Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Introduction to Woodworking


So, you want to learn to craft things from wood, do you? Wonderful! Woods are among the most basic and rewarding media with which to work. It is malleable, and many types have a delightful fragrance, and it is available in virtually any size and shape.

Let me begin with an introduction to types of wood. At the most basic level, there are hardwoods and softwoods. Within each grade, there are variations and degrees of hardness and softness as well. For example, oak is considered a hard wood, but there is a wood called ‘blood wood’ that is many times harder. Oak is relatively easy on your equipment, while blood wood will very quickly dull your woodworking tools! Hardwoods in general, though will dull your tools faster than soft woods.

Pine is a soft wood; balsa wood is even softer—yet, surprisingly, balsa is actually classified as one of the hardwood group!

Pine can be dented with a fingernail, while the balsa can almost be carved without tools: you can dent balsa with a knuckle-strike! (Yes, it is still wood, and doing that would probably hurt some, but not as much as smacking a hunk of oak, which would not dent, and probably bloody your knuckle in the bargain!) The classification is determined by the type of tree, botanically speaking. If you care to pursue this puzzlement further, see these articles for more in-depth information on the differences and variations:

Now, on to the actual working with the wood. First and foremost are your tools. Treat them well, and they will serve you well for many, many years. I have some antique planes and chisels that belonged to my grandfather in the late 1800’s: they are still as sharp as ever, and can still be used. Keeping your tools sharp is the most important safety tip I can offer, besides the obvious one of using safety glasses (and hearing protection when using power tools).

A lot of people hear that piece of advice, and say, “Huh?” They think that a sharper tool will be more likely to cut them. Well, used incorrectly, yes, you can cut yourself. Handled carelessly when getting the tool out or putting it away can result in injuries as well. However, the real danger from a dull tool comes from the fact that it will not cut as cleanly through the wood; it is more likely to catch on the grain, bind, and slip…and that "Ooopss--it slipped.." is what sets you up for getting hurt. So, keep your tools sharp, and know how to use them to stay safe.

One of the most obvious safety rules is also one of the most ignored, whether in the work shop or in the kitchen: don’t cut toward yourself!! This may seem like elementary advice, but trust me, it is the single most violated rule, and the one most responsible for injuries outside of just plain stupidity, like the fellow I saw reaching across a running table saw to turn it off!! (Hello, dummy!!  You got a death-wish, there??)

Okay, with the basic types of wood, and the safety lecture out of the way, let’s move on to some of the tools you’ll need for basic woodworking. If you have never worked with wood at all before, go to your local lumber outlet, and ask if they have a scraps/sample bin. You can usually purchase an assortment of small pieces of various types of wood for minimal cost. Have them tell you what each kind is, and write it on the wood with a pen. Just use these as study or reference pieces. Learn what they look like; study the grain; get familiar with their scents.

Your first tool: sandpaper. It comes in umpteen grades and types. For woodworking purposes, the coarsest you would need is usually about an 80 grit. This will remove a lot of material in short order, if it is shaping you are trying to do. It will also leave visible scratches in the wood. As you progress with your item toward a finished product, it must be re-sanded several times with ever-decreasing coarseness of paper. Usually, a 180 grit, and sometimes 200 will be used for the finishing touch. If you have stained a piece, and find that after it dried, there is a slight roughness that was not there before, that means the grain was raised some by the application of the liquid stain. In this case, you will want a light touch with about a 320 grit to just knock down the grain without leaving marks or removing any color. After this, your finish sealer coat can be applied. For the full skinny on sandpaper, (possibly more than you want to know!) ;-) check out:

Your next tools are: saws of a few types; hammer; chisels, a square, glue, clamps, and lots of sharp pencils.

For small work, a basic coping saw is handy, as it will cut through most woods, and will turn tight corners when doing a pattern. It is the hand-tool equivalent of a jigsaw (sometimes called a saber saw), or scroll saw. It is best to learn with hand tools before trying to master power tools. It forces you to go slowly, and learn what the wood is telling you.

A crosscut saw ( ) is the old fashioned-looking saw many of us think of, with a blade length of up to about 2 feet, and a teeth-to-top height of about 8 inches. These saws are tapered, being ‘shorter’ at the front and ‘taller’ at the rear where the handle attaches. Crosscut saws are for larger work, and come in a variety of tooth styles. The differences are in pitch (angle of the teeth) and in fineness (how many teeth per inch of blade). Each type has its own purpose.  For smaller hand-crafted items, the crosscut saw would be your first-use saw, to simply cut the proper size piece from a larger board.

Hammers come in many types, but the most common is the claw hammer, and is what most folks see in their mind’s eye when the word ‘hammer’ is spoken. This is fine for most woodworking, but for small work you may want a much smaller hammer, such as a tack hammer, for use with very small nails. Especially in soft woods, a big hammer is heavy, and difficult to control, and can leave ugly dents and gouges in your item when (yes, 'when,' not 'if') you miss the nail head (and yes, it even happens to the pros!)

Chisels come in a wide variety of widths and shapes. There are flat blade chisels for making square-edged cuts, and there are gouges, which are u-shaped and v-shaped for making either decorative lines and carvings, or useful channels for sliding parts or hidden seams. Yes, of course, there are power tool equivalents, such as dado head cutters and routers to do these tasks…but again…learn first with hand tools! It will make you a better crafter in the long run.

A square is very important in making sure you have all your corners lined up and your 90-degree surfaces exactly at right angles to one another. Use a good combination square, which incorporates a steel ruler, a sliding component used to line up various dimensions of work, and a small built-in level.

Your choice of glueis very important. Be sure and use glue specifically made for wood. It dries clear, but nonetheless, it is very, very important to clean up any that seeps out of any seam while it is still wet. Once it has dried, it is much harder to remove, and any residue left will make a spot that is sealed, and your stains will not ‘take.’ Hint: apply stain (and let dry) before assembly, just in case you don’t get all the glue wiped back.

Clamps: When gluing, you must square up your work, and clamp it tightly until the glue sets. Nails notwithstanding, they do not ‘suck’ the wood together as tightly as a clamping device, and are really only supplemental ‘clamps.’ It is really the glue that actually holds everything together, so be generous…which is why you will have seepage that needs to be wiped off !

Carpenter’s pencils are typically flat, so they don’t roll off the work surface, and are normally sharpened with a pocketknife or utility knife.

There you go! Your elementary introduction to woodworking! Go exploring, have fun, and take a field trip to the hardware store, and explore the lumberyard, deeply inhaling the marvelous fragrance of fresh-cut wood!

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