Take Your Projects from Good to GREAT!
What separates a "nice" project from a "great" one can be simply several details better executed.
Learn to recognize those details, then improve the skills required to create them, and watch the quality of your projects soar. To help you down that path, we've gathered the collective wisdom of the WOOD® staff. We all wish we'd been told (or had paid attention to) these lessons when we started woodworking.
Before the build
Make mock-ups. These help you visualize a project's proportions and how it fits into a space. Build quickly using lightweight materials held together with tape, hot glue, staples, brads, or pocket screws, getting only as detailed as you need [below]. A box matching a project's outside dimensions may be enough to determine if it fits well in its intended spot. Attach or draw drawer fronts, legs, or moldings to better visualize them.
Sometimes you only need a mock-up of part of a project, such as a joint or a molding profile, to assess its scale or appearance. These may require making full-size samples in scrap material. As a bonus, this familiarizes you with the technique for making them before constructing the project.
Take time to tune your tools and jigs. A misaligned fence, cutter, or table introduces slight errors when milling parts or cutting joinery—those errors show up as gaps, out-of-square surfaces, or worse during assembly.
Buy the best tool you can afford. Whether it's a combination square or a tablesaw, better design, higher-grade materials, and tighter tolerances cost more. However, top price doesn't always buy the best tool. Most of us work within a budget, so research for quality first. Then, if necessary, save up for the purchase—even if that means delaying it. As the saying goes, cry once when you buy it, or cry every time you use it.
During the build
Pay attention to the grain. Cutting boards for the most efficient yield, or to match a cutting diagram, rarely produces parts with the most eye-appeal. Instead, choose straight grain for narrow parts, and save cathedral grain to use on larger panels, if it looks appropriate [see the door in the top photo]. If the grain doesn't parallel the edges of a board, rip at the bandsaw to correct that [below]. Cut plywood panels to center grain patterns in a frame.
Select boards with similar color for panels and subassemblies, such as doors or drawer fronts. When gluing up panels, choose and arrange boards so the grain flows across the joint lines [below].
Start square to stay square. Check the squareness and flatness of cut surfaces and assemblies as you go. Make corrections as needed, or the error will multiply as you add or try to fit other parts. Sometimes this means trimming parts to slightly smaller dimensions, which leads to…
The project, not a cut list, dictates part sizes. As you build, small errors inevitably creep in. Cut a set of legs 1⁄128 " under the intended width, sand away another 1⁄128 " from each and the intended width and depth of a project shrink by 1⁄32 ". That can affect the fit of drawers and inset doors. Cut dadoes for a shelf 1⁄32 " too deep, and the shelf length must increase by 1⁄16 " to prevent a gap. Compensate by measuring the project as you go to determine the size of parts that must fit between or within other parts [below].
Mark precise lines. Rather than working with a pencil, score narrower lines with a marking knife [above]. Register a chisel tip or handsaw blade in the knife cut to make precise cuts.
Skip out on chip-out. When cutters exit a workpiece, the force tears away unsupported wood fibers, causing chip-out. Keep cuts clean by backing up the workpiece with surfaces that tightly surround those fibers [below].
Take time to sharpen. Well-honed cutters reduce chip-out, leaving cleaner edges because they sever the wood, rather than crush and tear it. Keep plane blades and chisels honed [below], and have a backup blade for your tablesaw to eliminate downtime while having your primary blade sharpened.
Embrace hand tools. Chisels, planes, card scrapers, and handsaws have lofty reputations as tools reserved for expert craftsmen who understand their mysterious vagaries. Nonsense. If you don't have them already, outfit your shop with a set of bench chisels, a block plane, a No. 5 jack plane, a card scraper, and a Japanese pull saw [four photos below]. Learn to tune the planes, and sharpen all but the saw. (Replace its disposable blade rather than sharpen it.) All provide superfine control of a workpiece's dimensions and, when well-tuned, prove a pleasure to use.
Be patient. Don't rush construction; it only increases chances of mistakes and mishaps. Remember, you or the recipient will enjoy this project for years to come. Don't be reminded every time you look at it that an extra hour or day in the shop would have made it better. Avoid establishing deadlines to complete projects; instead enjoy the process as time allows. When you reach an impasse, take a break. A walk or a good night's sleep often provides a fresh perspective or solution.
After the build
Allow time for finishing. With a project assembled, it's tempting to get a finish on fast so you can call it done. But the last thing you do on a project is the first thing people notice about it. So apply each coat evenly, allow time for each coat to dry fully, and buff as needed between coats to smooth out nibs and brushstrokes.
Master one or two "go-to" finishes. But don't limit yourself to them. Try numerous finishes and techniques to find what you like. We recommend a wipe-on oil/varnish blend (Watco is one brand) for projects that need warmth and light protection from abrasion. For a more durable surface, go with a wipe-on polyurethane.
Spray it, don't lay it. Spraying speeds finishing, and when done properly, provides even coats. Start with aerosol cans for small projects, and invest in a spray gun and related items later [below].
Finish in the right light. Regardless of how you apply finish, a raking light allows you to see problem areas where nibs, bubbles, or brush streaks remain [below].
Clean crevices and corners. Finish, especially gel stains, can build up in these areas. Remove drips or blobs with the tip of a brush or the creased edge of a paper towel [below].
Apply these tips to your work and see it begin to generate more "ooohs" and "ahhhs" than ever.