Musings of an anonymous geek

December 2, 2005

Woodworking Lessons 1: A matter of trust

Filed under: Woodworking — m0j0 @ 10:00 am

I decided to start a little series based on the lessons I’m learning in woodworking. I’m a total newbie, but if I can help other newbies, hey, I’m all for it. So here’s the conclusion I’ve come to after doing just a couple of small projects: it’s all just a matter of trust.

It seems clear to me that the success achieved in a lot of things has something to do with decisions you make with regard to what you’re willing to take on faith. I’ve recently learned NOT to trust two things by experience: project plans, and sawmills.

Project plans are sometimes wrong from beginning to end, or they’re incomplete, leaving out key pieces of the puzzle. Don’t trust that everything is there – go over the project plan in detail before you find yourself in the middle of a project without a clue how to make the next (undocumented) step. Also, don’t trust that the way they’re showing you to do something is *the* way to do it – I had a heck of a time clamping up 15-degree angled sawhorse legs because I assumed the picture in the book was the way to do it. On my second saw horse leg I relied on my own logic to figure out a clamping system, and it took about 1/3 of the time and about 1/20th of the headache. A project plan is a blueprint, not a bible.

As for sawmills, I no longer trust them either. I had a board that was allegedly “ready for use” (it was smoothed on all 4 sides – aka ‘S4S’). I had to cut out what would become the side of a box. I drew three lines, and let the edge of the board be the fourth side. Bad move. When I went to make sure my cutting lines were perfectly square, I found they were a little out of wack, and the culprit turned out to be that the board wasn’t perfectly square. Check your boards before you measure and cut!

In general, you should probably question everything all the time anyway. Is your table saw blade *really* perpendicular to the table top? Just because it was 3 or 4 cuts ago is no guarantee that it is now. How about your splitter? Is it aligned? I’ve had some trouble with misaligned splitters and a full-length fence pushing boards back toward the blade and smoking up on me. Not nice.

Question it. It’ll save you time, headache, and waste.


  1. The “Trust No One” rule is not only applicable in woodworking but in life. And you out of all people should know about how different humdity levels effect wood items. Think about how you treat your guitar. So I guess the next tool is a planer and a joiner? Like I told you before you can come over and plane and join your wood as long as it’s not cherry.

    Comment by angry architect — December 2, 2005 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  2. I think I’m probably going to start with a hand planer and use my table saw and/or a hand plane to take care of any rough edges. So next tool is a hand plane, and a very good ripping blade.

    Comment by Brian — December 2, 2005 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

  3. Oh yeah, and I could use more clamps. I now have just two 6″ C-clamps, 2 12″ quick-grips, and a 24″ quick-grip.

    Comment by Brian — December 2, 2005 @ 3:29 pm | Reply

  4. Once you get in to the world of hand tools, I suggest you check out the OldTools mailing list. They deal with the collecting, restoring, upkeep — and [of course] use of — traditional [Western] woodworking hand tools.

    Regarding the lumber: the trick is to determine two sides that are truly perpendicular; mark them as the face and the edge (the tradition is to use a curlicue on one side, a ”V”-shape on the other, and have the point of the ”V” connect to the end of the curlicue along the corner of the board — Google ”face mark woodworking” (here’s a variation — ); good tips at ). Then, trust **only** those two as being square, and make all measurements relative to those two sides of the board. 😉

    And geometrically, that’s all you really need, anyhow.

    If you’re a Linux person, I think you’d enjoy the OldTools list. Like the computer world, there tends to be ”pro-handtools, anti-powertools” rhetoric [arguably, analogous to pro-Linux, anti-Windows folks]; but pragmatically, most folks on the list use power tools now and again. And most folks on the list refurbish old tools (from e-bay, garage sales, flea markets) for use, learning a bit in the process, and saving $$$; a bit like using a PII box as a firewall, maybe. Strong elements of open-source-ness, DIY, learn-by-doing, etc. A real h^xx0r ethic, IMO (brewing your own wood-finishing concoctions, sharpening your own handsaws…). 😉


    Comment by Gye Greene — December 10, 2006 @ 10:13 am | Reply

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