19 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Woodworking


19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedIf I could travel back in time and teach myself as a beginning woodworker all that I know today, I would be making things right now that I cannot even imagine. We all would love to be able to teach our former selves something that took failure or time to learn. We understand that if we knew more from the beginning that we would be better.

One of the things that I constantly tell people who are getting into woodworking is to read as much as possible about it. Spend time online, reading books, watching videos, and absorbing ideas about woodworking.

The more you know in the beginning, the better off you will be in the long run. If you commit to learning about woodworking early on, you will also avoid a lot of the pitfalls and mistakes that come along the way.

If you are a new woodworker, hopefully you can benefit from my mistakes, and learn from these 19 things I wish I knew when I started woodworking.

Here are the 19 things I wish I knew when I started woodworking:

  • Start with an idea of what you want to make.
  • Learn about finishing at the same time you learn about woodworking.
  • Build a woodworking library right from the start.
  • The price of your tools does not matter…most of the time.
  • Make your own tools when possible.
  • Look for tools that compliment what you make.
  • Safety is very important.
  • There is a whole world of wood to learn about and discover.
  • The internet is a huge resource.
  • Tips are a great way to learn a lot about something rapidly.
  • Be open minded. There is more than one way to do it.
  • Have confidence in what you are doing.
  • Learn to combine ideas from different woodworking disciplines.
  • Have a dedicated space if you can, and a sturdy bench.
  • Keep all of your firsts.
  • Woodworking is addictive, and can become expensive without control.
  • Slow down. Don’t worry about how long it will take.
  • Finish Strong. The last hours on a project make the biggest difference.
  • Brad nails don’t work like real nails.

Start With an Idea of What You Want to Make

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI’ll open with the biggest thing I wish I knew when I started woodworking. Have a project in mind that you want to build. Don’t just start being a woodworker without a compass.

I used to work in a higher end woodworking store that had seasonal customers. There was a guy that I met twice, about a year apart, and he was buying another big tool.

I asked him again this year the same question I asked him last year. That question was, “What do you make?” His answer was the same as it was the year before. He said he was still getting his shop set up.

This is an example of someone that is a tool collector, not a woodworker. While the company I worked for liked that he purchased big tools every year, he never really made anything with them. As someone with only average tools, I was almost heartbroken that someone could have an expensive woodworking machine and do nothing with it.

Begin with the end in mind. Woodworking is a vehicle or a means. It’s not what you directly want to be. If you like tobacco pipes, maybe you want to be a pipe maker. If you like guitars, maybe you want to make them. That’s what woodworking is for. It’s a skill that will allow you to make what you really want.

Learn About Finishing At the Same Time as Woodworking

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI wish I knew to start learning about finishing at the same time I was learning how to be a woodworker. Almost every project you make will have a finish on it. If you finish poorly, it will take an excellent project and ruin it.

Finishing is an enigma in woodworking. It can take you a lifetime to master, but not very long to learn. You can spend decades researching and discovering things, or you can spend a few days and learn how to apply a few easy finishes.

I prefer the latter approach. Learn some easy finishes right away, and practice with them on scraps of wood. Hand applied finishes are very easy to master, and they are also inexpensive to buy. They do not require fancy equipment, and they leave a professional look. If you want to learn about applying these finishes, my 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing tells you all you need to know.

Start Building a Woodworking Library Right Away

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI love books. I have dozens of them, and I have written four myself so far. If you want to really learn about woodworking, then you need to invest in some good books.

A great way to save money on your woodworking library is to look for deals. Used book stores often have clearance sections. In these you can find books for as little as a dollar. Most of the books I own were under five dollars, and the cover prices were far higher.

A woodworking library gives you an instant reference section for your questions. Also, the step by step instructions and tutorials will help you be more successful in woodworking. I wish I knew that woodworking books were so valuable in the beginning. They contain so much useful information, and they are easy to bring out into the shop when needed.

The Price Of Tools Doesn’t Matter…Most of the Time

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedHigh end tool guys will not agree with this one. However, even though very high end tools do perform better than lower end tools, that does not mean you will be able to do the same things with them.

