How many clamps do you REALLY need? Woodworking basics.

“You can never have enough clamps!” Is that really true? In fact, you can accomplish almost anything with just 9 key clamps. Plus, I’ll talk about 3 overrated clamps. I mean seriously, clamps can be super expensive and I’m a cheapskate. 

Just a reminder, if you are just starting out in your woodworking journey, feeling a bit overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, I’ve created a step-by-step woodworking course just for you called The Weekend Woodworker. If you’ve never held a saw in your life, you’ll be able to complete your first project this weekend. To help you get started, I want you to download my free guide to setting up shop for under $1000 at mytoollist.com. 

Essential Clamps

Pipe clamps

Pipe clamps are probably the cheapest clamps you can own. You buy these jaws separately, then buy whatever length of pipe you want. These are sold to fit ½” or 3⁄4” black pipes which you can buy at most home centers, lumber yards or hardware stores with threads already on the ends. Some places will cut them to length and cut the threads for you. 

These jaws screw onto the threads, then this other piece slides up and down the pipe for quick adjustments. 

Mine are ¾” pipes, but I recommend saving money and just getting 1⁄2” pipe. There is no reason why you would need the extra strength of ¾” when clamping projects together. I find 36” pipes the most versatile, especially for gluing up panels. And they aren’t too bulky if you need to use them for smaller projects.  I recommend having 4 along with 4 sets of jaws. That way you can edge join boards with two on each side. 

I also have 4, 48” pipes for bigger glue-ups, tabletops and such and a couple short, and 2 16” pipes that sometimes come in handy. I have jaws for all of these, but really you can get by with 4 sets of jaws and just swap them out as needed. 

If you need to glue up something really long, just clamp two clamps together. Oh, and if you need to cover a little more surface make some clamping blocks to slide onto the pipes. They will also help protect the surface of your project. 

Bar Clamps

Bar clamps are easily my most used clamps. These 6 Bessey Style clamps probably account for 90% of all my clamping. They are simply that useful. I’ve had these for many many years and there is hardly a project they haven’t been used in. 

I have three different sizes, about 6”, 12”, and 24”…at least that’s about the effective working distance of the jaws. The handle broke off this little one a long time ago, but it’s still useful.

I use bar clamps for everything. From gluing just about anything, to holding stop blocks, to just providing a third hand. 

Strap Clamp

Lastly, and this might seem an unusual pick, but I consider a strap clamp essential. Any time I need to glue up something with four sides…say a box or a picture frame, a strap clamp is the best way to square everything up. And considering how many projects are based on a simple box, I’m always amazed at how handy this clamp is and how often I use it.

Those are my recommendations for essential clamps. If you are a beginning woodworker, these will serve you fine for years. Bottom line: 4 bar clamps, 4 pipe clamps and a strap clamp. You actually may not ever really need anymore. 

Of course, if you’re like most woodworkers, you will probably accumulate more clamps than the essentials. There are bazillions of different types of clamps, from specialty clamps to gimmicky clamps. It can be pretty fun and enticing to imagine them in your shop, but as with all tools, stop and consider if it’s really solving a problem you have or if it’s just something you think might be handy. If you’re itching to spend money, consider just buying some extra bar clamps. 

Overrated Clamps

I want to talk about three types of clamps that I’ve acquired over the years that I hardly ever use. I’m sure there are woodworkers who will strongly disagree, but remember…this is just based on my experience. 

Handscrew clamps

Hand tool woodworkers seem to be drawn to these wooden handscrew clamps. I’ve used this on a few occasions, mostly as a third hand to hold something in place, but overall, I’ve never had any specific need for it that I can’t accomplish with other clamps. Plus it’s kind of mind-boggling to figure out how to use. And they’re expensive. I must have been in a quaint kind of mood when I bought it. 

Spring clamps 

Spring clamps are mostly useful for holding things temporarily in place. Photographers might use them for holding up backdrops. Sometimes I use them for hanging sheets over the window if harsh sunlight is interfering with a particular video shot. But for woodworking they are just not very useful.

One problem is that the way these clamping heads pivot, it can cause glued boards to slip, unlike bar clamps and pipe clamps that provide straight horizontal pressure along the axis. This can be super frustrating.

Second, the larger spring clamps are, the more grip strength you’ll need to operate them one-handed. And even then, they might not provide enough pressure for glue-ups anyway. 

C-Clamps

Look, I know plenty of woodworkers who love using c-clamps, but honestly, I’ve never seen the point. There are very few times when a c-clamp provided the only solution to a clamping situation. Maybe that extra-wide mouth came in handy once or twice for having to over or beyond something. But mostly they are just time-consuming to use because of all the threads. Again, a bar clamp is just more efficient.

Let me know in the comments: what are your essential clamps and what clamps do you think are just overrated? 

Are CNC machines cheating? Is pocket hole joinery real woodworking?

Pocket screws. Dovetail jigs. Laser cutters. CNC machines. What do these things have in common? These are a few of the things considered “cheating” by a lot of woodworkers. 

 

Before I jump in, I want to remind you that anyone can get started in this hobby without a lot of money or space using my Woodworking for Mere Mortals approach. And I want you to take your first step on this journey today by downloading my free guide to setting up a woodworking shop for under $1000. Just head on over to mytoollist.com

Pocket hole joinery

Any time I use pocket hole joinery in a project video, I’ll get comments from people telling me that I need to learn “real” joinery techniques or that I’m not a “real” woodworker. Aside from the fact that this channel exists to help beginners get started, not to showcase my ego projects and flex my skills, the very idea that the way a project is built defines woodworking is very narrow-minded. 

