4 Basic Woodworking Skills You Can Master Fast

two pieces of wood with carpentry joints
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  • Beginner
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When it comes to DIY, everyone has to start somewhere. Since wood is at the core of many do-it-yourself projects, mastering a few basics is a great place to begin in building a foundation for a wide variety of projects in the future such as building a bench, a birdhouse, a deck, a shed, or furniture.

1. Sanding

Sanding wood is a critical component in any woodworking project. First you need to understand sandpaper grit. Lower numbers, such as 50 or 60 grit correlate with a rough sandpaper. This is a great choice for knocking paint or stain off wood. It’s also the initial choice for very rough wood. Typically, you will then progress to finer sandpapers, such as 110, 150, and 220 grit. For your knowledge, sandpaper actually comes in grits ranging from about 24-1,000, but 50-220 are the most commonly used.

You also have options when it comes to the tool you employ. A sanding block is a very basic manual option. There are also many power options in different shapes and sizes including belts sanders, palm sanders, disc sanders, detail sanders, and orbital sanders. There are even small attachments for your power drill that can aid in detailed sanding jobs. Master sanding techniques and you’re well on your way to a successful woodworking project.

2. Using a Power Drill

person screwing into wood with a power drill

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Speaking of that cordless drill, it’s a ubiquitous tool in the woodworking trade. Components called drill bits can be universally swapped out, providing a wide range of tools within one. For example, you can use standard drill bits to predrill holes for screws. This helps keep the wood from splitting when you insert the screw.

In addition, power drills, also called cordless or corded screwdrivers, can then drive screws in with a change of the bit. There are bits for every type of screw head--i.e. Torx, bolt, slotted, Phillips, pan head, hex, Robertson, etc.

A comprehensive understanding of how your drill works will empower you towards a plethora of woodworking projects like building a play structure or framing in a closet.

3. Understanding a Tape Measure

The tape measure is perhaps the single most critical tool in any woodworking project, especially those calling for precision. When using a tape measure, make sure it sits flat and level, without sagging. If the tab on the end can’t wrap over the end of a piece of wood, such as when measuring a wall, make sure that tab doesn’t pull towards the center. This can leave your measurement off by as much as a ¼”. Next, understand the marks on the tape measure. Note here that tape measures vary, with some having only very basic marks and others supplying more comprehensive options.

The lengths of each measure help identify the measurement. The ½” line is longer than the ¼” and ¾” lines, for example. Each line in between represents a specific measurement so go back to math class here for a minute to understand fractions. There are 16 ‘lines’ or ‘marks’ per inch, so every measurement is a number out of 16. The eighth line is 8/16ths, reduced to ½. The 14th line is 14/16ths, reduces to ⅞, etc. Practice taking a measurement, transferring that measurement to a scrap board, and cutting it. Cut five or so separately and stack them. If they are all flush with each other, you’ve mastered precise measuring.

Note: You must understand the kerf for accurate cuts. Kerf is the width of a cut made by a saw blade. If you’re making cuts with a miter saw for example, you need to know where to line up the saw blade or your end result could be different from one cut to another. Regardless of how well you measure, kerf can shave off an extra amount that significantly affects your end result.

4. Make Joints

wood corner with joints

There are a variety of ways wood can be connected together. These connections are called joints and each come with some pros and cons. Some types of joints require specialized tools, while most can be made using a specific blade on your table saw. Some don’t require any tools at all. Master a few basics to up your woodworking skills.

The most common joint for beginners is the very basic butt joint. This is simply one board butted up to another board and attached with screws or nails. Butt joints aren’t a strong option, but are fine for many applications. You can make them stronger with attachment techniques such as the use of plugs, pocket hole screws, or biscuits.

A rabbet joint cuts one board to create a small shelf for the other board to sit on at the joint. A tongue and groove joint is also easy to make and adds strength to the finished project. If you’ve ever installed wood or laminate flooring you’ve likely seen this joint. A dado joint has many applications. This joint is made by creating a groove for a board to sit inside. Envision the groove for the false backing of furniture such as a cabinet and you’ll know what we’re talking about here. A final basic joint to master is the finger joint. This fancy-looking joint is created by cutting two flat boards that interlock for a strong hold.

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