Woodworking Basics For [Total] Beginners

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Are you a new woodworker? GREAT! This woodworking basics guide will catapult you from total beginner to building your first successful wood project.

Lots of folks who decide to work with wood really struggle in the beginning. We don’t want that to be you.

That’s why we’re going to introduce you to all the woodworking basics like, setting up your woodshop, what tools you need, what wood to chose, and how to stay safe.

Basically, all the things you need to know to get you on the fast track to woodworking success!

Woodworking Basics: Where To Start & How To Not Get In Over Your Head

Woodworking basics, how to start and not get in over your head.

We know it’s not exciting or sexy, but honestly, it really is best to start at the beginning and learn as many basic woodworking fundamentals as you can now so you don’t get in over your head and decide this hobby really isn’t for you.

For example, did you know there are different types of woodworking? Do you know how to read woodworking plans?

Can you tell which ones are good beginner woodworking projects vs ones that require a lot of advanced woodworking techniques to complete properly?

By the time you are done reading this article, you will have a solid grasp of all these beginner woodworking topics.

Remember… Every Master Craftsman Was Once A New Woodworker

First things first, woodworking is an art that requires patience and practice. You know the old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”?

That applies to woodworking too. It takes time to learn how to use tools properly and get comfortable with them.

Honestly, most people who fail at or give up on this hobby do so because they didn’t take the time to sit down and learn what’s really involved and develop the skills necessary to do a good job.

Because you’re here, we know you understand that you need to have a grounding in the basic concepts of woodworking before you start making things.

Frankly, folks who don’t usually end up making a mess of it and quitting. This is where the myth that woodworking is hard comes from.

So, let the learning begin!

There Are 2 Types of Woodworking

There are two main types or aspects of woodworking and every woodworker falls into one of these two categories.

Those who work with power tools and those who do not. Both have their pros and cons. And both have their dedicated advocates, too! Before you do anything else you need to decide what kind of woodworking you are interested in learning.

Yes, you can always learn both but we suggest you chose one to try out first.

It will make your life easier when moving on to the next steps like choosing a project, setting up your shop, and purchasing a set of tools.

Hand-Tool Woodworking

There was a time when hand tools were the only tools for woodworking. We are always gobsmacked when we see some of the truly amazing works of art woodworkers of old were able to create.

Those days are gone but the love of crafting with those tools and techniques remains. Working with hand tools is a joy unto itself.

It forces you to slow down and really get to know your wood. And it’s a way to stay connected with those master crafters who came before. To keep their skills and craft alive.

There are still many benefits to working with hand tools. The biggest benefit being control over every aspect of your piece. And there’s something about having a real connection to the material you are creating with that makes this type of woodwork special.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that all hand tool woodworking is SLOW. It’s not. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, these tools get the job done almost as fast as someone using power tools.


Power-Tool Woodworking

Today, most woodworkers use power tools to make their creations. In fact, it’s estimated that about 80% of today’s woodworkers use power tools.

In our fast-paced world this is no surprise, is it? Power tools can cut, drill, sand, screw, and nail faster than any human-powered tool could ever hope to.

They allow you to do more with less time and effort.

Speed and precision. That is the allure of working with power tools.It’s also easier to build large projects and multiple pieces quickly if you’ve got access to power tools.

If the downside to hand tool woodworking is its slowness, the downside to power tool woodworking is its speed.

I know that sounds crazy. But when you work fast with high-speed spinning blades and bits there is just so much more opportunity for error. Probably the biggest downside to power tools, in our opinion, is how fast you can make a mistake.

What we are saying is, if working with power tools speaks to you, please, PLEASE take all the time necessary to learn how to use each one properly.

“Measure twice, cut once” is something every person who works with power tools should keep top of mind.

Setting Up Your Woodshop

Setting up your workshop properly is one of the most important woodworking basics.

Now that you know what kind of woodworking you want to start learning, it’s time to set up your woodshop. Let’s carefully consider, then make a plan for the perfect workspace for YOUR shop.

Many would-be woodworkers either dive into this with abandon and end up spending thousands of dollars buying a lot of things they don’t need.

And set up spaces that don’t really work for the type of projects they plan to build. Or, they become intimidated by the number of things they think are required.

