Build lots of stuff with just a few tools

One of the things I love best about building things by hand is the problem-solving. If you know a few tricks, you can use a surprisingly small tool kit to build a staggering amount of stuff. When writing my book, Build Stuff with Wood (coming soon), which is aimed at true beginners, I challenged myself to work with just a few portable power tools. Each one will come in handy for all sorts of DIY and home-improvement for years to come. And all four of them will fit in the back of your Mini Cooper when you move to Brooklyn or Banff (best town name ever).

I made some amazing discoveries along the way. Like the incredibly smooth-cutting blades you can get for a small jigsaw, which will produce cuts that rival those of the biggest bandsaw. Then there is the simple cutting guide you can make for any circular saw. It’s normally a rough construction tool, but the guide turns it into a star, for super-straight cuts on plywood and big boards that look like they were done on a tablesaw.

The other must have is a cordless drill, but not just any cordless drill. You want an impact driver, a new type of drill that rattles loudly when the going gets tough, melting big screws into hard woods almost effortlessly. It can drill just as well.

I went over my $100 budget on the last must-have tool. It’s a miter saw. If you want to build things inside or outside your house or apartment, you’ll want one of these cutoff masters. I’ve used mine when building decks, laying flooring, and making woodwork projects of all kinds. A good one is $300 or so, but it is so worth it. It will make perfect 90-degree cuts (or any other angle) on the ends of boards in just a few seconds, with zero fuss or setup. Just walk up, drop the board in place, pull the trigger and pull the saw downward smoothly.

And the miter saw is portable, meaning it can easily go where it is needed, for projects away from your dedicated workspace. I just used mine to build an entire fence. Look for that blog soon!

To be honest, I’d also add a router, one just like this from DeWalt, which is small enough for easy control but tough enough for any task. Use it to put nice roundovers and bevels on your edges, and too many more cool moves to list here.

That’s everything, and you don’t have to buy it all at once. Buy tools as you need them, and buy the mid-grade at least. You’ll be much happier in the end. I’m showing them below in the order I would buy them, starting with the jigsaw and cordless drill.

Get a good jigsaw and you can make almost any cut you can imagine. Eventually you’ll get tools that do more reliable straight cuts, but the jigsaw can remain your curve specialist. The key to success is buying a decent one, and replacing the stock blades with longer ones designed for smooth cuts in wood.
Here’s me cutting out the back of a bottle opener project for my book.
Smoothing the cuts takes just minutes with sandpaper and a block.
This is my favorite tool all time, a 20V impact driver. You don’t need a model this nice and powerful, but definitely get an impact driver over a normal cordless drill. For driving screws, it is simply amazing.
Here’s the driver assembling the frame of a cornhole game, also in the book!
The only downside to the impact driver is that it only accepts hex-shank bits like these, but you can get an auxiliary chuck for it that takes round-shanked drills.
As soon as you can afford it, get a miter saw. I recommend the 12-in., non-sliding type like this for best value.
You just walk up to the saw, line up a your mark with the blade, pull the trigger and make a perfect cut. Be sure to wear your ear and eye protection, always! (my lenses are polycarbonate, so they suffice)
Eventually you’ll want to make long cuts in plywood and also have a very portable saw for construction projects. You can’t beat the circular saw for that.
Make cutting guide, like I show in an earlier blog, and it will help you make perfectly straight cuts every time. Another trick is the rigid foam insulation I put under the plywood, for perfect support (and protecting the table beneath!).



Do big things in a small workspace

One of the secrets of building stuff, especially with wood, is that you can do amazing things with just a few tools and a small workspace. When we moved from the East Coast to Portland last year, I managed to find a house with a garage, but just a small one, and one that had to hold bikes, paint cans, and lots of other homeowner accoutrements. But I knew I didn’t need a ton of space to set up shop.

