Shared Knowledge


Working with Wood: Basics 101


7 November 2005




Perhaps it is genetic but I seemed to have been working with wood since I was about 10 years old. Wood has always been available and relatively cheap and so much easier to work with than metal and so I have acquired some knowledge of working with wood. If you have never worked with wood, you might want to consider the following:


-         Measure twice and cut once. This means make sure you have measured correctly before the saw ever starts up. Sounds simple, but everyone who has ever worked with wood has measured, cut and then found out that his or her cut piece is too short!


-   Some very basic equipment you will need includes: saw (circular, hand, jig, etc.); a carpenter's square; a good metal tape measure, perhaps a T-square and an electric drill & drill bits. Metal measuring tapes: when you buy one, you might discover that the metal tab on the very end is loose and you might think this is wrong or that the rivets holding the metal tab are defective, but this is not true. Metal measuring tapes are made such that when you fit the metal end piece of the tape over a piece of wood, the tape will play out a little but this amount is already built into the actual measurements shown on the tape. In the case where you push the end of the tape against a wall or other, the tape is pushed against the metal tab and the tape measurements have already accounted for this.


-         Make sure your saw blade is in the location you want it. On most circular or jig power saws, the footplate of the saw is adjustable such that the blade angle of the saw can be set from 90 to 45 degrees. For example, if you are making straight cuts, make sure the footplate is tight in the saw at a 90-degree angle, not 80 or 85 degrees.


-         Use the correct saw blade for the job. Saw blades, whether for a circular power saw, jig saw, whatever, come in various types with the general purpose rip type blade the most common blade coming standard on a new saw you might buy. This general-purpose blade might be fine for cutting 2X4’s for building interior walls but way to rough for building furniture. The difference in blades is in the number of teeth the blade has. The fewer the teeth, the rougher the cut.


-         Precut wood is not perfect. For example, 2X4inch lumber, even the best grade, can be cupped or warped. When you go to buy wood, hold one end up to your eye and sight down the material and you will see how it either is warped in one direction or another or cupped out at one end. The point being that, do not just grab wood from a pile but rather select it, move around pieces, search, until you have the best you can find. This searching method also applies to plywood, as plywood can have broken edges or unfinished or raw sections, which could limit your use of the piece you just brought home.


-         Depending on what you are building, consider the strength of the wood. Pine, for example is very soft and thus although it will hold screws, significant weight can cause the wood to split out at one or more screw points. I do not like particleboard for a variety of reasons but it does have it uses. Just be aware that particleboard does not like to be screwed and unscrewed such as in assembly and disassembly. If you are making something, you will have to take apart and assemble again later, forget particleboard.


-   If you are cutting a sheet of plywood and your T-square or carpenter's square is not long enough to reach all the way across the length of your cut, do not simply try to move the square and extend your line. Measure and mark the other side of the plywood and then move your square there and try to get the line from the new end to match up with the line from the other side. As I said, precut lumber is not perfect and do not assume that a sheet of plywood is a perfect rectangle.


-         Always cut on the "outside" of the measured length line. If you cut down the middle of your pencil mark, as the saw blade has some width, probably at least 1\8inch, your cut piece will be short by 1\16 inch or more.


-         When cutting off a piece of wood, make sure you or your helper holds the piece being cut off or when your saw reaches the very end of the cut, it may snag and the piece being cut off, break off, rather than be cleanly cut off.


-         Screws are better than nails but always drill a pilot hole before screwing in a screw to keep the wood from splitting. Do not try to place a screw at the very end of a piece of wood, as it will probably split out. Allow at least 1 inch or more from any end before you insert a screw.


-         Screw and glue is better than screws. That is, if possible, use a good wood glue along with screws to hold wooden pieces together.


-         Always design and incorporate triangles. There is a reason that bridges have triangles all over them. A triangle is the strongest building architecture. So, for example, you are simply making a shelf to set on your desk, which consists of the shelf and 2 posts or end piece, which raises the shelf up off your desk. If you simply screw the 2 end pieces to the shelf, the resulting shelf will wobble, but if you make small wooden triangles and screw them into the back of the shelf between the shelf and the end pieces, this “brace” will significantly reduce wobble.


-   Depending on what you are doing, you may need to sand the resulting woodwork. In general, sanding starts with a rough grade like 60 or 100 grit paper and after you have sanded out the rough spots, then move to 200 grit and eventually, perhaps even 400 grit paper. The more sanding with high number grit paper, the smoother the finish of the wood.


-   Drilling holes in wood. The smaller the hole, the less the problem, however as you approach a hole size above 1\2 inch, there is a possibility that the drill bit will split out pieces of wood around the hole. Softer wood is more prone to splitting out that harder wood and thin wood more prone than thicker wood.  If possible , perhaps experiment on a scrap piece of wood first to see how the hole drilling is going to work. Certainly do not apply much downward drill pressure when drilling any hole over 1\2 inch in size.



Not much, I know, but no one is born knowing how to work with wood. So I hope what I have offered helps you in




Ron - Shared Knowledge Home