The price of the tools. The space they think they NEED to dedicate to a “proper” woodshop.

Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen to you. Ask yourself the following before buying anything or clearing any spaces in your home, garage, basement, or where ever you plan to work.

Answer The Following Before Setting Up Your Wood Shop

  • What kind of wood projects are you planning to make?
  • How much space do you have?
  • What tools and supplies do you need to complete your project?
  • Where and how will you store your supplies?

Honestly, sit down and answer these questions. Take a look around your home (or the space you plan to use for your woodshop).

Ideas will start to flow about how and where to set it up. Jot them down. Make a sketch, etc. Only after doing this should you head to the store.

Buy only the tools and materials you need for the project you plan to build NOW. This will ensure you have what you need for each current project. Over time, you’ll build up a “stash” for later ones.

Also, you’ll be able to invest in higher-quality tools when you don’t feel pressured to buy them all at once.

Become Familiar With The Woodworking Process

Just like any other job or hobby, woodworking has a process or series of steps that all your projects will have in common.

These are thing things you will always do and as a rule, the order you’ll do them in when woodworking.

  • Step One: Choose Your Project
  • Step Two: Gather Your Supplies
  • Step Three: Make Your Cut List
  • Step Four: Create Your Build Strategy

Too many hobbyists fail to think their project thru from start to finish. In our opinion, this is the number one cause of failed wood projects and people giving up.

Woodworking is not hard. But it is exacting. And requires things to be done precisely and in a specific order.

Keep this in mind and you will create beautiful work.

Choosing Your Project & Learning To Read Plans

Learning to read plans is crucial to learning how to be the expert woodworker you are destined to be.

The first step in any woodworking project is choosing what you want to make. This can be as simple as picking up a piece of scrap wood and deciding whether or not you like its shape and building something from it “freeform”.

Or it could be as complex as designing a new table from scratch.

Usually, folks start somewhere in the middle, with a woodworking idea sparked by what someone else made or they use a set of plans drawn up by someone else.

When you’re just starting out, it’s a lot easier to learn by working on a project that has already been tried and tested. These woodworking plans frequently contain a materials list as well as step-by-step directions on how to construct the object.

If you get the right ones (these are some we trust), they will teach you how to read woodworking plans.

They will also explain how to make a cut list from the plans or better still, provide one.

At the absolute least, most woodworking designs will provide a list of supplies and the size of each piece to be cut. This alone will save you a great deal of time and aggravation!

NOTE: Free woodworking plans can be difficult to read and comprehend. And they may not be complete.

Selecting Wood For Your Project

photo credit: SouthernHardwood

Now that you’ve chosen your project, you’ll need to gather the necessary materials.

The most important being the actual wood you plan to build with. The pieces of wood you choose will, more than anything else, determine the appearance and functionality of your finished work.

When making this choice you’ll want to consider the appearance of the wood. Do you want it to be seen or will you cover it in paint?

How strong and durable is it, and so on? This will tell you the wood you’re thinking about will hold up to the function you have in mind for it.

The Basic Properties Of Wood

  • Color
  • Luster or Sheen
  • Texture or Grain
  • Density or Hardness
  • Stability or Movement

But looks and strength aren’t everything. Stability is important, too. You’ll also want to be sure it is stable enough for the task you have in mind.

What Is Wood Movement?

As the moisture content of wood changes, it moves. For example, as it dries.

Wood also absorbs moisture and expands when the humidity level is high. Wood shrinks as the humidity level drops. Although the movement is slow, it may wreak havoc on your woodworking projects.

For inspiration please see our article “Types of Wood For Woodworking Projects”.

A Note On Buying Lumber & Nominal Dimensions

Did you know that a 2×4 does not measure 2 inches by 4 inches? Its “actual measurements” are 1 ½ inches x 3 ½ inches. This is true for all softwood building lumber.

NOTE: Hardwood is measured differently, by the “board foot” or the actual volume of the wood. One board foot equals a plank that is 12″x12″x1″.

The “why’s and hows” of this are not really important to a discussion of woodworking basics for beginners.

However, it’s important for you to know if you are going to just grab some lumber and start building instead of using a set of plans.

