Hello friend (because if you are reading this you are definitely the kind of person I want to be friends with),
So glad you are here and are interested in building projects! Building rocks - but that's a whole different post (or book) - and right now we got stuff to build, so I won't go there in this post.
In this post, I want to help demystify building for you. Where do you start? What are the essential tools, which projects are the best for beginners? We're hoping to help with that, because we want to empower and encourage you to build, build, build!
Alrights... let's divide this up into three different sections - Total Newbie (no experience with power tools or building), Home Builder (a few projects under your tool belt and plan on building projects for your personal use and ocassionally for others) and Professional Builder (you are building for resale).
So you have no experience with power tools, never built anything in your life, have no idea where to start? Don't worry - I've been there. It's not hard, if I can do this, anyone can.
These little ledge shelves are so easy to make, so versatile (you will find a use for them), and so inexpensive (if you make a mistake it won't be the end of the world). Go check out the plans, write down the shopping list and let's get started!
Wood Shopping for Newbies
At your home improvement store, ask for the "whitewood" boards, sometimes called common pine. I recommend starting with this type of wood because it is very inexpensive and since it is a soft wood, easy to cut and drill or nail into. As you progress, you can get pickier about your wood, but right now it's about easy, inexpensive and minmal tools. For even cheaper selection, ask for the "furring strips" - basically the same stuff, but a little more rustic. Pick up a little more wood than you need just in case you make a mistake or the wood has an imperfection you need to cut around.
It can be a little confusing when picking out wood because the name of the wood size does not equal the actual wood size for off the shelf, planed lumber. Always double check your lumber, but here is a table of the expected sizes for wood used on this website:
|Board Name||Actual size|
|1x2||3/4" x 1-1/2"|
|1x3||3/4" x 2-1/2"|
|1x4||3/4" x 3-1/2"|
|1x6||3/4" x 5-1/2"|
|1x8||3/4" x 7-1/4"|
|1x10||3/4" x 9-1/4"|
|1x12||3/4" x 11-1/4"|
|2x2||1-1/2" x 1-1/2"|
|2x4||1-1/2" x 3-1/2"|
|2x6||1-1/2" x 5-1/2"|
|2x8||1-1/2" x 7-1/4"|
|2x10||1-1/2" x 9-1/4"|
|2x12||1-1/2" x 11-1/4"|
Plywood, on the other hand, is true to it's name. 3/4" thick plywood is 3/4" thick.
When working with plywood, there are three main sizes that come off the shelf -
|Full Sheet||4 feet x 8 feet|
|Half Sheet||4 feet x 4 feet|
|Quarter Sheet||2 feet x 4 feet|
3/4" thick plywood can be subsituted for 1x boards (since both are 3/4" thick). You will need to have your hardware store rip (cut with the grain, or the long way) the plywood down into strips the desired width. While you probably wouldn't do this to make smaller boards, this comes in very handy when you need a board wider than a 1x12 (for example 16" deep shelving). Just wanted to touch on this here, we'll talk about this more in the Home Builder section.
One final thing we must discuss about wood is shrinkage. Wood does shrink, it is a natural material. It is not plastic. If you buy kiln dried wood, and live in a dry climate or the project is indoors, just bring your wood into the room it will reside in, and let it season for a day or two. Then get building. On a project like the ten dollar ledges, you won't have to worry about wood shrinkage so much. As you tackle bigger projects, it becomes more of a factor, and then you start thinking about using plywood because it is more dimensionally stable. My two cents? If I wanted perfect, I'd buy something plastic. I love the natural beauty of rustic wood, and will take the character over a total lack of character.
Tools Need for Newbies
So after you grab your wood, you'll need something to cut the wood with. Many home improvement stores will cut wood for you - often for free - so that is a route to consider. Another option is a handsaw - sounds rudimentry, but it does work! You'll need to grab a couple of clamps to secure your wood to a table while you cut too.
Of course, I want you to invest in a saw when you are ready, and as your woodworking experience picks up, you can add to your saw collection.
