Do More with Less: Tips and Tricks from “Build Stuff with Wood”

Being the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine was like being at the business end of a fire hose, with thousands of would-be contributors sending in an endless stream of ideas. Some were suited only for very advanced technicians, others were strange and ill-advised, and quite a few were just plain awesome. I stored the best of these on dusty shelves in my mind palace, waiting for the chance to use them someday, in a book like “Build Stuff with Wood.” Here are a few of my favorites from the book, all related to doing better work with fewer tools and supplies. If you like these, you should check out the book!

You’ll notice that small, portable power tools play a big role; that’s because I believe they are the easiest path into the craft, especially for people with limited space and limited budgets. But the nice thing about the jigsaw, circular saw, cordless drill, and miter saw are that you’ll keep on using them throughout your life,  for home improvement and fine woodworking alike, even after you add machines and high-end hand tools to your arsenal.

By the way, the projects in the book are not only all do-able in a weekend, but also worth doing, a level above the usual projects suggested for beginners. If you know anyone curious about woodworking but afraid to dive in, hand them a copy of “Build Stuff.” If you think you might welcome 13 simple yet stylish projects that you can knock out in a fun weekend, pick up a copy for yourself. If nothing else, you’ll pick up some handy tips and tricks. Here are just a few.

Turn a cabinet base into a rolling workstation

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Do it in a day. Unless you love building plywood cabinets, start with a used or surplus kitchen base cabinet and hot-rod it with an MDF bottom, casters, and a double layer of MDF on top, to create a rolling work unit with built-in storage. I painted the sides red to match the casters and bring it all together.

 

To be classified as a “fine woodworker,” we all think we need a classic workbench, massive and pricey. Whether you have one of those or not, I think you’ll find good use for this rolling workstation. The time-saving trick is starting with a used or overstocked base cabinet from your local store for surplus building materials. One in Oregon is called the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, with all proceeds going to a great cause. Pick a cabinet that is 42 in. long or less, and then you can use a single sheet of MDF to add a double-layer benchtop that overhangs the cabinet and an overhanging bottom too, which makes it easy to add casters.

If you are just starting out, you can put all your clamps and portable power tools in the cabinet, and roll your whole workshop into the corner when you’re done working.

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Low-tech work support. To create a simple work support for a miter saw, screw a few pieces of 2×4 together, and add drywall screws to the bottom to adjust it to the perfect height.

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Cutting guide turns a circular saw into a tracksaw

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Using it is easy. A cutting guide is amazing for making long, straight cuts in sheet goods. Just line it up with a couple of tick marks, clamp it there, and cut.

Tablesaws are expensive, with a steep learning curve required for safe, successful operation. Armed with a shopmade cutting guide like this one, the humble circular saw can make straight accurate cuts that rival those made by pricey tablesaws and tracksaws. It’s made from two pieces of MDF or plywood, one 3/4 in. thick for the fence and the other 1/4 in. for the base, with 3/4-in.-long screws driven up through the base (and countersunk) to attach the two parts.

The trick is making the fence wide enough that the saw can pass by without hitting the clamps you’ll use to lock the guide onto a workpiece, and then making the whole base wide enough to accommodate the fence, plus the distance between the edge of the saw’s base plate and its blade.

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Build it and trim it. Note that the fence is wide enough to let the saw motor clear the clamps, and the base is wide enough overall so that the saw will trim a little off on the first pass. From then on, the guide will show you exactly where the saw will cut.

The magic comes the first time you run the saw down the fence and it trims off some of the base. From then on the base will do two wonderful things: Its trimmed edge will show you exactly where the saw blade will go, so you can line it up with lay out marks or lines, and that same edge will press down on the edge of the cut, preventing chipping or splintering and guaranteeing a clean cut. It’s amazing, and as low-tech as heck.

Even if you only need this guide for breaking down big plywood sheets before you head to the tablesaw, it’s well worth building.

Rigid foam beats sawhorses any day

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Here’s a companion for your cutting guide. Ever find yourself balancing a long board or big sheet of plywood on saw horses, attempting to keep it level and control the cutoff when it falls free? It can take up to four sawhorses to do the job safely, all set at the same level. So we just hang the whole thing off a benchtop and grab the heavy offcut, attempting to stop it from levering downward and splitting off a chunk of good wood.

