much. let’s move on…).
we are working with a flexible, organic material. how it looks and feels is extremely important. designing a table? which pieces do you want to be flat or rift or quarter? well, there’s an easy way to think about it. you probably want straight grain on your legs. all four sides. so that means you want rift for your legs. the top, though? that might be a place you want to show off the nice figure in the board so that could be flat. what about the stretchers? those are only going to be visible on one side and you probably want those to be straight, too, to avoid distracting from the figure on the top so those should probably be quarter. this may seem very picky but here’s the easiest way to think about it. “you don’t notice good design.” i think it was actually frank lloyd wright who said that first, though don’t take my word for it (i’ve googled it and google doesn’t know but i’m sure that’s what i was told decades ago). what you absolutely notice is tiny bad design choices. select your grain carefully at the lumberyard and your piece will reflect your attention to detail (noticing a theme here?).
something else beginners often neglect is to design for a particular species. they sketch a shape, refine a form and completely forget the properties of the wood they’re going to use dictate so much about how something will look. rift cherry and flat white oak have very, very different aesthetics. the cherry will look subdued and subtle while the wild grain of the oak and all the reflective properties of much of that species will scream at you. that’s not at all a statement that one is better than the other. but if you’re designing a quiet piece but haven’t thought about using a quiet wood, you might have just set yourself up for a very odd result. i’ve seen many pieces with absolutely-crazy grain patterns because someone thought they looked awesome in the store — and they did. but they used them all together. and it’s overwhelming. good design isn’t about using beautiful ingredients. it’s about making a beautiful whole. a sunrise is beautiful. so is a sunset. if they both happened at the same time, that would be rather unsettling, though.
when paying attention to grain and species, the other important factor is strength. going to build a piece from poplar? it’s going to need significantly more thickness to make sure the pieces don’t break. using hard-maple? you can probably get away with far less beefy components and joinery for the same result. this is an important consideration before you even start sketching. you’re not just working with a single material — wood. you’re working with a whole family with individual personality traits. it’s best to think of them in advance. beginners rarely do.
3 not expecting perfection — expecting perfection
humans are imperfect beings. i mean, it tells us this in the gita, the lotus sutra, the bible, the qur’an and the popul vuh. and everywhere else. literature and culture are a repeating theme of humans fucking up. constantly. so why would you expect perfection? well, you wouldn’t. you don’t. and you have resigned yourself to the fact that you’re not going to cut perfect joints or have perfect edges on your pieces.
and that’s a bloody disaster. not because i think you can get perfect results — you can’t and neither can i or anyone else. but if you stop aiming for perfection you’ll never get close. the motto of the american air force has always struck me as a little ironic — “aim high”. every time i see it written somewhere i can’t help thinking “if i’m shooting at something and i want to hit it, the last thing i want to do is aim high” but that’s, of course, not the point. the generals are telling you to have impossibly-perfect standards and hold yourself to them, knowing you can’t actually reach them. and that’s good advice for life. and woodworking. aim for perfectly-square. aim for perfectly-smooth. you might not get there. but if you drop your standards you’re just giving yourself another bar, a lower one, you’ll probably never reach. you’re setting a new maximum for how good the quality can possibly be. think you’ll be disappointed in your work? well, you definitely will be if you don’t even aim for perfect.
the other side of this coin is equally-dangerous. expecting perfection will lead to abject misery and disappointment in your work and continuous self-degradation. it also leads to a common disease among woodworkers — error demonstration. i’m sure you’ve seen it. you walk into a friend’s house and they say “look at this awesome table i just finished”. you look and it is, indeed, awesome and you tell them. then they say “but look at the gaps in these dovetails and this chipout on the back of this drawer and…” and you start to really wonder if it was awesome at all. or just firewood waiting to be burned. don’t do that.
so aim for perfection but expect to come up short. the more experience and practice you have, the closer you’ll get. aiming lower limits success. expecting to get there guarantees disappointment. as with everything, moderation is good.
perhaps the greatest thing lacking in beginner woodworkers is patience. actually, that’s the thing lacking in modern western society more than anything else, i suspect. except maybe community-awareness and empathy. unrelated, though. but patience is key to woodworking unless you want every project to be an inaccurate study in how to butt-join construction lumber with screws. which i suspect is not why you’re here (yes, i have a strong, undying loathing for construction lumber, butt-joints and metal fasteners of any kind unless absolutely necessary — you probably do, too).