CNC Machines

And while CNC machines are outside the focus and mission of Woodworking for Mere Mortals, you don’t have to look very hard to find similar comments directed at woodworkers who use CNCs in their videos. “Just pushing a button is not woodworking.” Aside from the fact that making components with a CNC machine is a lot more involved than just “pushing a button”, the implication here is that the more difficult something is, the more valid it is. There’s still a bit of bro-culture in woodworking that accounts for some of this, but I think it’s a little deeper.

Technique Shaming

I’m not sure exactly when technique shaming started, but it’s much more common on Youtube today than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It probably has a lot to do with the tribal nature of social media these days, the hypercritical way we view everything, and this manic compulsion to offer an opinion on everything online. 

By definition, cheating is “to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.”

So I find the notion of “cheating” in this context to be puzzling. Woodworking is not a sport with winners and losers. 

The question is, “Who is being cheated by the woodworking techniques we choose to use?” The end-user? As long as the piece is sturdy and functional, how it was built is irrelevant. The main consideration for a user is if the piece is aesthetically pleasing. Again, the tools used to build it are of little or no concern to a person who loves the look of the nightstands you made. 

The best version of yourself is defined only by you.

“If a computer is involved, it’s not real woodworking.”

I suspect a lot of the anti-CNC opinion is based on a lack of understanding of what a CNC router actually does. In short, you design shapes on your computer and the CNC cuts them out exactly using a router. It allows for a much higher degree of precision and repeatability than you can get by using a jigsaw or other tool. Of course you can do a lot more with a CNC, but that’s the basic idea. 

Maybe the fear is that computer-aided tools will eventually replace regular power tools. I won’t be surprised if someday they are common in most shops, but there will always be people who prefer using traditional power tools. Just like you can still buy handsaws even though table saws exist. 

“Regular people are being priced out of the hobby.”

This is actually an understandable concern and one that I talk about frequently on Woodworking for Mere Mortals. First of all, keep in mind that most of the time when you see a large YouTube channel using a CNC, laser cutter and other expensive tools, chances are the manufacturer sent them that for free. It’s an effort by tool companies to normalize and mainstream expensive purchases. The more you see people using high-end tools the more you might assume they are necessary.

You don’t need to buy into the marketing hype to enjoy woodworking. I feel very passionate about teaching people to make awesome projects without high-end tools and thousands of people who have taken my courses are a testament to the fact that affordability is fun! 

But it’s also worth noting that the prices of CNCs and other computerized tools are far more affordable than they were a few years ago. You certainly won’t be priced out of woodworking and today you actually have more and more affordable choices available if you choose to digitize your shop. It’s a great time to be a woodworker! 

“Pocket hole joinery is for people who don’t know how to make real joints”

This is an arrogant reaction that you see in all fields. “Hip hop dance is for people who can’t learn real dance moves”. “Punk music is for people who can’t appreciate real music”. “Abstract artists are people who never learned how to paint.” “Horror films are made by hacks without talent to make real movies.” Well la-di-da 

The implication here is that there is a naturally imposed hierarchy of social value and acceptability to weed out the riff raff. It might seem strange, but woodworking is not immune to this silliness. 

“Yeah, but pocket screws create weak joints.”

The underlying myth here is that the main test of quality is durability. I’ve seen a number of “strength test” videos, challenges and “shootouts” on YouTube comparing pocket hole joints to traditional joints. I won’t argue the results: a mortise and tenon will produce an undeniably strong connection but comparing these two types of joints is a waste of time. A better question that needs to be asked is, how much strength does a given piece of woodworking require for it to be sturdy and functional? 

A 3 ton pickup is much stronger than a Toyota Camry, but they both work equally well for a quick trip to the supermarket. 

Quality furniture needs to be durable, not necessarily indestructible. Build with the end use in mind. If creating heirlooms is your passion, then go for it! But not everyone shares that goal.

“Anyone could make that using those tools”

This is a super common comment made by people with fragile egos who feel tools or techniques define a craftsman’s prowess. In a recent video I made called, “How to make a basic box”, a large number of comments were exactly this. People somehow expecting me to use hand tools.

“Its stupid that you’re making a video for beginners but you’re using your 1000$ table saw.”

Pretty funny considering my woodworking approach is decidedly low budget. (Clearly, they need to download my tool buying guide!) I think the public assumption is that the entry point for woodworking is hand tools, then you advance to power tools. This simply isn’t true. Not to mention that modern hand tools are often more expensive than power tools! 

Another aspect of this might have to do with a fear that making things is out of the reach of all but the wealthy. The belief that there’s a high financial entry barrier to woodworking or the fear that if you’re already a woodworker, you’ll get left behind, not having the latest tools. 

Take a deep breath

Look, we live in a great time where more people than ever are taking up woodworking as a hobby. And it’s more diverse in every way imaginable. Gone are the days when there were “proper” ways to make things. Gone are the days when a shop teacher would bark at you for setting a plane down the wrong way. Gone is the expectation of putting in years of tedious practice before seeing woodworking results. 

Let’s all embrace the variety in this hobby and appreciate methods that might be different from your own. Hey, woodworking is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon no matter how you choose to approach it. 

8 Miter Saw pro tips & tricks

If you are just getting into woodworking, a miter saw is one of the most useful tools you can own. I consider it so handy, that the first few projects in my Weekend Woodworker course are built without a table saw, using just the miter saw. In fact, if you’ve never built anything before, and are looking for a great first project…one that you can build in a weekend, I want to you to download my free set of plans to build this practical, sturdy mobile workbench, the BMW. Head over to basicmobileworkbench.com and start your woodworking journey today! No experience necessary.

