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The Basics of Carpentry

If you've marvelled at a well-made piece of furniture, a creative craft project, or simply a straight shelf and had the urge to reach for a hammer yourself, you may find it a little hard to get started. If you've tried a few DIY projects, or have a few tools already, but are still in the dark as to what you actually need to get going, this short guide will help. Here is a short summary of the absolute basics you'll need to get started on your first project!

Safety First

Woodworking is a rich and varied hobby, but there are some important safety considerations to be made before you start any project; no matter how small. Working with sharp tools, especially power tools, is dangerous. If you buy absolutely nothing else, invest in some safety equipment.

Dust Mask – A dust mask will stop you from inhaling sawdust whilst sanding, sawing or drilling

Eye Protection – Some safety goggles will protect your eyes from sawdust as well as stray splinters

Work Gloves - A pair of cut-resistant work gloves will protect you against small scrapes and cuts. However, the best defence against injury is vigilance and respect for your tools.

Ear Defenders – If you opt to work with power tools, a pair of ear defenders will protect your ears from damage over time.


Picking a Project

You may already have an idea about what you want to make, but even if you don’t, we have some pointers to help you make your choice when starting out.

Start Small  – It’s easy to be overeager and take on something ambitious right away, get disappointed with the result and give up halfway. Pace yourself and start with the simpler projects first. Woodworking is about learning to do a lot of small tasks well over time, rather than producing a masterpiece in one session. There will be bad cuts, wonky joints and plenty of pokey screws along the way, so embrace the learning process. Even if it’s just learning to make a solid joint, or a straight cut, these little triumphs all add up.

Plan Ahead – Whenever you are starting a project, plan ahead as much as possible. There is a maxim for woodworking that rings true for every project: Measure twice, cut once. Knowing the materials, cuts and fittings you need before you even reach for your saw will make for a smoother experience.

Setting Up Shop

Having a good workspace is essential to making woodworking safe and enjoyable. Every craftsperson has their workshop, every artist their studio, so you should have one too! Before you set up shop take some time to think carefully about the space you’ll be working in:

Light – Working with sharp tools and making precision cuts means you need as much light as you can get. Outside spaces are best if you get good weather, but inside spaces like garages and sheds are more reliable. If you can’t see your work properly, look at investing in some better lighting or relocating. Poor light makes for poor work.

Ventilation - Depending on your project, you will have to make considerations for ventilation. Sawdust from sanding and cutting can hang in the air, as well as strong solvents if you are glueing, varnishing or painting your finished pieces. You will need to make sure that your workspace has places fumes can escape.

Space - Making sure you have enough space to move around and to set up your tools is essential. Ideally, you want space for a workbench, sawhorse and a place to put your toolbox and materials. A separate space like a shed or garage is best, as you will have fewer distractions.


The Right Tools for the Job

Once you have a space to work, the right safety equipment and a good idea of what you want to build, what tools do you need? It is easy to get overwhelmed with the breadth of tools, fixings and fittings available, as well as what each tool is for. We can’t give you an exhaustive list, that would be a whole book! However, here are some of the most basic pieces that no workbench should be without.


The trusty measuring tape is an absolute essential. You won’t get so much as a single cut right without one of these. You may want to invest in a steel rule too, for marking straight lines for cutting. A framing square is a simple guide for joining two pieces of wood correctly, such as when making a corner. If you are making boxes from wood such as planters, birdhouses and anything where two pieces meet at right angles, you will need a framing square. These flat carpentry pencils are what you need to mark your measurements on your pieces ready for cutting. There’s no point setting up the perfect measurement if you don’t know where to cut after all. Their flat shape means they won’t roll off your bench whilst you’re working.

Cutting and Shaping

Once you have a piece measured, you will need to cut, shape and work the wood itself. There are many specialised tools that have developed over time, and it is easy to get confused about their exact purpose. Do you need every tool under the sun? Not initially. Tool collections always start small so for your first toolbox you only need to cover the basics. Here are some basic tools types and what they are for.

A workbench or sawhorse is used to secure a piece so that it won’t move around whilst you are trying to cut it. If you have more complex pieces, or need extra security, you should invest in a few g-clamps as well. These clamps are also useful for keeping pieces together whilst glue dries. Hand saws are made for cutting straight lines. No matter how complex the project, you’re likely to still need a good solid hand saw, so don’t be afraid to invest a little more in this workhorse woodworking tool. For cutting angles accurately, a mitre box is essential. These boxes are fixed to a bench and a piece of wood placed inside. Once fixed, you can saw along one of the grooves to cut at the angle you need. A coping saw is a thin metal blade that is fixed between a ‘bow’, used to make precise cuts and for small details. A jigsaw is a mechanical handheld saw that moves the blade up and down very rapidly. Jigsaws are perfect for making cuts in thinner wood panels or to cut in sweeping curves or circles. If you are looking to include circles and curves into your pieces, a good jigsaw is essential. Wood chisels are used to chip away at wood, gouge holes for joinery (called ‘mortises’), or smooth rough edges. It’s easy to get carried away with the different types of chisels and their uses, so a basic set may be better when you’re starting out.

Fixing and Finishing

When you have your pieces cut and ready to be assembled, you’ll need plenty of nails, screws, glues and other items to make sure that once it’s together, it stays together.

Whether it’s making holes for nails and screws on joinery and DIY projects, or making saw holes for more advanced pieces, a decent power drill is essential. Depending on your project, you may need different attachments (bits) to gouge, drill and screw, but starting out with a solid drill will save you a lot of hassle down the line. You will also need a decent claw hammer for driving nails and removing ones that don't quite sit right. Likewise, a softer mallet is required for putting joints together and driving chisels without damaging them in the process.

From puny panel pins to massive masonry nails, the actual size and type of nails you need (if you need nails at all) will be determined by your project. Again, it pays to plan ahead. Though a mixture of sizes is never a bad idea when putting together your first toolbox. For many lighter projects such as decorative, craft-based items some good wood glue is all you need to get a bond. Generally, wood glue is easy to work with and reliable, so you'd be surprised at the strength of the bonds it creates. Cutting, shaping and fixing will leave lots of unsightly and uncomfortable edges on your pieces. Some basic sandpaper pieces are enough to smooth small edges and scrape away leftover splinters. However, for more involved projects you may want to invest in an electric sander.

No matter how far you want to take your projects, you'll be amazed by the things that you can make with just a few basic tools, some forward planning, and a methodical approach. We hope this guide has given you some of the basic ideas and tools you'll need to get started, all you need to do now is pick a project and get sawing!

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