6 Basic Woodworking Power Tools

With so many different power tools available, it can seem overwhelming to know what tools you really need when setting up your first shop. Here, I will discuss some of the essential power tools you will want in your shop. Power tools can be expensive, so I'll discuss these in order of importance and some ideas on how to get by until you're able to afford the next tool on your list.

Table Saw

If I had to pick only one power tool to have in my shop, it would have to be a table saw. With a few exceptions, there is very little that cannot be done with a table saw. There are the usual operations you might think of: ripping, cross cutting a mitering boards. The table saw can also be used to cut a variety of joints such as dados, rabbets, and tenons. In a pinch, the table saw can edge joint boards. With a moulding head cutter, you can even cut edge profiles (e.g. quarter rounds, beads, ogees, etc.)

Because the table saw is such an central fixture to most woodworking shops, I'd suggest getting the best table saw you can afford, new or used.


Almost as important as the table saw, the router is one of the most versatile tools you can have in your shop. Used hand-held or in a router table, the list of tasks a router can perform is nearly endless. While you might normally think that a router is mainly used for putting edge treatments on a board (quarter rounds, ogees, etc.), the router is equally capable of cutting mortises, tenons, rabbets, dados, dovetails and just about any other joint you can think of. The router can even be used to surface plane a board or joint an edge, if you don't have a planer or jointer.


If you've ever tried to thickness a board by hand, a power planer will quickly come to the top of your wish list of power tools for your shop. The planer does one thing and does it very well: make one face of a board parallel with the other.

Ideally, you would like to have a jointer and a planer. However, if you can only afford one, I'd suggest a planer. I find that using hand planes to make the face of a board flat is much easier than making it a consistent thickness. Alternately, it is possible to make a carrier sled with wedges, allowing you to use the planer as a make-shift jointer as well.


The first step in preparing wood for use is to get one face of a board flat. This is the job of the power jointer. While it is certainly possible to do this with a hand plane, something I did for many years, the power jointer makes the job go much faster and accurately.

When selecting a jointer, try to get the widest bed you can. Of course, as the width of the bed goes up, so does the price.

Another alternative is to look at one of the European combination machines. These machines may be configured to work as a jointer or a planer, simply by adjusting the position of the tables. While pricey, these machines have the advantage in that your planer is the same width as your jointer. In addition, they don't take up as much floor space in your shop.


There will likely be a time when you will want to cut some curved parts. Or, perhaps, you need to cut an opening into the middle of a board. In these cases, a jigsaw comes in handy.

Jigsaws are available with two different grips: barrel grip and top handle. Which you choose is really just a matter of personal preference. I tend to favor the barrel grip as I feel it has a lower center of gravity and gives me better control.

Cordless Drill

Whether you are drilling pilot holes for screws, through holes for bolts or dowels, or an access hole to start your jigsaw in, a cordless drill is used in almost every project I build.

Add a jig and you can drill holes for dowel joints. Another jig lets you cut the slanted holes necessary for pocket hole joinery. The number of things you can use a cordless drill for is endless. In fact, you'll probably want more than one. Otherwise, it will tend to migrate into the house whenever you need to hang a picture frame!

That's my list of top power tools. What's on your essential power tool list?

Adjust a Table Saw Fence Using a Dial Caliper

Today I found a new use for my dial calipers that I thought I'd share.

I'm in the process of making several drawers for some built in cabinets in my shop. The bottom of the drawers will be 1/4 inch plywood. Of course, 1/4 inch plywood is not really 1/4 inch. It's more like 3/16 inch.

I couldn't use my stacked dado set to cut the grooves in the drawer sides, since there is no way to make it narrower than 1/4 inch. Instead I made two passes on my table saw using my combination blade.

The first pass was easy. I simply set the rip fence to the distance between the bottom of the drawer and the bottom of the dado, set the height of the blade to 1/4 inch (half the thickness of my drawer slides) and made a pass to cut a 1/8 inch groove.

To make the next pass, I could have slid the fence over, made a test cut, adjust the fence, make another test cut and so on until the width of the dado was correct. Instead, I used my dial calipers to move the fence once and end up with a dado the perfect width.

I started by measuring the thickness of the plywood with the dial calipers. In this case, it measured 0.187 inches thick, give or take a thousandth or two. Then I placed the end of the dial calipers against my table saw fence and slid the movable head out until the inside of the jaw was against the miter slot. After locking down the head, I zeroed out the dial. I then opened the dial calipers an additional amount equal to the difference between the plywood thickness and the width of my table saw blade -- 0.062 inches in this case.

Now I could move the table saw fence. I moved the fence to the right, held the jaw of the dial calipers against the miter slot, and then moved the fence until it just touched the end of the dial calipers. A test cut confirms the fence setting and I was ready for the second pass to make my dado.

So the next time you need to adjust one of your tools, think about using your dial calipers, it just may help you adjust things correctly the first time, without a lot of trial and error

Cut Plywood Down To Size By Yourself

Working with plywood brings a set of challenges different than working with solid wood. One such challenge is simply the sheer size of a plywood sheet. Working with a 4x8 sheet of plywood by yourself can be diffult. In this post, I'll cover some of the ways of to break down plywood into more manageable pieces when working solo.

Leave it to the Lumberyard

One of the easiest ways to deal with large plywood sheets is to not deal with large sheets of plywood. Many lumberyards and home centers will, for a small fee, make a few rough cuts for you. The first couple of cuts may even be free. This way you take pieces that are much more manageable to your workshop.

If you have the lumberyard make some large cuts, have a cutting diagram worked out ahead of time. Also, have the cuts on the panel saw made about 1/2 inch to 1 inch oversize. Don't expect the panel saw operator to be able to cut your piece to within 1/64 inch of your final dimension. Cutting pieces oversize also allows you to deal with any tearout and irregularities in the cut at your shop. The blade on the panel saw at the lumberyard may not be the sharpest in the world and will likely leave a rough cut at best.

Circular Saw

If you have a portable circular saw, you can break down plywood into rough pieces using a straight-edge. Some circular saw systems, such as the Festool, are accurate enough that the cuts don't need to be cleaned up on the table saw.

Whether you use a commercial system or a home made straight-edge, the idea is the same: Lay the panel flat on some sawhorses or on a piece of foam on the floor, line up the straight-edge with a couple of marks parallel to the opposite edge, and guide the saw along the straight-edge to make the cut.

After cutting pieces to rough size, you may need to clean up the edge or break it down further on the table saw.

Table Saw

I wouldn't suggest cross cutting a sheet of plywood on the table saw, but it is possible to rip plywood on the table saw by yourself. To do so, it's important that you have a way to support the sheet on both the infeed and out-feed side of the blade. In my shop, I have a large table behind the table saw and I can use my workbench and some roller stands on the infeed side. The main idea is to support the sheet so that you don't have to hold it up in addition to maneuvering it through the saw.

When feeding a sheet of plywood through the table saw, keep an eye on the table saw fence. You want to make sure that you're keeping that edge against the fence. It's very easy for the sheet to rotate away from the fence and ruin your cut.

These are just a few ways to break down a sheet of plywood. What tips and tricks do you have for breaking down plywood into manageable sizes?

Top 3 Router Accessories

The router is an extremely versitile tool. It can be used to put a profile on an edge, cut slots and rabbets, trim edges and more. With the following accessories, you can make your hand-held router eve more useful.

Edge Guide

When you need to make repeated cuts the same distance from the edge of a board, the edge guide is your friend. Examples include cutting mortises and slots or carving out fluting on columns.

The edge guides attaches to the side of the router, usually via some guide rods that slip into holes in the base of the router made specifically for this purpose. The fence portion then slides along these guide rods to position the router a fixed distance from the edge of the work piece.

Some edge guides are very simple. Just slide the fence where you want it and lock it down. Some edge guides are available with a micro-adjust mechanism, which allows you to dial in the guide fence very precisely simply by turning a knob.

Guide Bushing

A guide bushing is a cylinder that attaches to the bottom of your router, projecting from the bottom and encircling the router bit. The guide bushing rides along a template or jig, allowing you to make cuts that would be impossible to do freehand.

Need to cut a mortise for a hinge? Create a U-shaped template, clamp it to your part and just guide the router inside the "U".

Need to patch a damaged piece of wood or carve out a recess for some inlay? Cut an opening in a scrap piece the shape you need, clamp it to your workpiece and use the router to carve out the wood.

Want to cut dovetails with a router? Chances are, your dovetailing jig requires you to use a guide bushing.

With so many uses for a guide bushing, try to find a good quality set. If the set doesn't come with one, also pick up a centering bit. As it's name implies, a centering bit is used to make sure the guide bushing is centered around the router bit. This is important if more than one point of the bushing will be up against your jig.

Circle Cutting Jig

If you ever need to cut a circle a router equiped with a trammel, or circle cutting jig can be just the tool for the job. Using a router ensures that a perfect circle is cut every time and usually does not require much additional sanding or other cleanup. your router is extremely useful. It produces a perfect circle every time.

The idea is very simple. Attach a replacement baseplate to your router, insert a pin into the base at a distance from the router bit equal to the radius of your circle (taking into account the diameter of the router bit and whether you're cutting a hole or a disc). Place the pin in a corresponding hole in the workpiece and just spin the router around.

These are just a few of the many accessories available for your router, but with just these three, there are very few things you cannot do with a router.

What are your favorite router accessories?