Clean up board ends. 

When you buy boards, chances are the ends aren’t in great shape. They’ve been standing around in bins and have probably experienced a lot of moving and handling by the home center or lumberyard but mostly by customers trying to find the best pieces. And in some big box stores, finding a quality, straight, the usable board can take a long time.

The ends of almost any board will be chipped or maybe have a split running a couple of inches down. And if they are in pretty decent shape, there is a chance that they weren’t cut square at the mill. 

I just make it a rule to always chop a little off each end of every new board to get to the good wood. It’s kinda like digging past the first few slices to get to the good bread.
Examine the ends and if there are any splits, cut just to the point where the split ends. If you have a pretty decent board, you may need to just remove less than a centimeter to square it up and get a good clean end.

Use Stop Blocks

Using stop blocks is the number one way to make your miter saw more efficient. Just about the only time I don’t use stop blocks are when I only have a single board to cut…and that’s pretty unusual. So much of woodworking is about making multiple pieces all the same length…4 table legs, 4 box sides, a pair of drawer handles…the list goes on and on.

Setting up a block is simple. Determine how long you need your workpieces to be and clamp a scrap of wood to the fence at that spot. Now you can just line up the board against the stop block and start cutting. All your pieces will be exactly the same length.

Make an Extension Fence

Stop blocks are great, but what if you need to cut boards that are longer than the length of your saw’s fence?

Find a straight board and attach it to your saw’s fence. You might not have even realized that there are usually holes in the fence for just this purpose. 

Just drive some screws in place, making sure they don’t poke out the other side. You want to make sure you drive two screws on each side of the blade split. An added benefit of making an extension fence is that it also creates a zero clearance slot that will make your cuts cleaner with less splintering. 

Once you’ve got the fence in place, you can clamp a stop block in place anywhere along its length. The nice thing about the fence is that you can clip the end of your tape measure in the slot and measure the length of your cut. Just make a mark on the fence, line up your stop block, clamp it in place and start cutting.

Make a zero clearance table

If you like the clean cuts your getting with the extension fence in place, you can also improve the table the same way. Most miter saws have insert blades with a very wide throat so there’s room for a tilted blade when making bevel cuts. 

Sometimes, usually when cutting small pieces, this can be a problem. Not only can the workpiece splinter, but tiny pieces can drop into the slot.

Just attach a piece of plywood over the entire table. One way to hold it in place is to slide it up against the fence, then screw the extension fence on top of it, sort of clamping it in place. Another method is to stick it in place using double-sided carpet tape.

Holding small pieces 

There are times when you need to cut very small pieces. Maybe you need to cut some dowel pins. You can feed the wood through just fine while it’s reasonably long, but once it gets down to a few inches, don’t let your fingers get any closer to the blade. 

You can use any long piece of wood or even a push stick to safely hold the short workpiece in place, but I find that using a pencil works great. It’s long enough to keep your fingers safe and the eraser grips the wood and holds it still. 

Cutting to a line

There are times when you just need to make a one-off cut so there’s no need to set up a stop block. Measure the length with a tape measure and draw a line on the board. But keep in mind the thickness of the kerf or thickness of your saw blade. A common rookie woodworking mistake it to draw a line and cut right down the middle, which will leave your board a little shorter than you intended, usually about 1/16” since a blade is typically ⅛” thick.

Always keep in mind which side of the line represents your measured length of the workpiece and cut just to the edge of the line so the line remains on your board. If you cut on the other side of the line, you will be ⅛” short. That can make a big difference in the success of a project and how it fits together

Shaving a board down

Sometimes you might cut just outside the line and discover that the board is just slightly too long. Maybe it’s a cross brace for a tabletop and needs to fit perfectly. A good way to shave off just a paper thin amount is to press the end up against the saw blade, causing it to flex just a little. Hold the board in place, then raise the blade back into its upright position. Now when you bring it down it might cut off just what you need. This is a great way to sneak up on a prefect fit and lower the chance of cutting off too much.

Cutting boards that are just a little too wide

One of the limitations to a miter saw is that it can’t cut wide boards. About the widest board you can cut will be a little more than the radius of the blade due to the fence and the way the head swings down. 

Sometimes you might encounter a board that is frustratingly close to cutting all the way through, but just not quite enough.  

Try this. Raise the workpiece just a little using a scrap board. That’ll give you just a little longer cut…maybe just enough.

Can you make pocket holes without a jig?

Whenever I use a pocket hole jig I get a few comments asking why I need the jig at all. Can’t you just drive screws in at an angle?

Yes, you most certainly can, but to get strong joints, the answer is a bit more involved.

Why use pocket hole joinery?

First, it’s helpful to understand how pocket hole joinery works and why it creates a strong connection. Pocket hole joinery is used in places where driving a screw straight on is impractical or impossible. Often this is when you need to join pieces at a right angle or flat pieces that would require a really long screw.

For example, It’s tempting to butt join these two boards together by drilling a screw in through the face grain of one board into the end grain of the other. The problem here is that the end grain of a board has very little holding power. The screw is going into the wood the same direction that the wood fibers run.

I’m not going to lie and say this is always a bad idea. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of holding power, say on decorative objects,  and screwing into end grain works fine. But on furniture or other projects that will be subjected to a lot of weight or handling or movement, those screws will eventually loosen up to the point where they get stripped and can’t be tightened any longer. You may have seen this happen on inexpensive cabinet drawers that get a lot of use.  

