Tips and Tricks for Woodworking Beginners

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to woodworking. If you’re relatively new to the skill, you probably still have a lot of questions about it.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of those things you might be unsure about. We’ll address some important tips for beginner woodworkers to know.

We’re also going to address some common mistakes and how you can avoid them:

Let’s start with some essential tips of the trade.

Best practices for woodworking

Every vocation has its unique elements that help the tasks run smoothly and safely. Here are a few tips that you, as the woodworker, can use to create and maintain a safe and successful working environment for the long run:

Prioritize safety

A woodworker wearing protective eye glasses while cutting wood with a miter sawSafety is one of the most essential components of woodworking. Surrounded by so many sharp tools and blades, you can lop off a finger, even wearing gloves, before you realize what’s happening.

Before getting started, be sure to wear safety protection. This includes gloves, ear protection like earplugs, eye protection like goggles or safety glasses, and heavy footwear that covers your feet, like boots. Taking these measures can protect you from an array of injuries.

While donning precautions beforehand is important, there are also some things to remember during your work to keep you safe.

When you’re using power tools, like a table saw, miter saw, or router, always be sure to disconnect the power before changing blades or leaving the woodshop. Electrical machines sometimes do the unexpected. You don’t want to risk getting hurt in the middle of a saw blade change because the saw started on its own or you accidentally bumped the power switch.

On the same lines, always cut away from you with any tools. This way you won’t slice your stomach or leg when the blade slips. When cutting, use a push stick or jig to keep your fingers out of the way.

And don’t try to work in a woodshop when you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Working when your mind is impaired is a recipe for disaster and you could end up severely injuring yourself.

Probably one of the most overarching principles of safety is to take your time. Cutting corners or hurrying only increases your risk of injury. Slowing down to focus wholly on each step ensures a safe experience and a job well done.

Choose the right wood

Wood boards leaning against a wallThere’s nothing more bewildering than trying to decide which wood to use for your DIY project. Which one is best? Which has better quality?

To know which wood is right for your project, it’s good to have a rudimentary idea of the different types of woods.

There are three types of wood:

  • Hardwood
  • Softwood
  • Exotic wood

Hardwood refers to wood coming from deciduous trees. Common examples include

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Walnut
  • Cherry
  • Ash
  • Hickory

Hardwood is often used to make furniture. But with it comes a price tag—it tends to be more expensive than softwood.

Softwood typically comes from cone-bearing trees, such as:

  • Pine
  • Cedar
  • Juniper

The difference from softwood to hardwood is, not surprisingly, in the hardness. Softwood can be cut and pierced easier, making it ideal for construction projects like studs and trusses. Softwood is the typical wood you see in the lumber section at a hardware store. It’s also less expensive.

But this can also be a disadvantage because it dents more easily than hardwood. So, while it can be used for furniture, it’s not the most common. A dented pine dinner table isn’t the most desired.

Everything has exceptions, however. There are some species of hardwood that are softer than many softwoods. Alder, for example, is very soft, yet it’s still classified as a hardwood. Even if your wood may be listed in one category, it’s best to do a bit of research to make sure it will fit your needs.

The last type of wood is exotic wood. This encompasses wood like teak and zebrawood, as well as bamboo, though it’s technically a grass. Exotic wood is sometimes chosen for its color, strength, or overall uniqueness.

Appearance is also an important factor in choosing wood. You might be looking for a dark-colored wood or a light-colored wood (walnut and hard maple fit those bills, respectively). Or you might be wanting an unusual color, in which case you could try zebrawood, which comes in startling colors of purple and pink.

The grain also could influence wood choice. If you don’t want it to take center stage, a straight-grained wood, like cedar or cherry, would be a good option. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a grain that rises, swells and curls, consider mango or oak.

Knots are another factor. Pine often has a beautiful array of knots in its wood, making it the perfect choice for some projects. However, if you don’t want a lot of distraction in the wood, a type without many knots might be a better route.

One last thing to remember when selecting wood is to pick one that has a moisture content similar to that of the final place your project will be going. You can find that out with the help of a moisture meter, like one of these from Bessemeter.

Plan your project thoroughly

A woodworker drawing plans for a woodworking projectOnce you have a project in mind, you’ll want to be sure to plan it out to the nth degree. You’ll avoid unforeseen problems and other things you didn’t think about before.

When planning out your project, start by deciding on the purpose of your project. Will it have a function, like a table or cupboard? Or is it more for visual appeal? This will help you decide on your materials, which is the next step.

If you’re going for pure wood, you’ll want to pick it out accordingly. Your project may also involve other materials like veneers or laminates, or a combination of both.

After you’ve chosen your materials, make a list of woodworking tools you’ll use. These might include only power tools—drills, saws, planers—but you’ll probably have at least one hand tool in the mix, too—dowels, clamps, etc.

