For those new to woodworking the learning curve can be daunting. While there is no one way on how to learn woodworking, there are a series of basic steps that will help start a hobby that can fuel a passion for decades.
And while learning as you build is required, it is best to spend some time understanding the basics.
Because learning woodworking is also learning what type of woodworking might be best for you.
How to Learn Woodworking in 12 Steps
Whether you own no tools or have a shop full of them there are steps to learn woodworking that might surprise you.
In fact, woodworking is a unique mix of precision measurements and drawings paired with an artistic design sense to build high quality pieces. But it is also a commitment to continually learning from your mistakes, finding new ways to do things and keeping yourself healthy.
Step #1: Assess Your Skills and Boundaries
While a woodworker with decades of experience building cabinets won’t hesitate to build a kitchen, that same woodworker will pause if asked to build a chair or produce a carving.
Why? Because every style of woodworking requires a different skill, set of tools and (most importantly) desire to build the finished project.
Do I Have the Basic Skills For Woodworking?
First, woodworking covers everything from carving, turning to furniture making and cabinetry. But, across all of these varieties of woodworking there are basic skills you’ll need to be comfortable with:
- Able to sketch, design and build cut sheets
- Use a tape measure to add and subtract fractions
- Power tool comfort and limitations
- Understanding of hardware, screws and installation techniques
- And, learning how to properly apply finish your projects
The good news: if you are comfortable designing and measuring but not willing to run a table saw then there are still projects for you.
Why Being a Designer is a Must
As woodworking projects are intended to be seen and used the first requirement in learning woodworking is understanding good design:
- Size and proportion of the project. For example, a bookcase should be properly sized in the space it is intended. And deep enough to support being free-standing without appearing to take away from the room its in
- Usability for furniture or cabinets is a must to ensure drawers, doors and heights are all functioning.
- Wood selection is often overlooked as a key element of design. Learning to choose the right species and grain of wood can enhance the finished product.
While you can start from scratch and draw your own plans, most new-to-woodworking enthusiasts will purchase plans or software.
Math Skills: Adding And Subtracting Are Required
With woodworkers in metric counties enjoy a distinct advantage, the one constant in woodworking is adding and subtracting. And fractional math makes it difficult to get used to as you measure:
- Cutting board lengths and wood strip widths
- Cabinet box dimensions that meet finished 36″ heights but account for counters and the right drawer depth
- Drawer slide tolerances that allow for precisely 1/2-inch on each side
While not surprising, the old adage of cut once and measure twice is true for even experienced woodworkers.
Woodworking Means Lots of Power Tools
How to learn woodworking requires education and a thirst for gaining knowledge.
But it also requires a comfort with saws designed to cut extremely hard wood with little effort. And, as you know, that can be dangerous.
So as you start your projects or define what you can and cannot do be sure to consider:
- Table saws, circular saws and miter saws are dangerous tools with exposed blades. And, most projects require at least one of them.
- Power sanders are generally safer if used properly but introduces dust that, for some people, can be problematic with health conditions like asthma
- Wood carving tools are, of course, sharp
- And specialty tools like lathes introduce large, spinning pieces of wood that even some woodworkers are not comfortable with.
The bottom line? Not all power tools are right for everyone.
Woodworking is Complicated by Screws, Hardware and Jigs
This one isn’t obvious, but the complexity of your projects (and learning curve) must include hardware like screws, drawer slides, door hinges and other hardware.
For example, hardware complicates a project by:
- Wood joinery often uses pocket hole jigs with a variety of screw sizes and lengths
- Drawer slides are complicated to measure – from design, to sizing the drawer box to installing them with the right jigs.
- And, concealed hinges are a time consuming task that requires purchasing the correct hinge with the right layover.
Skills With Wood Finishing (Usually) Required
At the end of every woodworking project you’ll find one necessity: applying a finish.
While experienced woodworkers have mastered many types of finishes most have only scratched the surface of the complex world of wood finishes.
But there are simple wood finishes that won’t require a masters degree in understanding polyurethane from polyacrylic.
Which means your first project shouldn’t require a complex epoxy surface, perfecting a gloss finish on a large surface or attempting to stain woods like Maple that can cause frustration (or worse).
Step #2: Learn the Types of Woodworking Tools
You probably know about the basic tools you’ll need like saws, rulers, clamps, sanders and nail guns.
But when you are learning how to woodwork there are a few tools for beginners that will make your experience much improved. And build better quality projects.
The Basic Hand Tools for Woodworking
- Tape measure
- Combination square
- Hand saw
- Drill bits and drivers
Hand Tools and Jigs You'll Probably Need to Buy
So here’s where woodworking is either fun or a challenge to your budget.