The geometry of a pocket hole and why they work

A pocket hole is a regular hole drilled into a board at an angle, but at its mouth, there is a much wider diameter hole that goes partially through the wood, creating a flat bottom. Looking at this cross-section you can see that it’s like a flat bottom cylinder with a hole in the bottom. This feature is critical to how a pocket hole gets its strength. Typically this hole is drilled with a specialized stepped bit that drills the narrow part of the hole and the wide part of the hole at the same time. It’s important to note that this hole only bores into one board, not the receiving board.

But the pocket hole is just half of the equation. The other half is the pocket screw. A pocket screw is a specialty screw that has a wide flat underside to its head. This is the part that sits in that flat bottomed pocket. This is critical for pocket hole joinery to work. The head and the flat shoulder of the hole create a lot of surface area for the screw to pull the two boards together.

The other component of a pocket skew is its self-tapping point. Basically, the tip of each screw acts as a drill bit and helps the screw bore into the receiving board and draw the two pieces tightly together. This is important since the pocket hole is only drilled into the first board.

Isn’t this the same as toenailing?

No. I’ve seen some advocates for simply foregoing the pocket hole altogether and just driving screws in at an angle. This is called toenailing…even though screws are used. This is a common, traditional method for pounding nails into wall studs to attach them to a sole plate when framing a wall. This works well for this kind of construction because walls are mostly subjected to downward force, not side-to-side. Except for earthquakes of course. 

Furniture is a different story and each connection can be subjected to forces and movement in many directions.

To toenail boards together without any pocket hole jig, just start drilling a hole downward to get it started, then tip your drill to angle it toward the other board. You’ll still want to clamp the pieces together when you drive the screw in place to keep them from slipping apart.

But there are a couple of problems here. Mostly, this is a weak connection…not much stronger than simply drilling into the end grain.  

  1. First, you have to use a regular tapered head screw so the head can sit below the surface. And without that flat shoulder and flat head of a pocket screw to draw the two pieces together, this joint is substantially weaker. The board is more likely to split too with the head of the screw acting like a wedge.
  2. Second, it’s difficult to drill angled holes at consistent angles. You might end up with the screw entering the receiving board with very little material.
  3. Third, it’s difficult to know when to stop driving the screw…it will never feel fully tight. You might just plow all the way through.

In general, I don’t recommend toenailing screws for woodworking projects.

But can you make pocket holes without a jig?

You sure can. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether it’s worth it. You just need to drill an angled hole, then drill a wider hole.

Start by toenailing the small hole…just like I showed before. Drill straight down, then tip the drill at an angle, trying to get the bit to exit as close as possible to the center of the board’s thickness.

Follow this up with a wider bit to make the pocket. This is the trickiest part. Mostly, you have to be careful not to go too deep or the screw will go in too far.

This method will take some practice to get it right, but it is viable. If you only have a couple pocket holes to make, it might be worth it, but this would be very time consuming if you had a lot of pocket holes to make.

Probably the best budget solution and a great compromise is to get a mini pocket hole jig. This one comes with the stepped drill bit and collar for 20 bucks. It takes longer to use because you have to clamp it in place for each hole, but you will get clean, accurate pocket holes.

Bottom Line

If you only have the occasional pocket hole to make, you might want to save some money and use one of these alternative methods. What a pocket hole jig will give you is accuracy, precision, and consistency. If I had a lot of pocket holes to make, it would be a pain to have to make them by hand. And a lot more time-consuming.

And while I am an advocate for saving money, and as hobbyists we are not usually in any hurry in our shops, this is one of those instances where I prefer to use a tool that will save me from monotony and tedium. Worrying about making the proper angle and how deep to drill on every hole seems frustrating.

Ultimately, if you want to avoid mechanical fasteners altogether, start exploring the world of traditional woodworking joinery. Learning how to cut dovetails or make mortise and tenon joints is a time honored pursuit that you might enjoy!

8 totally free ways to become an even happier woodworker

What gives you the most joy from woodworking? I want you to think about that for a second.

I’ve conducted a number of surveys in the past couple years that thousands of people have responded to. When asked, “What gives you the most joy from woodworking?” a common response is, “The satisfaction of completing a project.”

Other common responses are, “I enjoy the time to myself” and “I like to use my hands to create things.”

“My workshop is my escape from my very monotonous day job in an office. It is

a place of flowing creativity and where I can make things for others.”

— 33 y/o Male Survey Responder

What I almost never hear is “Buying things gives me the most joy”. Sure, there are some people who simply love to acquire and collect tools, but for the most part, tools factor low on the woodworking enjoyment scale.

I know, you’ve probably heard people say, “Yeah, but having good, quality tools makes your woodworking better and more enjoyable”. This myth has to be something started by tool companies. Or, maybe this is just a retroactive way we justify expensive purchases. I have never had expensive tools and yet I’ve always loved woodworking. If you chase contentment based on things you don’t have, or on what other people have, you will forever be unsatisfied. This tablesaw is better than the little Craftsman saw I used for years, but I don’t enjoy my time in the shop any more than I did in 2008. There are tons of saws that are better than this one, but dropping 2 grand on one probably wouldn’t make me a happier woodworker. Personally, spending money actually has the opposite effect on me.

Of course if you are a professional carpenter, high-end equipment makes sense. But as hobbyists, there are lots of things you can do without spending a dime that will add to your joy of being a woodworker and maybe even improve your life a little.

Every time I even suggest this tip, a lot of people have a knee-jerk defensive reaction, but hear me out. For some reason a lot of woodworkers have this manic belief that tools are sacred. These are holy objects not to be shared with others. You’ve probably seen cutesy signs like this one all over the internet and in people’s shops:

Tool rules:

  • Don’t touch them
  • Don’t borrow them
  • Don’t move them
  • Don’t even look at them.

