Take Your Projects from Good to GREAT!

Careful selection of the stock for the bottom version of this door makes this highly-visible assembly more appealing than the top version where parts were cut to simply get the most parts from each board.

What separates a “nice” project from a “great” one can be simply several details better executed.

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Careful selection of the stock for the bottom version of this door makes this highly-visible assembly more appealing than the top version where parts were cut to simply get the most parts from each board.

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.

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Cheap will do. Use cardboard, plywood, hardboard, or foam sheets to create full-size or scaled mock-ups.

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. 

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Set up your tools carefully, then make test cuts in scrap to verify accuracy before cutting project parts.

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.

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Lay out a line parallel to the grain, then bandsaw as close to the line as possible. Joint the edge before ripping the piece to width at the tablesaw.

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].

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Joint lines disappear when you arrange boards so the grain pattern and color appears continuous. The seam between the two boards on the left will be obvious. The line between the two on the right will be nearly invisible.

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 1128 " under the intended width, sand away another 1128 " from each and the intended width and depth of a project shrink by 132 ". That can affect the fit of drawers and inset doors. Cut dadoes for a shelf 132 " too deep, and the shelf length must increase by 116 " 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].

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Determine exact part dimensions by marking them directly from the project. For example, when sizing a divider, place it in one of the dadoes of a dry-fit carcase. A marking knife at the opposite dado establishes a fine, precise line.

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].

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A zero-clearance insert prevents chip-out on the bottom face, and an auxiliary miter-gauge fence backs up the trailing edge of the workpiece.

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. 

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Make sharpening fast, easy, and enjoyable with the right accessories, and you won’t put it off. With a set of sharpening stones or plates and a honing guide, you can touch up an edge in less than two minutes.
 

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.

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Use chisels to chamfer ends, clean up mortises, and square up rounded ends left by router bits when cutting stopped rabbets or dadoes.

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Planes create chamfers faster than setting up a router bit, remove razor-thin shavings to fine-tune the fit of a workpiece, and remove tooling marks to speed or even eliminate finish-sanding.

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Card scrapers smooth joint lines on panels and remove tooling marks. A small burr along the edge of a properly sharpened scraper removes fine, curly shavings.

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Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke and provide excellent control. Use one for cutting small parts and joinery, and making interior cuts a power saw can’t.

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].

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A touch-up spray gun works for small and medium-size projects. Spraying projects of this scale doesn’t require a dedicated spray booth.
 

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].

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Position a light behind and just above the worksurface. This angle creates shadows that highlight flaws, stray brush bristles, dust nibs, and over- or under-covered areas.

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].

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Keep details crisp by closely inspecting molding profiles, inside corners, and edges as you apply finish. As you move a brush or rag over these areas, the corners can force more finish from the applicator, causing runs or drips.

Apply these tips to your work and see it begin to generate more “ooohs” and “ahhhs” than ever. 

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