While you can do woodworking without a lot of extra tools, a few tools for those learning to woodwork include:
- Pocket hole jigs are a unique tool that let you quickly join wood together without need for mastering more complex joinery.
- Pipe clamps are found by the dozen in an experienced woodworkers shop and a must have to properly glue wood panels.
- Door and drawer jigs for laying out concealed hinges and installing drawers
Essential Power Tools for Woodworking
It goes without saying that woodworking can be an expensive hobby. And with power tools ranging from $100 to $2500 knowing what you really need vs. what you think you’ll need is a challenge.
And, while types of woodworking like carving vs. turning vs. furniture will dictate some tools, the basic tools are where we’ll start.
- Miter saws are a must to cut wood to length.
- Table saws quickly rip boards to width
- An orbital sander is easily the most versatile sander and can take rough wood to finish quality
- Cordless drills will power your pocket hole jigs, drill concealed hinge holes and install screws.
But, there are a number of tools woodworkers think are required, but depend on your projects.
Power Tools For Specific Woodworking Projects
- Thickness planers are required for any projects made from wood panels (like cutting boards)
- Drum sanders will sand large projects quickly and accurately
- Jointers have the one job of making sure your wood edges are straight before ripping on a table saw. And, a must for any projects with large volumes of panels.
- Lathes are a staple of wood turners
- Bandsaws are frequently used by carvers for sizing large blocks
- Track saws are a hidden secret for sizing plywood sheets with minimal lifting
Step #3: Match Your Woodworking Project To Your Space
How To Learn Woodworking in Small Spaces
Perhaps you’re starting a woodworking journey from an apartment and dust or power tools just aren’t allowed. Or, you have restrict neighborhood covenants (many do) that limit noise.
Projects worth considering include:
- Wood carving can use pre-cut blocks that limit your space to a table or workbench using a mobile vise.
- Wood turning uses a very quiet lathe and smaller projects like pen turning can be done on a benchtop.
- Cutting boards can be made with pre-cut wood sticks, glued and sanded (or planed, if noise allowed)
Woodworking From a Two or Three Stall Garage
While there’s no formal statistic on this one, most woodworkers are borrowing (or downright taking over) space in a garage designed for cars.
Fortunately, even a small two car garage can be used to build just about any woodworking project as it offers space for:
- Storing lumber in a lumber rack
- Sizable bench that can hold your miter saw, power tools,, hand tools and more
- Room for dust collectors
- Outside area for applying noxious wood finishes
Best of all, these types of working spaces can generally contain most sounds (just beware of high decibel planers).
And if you have a dedicated shop larger than 20×30, well, you’re probably in the top 5% of woodworkers for space.
Step #4: How To Learn Woodworking Design
First, no high quality cutting board, cabinet or piece of furniture just happened.
Intentional design in woodworking is the best way to ensure the finished project is appealing, performs its function and gives you the satisfaction of a job well done.
But how do you get started with design?
Don't Start With Computer Software
If you’ve spent any amount of time in social forums, looking online or trying to digitize your woodworking hobby you know there are many software applications to start with.
But don’t start there since you’ll turn a rich woodworking experience into a precision “layout” exercise.
Instead, start by searching for woodworking projects similar to what you’ll want to produce.
The First Woodworking Design Step is Visualization
When building anything from cabinets to furniture trying to picture how it will be used and what the surrounding environment will be are critical.
For example, a shaker-style cabinet in a Victorian home won’t go together. Or, not contemplating walking areas around a bedroom may yield an oversized dresser that is functional but obstructive to the use of the space.
So, walk the space, sketch a room plan and try to visualize what you’ll be building.
Jotting Down Some Options and Sketches
Most woodworkers will look at a woodworking project as a series of decisions to arrive at the final design:
- How large and what are the final dimensions.
- What is the “texture” of the project? Will it be wood grained or painted?
- What wood is best used to meet the look and feel?
- How will the project be used? Hinges, drawer slides and shelving all matter.
- Will it need to be installed? Can it be made in one piece or multiple?
- Can I mix materials like hardwood with hardwood plywood?
- Will the project be stained dark (and sap wood is ok?).
Make Sure Your Design Fits a Budget
While it might be a great looking project to make a kitchen out of birds-eye maple it is generally not practical.
Why? Because some species of wood, like birds-eye maple, are 3-4 times the cost of a standard alternative.
And on a large project that can be thousands of dollars. So, make sure during design you carefully consider the total cost of the project.