Frankly, I can think of few sentiments crankier, and less inclusive than that. Why not just get a lock and make your shop off limits to everyone if you are so worried about sharing your toys.

For years, I’ve been proposing a paradigm shift with a better sign that puts friendships ahead of material things.

Tool rules:

  • Touch them
  • Borrow them
  • Move them
  • Please look at them.

Friends and neighbors ask to borrow tools because they need to fix or do something themselves, not to make you grumpy and ruin your day. But your simple act of kindness will make you a hero and make another human’s day. I think we need more of this in the world. In other words, Wheaton’s Law.

If a friend asks to borrow other things in your world do you also refuse? A cup of sugar? A rake? A flashlight? How about jumper cables? Your car?

“I once let someone borrow a circular saw and never got it back.”

Well, try again. Don’t define your worldview based on a single person or incident. Most people who borrow tools will return them in a timely manner. If someone doesn’t, maybe just ask for it back? They probably just forgot and feel terrible about it.

“If I lend someone a tool, I won’t have it when I need it.”

I guess if you are working in your shop 24/7 and it’s a tool you use a lot, this could be an issue. But again, you are probably thinking about worst case scenario. Ask for the tool back.

“Whenever I lend a tool, it comes back in worse condition, or broken.”

I doubt this happens “whenever you lend a tool”. In my experience, people usually return tools cleaned and in better condition. Sometimes with new blades or sanding discs or whatever. Most people in the world are good.

 

And there are other excuses like these that all share a common theme of fear. Fear of what might happen if we help someone out. And I know some of you are already typing out your one anecdotal story about a beloved tool that traumatized you for life, but try focusing on the good in people rather than the rare what-ifs. It’s kind of like how we define YouTube by negative comments, when easily 98-99% are positive.

But if lending tools is something you’re working on, try lending your time instead. In many ways it’s even more satisfying. If a friend or neighbor asks for a tool, your expertise might actually be more valuable, but they may be afraid to ask. Take the time to help with their project. Working on a common goal is always a great way to cement friendships.

You can also lend your time in your shop. Show someone how to use a router table. Give your non-woodworker neighbor a quick rundown on how to use a random orbit sander.

If someone asks to borrow a certain tool, try responding with something like this.

“Hey can I borrow your hammer and a couple nails?”

“Sure…what you got going on?”

“Oh, I’m trying to fix a railing that’s wobbly on the porch.”

“Hmmm…sounds like you might need a drill or something a little stronger. Do you mind if I take a look at it with you?”

I’ve encountered lots of situations like this…usually from people who aren’t very handy to begin with, and don’t want to impose on your time. Don’t ask if they need help, ask how you can help. Not only will it be a great way build a friendship, but you are helping to pass on your skills and knowledge.

Another great way to lend your time is to volunteer at non-profit institutions. When Wyatt was in high school, I used to build stuff for his theater group. It was interesting to build props and things I wouldn’t otherwise make. They had a very limited budget, so I got to think outside the box and come up with creative, inexpensive solutions and I got to build stuff for free. Organizations like these are always so appreciative of your time and efforts and never critical of your work.

Try forcing yourself to make a few projects using nothing but the scraps that are already in your shop. There are a couple benefits from this.

  1. First, it will help you use up some of that excess material you’ve been saving before you officially become a hoarder.
  2. And second, it challenges your creativity by forcing you to build within constraints.

Maybe make some tiny boxes or picture frames or drink coasters. Shop jigs are great scrap projects. How about some key chains or signs? If you can’t think of anything, make an art piece. I made this mosaic just by cutting down scraps of all different wood species and fitting them together.

Donate excess lumber

Even after making a few scrap projects, you may be left with way more wood than you need. I like to make a yearly shop purge and get rid of stuff that I haven’t used and realistically won’t use for anything. Clearing out this clutter can go a long way in making your time in the shop more productive.

Clean your shop

A tidy shop is so much more enjoyable to work in than a messy one. If you are between projects, spend an afternoon cleaning up the place. Put away tools, sweep up sawdust that accumulates in the corners, oil your tools, wash the windows.

I’m really bad about drill bits and drivers. For some reason, my brain refuses to put these back while I’m working on a project. Same goes for sanding discs. I seem to have a weird pathological reluctance to throw them away, even when they are probably used up.

Spend time in your shop in the early morning.

I find that nothing centers me more than being in my shop early in the morning when the sun splashes through the window. It’s a quiet, reflective time that’s great for planning out your day.

Change things around

A workshop is an evolving space. Spend an afternoon moving things around and experiment with how your workflow might be improved.

Get inspired offline

Believe it or not, there are amazing things you can do away from the internet and woodworking inspiration is all around us. Here are some ideas:

  • Go to an antique store or even a thrift store and look at all the furniture. Look closely at how things were constructed. You might not want to replicate any of it, but take lots of pictures of things you like and bring those features into your projects. Keep an idea file on your computer, or what I do, keep an idea folder on Google photos.
  • Go to Ikea. I know, I know, cheap knock-down furniture. But a lot of their designs are really cool and can be easily replicated in actual wood quality workmanship. Again, borrow elements you like.
  • Visit a library. When’s the last time you went to a library? Surprisingly, they are really popular these days. Check out the woodworking section or course, but also the design and art sections. Borrow a bunch of books and take pictures of all the stuff you like.
  • Visit a museum. These might not be free, but are a wealth of inspiration. If you are in San Francisco, check out the Legion of Honor Museum for some awe-inspiring examples of exquisite 16th and 17th century furniture. Be careful though…most museums won’t let you take pictures.
  • Take the time to get out of the house and observe the world around you. It’s an amazing place filled with ideas and inspiration, even motivation.

