10 Woodworking Basics You Should’ve Learned in Shop Class

Updated: Mar. 22, 2024

Just because you slacked off in your high school shop class doesn’t mean you can’t learn woodworking now. Get started with these basics.

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lumber yard wood planks
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Wood Movement

Wood moves as its moisture content changes. When humidity is high, wood absorbs moisture and swells. When humidity drops, wood shrinks. The movement is gradual, but it can cause big problems in your woodworking projects.

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chisel and plane sharpener
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How to Sharpen Tools

You can have the best tools in the world — but if you don’t sharpen them regularly, they’re useless. If you need a refresher on this shop class basic, here’s our handy tool sharpening guide.

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How to Use a Hand Plane

A hand plane is a great tool for woodworking projects, large and small; and definitely something you should have learned how to handle in shop class. Here’s a quick refresher: hold the plane at a slight angle to the wood and plane along the same direction as the wood grain whenever possible. Planing against the grain will cause the blade to catch and tear or splinter the wood.

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Nominal Dimensions

For many of us, the moment we learned that a 2×4 board is actually 1.5-in. x 3.5-in. was simply mind-blowing. The reason for the contradicting measurements is that the board has been planed down to eliminate irregularities. At one point, many years ago, 2x4s actually were 2-in. x 4-in., but their rough surfaces made them difficult to stock and handle. The old terms, such as 2×4 or 4×4, are still used, and are known as the “nominal” size of the board.

Nominal sizes are still used simply because they’re easier to say and they stick to tradition. Now, most big box stores list the nominal size, as well as the actual sizes of lumber. Here’s a quick guide to help you keep track of nominal vs. actual lumber sizes.

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Screwdriver Miter Closer Handy Hint

Quick Miter Fix

In shop class, many learn the satisfying skill of cutting a miter joint that closes up perfectly and maintains a true 90 degree angle. If your miter skills are rusty, here’s a quick fix for a slightly open miter joint: rub the shank of a screwdriver along the miter at a steep angle, from both sides of the joint. Chances are, you’ll be the only one that knows it wasn’t perfect to begin with.

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HH Easy pilot hole hack

Easy Nail Pilot Holes

Often when you’re nailing small finishing nails into moldings or other projects, the nail will split the wood unless you drill a pilot hole first. However, tiny drill bits have a habit of breaking after just a couple of uses.

So rather than using a drill bit, drill the perfect-sized pilot hole using the nail itself. Simply clip the head off the nail with lineman’s pliers for thicker nails or wire cutters for thinner nails; then place the headless nail into the drill. Drill the hole with this nail pilot hole hack, and then drive in a nail. Voila.

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Make Table Saw-Quality Rips With a Circular Saw
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Make Table Saw-Quality Rips With a Circular Saw

Even if you own a table saw, sometimes it's easier to rip large sheets of plywood with a circular saw. The trick to a perfectly straight cut is to clamp a straightedge to the plywood and use it as a guide for your saw. On most circular saws, the distance between the edge of the saw's base and the blade is 1-1/2 in., so you can simply position the straightedge 1-1/2 in. from your cutting line. But measure this distance on your saw to be sure.

You can buy a straightedge or use the factory edge of a plywood sheet. If your straightedge only has one straight edge, be sure to mark it to avoid using the crooked side.

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Choose a Circular Saw Blade With More Teeth for Smoother Cuts
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Choose a Circular Saw Blade With More Teeth for Smoother Cuts

As long as they're sharp, any of these four 7-1/4-in. blades will make smooth rip cuts in plywood and reasonably good crosscuts. In general, the more teeth, the smoother the cut. The disadvantage of the 140-tooth plywood blade is that the teeth will dull much faster than the teeth on the three carbide blades. This is especially true if you cut particleboard. The 40-tooth carbide blade is a good all-around blade. However, if you have a project that calls for a lot of fine cuts in expensive plywood, don't hesitate to buy the special 56-tooth laminate-cutting blade.

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How to Glue Wood

Gluing wood is a basic woodworking task that you should’ve learned in shop class, but mastering it can be a little different. Check out our tips on how to glue to wood so you don’t get stuck with a mess.

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home-made miter clamps
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How to Clamp

Gluing goes hand-in-hand with clamping, so your shop class should’ve taught you how to clamp as well. But to ensure your gluing goes well, consult our tips on how to clamp with ease.