Step #5: Learning How to Select and Buy Wood
It’s obvious that wood is the focal point of woodworking. And, as wood is usually the highest cost of most projects it is a must to learn how to buy wood for your projects.
When buying wood you will generally want to learn and understand:
- Wood species and grades
- Lumber jargon such as S3S, straight line ripping, select and better, common and much more
- Air dried vs. kiln dried lumber
- What wood to buy at a big-box store and when to search for a hardwood dealer near you
Learning Wood Grades is a Must
Understanding the wood you will buy and use is always the first step in a project. And because you have taken the time in design you’ll be able to optimize your purchase.
For example, if you are building a walnut project and will be staining the wood dark then there is no need to buy select wood. Because, and this should be tried out first, most walnut sap wood (a lower, less costly grade) can be stained and offers just color variation in the finished project.
The bottom line? Why pay an extra dollar or two for a grade of wood you’ll end up hiding.
How to Learn Lumber Jargon
For those new to woodworking you’ll quickly learn buying wood from a retailer is easy. But picking up the phone or stopping by a lumber dealer is another story.
So, as you’re learning to woodwork, make sure to understand:
- The “S” in custom hardwoods is for surfacing
- The “#” such as “3” is the sides surfaced
- An “L1E” usually means straight-line ripped (or jointed) on one edge
And no, just because your finished boards are 3/4″ doesn’t mean that’s the board foot pricing. The lumber dealer paid for 1″ rough, then surfaced it (at an extra cost to you).
Tip: Always buy S3S unless you have a specific need for rough lumber and a planer that can handle it. Most mills charge from $0.25-0.35 or more per foot but it is well worth it.
Air Dried vs. Kiln Dried Lumber
Once a board is shaved from the log it enters a process of drying. As wood dries, it starts to undergo a transformation in its cellular structure where it releases moisture and attempts to match the relative humidity of the air around it.
Air drying means literally that. First, wood is stacked using stickers placed at 2-foot intervals to allow air to reach all sides of the boards equally (vital to prevent warping). Then, after a period of time and the boards have acclimated to the surrounding air it is ready to use. This process, depending on the thickness of the board takes about a year.
Kiln drying on the other hand speeds the process by super-heating the wood to force the water out. But, it also changes the wood structure to PREVENT it from re-gaining moisture.
Bottom line? Kiln dried wood is more stable, is less likely to warp later and can be used straight from a hardwood dealer.
Step #6: Learn How To Properly Join Wood
At its most basic form, woodworking is all about connecting wood together. And that makes understanding the various types of wood joints an absolute must.
Most woodworkers will rely on methods for:
- Parallel grain joints wood using simple gluing techniques or tongue-and-groove
- Cross-grain joints like mortise and tenon, dowels, dovetails and the unique Domino joint
- Assembly joints like biscuit joints, rabbets and pocket holes
- And plywood joints are required for most projects.
Joining Wood Edge to Edge
While this woodworking step seems simple, it is one that a lot of novices do wrong. Or, spend too much time on.
When connecting wood edge-to-edge there are a few basic rules to follow:
- Each edge must be perfectly flush. And that means no gaps, wiggles or rough edges.
- Glue is stronger than wood and a glue-joint does NOT require screws (a common mistake) to keep it together.
- Alternating grain direction is recommended for looks and to prevent warping.
As mentioned in the types of hand tools you’ll need, bar clamps are a clamp most woodworkers will turn to for this type of joint.
Joining Against the Grain
While joining wood together edge-to-edge is arguably easy, joining wood at an angle requires a decision on which joint to use:
- Pocket hole joints are easy, require few tools or knowledge, and produce a joint most find suitable
- Dovetails joints, on the other hand, are aesthetically pleasing but difficult to learn
- Meanwhile mortise-and-tenon joints are strong, but require a learning curve in use
Since there are volumes of books and tools dedicated just to this topic it is something to explore and try for yourself.
Tip: Pocket hole jigs are an easy way to get started.
Learn How to Join Plywood
If understanding how to join wood wasn’t hard enough, when your projects involve plywood you’ll have another learning curve to master.
While most plywood is assembled with a nail gun there are a few other methods to handle specific situations:
- Biscuits and dowels allow for easy alignment and over some structural rigidity to prevent wood from shifting
- The Festool Domino joint offers similar function as a tenon
- Rabbets and dadoes are commonly used in bookcases
- And lastly, as noted, many plywood joints are simply glued and nailed in place.
Step #7: Cutting and Shaping Wood
With woodworking having dozens of saws and countless ways to route, sand and carve there are always options to consider.
