Starting Your First Woodworking Shop
By Ron Pawlowsky
Woodworking as a hobby can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever enjoy. You can get started on a shoestring with a minimal amount of tools and equipment. A small home workshop can produce a wide array of simple projects that will help you develop your creative and building skills while rewarding you with practical and artistic wood products that you can enjoy and even give away to friends and family.
WHERE TO DO YOUR WOODWORKING
Before we get into the equipment you should start with, let’s talk about where you’ll do your woodworking. Depending on the size of your home, you may be able to create a dedicated space for your woodworking activities. This might be a reserved spot in your garage or in your basement. In some cases, a detached shed or outbuilding may be ideal to set up your first shop.
A heated shop detached from your home offers one distinct advantage: better dust control. Without sophisticated dust control systems, basement workshops will inevitably produce dust that travels into the living area of your home. This is particularly true in homes with forced-air heating systems where cold air returns located in the basement and draws up dust into the upper levels of the house.
Another advantage of detached workshops is of course the noise level. You can work without disturbing the rest of the family. A good compromise might be the garage of your home. This can help minimize the problems of dust and noise, however, depending on where you live, a garage workshop may not be practical during extremes of cold or hot weather.
YOUR WOODWORKING SETUP
Space is always a challenge for the woodworker. Regardless of where you are in your development, everyone from beginner to expert wishes they add more space to work in. If you can have a dedicated spot for a workshop all the better. Floor tools and bench top equipment can remain in place from project to project. If this setup is not impossible, at least try to create a bench area where equipment can be stored and pulled out as needed.
If possible plan for inevitable expansion as you acquire more tools and equipment. At the start, set up a bench area where you can store and use most of your equipment, with the temporary expansion of your activities onto the garage or basement floor.
A rudimentary workbench can be constructed from inexpensive spruce lumber ideally at least 48 to 54 inches wide and 32 inches deep. The bench should be about waist height. That will enable you to work comfortably while standing. Add a sturdy shelf below the bench to house your hand power tools and a pegboard above the bench to hang other equipment. Install a woodworking vice at one end of your bench on the front to hold small workpieces.
ACQUIRING YOUR EQUIPMENT
The scope of your start-up equipment will be largely based on your budget. Whether you’ve got large financial resources or you’re starting on a shoestring always buy quality equipment. If you can afford it, purchase your quality tools at your local building and hardware center. If your budget is tight buy quality used tools from others through Kijiji or other local ads.
There is an abundance of quality lightly used tools out there that belong to individuals who embarked on that one moulding project around the house or received tools as gifts that they will never use. You can usually purchase tools for these sellers for less than half the original price and save even more money if you make a package deal for all their unused equipment.
Of course, acquiring tools from private individuals will take extra time and perhaps travel expenses. Weigh out the benefits of travelling across town to save a few extra dollars on a cheap piece of equipment. The extra cost of time and travel in these situations is usually justified when purchasing large ticket items such as table saws, bandsaws or high-ended tools like surface planers in the future.
For smaller acquisitions, a trip to your building center may be the best approach.
In earlier times skilled workers worked with a minimal amount of hand equipment yet produced sophisticated and intricate pieces. Focus on developing your skills with your start-up set of tools and avoid lamenting about the equipment you wished you had.
Here is a checklist of the more useful tools you’ll need to get started:
Safety Equipment: Start as expected with eye protection. Get a decent pair of safety glasses that also offer some side protection for your eyes. Purchase a quality acrylic set that will be scratch resistant. Progressive scratching of cheaper plastic pairs will eventually impair your vision and affect safety. Avoid wearing goggles in a workshop. Most impair vision and dust up quickly. You may avoid wearing them all together if you find them uncomfortable.
The next piece of critical safety equipment that you’ll need involves ear protection. Ear protection is often overlooked by the novice woodworker yet is almost as critical as eye protection. Woodworking can be noisy and long-term exposure to these noise levels can affect hearing and lead to tinnitus and other hearing losses. Also, I find that wearing hearing protection combats fatigue.
Most workers tire faster when exposed to high noise levels. Select effective hearing protection that you find comfortable and effective. These can include earplugs or full ear muff protectors. I find that a quality set of ear muff protectors is perfect for hearing protection.
Lastly, wear a cap to keep the dust out of your hair. I prefer a simple ball cap with my ear muffs and eye protection. With this set up I’m protecting my eyes and my ears. I’m keeping the dust out of my hair. I’m good to go!
Power Hand Saw: Often referred to as a skill saw after the popular brand name, this can prove to be the most versatile tool in a start-up workshop. In fact, in the hands of an expert, a power hand saw can be used to build an entire house. Eventually, you’ll want to buy a table saw, but for now, a power hand saw for the woodworker on a budget enables him to do cross cuts, rip cuts and even intricate angle cuts. As mentioned earlier get a quality brand saw. Avoid cheap unknown brands.
These tend to cut inaccurately and will burn out before you even start your second project. After selecting the right saw install a quality blade. Most skill saws come with a starter blade of lower quality even if they are a good saw. Keep this blade as a backup and install a quality blade with carbide teeth. Start with a hybrid blade. These have a balanced tooth count that works well with both crosscuts and ripping.
Power Jig Saw: A jig saw will add great versatility to your woodworking. Curved cutting is where the jigsaw excels. This versatile tool can not only cut curves. It’s perfect for cutting holes in wood too like handle slots. Eventually, you’ll want to get a band saw. Bandsaws are even more versatile but a quality floor unit can be expensive. A jig saw can be a good stop-gap for the novice woodworker. Purchase an assortment of blades for your jig saw that includes various lengths and teeth per inch.
