Hi, I’m a pretty beginning woodworker, and I wonder if you more experienced people can help me! Sometimes I see plans for pieces of furniture online or in books, and they are just plans and not instructions, and I don’t really know how to approach them. Like, is there a standard way you think about putting things together? In sewing, for example (which I know a lot about), I will first sew all the darts to achieve the right shape and put in zippers or buttons, and then I’ll assemble (let’s say) the front, the back, and the sleeves, and the collar (the main units as it were) then I’ll join the front to the back, add the collar, then set in the sleeves, then finally I’ll finish – hems, buttons, and so on. And this is more or less regardless of which kind of shirt I’m making. Is there a similar logic to assembling a piece of furniture?
That’s a simple question with a long, long answer, or lots of answers, here’s my initial thoughts. 😂
Woodworking is a lot like sewing in the sense that you outline above: decompose the problem until you get to something you can manage. So, for a chair, you might focus first on making two side pieces. For each side piece you might focus first on making the tenon joints between the top rail and the legs, etc. If you are interested in complex joinery (e.g. japanese joinery) there are lots of great books out there. Always decompose the project and you will be fine.
Remember though, you have to be able to connect all the peices together, so once you’ve decomposed the project, consider how you will join all of those peices back together. E.g. you can’t glue the bottom rail on after the top rail as there won’t be enough space, so you need to glue both rails as the same time.
Here’s some general tips that people have given me (I’m only a few years ahead of you in my learning) IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
1. The obvious one: Measure twice and cut once (as I’m sure you know from sewing)
2. If you need two of something, e.g. two identical side rails, cut them both at the same time, so any marking, or stop-blocks or jigs don’t have to be reset (and might be so incorrectly)
3. Have a sharp pencil always, a blunt pencil will give you marking errors. Ideally use a marking knife instead, and make a knife wall.
4. Sharpen your tools more often than you think you need to. You won’t know what sharp really is in the early days.
5. Take shallow cuts, and check measurements OFTEN
6. You will never have enough clamps.
7. Dry fit everything before you glue up (see 6 above), so you can check for fit AND glue-up strategy.
8. Get a decent square, and check it for squareness when you buy it. To do this, get a small engineer’s square milled to precision. Something maybe 3 or 4 inches long. My first square was not square, I found that out later after a few difficult projects. A small engineer’s square should not be expensive.
9. Lumber preparation is really important. If you can make things straight and square by hand, that’s fine. If you can’t, and you can justify the spend, consider getting a jointer / planer. It will save you countless hours and a lot of heartache.
10. Wood is variable. Sometimes you do everything right and it still goes wrong. Built in tension, moisture, checks, etc. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break and fix problems later.
11. Cheap sandpaper from ebay is not cost-effective in my experience. Decent stuff lasts longer, so it costs more but is cheaper in the long run.
12. Keep one set of chisels for fine work, and one set for “beater” work.
13. An Impact Driver and Drill Driver will transform your work so much you won’t be able to imagine what you would do without one.
14. Get or make a decent, solid and heavy workbench, and add in at least one decent vise. Old Record Quick Release vises are awesome. I use two, one from the 1920s, and one from the 1930s. Lots on ebay. 52 1/2 and 53.
15. Get a decent set of saws. Don’t have to be expensive, just sharp, and ideally re-sharpenable. For non-sharpenable saws I’ve started using japanese saws with replaceable blades recently. They are amazing. Still love my other vintage handsaws though.
16. Choose the right glue for your project. E.g. if you are building something for indoors, Tightbond 1 should be fine. For outside, Tightbond 3? if you need a long open time for a complex glue up, maybe 30 minute epoxy would be better. Vintage repair? Hide glue. etc.
17. If “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”, then no woodworking plan survives the first cut. Be ready to adapt and overcome, work out ahead of time where your tolerances are.
18. Keep safety in mind. PPE is really important. Glasses ALWAYS. Pushsticks ALWAYS. Respirator as needed, ear protection as needed. The jigsaw, tablesaw, planer, lathe will all try to kill or maim you if you let them. Once you’ve been woodworking for a while you will, like all of us, have your own near misses and accidents. Make sure none of them are life-changing.
19. Above all else, enjoy the craft.
Can anyone else add to this list?
Apologies for mentioning this book “ad nauseam”, but Illustrated Cabinetmaking [How to Design and Construct Furniture That Works] (ISBN 978-1-56253-369-0) by Bill Hylton goes into detail on which joinery suits what projects.