And while experienced woodworkers might prefer one way over the other its usually due to habit and not (surprisingly) the best way to do the job.
For example, with the popularity of track saws they are a viable way to avoid lifting and suffering the inaccuracies of a table saw. But, most woodworkers won’t change.
How to learn woodworking cutting tricks:
- Ripping is going with the grain
- Cross-cutting is going against the grain
- Ripping requires a blade with fewer teeth, while cross-cutting uses more teeth for a smoother finish
Learning How to Rip Wood
While there are many tools to cut wood, only a table saw is good at ripping wood. Because going with the grain takes a lot of power spread over a board up to and over 8-feet in length the design of a table saw is best for the job with its large, dedicated motor.
Tips to using a table saw for ripping wood:
- Use a glue-line rip blade if you are cutting wood strips to be glued into panels
- Ripping is best done with low tooth count blades as they require less horsepower and cut faster
- Avoid binding by using all safety equipment on the table saw
Crosscutting Wood Requires a Miter Saw
First, there are many tools to cut wood against the grain (cross-cutting). While the miter saw is the most popular, you’ll also find:
- Circular saws
- Hand saws
- Japanese saws
Since tearing against the grain introduces the chance for splintering and chips, the number one consideration is avoiding damage to the wood end.
And most woodworkers, for this reason, will use a high count blade with an alternating tooth pattern to sear the wood edges and avoid tear-out.
Invest in a Router and Router Table for Joinery and Finish Quality
While a router doesn’t need to be your first purchase, a router paired with a router table will allow you to tackle advanced woodworking projects.
However, there are a few types of routers to learn and some basics on where to start:
- Fixed base routers are built to be used by hand, are lightweight and some can be used with a router table and lift
- Plunge routers tend to be higher horsepower, operate as the name implies by plunging into the wood and are generally based used outside of a router table
- Trim routers are small routers that are good for trimming laminate edges, small round overs and tasks with small bits
Step #8: The Basics of GLuing Wood
Gluing wood should be the easiest step in most woodworking projects.
But for many, it turns into a process that involves anything from:
- Using the wrong glue
- Improper use of clamps
- Not allowing for the proper drying time
And while woodworkers know that glue joints are almost always stronger than the surrounding wood, some novices always seem to add in other joints.
Choosing the Right Wood Glue
For many the choice of woodworking glue is simple: Titebond II for indoor projects and Titebond III for exterior.
Why Titebond? Well, they have been around for decades, offer a high quality glue in small bottles up to by the gallon. And, importantly, their glue is almost always stronger than the surrounding wood once dried.
Things to look for in a glue:
- Drying time or “set time” is important if you need to work with your project as it sets. Most glues, once compressed in a joint, will start to set in 15-20 minutes.
- Food safe glue for cutting boards or similar projects
- Water resistant glue for indoor use
- Waterproof glue for exterior use
Improper Wood Clamp Use Can Ruin Wood Joints
Glue requires pressure to set properly.
And while woodworking clamps are designed for the job, they can be harmful to a glue joint if used improperly. For example:
- Glue joints set fine with firm pressure and can be “dried out” with excessive pressure.
- Improper leveling of the clamps can lead to glue-up induced twists in the finished project
- Some clamps, like pipe clamps, can leave unattractive black marks on the finished wood surface
- And lastly, pipe clamps can mar or dent the wood edges of a project
Wood Glue Takes Time to Cure (24 Hours or more)
You are probably familiar with the old saying that haste makes waste.
And when it comes to learning patience in woodworking one of the simple facts is wood glue needs time to dry.
How long? Well, the safe bet is 24 hours but most woodworkers will allow for at least overnight (12-16 hours in most cases).
Step #10: Proper Sanding Makes or Breaks a Woodworking Project
It goes without saying that the difference between a high and low quality project is the finish.
But no woodworking finish can hide the underlying quality of the sanding. Which is why experienced woodworkers know that:
- Using a planer to achieve thickness (first) is best
- Starting with aggressive wood sanders like a belt sander, then moving to less aggressive is best
- Choosing the right sandpaper grit progression (eg. 24-grit to 220-grit) is imperative
- Proper technique and limiting downpressure helps avoid swirls
Use a Planer or Drum Sander to Achieve Thickness
While possible to reduce thickness of a wood panel with a sander alone, the result will most likely be an uneven surface.
Which is why a planer built for evenly removing wood will be your best friend in properly setting up your sanders for success.
Start Low and End High (With Sandpaper Grit)
How to learn woodworking is a journey in understanding processes. From how to select wood to which sanders. And, of course, the progression of sandpaper to ensure each grit change removes the traces of the paper before it.