The woodworker determines the quality of what leaves the shop, not the tools. Bob Vila with a box of pipe cleaners and a pocket knife could still turn out amazing work. By contrast, a poorly trained and lazy woodworker with a million dollar shop will never make anything worth looking at. It’s all about what you do with your tools, and how well you know them.

I do not have many expensive tools. In fact, most of my tools were from hardware stores and discount tool stores. The lathe in the above picture is from Harbor Freight, and it has been running in my shop for over ten years. For what I ask of it, the tool works great. If I were making three foot tall vases, I would need a different lathe. Sometimes, you do need to spend a little to get what you need, but shooting for the middle is usually best.

In the beginning, look for smaller versions of the big tools. All of my tools, with the exception of one that was a gift are bench top models. These are smaller in size, and meant to sit on a bench top. They are less expensive, and yet still have much of the same functionality.

Make Your Own Tools When Possible

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI really wish I knew this when I started woodworking. You can make lots of tools in the shop that will save you tons of money. I am not talking about big power tools, but smaller hand tools and jigs.

When you make your own tools, you learn so much about woodworking. Not only do you learn from making something, but you learn from using it too. The value literally doubles.

I have dozens of jigs and several smaller hand tools that I made myself. I hated hand planes, but after I made one, I use it all the time. Also, the 1/8 sheet sanding block I made is used almost every time I go into the shop. I love these tools above others because they came from my hands, and in turn they allow my hands to do more than they could alone.

Buy a book or look online for some easy tools that you can make. I promise that even if they are not the best looking, you will use and treasure them above all others. They come from you, and serve you well as you use them to accomplish your woodworking goals.

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Look For Tools That Compliment What You Make

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedOne of the best and worst purchases I ever made was a lathe. At the time, it was all the money I had to buy the tool. The problem was that I made guitars, and literally nothing on the guitar except the pins can be made on the lathe.

The reason I say it was a mistake, and that I wish I knew better, is because I was a struggling guitar maker at the time. I really should have spent that money on wood so I could make more guitars. Instead, I bought a lathe. While I did have a lot of fun working on it, I ended up having to get a “real” job to supplement my guitar making income. However, I did have a ton of fun, and still do when I turn something on my lathe.

When you buy tools, assuming you are like most of us without an unlimited budget, spend them on tools that enhance your current project. If you are making cabinets, maybe a nice router table or panel bit set would take you to the next level. For wood carvers, a new carving tool can open up more and easier design possibilities. Whatever you do, don’t buy a tool that doesn’t allow you to move forward in your development.

Safety Is Important

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedUnfortunately, people don’t often think about safety until they are in the hospital, and then they have plenty of time to think about it. Start with safety in mind, and you will have a lot less to worry about.

This is something I wish I knew when I started woodworking. I have made some mistakes in the shop, but thankfully nothing permanent has resulted from them. It could have, but it didn’t.

Read your users manuals on your tools, and follow their recommendations for personal protective equipment. In my shop, I am typically wearing safety glasses and hearing protection if I am using a tool. I also have a respirator for finishing, a dust mask, and a face shield.

Another good thing to have in the shop is a fire extinguisher. Heat caused by friction and sawdust can turn into a fire. Having a fire extinguisher nearby makes a difference, and here is why:

Where is your fire extinguisher right now? If you had to think about it, imagine how hard it will be to find when your shop or house is on fire. Plan now, and you will be able to react to a situation more quickly if it arises.

There is a Whole World of Wood to Discover

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI was stuck on Pine and Oak for a long time. I wish I knew that wood came in so many different and interesting varieties. In the beginning, spend some time in a hardwood store getting to know what is available.

Wood comes in nearly all colors, figures, patterns, and densities. There are very light colored woods, and woods that are completely black. All the colors of the rainbow are present, and you can find a wood that inspires you in a single trip to the hardwood store. The selection is so big that it can take you years to see the majority of it. Also, over time you will end up discovering different woods that you may end up working with.

