You might have found this article because you’ve been binge watching videos of people making things and you thought, “Hmm…that looks like fun.”
Then you kept watching and thought, “But seriously, I wonder if I could do some of this?”
And then you thought, “I really think I could do this. But everyone seems to have a lot of tools. It looks like an expensive hobby. And where do I begin? I don’t even know what half those tools are!”
That’s what we’re all about here! Teaching beginning woodworkers how to make things without a huge shop or a bunch of money.
I want to give an overview of exactly what woodworking is and what to expect from it. Today we’re going to look at the forest instead of the trees. Today I’m assuming you have never built anything out of wood and have little or zero experience. I’ll address the most common questions you might have been afraid to ask because you thought they were just too basic.
What is woodworking?
Woodworking means a lot of things, but here’s reasonably boring definition I came up with that most hobbyists will probably agree with.
Woodworking is a productive craft that involves cutting, shaping, and joining wood to create decorative and/or useful things.
There is nothing physically demanding about woodworking and you can build at your own pace. The basic concepts are simple to learn, yet it’s a hobby that will always remain fresh and challenging as your skills evolve. If you love problem-solving, you will love woodworking. It’s part of the process. It’s also rewarding to produce really cool stuff for your home using your hands and brain. In general, woodworking is a very solitary experience: if you are a bit introverted and love taking on tasks from start to finish, you will love woodworking.
Who are woodworkers?
There used to be two stereotypes of woodworkers. The cranky shop teacher who taught a really boring class to kids who didn’t want to be there, and the retired grandpa who puttered around in his garage with a lot of time to build an occasional birdhouse.
Thankfully, those stereotypes are no longer true. There is more diversity in woodworking now than ever before, thanks to online communities and the affordability of tools and materials.
In the past ten years there has been a huge rise in two groups of people making woodworking a hobby. First, women. It wasn’t that long ago when a female woodworker was unusual. Today, women woodworkers are commonplace. There is nothing about woodworking that anyone can’t do.
The second huge demographic spike has been among millennials, people in their 20s and 30s. I hear from people all the time who work in silicon valley or just have some sort of office job and feel the need to make things with their hands.
What’s the difference between a “maker” and a “woodworker”?
A maker is a relatively new term that has cropped up in the past decade or so. It’s an all-encompassing term for people who like to dabble in different crafts. This could mean a little woodworking, metalworking, epoxying, concreting, computer programming, electronics, 3D printing, baking, sewing, knitting, jewellery making, sculpting, ceramics, robotics, even playing with Legos. So basically, we are all makers.
A woodworker is a maker who is mostly interested in learning and refining the craft of creating things out of wood. Sometimes we bring other materials into our projects, but the focus is on the wood. It’s an affordable, timeless material that’s easy to build with.
What’s the difference between woodworking and carpentry?
This is a little vague, but I tend to think of carpenters as building structures…homes and buildings. Construction work. I don’t think of framing a house out of posts, beams and 2x4s as woodworking. Woodworking tends to be building furniture and other items that are moveable. That said, there are a lot of people who refer to woodworkers as carpenters so it doesn’t really matter.
What’s the difference between cabinetmaking and furniture making?
Again, there is no solid line between these two terms but to me, cabinet makers build things that are permanently mounted into place, such as your kitchen cabinets and are mostly concerned with the surfaces that will be visible.
Furniture can be positioned anywhere the owner likes and therefore more parts of the finished piece can be visible.
Cabinets might use plywood more than most furniture and are assembled using screws and other mechanical fasteners, while furniture is often uses solid lumber and is usually assembled with stronger joinery and glue. Furniture making might demand higher precision.
But there is a lot of overlap here. I have built plenty of furniture with plywood and screws and I have seen some amazing cabinetry that rivals high-end furniture.
Types of woodworking
You might have an image in your mind of what woodworking will entail, but there are a few different ways people approach this craft.
Hand tool woodworking
Hand tool woodworking has had a huge revival in the last 20 years. Hand tool woodworkers choose to use classical tools and methods to build things. Hand saws, chisels, scrapers and planes are preferred over anything that plugs into a wall.
