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Basic Concepts of Woodworking

Updated on December 8, 2015

My experience

Before we get started I would like to explain how my knowledge of woodworking and carpentry began.

I am a third generation carpenter. My great uncle built many different crafts and furniture over many years. My father would spend many days in his wood shop learning the trade. I do not know the details to what they built exactly, but my father has said many times that is how he got started. My father began building cabinetry before he graduated high school. He has told me my grandfather would have to drive him and his work to the customers. My father can build anything out of anything. He owns his own cabinet shop but he has the knowledge and experience to do most anything mechanical or construction. He has built cabinets and woodworks for 30+ years. He has built kitchen and bath cabinets, entertainment centers, jewelry boxes, tables, mantles, ect... My father has also developed his way of finishing that can mask any wood to look like anything he wants with a smooth coat.

I have been working with my father for the last 16 years and helped before that. I have learned an art from him not a craft. He has taught me how to visualize what is needed, plan out the steps, and use the proper tools to construct it. My father's motto is "Take pride in what you do" and he has asked many times "Is this something you would want in your house?" I have learned the difference between making a cabinet and making furniture. A cabinet does its purpose but furniture does that and has the beauty. I have learned how to build cabinets that are strong and sturdy which many don't want to take the time to do. I owe everything I know to my father.

Knowledge of Wood

First, we need to start with is the different categories of wood. There are hardwood, plywood, MDF/particle board, chipboard/wafer board, composite boards.

Hardwood is any wood that isn't manufactured. This is solid lumber for the trees. You have harder woods such as Oak, Maple and Hickory. The softer wood are like Pine, Alder, and Poplar. Each wood has different characteristics because of color and grain. Unless special ordered or you glue together most boards are only 4-8 inches wide and 8 feet to 10 feet long. We use for the fronts of the cabinets, doors, and drawer fronts. This is also the most expensive material.

Plywood is a manufactured product where thin strips of wood are glued together with usually a thinner consistent layer on the outside to resemble a solid piece of wood. This is used because it is more economical than hardwood and can be purchased in 4 feet wide 8 feet long sheets. Most plywood is .25 to .75 inch thick. It is very sturdy and reliable but water can cause some swelling. We use for the box of the cabinet (sides, back, and bottom).

MDF or Particle board is also manufactured by gluing small pieces of dust into a sheet. You can also purchase this product with a veneer on top that is either a color or wood grain. It is cheaper than plywood and hardwood. You can get higher density sheets if needed. The down side is water will cause bad swelling and damage the integrity. We prefer not to use unless cabinets are painted and want solid flat doors or drawer fronts.

Chipboard and wafer board are manufactured but gluing large chips of wood into a sheet. You can get it with a veneer. Wafer board is used mainly on constructing houses behind the brink or vinyl siding. I have not used this in my experience.

Composite is a new product that is now water proof. Some look like MDF boards and others look like hardwoods. I first seen these at Lowes/Home Depot which sold sheets that looked like old barn wood. I has a guarantee not to be harmed by water. We have used a little for mainly outside projects like sheds.

Plans and Preparation not finished

Before you buy anything or start your project, you must look over your plans or if you have none construct some. This will not only save you time but money as well.

If you do not have any plans, take a piece of paper and draw what you are wanting to do. Make sure of your measurements and label them on the drawing as well. It may help to make some notes below of what you are thinking at the time. I don't know how many times we have started to build something without planning it out and have to take it back apart or just start all over.

If you do have plans, take time to make sure you understand them. A lot of times we think that the instructions make things simple and easy to construct until we get to that one step and wonder what is it talking about. For example, I bought a wooden playhouse/swing set for my kids from a friend who never assembled it. I thought with my dad's help we could put it together after work in a few days. With the labels fallen off all the pieces and the instructions were never clear it took a total of 40 hours of us working on it to complete (which is still good the instructions estimated 70-80 for two skilled people).

Once you have done that, you will need to know what tools are needed. No matter what you will need a way to fasten pieces together, cut pieces (unless it is precut), and a way to apply a finish. For fastening, you can use nails or screws but always use glue. We use titebond wood glue. I DO NOT recommend gorilla glue!! We have had many people bring us broken pieces that this glue would not hold together but regular wood glue did.

Now the hard part, go and get what you need. Do not be surprised the cost of supplies and tools. They are expensive. Lumber cost has increased over 200% in the last few years due to a tariff the government has issued.

Safety

I know many of you will think this is something you may not need but with the tools that you may be using it is better to make sure of safety than lose a finger.

  • With any tool make sure to read the instructions on how to use and maintain it.
  • Always keep in mind where your hands are.
  • Wear safety glasses all the time and respirator mask when sanding and finishing
  • If a saw becomes pinched, the piece you are cutting will not move or anything unusual turn off the saw. Do Not try to force it!
  • If using a nail gun, keep in mind the nail can hit a hard spot in the wood or you may miss. I have had plenty of sore thumbs from this.



Construction

Ok here we go!! Time to start actually building your project. First thing to remember, it is better if the piece you cut is too long than small because you can always cut more off. Second thing is always measure after you cut and before you assemble to check if the piece is correct. It is always a pain when you get 3 steps ahead and find out the piece you cut is too long or to short and the only way to fix it is to take it apart. If you made your own plans, I recommend cutting a few pieces then assemble them before you cut more. In our cabinet shop, we always cut out and build the box first (the sides, bottom and top pieces the facing will attach to). Once the box is build, cut individual facing pieces and attach them as I go. The whole time measure the cabinet as it is being assembled to make sure it isn't built too small or too big. At anytime you do not understand or something isn't working right, STOP and try to figure out what you need to do.

Hopefully after some time, not any many injures, and some patience you will have done everything you need to do and enjoy your projects final results.

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