patience comes in two flavors — patience with your skill and patience with the task.
you’ll get better with practice. but you’ll only get better if you practice so you have to practice. want to get better at sawing? don’t cut drawer parts. cut a thousand narrow strips off the end of a board. want to get better at cutting dovetails? don’t make a drawer or a case. just cut dovetails. hundreds of them. thousands if you like. you’ll get better. if you were learning to play piano, you’d be doing scales and arpeggios. pattern scales and multioctave interval drills as you improved. in short, you’d practice. woodworking is a skill (well, a collection of skills) like playing a musical instrument or a sport. you didn’t kick a football well the first time. nobody does. and if you waited to learn by playing games, you’d probably never have fixed your awkward kicking posture. but a few hundred drills in the field behind the school with the ball and now you can perform in the game — maybe not exactly like you once dreamed you’d be able to but much, much better than when you started. if you expect to get good at woodworking by building furniture, you eventually will. if you want to get good quickly, though, put the furniture on hold for the first hour or two you’re in the shop and practice. just practice. it’ll cost you far less in materials than screwing up the real work and you’ll learn much more quickly. patience is rewarded. impatience — well, that’s only rewarded in politics. and you definitely don’t want to take a saw and a chisel there.
patience with the task is probably the other main issue i see in beginners. sanding is boring. sharpening is boring. actually, a lot of woodworking isn’t very exciting. but finishing a beautiful piece is. designing something you’ll be happy to give someone or proud to sell is rewarding in ways very few things outside the realm of skilled crafts can be. but you will always end up with bad results from cutting corners (yes, yes, sometimes we have to literally cut corners but that’s different and english is an awkward language). so when you sand you can’t skip grits. it might take twenty minutes to get through a single grit on a single panel. and another twenty minutes on the next one. that’s life. when you get a new chisel, you might not be ready to use it after five minutes with your stones. it might really take a half hour to completely flatten the back and get a screaming-sharp edge on the thing. especially if it’s one you picked up cheaply at a flea-market.
it takes time to get good results. if you expect to go in the shop and knock out a project in three hours, you’re going to end up with a rushed project that looks like it took three hours. if that’s your goal, you’ll probably achieve it. but if you want to produce something your grandchildren will look at and think you’re amazing it’s not likely to get the job done. take your time. this isn’t your job. it’s your passion. spending more time doing it isn’t a problem if you like it. if you don’t like it, it might be time to seriously think about taking up a new hobby. either way, patience is a happy place. oh — sharpen your chisels. i know they’re dull. so do you.
5a designing without thinking
beginners often start with plans and that’s awesome. i think the best source of plans is the pages of fine woodworking magazine. i’ve built relatively few of the pieces in there but so many of them have inspired me to build things that are only loosely-related to the originals. but, wherever you get your plans, it’s important to think about them. are you going to use the plans exactly as they exist? ok. just build the thing.
but you’re probably going to modify them. or use them as a basis for your own designs. or just an inspiration. maybe even design something from scratch. and that’s where the beginner-design-mentality problem rears its ugly head. you want to make something new and exciting. get away from the traditional, expected model. that’s not necessarily a bad thing. but first you have to think about a few things to avoid disaster.
why is a form generally built in a particular way? (why are mortise-and-tenon joints used in this construction, for example?) is it aesthetic or functional? if you change it, what happens? will the wood be able to move properly? will it fall apart?
designing is an exercise in logic, trial and error all coming together. it’s definitely better to avoid the third whenever possible and rely on the first without too much of the second coming into play.
5b building without designing
the counterpart to that is slapping together projects without actually designing — or just sketching some vague measurements on a napkin and going from there.
it is tempting to want to use every scrap of available shop time to cut joints and plane boards. i get it. i love building stuff. but if you want to have a result worth spending time on and don’t just want to spend your entire woodworking career cutting practice joints (i still like to cut a few hundred accurate angled slices to keep my skills honed, by the way), you need to design and plan. good things come not just to those who wait but those who prepare.
design usually functions as a process. here’s the process i recommend for beginners and students — and advanced woodworkers because it’s the process i use.