Dimensional Lumber Sizes

Nominal SizeActual Size
1×23/4″ × 1-1/2″
1×33/4″ × 2-1/2″
1×43/4″ × 3-1/2″
1×63/4″ × 5-1/2″
1×83/4″ × 7-1/4″
1×103/4″ × 9-1/4″
1×123/4″ × 11-1/4″
2×21-1/2″ × 1-1/2″
2×31-1/2″ × 2-1/2″
2×41-1/2″ × 3-1/2″
2×61-1/2″ × 5-1/2″
2×81-1/2″ × 7-1/4″
2×101-1/2″ × 9-1/4″
2×121-1/2″ × 11-1/4″
4×43-1/2″ × 3-1/2″
4×63-1/2″ × 5-1/2″
6×65-1/2″ × 5-1/2″

Make Your Beginner Woodworking Tools List

Make Your Tool List!

Another important thing for you to do is to learn about the different woodworking tools and how to use them properly.

If you don’t, your project won’t turn out well and it’s quite possible you’ll wind up getting hurt. So, it’s time to do a little more research.

Now, we know there are literally hundreds of kinds of saws used for woodworking alone not to mention all the other tools like drills and drill presses, routers, sanders, planes, etc. You get the idea.

Get your checklist ready for all your woodworking basics, but especially for making sure you get the tools you need.  No more, no less.

It is safe to assume that any beginner woodworking tool list will include some basic hand tools like hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, a square, hand plane as well as a collection of nails and screws.

In addition, you’ll likely find a collection of basic power tools in the average new woodworker’s shop, including powered drills, belt sanders, a circular saw or table saw, a miter saw, orbital sander, a jigsaw, a bandsaw, and so on.

Your “must-have” basic woodworking tools list will be different depending on what type of woodworking you have decided to learn first.

Keep in mind, depending on what you want to make, you may need a more specialized set of tools such as…

  • Furniture Making Tools
  • Wood Carving Tools
  • Cabinet Making Tools
  • Wood Burning Tools

That may sound like a lot, but don’t be scared off.

Once you do your homework on the woodworking fundamentals for the kind of projects you want to build, you’ll find you don’t need six different kinds of saws.

Heck, if you are taking a very traditional approach, you may find a few straight edges, a hand saw and a basic tool like a hammer are all you need to make the most lovely finished pieces!

Bottom line. Do your homework and learn from what experienced woodworkers have to teach. We can wholeheartedly recommend checking this out if you want a bit of extra help!

How To Measure & Cut Wood With Confidence

When you’re new to woodworking, understanding how to measure precisely is also crucial.

If you don’t know how to make even and consistent cuts every time, it can be incredibly frustrating to try to end up with two or more boards that are the same size.

Much less to cut one that will fit in “that exact spot”.

And consider this, longer boards cost less! This means you can learn how to calculate how much wood you will need for your project.

Figure out exactly what size those pieces need to be. Then you can purchase and turn longer boards into many boards and save a lot of money.

Any woodworking plans that are worth their salt, will offer you at least one cut list. But don’t be surprised if you need to make adjustments as you go along. This is common and normal.

As you can see, learning how to precisely cut wood will not only save you time, but it will also save you money.

Wood Joints: Putting Your Project Together

A dowelled butt joint!  This is one of the joint types you'll want to learn as part of woodworking basics.
photo credit: wikimedia commons

A wood joint is a connection between two pieces of wood. It is a basic woodworking task that often worries new woodworkers. But it doesn’t need to be stressful.

It can be as simple as a mortise and tenon or as complex as a dovetail. These joints can be dry fitted or additionally, an adhesive like wood glue can be used.

There are three main types of wood joinery: butt joints, edge joints, and scarf joints.

  • Butt joints connect the ends of adjoining planks across the grain; they are strongest when made perpendicular to the grain direction.
  • Edge joints run parallel to the grain and usually require gluing because nails tend to split the wood.
  • Scarf joints lie diagonally across the grain and are often called half-lap joints. They are stronger than butt joints and easier to use than edge joints.

The purpose of wood joints is to hold together two pieces of wood securely while allowing movement within certain limits.

The strength of these connections depends upon several factors, including the quality of the lumber being joined, the design of the joint itself, and whether the joint is glued or nailed.