I get most of my work done in the back corner, on a rolling workstation I made by attaching MDF and casters to the bottom, and two layers of MDF on top. I also have a tablesaw and a workbench that I jammed into the POD when we moved, but you don’t even need those to make great things (though they both make things easier). Mostly the tablesaw acts as a third work surface, covered by a couple layers of Homosote, a soft type of fiberboard used for soundproofing, which I painted white on top.

I keep it simple around the walls and ceiling too. I framed in a window where I work, letting some light and beauty in, and I use simple shelves for storage.

You’ll have to read my book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” due out in summer 2017 from the Taunton Press, to see just how many things you can build in a space like mine. And of course follow this blog too!

I do everything in this small space. The white table is actually my tablesaw, with two layers of Homosote on top to create another work surface.
Inexpensive fluorescents hang from the rafters, plugged into normal outlets, which are switched at the wall. Painting the walls white is another trick for brightening a space.
For my book I came up with the idea of buying a surplus kitchen cabinet at my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and adding some MDF and casters to turn it into a rolling workstation for my miter saw and general workbench use.
As you can see in the first picture and this one, I prefer simple open shelves for shop storage.


Transforming table, pt. 4: Finishing tricks and touches

The table is glued together and dry now, but there is work do to turn it into a smooth, polished masterpiece. This is the home stretch, and I’ve got a couple more great tricks to share.

This table has exposed joinery, meaning you can see the dowels and wedges from the outside–all part of the handcrafted appeal. But at this point, those are all sticking out in a not-so-pretty way, waiting for us to trim them flush.

For that I’m using a basic two-edge pullsaw available at any home center for $20, along with one of my favorite tricks. You need one of these saws. It cuts amazingly fast and accurately through any type of wood, it’s cheap, and it’s a pullsaw, meaning it cuts on the pull stroke, which is shockingly easier than pushing a saw and having it bind every few seconds.

The trouble is that saws have “set,” that is to say the teeth stick out a little on each side. And those protruding teeth can dig into your precious project when you try to trim anything off close to the surface, leaving deep scars that are hard to remove.

The trick is using a basic fridge magnet to keep the saw just off the surface you want to protect. The magnet goes on the back side of the saw, and is just thick enough to keep the sides of the teeth from touching down. With the magnet there, you can cut very close to  surface with no danger, leaving just a bit of dowel, plug, or whatever to trim flush with a sanding block or small hand plane (if you have a sharp one).

Here’s how it works, and here’s how to sand and finish our transforming table.

Use as big a fridge magnet as you have and will fit on the side of the saw without hitting the teeth. Place it near the teeth you’ll be cutting with. Tip: Use the finer teeth on these two-edge saws.
This is what the big dowels look like with the wedges inserted and the glue dry. Hold the saw flat against the workpiece, centering your fingertips directly over the magnet beneath. Keep that gentle pressure in place as you work the saw back and forth. Remember, this saw cuts on the pull stroke.
Check it out: Super-close cut with no damage to the surrounding wood!
All that’s left is some sanding with a hard block. Start with 80- or 120-grit paper, and work up through the grits to 220. A block plane will work even better here, if you have one and know how to get the blade truly sharp.
The magnet trick works on the small dowels too. You’ll need to pull the magnet backward a bit on the saw, so it is resting on the top of the table (tipped sideways here) without hitting the trimmed dowels that stick out bit.
Use the sanding block to trim the small dowels, too, and to put a tiny bevel on all the edges. Sand the whole project to 220-grit and vacuum or wipe away the dust.
Now you are ready to put on an oil finish. I like Minwax Tung Oil, but any oil finish will work. Wipe on a lot of it and let it soak in before wiping off the excess. Then let it dry, and sand lightly with 220-grit before putting on the next coat. Repeat that a third time for a soft sheen. Don’t sand the last coat.
You’ve arrived at the finish line. It’s a thing of beauty.
Make two or three and stack them to make a funky, modern bookcase.


Transforming table, pt. 3: Assembly, or the almighty wedge

With the dowel holes cut and the tenons made, the transforming table is ready to assemble. This is the best part, where you get to see it all come together, and witness the almighty power of the simple wedge. You’ll get other tips for glue-ups too, and not just for this table.

