12 Common Mistakes New Woodworkers Make

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We all make mistakes in woodworking. I’ve been at this for 50 years now, and I can guarantee you that I make mistakes on every project I do. But there’s a difference between making a mistake on a project and making a mistake about woodworking in general. We all make those too; especially when we’re new to woodworking. It’s all a learning process and making mistakes are part of learning. 

Nevertheless, avoiding mistakes saves us time and money—if we can manage to do it. In an effort to help new woodworkers avoid the same mistakes I and others have made, I present the following list of common mistakes.

Expecting Too Much of Yourself

It’s easy to think you can do something that you really don’t know how to do. We watch videos of the pros making things and it looks so easy. Then, when we try, it doesn’t seem to work out. That can easily leave us thinking that we have no talent or ability for woodworking. 

The pros make things look easy because they are pros. They’ve probably made that same cut or done that same operation 1,000 times before. They’ve probably made the same piece of furniture a dozen times too. 

Many pros make practice pieces, before trying something out on the actual piece of furniture. That’s part of the process and why they can do so well. We just don’t get to see the mistakes they make.

It takes time to get good at anything and woodworking is no exception. Not only that, but there are thousands of different operations that we can do in woodworking, so expect a long learning curve. Don’t worry about your mistakes. Just try to figure out what went wrong and learn from them. 

Buying Cheap Tools

Cheap tools are cheap because they’re…well, cheap. They’re generally not made as well as the good stuff. That can cause problems with accuracy and with the tools failing and needing replacement way too soon. 

Good tools can seem expensive, but they’re an investment in your future. 

The trick here is figuring out just how good a tool you need. Spend too much money, and you’re buying capability that you don’t need. That’s especially dangerous as a new woodworker, considering how much you can end up investing in tools. 

One major factor to take into consideration when choosing is to ask yourself just how much you’re going to use that particular tool. It’s worth investing more in a tool that you’ll use all the time, as part of what you’re buying is life expectancy. 

Rich showing shop power tools

At the same time, that more expensive tool might provide features that will allow you to do other things. But if you never use those features, it just ends up being wasted money.

Buying Tools That are Too Expensive

Buying tools that are too cheap isn’t the only mistake you can make; you can also make a mistake buying tools that are too expensive. It is easy to spend thousands on some tools, especially major tools. 

Those high-dollar tools are really intended for professional shops where they are making furniture or cabinetry. While they might be great to own, you’ll have spent money for basically nothing if you’re not going to be using that capacity all the time.

As a rule of thumb, I’ll try to figure out the minimum I can get by with and the most I can afford. Then I’ll look at the tools that are available within those two limits. 

I’ll usually find something that will do what I need, without having to buy the “best” and most expensive.

Algolaser Alpha engraving

Not Adjusting Tools Correctly

Any tool needs to be adjusted, straight from the factory; especially stationary tools. They are set up at the factory, but we don’t know how well. 

Regardless, vibration and shock in transit can take a perfectly set up tool and throw it out of whack. Don’t assume that just because something is new, it’s going to be perfect. Go through all the available adjustments and make sure everything is right.

This isn’t a one-time thing either. You should check the settings of your tools periodically, making sure that everything is still good. The work that we do can throw adjustments and stops out of whack, even if it is just a little bit. But that little bit can make a big difference when you’re trying to make an accurate cut. 

Speaking of accurate cuts – woodworking, especially joinery, requires the level of accuracy that machinists normally produce, using much more expensive and much more accurate equipment than we do. Since our tools don’t have that inherent level of accuracy in them, we have to provide it ourselves, by how we adjust the tools before making a cut. 

The newer digital gauges available are worth investing in, as they will help you make more accurate cuts. 

Not Using Guides, So You Can Cut Straight

I remember my frustration as a young woodworker trying to make accurate cuts. It just didn’t happen, no matter what I did. 

Rich using a driller

Well, things have changed in the woodworking world since then, and freehand cuts have been largely replaced by using guides, such as a track saw. And you don’t have to spend the money on an expensive track saw to get that straight cut; you can use a homemade one. 

Why struggle to make a straight cut freehand, when you can use a guide and make it come out right every time?

The kinds of woodworkers who make fine furniture don’t do anything freehand. They have a collection of jigs, fixtures, and guides that they’ve built over time, making it not only easier—but possible—to get straight cuts, holes, or routed edges from tools, which go far beyond the tool’s native accuracy. 

Using Dull Bits and Blades

If you want chips on the edges of your cuts, routed edges, and holes, use dull bits. If you don’t, then use sharp ones. It’s as simple as that. Wood is fibrous, so is murder on sharp edges. You can prove that to yourself by cutting a bunch of paper with a pocket knife. 

Regular sharpening is essential. As one professional woodworker put it, he sharpens whatever chisels he is using, for every pin or tail of a dovetail he is cutting.

Adjusting the Dremel Moto Saw

There’s both an art and a science to sharpening. You need good equipment, including guides. But, like everything else, you need practice too. Take the time to develop that skill, as it will help you with everything else you do. 

