Woodworking Basics for the Hardware Hacker


Hackaday is primarily a place for electronics hackers, but that’s not to say that we don’t see a fair number of projects where woodworking plays a key role. Magic mirror builds come to mind, as do restorations of antique radios, arcade machines built into coffee tables, and small cases for all manner of electronic and mechanical gadgets. In some of these projects, the woodworking really shines and makes the finished project pop. In others — well, let’s just say that some woodwork looks good from far, but is far from good.

Far be it from me to pass judgment on anyone else’s efforts – I can think of dozens of woodworking projects I’ve undertaken that were prosecutable as crimes against wood. But I do have a fair amount of experience with woodwork, having been in my dad’s shop and making sawdust from the time I could hold a handsaw. I’ve picked up a few things over the decades, and I thought I’d share a few tips that might help you combine your hardware hacks with woodwork that’ll make your project shine. I’ll gear this mainly to the novice woodworker, but there may be a few tips in here for the more experienced types too.

The Basics: Cutting

Office side of my little "hack shack," a prefabricated 10'x12' shed. All the interior woodwork is mine except for the IKEA cabinets. I like wood.
Office side of my little “hack shack,” a prefabricated 10’x12′ shed. All the interior woodwork is mine except for the IKEA cabinets. I like wood.

One of the big problems with wood as a material is the perception that you need a lot of specialized tools to work effectively with it. While having a table saw is great, it also causes problems. A good saw is expensive, requires a lot of room, is noisy and dusty, and given the fact that a wrong move can sever an appendage, they’re intimidating to use. But there really is no substitute for the table saw for dimensioning rough stock, particularly when you need to perform a rip cut with the long grain of the wood. What to do?

I can think of a few ways around this issue, one that I face regularly these days, having sold my table saw prior to moving. The first is to avoid the issue altogether by taking advantage of pre-cut material. Most home centers have a decent selection of wood in a number of species, all available in multiple thicknesses and nominal widths from 2″ to 12″ (sorry, metric world — I’m sticking with imperial measurements because I have no idea how wood is measured in your system). You may have to compromise or change your design a bit to use off-the-rack stock, but there are few projects where you can’t hide a 1/2″ difference in width. I would use this strategy even when I had a table saw — just lazy, I guess.

But most of the wood in big-box stores is sold in 6′ to 10′ lengths, so you’re not going to be able to avoid cross-cutting stock for very long. You can leverage the store for a lot of this work as almost every one of them has a radial arm saw for chopping lumber to size. Usually cuts are a nominal charge after the first couple of free cuts, but be aware that most places have a disclaimer that they won’t do precision cuts. So if you need six pieces of 1×3 oak exactly 11-3/8″ long, you may be out of luck.

Harbor Freight's entry-level miter saw. Source: Harbor Freight
Harbor Freight’s entry-level miter saw. Source: Harbor Freight

So casual woodworkers might want to look at entry level miter saws for their cross-cutting needs. Harbor Freight gets a bad rap on its offerings, but at $89 for a 10″ compound miter saw, it’s hard to pass up even for a one-time job. Granted, a tool such as this is built to a price point and is not designed to survive the rigors of everyday job site use, but you’re not asking it to do that.

A miter saw is a game-changer for lots of small projects. Being able to cut wood to precise angles is the first step to all sorts of projects – it elevates your build beyond the simple butt joints that, while often functional, lack the visual appeal of a well-executed miter. A cheap miter saw might fight you a little there with some slop in the hard stops at 45°, but most can be adjusted for a perfect joint.

A miter saw is still a dusty, noisy beast that is best operated outdoors or in a dedicated shop, though. Don’t have the right space for one? Fear not — you can get a more than adequate miter with a manual miter saw. I’d stay away from the super-cheap wood or plastic miter boxes, though. A dedicated manual miter saw gets its precision from the frame the built-in saw rides in. They’re compact, quiet, easy to clean up after, and they can be had for $50 — not a bad tool to have even if a power miter saw already lives in your shop.

Simple Joinery

Once you’ve got your stock cut perfectly, how do you put the pieces together? This is where a lot of novice woodworkers trip up, and a few simple tools and techniques can get you past this problem. But first, you need to look at the forces the joint is going to experience in service. Many joints have almost no force on them. Picture frames are a good example – they just hang on the wall or sit on a desk. So just gluing the pieces together might be enough. But put that same miter joint into a box that needs to open and close a dozen times a day and a glued joint will fall apart in short order without some reinforcement.

