I am not really a fan of answering a question with a question since I find it annoying. But after 4-5 years of answering woodworking inquiries from thousands of woodworkers around the world, I have come to realize there are just some questions that I cannot answer accurately without knowing significantly more about YOU. As a result, if you were to ask me any of the following questions, you will most likely NOT receive a direct answer. Instead, I will send you a series of questions in return that only YOU have the answers to.
What finish should I use?
The world of finishing can be a daunting one. My goal has always been to simplify things as much as possible. So although there are lots of different finishes out there, I believe you are better off sticking with one (at least in the beginning). Too many people jump from finish to finish hoping to find that magic bullet. Instead they find that they achieve mediocre results with every finish they get their hands on! The reality is that just about any film finish will work for pretty much all interior furniture. The real trick is learning how to apply it properly for every given situation. For instance, using a standard polyurethane you can create anything from a low lustre natural look to a high gloss hard-wearing bar top finish. Its all in how you apply it.
So I usually recommend that you use whatever finish you have the best chance of applying successfully. I don’t care if its water-based, oil-based, or solvent-based. Of course at some point you’ll start getting the urge to experiment, but try to resist until you can safely say you have at least one particular finish under your belt.
What project should I make?
This is a little like asking someone what you should cook for dinner. How do you typically make that decision? You probably start by thinking about what you’re in the mood for. Do you have any particular cravings right now? Of course, you can’t just let your cravings be your guide, right? Maybe you have special dietary needs that will help direct your menu. How about ingredients? Do you have all the vegetables and protein you need to actually make the meal you have in mind? And finally, you have to consider your tools and skills. Just because you like to eat fancy gourmet meals doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skill/tool set to prepare it.
To bring it back to woodworking, you might find that you are drawn to a particular technique or furniture style. These are your woodworking “cravings”. But its not always practical to build those things, so you should probably ask yourself what you actually need. If you are trying to justify your time in the shop to a loved one, there’s no better way than to actually make something useful! I know I’m not the only one out there with a honey-do list. This list could easily be considered your “woodworking dietary needs”. Of course you can’t build an authentic Greene & Greene reproduction without some mahogany, so its important that you have the right “woodworking ingredients” too. And finally, do you have the skills and tools to make the thing you want to make? If not, its time to get some practice and perhaps figure out alternative ways to get the job done that won’t break the bank.
What tool should I buy?
So you’re new to the craft and you have no clue where to start, but you know woodworking requires tools. So let’s start filling up that garage, right? WRONG! Slow down, take a deep breath, and let’s think about this. Woodworking is a huge area of interest with hundreds of little sub-categories. While some tools are fairly universal, others are very specific. If you want to turn pens, that’s going to be hard to accomplish without a lathe. If you plan on doing delicate scroll work, you won’t get far without a scroll saw. Furthermore, tools that were once considered requirements (I’m talking to you tablesaw) are now considered optional by many woodworkers. They instead prefer to use a combination of hand tools and a bandsaw. So depending on your personal tastes and goals, the entire complement of tools can change.
Some General Advice
In all likelihood, most of these are questions that you just aren’t prepared to answer yet. You simply don’t have enough experience under your belt. So what’s a new woodworker to do? I recommend you start by taking classes. There is no substitute for hands-on learning. Classes will increase your skill set while also introducing you to basic woodworking tools and their function. Next, you should be watching as many woodworking videos as you can. Lucky for you, they are plentiful and the vast majority are free. Heck, on my site alone we have about 150! I guarantee that if you actually watch all of these videos, you will be much more prepared to make smart tool purchases. Observation is a powerful thing!
A quick rule of thumb is if you don’t know what tool to buy next, then you probably don’t need it yet. When the need presents itself, buy the tool that addresses the need. Until then, start building stuff with the tools you have. You’ll be surprised how enlightening the process is.