Nobody talks about the ways you can ruin your woodworking project, but knowing what not to do is just as valuable as knowing what you need to do. Most of my tips and tricks for woodworking and guitar making focus on methods that you can use to enhance your projects and finishes.
Today, we will take a look at things you should avoid. These will seem like common woodworking practice for those with experience, but for newer woodworkers, it will be very helpful.
I wish I knew all the things I know now about woodworking when I started. The journey has been fun, but I can think of several dozen woodworking projects that would have turned out far better. That being said, learning is part of the process, and the more time you spend woodworking and wood finishing, the better you will become.
Here is what you need to avoid in order to prevent ruining your project:
- Not having a plan, or at least a loose plan before beginning.
- Using wood that is wet, or not completely acclimated to the environment.
- Selecting boards that have defects, or other structural issues.
- Not selecting the right type of lumber for your tools.
- Joining pieces that are not square, and having edges that are not straight.
- Drowning your project in glue.
- Using the wrong adhesive for the job.
- Not clamping the pieces together well after gluing, and removing them too soon.
- Not paying attention to the grain direction when building.
- Using the wrong species for a specific project. (humidor, tobacco pipe, guitar top, etc.)
- Thinking that brad nails are just as good as real nails.
- Neglecting to fill gaps or areas with voids and imperfections.
- Rushing through the build to get to the next step.
- Not fully inspecting and sanding the project before finishing.
- Using product that is old, or has been stored poorly.
- Not allowing the finish to cure completely before handling the piece.
- Forgetting about the last 10%.
Not having a plan is the easiest way to ruin your woodworking project. Some people are really good at shooting from the hip and making it to the end with a good looking project. However, the majority of woodworkers are not like that. Most people are a blend of the two, and can benefit from at least some form of a loose plan before beginning.
My father and I are very different when it comes to making things. If given three days to make a project, I would dive right in on day one. I would end up making the project a couple times, making several mistakes, and wasting some wood. At the end of the three days though, I would have a working project.
On the other hand, my father would spend the first two days planning. He would work out all the details on paper, and discover all the problems before making the first cut. Then, he would go into the shop on day three and make a perfect project on the first try. We both get the same result, but we have radically different ways of accomplishing it.
This is two ends of the spectrum on planning. I tend to plan very little, and I pay for it. I have gotten better over the years, and I now plan more than I ever did before. My father is on the opposite side, and over plans. That is what he is comfortable with, and that is how he ensures that his projects come out nicely. I could stand to get a little closer to his style, as it would save me money on wasted wood.
Another way to demolish a project is to use wood that is not seasoned. When freshly cut, wood has a large amount of water in the fibers. Over time, or through kiln drying, the water escapes, and the wood dries. Dry wood does not change in size as much as wet wood, and is safer to work with.
Most wood stores sell pieces that are fully dried and stable in the environment. There are some notable exceptions though. Wood that is covered in wax is typically wet inside. The wax is designed to keep the wood stable for transport and sale. This barrier prevents the moisture from escaping like it would normally. When cut, these pieces can crack and split very quickly.
Ask the seller how the wood was dried, and when. They can tell you all of these things, as well as how long the wood has been in stock in the store. A good wood store will guide you in the right direction, and they will show you how to select stable pieces for your project.
Next, not being selective when buying wood can have frustrating results in the shop. When digging through wood bins, make sure that you are looking closely. Select pieces that are free of defects and other structural issues. Knots, splits, twists, and bends are all things to avoid. Especially as a beginner, you want to have as good of a board as you can find.
Wood that is bowed or twisted can be miserable to work around, even for a seasoned woodworker. It requires more work to get the pieces square, and this is time consuming. Knots and splits cause their own problems too. Knots can fall out, or can finish with a different look than the rest of the piece. A split, even a small split, will widen over time and be a visible defect on the finished project.
If you are going for a rustic look, these defects can be a positive thing. However, if you are looking for a clean project, avoid them when selecting lumber. The less you have to deal with these types of defects, the easier the project will be.
When selecting wood, make sure that you are picking out something that you have the ability to work with based on the tools in your shop. A quick way to add frustration to a project is to but rough lumber without having the tools to surface and square it. Sure, the piece can be sanded by hand, but this will add hours to the build depending on the size of the project.
If you have a thickness planer, thickness sander, or jointer in the shop, feel free to select wood that requires the surfaces to be prepared first. You have the tools, so if you are getting a deal or really love the piece, buy it. If you don’t have these tools, stick with surfaced lumber. These pieces will have all four sides surfaced, and they will be far easier to work with.
