Skill Set: Woodworking Tips from Laura’s Dad

As we never tire of saying, we love it when family members get involved in MAKE. Our crack editorial assistant Laura Cochrane’s dad, Craig, is a general contractor and woodworker. He did the Dutch Wood Repair piece on Make: Projects and contributed his repair tips to our Make & Mend theme last year. Here, Craig shares some of his woodworking and lumber tips. Thanks, Craig! And thanks to Laura for the photos. — Gareth

Two pieces of 1 1/2″ thick lumber. The top piece has 8 years of growth, and the bottom piece has about 57 years of growth

Lumber with wane

Choosing Better Lumber:
Start by inspecting the end of the lumber pile. Notice and compare the growth rings of each piece. Generally, more is better. Each layer of dark and light wood (earlywood and latewood) represents a year’s growth, and tighter, slower growth means stronger lumber. Avoid heart center lumber unless you are cutting it into short lengths. If you see a round target-like pattern with a “bull’s eye,” you’re looking at heart center — the center of a tree — and heart center lumber usually twists badly as it dries. Finally, lift each piece and look at all sides. Defects such as knot-holes, twists, warps, bows, gouges, and wane (corner edges where there should be wood, but instead there’s bark or nothing at all) will be evident. Balancing this advice is a reminder that lumber is not a perfect product, and lumber yards generally do not allow pawing through and sorting the lumber piles. Be reasonable, discreet, and keep the pile neatly stacked.


Table Saw Safety:
When using any tool to cut lumber, keep body parts away from the saw blade! This is obvious but important. Table saws are probably the most dangerous. Lumber is pushed through a high-speed circular saw blade with bare hands, and many fingers are accidentally cut off every day. Use extra care to keep hands away from the saw blade. If there is less than 5″ of wood between the saw fence and blade use a push stick to move the lumber through.


Preventing Lumber Splitting with Nails:
Place the nail head against a hard surface and hammer-tap the point to flatten it slightly. This minimizes wood splitting. When nailing hardwoods, old and dry lumber, or near the ends of boards, first drill a pilot hole with a bit just slightly smaller in diameter than the nail being used. Always do this if you want to be sure not to split your wood.

Nail Removal from Boards to Be Re-Used:
The key is to minimize damage to the wood. Old painted redwood or cedar siding boards removed in remodeling projects often are re-installed. The nail heads are embedded in the wood covered with spackle and paint, and will blow out a big chunk of surrounding wood if you simply hammer at the protruding nail ends. To prevent this, place the board, nail head down, flat against a knot-free piece of soft wood (redwood, western red cedar, or Ponderosa pine). Then hammer the nail into the soft wood about 1/4″. The nail head, spackle, and paint will be exposed with minimal wood damage and can then be removed. Hammer the point end flush with the backside of the board, and pull or pry out with a nail removal tool (claw hammer, cat’s paw, pry bar, or curved nipper nail tool). Protect the finish surface side from tool damage with a wood scrap. Headless finish nails can be pulled out through the board from the backside without disturbing the finished surface.

Keep Saw Blades, Wood Chisels, Plane Blades, and Drill Bits Sharp:
Using properly sharpened blades to cut and shape wood is a real pleasure and maximizes user safety. Dull saw blades make rough and difficult cuts. A power saw with a dull blade works harder, uses more electricity, and creates lots of screaming noise. A dull hand saw requires a great deal of elbow grease for very little result. The same applies to chisels, planes, and drill bits. You can sharpen chisels, plane blades, and some drill bits with a good oil or water stone and some practice. Handsaws and circular saw blades need a professional saw sharpener (I use Walton’s Saw Works in San Rafael, CA). Replace dull reciprocating demolition and saber saw blades with new ones.

Overall Woodworking Safety:
Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes, make sure you have plenty of light to see your cuts, use the right tool for the job, and, above all, don’t do it when you’re tired or it’s very late in the day. Fine woodworking and building involves sharp, potentially dangerous tools, and users must be alert and focused on the job at hand. A high percentage of woodworking accidents occur late in the work day. Be careful and stay safe.

Be sure to check out our entire woodworking skill set


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn