A New Woodworker's "School of Hard Knocks" #1: A year spent learning the obvious

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Blog entry by Dave posted 01-02-2013 10:08 PM 2466 reads 0 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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I love reading about woodworking techniques and looking at others’ projects. It always gives me big ideas. But sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach. As a hobbyist and a dad, the time I spend woodworking comes in short spurts and at unpredictable times. I have to be careful to make the most of it.

This year’s projects drove home for me how easy it is to get over-extended. I’m in the process of turning my garage into a part-time workshop so I have lots of project ideas. I kicked off a few that seemed simple enough on paper…some shop cabinets, a workbench, and a couple of jigs.

Well, now the summer’s gone and since my garage is unheated, so is my woodworking time. The projects I kicked off with so much enthusiasm last spring are sitting in various stages of completion and I’m thinking about how to make the best use of the time I have in the shop when things warm up again (and while I save up for a heater!).

I realized the key is strong workflow and good planning.

It’s not like every book, blog, and magazine doesn’t harp on those things – and there are some awesome books & websites out there to help – but it never sinks in until you live it. Experience really is the best teacher.

Here were a couple of my biggest stumbling blocks this year:

1. Planning

Planning a project isn’t the same as finishing its design. Yes, that cabinet door needs hinges but what kind? Will they need mortices? At what point in the assembly should I cut them?

With last year’s big projects I started cutting & gluing as soon as I finished a design – sometimes even a bit before. Looking back, it’s not surprising that progress stalled often. Projects would sit for several weeks at a time as I decided how to tackle the next step, bought more material after running out, or worse (best?) – went shopping for another tool because I realized I just couldn’t make-do with what I had.

Each time I got to a detail I didn’t plan out in advance I had to stop, figure it out on the fly, and sometimes even re-work the design before getting back to work. What a waste of time!

2. Organization and Workflow

My shop time is precious so it’s really frustrating to have to search for a tool for 30 minutes or move stacks of tools, lumber, or supplies around to make a little room to work.

Last year I had no workbench, no cabinets and no permanent location for my bigger tools so I spent a lot of time moving things around and searching for things. It’s frustrating when, half-way through ripping a 4-foot board, you realize that you didn’t leave enough room for the out-feed, or when you spend 30 minutes looking for a tape measure.

I’m looking forward to doing better this year and posting my solutions to these frustrations in the hopes that somebody will learn from my mistakes. In hindsight the things I learned seem obvious. Maybe so. This year I’m sure I’ll have a lot more of those “duh!” moments but I’ll learn from them too. That’s part of the fun.

If you have time, I’d love to hear about your big “a-hah” moments and the solutions you came up with to make yourself more productive.

-- "I'm not afraid of heights. I'm afraid of widths." - Steven Wright

14 comments so far

View Don W's profile

Don W

19647 posts in 3369 days

#1 posted 01-02-2013 10:28 PM

Good write up Dave. I’ve been working on that stuff for about 40 years. Of four it took me 20 years to realize I actually had to work at it. Here’s a few things I do.

I try to plan my wood working when I’m not wood working. I think thing through at night, on the job etc.

I’ve got list on my phone specific to wood working. If I think of something I need I enter it in the list. That way the next time I’m shopping, I’ve got a running list of everything I need for all projects.

I have 200 pencil and 5 tape measures and still have issues finding one sometimes.

I am terrible at putting tools back in there place as I’m working. I try my best to remind myself to do that.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Gary's profile


9416 posts in 4234 days

#2 posted 01-02-2013 10:29 PM

I’ll tell you one thing for sure…..if you ever learn that trick about keeping track of your tape measure, you sure need to let the rest of us know. Keeping track of your pencil is another good trick to learn.

-- Gary, DeKalb Texas only 4 miles from the mill

View patron's profile


13707 posts in 4143 days

#3 posted 01-02-2013 10:43 PM

i have 800’ of shop
all i can say

there are even more places to look for things

like some journeys
you never arrive
until you run out of gas

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View pintodeluxe's profile


6173 posts in 3615 days

#4 posted 01-02-2013 10:58 PM

If you are having trouble heating the shop… do you have an HVAC unit in your garage? If so you can open the ducting to quickly heat the garage. I have a 900 s.f. 3 car garage that I can heat in about an hour.

Here is another conundrum for you… How many times do I have to put this dado set on before this project is done? I always feel like I should be able to plan to make all of my dados at one time, but it never works out that way.

Good luck

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View Monte Pittman's profile

Monte Pittman

30560 posts in 3140 days

#5 posted 01-02-2013 11:53 PM

Don’t take away from family time, but rather than sit and watch TV work on projects. I am not a TV person. I would much rather be in my shop than watch any program on TV.

If your Children are old enough, invilve them. Too many benifits to this. Most are obvious.

Good luck sir!

-- Nature created it, I just assemble it.