Woodworking Shop Layout Basics

The way a woodworker's shop is arranged is as personal as the woodworker. However, there tend to be some basic tips to keep in mind when laying out your workshop. This post will explore some of the things to consider when laying out your shop.


One of the main things to consider is the flow of materials and parts through your shop. While this is of greater importantance if you're trying to run a business (time is money and all that), its also worth thinking about if you're a hobbiest. Your time in the shop may be limited, so minimizing the time spent moving stuff around and maximizing the time doing stuff can be important.

For example, the first thing most woodworkers do when starting a project is cut lumber to rough size and prepare it for use (face jointing, thickness planing, etc.). For this set of operations, it is useful to put all of the tools used near one another: the jointer, planer, chop saw and table saw.

If you make a lot of frames or other parts where you are mitering pieces together, it may make sense to have your miter saw near your workbench.

When you're cutting joints for a project, keep track of the tools you go to time and again and put them close to your workbench. If you're always at the table saw or drill press, make sure that those tools are near the work bench.

Tool Height

Remember to think three-dimensionally when arranging your shop. Most shop layout programs only show you a top down view of your workshop. Often, with a little creativity, tools that would otherwise need a lot of floor space can be placed closer together by arranging their infeed or outfeed areas such that they avoid interfering each other.

For example, the outfeed for my surface planer passes underneath my drill press table. A jointer can often be placed right next to a table saw because it's beds are lower and does not project above the surface of the table saw.

On the flip side, instead of arranging tools so they avoid each other, placing them at the same height can also have benefits. A classic example is to set the height of a workbench or assembly table the same as your table saw. This allows you to use the workbench as an infeed or outfeed table, such as when working with large sheets of plywood.

Assembly Space

Finding a place to assemble your projects can sometimes be a challenge. You need enough space to lay out your parts, clamps, glue, mallets, etc. as well as room for the final assembly. Depending on the size of your shop, you can employ several strategies:

  • Use the table saw. If you think about it, the table saw has a rather large work surface. If you cover it with a piece of plywood or cardboard, there is plenty of room to work on.
  • Use the floor. If your project is large, trying to assemble it on a bench might just be an exercise in frustration. Consider clearing some space on the floor and assemble your project there.
  • Use a folding table. Many times, you just need some temporary space to assemble a project, but not often enough to justify a permanent space in your shop. A folding table or two makes a great assembly table. And I'm not talking about a wobbly card table but the heavier duty tables with the flip down legs.
  • Build a knock down table. A pair of saw horses and a piece of plywood also works well as a temporary table. And the whole thing comes apart and is stored in a very small space when you're not using it. This is especially true if your saw horses fold up.

Wall Space

While it is always nice to have additional square footage in a shop, most woodworkers will tell you that wall space is an equally precious commodity. Placing a machine up against the wall means that you can no longer hang something there or place an assembly there, out of the way, while the glue dries.

In addition, placing too many things up against the wall may make it difficult to get to an electrical outlet when you need to plug in a portable power tool.

At the very least, consider putting your tools on wheels. This way, they can be pulled away from the wall when in use or when then need to be moved out the way. When you're done, you can just roll them back into place.

Part Storage

In my workshop, one of the things I always struggle with is where to put the parts for my project while I'm working on one of them. Having a place to put your project parts that is safely out of the way should be a consideration in your shop design.

Separate Bench. Sometimes, all you need is a separate workbench near your main bench. Project parts can be laid out on the auxilliary bench while you work on one of them at your main workbench.

Roll Around Cart. If you have the space, a roll around cart is a great solution for part storage. Parts for a project can be kept on the cart and moved from machine to machine or to your workbench. No need to pick up a set of parts and stage them at the next tool, hoping that you don't drop them or bang them into something on the way there.

These are just a few things to consider when planning your own workshop. Several excellent books have been written on shop layout and design, so I've only hit on some of the highlights.

What do you consider important when designing a woodworking shop?

Software: Cutting Board Designer

Anyone who has attempted to make an end grain cutting board has probably discovered that it can be difficult to get the pattern right. Figuring out how wide to make each strip and where to put a half strip can be tedious to downright difficult. Fortunately, there is now a software program that helps with designing end grain cutting boards.

With CBDesigner, you enter the width of your strips, the number of slabs you have, and a number of other options. The program then shows you what your cutting board will look like. In addition it calculates the number of strips you need to crosscut and other details helpful in constructing the cutting board.

So the next time you want to make a cutting board, check out CBDesigner and get back to making sawdust!

Getting Started With Hand Planes

Maybe you are looking for an inexpensive way to get started in woodworking. Perhaps you're looking to add some hand tools to your arsenal of power tools. No matter what your situation, there are a few types of hand planes that belong in everyone's toolbox.

In this article, I use generic names for the planes (e.g. Jack Plane) instead of specific numbers (e.g. Stanley No. 5). I do this because every manufacturer has different naming and numbering of their products, sometimes within the same manufacturer! For example, a Stanley No. 5 and a Stanley No. 605 are both be considered jack planes.

So here is my list of useful planes, listed in order of importance:

Block Plane

A good plane to get started with is a Block Plane. This relatively small plane has quite a few uses around the shop. A block plane is great for creating small chamfers, cleaning up end grain, trimming miters, thicknessing or smoothing small or thin pieces, and more. Any operation where you need to remove a small amount of material is a great use for a block plane. In addition, because they are so small, a block plane fits easily in a tool box for use at a job site.

Block planes are available as low-angle and "standard" angle. The angle here refers to the angle formed between the bottom of the plane and the bed the blade rests on. Low-angle planes typically have a 12° bed angle and standard block planes have a bed angle of 20°. In both cases, the blade has the bevel up, which allows you adjust the effective cutting angle as necessary. However the typical 25° grind on blades gives an effective cutting angle of 37° and 45°, respectively. I would suggest a low angle plane as the smaller angle is ideal for cutting end grain, a task a block plane is used quite often for.

Jack Plane

As the name suggests, the Jack Plane is a "jack of all trades" bench plane. A jack plane can be used for everything from flattening or smoothing boards to trimming end grain. If you can only have one bench plane in your workshop, a jack plane is the one to get.

As with the block plane, jack planes are available in low-angle and standard angle models. The standard angle is usually has a bed angle in the 45° to 50° range and the low-angle is around 12°. What you choose really depends on what you plan to do with the plane. I've had no problems using an older Stanley No. 5 plane with the "standard" 45° bed angle. However, if you plan on smoothing end grain cutting boards or trimming the ends of boards regularly, a low angle jack bench plane is probably appropriate.

Smoothing Plane

A Smoothing Plane is used for the final..er...smoothing of a board. Many people consider the smoothing plane to be the last step of surface preparation, avoiding sanding completely, before applying a finish.

A smoothing plane is one of the shorter bench planes. As such, it doesn't ride along on the high spots of a board and will follow any imperfections much better. In addition, the plane is typically set to take a very fine cut in order to avoid tear-out and leave behind a nice, even, smooth surface.

Smoothing planes typically have the same bed angles available as with the Jack plane. However, many prefer higher angles (45° to 50°) on a smoothing plane, as the higher the bed angle tends to perform better on highly figured wood.

Jointer Plane

The Jointer Plane performs the same task that a power jointer performs, making the face or edge of a board flat. They typically have very long (20 to 24 inches) beds. This keeps the plane from following any dips and bumps in the board and only cut off the high spots.

When preparing stock by hand, the jointer is usually the last plane used to flatten the face of a board. It is also used to straighten the edge of a board and make it square to the face. Sometimes, it is helpful to use an add-on fence in this latter case to help keep the plane square to the face.

Shoulder Plane

Unlike the previously mentioned planes, the Shoulder Plane is a bit different. The blade of a shoulder plane goes all the way to the edge of the plane allowing you to plane along an inside corner. This makes a shoulder plane ideal for trimming the shoulders and faces of tenons when adjusting them to fit a mortise.

In addition, some shoulder planes also have the ability to remove the toe, or front, of the plane. This allows you to plane all the way into a corner such as when you need to clean up a stopped rabbet.

Since shoulder planes are used with end grain almost as often as long grain, they typically only come with a lower bed angle. However, these planes are also usually a bevel-up design, so the effective cutting angle can be adjusted by grinding the blade at different angles.

These are the planes that I would suggest you start with. There are certainly many more types of plane out there, allowing you to cut mouldings, smooth curves, and more. Once you've become comfortable with these planes, any future plan acquisitions should be based on performing a particular task in your workshop.

What planes are on your "must have" list?

The Basics of Wood Movement

Anyone who's been doing woodworking for a while knows that wood moves. But what exactly does this mean? Carl Hagstrom recently wrote a great, in depth article about why wood moves and it's effects. I'm not going to try and repeat the points made in this excellent article, but I will suggest some ways to design your projects to account for wood movement. Nothing is more frustrating than spending many hours on a projects, only to have it pull itself apart over the years.

One way to think about wood is as a collection of straws that are all bundled together. It is these bundles that form the grain that you see in the wood. These straws are what allows nutrients from the roots to make their way to the top of the tree and into the branches and leaves. However, these straws are not rigid, like your plastic drinking straw. Instead, they can stretch and swell in response to moisture. When moisture is absorbed into the wood, either from direct contact with water or humidity in the air, these straws tend to get bigger in diameter but they don't grow in length all that much.

By knowing how wood absorbs moisture, you can predict how it will expand and contract over time. Since the "straws" making up the wood get wider, but not much longer as they absorb water, wood tends to expand perpendicular to the grain much more than along the grain. This means that a board will have most of it's movement along the width, rather than the length. Of course, this assumes the board absorbs moisture evenly. Often, one side of a board will absorb more moisture than the other. This means that one face of the board gets wider than the other, causing the board to cup toward the dryer side.

With all this in mind, you can account for this movement when you design your projects. Generally, any time you are jointing two pieces where the grain is perpendicular (cross-grain), you need to think about wood movement. What follows are some common ways to handle wood movement in your projects:

Frame and Panel

In situations where a large panel is needed, but the dimension needs to remain relatively stable, such as a cabinet door, woodworkers have come up with the frame and panel. The frame, because it's fairly narrow, doesn't move much. However, the large panel is allowed to expand and contract within the grooves in the frame.

Table Tops

In the case of a table, it is not usually a problem if the top is a bit wider or narrower. However, the way it's attached to the base needs to take this movement into account. There are a few ways to handle this.

Slotted or oversize screw holes
When drilling the pocket screw holes or through any cross members, make the holes a bit oversize or else cut a slot.
Figure 8 fasteners
There is hardware made that looks like the number 8. One screw goes through one hole and into the table base. The other screw goes through the other hole and into the table top. The fastener is able to rotate as the top expands and contracts
This method involves cutting a slot on the inside of the table apron. Then, a wooden clip or a z-clip is inserted into the slot and screwed to the underside of the table top. The slot can either be a dado run the full length of the apron or shorter slots cut with a biscuit jointer or router.


Often, base or crown moulding is attached across the grain of the sides of a case. Depending on how wide the side panels are, you may be able to get away with using just brads without glue. The nails will flex just enough to allow the wood to move a bit. If the side is wider, it is sometimes desireable to cut a dovetail or "T" slot in the moulding and attach a corresponding key to the case side. The moulding then slides onto the key.

These are just some of the ways to account for wood movement in your projects. What are the ways you design projects to handle the expansion and contraction of wood?

Checking for Square

A large portion of woodworking is spent making sure things are square. That is, checking that one edge or surface is at 90 degrees to another. For example, you might want to verify that the table saw blade is square to the table. Perhaps you want to make sure or that the face of a board is square to it's edge. Is that case you just glued together square? Is your jointer fence square to the table? In this post, I'll discuss the various ways to check that your measuring tools are calibrated and that your assemblies are square.

Check your squares

Most woodworkers have a variety of squares that are used for measuring, marking and tool setup. These tools are used as the basis for nearly everything you do in woodworking. They're used for machine setup as well as checking that joints are cut and cases are assembled square. If you can't trust that your squares are square, it will be hard to build anything with a right angle.

To check that your square is at exactly 90 degrees, place one edge against the straight edge of a scrap board and draw a line along the other leg of your square. Now, flip the square so that the portion against the edge of the board is pointed the other way. That is, if the two arms of the square were initially pointed to the left and away from you, flip the square so that the arms of the square are pointed to the right and away from you. Line up the square with the first line you drew and draw another line. If the square is accurate, the lines will overlap. Otherwise, the square is off by half the angle between the two lines.

Sometimes, any problems with your square can be corrected. Combination and sliding squares can fixed by carefully filing the flat portion the ruler slides along. A framing square is fixed by puching a dimple in the inside or outside corner with a nail set. Otherwise, you'll need to go shopping for a new square.

Check your miter gauge

To check that your table saw miter gauge is at 90 degrees to the blade, there are a couple of different methods you can use. These methods also work to check the setup of your compound miter saw as well, with only slight variations.

Take a pice of scrap 6 to 8 inches wide, joint one edge and rip the other edge parallel. The wider the piece, the easier it will be to see any error in your setup. Place one edge against your miter gauge (or miter saw fence) and make a crosscut. Place the two pieces against a straight edge and flip one half of the board away from you so that the two freshly sawn ends are still facing each other. If the miter gauge (miter saw) is accurately set to 90 degrees, the two cut ends will meet without any gap. Otherwise, you will need to adjust your miter gauge by half the angle between the two ends.
5 Cuts
If you need a really accurate setting of your miter gauge, the five cuts method multiplies any error in your setup by five. If your miter gauge is off even a little bit, it will be quite obvious by the end of the process.
Take a piece of scrap about 6 to 12 inches square that has at least one straight edge. Starting with the straight edge number each edge counter-clockwise (clockwise if your miter gauge is to the right of the blade or the workpiece is to the left of your miter saw blade). Leave some room between the number and the edge, as you're going to be cutting a bit off of each edge.
Place the edge numbered "1" against the miter gauge and make a cut along the edge numbered "2". Now place the edge numbered "2" against your miter gauge and make a cut along the edge numbered "3". Repeat the process two more times. The fourth cut should be along edge number "1" with edge number "4" against the miter gauge. Finally, make one more cut along edge number "2" (the same as the very first cut you made).
Using a reliable square, check the corner between edge "1" and "2". If your miter gauge is not square, it should be quite obvious. If you don't trust your square, you can measure the diagonals of your board to see if they are equal. Make any adjustments to your miter gauge (or miter saw setup) and repeat the process until your test board ends up with a square corner after the last cut.

Check your cabinet assembly

Having accurate tools is all very well and good, but what really matters is how square your cabinet assemblies end up. You could have the most accurate squares and jigs made and still end up with a crooked cabinet if you don't check it after you glue it together.

The easiest way to check that your cabinet is square is to measure the diagonals. On a square cabinet, the measurement from one corner to the diagonally opposite corner should be the same in either direction. If not, you have a parallelogram. Adjust your clamping pressure or use corner blocks to pull the assembly square. Sometimes adding a clamp diagonally along the long direction can help as well.

These are just some of the ways to check that things are square. What's your favorite technique to check for square corners? What do you do to correct any problems?

Make a Table Saw Panel Cutting Sled

In a previous post, I wrote about the two styles of table saw crosscut sleds. Today I will describe how to build a table saw sled with one runner. This is the kind of sled I use most often in my own shop for squaring up panels. It's lightweight, so I can hang it on the wall and it's easy to get on and off the table saw.

  1. Cut the base to size. Cut a piece of plywood or hardboard to form the base of your sled. I used a piece of 1/4 inch hardboard, but you can use whatever scrap you have laying around the shop. The base should be about 2 to 3 feet wide and about the same length. My sled is about 2 feet wide (deep) and about 3 feet side to side.
  2. Make the runner. Rip a piece of hardwood or plastic (UHMW is a good choice) that is longer than your sled base. The runner should fit into the left miter slot without any slop left to right and it should sit just below the surface of the table. I cut the runner just a bit oversize and then fine tune the width with a hand plane.
  3. Position the base. Lower the table saw blade below the table. Place the runner in the miter slot and place your base on top. Position the base so it extends over the blade and as close to square to the blade as you can, but don't worry if it's not exact. Your table saw fence can be helpful to help position the base.
  4. Attach the runner. Drill pilot holes and screw the base to the runner. It can be helpful to clamp the base to the table saw while you do this. If you prefer, mark the position of the runner on the underside of the base, flip the base over and screw the runner to the base. Just make sure your screws are not so long they protrude through the top of the base.
  5. Trim the base. Raise the saw blade, place your base with the attached runner on the table saw and run the sled through the saw blade. The right edge of the saw is now exactly even with the left edge of the saw blade. You will use this edge as a reference when attaching the fence.
  6. Make the fence. Cut a piece of hardwood or 3/4 inch plywood about 2 inches wide and at least as long as your crosscut sled base. I like to make my fence at least half again as long as the base. This allows me to clamp a stop block for repeated cuts while keeping the weight of the sled down.
  7. Attach the fence. Using your most accurate square, clamp the fence to the base with a little bit sticking off the right edge of the base. Drill and screw the right end of the fence to the base, leaving the other end clamped for now. I prefer to put the fence on the leading edge of the crosscut sled, since it allows me to cut panels a bit wider than the size of the base. However, putting the fence on the trailing edge provides the support needed to prevent tearout.
  8. Test and adjust the fence. Place the sled back on the table saw. Cut one end off of a piece of scrap about 6 to 8 inches wide and check the result. If the cut is square, drill and screw the left end of the fence down. Make another test cut to make sure things didn't shift. If all looks good, add a couple more screws to hold the fence in place.

Congratulations! You are now ready to put your cross cut sled to use. I like to drill a couple of holes into the base so I can hang the sled on the wall when I'm not using it. Then it only takes a few seconds to pull it off the wall and place it on the table saw.

Table Saw Crosscut Sled Basics

One of the most useful accessories you can make for your table saw is a crosscut sled. A crosscut sled is nothing more than a piece of plywood with one or two runners that fit in the miter slots of the table saw. With a crosscut sled, you can square up panels and crosscut wood boards very accurately. You can make specialized sleds for cutting miters, crown mouldings, dados and more. While you can do all of these operations using the miter guage that came with your table saw, a table saw sled allows you to make the cuts with greater control, accuracy and safety. This post will describe the various styles of sled and how to make one for your own table saw.

