Ask an Author
Spike Carlsen gives aspiring woodworkers some tips to get started on their first outdoor building projects.
Spike Carlsen is an editor, author, carpenter, and woodworker who has
been immersed in the world of woodworking for over 30 years. He ran his
own construction and remodeling company and was executive editor at Family Handyman,
where he wrote hundreds of articles on home improvement and
woodworking. He has written for several other publications and currently
writes “The Great American Woodworker” for American Woodworker. He is the author of Storey’s Woodworking FAQ as well as the award-winning A Splintered History of Wood.
Why do so many people enjoy woodworking?
In this fast-paced world, woodworking offers a little oasis of calm and
“reality.” At the end of the day, you have something concrete — I guess
“wooden” would be more correct — to show for your efforts, not just
another ﬁle folder on your computer. Your goals are clear and you get
to decide how to reach them.
It’s also a process and a product — the proverbial journey and
destination. Creating sawdust is fulﬁlling, but seeing, using, or giving
away the ﬁnal product is just as rewarding. And it can be both a
solitary and a communal endeavor. Most woodworkers work alone, but once
the chisels are put away, the camaraderie begins. Woodworking clubs,
guilds, tool swap meets, friends, stores, and websites provide lots of
opportunities to share and learn.
also offers just the right level of challenge. It’s not so simple as to
be boring yet not so complex as to be off-putting. It’s like golf: The
only person you have to compete against is yourself. And you get instant
feedback; if the miters don’t meet (or the ball is in the sand trap),
you know right away. Some woodworkers love following step-by-step
directions exactly; others like to improvise as they go. There’s plenty
of room for both approaches.
great feature is that woodworking knows no age, gender, or other
bounds. There are 95-year-old woodcarvers and 5-year-old toymakers.
There are specialty groups, such as Woodworking for the Blind and
Wheelchair Woodturners. All are welcome to the table.
when your spouse says, “The _____ is broken,” or “We could sure use a
____ around here,” you can respond, “I can build (or ﬁx) that!”
What's a good basic set of hand tools for someone getting started in woodworking?
There’s no single right answer, since there are so many different
branches of woodworking. But there are a few across-the-board tools
everyone should have:
- 16-ounce claw hammer. This is small enough to drive ﬁnish nails yet beefy enough to drive larger ones
- 25' tape measure. A 1"-wide blade makes it easy to take long measurements without your tape going limp
- Triangle square for squaring off boards before cutting and for ﬁnding and transferring angles
- Utility knife for sharpening pencils, opening packages, marking
precision cut lines, easing sharp edges, and dozens of other tasks
- Multi-bit screwdriver. One with Phillips, slotted, and square-drive bits stored on board will handle most situations and screws
- Sharp ¾" chisel for mortising, removing waste, and other tasks
- Three or four squeeze-type (one-handed) bar clamps for glue-ups, joining parts, and securing jigs
- Carpenter’s apron or belt to keep the above tools close at hand and to minimize time spent searching for misplaced tools
Do you have any other advice for someone who wants to get started with woodworking but has limited or no experience?
Start with a project that’s simple in order to build conﬁdence and
your comfort level with tools. And select a project you actually need or
will use, that will give you the motivation to dig in and get it done.
Building a picture frame, simple bookcase, or piece of outdoor furniture
are all good starter projects. To toot my own horn a little, I have a
book titled Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects that contains 40 useful, well-designed projects anyone can tackle. Beginners may want to check that out for ideas.
Storey’s books feature many building projects for outdoor use. What are
some common rot-resistant woods to use for these projects?
There are dozens of woods that are rot-resistant, but some make more
sense to use outside than others. For example: Walnut, oak, and chestnut
are rated by the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory as woods having
heartwood with a “high” resistance to decay, but they are rarely used
outside because of cost, weight, availability, and other factors. The
most commonly used softwoods are cedar, redwood, cypress, and
pressure-treated pine. The most commonly used hardwoods are teak, Ipe,
mesquite, and white oak.
Part of this interview was adapted by Spike from Woodworking FAQ.
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