I’m not the most experienced woodworker by any stretch of the imagination, but now that I have a few years under me, I thought I might pass along a few thoughts that may benefit folks that are interested in getting started in woodworking.
It’s no secret that woodworking can be dangerous. One can spend tons of time focusing on specific safety topics, but from a high level you want to protect you eyesight, hearing, lungs, and body.
Protect your eyesight. A decent pair of safety glasses is not expensive. If you’re a glasses wearer like I am, you’ll want an “OTG” (Over The Glasses) pair of safety glasses. Don’t rely on your prescription glasses for this – you’ll be mad when you get a scratch or ding in those nice pricey lenses, plus they don’t have great side or underneath protection. I have a pair of OTG safety glasses, and if I am doing anything that is going to kick up dust from underneath that can get up and behind the lens, I also have a pair of OTG goggles that I’ll use.
For hearing protection, I have a pair of ZEM SensGard that I use most of the time (and can’t beat free – I won them from Matt’s Basement Workshop shwag a few years ago). I also have a pair of the over the ear type that includes a radio and 1/8″ jack for plugging in an audio device.
To control dust, and therefore protect your lungs, you can think of doing this in three phases. First collect as much of the dust at the source. You can use your shop vac if you don’t have a dust collector yet. Next is for the finer stuff in the air, you can get an air filter, or use a filter attached to a box fan in the meantime. Thirdly, a decent mask for the face filters what’s left before you breathe it in. You can get a good respirator that can take interchangeable particulate and organic filters (for vapors) for not a lot of money.
To protect the rest of your body, use safety items such as push blocks (which you can make and I like better than push sticks at the table saw), a riving knife or splitter at the table saw, etc. Make sure you have a “no zone” for your fingers around any blade. For instance, anything closer than the throat plate of my table saw is off limits. I have and love the Micro Jig Grr-ripper, and would recommend it as a core piece of safety gear. Have a healthy respect for the tools used. You don’t want to be callous, but you also don’t want to be so tense that you are approaching the operation in an overly stiff or nervous way. I think either approach can leave one more at risk for an injury. Trust your gut instinct as well. If you have reservations about a certain cut, take a step back and rethink it. Chances are there is an alternate way to get the same thing done. If you’re tired, maybe another time would be a better time to flip that power switch on.
Early on, I bought some tools with the thinking that “oh I bet I cold use this to do xyz thing!”. I was too concerned with building up my shop instead of building a thing. But I became anxious to get started building and luckily at that time, some very talented woodworkers I met helped set that priority straight.
So what would I do differently and recommend for folks starting out? What I do today. That is, let the project decide what tools I need. Think of the project you want to make – what tools do you need to get it done? Chances are, you may have the basics: cordless drill, hammer, circular saw, etc. and you can get quite a bit done with these. I worked with a basic set of tools like these when my wife and I lived in an apartment. Say you have these tools, but your project calls for some curves, that could justify a purchase of a jigsaw, or if you have a shop space ready, a bandsaw.
You will make mistakes. It’s okay. It’s even good. Good? Yep, because you can learn from them. A mistake may mean you alter the design of something, or maybe at times, you may end up with a piece of wood to add to the burn pile. Either way, it’s an opportunity to learn. Failures are not the opposite of success, but the path to it.
Always The Learner
There is always something new to learn. Check out my Woodworking & Maker Links section for some great podcasts, blogs, and education sites, as well as my YouTube subscriptions for some great video channels to learn from. (And, if you know of a great channel, blog, podcast, etc. that I don’t have listed, post a comment to let me know!)
Not just with woodworking, but with anything in life, I try to take a learner’s approach. Knowledge is valuable. There are things I can share with others, and there are always things others can share that I can learn from.
Challenge yourself. With each new project, I try to incorporate something I have not done before. With the puja table I made, it was sliding dovetails. My workbench was the first time I used mortise and tenon joinery (and big ones at that). That said, don’t discount a technique that can be used effectively just because some may poo poo it since it’s not “fine” woodworking. I’ve used pocket holes in situations where it works well (and in a case where it maybe it wasn’t – but that goes back to that whole learn from mistakes thing).
That’s the whole point, isn’t it? That also means it’s okay to take a break, too. If you’re tired, short on time, maybe even a little bit burned out on it if you’ve been in the shop a lot, or simply just not “feeling it” that day, it’s certainly fine to take a step away for a bit. You’ll be back in the shop in no time, refreshed.