When it comes times to make your own table saw sled, one of the first things you'll need to decide is whether to use one runner or two. Anyone who has watched a few episodes of The New Yankee Workshop with Norm Abram is familliar with a version of the one-runner sled. The sled runs either to the left or right of the blade, though the left side tends to be more popular since it allows you cut stock of any length without removing the table saw fence. In addition, this style of sled has a fence on either the leading or trailing edge of the sled. The former lets you cut panels slightly wider than the sled base whereas the latter is a bit easier to control since the blade naturally pushes the stock into the fence.

Two runner table saw sleds have runners that slide in both miter slots at the same time. They usually have two tall fences that support the stock, preventing tearout, and hold the two sides of the sled together.

So which kind should you make? As with most things, it depends. A one runner sled:

  • Is lighter.
  • Is easier to make.
  • Can cut panels a bit wider than the sled.
  • Does not support the cutoff.
  • Is more prone to wiggle in the miter slot.

On the other hand, a two runner sled:

  • Is heavier.
  • Is more complicated to build (but not much).
  • Can only cut stock as wide as the distance between the two fences.
  • Supports the stock on both sides.
  • Is less likely to have any slop in the miter slots.

To make a table saw sled, you will need just a few parts:

  • Base. For the base of your sled, you can use anything from 1/4 inch hardboard to 3/4 inch plywood. The idea is to select a material that is flat and will stay that way. Keep in mind that you will be lifting this on and off your table saw, so something like MDF is likely to be too heavy.
  • Runner(s). The runners that slide in the table saw miter slots need to fit without any slop. A hardwood like oak is a good choice for runner. UHMW plastic is another good choice. If you're handy with metalworking, you could even use aluminum or steel, if you were so inclined.
  • Fence. For the fence, you can use hardwood, plywood or even plastic. For a two runner sled, thick (8/4) pieces of hardwood or two pieces of 3/4 inch plywood glued together would be a good choice for the fences since they will also be used to hold the two halves of the sled together. For a one runner sled, a piece of 3/4 inch plywood or hardwood would work fine.

In a future post, I'll go through the process of building each style of sled.

What's your favorite style of sled?

The Perfect Wood Panel Glue Up

There are times when you will not be able to buy wood wide enough for your project (or it would be prohibitively expensive) and it's not reasonable to use plywood. In this case you will need to glue up a panel from a series of smaller boards. In this post, I will describe the process for creating a wide panel that is flat and straight.

Wood Selection

The process of building a wood panel starts at the lumberyard. The wood you select not only determines how the panel will look, but how the wood responds to changes in moisture.

All things being equal, quartersawn lumber is less likely to cup and warp than other cuts. However, these days you're not likely to find wide boards that are all quartersawn. So pick boards that are not already warped or cupped. If the wood is pretty straight to begin with, it's likely to stay that way as you mill it.

In addition, pay particular attention to the color and grain of the wood you are selecting. Unless there's a particular effect you're going for, try to pick boards that are of similar color and grain. Doing so will make it easier to make the boards appear as though it's one, seamless panel. The best way to achieve this is to try and find a single board that you can cut into sections and glue together to make the panel.

Stock Preparation

As in every other aspect of woodworking, how you prepare your wood will affect every subsequent stage of the project. If your boards are not flat, straight and square, you'll find it difficult to get them assembled into a flat panel.

After you've selected your boards and cut them to rough length, face joint, thickness, edge joint and rip to width each of the boards as I as I describe in my post on stock preparation


Once you've selected your boards and cut them to rough length, lay them out on your workbench and deterimine which edges to match up. One rule of thumb suggests that you make sure the growth rings alternate (that is, one board curves up, the next curves down, etc.). Another says that the grain should all go the same way. While these ideas have merit, the most important thing to consider is the look of the finished panel. So if you can get the grain of all the panels to line up in the same direction, great, but not at the expense of the appearance of the panel.

If you bought your lumber in the rough, you will have to face joint and thickness the boards before you can really get a sense of the grain and how to arrange them

Once you have an arrangement you like, draw a big "V" across the joints of the panel or number them so that you can keep track of what order they go in

Edge Jointing

When you place the edges of the boards together, there should be no gap between them. If there is, go back to the jointer and make another pass or two to get the edge perfectly straight.

If you're using hand planes, takes the two boards to join together and fold them together like a book. Then, use your jointer plane to true both edges at the same time. By planing both boards at the same time, any variation in the edge from 90 degress will cancel out.

Some woodworkers like to join panel boards with a "sprung" joint. In this instance, the edges of the board to join are just slightly concave. The idea is that this keeps the ends of the joint tight. To do this, take a couple of swipes with your hand plane in the middle of the board's edge.

The Glue Up

Now that the boards to make up your panel are flat, consistent thickness and fit together without gaps, you're ready to glue the panel together. There are several ways to do this, depending on what clamps you have on hand. In every case, however, you need a flat surface to work on. If your work surfaces is twisted, there's a chance that twist could translate into your panel as well.

Lay out your choice of clamps and place your boards across the clamps and make sure you have everything you need before applying any glue. Squeeze some glue on to both edges of the joint and spread it out to a thin layer. There are glue bottles with a roller made for this application, but I find that just using a small piece of scrap wood works just as well for me. You want to cover the edge completely, but try not to apply too much glue, as it will just squeeze out when you clamp the boards and make a mess.

Push the boards on the clamps and push the edges together. I like to slide the joint back and forth a bit to help spread the glue and create a bit of suction to hold the boards together while adjusting the clamps.

The remainder of the glue up depends on what kind of clamps you have:

Parallel Clamps. If you have several parallel clamps, such as the Bessey K-Body or Jorgensen Clamp Master, the panel glue up is pretty simple. Push the boards down against the bar of the clamp and then tighten up the clamp, making sure the boards stay against the bar as you do so.

Pipe Clamps. Pipe clamps have a few problems that you need to account for during panel glue ups: The jaws are not parallel, the jaws can mark the wood and the bar tends to deflect as you tighten the clamps. The latter is especially true if you're using 1/2 inch pipe instead of 3/4 inch pipe.

To handle the non-parallel jaws, cut some pieces of dowel with a diameter about the same as the thickness of your panel. Place the dowel between the clamp jaw and the edge of the board. This makes sure that the force of the clamp is centered on the edge of the board. In addition, it keeps the clamp jaw from mar the wood edge.

To account for the deflection of the pipe, it is often useful to use some clamping cauls across the panel, perpendicular to the panel joints. To make a pair of cauls, cut some boards longer than your panel is wide. Try to make the edges slightly convex so that, when the pair is clamped together, the clamps will pull the joint flat. Apply some packing tape, painters tape or some other kind of tape to keep the glue from stickiing to your cauls.

By carefully preparing your stock and taking your time when clamping the boards together, you'll have a nice flat panel, ready to trim to width and crosscut to length for use in your project. What techniques do you use to glue up your panels? I'd love to hear any tips or ticks you might have!

Sharpening The First Time

When you first receive that set of chisels or that new hand plane, you may wonder why they don't work as well as you expected. New tools are rarely ready to use right out of the box. You'll need to spend a few minutes sharpening that plane blade or chisel to get the most out of your new tool.

The first step is to flatten the back of the plane blade or chisel. If both sides of the edge are not flat, the tool won't cut well. I like to rub the back of the blade on my roughest water stone (400 grit) to get a sense of how out of flat it is. If it needs a lot of work, I'll drop down to 80 grit sandpaper glued to a marble tile. Once the back has an even scratch pattern, I can start working my way up through my water stones until I've polished the back on my 6000 grit water stone. While this step can take a while, it only has to be done once, so take the time to do it right the first time.

For chisels, it's necessary to flatten a good portion of the back, since the back of the blade is used as a reference. However, for plane blades, it's possible to reduce the amount of work by putting a slight back bevel on the blade. Lay a thin ruler (about 1/32 or 1/16 of an inch thick) on your sharpening stone. Lay the back of the blade on top of the ruler as you sharpen only the very end of plane blade. This puts a one or two degree back bevel on the blade and only requires flattening a very small portion, which takes much less time than polishing the entire back.

Once you have polished the back, it's time to turn your attention to the bevel. For a new tool, you probably won't have to do much. Use your favorite sharpening jig or go freehand and hone the bevel on your sharpening stones at the current bevel angle. When you can just feel a wire edge form on the back side of the blade, you know you've sharpened enough and can move on to the next grit. I like to use a one or two degree micro-bevel as it requires much less effort to sharpen the 1/16 inch or so at the tip of the blade than it does to polish the entire bevel.

If you take some time to tune up your plane blades and chisels before use, you'll find they are much easier to use and make cleaner cuts.

Take Time to Sharpen Your Tools

Abraham Lincoln once famously said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." If you're like me, sharpening your tools is one of those things that is pretty low on your list of things you like to do in the shop. However, if you take time to sharpen your woodworking tools, it does end up saving time in the long run.

Keeping your woodworking tools sharp has many benefits. It makes things more enjoyable, since you don't have to force your tools to work as hard. You'll make cleaner cuts, with less chance for tear-out. In addition, it's safer. The more force you put on that chisel, for example, the more likely it will slip and hurt you, the workpiece or both.

Keeping the blades, bits and cutters for your power tools is also important. A dull saw blade or router bit is more likely to burn the workpiece. The motor has to work harder, shortening the life of the tool. Finally, you are more likely to have to force the tool to do it's job, increasing the potential for a disastrous slip.

