Woodworking Basics and Safety Tips
Woodworking as a pursuit is experiencing a remarkable renaissance in the midst of the tech age.
Although increasingly fewer Americans require woodwork as part of our day-to-day existence, more and more of us are picking up the hobby. Whether it’s because of an economy that is unstable enough to encourage self-sufficiency, a means of minimizing waste and consumption, or simply a desire to craft something with one’s own hands, woodworking is growing in popularity.
Although woodworking may seem daunting, expensive, and potentially dangerous, it needn’t
be any of those. Indeed, one of the central tenets of woodwork is that it is simple, requiring only
a piece of wood, and some means of cutting.
Before you start building that chest of drawers
or another home project, however, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the basic concepts of woodworking.
You’ll also need to take advanced steps to make sure you stay safe. Neither requires a great deal of time or financial investment, but your enjoyment and safety will be greatly enhanced with a little planning ahead of time.
Ultimately, there are two key sets of principles: how to cut wood and how to join wood. From this, all else follows. You should also make an effort to understand how wood works and behaves. Doing so will save you a lot of time and frustration. This is the main area in which woodworking is not intuitive.
Before you drop a penny on equipment, make sure you understand these basic ideas. You can practice all of the below with only minimal equipment, much of which you will already have in your home. Once you’re up to scratch on the basics, you can move onto more advanced concepts.
How wood behaves
When a man learns to shave his face, one of the first lessons he learns – often painfully – is that you need to shave with the grain. Shaving against the grain causes hairs to be ripped out forcefully. Wood behaves in the same manner.
The ‘grain’ of wood is caused by the development of rings as the tree grows. The direction of the rings is known as the grain. Pick up any plank of wood and you will see a clear set of lines. As with a man’s face – you will need to cut, sand, and plane, in the direction of the grain.
How to maintain tools
There’s a famous saying when it comes to woodwork that a ‘bad workman blames his tools.’ While that is certainly true, it doesn’t mean that a good workman can use bad tools! Tool usage and maintenance is one of the primary hurdles when it comes to woodwork.
Make sure that your tools are kept in a dry area and sharpen them regularly. Not only will it take much of the hard work out of using them, but it will also result in smoother (and therefore more precise) cuts.
How to cut joints
There is an assumption amongst amateurs that woodwork involves holding wood together with nails. However, a real carpenter will always use wood joints to connect two pieces of wood. Not only does it hold better, but it’s much more aesthetically pleasing.
It is, unfortunately, trickier than just hammering in a nail, but that’s part of the fun. Learning which types of joints to use where, and how to make them is all part of the skill of carpentry
This is all part of the process of making woodworking intuitive – the idea that you are understanding the wood, its strengths and weaknesses. This is ultimately why many people fall in love with woodwork, and it takes an almost spiritual hold on its adherents.
Mortise and Tenon Joint
A mortise and tenon joint is the most common type of joint you will find in carpentry. Look at the wooden furniture in your home (particularly chairs and tables) and you’ll find that most are mortise and tenon joints.
Most of the flatpack furniture you buy (or used to buy now that you’ve started woodworking) will contain at least one of these joints. The tenon is a prong on the end of a piece of wood that fits into a corresponding mortise (a hole), which connects pieces of wood that join at right angles.
A dovetail joint is most commonly found in
any wooden box. These are pieces of wood with crenelated edges that connect together at right angles to form a solid ‘wall’ of wood. Working on how to get the ‘tails’ to match up is one of the most frustrating, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of woodwork. Be warned, you will go through multiple iterations of this type of joint before you can effectively master it!
How to finish wood
Depending on what style of finish you’re going for, from a rustic bare finish to a refined varnish or paint, finishing wood will give it the aesthetic and structural final touch. This part of the process is often the most satisfying, because it requires no ‘heavy lifting,’ and instead is a focus on the aesthetic. In other words, it’s time to stand back and admire your work! Again, experiment with lots of different types of finish on a blank piece of wood.
Use things like shellac, varnish, and wood paint (most hardware stores can offer either samples or small tins of each of these) and see which type you prefer. Learn how they all dry (which is often very different from how they look wet) so that you’re not in for a surprise the first time you use it.
Once you’ve practiced at the basics and are comfortable with all of the core elements of woodworking, you’re ready to move up to working on larger projects. With this step up, however, comes additional risk.