- sketch. whenever you have an idea for a piece, sketch it quickly in your pad. you should always have a sketchpad. i like unlined paper, sometimes with light dots but usually just plain, in a little coil-bound book. you can do it in anything. you can carry around a plastic folder with card stock in it. you can do it in an exercise book. whatever you like. i like hard covers, coil-binding and thick paper. you do you. don’t miss an opportunity to collect your ideas, though. for every piece i actually turn into a completed project, i probably do more than a hundred short (a few seconds, a minute at most) sketches. you don’t have to be an amazing artist. just get the idea on paper and the rest can come later — like dimensions. go to a museum and look at stuff? take notes, draw what you like, even give approximate measurements and describe interesting joinery. this is where design begins.
- model. this is where i’m going to get a lot of people telling me they hate doing this. you don’t have to do this on a computer. you can get out the rulers and protractors and draw actual measurement-accurate models. you can. but i wouldn’t if i was you. get yourself a copy of fusion360 or shapr3d and model your thing. you don’t have to be accurate at first. just make it look like what you think you want. unlike on paper where it’s hard to modify after it’s drawn, these apps make it easy to shift things in three-dimensional space and try out different approaches. maybe you want tapered legs. maybe you want really tapered legs. see how it looks in ten seconds. change your mind. change your mind as often as you like and it’s totally ok. when you’re happy with how it looks, move on.
- prototype. make it from cardboard or even draw it full-size on rolls of paper and tape them to the wall where the piece is going to live (or at least on a wall where the piece might look at home in someone else’s house, which is generally what i do, as i don’t build furniture for myself) and look at it. is it the right shape, size, depth, whatever? once you build it, it’s done. at this stage, though, you can correct so many potential mistakes. i’ve almost built some cabinets that were simply too deep or shallow, for example, more than once. this avoids the problem. they can look amazing onscreen but still be awkward when at fullsize and in-your-face.
- reprototype. yes. build the thing from construction lumber with simplified joinery. stick it in a space and see how you feel about it. it’s far cheaper to spend fifty bucks on low-grade pine and get the thing knocked out in a couple of hours than to spend five hundred on cherry and invest three weeks of attempted-perfection only to find the thing is ten centimeters wider and twenty shorter than you really wanted it to be. and you’ll learn a lot about order of operations. how easy will it be to cut this part after another has been cut? what measurement do you need to take? inside-edge to inside-edge? how will you cut your curves. don’t forget to make notes. woodworking is a preparation and logic game. you might make mistakes. don’t make them twice.
- build. this is where everything comes together. if you’ve done the first four steps right, your design will coalesce into something awesome af. if you haven’t, it’ll be half-assed. and ain’t nobody out there who wants to live with half an ass.
(if you’re curious, i highly recommend not even bothering to touch sketchup. it’s a limited piece of software designed on an arcane model that realistically only works well for simple things — complex design is possible but cumbersome and far more efficient in fusion360, which is nice, or shapr3d, which truly is amazing for design, though nowhere near as functional for things like automated production and rendering. take your pick. get one of them. fusion360 is free for hobbyists and shapr3d has a free version you can play with as much as you like and the pro version is actually pretty inexpensive — far cheaper than a nice saw or plane, for example. it’ll serve you well, whichever you choose.)
6 forgetting about wood movement
wood moves. be aware of it, why it happens, when it happens and in what directions it will happen. make your design decisions accordingly. don’t ignore it. don’t glue things together that aren’t going to move in the same way. or use plywood. whatever you do, though, remember it’s an organic material that breaths in and out with the seasons. no, your table isn’t going to grow and shrink ten centimeters. but it’s not going to stay a single size, either. so you have to be aware. beginners often either ignore the issue or become so obsessed with it they never actually get anything built. walk a middle path. the wood will thank you.
7 trying too many new techniques — or not trying any
you’re comfortable with a drill, i expect. so you can screw boards together. but that’s not exactly going to get you very far unless what you’re aiming for is framing a house. building beautiful furniture requires mastering some serious, traditional joinery techniques. but that doesn’t mean you have to use them all in every piece. especially not at the beginning.