Let me know what brings you the most joy from woodworking? Leave a comment below!

4 Sanders That Will Improve Your Woodworking

For all beginning woodworkers, I only recommend a single sander, the random orbit sander. It’s so useful that I consider it an essential woodworking tool.

But there are some other fairly affordable sanders that can make your time in the shop even more enjoyable and efficient.

 

Disc/Strip Sander

This first sander is actually 2 sanders: a 1” strip sander and a disc sander. You can buy these separately, but they are commonly sold in a single unit.

I bought mine close to 20 years ago because I wanted the disc sander. The 1” strip sander seemed nice, but doubted I would really get much use out of it. As it turned out, I kept finding more and more uses for it and now I absolutely love using the strip sander. I probably use it just as often as the disc sander.

  • I use it for sanding small pieces and it’s great for reaching into spaces impossible with other sanders, say widening thin slots.
  • I use it for freehand shaping of pieces. It’s probably the most artistic sander there is…you can actually sculpt with it.
  • And it’s great for sharpening tools, lawn mower blades, axes, as well as cleaning stuff off of tools.

The main use of a disc sander is to sand outside curves. No matter what kind of saw you use, it will be nearly impossible to get smooth edges. The advantage to using this rather than a random orbit sander is that it has a table, so you can make sure you are sanding square to the face of the board.

Plus, the table tilts so you can sand bevels and there is a miter gauge for sanding miters. It’s especially handy when you need to sand something down to a precise line.

 

Spindle Sander

A spindle sander works on inside curves. It comes with all different diameters of spindles and the sandpaper comes in tubes that slide onto them.

The tool spins to sand, but it also has an up and down, oscillating motion to prevent scratch mark patterns, just like a random orbit sander does.

So to use it, you just find the diameter that most closely matches your curve, drop the spindle in place and start sanding. Since it’s only attached on one end, you can use it to sand, or enlarge holes and get into other hard to sand spots.

This is probably my least used sander, but when I need it, I’m glad I have it. Some curves can be nearly impossible to sand by hand.

 

Detail Sander

A detail sander picks up where the random orbit sander leaves off.

It can get into tight corners, but because it’s so lightweight, it’s also very handy for any areas where other sanders might be difficult to wield. A random orbit sander is heavy and it’s oscillating action makes it hard to keep steady on areas where you might be working against gravity. A finishing sander is a lot less fatiguing to use.

 

Belt Sander

My handheld belt sander is probably the most aggressive sander on my list. Its main purpose is for removing lots of material fast.

It can take a little finesse to use in such a way that doesn’t ruin your workpiece. If you tip it a little, it will gouge the wood, and if you hold it in one place, it will dig right into the surface. When using a belt sander, always keep it in motion. All of this makes it more of a rough construction tool than a woodworking tool.

However, if you tip it upside down and clamp it to your workbench, you’ll get much better control since you control the workpiece instead of the tool.

In fact, you might consider a stationary belt sander. These typically have 4” wide belts and are mounted horizontally. Some come with a disc sander, just like the strip sander. And that might be handy to have two disc sanders…one with coarse sandpaper and one with medium grit. I’ve never owned one of these, but there have been times when I wished I had one.

Why Do So Many People Remove their Table Saw Blade Guards?

I did a quick check on fifty of the biggest woodworking channels that I subscribe to. Out of fifty, I found three that seem to regularly use a blade guard. Two of those were in a high-end shop with industrial equipment, where the blade guard is used to assist in better dust extraction.

So what’s going on here?

I want to start out by saying that I do not advocate that you use a table saw without a blade guard. It would be wildly irresponsible for me to do so. Especially if you are new to using a table saw, I recommend using every safety feature it has.

But in the real world, I have to acknowledge that many, perhaps most people are not using blade guards. I think demonstrating safe procedures with that in mind is important.

I also want to stress that using a riving knife is non-negotiable and I believe it is the single most important safety feature on a table saw. You may need to remove it when using dado blades, but for all other cuts, make sure it’s in place. It will dramatically reduce the chance of kickback. Never make a cut without it.

 

What is the purpose of a blade guard?

 

Most people think the primary purpose of a blade guard is to keep your fingers safe. That’s partially correct, but its main purpose is to prevent wood from falling on a spinning blade. This can happen in different ways, the most common is from reaching over the blade to grab a cutoff and dropping it or dragging it over the blade which will cause it to shoot back at you.

It can possibly protect you from a cutoff piece flying back at you in a kickback situation, but if you use a riving knife you shouldn’t be getting kickback. It can also keep any small chips from flying into your eye, but you should always be wearing safety glasses.

A blade guard does provide some finger protection, mostly serving as a visual reminder to keep your fingers away from the blade. It can block your fingers from the side and back, but the front of the blade is still exposed…and that’s the choppy direction. Table saws cut super quick, and if your fingers are too close to the blade, the blade guard won’t protect them.

But it’s a good way to remind yourself where to position your hands before every cut. And it will protect your hand from inadvertently skimming over the blade. This would most often happen if you’re reaching over the spinning blade to grab an off-cut.

These are all compelling reasons to use a blade guard.

 

So why not just use it then?

 

1) Probably the biggest reason I don’t use a blade guard is that I get better control of the wood without it in the way, especially when using the rip fence. I really like to use a push block to support a board and guide it through the blade. For me, this seems safer and gives me far better control over of my work-piece. But you cannot use a push block at all with a blade guard in place.