This process could be difficult to envision, but think about how all the different parts of your project will fit together. How will you do the joinery? Asking yourself these questions will help you see which sized tools you’ll need and the cuts you’ll have to make.

Making a list of tools is also really helpful to see if you need a tool you don’t have. Not only that, but it can help avoid the nasty surprise of realizing there’s no tool to do what you want to do.

Once all these preliminary steps have been taken, make a drawing for your project. Depending on the project, you might need only one quick sketch, or you might need an elaborate set of woodworking plans. Include dimensions and other details that will help you remember and not get confused as you’re going.

And don’t be afraid to modify your drawings, either, if you decide that tool you’d have to buy is a little out of your price range or the joining won’t look as good as you first thought. You probably won’t have to go back to the drawing board—just make a few minor alterations like the cutting depth or the tool size.

The last thing you’ll want to do before starting is research your finishes, wood glues, and fillers. You might even want to plan down to the grain of sandpaper you’ll use. Some glues and fillers are better suited for certain materials or joinings, and you’ll want to know this before embarking on a project.

And don’t forget to learn from your mistakes! Remember what went wrong on past projects and why, and don’t let them happen again.

Keep your workspace organized

Wall racks with woodworking tools organized by typeWorkspace organization is a great way to cut down on confusion, waste, and frustration. When all your tools have a home and are kept in that home, reaching for a chisel won’t be a chore or interrupt your workflow too much.

To help keep your workspace neat, get organizers like drawers, boxes, and containers for small parts. Label hooks on walls and keep sets of tools in order of decreasing size.

For some people, it’s also handy to keep the tools you use the most within easy reach.

With long cables, find something to wrap them around, like an old paper towel roll. This keeps the cords from getting tangled up and looks neater.

Besides organizing your tools, it’s important to keep your shop clean. Always put your tools away when you’re done. Your workbench will stay clear and you’ll keep all those tools in the organizing bins you just made.

As well as putting everything away, clean up after yourself. Sweep up sawdust or chips, and throw out little scraps you won’t use. Put your larger scraps in a designated scrap bin to use in another project.

And pick up anything off the floor. Things on the floor can pose tripping hazards, and there are already enough hazards in a shop!

Maintain your tools

Rusty woodworker's toolsTools aren’t cheap, and the more you maintain them, the longer they’ll last.

First of all, only use sharp tools when you’re working. Dull blades can cause binding or kickback—not to mention, really bad cuts.

Sharpen all your blades regularly, and if you notice a dull blade, set it aside to sharpen later.

For metal tools, there are a number of things you can do to maintain them and keep them in good working order.

Before putting tools away, first clean them. Scrub off any grease, oil, dirt, or other debris to cut down on residual buildup of grime. While you’re doing this, it’s not a bad idea to inspect your tools for damage or other issues.

Once you’ve cleaned your tools, oil them (just the metal parts, not wooden handles). This helps prevent rust.

Rust occurs if the humidity fluctuates in the room, especially if it’s a very humid room. If your tool does rust, scrub or grind it off, or use a rust remover.

Also make sure all your tools are well-lubricated with grease or oil, like WD-40.

For wooden tools and handles, rub them down frequently with linseed oil. This not only protects the wood but also revitalizes it. It’s also a good idea to sand down any rough handles you might encounter, to prevent splinters.

Any other tools, like moisture meters, should be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s guidelines and kept in their boxes.

Now that we’ve covered some good practices for woodworking, let’s look at how we can avert some common mistakes.

How to avoid common woodworking mistakes

Everyone has made mistakes in their woodworking projects. Here are some hacks to miss those common slip-ups.

Taking precise measurements

A hand holding a tape measure and marking spots on a piece of woodMeasuring incorrectly is a common mistake, but it’s not hard to remedy.

One important part in understanding how to measure right is knowing the difference between nominal and actual sizes of wood. Nominal sizes are the ones you hear in the store: 2×4, for example. But its actual size is 1½ x 3½. Knowing the actual sizes of your wood before beginning a project helps avoid errors.

Something else you can do is be sure all your measuring devices are accurate. To do this, line all of them up at the 0 line. Then check all of them at different lengths: an inch, two inches, six, twelve…

They should all line up at those different intervals. If one doesn’t, it’s an inaccurate measuring device and shouldn’t be used. As the old adage says, “Measure twice, cut once.”

Along with checking the accuracy of your measuring pieces, it’s good to know which types of measuring devices are best suited for different measurements. For larger widths (greater than an inch), a tape measure is the best to use. For anything under an inch, you’re better off using steel rulers or digital calipers.

Another factor that could skew your measurements is the thickness of your pencil when you draw reference lines. If the line is too thick, it could cause your cuts to be off.