Sharpening is one of those things that, if you let it get away from you, will make it harder to catch up with when you really need to do it. Instead, if you sharpen a few tools from time to time, before they get too dull, it actually ends up taking less time. Spending a few minutes to touch up the edge of your block plane blade is much easier than grinding out a bunch of nicks and re-establishing the bevel because you let it go too long.

Here are a few strategies for keeping up with your sharpening chores

  • If you have room, try to set aside some space in your shop dedicated to sharpening. If everything is already set up and ready to go, it's much easier to touch up an edge and get back to working on your project.
  • Try to find those natural lulls in the process of building a project. The time spent waiting for glue to dry or finish to cure is a good opportunity to freshen the cutting edges of your plane blades and chisels.
  • Dedicate a shop session to sharpening. If you only have a little bit of time to be in the shop (i.e. not enough time to make any progress on your current project), consider spending the entire time sharpening some of your most commonly used tools.
  • Pick a sharpening system and stick with it for a while. By staying with the same system for a period of time, you'll become more practiced and faster at sharpening your tools.

What strategies do you use to keep your tools sharp?

Multiple Methods for Making a Tenon

Last time, I wrote about some of the ways to cut a mortise. Today we'll discuss how to make the corresponding joint, the tenon. As with the mortise, there are nearly as many ways to make a tenon as there are woodworkers. This post will describe some of the more common methods

Hand Saw

Before power tools came along, woodworkers used hand saws and planes to cut a tenon. To cut a tenon by hand, there are eight cuts that need to be made:

  • Cut the shoulders. Use a crosscut saw to define the shoulders of the tenon. You make four cuts, one on each face down to the thickness or length of the tenon.
  • Cut the cheeks. A rip saw is used to cut down each face of the tenon to meet up with the shoulders of the tenon.
  • Cut to width. The tenon is cut to width the same way as the cheeks.

Once the tenon has been cut, it is usually refined by using a shoulder plane. This is a plane where the blade goes all the way to the edge of the plane body, allowing the cutter to get into the inside corners of the tenon.

Table Saw Tenon Jig

The table saw can be used to make the same series of cuts made by hand when cutting tenons:

  1. Cut the shoulders. Set the height of the blade to the thickness of the shoulder. Using a stop block clamped to your table saw fence, use the miter gauge to make the shoulder cuts. Readjust the blade height for the ends of the tenon and repeat the procedure for the other two faces of your stock.

  2. Cut the cheeks. Set the blade height to slightly less than the length of the tenon. Use a tenon jig to hold the stock vertically while you make the rip cut along each face of the tenon. If your stock is too long to be held vertically, you can use a band saw to cut the cheeks.
  3. Cut to width. If your tenon jig is able to hold the stock securely, you can use the same method to cut the tenons to width as for the cheek cuts. Otherwise, you'll need to cut them by hand or use a band saw or jig saw to cut the tenon to width.

Table Saw Dado Head

Another method cuts the cheeks and shoulders in the same pass by using a dado head in your table saw. Install enough cutters to make the dado head wider than your tenon length. If your tenon is longer than your dado capacity, you'll need to make multiple passes to cut the tenon. Set the height of the dado to the depth of the tenon shoulders.

You use your fence as a stop and guide the work piece through the dado head using your miter gauge. You don't want to use the fence and the miter gauge at the same time since kickback becomes a possibility. Instead, install a stop block towards the front of the fence or slide the fence back (if you have a Unifence). Set your fence so the distance from the left edge of the dado cutter to the fence is the length of your desired tenon.

Slide the wood up against your stop block or fence and guide the wood through the dado head using your miter gauge. If you've set things up correctly, the end of the tenon should be clear of the fence by the time it reaches the dado head. If the tenon is longer than your dado head is wide, slide the piece to the left and make additional passes to remove the rest of the material.

Leave the fence alone and readjust the height of your dado head, if necessary, and repeat the procedure to cut the other two faces of the tenon.

You'll probably notice that this methods leaves some score marks across your tenon, especially if you have to make multiple passes. These generally don't affect anything and are likely to be removed in the process of trimming the tenon to fit anyway.


The router can be used in a table to cut tenons using the same method as when using a dado head in the table saw. The router can be in either a standard router table or horizontally mounted. The latter typically allows you to cut longer tenons in one pass since you can use the entire length of the bit rather than just the radius.

The router table has an advantage over the table saw in that it doesn't leave the scoring marks that the dado head usually does and usually leaves a smoother surface

Another way to use the router is with a jig, such as the Leigh FMT jig for making mortise and tenons. This jig holds the work piece vertically while the router is run around the outside of the tenon, allowing you to form the tenon in one pass.

These are just some of the many ways to cut a tenon. Which method is your favorite? Any popular methods I've forgotten?

Multiple Methods for Making a Mortise

The mortise and tenon joint is about as old as woodworking itself. Woodworkers tend to be an innovative lot, which might explain why there are about as many ways to make a mortise as there are woodworkers. In this post, I'll summarize some of the more common ways of cutting a mortise.

Chisel and Mallet

The traditional way to make a mortise, before power tools came along, was with a mortise chisel and a mallet. Using a thick chisel, designed to take the stresses of being beat with a hammer, you literally chop out the material to form the mortise. Typically you start in from the ends of the mortise and remove the majority of the material. Lighter paring cuts are then made to bring the mortise to it's correct length.

Drill and Chisel

Another common method involves the use of a drill (powered or otherwise) and a chisel. After laying out the mortise, you use a drill equipped with a bit slightly smaller than the width of the mortise to drill a series of holes along the length of the mortise. A forstner bit is a good choice for this method since it leaves a mostly flat bottom and makes it easier to overlap the holes.

Once the holes are drilled, use a sharp bench chisel to pare the mortise to the layout lines. The idea here is that the drill removes the bulk of the material and the chisel cleans up the mortise.

Hollow Chisel Mortising Machine

At some point, someone came up with a mechanized, one-step version of the previous method, inventing the hollow chisel mortising machine. A square chisel with a drill bit inside plunges into the wood to make a square hole. The drill bit removes the majority of the material and the chisel squares up the hole. A mortise is made by making a series of overlapping plunges into the wood the entire length of the mortise.

There are dedicated machines for making mortises as well as attachments for your drill press. The former typically have a longer arm to get the leverage needed to plunge the chisel into the wood, but they take up additional space. The mortising attachment for your drill press uses a machine you may already own, but it's harder to plunge the chisel. In addition, it's not trivial to switch between mortising and drilling operations with the mortising attachment


The router can be used to make just about every joint in woodworking, and the mortise is no exception. Using a plunge router to make a mortise involves some kind of jig or fence system to guide the router along a straight line and, in some cases, limit it's travel to the length of the mortise. An upcut spiral router bit it usually the best choice here since it tends to eject the chips from the mortise.

The basic technique, regardless of the jig used, is to first make a full depth plunge cut at each end of the mortise. The remainder of the material is removed with multiple passes, increasing the depth of the mortise (about 1/4 inch or so) each pass. Once the mortice is cut, you can square up the corners with a chisel or make your tenons with rounded corners.

The jig to guide your router can be as simple as an edge guide mounted to your router and a way to hold the router stable on the workpiece. If you want something fancier, there are no shortage of plans for more elaborate jigs to make mortises with your plunge router. Of course, there are also, commercial jigs you can buy. Typically, as the speed and accuracy of making the mortise goes up, so does the price.

These are just some of the ways to make a mortise. What is your favorite way to make a mortise? Are there any tips you have for making mortises quickly and accurately?

Buying Used Tools on eBay

Buying hand tools on eBay can be a great way to fill out your hand tool collection. Older tools are generally cheaper than their modern day equivalents and are often just as good. As someone who as bought and sold tools on eBay, I'll provide a few pointers on how to shop wisely on eBay to get good tools at a great price.


The first thing to keep in mind when buying tools on ebay is that you're unlikely to find something you can just take out of the box and start using right away. This isn't really the case with new tools either. You'll likely need to give the plane or chisel blade a light honing at the very least. However, if you are willing to put a little effort into cleaning up a tool and tuning it for use, buying used tools on eBay can be an inexpensive way to get great tools.

Search Tips

The mantra at a prior company was, "If they can't find it, they can't buy it." The same could be said for buying tools on eBay. Picking the right search terms can be something of an art as you search for tools to round out your hand tool collection. Sometimes, the search is relatively straight forward. For example, "stanley 4 plane" is obviously a search for a Stanley #4 smoothing plane. But even that will often litter the results with irrelevant results, such as a listing titled "Handle For Stanley No 4 Plane".

Here are some tips for finding things on eBay

  • Enter only the keywords that are important. eBay will try to match all of the words you enter against the listing. So if you enter the search "stanley no 4 smoothing plane rust free", you'll miss out on seeing listings that are titled something like "Stanley No 4 Plane".
  • Tell eBay to ignore certain matches. In the example I've been using (searching for a Stanley #4 smoothing plane), the results will often include accessories or replacement parts for the tool you're looking for. This usually isn't what you're looking for, so you can tell eBay to ignore these listings by entering the relevant keywords preceded with a minus sign. You can group together multiple terms with parenthesis. For example "stanley 4 plane -(tote, knob, iron)" will search for listings matching "stanley 4 plane" and ignore those that include the words "tote", "knob", and "iron" in the title.
  • Consider other brands. When searching for planes, for example, one often things of Stanley planes, as they were the largest and most prolific tool maker in the day. But there were other, smaller, companies making competing products at the same time such as Miller Falls, Capewell, and others. Often their tools are just as good, but they go for much less money since they're usually not as collectable.
  • Search for misspellings. If the seller has misspelled the manufacturer's name, for example, it won't come to the top of the results and won't get bid on as much. For example, you could search for "stanely 4 plane". This is a good way to find listings that won't get bid up as much
  • Be patient. New tools are being listed on eBay every day. If you don't find something that is exactly what you want, chance are good that it will show up eventually. Just keep checking each day.
  • Save your search. Once you've crafted a search that finds the results you're interested in, save your search so you don't have to keep entering it.