Of course, there are some things that aren’t practical to sharpen yourself, like circular saw blades. Although it is possible to do it yourself and buy equipment to start, it’s probably more cost-effective to send them out for sharpening—unless you’re going to need to sharpen your table saw blades frequently.

Forgetting Saw Kerf

All saw blades remove material as they make a cut. This removed material is called the “saw kerf.” We need to take that saw kerf into account, when we figure out our material needs. 

If you’re cutting 24” long pieces from an 8’ board or 24” wide pieces from a sheet of plywood, you’re going to find that the last piece comes up short, pretty much every time. That’s due to the saw kerf. Better to design your project so that the part is 23-7/8” long or wide, allowing for the saw kerf.

Cutting a log with the Vevor Mini Chainsaw

Using Lumber That’s Not Properly Dried

Ideally, wood should have about a 12% moisture content when worked. It is easy to think that it would come from the lumberyard that way, but that would be a dangerous assumption to make. 

Much of the wood we buy, especially softwoods, has a much higher content. We need to allow it time to dry out properly, before using it. That can take a considerable amount of time. 

I’d recommend buying a moisture meter [1] for lumber, even if it’s only a low-cost one. You could use it at your nearest lumberyard, checking boards before buying them. It would also be useful in the shop, making sure that the wood has dried out and hasn’t picked up any new moisture, before making things out of it. 

By the way, always give your wood a few days to acclimate in your shop, before using it. That’s necessary so that the wood’s internal temperature and moisture level can equalize with the environment. Taking that step will help reduce shrinkage after the wood is cut and warping. 

Not Creating a Plan, Before Cutting

You should always draw out a plan of whatever it is that you’re going to make, even if it’s on the back of a napkin. Don’t just draw out the outline either; take the time to figure out your joinery and dimensions. That’s where the problems happen; so, it’s worthwhile taking the time to figure them out on paper, before you start cutting up lumber.

Using the Hychika Mini Circular Saw on wood

Long before the Wright brothers built their famous airplane, they wanted to make a sled when they were kids. Their dad was out of town, so their mom took out a sheet of paper, drawing the sled for them. In doing so, she taught them an important lesson: “If it looks right on paper, it will look right when you build it.” That’s advice we can all live by. 

Working Only With Pine, Not Hardwoods

Most of us start out our woodworking journey working with pine and plywood. I did that for years. But there’s good reason for that—pine is much more readily available to use all, as lumberyards carry it for the construction industry and it’s a whole lot cheaper than the least expensive hardwoods. 

However, it’s worth noting that pine is considerably different to work with than hardwoods. Cutting pine is challenging, as the lower density wood is more likely to crush and/or splinter from cutting, especially if our tools aren’t sharp enough. 

It’s all but impossible to cut dovetails in pine, yet many of us try that when we get around to trying to make those dovetail joints. We’d be better off spending the money and cutting those in poplar (the lowest cost hardwood).

Unwillingness to Try Something New

It is easy to get into a “comfort zone” where we have certain types of projects that we do all the time. There’s nothing wrong with having those projects in our repertoire, but there’s definitely something wrong with staying there and not doing anything new.

star-shaped wood

Growth and learning require that we’re always doing something new; something we’ve never done before. 

Ideally, our woodworking should be a combination of the old and comfortable, interspersed with trying new things and learning new techniques. That will lead us to make things we were never able to make before, adding to our enjoyment; the things we can give to others, and even the potential profitability of making things for sale. 

Leaving a Dusty Workshop

It may not seem like a big deal, but always clean up your shop, before calling it a day. I’m not talking about making your shop spotless, but sweeping up the bulk of the sawdust, putting things away, straightening things out, and leaving your workbench empty (unless there’s a glue-up drying there). 

That way, when you go back the next time, all excited to make something new, you don’t have to start by clearing off some space to work. 

Rich's woodshop

There have been many a time when I went out to my workshop, with some new project in mind. But because I had left my shop a mess, I ended up spending the time cleaning and organizing, rather than doing what I wanted to do. 

There have even been times when I went out there, saw the mess, and just went back inside to do something else. Now, I always make sure that I leave it clean enough so I can work when I go out there, even if it’s not clean enough by my wife’s standards.

Final Thoughts

New woodworkers often struggle with unrealistic expectations, poor tool choices, and sloppy work habits that lead to frustration and sub-par results. However, beginners can avoid many of these common pitfalls through the right mindset and approach. Managing one’s expectations, investing in suitable tools, and taking the time to properly adjust, maintain, and learn to use the equipment are crucial first steps.

By following best practices, remaining patient, and continuously learning, new woodworkers can sidestep typical mistakes and make rapid progress on their woodworking journey.

Rich Profile Pic

Rich is a second-generation woodworker, having grown up in his dad’s workshop, “making sawdust.” Fifty years later, he’s still studying and working on improving his own woodworking skills, while also helping new woodworkers “catch the bug” for the smell of fresh sawdust. While Rich has done some custom woodworking projects, his greatest thrill is helping the next generation of woodworkers along, regardless of their age. His background as an engineer and a writer just adds to his ability to teach his true passion, woodworking.

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