At this stage, you’ll need to start thinking about safety. Any time you’re working with sharp objects – particularly with ones powered by electricity – you’ll need to make sure you have protocols in place to keep you safe.
It will never be possible to be absolutely without risk, but by being prepared, and by taking sensible steps each time you work with tools, you can make sure that any risk is mitigated.
Take heed of the advice below, follow it every time you work with wood, and treat all
equipment with respect, and there’s no reason why woodworking needs to be dangerous.
Use safety equipment
The most obvious first step to staying safe is to use the right equipment. There is a slew of safety equipment available, at almost every price point, and designed for almost every individual. The most basic safety equipment should be safety glasses or goggles. Every time you work with wood, you should wear these. Buy multiple pairs so that you can have them throughout your workshop, and you’re never tempted to work without them if you can’t find a pair.
Similarly, a sturdy pair of gloves is also usually a must (although you may need specialist gloves if you’re working with finishes or particular types of saws).
Depending on what other types of woodworking you’re doing, you will require more specialist equipment. As a general rule, follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to safety equipment – if they suggest a piece of equipment, use it!
Wear the right clothing
Clothing is a natural extension of the safety equipment you use. There are two main rules to follow here:
Wear clothing that will keep you protected from pieces of wood flying off from saws
Don’t wear clothing that can get caught in saws
This means that you should wear long fitting shirts and full pants; however, neither top nor bottoms should be so baggy that they can get caught in equipment. You should also remove all dangling jewelry, ties, or bracelets you may be wearing.
It doesn’t matter how dirty your shirt is, or how old your jeans are – this isn’t about fashion; it’s about making sure you have durable, hard-wearing clothing that will keep you comfortable and safe.
Make the environment safe
If you plan on working regularly with wood, you’ll need to make sure that you are operating in a safe environment. This is obviously dependent upon the space you’re working in and the particular type of woodwork
you are undertaking. For example, steer clear of any wet spots in a basement when using electrical equipment. However, there are some general rules to follow:
Don’t be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when you are working. To put it another way, if you wouldn’t be able to drive, you shouldn’t be working with power tools. Have the beer after you’ve finished your project, or you could be too impaired to stay safe.
Make sure your space is well lit. Working in a garage or basement, as people often do, can mean that spaces are dark. Not being able to see what you are doing is one of the most dangerous aspects of woodworking. If this is the case, consider remodeling your basement work space by adding additional overhead lighting or set up multiple lamps around the area.
Make sure your electric panel is updated and don’t overburden your outlets. The temptation is there to fill up an extension cable with equipment. However, in a dry, wood-filled room, a spark can cause a fire very quickly. Instead, only have one item in your socket at a time and switch them out as you need them. This provides proper fire safety and helps you keep track of what’s live and what’s not!
Minimize distractions. Don’t let small children play in or near your workspace. Not only is it dangerous for them, if you’ve got one eye on the kids, then you’re not focused on what you’re doing. Similarly, don’t be tempted to put the big game on while you’re working. Being distracted for a second can lead to serious injury.
Sharp = Safe
One of the most counter-intuitive rules when it comes to woodworking is that sharp tools are safe tools. Sharp tools are more likely to cut exactly where you need to and are less likely to behave unpredictably. Make sure that you regularly maintain any cutting equipment to make sure that it’s all sharp, free from rust, and generally clean and tidy. You should follow a cleaning process every time you finish working with a piece of equipment, including unplugging it from the socket.
If necessary, write yourself a checklist to complete at the end of every work session, and pin it on the wall. Following each of these steps will ensure that your work station remains clean and safe and that you keep all your equipment lasting as long as possible.
You can also make a checklist for the start of every work session, including things like inspecting the wood for nails and screws.
If you include some of the safety protocols for the cleanup process (such as making sure all equipment is unplugged) you create redundancy and a routine, which are great things when it comes to safety.
Crafting something with your own hands is one of the most rewarding things you can do. There’s a reason why woodwork becomes an obsession for many people once they start it. By learning the basics, and familiarizing yourself with the safety elements, you can ensure that you get as much enjoyment as possible from your hobby.
Soon you’ll be building furniture, decorations, and maybe even a house. Before you get there, however, you’ll need to make sure you have a solid foundation in the basics and in the safety rules around working with wood.
Sources and Further Reading