Here's my recommendations for a first saw -
- Jigsaw - the least expensive of powered saws the jigsaw is just a small blade that moves up and down (similar to a hand saw motion) to cut wood. The ideal use of a jigsaw is making curved cuts or small cuts. Since the blade is only attached at the top with the bottom free, the resulting cut may be beveled or rough. However, with a good blade and when making short cuts, the jigsaw will be fine for a starter project. The jigsaw is also easiest to use because the blade is very visible, and I find it to be the least inimidating of the saws. You can get corded (less expensive) and cordless (so worth it!) options and you will not regret your investment - even the most advanced woodworkers have a jigsaw on hand.
- Circular Saw - comparable in price to the jigsaw is a circular saw. Think of it like this - riding a unicyle vs a bicycle. The unicycle will turn easily (which is great for tight turns) but the bicycle will give you a straighter cut in the long run. The circular saw, or any saw with a circular blade, is the ideal way to make square cuts. But circular saws tend to be a little more difficult to learn to use, and it is harder to see your cuts. You won't regret investing in a circular saw, as they will be used to cut plywood down to size and for lots of other applications as long as you do building projects.
- Miter Saw - this is the ideal saw that you want in your shop for making cuts. It's fast, easy and safe, and will go from square cut to angled or beveled or even angled and beveled cuts quickly. I don't recommend buying a miter saw until you are ready to invest long term in woodworking or have lots of home projects to tackle. They do start in the $150 range, but you'll want the saw will all the bells and whistles, and you'll want a stand to go with it - so expect to invest at least a few hundred dollars into a miter saw.
If you are heeding my advice and starting with the ten dollar ledges, a jigsaw will do the trick.
Now that you have means to cut your wood, you'll need some way to attach the cut boards back together to build the project.
With simple woodworking, here are your options -
- Drill - I believe every home owner needs a drill, even if you aren't building your own projects. Most assemble yourself projects and toys require a drill, and you'll want a drill for all sorts of household uses and repairs. When it comes to building, a drill and screws can be used for joinery. You'll want smaller screws (#8s SPAX are my favorite), by smaller I'm referring to the shaft of the screws, not the length. Larger screws are harder to drive and increase the chances of your wood splitting. For attaching 1x boards together (as used in the Ten Dollar Ledge plans) you'll want 2" long screws (or close in length) and preferrably self tapping. If not self tapping, you'll need to drill pilot holes with a small drilling bit before driving your screws.
- Brad Nailer - Most 18 gauge brad nailers shoot nails between 5/8" up to 2" in length. This is the ideal length for most interior projects, and versatile enough for most of the project on this blog. Brad nails are preferred over screws because they leave less to hide than a screw. If you are painting, you can fill a screw hole, but it's hard to hide a screw hole with a stained project - and that's where the brad nailer comes in. Brad nails are great for attaching trim and the backs on projects, but I don't recommend using them for the structural part of the build.
- Kreg Jig - If you are just tackling one or two projects, you won't need a Kreg Jig yet. But the second you start thinking in terms of mulitiple projects, or projects that will save you more than a few hundred dollars, it's time to invest in a Kreg Jig. We'll talk more about the Kreg Jig in the Home Builder section.
- Sander - You'll also want to invest in a sander to help you finish your projects.
You'll need a few more hand tools to help you in the building process -
The basic hand tools will help you throughout the build
- Tape Measure - You'll use the tape measure to mark cuts, and also to layout the build. I prefer a smaller tape (12' is all you'll need for building projects) but you may want to invest in a longer one if it is your only tape measure in your home.
- Speed Square - Speed squares are super handy. If you are cutting with a jigsaw or circular saw, you can use the speed square to draw a line perpendicular to the board edge with it. You can also clamp the speed square to the wood and use it as a guide, running your saw along side it as you cut. When building, the speed square can be used to attach boards square to each other.
- Clamps - You'll need at least two clamps to secure boards to the tabletop when cutting and building. Make sure the clamps are big enough to clamp to your project and your workbench - 6" seems to be a good size for a standard workbench top.
- Safety Glasses and Hearing Protection - You'll do a better job and building will be alot more fun if you are being safe. Wear eye and ear protection, and be safe - power tools can be dangerous if used incorrectly, and injury is not worth it.