For more detailed information on this topic please see our article “Types of Wood Joints: Wood Joinery For Beginners”.

How To Finish Your Wood Project

Learning about the different types of stains, how they work with different woods and safety precautions is an essential woodworking basic.
photo credit: wikimedia commons

Once your wood project is assembled it’s time to select a wood finish. There are so many options available today that choosing which type of finish to apply can seem overwhelming.

However, there are some general guidelines that should help narrow down your choices.

First, choose a wood stain based on its color.

You might think that a darker piece of wood will look better stained dark brown or black, but lighter stains actually show off the natural beauty of the wood best.

Also, remember that light-colored woods such as pine and cedar take well to clear finishes.

Next, decide whether you want a semi-gloss or gloss finish. Semi-gloss has a matte appearance whereas glossy surfaces have a high sheen.

Both provide protection against moisture and scratches, however, gloss finishes are generally considered superior since they resist fading over time. Finally, determine whether you prefer oil or water-based products.

Oil-based finishes penetrate deep into the pores of the wood resulting in rich colors and durable protective layers.

Water-based finishes sit on top of the surface providing a smooth, even coat without penetrating deep into the wood.

If you’re looking for additional tips about finishing your own furniture check out our article “Types of Wood Finishes [A Guide for New Woodworkers]”.

Woodworking Safety

A man in his workshop wearing proper safety equipment.  This is one of the fundamental woodworking basics.

No discussion of woodworking basics would be complete without a quick overview of woodshop safety.

Whether you’re using power equipment or hand tools, safety precautions must always be taken.

  • Make sure all equipment, including woodworking machinery and saw blades, is properly maintained and free from any broken edges or loose parts.
  • Wear eye protection at all times – not just when working near heavy-duty machines. In fact, if you follow just one rule regarding safety, make sure it’s “Always Wear Protective Gear When Working With Wood.”
  • Never practice woodworking and especially operate machinery if you feel drowsy or fatigued.
  • Don’t forget to keep an emergency kit handy at all times. This includes first aid supplies, fire extinguishers, extra batteries, etc.
  • When cutting wood by hand, always cut slowly and carefully. This helps prevent injury caused by splintering.
  • Always wear a mask, gloves, and eye protection when sanding or handling sawdust. It contains fine particles of hardwood shavings that may irritate skin and eyes.
  • When sanding, always wear goggles to protect your eyes from small wood pieces and other flying debris.
  • Always wear eye protection when cutting or drilling. If you don’t already do so, invest in goggles specifically designed for working with power tools.
  • Wear hearing protection when operating power tools such as circular saws, drills, and such.

In addition to following these basic safety rules, we recommend reading through our articles on safe woodworking practices.

These include topics like dust control, sharpening techniques, cutting methods, tool maintenance, and of course, “Woodworking Safety Tips”.

Final Thoughts On The Basics Of Woodworking

Do you need some ideas for what to build? Please take a look at our woodworking plans and project ideas. And don’t forget, you can always find inspiration and ideas by following us on Pinterest!

We hope this introduction to woodworking basics was helpful. We’ve covered everything from setting up your workspace, choosing materials, selecting tools, and much more.

Now you know enough to complete projects of your own. Please be sure to drop us a line here when you do. We would be DELIGHTED to see them!

Basic Woodworking Questions…

What’s the difference between woodworking and carpentry?

Beginner woodworkers are often confused by this. Professionally speaking, both woodworkers and carpenters work with wood the similarity between the two ends there.

In a nutshell, carpenters construct buildings and woodworkers build objects like furniture, shelves, and bowls.

What’s the difference between cabinetmaking and furniture making?

As the name suggests, cabinetmakers make cabinets. For example kitchen cabinets and shelves.

These items get made and put into place where they are meant to stay permanently.

Essentially boxes and boxes within boxes that are meant to store items.

Similarly, furniture makers make furniture.

Items that are made to be used by humans for a function and moved around.

Things like chairs, tables, and beds.

Is woodworking for kids a good idea?

Yes, absolutely! Kids love playing with toys and gadgets.

They also enjoy learning new skills. So why not combine those things together?

By teaching them some simple basic skills in woodworking, they can learn valuable life lessons while having fun doing something creative.