Here’s the most important assembly tip of all: It’s always easier to separate glue-ups into stages. Otherwise you spread too much glue and give yourself too much to do in a hurry as the glue starts getting sticky and making things difficult.

In this case, the sides go on the big dowels first, with the top just dry-fit in place, and then you wait a few hours for the glue to set up. Then the top goes onto its many little dowels and you’re done.

There will be some cleanup and finishing left to do, but the table will already be plenty nice to start showing off and bragging about.

Here’s how make make assembly a cinch, with tips that will help on any project.

Sand first when you can! It’s much easier to sand the parts when they are flat and separate.
How to make wedges on a miter saw. Cut a block off the end of a board, in this case a chunk of 2×6 fir I had lying around, and then turn the block sideways so the grain is lined up with the blade. Now angle the blade to 5 degrees, push the block firmly against the fence, and cut off a wedge. You can do that at all four corners, and then move the blade to 10 degrees and do it again to get four more 5-degree wedges.
Trim the wedges to size. I needed these wedges to be 7/8 in. wide so I marked them with my square and trimmed a little off each side with my pullsaw. You only have to cut partway through and then you can just bend and snap off the waste piece.
Avoiding glue mess. To control glue and make things easier, squirt some in a dish and use a small brush to apply it. For the big dowels, the glue goes in the holes. Use plenty of it.
Attach the sides.
Now attach the top temporarily, with no glue, just to keep the sides in the right position. A couple of dowels will hold it in place.
Now let’s wedge those tenons! Note the clamps holding the two sides tightly against the tenon shoulders as I do the wedging. That is critical. The glue goes on both sides of each wedge.
Now use a hammer to tap in the wedges. You’ll know they are home when the tapping sound turns to a dull thud. It’s cool! It’s also cool how the wedges spread the tenons so they close any gaps on the outside. Magic!
After waiting a few hours for the tenons and wedges to dry and be strong, you can take off the clamps and attach the top for real. Start by squirting some glue in the dowel holes and spreading it with a small stick.
Now stick in the dowels, give them a twist to spread the glue, and brush more glue on the exposed ends.
Use a rubber mallet (or a hammer with a piece of wood to protect the project) to tap the top down firmly.
The clamps will draw the top the rest of the way home, closing any gaps. Note how I placed the clamps to miss the protruding dowels, and used a wood block for the center clamp. If your clamps hit the dowels, they won’t do their job. Now wait overnight, and wait for part 4, where we finish off this Bauhaus beauty.


Transforming table, pt. 2: Round tenons made easy

With the corners doweled and the sides drilled for the big spindles, we are ready to make tenons on those spindles. But how to do that without owning a lathe? There is a super-easy way, using any small router, mounted upside down under a piece of plywood or MDF. I had never tried it before, so I was happy to see how well it worked!

Tenon, by the way, is just a traditional word for any narrowing of a board or round piece so it will fit into a square or round hole in another piece, called a mortise. This creates a hard shoulder on the tenoned piece, which bumps up against the side of the mortised piece and makes this interlocking joint even stronger.

That little shoulder is important here. If you just drilled 1 in. holes in the sides of this table, and stuck the 1-in.-dia. dowels through, there would be nothing to stop those sides from collapsing inward. Hence the 7/8 in. holes and the need to make 7/8 in. tenons on those 1 in. dowels.

There is no way the sides will slip by those little shoulders. And as you’ll see later, when we pound wedges into the ends of those tenons, there will be no way the sides can pull off the tenons either.

Traditional joinery at its simplest! You can do it!

So let’s make those tenons. Here’s a great method anyone can handle.