A common way that may beginning woodworkers ruin their projects is by using wood that is not square in their builds. If you are making a tool box for example, several pieces will be joined together. If the pieces are not square, there will be gaps. Depending on how out of square they are, the gaps may be large enough to see from across the room. This yells inexperience, and makes a nice project have a poor quality look.
Spend a little time squaring up your stock before you join the pieces together. Invest in a small table top jointer if possible. If you can’t, have the wood store put a square edge on your pieces. You can also buy S4S stock, which has been squared, and has four flat surfaces. Working with nicely squared wood is a dream. Everything goes together well, and gaps are a non-issue.
Drowning your project in glue is a great way to ruin the look. Glues are meant to join two things together with a very thin layer between them. Glue essentially soaks into the two faces that are joined, and when it hardens, it holds them together. It requires nothing more than a very thin layer to accomplish this task. Anything more is just a bigger mess to clean.
When glue touches wood, it seeps into the surface. If this glue is allowed to dry, and the surface is not sanded well enough to remove the residue, the finish will be affected. An area with a thin glue layer will show up brighter than the surrounding area when a finish is applied. This is common near glue joints, and can be seen from space. If you sand through these areas, you can remove the surface layer of glue, and then finish the project again, but it is far better to control this right from the start.
Apply two thin layers of glue to both mating surfaces. These thin layers only need to completely coat the surfaces. Once coated, the two pieces can be brought together and clamped. Once clamped, wipe the excess glue off with a wet rag, and remove as much as you can. If you used a reasonable amount of glue, there will not be much to wipe. This means less glue to deal with before applying the finish.
There are many adhesives out there. Not selecting the right one for the job can have disastrous results for your project. As a general rule, wood glue should be used any time that two pieces of wood are being joined together. This is for most woods, as some are very oily, and benefit from leaching or using a different glue. For gluing almost any type of material to almost anything else, two part epoxy is the best bet.
In my shop, I use wood glue and two part epoxy almost exclusively. Every once in a while I use CA glue (super glue) but not too often. I use Titebond Original (red bottle) for my wood to wood joints, and it has been a trusted product for me. For any time I am gluing something not made of wood, I use two part epoxy. This includes inlay work, gluing metals, and when working with acrylics and plastics. Epoxy does take a little longer to cure (24 hours in most cases) but the bond is worth the wait.
Make sure that you are using the right glue for the job, and this will save you lots of misery. A well glued project will last longer, and it will be more secure. Use name brand glues too, or at least something that you know has a good track record. For how long a bottle will last, an extra few dollars will not even be noticed over the time you have the product. What you will notice is that your projects never come back to the shop for a failing joint.
One way that I have seen projects ruined is by not clamping well, and removing the clamps too soon. Every woodworker knows that they can never have enough clamps. You should also know that you should be using several every time you glue something together. Also, allowing the glue to fully cure before removing the clamps ensures that your joints will be full strength before taking away their support.
When gluing something together, place a clamp every couple inches. This will do several things. First, it will ensure that the pieces are together well. Glue can blur the joint, so the extra clamps will make sure that it is completely closed. Second, longer pieces lose strength in areas without clamps, and these places can gap. Adding more clamps makes sure that all gaps are closed. No gaps means a joint that is hard to find, and hard to find joints are a hallmark of successful woodworking.
Next, do not rush to remove the clamps. Some wood glues say you can remove them after an hour. This is true, but you cannot stress the piece for 24 hours. If you remove the clamps and start putting pressure on the piece, the joint can fail. All the time you thought you had saved is now down the toilet, and you will have to prepare the joint again. Having a little patience before removing the clamps will keep you from ruining your project with a bad joint.
Grain direction can ruin a project quickly. Wood is stronger perpendicular to the grain than parallel to the grain. Wood also likes to break along the grain lines far more than against them. If you have a project that will have stress on the wood, making sure that the grain is running the right way to combat that stress is important.
I made a small hand plane a while ago that fell victim to this principle. The faces were made from a piece that was cut with the grain running vertically instead of end to end. The hand plane was dropped, and it split in half on the first bounce. The wood split perfectly on the grain lines, and two pieces of 1/4” thick wood fell apart like pieces of paper. Had the grain been running with the piece, the structure would have held it together.
Pay attention to grain direction in high stress areas. Also, watch where areas of the project are not supported. For most projects, this will not be much of a concern. However, it is worth getting used to watching for the grain direction early on. When something does come up that requires the grain to be running a certain way, it will be easy to recognize and control.
Selecting the wrong species for a project is a quick way to ruin the build. Wood for a project is chosen based on it’s properties. Things like density, weight, hardness, flexibility, moisture resistance and fire resistance are all important in some aspect of woodworking. Make sure to use a species that has a good track record with what you are building, or you can be setting yourself up for failure.