Battery Powered Drill: Purchase a quality drill that runs on at least 12 volts, however, 18 volts is better. Get one with a keyless chuck and if it is in your budget consider a ½-inch chuck over the standard 3/8-inch version. Down the road, the ½-inch version will prove to be more versatile. Through hard lessons learned, I have found that buying quality in this case is more critical than ever.
Cheaper drills tend to have very short run times and need to be recharged frequently. Their long-term battery life tends to be poor and to make things worse keyless chucks come loose and slip frequently. This is one annoyance you don’t want in your workshop. Purchase an assortment of quality carbide-tipped drill bits that are stored in a holder labelling each drill bit size.
Make a habit of returning each drill bit to its prospective slot in the holder after each use. Lastly, get a set of hard steel driver bits. Your drill can also be a versatile screwdriver, particularly if you selected an 18-volt model.
Hammer: The hammer remains the most versatile tool in the shop, and is often the most misunderstood one. By the way, the hammer is the one tool where most workshop accidents occur. Although the most frequent, hammer injuries are usually of a minor nature, varying from bruised fingers to the temporary loss of a fingernail. Hammers greatly vary in quality and price.
So what’s the difference between a cheap hammer and an expensive hammer? Quality hammers are precisely machined with a good solid joint between the handle and head. The good hammer is balanced, doesn’t rust and features a comfortable handle. Most hammers in the high-quality range offer metal or fibreglass handles. Cheaper hammers usually have wood handles with poor joints between the head and handle.
The head usually comes loose and the tool becomes useless. Select a name-brand quality hammer in the 16-ounce range for general work and a smaller finishing hammer for more intricate work. Avoid using large framing hammers in the workshop and any with dimpled head tips. These types of hammers are more suited for rough framing jobs and are unsuitable in the workshop.
Palm Sander: Purchase a ¼ sheet palm sander. This little power tool can handle just about any sanding requirements you have as a novice woodworker. As your woodworking skills evolve, you’ll likely upgrade to a floor model disk and belt sander. However, for now, the ever-versatile palm sander can clean up edges, cross cuts and even limited amounts of surface area.
As you embark on your first few projects you’ll find that your palm sander with a little bit of effort can transform rough-looking creations into virtual works of art! You can use your palm sander to sand and shape rough boards with 100 grit paper and later finish your work with 200 or 300 grit paper. Purchase an assortment of sandpaper sheets with an extra supply of 100 grit paper. You’ll find this grade of paper the most versatile in your shop.
Hand Planes and Chisels: These classic tools are a must in every workshop. Although low-tech in concept, these tools enable you to taper edges, flatten high spots and correct any imperfections in wood pieces. Start with a standard number 4 plane and an assortment of quality chisels varying in width from ¼ inch to 1 inch.
Clamps: Sooner or later you’ll need clamps for glue-ups and just to hold down your wood pieces as you work on them. Unfortunately, good clamps are expensive and it usually takes the novice woodworker a few years to accumulate a comprehensive set of wood clamps. Start with a pair of long “pipe” clamps. Today the pipe has been replaced with long steel shafts, but the structure remains the same. Get a pair of the longest clamps that you can afford. You can contact them for smaller glue jobs and expand them to their full length for larger projects.
Shop Vice: A shop vice installed at the end of your bench is perfect for holding smaller jobs for sanding, filing and hole cutting with your jigsaw. Purchase a woodworking vice with replaceable wooden clamping surfaces and avoid metal working vices with steel jaws. Woodworking vices with their wood clamping surfaces can securely hold wood pieces without marring or damaging them.
Many of the better vices offer quick-release mechanisms that enabled the user to rapidly open and close the jaws without tedious handle turning. The wood clamping surfaces in your vice will periodically need replacement. I prefer to use soft pine in my vices that will not crush or damage many of the different woods that I work with. Whether I’m working in soft pine or hard oak, softwood clamping surfaces work the best.
Tape Measure and Marking Device: In your workshop, the ever-humble tape measure will be one of your most frequently used tools. Purchase a good quality name brand tape measure with a wide tape usually in the 25-foot range. Although in your shop you may not be using the tape at these lengths, the larger tape measures offer more rigid tapes that won’t flop around and slip off the end of boards.
Measuring when you’re by yourself will be a lot easier, and of course, quality tape measures can last for many years. When marking projects, I prefer a sharp good old-fashioned HB pencil. An HB pencil will produce a nice mark without scratching the wood. Harder pencils like 2B’s can scratch softwoods and will require extra sanding. Avoid oversized carpenter’s pencils. Their large flat leads are just too coarse for accurate measurement in the workshop.
Other Tool and Materials: Here are a few other handy tools to round out your starter workshop: Purchase a T-square, set square and speed square. These inexpensive tools will help you in marking right angles as well as compound angles. Also, get an assortment of flat, Robertson and Philips screwdrivers. Get the number two and three Robertson set.
I find that the Robertson format works best for most woodworking projects and is the most compatible with drill powered bits. Lastly, get a pair of 12-inch wood files. Get a flat one and a round-edged one. You’ll find them perfect for rough shaping and fixing little mistakes along the way.
Adhesives: Not all glues are created equal. Avoid cheap house brands sold as carpenter’s glue. The cost of glue through all of your projects is a minor cost consideration. Therefore, it makes sense to go with the best. I have also found over the years that I get the best results with both indoor and outdoor projects when I use quality outdoor grade glue. These resin-based compounds unlike traditional water-based wood glue, will not break down and fail with moisture.
The peaceful gratification of woodworking is a wonderful experience in this day and age of rushed lives, smartphones and time-starved careers. With a minimal investment in the most rudimentary tools and equipment, anyone can learn the rewarding skills of his time-tested hobby and enjoy project after project!
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