Many use a carpenter’s pencil, which is specifically designed for these projects. Make sure it is sharpened correctly, and use the thin side to draw your line. The thinner the line, the better. Some even recommend using a knife to make the thinnest line. However, be careful not to make too deep of a cut in the wood, in case you make a mistake.

Similar to this, take the kerf into account when you’re cutting. The kerf is the slit made in the wood when it’s cut with the saw. It can be thick or thin.

If your project calls for little tolerance, a kerf can make all the difference. Determine what your kerf is and take that into account when you’re making initial measurements.

Taking your time

 A design book for woodworking projects with a clock behind itAs we said earlier, rushing increases your risk for injury and/or a messy job.

There are a few ways to avoid rushing. First, plan out your project in advance. This way, you’ll get an idea for how long it will take and help prevent you from feeling impatient later on down the road.

Something else to consider is the start time of the project. If you have a deadline for the project, or even a timeframe for when you want it to be completed, don’t wait until the last minute to start. Then you’ll be trying to make up for lost time —and rush.

Instead, start well in advance, allowing time for unexpected problems that could arise and other things to get in the way.

This also means taking the time needed to let glue and finishes dry properly.

Even the time of day can keep you from rushing. Some people naturally work better at certain times of the day. This can help you remain patient and take your time to do the job right.

Choosing the right type of wood

A hand holding a paintbrush and applying finish on a piece of woodWood is another difficult factor to figure out, but choosing the wrong one can be avoided by asking yourself this before making your selection: What is the purpose of my project?

There are so many factors that weigh in on this question.

For example, some woods work better for certain projects than others when it comes to cost. While oak might be stronger than pine, it wouldn’t be very cost-effective to use for all the studs in your house (though they used to do that back in the day). Not to mention, it is awfully resistant to screws and nails, making it a bit of a nightmare to hang drywall.

Along with this, some woods have traditional uses. Hickory, for instance, has traditionally been the material used in rustic furniture.

You’ll also want to think about how you’ll be treating the wood. Some woods are more resistant to moisture than others. This can be good if it’s going to be surrounded by a lot of moisture, but if you’re wanting to stain or paint it, you could have a problem.

Some woods accept stain easier than others. Maple stains easily, but the exotic wood teak is difficult to stain.

Grain can also affect the level of difficulty to work with the wood. Some woods have a straight grain, while others have varying severity of wavy grain. The waviness may affect the difficulty or ease with which you can work the wood. Oak has a very wavy grain, while walnut is at the opposite end of the spectrum with straight grain.

Another factor to take into account is expense. Have an idea in your mind how much you want to spend on your project, and then research woods that will match your budget. Of course, softwoods will be in the cheaper range, along with some hardwoods like poplar. Middle-of-the-road woods will be most of your hardwoods, such as oak, walnut, ash, hickory, and cherry. Exotic woods are the most expensive, including Congo wood, Teak, and Lacewood.

Planning thoroughly

As we highlighted earlier, failing to plan your project before you start can cause catastrophe further down the road.

Without a plan, you’re more likely to make mistakes, rush, or wind up with a completely different finished product than you envisioned.

Thinking through your project includes a multitude of factors, like we’ve already discussed. Among these, choosing the right wood, measuring correctly, deciding on your tools, and going slow and steady all contribute to a thorough plan that will help your project turn out better than you imagined.

Using a wood moisture meter

A Bessemeter wood moisture meterOne of the worst mistakes you can make when starting a woodworking project is not investing in a wood moisture meter. While it may not seem like a very necessary item to add to your spending list, a moisture meter can make the difference between a successful project and a failed project.

This is because of the moisture content (MC) of your wood.

All wood comes with different levels of MC, and if it’s not the same as the MC of the place your project will be, you don’t want to start your project yet. This is because the wood will still gain or lose moisture.

If the MC of your wood is off, it could cause cracking, warping, swelling, and many other problems to befall your wood.

These, plus other internal issues, could cause your projects to be defective or lose the quality of work that’s in your other projects. This won’t be good for your own judgment of your skills, and it won’t be good for your reputation if you continue to produce lower-quality projects.

But how do you know if your moisture is at the right level?

That’s where a moisture meter comes in. Moisture meters are central to the success of your projects. Before you begin working with the wood, take a moisture reading to see if the wood has an acceptable level of moisture. And as you are working on your project, continue to take moisture readings to be sure you’re on the right track.

Taking frequent moisture readings of your wood ensures that your wood is in the proper range when you buy it, which is one more huge factor that helps guarantee the success of your project. Plus, when you check MC regularly, you can make sure it stays in the proper range by taking the proper action if necessary.

Check out our wide selection of moisture meters today to be sure your wood is up to par before starting a project.