While there is no set order of paper, most woodworkers will:
- Start with 24 to 60 grit to remove planer marks quickly
- Move to 80 to 100 to eliminate the deep scratches left by lower grits
- Switch to 120 to 150 grits with the orbital sander
- Finish with a 220 in either a random orbit or sheet sander
Sanding Requires Technique and Patience
After you’ve spent days, hours or maybe weeks on your project the only thing between you and a finish is the final bit of sanding.
But unfortunately that is where a lot of sanding projects go awry as rushed sanding can introduce a number of issues, including:
- The dreaded swirl marks can be created by applying too much down pressure
- Uneven edges are caused by not properly positioning and moving a sander during operation
- Cross-grain scratches left by aggressive sanders like belt sanders require patience to remove
Step #11: Learn to Choose And Install the Best Hardware
When the time comes in a woodworking project to start assembly of drawers and doors you’ll be faced with a decision on which hardware to buy.
And unfortunately you can make a quality project only to have its functionality marred by hardware that squeaks, can’t be installed correctly or is at risk of a short lifespan and speedy replacement.
The trick? Learn to choose from top brands like:
- Blum, who has been making high quality drawer slides and hinges for decades (and certifies their work)
- Hardware Resources
The Best Hardware is Soft Closing
When adding up the cost of hardware for doors and drawers the temptation for many woodworkers is to go for a budget pick.
But, as popularity of soft closing (which stops doors and drawers from slamming) has increased the new standard is to use this feature on, well, everything.
Here’s how this hardware works:
- Soft close drawer slides have a hydraulic damper that cushions the closing action of the drawer. High quality slides have a spring-assist that then pulls the drawer shut. Which makes upgrading existing drawers to soft close a common project.
- Meanwhile soft close hinges have a similar function that uses a damper built into the hinge.
- Lastly, if you are finding you need to upgrade your cabinet doors there are dampers built as an add-on to upgrade to soft close.
Use Jigs For Drilling and Installing
Most woodworkers quickly learn of brands like Kreg Tools who make and supply the famous blue jigs.
And, for woodworking projects their jigs are popular for working with hardware as they:
- Have drawer slide jigs that properly align the drawer during assembly. Without use of a jig, many find that drawer installation can take too long, result in mis-aligned drawers and for some even break the hardware.
- Supply cabinet hinge jigs to ensure the hole cup is properly placed
- And, provide cabinet hardware jigs that can be used to accurately and repeatedly place cabinet knob and handles.
Step #12: Master the Art of Wood Finishing
Few steps in learning how to woodwork are more satisfying AND frustrating than wood finishes.
Because wood stains cannot be easily removed, and top coats applied over curved surfaces require wood strippers to remove there are reasons to take your time.
For that reason, be sure to follow a few important steps during finishing:
- Make sure the wood is prepared
- Always use a test piece to try out a new finish
- Follow the manufacturers instructions
- Use a properly heated and ventilated space
- Leave time between staining and the top coat for the stain to properly cure
- Use protective respirators and gloves
- Understand sealer coats from finish coats
Proper Surface Preparation
Wood finishes are meant to be permanent.
Which is exactly what woodworkers intend to have happen, except when a flaw in the underlying wood is discovered. From seeing sander marks when a stain is applied to finding glue wasn’t properly removed there are a handful of common mistakes novice (and experienced) woodworkers make.
However, by doing the following you’ll be able to spot mistakes before they happen:
- Use an air compressor to blow ALL dust off the workpiece.
- Place the workpiece in bright lights and look at the wood from every angle
- Inspect the joints for any leftover glue (most show up an ugly yellow when finished) and scrape away
- Look closely at the wood surface. Can you see any swirls or scratches from the sander? If so, send the piece through another sanding session and restart
Use Proper Safety Equipment
While newer wood finishes have a lower toxicity, usually measured by VOC (volatile organic compounds), they can still have harmful vapors.
And with prolonged use a woodworker can be exposed to highly dangerous chemicals.
The best way to prevent an issue? Use all of the safety precautions and equipment associated with the wood finish you are using. While some require only standard face masks, others will dictate high quality masks with carbon filters.
Use a Scrap Piece of Wood Finished to Final Quality
There is no harm in testing before you commit a stain or wood finish to your project. In fact, other than confirming color decisions, this step gives you a chance to see just how easily (or difficult) the finish will be to work with.
Summary: How to Learn Woodworking
Learning how to woodwork is a commitment to continually learning new things. Even professionals of 20, 30 or more years will always find a few new tips and techniques each year.