London, UK; Boston, MA
I had this quite a lot when I started, you would see a nice piece in a magazine, then read the instructions (and get discouraged when they started talking about table saws, jointers, planer / thicknessers etc). But I now realise that as long as you have well prepared wood (either bought that way, or by machine, or by hand), and have a method of joining pieces together (be it fine well cut joints, or mechanical fastenings, or anything in between) then you can stop worrying about what equipment you need to be able to start the project, and make a plan on how you will build it with the materials and skills you already have. Remember, the only person who will know that you did it in a different way than the plan or article did, is you.
That being said, I would also have a look at some of the jigs and fixtures etc that are out there, as they can make things a lot easier. (Right angle pieces, bench hook, shooting board, wedges, bench bulls etc.). Invest in or learn to make the best tools you can afford, and look after them. And never be afraid to make practice pieces. I made a smaller version of the trestle table, just to see if I could make it a completely knockdown version. It’s currently being used as a laptop stand at work.
Colin, Czech Rep.
Colin, this is good advice. The logic for the machine-made furniture just seems quite backwards to me sometimes and then I don’t know enough to put it right way round, so to speak.
I’m paying close attention to some of the things, for example, I read that when you work with machine you use the machines to get the super accurate finished sizes, while when you work by hand, you cut accurately but plane afterwards to get things to match exactly.
I have made myself a bench hook and a shooting board, I’ll definitely be making more appliances for the shop.
As you build more, you will gain a sense of 1) Where dimensions and squareness matter and 2) How larger pieces are made of subassemblies. As you come to understand these things, you will be able to look at a project and think through an order of operations to build the subassemblies and to assemble the subassemblies into the larger pieces.
With regard to squareness and dimensions, let’s use Paul’s box with hinged lid as an example. The box has four sides dovetailed together, a base, and a lid. The lengths of the pairs of sides is critical to having the box assemble cleanly. I would probably choose the inside faces and the top edge as my reference faces and reference edges. They must be flat and square for me to lay out my dovetails and fit them well. The way I do dovetails, squareness of the ends doesn’t matter. The exterior faces also don’t matter much. Thinking in these terms, I know I’m going to prepare the sides of the box in pairs, mark lengths in pairs (transferring, not measuring), and I’m going to build the box sides as a subassembly. The lid and the bottom are separate “assemblies,” even if trivial ones. The inside faces must be flat to meet the box cleanly. The outside surface don’t matter and “looks good is good.” I know I will glue up the box sides, then plane the top and bottom flat (to match the top and bottom of the box) and will plane the ends of the dovetails and exterior surfaces to look good. How’d I know all this? I’ve built a box and learned to think about reference face, reference edge, layout, etc.
Let’s think about a chair like Paul’s dining chair. This chair has two major sub assemblies. The two back posts assemble with the various rails to give the rear frame. The front legs assemble with the various rails to give the front frame. Those are built independently. I know all the rails will be the same length in the back frame and will lay them out together, transferring dimensions all at once (not measuring). Ditto for the front frame, separately. I’ll connect these to assemblies via the front to back seat rails and stretchers. At that point, you have a chair. The ply seat and foam is really a 3rd assembly.
So, you’ll start to see things are assemblies and you’ll collect experience in layout and joinery that will help you think about what has to be built before other things so that you can transfer dimensions. That’s why we build a cabinet first and then fit the doors to the openings. In any given subassembly, it’s not uncommon to build one part first and transfer dimensions to another part. For example, if you make a small wall cupboard with a shelf that fits into housings, I would make the exterior frame first, cut the housings, dry fit the pieces together, and transfer the distance between the bottoms of the housings onto the shelf material to get the length of the shelf. Nothing is more accurate than transferring a dimension with a knife nick.
The book than Sven-Olof suggested is good because it helps you to see how things are built up. Add in Paul’s videos and other “here’s how to build this” sources, and you’ll start to see how to identify the sub assemblies, and start to get a feeling for what dimensions matter. If you were working with machines, you’d probably work by cutting things precisely from drawings. If you are workign by hand, that is a waste of time. You go faster by knowing how things go together and working to the dimensions you have / produce, if that makes any sense. With experience, you’ll start to see that this means that it often doesn’t matter what thickness material you have on hand. You learn to build to it.
So, go build some stuff. If it seems like too much and is too complicated, either do something simpler, or find a video like one of Paul’s that will walk you through it. If you do the latter, always be watching in the video for _why_ he is doing things in the order he is doing them. There’s usually a reason and it usually relates to the things I’ve just described.
- This reply was modified 1 year, 2 months ago by Ed.
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