one of the biggest points of failure i see for beginner woodworkers — who often leave the craft rather quickly as a result — is biting off far too many new techniques in their first few projects. if you’re going to build a table (a good first project), you’ll probably want to learn how to cut mortise-and-tenon joints. you have to cut a tenon (a few saw-cuts and some chiselwork) and a mortise (dig it out with a chisel — slowly, very slowly). but there’s no need to including tapered-sliding-dovetail batons. just use thick stretchers. there’s no need to dovetail the stretchers when those can be mortise-and-tenoned together, too. you don’t need complex table-to-top joinery — make a few simple table buttons or even use figure-eight fasteners. don’t add five new techniques. just add one. make it one you think you’re going to use a lot in the future (like mortise-and-tenon joinery, dovetails, bridal-joints or wedged tenons, all things i teach beginners rather early but never all at once). practice it on some scrapwood — if you ask a local cabinet shop, i bet they’ll be happy for you to take away a bunch of their small offcuts and save them paying for trash collection — or even just flatten some firewood and use that to make some pieces. we all need more practice with our foreplanes, after all, don’t we?
the other side of this can cause problems, too. there’s a whole generation of beginners raised on pocket-screws and river-tables. and while there’s nothing wrong with either of those things if used in the right places (ok, is there a right place for river tables? i abhor this style, though i think i may have been the only person who saw those first tables and didn’t think “that’s really cool” but “why the fuck would i want plastic in my wood?” or, perhaps, “what in the name of all that is sacred would george nakashima think of doing this to a perfectly-beautiful slab of walnut?”) there’s plenty wrong with them in the wrong places. pocket-screws are generally not very strong joints. they won’t hold your table together very well. and they’re definitely not going to be a good option for your bed. but they’ll attach a faceframe to a cabinet with something approximating perfection and they’re great for internal dividers. everything has its place. as a beginner, it may feel daunting to try a new thing. and if you download plans from the internet you might find the thing you want to build has ten techniques you’ve never tried. this might just be the wrong piece for you. learn a new technique. just one. once you’re comfortable with it — after a project or two incorporating it — learn another. you’ll get through all the major ones fairly quickly that way without being overwhelmed by them.
8 not getting sharp enough (or trying to get too sharp)
if you’ve ever watched a youtube video about woodworking, read a magazine or listened to shop talk live, you’ve heard “you’re not sharp enough”. and you’re probably not. most beginners have this idea of sharp tools that’s approximately equal to the sharpness of scissors or, perhaps, a disposable razor. that’s not nearly sharp enough to do good work in serious wood. it’s just not. if you think sharp requires thirty seconds of vaguely rubbing your tools on a stone then getting to work, you’re probably doing it wrong. you need to be sharper. i guarantee it.
unless you don’t. and this isn’t usually an absolute-beginner problem. it’s one that comes after a year or two but it’s just as problematic. sharpening obsession is, as far as i’m concerned, an intervention-worthy issue in the woodworking community. we get sharp to do work in wood. the wood dulls the tools and we get sharp again. it’s an unending cycle of pointiness and it’s annoying as all fuck. but it becomes an absolute fixation for many people — trying new techniques, new products, spending a fortune, always trying to get a whole new level of sharp. and there’s no point.
sharp is like pregnant. either you’re sharp or you’re not. once you’re there, there’s no point continuing down that road. i’ll give you an example. you get a 400/1000 (coarse/fine) stone. you grind on the 400 and hone on the 1000. then you get to work. unless you’re doing some pretty rough work, this isn’t sharp. not even close. you won’t be able to pare the wood without tearing it. ok, you think, so you add an 8000 stone (extra-fine) and get to work on that. you polish that bevel and now you feel pretty good. it takes amazing, whispy-thin curls when you pare the wood. now you’re sharp. congratulations.
but that’s not enough for some people. they think they need to keep chasing higher and higher levels of sharp because everyone keeps telling them it’s possible — this is particularly frequent in the japanese woodworking community where extreme sharpness is made possible with bimetal construction of chisels and plane-blades and you can get a 30000 stone to seriously polish the bevel. and yes it will be sharper. but you may have forgotten the point. the point is to be able to do good work in wood. and the wood will dull the tool as soon as you touch it. so if you get to 8000 and use it in the wood for a half hour, you’re probably down to the equivalent of 6000. another hour and the thing is closer to 4000 or even back to 1000 and you need to sharpen it again. but if you take it up to 30000… well, after two minutes you’re down to 8000 and a half-hour later you’re at 6000. what was the point of hundreds of dollars of stones, hours of hard work and general obsession taking over your life and wallet? well, nothing. a tool doesn’t have to look like a mirror to be sharp — actually, many tools that look like mirrors have been sharpened then bent using leather and won’t really pare very well — the mirror can be deceptive. don’t bother to shave your arm with the tool. it either works or it doesn’t. take it to the wood. if it pares, you’re good. if there’s an resistance, go back to the stones and keep going — you’re not there, yet. but remember there’s a purpose and fixed endpoint. you’re not trying to chisel diamond with it. it’s wood. there’s such a thing as sharp enough.