Kreg pocket-hole jig. Source: Kreg Tools
Kreg pocket-hole jig. Source: Kreg Tools

There are tons of ways to reinforce a joint, starting with how the joint is cut in the first place. But if we’re not talking about fancy stuff like dovetails or mortise and tenon joinery, we’re probably going to need some sort of hardware to pull our joints together. That means brads, nails, or better still, screws.

For my money, the best investment the novice woodworker can make is a good pocket hole kit. Pocket hole joinery is another game changer. A jig clamps to the workpiece and allows you to drill a steeply angled hole at the edge of the wood, usually using a special stepped drill bit. The pocket guides a screw through one piece of stock into the other, with the depth of the hole and length of the screw carefully selected to avoid punching through.

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Oak edge-banding on an MDF desktop. Oak pieces are pocket screwed together and held to the desktop with more pocket screws.

Fine joinery? Not by a long shot. Strong, fast, easy, and cheap? You bet. I’ve thrown together simple butt-jointed frames and sturdy cases with pocket screws in a matter of minutes. Miters are no problem either, and the instruction book that comes with most kits shows you all the wonderful things you can build. You have to be a little careful about hiding the pocket hole, or you can plug it afterward if you like. I just used pocket hole joinery to put a reinforcing edge band on some simple shelves for my new shop/office. Took me a few minutes (outside during a snowstorm) and it’s as good as it needs to be for the job it’ll do.

I’ve got a Kreg Jig K4 Master System which has served me well for years. At $150 retail it isn’t cheap, but the value is definitely there. If you want to start small, you can buy a simple kit with just a small jig, the stepped drill bit, and a square-head driver bit for the pocket screws for about $40. Fair warning, though: you’ll need a Vise-Grip face clamp to use the jig effectively.

Milling and Drilling

Novice woodworkers, especially those used to working with less compliant materials common in the machine shop, are often frustrated when they try to put holes in wood. Choose the wrong bit or use the wrong technique, and holes can end up looking pretty bad.

In general, the twist drills used for metalwork are not the best choice for through-holes in wood. They’re not the best choice for blind holes either, but you can get away with it if you’re careful. You’ll get better results using twist drills specifically designed for wood; these usually have a brad points in the center and spurs on the outside diameter; the brad point helps to keep the bit on target and the spurs cut the wood fibers cleanly for a smoother bore.

Large Forstner bit - use a drill press! Source: Traditional Woodworker.com
Large Forstner bit – like and end mill for wood. But use a drill press! Source: Traditional Woodworker.com

Larger diameter holes are best drilled with a spade bit. These also have brad points and spurs, but the cutting surface is flat and paddle-shaped, and the cutting method is more of a scraping action. A beefed up version of the spade bit, the Forstner bit, works in much the same way but can be used to drill angled holes; a spade bit has a fairly limited angle of acceptance to the stock before the flat blade starts bouncing off the wood. Think of a Forstner bit as an end mill for wood. Sort of.

Counterboring for mounting pot to a wood panel. I hogged out the wood to 1/8" thick with a Forstner bit.
Counterboring for mounting pot to a wood panel. I hogged out the wood to 1/8″ thick with a Forstner bit.

Except for the pilot hole drilled by the brad point, spade and Forstner bits can drill nearly flat-bottomed holes. But the pilot hole can be used to advantage when counterboring holes. This is especially useful for mounting switches, pots, and pilot lights in wood panels; the threaded shafts of such parts are rarely long enough to clear even a thin piece of stock. A large diameter bit is used to hog out enough space on the inside of the panel to clear the back of a control, while a clearance hole for the shaft is drilled through the first bit’s pilot. A drill press is best for such operations.

And one final drilling pro-tip: no matter what bit you use, always back up through-holes with a piece of waste wood, and clamp your stock to the waste block firmly. You won’t believe the difference that simple trick makes – holes will come out clean with no punch through to ruin your work.

I hope this encourages you to include wood in your projects. Good results only take a few basic tools, a little practice, and some guidance. And remember that all three of those and more are probably available at your local hackerspace. It might be worth a visit to see what folks are doing with wood and get some ideas.



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