Getting started can be very inexpensive, but as your skills improve and the mania sets in, you will discover that a $200 precision hand plane is not unusual.
Hand tool woodworkers probably feel more of a connection to the process than any other type of woodworker. It takes patience, has a longer learning curve, it’s a slower way to build and a lot quieter. But the personal fulfilment and satisfaction can be enormous.
Power tool woodworking
I would guess that 90% of woodworkers today are power tool woodworkers. Everything I do on this channel and in my Weekend Woodworker courses are geared toward plugging in tools. Or charging batteries.
Power tools such as miter saws, table saws, drills, sanders are ubiquitous and can be a very affordable way to start building projects right away. Cutting a board on a tablesaw doesn’t take anywhere near the skill and finesse of using a handsaw and takes a fraction of the time.
The biggest drawback to using power tools is that they have the potential to cause serious injuries. It’s nothing that should prevent you from using them, but you need to really familiarize yourself with safety procedures.
Digital machines have been around for a while, but have become more affordable in the past few years and are appealing to more and more hobbyists. The primary tool here is the CNC machine that makes precision cuts on flat pieces of wood using a router. You will need to layout and design all of your work on a computer and the machine will take care of the rest, cutting out all your pieces. You don’t even have to be in the same room when it’s cutting.
The second tool some hobbyists invest in is a laser cutter or engraver. This tool allows you to make even more precise cuts than a CNC and create some beautiful art.
The biggest drawbacks to using digital machines are their cost. You can easily spend thousands of dollars on them. They have their limitations and you will probably still want a tablesaw and other power tools in your shop. Some people feel digital tools make them less “connected” to their woodworking and remove the satisfaction of making things by hand.
Most people have a mixture of hand tools and power tools in their shops. For instance blended approach to woodworking might make most cuts using a tablesaw, but use a chisel to hand cut dovetails. Some people find that hand tools offer greater precision and control for cutting technically demanding joints and enjoy improving their skills at these tasks.
There are two types of woodworking that some enthusiasts, usually people with an artistic bent, specialize in. Woodturning and scrolling.
Woodturning involves using a lathe to create bowls, spindles and other rounded projects. It’s kind of like sculpting clay on a potter’s wheel, only with wood and chisels. The only real downside to getting into woodturning is that lathes can be pretty expensive.
Scrolling involves using a scroll saw which is capable of cutting extremely tiny curves and intricate patterns. It takes practice to become proficient, but it’s relaxing and you can create some stunning art with a scroll saw. Unlike a lathe, scroll saws are relatively inexpensive. They are pretty quiet and don’t make a huge mess.
You can certainly find uses for both tools in a standard woodworking shop, maybe you need to make occasional table legs or add some decorative scrollwork to a fancy bookcase, but in general they aren’t tools you will use that often.
Is woodworking dangerous?
It’s probably safer than driving, but not as safe as not woodworking. Understand how your tools work and learn how to use them correctly. Use common sense.
Is woodworking expensive?
Doesn’t have to be.
Does it require a lot of physical strength?
Does it take a lot of time to make things?
It can. But I prefer to make projects that I can complete in a weekend or two.
Do you need a lot of space?
Is there a long learning curve?
No. The basics of woodworking are simple.
Can I do this?
Why do people enjoy woodworking?
I think one of the reasons why woodworking has become a crazy popular hobby in the past few years is that it offers people a retreat from all the noise that fills our lives these days. When you step into a woodworking shop to build something, it’s just you. You enter your shop with an idea of what you want to accomplish and can envision what it will look like when you’re done. You’ll create something from nothing using logic, intelligence, problem solving skills, and common sense. YOU will be fully responsible for every aspect of making a project, from finding a plan or designing your own, to selecting the tools you will use, obtaining lumber and other materials, to determining a course of action, and to overcoming challenges. It’s a rewarding process.
Woodworking is fun and you get to make cool stuff for you house, but ultimately it’s about discovering who we are and finding out that life can offer so many more internal rewards if we simply take the time to create. Unplug yourself for a few hours a week and plug in some power tools.