There was an example I read a while ago about someone making a humidor from cedar. They used Aromatic Cedar instead of Spanish Cedar however, and the piece was not usable. The Aromatic Cedar is far too pungent for storing cigars, and soon overpowers them. Choosing a very soft wood like Basswood or Balsa for a project that will hold a heavy load is another mistake.
Lastly, making a tobacco pipe is an area where wood selection is very important. Using woods that burn quickly can cause the pipe to have a very short lifespan. Also, woods that have toxic or irritating resins can have horrible results for the user. Doing research and finding the right woods to use for a project like this makes a big difference in the success. For the sake of curiosity, Briar is the best wood to use for a tobacco pipe.
A quick way to have your project fall apart is thinking that brad nails are real nails. Brad nails are nothing more than clamps. The role of the brad nail is to hold two pieces of wood together long enough for the glue to dry. If you assemble a piece with only brad nails, it will eventually fall apart.
The good news, is that when the piece does fall apart, add some glue and fire in more brad nails to hold it together. Allow the glue time to cure, and the piece can be handled again. A brad nail is a very weak fastener, because it has no head, and is very thin. Bending the joint easily slips them out, and without wood glue, the joint is doomed to fail. Even of you shoot hundreds of them into the joint, over time it will fail before a well glued joint.
Brad nails shine in case work, because they allow the process to continue faster than when clamping and gluing everything. Before brad nails, two pieces needed to be clamped, and the glue had to dry before adding another piece. With brad nails, several pieces can be glued and nailed together at one time. This keeps the process moving forward, and increases the production of the shop. Use brad nails for what they are, a convenience thing, and make sure to glue all the joints. Your projects will come out stronger, and the joints will not fail.
Not completing final touches like filling voids and touching up defects can take a great woodworking project and send it into the mediocre pile. Sometimes it can be difficult to spend the extra time working on these defects. I promise, the extra time is worth it.
Small gaps and voids can be filled with a wood filler product. The best of the best are two part reactive wood fillers. These are sold in tube form, and come in many colors. Cut a small amount from the end, and kneed it into a ball. Do not stop working the dough until it is a uniform color without any streaks. Press the mixture into any cracks or voids, and allow it to dry. Sand flush afterwards, and the fill will help disguise your defects.
Anything small can be sanded out instead of filled. Start with a coarse grit that will help you power through the material. Then, once the bulk has been removed, switch to a finer grit. Use a sanding block to ensure that the surface remains flat when finished. Once complete, the defect will be removed. When a finish is applied, the piece will look far better, and more professional.
I touched on this before, but the number one reason that woodworking projects are ruined is an impatient woodworker. A little patience goes a long way. Rushing to get to the next step is a recipe for disaster. Each step in the process needs to be completed to the fullest of your abilities before moving on to the next. Going too fast for no other reason than getting done quicker causes several problems that should have been easy to avoid.
Woodworking should be a relaxing and enjoyable process. At no time should you be worried about completing a step just to move to the next. It can be exciting to see a project develop. However, rushing leads to poor work and can also lead to injury.
When a woodworker is injured, it is typically because they overlooked something. They were thinking about something else (worrying) or going too fast (rushing). If you are slamming your project together to get done faster, you are asking to be hurt. As woodworkers, we need our hands and eyes to be in top form. Losing a finger or an eye can be the end of a career. Don’t rush your projects, they will be done when they are done. They will also look better for it.
Rushing also leads to a poor looking project. Hurrying through the steps can be a form of fear alleviation for some woodworkers. They are afraid that they cannot build whatever they are working on, and they rush to find out if it’s true. They rush to get to the end to see if their project will be a success or a failure. The sad part is that rushing is more often the cause of the failure, not the ability of the woodworker.
Spend as much time as the project requires. If you are a beginner, don’t listen to the build times listed in the books. This is for the average woodworker, or in some instances for the advanced woodworker. Build your project until it is done well, and that is how long it takes. There are no shortcuts to success.
Failing to inspect the piece prior to applying a finish is an easy way to wreck your project at the last minute. Stains and finishes magnify defects, they do not hide them. Small scratches will explode once a stain is applied. Surface imperfections will look gigantic once the finish is applied, especially when using a high gloss. Inspect you piece, and sand out any tools marks or scratches before finishing.
Sanding is boring, and time consuming. It is also one of the steps that is skipped through too quickly by beginning woodworkers. Spending the time to carefully sand and inspect the piece at the end makes the difference between a great project and an average project. Go over the piece in a glancing light, and make a note of the areas that need additional sanding.