So that's the basic tools and materials, and here's a few more newbie tips:
- Always take the time to find nice straight boards. Look down the board like it is an arrow on a bow to determine if the board is straight or not.
- When cutting, remember that the saw blade removes material from the wood (the sawdust). This is called the saw blade kerf. You'll need to consider how you mark your boards, and on what side of the line you cut your boards to get accurate cuts.
- When using a nailgun, keep your hands well clear. Nails can shoot out to the side, especially if they hit a knot.
- Always cut the factory end of a board before you start making your final cuts, as there is not guarantee the factory end is square.
- Wood glue is essential when using nails or staples. But be careful to not overdue it, as often wood will not take stain the same if it has glue on it.
- Clamp everything, any time you are in doubt. If you are nervous about cutting, clamp it. If you are hesitant when nailing, clamp it.
- When cutting, only secure one side of the board and allow the other side to float free to avoid bucking your saw.
- Take the time to get to know your tools, their uses and safety features.
- Never cut a small piece that requires your hand to be too close to the saw blade. Instead, cut the small piece from a larger piece.
- Check your project for square by find an area on your project that should be a rectangle. Measure from opposite diagonals to get two different diagonal measurements. If the project is square, the diagonals will match. If not square, push longer diagonal ends together and recheck both diagonals until square.
A Few Notes on Safety
- Power tools are powerful. If a saw blade binds, it will kick the saw back. If a drill catches, the torque of the drill may cause it to twist on you. A tablesaw bind can cause the board to push back with force. Do not stand directly behind the board you are ripping.
- Clamp everything down, to prevent variables when cutting and building.
- Keep hands clear of saw blades and nailer tips at all times.
- Remove batteries or unplug when changing bits, saw blades, or adjusting tools.
- Wait until the saw blade stops turning to remove the saw.
- Work in an undistracted environment.
- Use appropriate safety equipment.
- Always read tool manuals and get to know your specific tool before using.
- Never use a tool in a manner that it is not designed to be used.
- Use common sense - if it doens't feel safe, it probably isn't. Don't do it - it's not worth the risk.
After you get done building the ten dollar ledges, try tackling a few more smaller projects. Keep the projects small, no angles, no doors, no drawers, all 1x material at this point. There will be plenty of time to work up to bigger, more complicated projects, and you can make pretty amazing stuff with beginner tools and skills. Here's a few suggestions -
Once you've mastered the basic skills, feel confident using power tools, it's time to move on to a few bigger projects and a couple more tools.
If you've gotten to this point, you've probably realized that once you get started, it's really not that hard. And your best tool of all is common sense.
But there are a few tools at this point that you will want to invest in.
Tools to Add for the Home Builder
We've talked about these tools a little bit in the Newbie section, but now it's time to pull the trigger and buy these tools. You'll want them sooner than later if you plan on making projects indefinitely.
- Compound Sliding Miter Saw -While a jigsaw or circular saw will do fine for starter projects, you'll want to invest in a compound sliding miter saw as soon as you can. There's really three reasons why you want this saw - it makes cutting so much faster since you don't need to clamp boards and set up cuts, you'll make perfect cuts every time (which is very important when you start doing joinery), and the compound miter saw will allow you to cut angles and bevels with speed and accuracy.
- Kreg Jig - Once you start using a Kreg Jig, you'll never go back. It enables you to create stronger, faster more precise joints with minimal effort. And you can hide your screw holes under or behind the project with it. A big advantage of the Kreg Jig is the ability to join tabletop boards or create face frames, or boards edge to edge, and also joining boards into thicker wood (for example aprons on a table to the legs). I recommend the K5 over the K4 - it's easier to set and I love the clamp on the front. I don't recommend the smaller Kreg Jigs as your main one - invest in the full size Kreg Jig.
- Brad Nailer - With the Kreg Jig doing most of the structural work, use the brad nailer to add the trim to the front, with minimal holes. The brad nailer will also make quick work of attaching backs on projects. You'll want to integrate the brad nailer into your projects also because nails are much cheaper than screws. Get an 18 Gauge brad nailer. I use the one pictured (Ryobi Airstrike 18 Volt Family), it's cordless, battery powered and uses the same battery as all my other tools. Then you don't have to buy an air compressor too.