Once you've found a few tools that match your criteria, save them to your watch list. This way you can keep an eye on them as the auction closing date approaches. If the bidding gets too high, you can ignore that listing and focus on the other candidates you've identified. Before bidding, make sure to do your due diligence to make sure you know what you're buying. If the listing doesn't have many photos or they're of such poor quality that you can't tell anything about the condition of the tool, ask the seller for more. If the seller can't provide better photos, move on to other listings. You don't to bid on a tool only to find that it's fatally broken in a way not obvious in the pictures. Ask questions. If you want to know whether the type 52 wood stretcher has the temporal adjustment knob, and you can't tell from the pictures, ask the seller.

In addition, use other resources on the internet and elsewhere to determine if the particular tool is collectible or just a solid user quality tool. Tools listed as "mint" or "new in box", are pretty and are nice to use, but you'll pay a premium for them. In addition, if you use them to actually work wood, you'll destroy their value to collectors. Sites such as Patrick Leach's site on Stanley tools are a great reasource for determining whether the tool you're looking at is desireable or not

Once you're satisfied that the tool is in the condition you're willing to accept, do not bid right away. eBay encourages early bidding because it helps feed the competition for an item and drives up the price. If you wait until the absolute last minute before entering your maximum bid (a practice known as "sniping"), you're more likely to get the tool for a lower price than if you bid in the middle of the auction. Synchronize your watch to eBay's official time and hit the bid confirmation button when there's less than a minute remaining on the auction. You may still get outbid, but you wont have tipped your hand as to how much you're willing to pay for the item.

For even more thoughts and ideas on how to buy things on eBay, see Ken Rockwell's article on the subject.

What tips do you have for buying tools on eBay?

A Hand Tool Story

While reading Keith Mathewson's article over on ThisIsCarpentry.com titled Why Hand Tools (Still) Matter, I was thinking of how hand tools were exactly the right tool for the job I was working on in the shop last night.

I'm in the process of making a jig for cutting some evenly spaced grooves for a project I have in mind. A key part of the jig is a series of spacer blocks that I drop in each time I want to make another dado. I wanted these spacer blocks as accurate as possible to minimize accumulated error as I added more spacers.

To cut these spacers, I used the table saw. (Wait, isn't this an article about hand tools? I'm getting there, stay with me) I set the fence as close to the width that I wanted (1 inch in this case) and ripped a strip. Using my dial calipers, I measured the thickness of the piece and dicovered that it was oversize by almost 0.02 inches. By itself, not too bad, but when you combine four or five spacers that adds up to nearly 1/8 inch of error.

I could have fiddled with the table saw fence and cut several more spacers until I hit on the right width. However, I instead went to my bench, pulled out my jack plane and block plane and shaved the edge of the spacer, checking my progress with my dial calipers, until I was within about 0.002 inch of my desired thickness.

Now that I had a spacer that was the desired width, I could use the spacer to set my table saw fence accurately and rip the remaining spacer strips to the correct width.

Had I tried to make my spacer blocks solely with the table saw, I'm sure I would have had to toss a few pieces until I got it dialed in just right. By using hand planes, I was able to get the size I wanted with less time and waste. Plus it was quieter too!

How about you? What is your story about how hand tools saved the day?

My Current Favorite Wood Finish

Most of my projects, as of late, have been finished in a similar manner. I thought I'd share the process I use to get a nice smooth protective finish for my woodworking projects. This procedure is something I learned reading Michael Dresdner's The New Wood Finishing Book, a great resource for finishing wood.

The first step starts with wood preparation. Anyone with experience in wood finishing will tell you that all the best finishing techniques will come to naught if you haven't prepared the wood properly. For me, this means sanding to 150 or 220 grit. I try to sand as much as possible before assembly, since it's easier to access some surfaces at this point. Just make sure that your sanding doesn't affect your joinery. For example, sand your panels before cutting the dados they will fit in.

The first coat of finish that I apply is typically a coat of boiled linseed oil. This tends to give the wood a nice color, something that is particularly important if you're using a water-based top coat. While some don't like the yellowing effect of most oil-based finishes, I like the warm tones it gives to the wood. Water-based finishes don't usually impart any tint, so a coat or two of oil can replicate this effect to a degree. Just flood it on and wipe off the excess. Make sure to lay out the rags to dry completely or soak in water in a fireproof bucket to avoid spontaneous combustion. Let the oil dry completely before continuing.

For a top coat, I like to apply two to three coats of a polyurethane. I'm currently working through a quart of Deft polyurethane that seems to work well for me. I like to brush it on full strength, but I sometimes thin the first coat slightly with mineral spirits to get it to flow better. Between each coat, sand the finish lightly with 320 or 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper. This gives the next coat something to grab on to for better adhesion.

At this stage, the finish is still pretty rough. The final step is to finish the finish. Before going any further, let the polyurethane cure completely. This usually takes a week or two, depending on the conditions in your shop. The more humid it is, the longer the cure time.

Once the finish has cured, sand the entire surface with 400 grit serrated sandpaper backed by a sanding block. Be careful, especially around the edges, not to sand through the finish. The object here is to level the surface, removing any dust nibs, runs, brush marks and any other imperfections left on the surface. Carefully remove all the sanding dust with a vacuum, compressed air and wiping the surface down with a rag.

Now, sand the surface with 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper, using mineral spirits as a lubricant. Again, be careful not to sand too aggressively. You're just trying to remove the scratch pattern left by the previous step. Wipe off the wood to remove the sanding slurry and let it dry completely.

At this point, the finish should be looking pretty good. The final touch is to rub out the finish with steel wool and wax. Using some #0000 steel wool, apply paste wax to the finish, with the grain. Don't be afraid to apply a fair amount of pressure. For panels, I like to make short scrubbing strokes at each end and then long strokes across the entire panel. You don't want the wax to dry completely -- the wax is just being used a lubricant -- so work quickly and on small sections at a time. After you've gone over the wood about three times, wipe off the excess wax with a clean rag. To remove the remaining wax, sprinkle a little bit of water on the surface and wipe lightly with a clean piece of steel wool.

This leaves the finish with a nice smooth satin finish that just invites you to touch it.

So what is your favorite finish?

Where To Buy Woodworking Machinery

So you're ready to buy a major piece of woodworking machinery. Perhaps you're buying a table saw for your fledgling shop. Perhaps you're adding to your existing collection of woodworking machines. Where do you go to buy your tools? This post will explore some of the options of where to buy woodworking machines.

New vs. Used

When you're buying your next piece of woodworking machine, you basically have two options: new or used. Which route you decide to go with will determine where you go to buy your tools, each have their pros and cons.

The advantage of buying new is that you know it is unlikely to have any broken parts. On the off chance that there is something wrong, it's covered by the warranty. In addition, newer tools are likely to have some nicer or more refined features.

On the other hand, buying a used machine can mean that you end up paying less than new. Alternately, you can end up with a nicer machine for the same money as a lesser new machine. However, if there is a problem with the tool, you'll be out of pocket for any parts needed to repair it. In addition, it may need more cleanup than a newer tool will initially require (new tools typically need to have the rust-preventative removed before use)

Mail Order vs. Local

Where to buy your woodworking machines generally falls into two categories: online/mail order or locally. Which you choose will depend on a few different factors.

Buying online can include sites like Amazon, manufacturer sites or eBay. Buying your machines online has the advantage that you can compare features side by side from the comfort of your home. Some manufacturers only sell online, whereas others have a showroom on the other side of the country, so checking out the tool in person isn't an option. If you're looking for a somewhat obscure tool, it may not be available locally, so buying online may be the only option. Often, the price is lower than what you can find locally. However, be sure to take delivery costs into account. Machines are typically shipped using a freight service, which is certainly more expensive. In addition, you'll want to make sure your new tool can be delivered to your house. If the shipping company doesn't have a truck with a lift gate, you'll need a lot of strong friends to help you get the machine off the truck. Otherwise, be prepared to meet your new machine at the shipping terminal to accept delivery.

On the other hand, buying locally allows you look over the tool and decide if it has the features you like. The cost may appear to be higher, however you may have more options to negotiate the price. Perhaps you can talk the price down or get the seller to include some accessories or delivery as part of the deal. In addition, since the supplier is local, you can avoid any delivery charges by picking up the machine yourself (assuming you have a vehicle to do that with). In addition, the salesman should be able to answer any questions you have about the tool and show you how to use some of the features before you buy.

Where do you buy your tools? Any advantages or disadvantages I've overlooked with either method?

All Kinds of Table Saws

When I became serious about pursuing woodworking, the first major piece of machinery that I purchased was a table saw. The table saw is one of the most important pieces of equipment you can have in your woodworking shop. A table saw can cut dados, rabbets, tenons, box joints, and, yes, even ripping and cross cutting boards to width. I end up using the table saw at almost every stage of a project.