Start by making the V-block you’ll need. Use a board at least 1-1/2 in. thick and about 5 or 6 in. wide (like a piece of 2×6) and make 45-degree cuts partway through it as shown so a V-shaped piece of waste pops out.
Now let’s make a simple router table (if you don’t already have one). Drill a big hole through a piece of plywood or MDF for the router chuck to fit through.
Then use holes in the router base to screw it to the big panel.
Now flip over that panel, clamp it to your workbench or work table, load any kind of straight bit in the router, and then line up the V-block on top as shown.
Before making the tenons, you’ll need every dowel to be cut to the exact same length. Make them a little longer than the exact dimension so some extra tenon will stick out each side of the table. You’ll see why later. Notice that I used a simple stop here to guarantee uniform lengths.
Now the magic happens. Set up a simple fence on the table to limit how far forward the dowel can travel, and raise the router bit until it is just past touching the dowel. Now with the bit spinning, you can rotate the dowel in the V-block as you advance it toward that fence, forming a tenon on the end!
You’ll get a sharp, square shoulder on the tenon on the first pass, but the tenon surface will be a bit rough. To smooth it, plunge the dowel forward and back, rotating the tenon a little bit between each plunge.
The last step before assembly is sawing the tenons for the wedges. I like using a basic pullsaw you can get at any home center. You can also use your V-block to hold the tenon vertical. Just eyeball the tenon to center the cut, and stop a little short of the shoulder.

Transforming table, pt. 1: Happy drilling


This is one of my favorite projects in my upcoming book, “Build Stuff With Wood.” This table can be stacked on its side to form a bookcase or even made a little shorter as a stool. It is based on an elegantly simple, multi-use piece from the Bauhaus movement in Germany.

To make it easier to build, I traded the traditional dovetails in the corners for a simple dowel jig from And I found cool way to form tenons on the three big dowels that pass through the middle, using any router big or small. Still it’s the most complex project in the book, so I figured I’d roll it out here in parts.

Of course the book covers every last step, with lots of extra tips and tricks, but you can get the gist right here in these blog posts.

In this post, I’ll cover the all the drilling for the big and small dowels, starting with the dowel jig. Available at for just $15 the jig comes with the bit you need, plus a small stop collar that controls depth. I went with the 3/8-in. size, which is perfect for joining 3/4-in.-thick boards. And Rockler’s perfect-fitting dowel pins are just a few bucks more.

To make one table you need just one six-ft.-long pine board, sold as a 1×12 at home centers but actually about 3/4 in. by 11-1/4 in. Plus one 4-ft.-long, 1-in.-dia. dowel to make the three big spindles.

And you’ll need a bag of those 3/8-in. spiral dowel pins for the joints. They have a spiral groove that lets air and glue escape when you tap them into their hole.

So chop your boards to size however you want, and let’s get drilling!

After you cut your boards to size, you need to lay out the dowel spacing on the top board (put them about 1-1/2 in. apart and 3/4 in. from the ends) and then transfer those marks to the sides as shown, which is super easy.
This Rockler dowel jig is one of my favorites in the world. You can’t beat it for simplicity, and dowel joints are super strong.
I’m setting the stop collar on the drill so it will only go about 1/2 in. into the sides.
This is how easy it is to use this jig. You just line up one of the jig’s lines with your layout mark, and clamp the jig right there.
Clamp, drill, move the jig. Repeat.
The mating holes in the top will go right through it, so the dowels will show in the finished piece. Notice I had to carry the layout marks onto the ends of the boards here, and I’m using a long clamp to hold the jig in place. Also, there is a scrap board underneath to stop the bottoms of the holes from splintering.
Clamp, drill, move the jig, repeat.
Let’s drill the big holes for the big spindles. Here’s a trick: To keep the drill from wandering off your precise layout marks, make a dent with a nail first.
At some point, you should invest in a set of Forstner bits. No drill cuts big holes as cleanly. This one is 7/8 in. dia., just smaller than our 1-in. dowels. I’ll explain why later. A 3/4 in. bit would also work.
Some people say you can only use a Forstner bit in a drill press. That would be wrong. Notice the scrap board on the bottom side to prevent splintering again.
Clean as a whistle. In the next part, I’ll show you how to make smooth, round tenons on your spindles, to fit these nice holes we just drilled.