So you've tooled up! Now your very first project should be a workbench! Here's my recommendation for an easy, efficient workbench that is a good size for most projects
Photo and build credit: TheresaLynn
Now that you have a workbench and a good amount of tools, the big question becomes what tool should I use where?
|Brad nails||Nails are inexpensive, easy, and quick, requiring minimal clamping. Easy to hide.||Not as strong as screws and may pull out over time. Longer nails tend to stray. Can be difficult to hold some joints together while attaching. Do not use to attach 2x boards to anything.|
|SCREWS||Fast and strong, works well when attaching 2x material together. Best for outdoor projects or workshop projects.||Expensive, hard to hide. May split wood or require predrilling. Can be difficult to hold joint together while attaching. Difficult to attach into end grain of 1x board without splitting.|
|kreg jig||Easy, precise and fast. Hidden screw joint but still same strength as screws. Not attaching into end grain. Easy to hold boards while making joint. Can attach boards edge to edge and into thick table legs.||Pocket hole screws are more expensive than nails and take an extra predrilling step. Sometimes not ideal when joining small pieces of wood or angled cuts.|
Here's an example of how I commonly join boards, but this is never the rule -
|Build carcass or structuce of a project (for example, the 1x12 boards on a bookshelf or cabinet)||Kreg Jig|
|Face Frame Building (trim that is sometimes used on front of project and can include the legs)||Kreg Jig|
|Face Frame Attaching (attaching the face frame to the project)||Brad Nailer|
|Attach 1/4" plywood to back to the project||Brad Nailer|
|Attaching trim to a project (moulding or aprons etc)||Brad Nailer|
|Attaching aprons to table legs||Kreg Jig|
|Building a tabletop||Kreg Jig|
|Using 2x4s on a workshop project||Self Tapping Screws|
|Screwing shelving down quickly in garage||Self Tapping Screws|
|Attaching slats to a slatted shelf or back||Self Tapping Screws|
I build with a mixture of these three different types of joints, always considering the cost of the fastener, the strength required for the joint, how to hide the fastener with respect to the finish, and common sense. As you build, you'll develop a sense for when you should use what tool to build with.
This set of tools and knowledge should be enough to get you building most any project needed for your home.
If you get to the point where you want to start building for others, you'll want to take it to the next level.
The big tool to invest in now is a tablesaw so you can start ripping plywood down to use as the carcass for building (it's cheaper and more dimensionally stable than 1x12 boards). Having a tablesaw will save you money as well, because you will be able to use up your scraps (for example, you could take a 1x12 scrap and rip it into a bunch of 1x2s). Invest in a tablesaw with a big enough deck to be useful, or build a workbench that increases the size of your tabletop to help you feed boards in and out of the saw.
If you are building professionally, you'll probably be customizing to fit your customer's needs. Here are a few tips to consider:
- 1x boards can span about 3 feet, 2x boards about 4 feet. When in doubt, add additional supports
- Consider building to maximize materials use to keep your costs down. I am always thinking in terms of 12", 16", 24" and 32" cut lengths to optimize use of an 8' board.
- Table height is 30", counterheight is 36", benches are normally 18", coffee tables between 16" - 18". Check sizing with retail sites to make sure your projects fit standards.
- Reclaimed wood is very ideal to use because it may be acclimated to your climate, is more environmentally sustainable, and provides character not available otherwise. It's also generally less expensive if you reclaim it yourself and can be a competitve advantage over someone purchasing furniture.
- Do a good job. Furniture is a huge market, and creates an unbelieveable amount of shipping waste and packaging waste. Locally made furnitue, using local materials or reclaimed materials, is the responsible choice in home furniture. Let's keep customers happy and coming back for more.
- The finish is everything. Put your time into a remarkable finish.
There's always something to learn about woodworking, always ways to improve how something is built. I strive to find that balance of value - where it still makes sense to go the DIY route, and you get a quality project in the end that you love and enjoyed building. But there's much more to woodworking than what I've outlined above and I hope some of you go on to own routers and planers and joiners.
Here's to lots of awesome projects!