The solution is $5 piece of rigid foam insulation. Lay that on the floor or benchtop, put the workpiece on top, and you can cut freely with full support along the full length of the material, with no danger to the sawblade or the surface below. Look at the cutting-guide photos above to see how it works.

You can cut into that foam dozens of times before its too beat to do its job. And here’s one more reason to buy rigid foam: It’s perfect for crafting mockups of furniture designs! There is nothing like seeing your design full-size in 3-D to see if it really works.

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Great for mockups too. I use thin panels of rigid foam for design mockups. It’s cheap and it cuts easily with power tools.

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Good blades turn a jigsaw into a bandsaw

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Amazing blades. Buy long jigsaw blades designed for clean cuts in soft woods and hardwoods to see what this under-appreciated woodworking tool can really do.

OK, there is no replacing the smooth, continuous action of a bandsaw and the control the table affords, but for hundreds less you can get an excellent jigsaw, which will stow nicely in that rolling workstation I showed off at the top of this article. The trick with the jigsaw is replacing the all-purpose blades that come in the box. Bosch and others make long, polished, sharp blades expressly designed for clean cuts in solid wood. Try them and you’ll be amazed at the glassy cuts and smooth curves your jigsaw will produce.

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Smooth moves. If you are a beginner, a jigsaw might be all the saw you need.
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Even if you own a bandsaw, you’ll find all sorts of jobs for the handheld tool, like making curved cuts in sheet goods that would be awkward to wrestle across the bandsaw table, or cutting big circles with a little shopmade jig (cornhole, anyone?).

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Impact driver will put your old cordless drill to shame

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The mighty impact driver. These compact cordless tools not only make long screws a cinch to drive, but they also drill like champs too. To own one is to love one.

If you don’t yet own an impact driver, head directly to the home center. Your old cordless batteries were getting tired anyway. Adapted from auto shops and factories, the impact driver uses a staccato beat of rotational impacts to seemingly melt screws into wood, without stripping heads or torquing wrists. Try it for to believe it!

That impact action means you don’t need as many volts. For $80-$110, you can get a compact 12-volt model that will drive the longest screws with ease.

What they don’t tell you on the box is how well an impact driver will drill, meaning it’s much more than a dedicated screwdriver. When they encounter big bits or hard woods, impact drivers  sometimes start doing their impact thing, but it doesn’t affect the drilling action negatively. The only downside is the quick-change chuck, which only accepts only hex-shank bits and drivers. For the standard round-shanked bits in my collection, I keep my old corded drill around for occasional use.

 

Learn the secret behind bomb-proof screws

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Simple, strong joinery. You don’t need always need complex joinery. To assemble the pedestals for a garden bench, I drilled clearance holes in the top pieces and pilot holes into the end grain below to make the screws super-secure. In fact the whole bench is joined with screws and glue, and you’d never know it.

If everyone knew the difference between a clearance and pilot hole, woodworkers would use screws more often. Take the basic task of attaching one board to another. The hole in the top piece, often called a pilot hole, is actually a clearance hole—if you do it right that is. The top of the screw should pass right through, barely touching that hole at all. So what holds down that top board? Only the screw head! If the screw threads grab the top board and the lower board, you can get a gap between the two that will never close. Think about how hardware attaches. Only the screw head holds it down.

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The feel test. If you roll a screw and a drill bit between your fingers, you can feel if they are roughly the same size, which is what you need for a clearance hole.
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Here I am drilling clearance holes into the platform of a cornhole game. The screws will pass through freely into the solid-wood frame below, which gets smaller, pilot holes.

As for the actual pilot hole, that’s important too in most cases, but it’s the skinnier hole that goes into the lower board. It should be just skinny enough to let the threads grab powerfully, but not so narrow that the threads push outward too hard and split the wood. If that happens, the threads will barely grip at all and the screw will probably spin. Last, that pilot hole should extend all the way down to the tip of the screw.

Try using screws this way, and you’ll be shocked at their power and strength, in any material, even into the end of split-prone materials like MDF. Low-tech, easy, and effective.

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