When you go shopping for a table saw, you'll quickly discover that there four types of saws on the market, which I've listed here. As you go down the list, you typically go up in quality, power, weight, and precision. Of course, the price increases accordingly.

These are saws you will often see at construction job sites. They're intended to be very portable and thus, fairly lightweight. The table is typically aluminum or some other lightweight alloy. The shaft holding the saw blade is typically a connected directly to a universal motor, similar to what you would find on most portable power tools (drills, routers, etc). This tends to introduce a lot of vibration in the saw and the blade.
Contractor Saw
These typically have a cast iron top with either cast iron or steel stamped wings on either side. As their name implies, they are often found on job sites as well, though their portability is somewhat questionable. Contractor table saws have a one to two horsepower motor which hangs off the back and drives the saw blade via a single belt. Dust collection is usually poor, since the entire back of the saw is open to allow for the motor and belt. However, some manufacturers are starting to introduce contractor table saw models with integrated dust shrouds around the blade. The trunions are usually attached directly to the underside of the table, which makes adjusting the table relative to the blade somewhat difficult.
In recent years, a new class of table saw has come on the market. These hybrid saws are close cousins to the contractor saw but with some of the features of a cabinet saw. The motor is in the one to two horsepower range and is enclosed by the saw cabinet, so dust collection is usually on par with cabinet saws.
Cabinet Saw
These are professional quality saws and are what you'll find in most cabinet shops. Cabinet saws typically have three to five horsepower motors and drive the saw blade with three belts. On cabinet saws, the trunions and the table are independently attached to cabinet. This makes it much easier to adjust the table parallel to the blade. Since the motor and trunions are completely enclosed by the saw cabinet, dust collection is typically good. These are usually the heaviest saws, which translates into less vibration and smoother cuts.

So which kind of saw should you get? If you can afford it, a cabinet saw is the way to go. It actually takes up less room in a shop compared to a contractor saw, with it's splayed legs and motor hanging off the back. If you can't afford a new one, consider a used cabinet table saw.

If you just can't swing the cost of a cabinet saw (I know I couldn't when I started), then look at the hybrid and contractor saws. If I was buying in this category today, I'd be lookin seriously at the hybrid saws (they weren't on the market when I bought my contractor saw) since they tend to have better dust collection.

While there are some bench top table saws out there that are very good, I wouldn't seriously consider one for fine woodworking. They're great if you're ripping two-by-fours or plywood when framing a house, but they just don't seem heavy enough to make the accurate cuts needed for fine furniture and the like.

So what kind of table saw do you have? Are there features of a particular class of table saw that you like? Would you buy that type of table saw again?

8 Common Woodworking Clamps

"You can never have too many clamps." It's a phrase often repeated by woodworkers. While think of clamps in terms of holding an assembly together while the glue dries, they are used throughout a project. You might clamp a board to a bench. Perhaps you'll use a clamp to hold a stop block to your miter gauge or table saw fence. Anytime you need to hold something in place while you work with it, you are likely to reach for a clamp of some kind. In this post, I'll talk about the various types of clamps that are out there and why you'd want to use one versus another.

Pipe Clamps
These clamps have been a stand-by for many woodworkers. You buy the ends of the clamp as a set and attach them to any length of iron pipe you like. Most people are familiar with the "Pony" orange pipe clamp fixtures made by Jorgensen, but there are other manufacturers as well.
  • Inexpensive
  • Can be made into any length needed
  • Plenty of clamping power
  • Heavy
  • Jaws are not parallel
  • Have to be careful in use so as not to mar the workpiece
  • Shallow reach
Bar Clamps
These clamps are similar to pipe clamps except that they come with a square or I shaped bar.
  • Resists flexing much better than pipe clamps
  • No assembly required
  • More expensive than pipe clamps
  • Somewhat heavy
  • Some versions have only pre-set positions for the movable end of the clamp.
Parallel Clamps
These clamps were first popularized by Bessey's K-Body line of clamps. As the name suggests, the main selling point of these clamps is that the faces of the clamp jaws remain parallel to each other. This makes them ideal for gluing up panels, casework, frames, and other assemblies that need to stay square. Manufacturers such as Jorgensen, Jet, and others have entered the market in recent years with their own versions of this useful clamp.
  • Deep reach
  • Jaws stay parallel
  • Wide Face
  • Stiff bar resists bowing under pressure
  • Plenty of clamping power
  • Expensive
  • Large clamp head sometimes won't fit where it's needed
F-style clamps
These are another staple in my shop. F-style clamps are useful for a variety of general purpose clamping. They have a fixed head at one end and a sliding head with a threaded handle on the other. There are also quick release versions that tighten down by just squeezing a lever, making it easier to use them one handed.
  • Useful for a variety of clamping tasks.
  • Lightweight
  • Reasonably priced
  • Unsuitable for panel glue ups
These clamps, named for their shape come in all different sizes. To be honest, I haven't used c-clamps much.
  • Small
  • Inexpensive
  • Slow to open and close when large adjustments in capacity are necessary.
Wooden Handscrew Clamp
These type of clamps have been around for ages. The clamp opens and closes as a result of two threaded rods. Because the rods operate independently, it's possible to skew the jaws to just about any angle. This makes it possible to hold odd shaped pieces with these clamps. Another common use is to clamp the workpiece in a wooden handscrew clamp and then clamp the clamp to your bench.
  • Hold small and odd-shaped parts well
Spring Clamps
For this clamp, think of a heavy duty clothes pin. These clamps are great for holding small parts in place for gluing or when marking or measuring.
  • Inexpensive. I picked up several at Home Depot for under $2 each.
  • Can be used one handed
  • Lightweight. These are not intended for heavy clamping.
  • They can be stiff and hard to open at their maximum capacity.
Band Clamps
As the name suggests, these clamps consist of a band with a ratcheting head used to pull the band tight around a workpiece. These clamps are good for things like mitered frames or boxes where even pressure all the way around is required.
  • Clamp capacity is limited only by the length of the band, which can be quite long.
  • Useful for mitered frames
  • Can be fussy to adjust to keep miters from slipping
  • Can damage corners if not protected by clamping blocks.

This list is far from exhaustive. There are a number of specialty clamps on the market that solve a variety of problems, from framing clamps to edge clamps and more.

So what clamps should you have in your shop? Obviously it depends, to a certain extent, on what you are doing. I generally prefer the parallel and f-style clamps most of the time, though I'll use my pipe clamps (which I bought when I was just starting out) when I've used up all the parallel clamps.

What are your favorite clamps? If you could only have one style of clamp, what would it be?

Setting Up Shop: Basic Woodworking Hand Tools

So you've decided you want to try your hand at building something with wood? Don't know what tools you'll need? Let's see if we can get you off on the right foot hand.

This is the first in a series of posts I have planned on getting your shop set up. In this episode, we'll cover some of the basic marking, measuring and hand tools you'll want to start with. Whether you plan to use power tools or not, these are tools you'll want in your shop, no matter what kind of woodworking projects you have in mind. In future posts we'll cover topics such as essential power tools, additional hand tools, finishing supplies, and where to put all this stuff.

Combination Square
Precise joinery requires accurate layout, and that starts with a good square. Over the years, you will likely own several squares. But a good combination square is a good one to start with. A combination square can be used as a marking gauge. It can measure and transfer depth and thickness, help with for power tool setup, mark 90 and 45 degree lines, and much more.
Sliding Bevel
If you ever need to make an angled cut other than 45 degrees, eventually you'll want a sliding bevel. These are basically squares that can be set to any angle and are great for transferring angles from one part to another or from plans to your parts.
Tape Measure
This should be fairly obvious. You'll need some way of measuring for layout, lengths of lumber, squaring up assemblies, etc.
Chisel Set
A good set of bench chisels are useful for a variety of tasks. They're used to trim tenons and mortises, chopping out mortises for hinches, removing excess glue and many more. Most sets come with chisel widths from 1/4 inch to 1 in width, which covers the most common cases.
Crosscut Saw
Even if you end up using power tools, it's still handy to have a hand saw around your shop. There are times when it is just easier, faster, or safer to make a cut by hand than with a power tool.
Rip Saw
The reasoning here is the same as for a Crosscut Saw, save that a rip saw has it's teeth filed for ripping operations, as opposed to crosscut. Depending on what you're doing, you might be able to make do with only a crosscut saw, but it will certainly cut slower than a dedicated rip saw.
Dead Blow Hammer
Useful for nudging those stubborn parts into position during assembly. The head is usually plastic or rubber which protects the workpiece you're banging on . The head is also usually filled with lead shot, which keeps the hammer from bouncing back.
There's a saying among woodworkers, "You can never have enough clamps." It may seem hard to believe, but there will be times when you wish you had just one more clamp. I could devote an entire post to the topic of clamps, but if you're just starting out, I'd suggest picking up some pipe clamps (cheap) or parallel clamps (expensive) in lengths appropriate for the first project you plan on building. You will probably also want some f-style clamps as well as spring clamps.

Hopefully that gives you an idea of where to start with your tool acquisitions. As with most hobbies, there's always one more doodad or gizmo out there would would make your life easier. But that's half the fun!

What would you consider an essential hand tool? Anything you'd add to my list?

Jointer Setup Tips

As I mentioned in my recent post on preparing wood for use, the jointer is one of the first tools used. To give your wood a flat, snipe-free surface with your power jointer, it pays to take a few minutes to make sure your jointer is set up correctly. Today, I'll discuss how to tune your jointer for optimum performance.

