Skill Set: Woodworking Tips from Laura’s Dad

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

11 thoughts on “Skill Set: Woodworking Tips from Laura’s Dad

  1. Pete says:

    I love that you cover safety, but that table saw (at least in the RSS feed, the picture here is 404 at the time of this writing) has no splitter! The single biggest cause of injuries at the table saw is kickback, not cutting off fingers. Kickback happens when the wood contacts the back (rising) edge of the blade – something really easy to do when you aren’t using a splitter of any type – and throws the wood at you. It has been shown to throw the wood fast and hard enough to embed it into a wall.

    I still have a mark just above and to the right of my groin (yes, it *just* missed) from a 1″ wide by 2′ long piece of soft maple that kicked back and skimmed me before smacking into my wall. I’d have more than a mark if it hit me full-on. It skimmed because I wasn’t standing right behind the saw, I was slightly off to the side (another safety technique).

    There are all types of splitters. I personally use one that plugs right into the throat plate and is very small. It doesn’t get in your way at all.

    I also use a guard. This is nice to keep saw dust out of your face and for reminding you to keep your hands away from the blade. The particular guard I use has an attachment that goes right to my dust collector.

    The EU has required riving knives for some time, so you are less likely to remove them for a non-through cut or web photo-op. Most new quality saws in the US are also now equipped with riving knives. If you can get one of those, they are much safer than old US-style splitters.

    I’m certainly not an expert, but woodworkers all know this stuff. I just want to make sure people new to woodworking here take this seriously.

    As an aside, my browser warned me this was reported as a dangerous site (that was new). I wonder if it was because of the bad table saw practice ;)


    1. Mark Harrison says:

      Absolutely totally agree. If the wood has any tension inside of it (cheap wet lumber will be the worst) the kerf will probably close up at the back of the blade and throw the wood back at you.

      Have a look at this blog entry at Popular Woodworking ( and read the two articles linked to at the bottom.

      A table saw is a fantastic tool but it can cause massive injury if not used correctly.

      I’m not having a go at the article. Table saw safety is too big a topic for this one blog entry but there should be a link at least to more information.

    2. Pete Rippe says:

      when i first started using a table saw, i had a kickback incident that did indeed not miss. that was 5 years ago and since then i have not had a single incident, or even close call.

      the saws we use at work are shop models with alot more power than a typical contractor saw (disclaimer), and no splitter is used. If you let the blade cut and try not to rush it, and you can hear it well before it kicksback, the wood won’t be able to close around the blade if it warps, it is just cut away as it goes. the other key is a good push stick, and i’m not talking about one of those cut like a ladies leg. it needs to have some length to it and a good grip, and you’ll be in complete control.

      as for the reason we usually don’t have splitters is they are integrated into the safety cover, and we often make speciality cuts in my industry that can’t be accomplished with a cover.

      can’t go wrong if you go slow. worse you’ll get is some burned edges, better than the pain i had to endure!

      1. Mark Harrison says:

        As the original Pete said, the gold standard is a riving knife. You leave it on all the time. It lowers and tilts with the blade arbor. The top of the riving knife is slightly lower than the top of the blade.

        I have a Powermatic PM2000 and that is the principal reason I bought such an expensive saw was the riving knife feature. There were not many other less expensive saws at that time with that feature. I also bought an after market overhead saw guard. They are not very expensive these days.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “More Rings is Better”

    Unfortunately, this depends on the species – For softwoods, and a number of the hardwood varieties, the tighter the grain, the better. For example, if you are looking for some spruce for your guitar soundboard, or some boxwood for a wind instrument, the tighter the grain the better.

    However, one of the easiest to find hardwoods, one with a reputation for great strength, doesn’t follow this rule. Oak. Since it is a ring porous species, lots of growth rings means more of the weak “tubes” and less of the strong bits. If are looking for something that lives up to oak’s reputation for strength, go for the widest grain you can find. If you happen to get hold of some tight grained oak, you will find that it is very brittle.

  3. Scott Saunders says:

    I would love to read more about buying wood from lumber yards. I’ve never been to a lumber yard, only to Home Depot and Lowes. Lumber yards have always seemed sort of unwelcoming and full of rules and etiquette that only long term pros would know. I’m sure that’s just my ignorance.

    Advice and tips for actually getting wood – finding it, buying it, bringing it home – would be a great topic for a post.

  4. Diamond Saw Blade says:

    I feel that a table saw is a fantastic tool but it can cause massive injury if not used correctly..

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    […] Skill Set: Woodworking Tips from Laura’s Dad – Be reasonable, discreet, and keep the pile neatly stacked. 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 … […]

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  8. Yadav Pramod says:

    Thanks very much for share article !! it is also the Easter Holidays and I have been keeping the kids busy at home with crafts, we tend to do quite a lot of crafting, can you tell? One of our favourites is making egg baubles from scraps of felt, buttons and sequins. And finally, a little bit of colour is bursting out in the garden. It was almost springlike out there today!

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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. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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