2) The second reason I’m not a fan of a blade guard is that it makes it difficult to see the cut being made. I admit this is kind of a weak reason because once you set up for a cut, you don’t really need to look at the blade. Maybe this is just a psychological thing, but I like to see where the blade is. And if I’m cutting to a line, or nibbling boards to fit something, being able to see the blade is very handy.

3) Also, the blade guard needs to be removed for cutting thin pieces or re-sawing lumber on its edge. It also needs to be removed when making non-through cuts such as dados and grooves. They are sometimes ineffective when making bevel cuts or need to be removed altogether. And you’ll need to remove it for table saw jigs and fixtures, such as a crosscut or miter sled.

So really the only time when a blade guard would work for me is when making crosscuts while using a miter gauge and in general, these are the least likely types of cuts that a blade guard would provide protection…again, assuming I have all other safety procedures in place. When making crosscuts, I am standing to the side of the blade and both hands are on the miter gauge. And since my work-piece is usually on the miter gauge side, I have no need to reach over the blade to retrieve it.

In my workflow, with my safety gear and using a push block, there are just too many common cuts I can’t make with a blade guard in place. And as someone who teaches woodworking on YouTube, this puts me in an awkward situation. I need to be hyper aware of demonstrating safe woodworking practices and I make an honest effort to always do so and point out potential risks. But a blade guard has too many asterisks and gray areas attached to it to for me to call it a non-negotiable safety accessory. It would simply be hypocritical.

 

My bottom line advice is this.

  • If you are brand new to using a table saw, definitely keep the blade guard in place.
  • If you already use a blade guard, great! Don’t get rid of it based on this video or my opinions.
  • If you let someone else use your saw, make sure the blade guard is installed.
  • Spend time learning all you can about safe table saw procedures and imagine every cut before making it, knowing how you’ll position your hands and body when you make the cut for real.
  • Always respect the power of your table saw, understand how it works.
  • And always wear those safety glasses!

 

 

6 Things You Might Be Doing Wrong on Your Table Saw

I want to point out a few common mistakes I sometimes see people make when using a table saw. And frankly, I’ve been guilty of some of these myself, so I hope this video will be a refresher for all of us. Correcting these bad habits will help you get better, cleaner cuts and make using your saw safer.

If you are new to using a table saw, be sure to check out my video, 7 Things To Get You Started Using A Table Saw. In that video, you’ll get a rundown of safety procedures and how to make basic cuts.

 

1. Making crosscuts on the wrong side

When making a cut, It’s important to know the difference between your work piece and your cutoff piece and which needs support. Usually you want to provide support for the work piece, the part of the board you’ve measured and are using for your project.

An exception to this rule is when using a stop block on your rip fence to make repeated cuts on short pieces. Then you should be supporting the cutoff side.

Definitely don’t try setting up a stop block on your miter gauge for cutting multiple small pieces. Most of the board will be unsupported which can cause it to tip and it places your fingers way too close to the blade.

A better solution to all of this is to make a crosscut sled. This jig will give you cleaner, more accurate crosscuts and both sides of the wood are fully supported throughout the cut.

 

2. Pressing against the blade

When using your rip fence to cut a wide board, you almost always want your work piece to be the side between the blade and the fence. It can be tempting to guide the sheet from the cutoff side, but as soon as the cut is made, you are putting lateral pressure on your saw blade instead of the fence.This can cause the board to bind can lead to cuts that aren’t square. Support the work piece and keep pressure against the fence, not the blade.

 

3. Not providing three directions of pressure

I’m sure you already know the importance of pushing wood through your table saw using something other than your fingers. Your table saw probably came with a push stick, which is good starting point, but a lot of people use it wrong.

For starters, one push stick isn’t enough. You need two. One to push the lumber forward through the blade, and the other to keep the wood pressed downward and against the fence.

For a safe and effective cut using your rip fence, these are the three directions of pressure you need to provide on every cut: forward, downward, and inward.

To use push sticks, use the cleat on one to push the board forward and a second push stick to press down and toward the fence. Do this only on the front side of the blade. Once the board is cut you don’t want to press inwards.

An improvement would be a larger push stick that provides better downward pressure, but you still need a second push stick to press inward in order to ensure an accurate cut. You can make your own with a scrap of plywood. I’ve included a free cutting template you can download. You can find the link below.

My favorite option is the GRR-Ripper push block. I love them and honestly feel the Gripper is absolute best way to get accurate and safe cuts. Not only does the grippy stuff allow you to easily press the work piece in all three directions, but it also supports the off-cut side. It’s kind of a luxury tool, but will definitely improve your cuts and and keep you a lot safer.

 

4. Freehand cutting

Just don’t ever do this. Always provide support with a fence.

 

5. Over-tightening your nut

When you install a blade, you might really crank down the arbor nut because you don’t want the blade fly off. But then when you try to remove the blade and can’t loosen the nut. Then it breaks free all at once and your knuckles crash into the table or even the blade itself.

When installing a blade, only tighten the nut until it stops. Rest assured, that blade isn’t going anywhere. The direction of the blade is opposite the direction of the arbor threads, which makes the nut sort of self tightening.

 

6. Using the rip fence for crosscuts

The basic rule here is to support the long side of a board. If a board seems likely to wobble when using the rip fence, use the miter gauge instead. Anything that can can cause wood to twist opens up the possibility of a crooked cut, or worse, the danger of kickback.

So that’s my list of common table saw mistakes. I hope this is helpful and saves you a few mis-cut boards – or worse.

 

Plans:

Push Stick Template

 

5 biggest sanding mistakes to avoid with a random orbit sander | Basic woodworking skills.