there is a certain respectability in the woodworking community that comes from doing everything freehand and i’ve never understood it. perhaps it’s because i’m a japanese woodworker and we don’t really have that tradition — guides are our bread, butter and oxygen. but let me say this loudly for those who haven’t quite gotten the message — freehanding things in woodworking is a recipe for inaccuracy. if you want good results, guarantee them. build a jig. make a guide. plan and plan some more. if you want to cut things freehand, that’s your choice. want to sharpen freehand? go for it. but you’ll get better results if you don’t. the results for a beginner will be so staggeringly different i actually consider this a significant mistake.
you can always freehand as an experiment. but, as a beginner, you want confirmation of learning. you want things that look good. and you don’t want to be discouraged. once you already know how things work, you’ll be in a far better place to freehand them. how can you know what angle to aim for on your sharpening if you’ve never experienced sharp tools? how can you possibly have the body mechanics to cut a straight line if you’ve only cut ten in your life? use the guides. get used to the functionality of your body and how they force you to move. want to experiment with doing things without the guides? it’s far easier to learn with them than without them. you won’t learn errors and you’ll be rewarded with precise pieces of furniture. i know some people like the experience of freehanding everything. nothing wrong with that. but don’t let yourself be shamed into working that way, especially not at first. it’s not more honorable and it doesn’t require more skill. it’s just a different process and one i’ve never found nearly as successful. i’m a perfectionist. if i cut a gappy joint, i burn it. if i didn’t use guides and jigs, i’d have enough surplus firewood to supply my whole neighborhood.
10 cutting to lines
the line is there to tell you where the result needs to be, not where your saw needs to go. beginners cut on lines. over time, you’ll realize you need to cut in the waste beside the line. the line is a visual guide telling you where the saw isn’t supposed to be, not where to put the teeth. finish your cuts with a chisel. it’s what it’s for. with a paring guide. you’ll get perfect lines every time. while i’m at it, there’s this general trend in the youtube community to cut what are called “knife-walls” to guide your saw. don’t do that. it’s a waste of time. just cut in the waste and use all the time you’ve saved to pare to the line. this is a bad technique. it just teaches sloppy saw-usage and encourages people to cut too close to the final line when they’re simply going to end up with imperfect results. it’s like the illusion of a guide without there actually being one.
11a buying shitty tools
you have a budget. i get it. you don’t have to spend a fortune to get good tools. but you can’t just buy bad tools and hope for the best. research and try things out.
here are the basics you’ll need to get started.
- a basic joinery saw (i recommend a dozuki, about $35)
- a basic non-joinery saw (i recommend a crosscut kataba, about $35)
- a few chisels (probably 3/6, 9/12 and 32mm, about $60)
- a few planes (at least a jack and a smoother, possibly a jointer, at least $50 if you get old stanleys or build krenov-style ones and buy some irons, a few hundred if you get nice, new ones but we’re talking about basic budgets so just get the old stanleys or build your own)
- a good combination square and mechanical pencil (about ten bucks, maybe fifteen)
that’s it. i mean, you’ll need a workbench but you can build that yourself (working on a few designs and plans but you can definitely use any of the ones suggested by chris schwarz, those being excellent, or follow the online guidance of james wright or rex krueger, both with a few great videos on workbench design). this is a relatively inexpensive craft to get started in — everything you need to begin will cost you about two-hundred bucks. yes, woodworking is an expensive hobby once you start getting all the fancy tools and buying lots of wood. but this is a good place to begin.
the problem some beginners face is that they buy tools below that minimum-quality-line and suffer — often spending months or years getting awful results with a hardware-store saw, plastic-handled chisels and a plane from amazon that wouldn’t hold a setting if its life depended on it. don’t deal with the frustration. if you really can’t afford the two hundred bucks to get started, get a dozuki, a single narex 9mm chisel and a vintage stanley jack, total cost about $70 and get the rest gradually. with effort and focus, you can do excellent work with only those three tools, a $1 pack of mechanical pencils and a $3 metal ruler. don’t let money stop you from pursuing the craft. but don’t buy shit.
11b buying expensive tools
yes. pricy tools are attractive. but they won’t make you a better woodworker. better than shit tools, yes. but not better than good-quality basic tools. if you’re expecting to spend your way into better woodworking and more beautiful furniture, this is certainly possible. there’s only one way to do it, though. get a cnc and have it do all your woodworking for you. replace your lack of skill with a robot. but a $500 plane and $1000 set of chisels hand-forged in nara won’t up your game. few beginners have the money to make this mistake. but i see it show up from time to time — “i just spent four-hundred bucks on a lie nielsen smoother and i can’t get it to take a good shaving!” — well, ok. but it’s a smoothing-plane and you haven’t got it setup with a tight mouth, it’s not sharp and you’re using it on a rough board you haven’t even gotten flat yet. it’s not the tool’s fault. it’s yours. start with the basics. work forward from there. save your money.
11c buying too many tools
i know. it’s sacrilege to even mention this but there’s no need to buy all the tools. you don’t need them all. you only need a few to get started. yes, specialty tools can increase efficiency and be extremely fun to use. but most you won’t even use once. buy good-quality tools. don’t buy huge sets of chisels, a dozen planes and ten saws. you may eventually find a use for all those things.
get them when you find yourself actually reaching for them. you’ll just end up confusing your learning — better to learn a technique on a single tool and perfect it than to spread out your learning across many things. imagine you only have an hour a week to work on learning an instrument. think it’s better to focus on just piano or try to pick up six instruments at a time? i bet the answer is obvious. it’s no different with learning to use your tools.
focus. practice. start with a few tools. it’ll come quickly. try to figure out all the tools at once and you’ll become overwhelmed. quickly.
12 ignoring plywood (and veneer)
plywood is amazing. it doesn’t move. well, it doesn’t move enough you have to worry about it. microscopic tension changes are definitely present but all well-within the limits of modern pva (polyvinyl acetate — “yellow”) glue. no, it doesn’t always fit the project. but there are few projects that don’t benefit from having the bottom, back or internal components made of a stable material, especially as most of these components aren’t seen. making a frame-and-panel door can definitely be done with hardwood. but it’s usually far cheaper to use a good-quality plywood, perhaps even a cheap plywood panel with a piece of veneer. this technique can save you an incredible amount of effort with complex joinery for wood-movement and cost of thick hardwoods. plywood is generally stronger. even a thin back solidly glued to your piece will probably stabilize and strengthen more than you expect.
while there is a continuous chorus of people saying they hate plywood (though there’s never any actual justification given), it’s an amazing thing. and it’s traditional. plywood has been used for literally thousands of years — sawing thin veneers and laminating them with perpendicular grain between the layers has been a traditional way of making a board stable and strong and it’s showed up in furniture, boatbuilding and even temple construction since antiquity. veneers and plywood are excellent options to consider. they’re not perfect for every application. but when you’re designing (remember all those steps? yeah — then) you should remember not every problem is best solved by adding a maple board.
13 using the wrong tool
a dozuki isn’t meant to cut a thick post in half. a roubo-style framesaw is a poor choice for dovetails on a jewelry box. the final beginner mistake on today’s list is using the wrong tool for the job. it’s usually quite obvious what the correct tool is and using the wrong one often feels awkward — it’s typically cumbersome and will seem like totally the wrong scale. just give it some thought. if the tooth is a centimeter wide and the cut is only two centimeters wide, is this really the right tool to give you a clean edge? ripping pencil-sized stock on the tablesaw is likely unwise. paring the sides of a 30cm mortise with a 3mm chisel is going to take you forever. but you’re only going to do that if you’re not thinking through each step before you start. if you have the basic tools i’ve discussed, you’ll have one that fits the task unless you’re doing something truly unusual and probably not part of a typical beginner project. try to pick the one that makes the most sense.
being a beginner is an amazing thing. you have your whole woodworking career ahead of you. and you’ll certainly make mistakes — ffs, i make them every time i go in the shop even today. but if you can try to avoid the ones on this list you might have a far more pleasant journey into the craft. i truly hope this has been helpful. for other instructors and professionals out there, what are the ones i’ve missed? i encourage you all to write articles about your best practices and recommendations for beginners. the more we can have for people to join and have amazing experiences with wood, the better the community will be. thanks for reading!