Look online at exotic hardwoods. Places like Google and Pinterest are loaded with pictures of beautiful and amazing types of wood. When you find something you like, make a note of the type of wood, and look for it the next time you are in the hardwood store.

The Internet is a Huge Resource

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI can’t believe that people still have questions about things. If you have the internet, there should be no question that you are missing an answer for.

All you need to do is plug your question into Google, and you will have millions of answers returned to you in less than a second.

If you like to read, try Google. Find a woodworking website (like mine!) and read all that you can about what you are interested in. If you are more of a video person, try out YouTube. There are hundreds or thousands of videos on any topic you can imagine. I can guarantee that you will find several videos on just about any woodworking topic.

If you are the kind of person that plays on your phone or tablet, spend time on a woodworking website. It will be far more productive than social media sites, and you will learn something other than what your friend had for lunch today.

Tips Are a Great Way to Learn Rapidly

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedI love tips. I wish I knew how powerful tips were when I started woodworking. Tips let you absorb a large amount of information in a rapid fire manner.

For example, if you looked online for woodworking tips, you would find hundreds of resources. I even have a Woodworking Tips guide as a free FPD download.

When you refine your search, and look for tips on gluing wood for example, you will get several great tips that normally you have to make a mistake in order to learn. These tips give you the quick version of the learning that someone else went through already. You can pick up some great points, some things to avoid, and very quickly become more informed about the topic.

In the beginning, read about what you are interested in making, and then also read tips about it. These will typically cover the pitfalls and secrets that take what you read earlier to the next level.

Be Open Minded. There is More Than One Way

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedWoodworkers can sometimes be stuck in their ways about how to do things. Don’t let someone tell you that something is wrong just because you accomplished it differently.

I wrote an entire book that is predicated on the fact that there are many ways to do something well. My Acoustic Guitar Making book shows easier methods for many guitar making techniques. It simplifies things, and shows you that there are other ways to accomplish the same thing. If you really learn and begin to understand your tools, you will come up with many creative and interesting ways to accomplish things. All of these are great, as long as you have the same result in the end.

If you are not comfortable, or do not have a specific tool for a woodworking operation, search for another method. There are plenty of people who have made discoveries, and they are more than willing to share them online. (I do this all the time.) Look around and see if there is a way to do the same thing with the tools you have. You will learn more, and save money too.

Have Confidence in What You Are Doing

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedThis is a huge thing I wish I knew. A little confidence goes a long way. Not only does it give you the ability to try something new, but it also gives your brain permission to try something a little above your skill level.

You can learn all the skills in the world, but if you don’t approach them with confidence, you will grow very slowly. Once you have researched something, try it out and don’t worry about it.

Destroy some wood in the shop, ruin a few finishes, and don’t worry about the cost. The knowledge that you gain will far outweigh the wood that you destroyed. Also, nobody needs to know that you ruined a couple projects on the road to success. We all did. It’s just not something woodworkers like to talk about.

Personally, I like sharing failure stories just as much as success stories. I have learned more from my failures than my successes, and I share them so my readers can get the same benefit without the cost. My First Guitar will show you how bad it can be if you need a good laugh.

Combine Ideas From Different Woodworking Disciplines

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedThis is something to watch for early on, but not something you can really do until you try out a few different woodworking projects. When you make several different things, you should look for opportunities to combine the good points.

The wine ceremony box on the left has Cocobolo trim and inlays. I learned how to create beautiful bindings on acoustic and electric guitars, and just used that same technique on the wine box. The process was actually easier too, because the pieces are not bent like on a guitar. I went from a basic Pine box to a nicely decorated Cocobolo trim by using what I learned from guitar making. This came easy to me, because I have made so many guitars.

Another thing I discovered from a venture into tobacco pipe making was the contrast staining technique. This involves staining the grain of a piece of wood very dark, then staining the flake a lighter color. This makes the wood grain patterns just explode, and completely changes the look. I have since used this technique on a lathe turned gavel, a few pens, and even candle holders.

Combine ideas as you learn things. You will be able to take each project to the next level by using tricks from a completely different type of woodworking.