Start with a rough enough grit to remove the marks. Then, a finer grit to blend the surface back together. Inspect the piece again, and repeat the process until all tool marks and scratches are removed. Work on one area at a time. If you are making a toy box, start with one of the panels. Go over it, and mark any areas with painters tape that need attention. Take out each area one at a time, completely removing the defect before going to the next.
After one panel is compete, move to the next. Repeat the process on this new panel, and then continue until all surfaces have been addressed. This will take some time, especially if you are new at woodworking. Seasoned woodworkers are a little better at making sure that scratches and dings are minimized during the process. Don’t worry, you will get better as time goes on.
Using finishing product that is old, or has been stored poorly is a sure fire way to ruin your woodworking project. Finishes have a shelf life. All products do. If you use an old finish, it can cause a number of problems. Also, new finish that has not been stored well can fail. This will waste a great project, and you will regret it immediately.
Always throw away a finish that is old, or one that is starting to skin over. It is not worth saving a few dollars to coat a project in a finish that will never dry. Old finishes often times have a hard time drying. At best, they take much much longer before they cure. At worst, they never cure. If the latter happens, you will have a permanently sticky project. You won’t even be able to give something like this away, and all the hours invested will end up being a complete waste of your time.
Another thing to avoid is using a finish that was not stored properly. Finishes are best stored at room temperature. I go into this in detail here, but the big takeaway is to not store finishes in very hot or very cold areas. This means the garage is out of the question for most people that do not live in a mild climate. I live in Arizona, so my garage can be well over 100 degrees for weeks at a time. Day, and night. This destroys the properties of any finish, and makes it useless.
Most hand applied finishes are not expensive. In fact, almost all finishes are fairly inexpensive for what they are designed to do. If you are in doubt, toss the product and buy new. The few dollars you spend will be well worth the security you feel when applying the finish. It can be a huge stress reliever to work with something that you know will perform as you expect. Save yourself the stress, and work with new product.
Curing times on finishes vary. Some take a little longer, and some are ready fairly quickly after application. If you don’t give your finish time to cure, you are asking for bad results. Curing and drying are two very different things. Something that is dry is not necessarily cured, and knowing the difference will help you make better projects.
If your finish says it takes two weeks to cure before handling, wait two weeks. If you can’t, then you need to use a different finish. A finish can be completely dry, but still take impressions and deform when handled too early. Curing involves all of the solvents escaping the finish. This means that the surface layer is as hard as it can possibly be.
Finishes dry rapidly. In a couple hours or several hours, the layer can be completely dry. This is deceptive, because you can touch the layer and you feel nothing sticky. However, if you press your finger on the surface with some pressure, you may still be able to leave an impression.
This is the difference between dried and cured. A cured finish will not impress easily. It will take a hit or a larger amount of pressure to affect the surface layer. Do not handle your piece until the finish is fully cured according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Follow this rule, and your project will look the best it can possibly look for the remainder of it’s useful life.
There is a phenomenon in woodworking that I call the last 10%. The essence of the principle is that the last 10% of a build determines how the overall build will look. This ties rushing, skipping steps, and final sanding all together into one cohesive idea. The difference between an excellent project and an ok project, is really only about 10% more effort.
When someone examines your project, they are naturally drawn to things that look out of place. Scratches, gaps, defects, and a poor finish are all areas that draw negative attention. If you had spent about 10% more time on the build, none of those things would be there. If you are going to spend several hours working on something, doesn’t it make sense to make it as perfect as possible?
You want attention for your woodworking projects. However, you want the right kind of attention. Having someone point out a gap after the piece is complete is a really hard pill to swallow. You had the ability to fill that gap, but you didn’t. It’s not like you didn’t know what to do, you just failed to do it. In the eyes of the person inspecting the project though, you look like an amateur. You look like someone that cannot complete a good project.
The average person has no idea that filling a gap or sanding out a scratch is far easier than making the project itself. They just see a bad looking project, and assume that you are a bad woodworker. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are not a bad woodworker, you were just not conscious of the last 10%.
Make sure that you are not seen in that kind of light. You already spent a ton of time on the project, just invest a little more. Make it as good as you can possibly make it before applying the finish. Then, make sure that the finish is as good as it can be. This little extra effort will pay off with the much greater amount of positive feedback you receive on the project. I promise, it’s worth it.
For more reading, take a look at my 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing, and my 50 Woodworking Tips article. Both of these are Free PDF documents that you can download and save to your computer.
If you have any questions on how to ruin your woodworking project, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Happy building.