View Don Broussard's profile

Don Broussard

3921 posts in 3053 days

#6 posted 01-03-2013 12:11 AM

I made 13 5-board benches as Christmas presents out of an old family barn made out of cypress. My wife asked me to make them for her first cousins who used to play in the barn so they would have a souvenir of their grandfather. I set up my production schedule to cut all the boards to length (13 bench tops, 13 boards to rip for aprons, and 26 legs), ripped boards into aprons, and then cut the small side pieces and notched the bottoms on the 26 legs. After I cut out the material for the 13 benches and was just getting ready to begin assembly, my wife asked me if I could make just one more! Lesson: make one more than requested (but that probably won’t work either).

-- People say I hammer like lightning. It's not that I'm fast -- it's that I never hit the same place twice!

View John Lowell's profile

John Lowell

137 posts in 2783 days

#7 posted 01-03-2013 01:26 AM

You say that like its something bad…...

My approach is very hobbyist, no pressure, other than perhaps a Birthday or Christmas, so to me it is all about the journey. No such thing as a mistake, unless I can’t hide it and the blood does not stain.

That said, it is a bit frustrating sometimes, I do get tired of the blade changes on the xxxx (fill in favorite machine).

Gosh I dislike finishing, the act, not the end.

cheers all.

-- Trying, but lots to learn.....

View bullhead1's profile


228 posts in 3050 days

#8 posted 01-03-2013 02:23 AM

I’m like Don, but i’m sure I have more than 5 tape measures, haven’t counted my pencils lately. What I finally did was build a little wooden box for my tape measures and located it to the side of one of my benches near the middle of my shop. Every time I walk by an unused tape measure I pick it up and toss it in the box. However I think it eats them just like our washer eats socks! For pencils I tacked up several soup cans around the shop and load them up with pencils from the dollar store. It’s the planning and finishing that I have problems with. Now If I can just remeber what I was working on!
Happy New Year All!

View Don W's profile

Don W

19647 posts in 3369 days

#9 posted 01-03-2013 12:33 PM

I have more than 5 tape measures, I probably do to, thats just what’s in the box at any given time. I did the cup thing to, but see my last note.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Don W's profile

Don W

19647 posts in 3369 days

#10 posted 01-03-2013 12:37 PM

I have more than 5 tape measures, I probably do to, thats just what’s in the box at any given time. I did the cup thing to, but see my last note.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View FeralVermonter's profile


100 posts in 2772 days

#11 posted 01-03-2013 04:16 PM

One simple down-and-dirty technique I’ve come up with, in my primitive, two-month-old shop, is to group like tools together in old drawers and stack these under my benches. It has this funny effect: your shop is still cluttered, but instead of hundreds of pieces scattered around, it’s only twenty or thirty or so boxes.

With measuring and marking, according to the old army manuals, it’s best to do all of it at once. That way you only have to find your pencil and tape measure once.

Actually, I’d have to say that’s my best tip by far: track down those old army manuals. Online should be free (since they’re printed by the army, in this case they’re considered public property, to be shared freely). Not always easy to find a good version online, but with a little digging I’ve found ones for carpentry, masonry, machining… don’t suppose there’s ones on fine woodworking, probably not a lot of need for it in the field, but you can certainly borrow concepts and practices from other manuals—I’ve learned a heck of a lot from the machinist manual. There’s pretty cheap physical versions too, in old bookstores or online. They’re pretty amazing. Perfect for the guy who’s just getting started.

View helluvawreck's profile


32122 posts in 3668 days

#12 posted 01-03-2013 04:33 PM

Good post.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View JPR's profile


2 posts in 2772 days

#13 posted 01-04-2013 01:37 AM

I am in similar situation…novice, with 2 kids and work a lot. My ‘shop’ is my garage, so everything is on rollers (everthing). I made a 4’x’2’x6’ rolling cabinet with three shelves – one for hardware (top), middle one for misc and bottom for power tools in hard cases. Attached some 1x to the side to hold my clamps. 2’x4’ with Floated peg board into the doors and sides to attach stuff (small zip ties help secure the peg board hardware). Kreg joints all the way…works great. I also picked up one of the inexpensive rolling tool cabinets with all drawers…each one is dedicated to tools with specific function. My Rockler apron helps me keep track of my pencils, tapes etc…otherwise, total discipline putting tools back in the correct spot…it can become a habit trust me.

Planning and workflow are key (as you say), but I also appreciate the comment above to just enjoy and have fun…just so long as you keep coming back. I am also pulling my 7 and 9 year old sons into the mix to combat their excessive ‘screen time’.

-- Joe

View Dave's profile


157 posts in 3998 days

#14 posted 01-08-2013 01:14 AM

Some good tips in here. It sounds like I drastically underestimated how many pencils and tape measures it takes to be a good woodworker, LOL . Thanks everyone, and keep the tips coming!

-- "I'm not afraid of heights. I'm afraid of widths." - Steven Wright

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