A jointer is a pretty simple machine that only does one job and does it very well -- make one side or edge of a board flat and straight. It consists of two tables, one slightly higher than the other, with spinning blades between them. To work correctly, the tables must be parallel to each other and the outfeed table must be even with the top of the blades. When edge jointing, the fence must be 90 degrees to the bed of the jointer.

Table Adjustment

We'll get started by checking the adjustment of the tables. Unplug your jointer and remove your blade guard. Also slide the fence out of the way or remove it completely. Place a long straight-edge across each table in various directions (e.g. end to end, side to side, and diagonally) to make sure that the table is flat. Look for any gaps between the straight-edge and the table. If one or both of the tables are not flat, you'll need to look at look at getting the table re-ground at a machine shop or getting a new jointer. If the tables are not flat, none of the remaining adjustments are going to help much.

Raise the infeed table so that it's even with the outfeed table. Using your long straight edge, check in several places that the two tables are parallel to each other. Ideally, you'd like to have a straight edge as long or longer than the total length of the infeed and outfeed tables, but use the longest one you can get your hands on. If there's a gap between your straight edge and the table, you will need to adjust one or both of your tables.

If you have a jointer with a parallelogram design, adjusting the tables parallel to each other is pretty easy since there are built-in controls for this. See your manual for details. However, most jointers use a dovetailed channel, called the ways, to support and adjust the tables. For this type of jointer, you'll need to shim the tables with some thin metal stock. Inexpensive feeler gauges make good shim stock and can be found at most automotive supply stores.

If you need to raise the end of the table, insert shims at the bottom of the dovetail ways. You may need to jack up the table a hair or have a helper lift the table while you insert the shims. If you need to lower the end of the table, insert shims at the top of the ways by unlocking the table, inserting the shims, and the locking the table down again. If the tables are twisted with respect to each other, insert a shim only on the side that needs to move up.

Kife Adjustment

The knives on the cutter head of the jointer all need to bet set at the same height. In addition, they need to be set so they are even with the outfeed table when they are at the top of their rotation. There are several ways to adjust your jointer knives:

  • Provided knife setting jig. If your jointer came with a jig to set the knives, you can use that. However, most jigs set the knives relative to the cutter head. Use a dial indicator to determine if the cutter head is even with the outfeed table before using this method to set your knives.
  • Dial indicator. Make a reference mark on the fence so that you line up each of the blades in the same place. Clamp a board to the outfeed table which is parallel to the knives. Set the base of your dial indicator against the board at one end and place the tip of the dial indicator on the tip of the knife. Zero out your dial indicator and then move the base to the other end of the board. If the dial indicator remains within a few thousandths of an inch from the zero mark, the blade is set correctly.
  • Aftermarket or homemade knife setting jig. There are several commercial jigs on the market intended to help you set the height of the jointer knives all the same and relative to the outfeed table height. The idea is that they hold the knife at the proper height while you tighten down the gib screws that hold the blade in place. The main downside of these jigs is that they require you to find the top dead center of the blade arc, which can be difficult to do accurately.

Once you have the jointer knives all set at the same height, adjust the outfeed table so that it is even with the top of the arc formed by the rotating knives. If you used one of the after market jigs, this should be pretty close, if not spot on. Otherwise, the technique I use requires a piece of wood about 6" long. Place the piece of wood so that it hangs off the outfeed table and over the cutter head. Rotate the cutter head by hand and note whether the knives hit the wood. If the knives move the piece of wood, raise the outfeed table until the wood barely moves. If the knives completely miss the wood, lower the outfeed table until the knives just touch the piece of wood.

Fence Adjustment

Now comes the easy part. Reinstall the fence, if you removed it earlier. Use a square to adjust the fence so that it is 90 degrees to the table. Reset the stop, if necessary. If you're like me, you won't have to mess with the fence after this, other than to verify that it's still square to the tables. I just don't use the fence at other angles all that much.

Finishing Up

We're almost done! All that's left to do is to test our adjustments and make some final tweaks. Find a piece of wood that is 2 to 3 inches wide, 1 to 2 feet long and already has a reasonably straight edge. Using the fence, make a pass or two on the edge of the board and check your results. If the edge is straight and square, you're done! Otherwise, you may need to make adjustments based on your results:

  • Snipe. Raise the outfeed table slightly, repeat until the snipe goes away
  • Convex Edge. The outfeed table is too high. Try lowering it until you start to get some snipe, then raise it back up a hair. If you're still getting a curved surface, the tables of the jointer are not parallel and form a very slight "V".
  • Concave Edge. The tables are not parallel and form a very slight inverted "V".
  • Edge not Square. The fence is either warped or isn't set 90 degrees to the tables.

Congratulations! Your jointer should now be ready for many hours of work. Apply a coat of paste wax to the tables and fence surface to make it easier to slide boards across the jointer. Most of these steps only need to be done once. There should only be a little bit of fiddling necessary when you have the knives resharpened.

Mini Review: Painter's Pyramid

Two Painter's Pyramids on a workbench

If you've been in a home improvement store or perused a woodworking supply catalog recently, you've likely seen the Painter's Pyramid. These small plastic pyramids hold your project off the workbench while you apply a finish. This keeps the piece from accidently sticking to the paper or cardboard used to protect the bench. In addition, they Painter's Pyramids allow you to finish both sides of a workpiece in one finishing session.

Each pyramid is about 2 inches in height. Three of the sides have a hole while the fourth face is open, allowing the pyramids to be stacked for storage. The plastic is about 1/8" thick. The manufacturer's website claims they can hold up to 200 pounds, more than enough for nearly any project

In the past, I've achieved similar results using nails a couple of different ways. To finish both sides of a workpiece, I've driven nails through a scrap piece of plywood and rested the workpiece on the points of the nails. For supporting tables, I've hammered nails part way into the bottom of the legs (where the nail holes won't be seen). While this works, it is somewhat inconvenient.

What I Like

  • Easy to store. Since they are small and stackable, they don't take up much storage space.
  • Easier to rearrange than nails through a board.
  • Less damaging to the workpiece. Nails have a tendency to mar the surface of the wood if you're not careful.

What I don't like

  • With smaller parts, which don't have much weight, the workpiece has a tendency to slide around a bit. The point of a nail tends to grab the workpiece a bit. This isn't much of an issue if you are spraying a finish.
  • The tip of the pyramid isn't as narrow as a nail. If you're trying to finish both sides of a panel and both sides of the panel will be visible, plan on having to touch up the spots where the pyramids touched the board.
  • They are not sold in packs that are multiples of four -- they're sold in packs of 10. Most of the time you need four to properly support a panel or table, so it seems like they should be sold in packs of 8 or 12.

Overall, the Painter's Pyramid is a simple concept that does what it says and solves a real problem. I doubt I will return to using nails in boards anytime soon

Clear Vue Cyclones Purchased by Bushey Enterprises

Clear Vue Cyclones, a maker of cyclone dust collection systems, has been purchased by Bushey Enterprises, Inc. As a result, the company will not be shut down as previously planned. Clear Vue Cyclones will continue to be produced for the foreseeable future.

From the company's website:

Bushey Enterprises, Inc. is a family owned business established in 1994. After some research, James Bushey was convinced that his ‘dust blower’ was a health risk in his home woodshop, and ordered one of the last units prepared by Ed Morgano at Clear Vue Cyclones. Upon hearing of the company’s dissolution, it was clear that something needed to happen to ensure that woodworkers across the country would have access to the healthiest particle separator on the market. A simple phone call to brothers Chuck and Paul resulted in a quick trip to South Carolina to meet Ed Morgano. It is their desire to continue producing this state of the art dust collection system for years to come.

Table Saw Dado Setup

While cutting a series of dados on the table saw recently, I realized that, by using a dial caliper, I was able to zero in on the correct width with only a couple of test cuts. In this post, I'll share the technique I used to set the width of my dado head to get perfect fitting dados.

  1. Measuring the stock with dial calipersMeasure your stock. Using the dial caliper, I measured the thickness of the stock at a bit more than 1/4 inch thick. Write down the exact number for later use. In my example, the thickness was 0.258 inches thick.
  2. Set up the dado head. Since the stock was about 1/4 inch, I used the two outside blades from my dado set. If your stock was thicker, you'd obviously use some of the inner chippers. Try to set up the dado stack so that it's a bit thinner than your stock.
  3. Make a test cut. Using the miter gauge, I ran a scrap piece of wood through the dado head cutter.
  4. Measuring the dado width with dial calipersMeasure the test cut. Unless you were exceptionally lucky, the dado is probably too narrow. Using the dial caliper I measured the dado width at 0.255. If your dado is too wide, you'll need to change the arrangement of your dado cutters, perhaps using a thinner chipper, if you have one.
  5. Insert shims. Subtracting the width of my dado from the thickness of my stock, I need to widen the dado head by 0.003 inches. The shims for my dado head stack have thicknesses of 0.002, 0.004, 0.008 and 0.010 inches. In this case, I chose the 0.002 shim. This should gets me close enough (this is only wood, after all)
  6. Make another test cut.
  7. Test the fit. Should be perfect. If the stock doesn't fit, a small amount of sanding is all that should be necessary to get the stock to fit into the dado.

What techniques do you use to get a dado to fit correctly?