I have several sanders in my shop, but I definitely use the random orbit sander the most. Out of all things to screw up in woodworking, sanding errors can be the most infuriating, because we mostly sand near the end of a project, after we’ve spent hours being so careful building and assembling. It’s like twisting an ankle at mile 25 of a marathon. Or losing a wheel in the last mile of the Indy 500. (That can happen, right? I’ve never actually watched a car race.) Plus, sanding mistakes can be very difficult to repair.

In the real world, joints aren’t always as perfect as they are on every Instagram post ever. So let’s say you’ve joined two boards together that aren’t exactly flush.

It’s just a little off and a couple minutes of 60 grit will smooth it out. You fire up your sander and attack.

Yay, both sides are flush. But now you have a cupped board because you neglected the middle. And if this was the bottom of a box or something, now it’s a rocker.

There’s nothing wrong with sanding uneven joints, but just make sure you sand equally along the length of the board. Making a pencil mark along the entire board can help. Get it to disappear evenly.

By the way, whenever you need to test if something is flat, use your table saw. It’s probably the flattest surface in your shop. Then if there’s no wobble, you can confidently blame the floor.

This is a really common one. A sander is a simple way to ease over the sharp edges of a tabletop. If you are going to do this, pay close attention to the corners. It’s very tempting to maintain the same sanding motion and hit the corners, right?

Two things can happen. First, you’re a bit too enthusiastic and basically remove the corner. It only takes a second for a power sander to nerf that corner. Sure, it won’t poke an eye out, but rounded corners can look very odd.

Second, when you sand the vertical edge of a corner you’re left with a bulge. The main reason this happens is that there is flex to the sanding disc. When you press the sander against a corner, there is concentrated force on a small part of the sander and the disc cups. Even if you are trying to be careful and rock the sander, this can happen. Plus, the sander is in contact with so little surface, holding it completely straight is impossible.

The solution is to use something rigid like sanding stick and ease over these edges by hand. 

We sometimes think about the purpose of sanding as removing gouges, scratches, and any other rough spots. And while those are important, try not to think of sanding as a spot procedure. The entire project needs to be sanded in order to achieve a good finish. Treat the sanding phase of a project with as much attention as you give to making accurate cuts.

Probably the most neglected parts are wide faces, say the top of a table or the sides of a bookshelf. We might spot sand a few glaring problem areas, then just give the rest a quick once-over. These surfaces might appear nice and smooth, but often times surface imperfections won’t appear until you apply a finish.

The main purpose of sanding is to prepare all surfaces to accept a finish, so get some headphones and music and spend some quality time in the sanding zone.

Everything I just said about not neglecting the faces? Here’s the exception. And it’s a BIG exception.

Plywood.

Most plywood you will use for a woodworking project is pre-sanded. It may still need a little sanding, but not much. Feel the surface with your hand: if it feels a little fuzzy, you can knock down some of those wood fibers. But I never sand the surface with anything more coarse than 120 grit sandpaper. And even then, I just lightly sand, being careful not to hold the sander in any one spot.

The problem is that plywood is made up of multiple layers of cheaper wood with a thin veneer of good wood on top. If you use hardwood plywoods, say cherry or walnut, that veneer is even thinner. It doesn’t take long to sand completely through this paper thin layer and ruin the surface. This is exceptionally devastating because not only is it usually on a very visible surface, but there is really no way to fix it.

Try sticking some painters’ tape to the plywood, to protect it while you are sanding. And of course, try your best to align the edge banding flush to begin with. If you have a router, you can use a flush trim bit to even out these two surfaces.

The second problem that can lead to oversanding is trying to remove dried glue. If you get any glue on the plywood, you can sand it off with 120 grit sandpaper, but just be super careful.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that a round disc will not be able to sand inside corners. But what we might forget is how difficult it is for a random orbit sander to sand all the way to the edge of an inside surface. Let’s say you are sanding the bottom shelf of a bookcase…that’s the non-removable one. You want to sand right to the inside edge so you run the sander all along the surface, pressed against the perpendicular side.

What you will discover is a gouge all along that surface where the edges of the sanding disc rubbed.

If you are really prone to doing this, you can run some tape along the edge to protect it, it’s probably fine to just avoid sanding that close. You’ll have to sand the corners by hand anyway, and it will just take a little longer to hand sand those inside edges.

Plus, these inside surfaces are usually secondary and won’t be very visible. Usually a light sanding is fine. As with all sanding, pay the greatest attention to your primary surfaces…the ones people will see.

How to make a classic wooden storage crate

Today we’re going to make a basic crate. So useful for storage, and decorative too! We have two versions, the easy and the advanced, so choose which one works for you depending on your tools and skill level.

 

Easy Crate

Starting out with the easy crate, we cut our lumber to size. Be sure to start with the straightest boards possible.

 

Next, glue the end pieces together and then clamp to dry.

 

Let them dry overnight.

 

Next, use a round lid or other object to draw the oval handle shape.

 

Drill a hole to start, and then cut out with a jigsaw.

 

Once your end pieces are ready, you can begin to attach the side and bottom boards. You may want to clamp two boards on just to steady everything while you’re gluing and screwing.

 

Use 4 screws in each board. This will make a nice sturdy crate.

 

Run the sander over everything to smooth it down. You can finish as desired, but I like the look of leaving it unfinished.

 

Advanced Crate

The basic assembly of this crate is the same as the easy crate. However, we will start with re-sawing or ripping the boards, to make a lighter weight crate.

 

We will start the handles using a forstner bit, and then use the scroll saw to finish.

 

The inside of the handle is smoothed with a router.

 

The thinner boards will need to be nailed on instead of screwed together.

 

And here are the finished crates!

 

Free Wooden Crate Plans: