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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Bodger's Guide To Woodworking

Wonderful essay on woodworking, stolen entire from Roberta X.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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