Have a Dedicated Space and A Sturdy Bench If Possible

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedIn the very beginning, I did not have a space for my woodworking. I ended up doing projects on the basement floor, which was not ideal.

If you don’t have a space and a bench, at least find part of the house where you can set up a table and work in the same area. Consistency is a good thing, and it will not feel foreign to you every time.

Most woodworkers make their own bench. I inherited mine. It was my father’s, and his father’s before that. I never really knew what having a nice bench was like, but psychologically it did make a difference for me. I think it has more to do with the history in the bench than anything. My grandfather and my father all made things on that bench, and now I get to do the same thing.

A dedicated space doesn’t have to be huge. My Shop is not glorious by any stretch, but I turn out great projects all the time. I have a larger space now, but for a long time I was in half of a single car garage. It doesn’t matter where you work, as long as you have a little space and you are comfortable.

Keep All of Your Firsts

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedKeep the first of everything that you make if you can. It may be hard, but you only get one chance to make something for the first time.

I am not talking about random projects that are below your skill level. What I mean are larger projects that you make for yourself. I have my first tobacco pipes, first rings, and first guitars.

These items are not replaceable to me, and are a reference to how much I have learned. My firsts are pretty bad in some cases, and right down the middle in others. Even though they would not win any beauty contests, they are mine and I value them.

Hold on to these treasures. I let a few of these go in the beginning, and I wish I knew better at that time. I have the few that I somehow had the foresight to keep, and I am very happy that I did. You will be too.

Woodworking is Addictive and Can Get Expensive

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedIf you suffer from squirrel syndrome, woodworking can become very expensive. If you run in the direction of every shiny project that you see, you will end up almost making everything, and in the end making nothing.

Don’t worry about waiting on a new project. Use the time you have to finish what you are working on before moving on to the next big idea. Even better, make a few of something that challenges your skills, and once you become good at making that project, move on to something else. You don’t have to master it, you just have to be good enough to mark it off your list as an accomplishment.

The last thing you want to do is have a dozen half finished projects laying around the shop and nothing that you can actually use. It would be better to have finished only one project and be enjoying the fruits of your labor. Finishing something feels great, and using it feels even better.

Slow Down and Don’t Rush the Process

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedWoodworking in itself should be an enjoyable experience. If it’s not, then you are doing it wrong or it’s not for you. A fundamental part of woodworking is the peace and enjoyment that the process gives you. It should be a time to clear your mind, and be happy.

People in general are in a hurry. In the age we live in with instant everything and a barrage of shiny things trying to get your attention, I can see why we are the way we are.

By virtue of the fact that you have made it through over 3,500 words so far in this article, you are probably not one of those people. That’s a good thing.

Take your time and enjoy the process. If you become frustrated, stop and think. Woodworking is only difficult and frustrating when you are missing something. If you are laboring very hard, sweating profusely, and your back hurts, then something is wrong. Either you need to practice more, need to learn a better technique, or use a different tool. Slow down, and look at the scene. A couple minutes spent thinking will typically reveal the solution.

Finish Strong, The Last 10% Makes all the Difference

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedThe final hours of a project make all the difference in how it will look for the rest of the time it exists. It’s in the tail end of the project that you give it the final look.

The last thing you want is someone looking at something you spent hours on, and finding a scratch. If they don’t know much about woodworking, they will just think you are a poor woodworker. This is obviously not the case. If you can make a desk, you are more than qualified to sand a desk smooth. If anything, you either missed the scratch or you rushed through the last 10% of the project. One is not your fault, but the other one really is.

I wish I knew that it only took a small amount of extra effort to take a woodworking project from good to great when I first started. After all that work, it’s tempting to skip through the last few steps too quickly.

I was one of those kids that couldn’t resist opening a new toy in the car on the way home. For the same reason, I fell victim to rushing through the end steps in order to play with my new creation. Don’t fall for this. All it takes is a small amount of additional time near the end to make your project look the best it can.

If you find yourself rushing, walk away. I know that’s hard, but you need to do it. You don’t want to have a reputation of being a so-so woodworker. If that’s the best you can do, then own it. But the last thing you want is to let being a lazy woodworker make people think you are a poor woodworker.

Brad Nails Don’t Work Like Regular Nails

19 things I wish I knew about woodworking when I first startedThis last example of things I wish I knew when I started woodworking is more of a funny story. However, it was something I did not know, and I would venture that other beginners don’t know either.

I was really excited to get a nail gun. I bought the gun, nails, and hooked it up to the air compressor in the garage. All of my pieces were already cut for a small book case, so I began firing them together…without glue.

Anyone who does case work knows that brad nails are really more like clamps. The purpose of brad nails is to hold the pieces together long enough for the glue to dry, which is where the actual strength comes from.

As for my project, it did not go very well. As I dragged back into the garage it collapsed into pieces. Once I Googled how to use brad nails, that’s when I discovered the glue. Armed with my new found woodworking knowledge, I glued and nailed everything again. The book case held up much better on the second round, and is still in use today.

To Re-Cap: 19 Things I wish I Knew When I Started Woodworking

  • Start with an idea of what you want to make.
  • Learn about finishing at the same time you learn about woodworking.
  • Build a woodworking library right from the start.
  • The price of your tools does not matter…most of the time.
  • Make your own tools when possible.
  • Look for tools that compliment what you make.
  • Safety is very important.
  • There is a whole world of wood to learn about and discover.
  • The internet is a huge resource.
  • Tips are a great way to learn a lot about something rapidly.
  • Be open minded. There is more than one way to do it.
  • Have confidence in what you are doing.
  • Learn to combine ideas from different woodworking disciplines.
  • Have a dedicated space if you can, and a sturdy bench.
  • Keep all of your firsts.
  • Woodworking is addictive, and can become expensive without control.
  • Slow down. Don’t worry about how long it will take.
  • Finish Strong. The last hours on a project make the biggest difference.
  • Brad nails don’t work like real nails.

While I do give away the majority of my woodworking tips, tricks, and tutorials for free, I have also written a few woodworking books. If you like the way I explain things, the books are a great way to learn about the fun side of woodworking.

wooden ringsWooden Rings: How To Make Wooden Rings By Handteaches you how to make beautiful wooden rings without many tools. I wrote the instructions using the bare minimum tool set, so that anyone can enjoy the process and make a nice ring.

There are step by step instructions for making many different styles of ring, as well as over 50 example rings for inspiration. If you have ever wanted to make a wooden ring for a gift or for yourself, this book has everything you will need.

There are sections on making each ring, finishing, wood selection, and the tools and materials you will need to be successful.

I even include step by step instructions for making my wedding ring, which has a titanium band under the wood for strength. This is a beautiful ring, and I have been wearing it daily for years. If you want to make a beautiful wooden ring, this is the book for you.

wooden tools for kidsWooden Tools For Kids was written as I made a set of heirloom wooden tool toys for my son. Before he was born I had the idea of making him a nice wooden tool set. This is the exact set that my son plays with now, and he loves every one.

The book has step by step instructions for over 20 different wooden tools. There is also a farm style tool box to hold them, and a chapter dedicated to applying a nice looking finish.

These tools are all beautiful, and they are easy to make with common woodworking tools. The hand plane, level, and square are some of my favorites, but they all have a charm of their own.

Most kids toys end up being sold or thrown away. A set of heirloom wooden toy tools will become a family treasure that you will keep forever. If you have a child or a grandchild, this is a great project.

If you have any questions about the 19 things I wish I knew when I started woodworking, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Also, please share my work with your friends on Pinterest!

Additional Information About Westfarthing Woodworks

While I publish the overwhelming majority of my woodworking content for free, I also have several books available as well. You can see them on my Available Books Page, and they cover several different woodworking disciplines.

You can also Join the Community, and receive updates from me about new articles, upcoming books, and when I release new books. It’s completely free, and full of great tutorials, freebies, and great content.

Lastly, if you like what I do so much that you want to help me continue my work, please look at my profile on Patreon. This is a way for the people who enjoy my content to help me create more and better tutorials, books, and resources for woodworkers.


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