Looking for ways to work smarter in your woodshop? Family Handyman Editor in Chief Ken Collier has seen tips come and go over the decades. Here are 19 tips that stuck around.
By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine
You might also like: TBD
Like a well-worn saw handle, these tips just fit
I was a cabinetmaker when I started working for The Family Handyman. That was almost 30 years ago, so I’ve seen a lot of shop tips come and go. Some of them I’ve used once or twice and then forgotten. Others I’ve used so often that they’ve become essential parts of the way I work in the shop. Here are a few of my favorites.
Meet the pro
Ken Collier is Editor in Chief of The Family Handyman and a longtime woodworker.
Quick table legs
Rip a 1×6
Use a taper jig to rip a 1×6 into two tapered pieces.
Assemble the leg
Glue and nail (or screw) the two pieces together, then sand as much as you feel is necessary.
If you need to build a quick table, here’s a great way to make the legs. I’ve used this design to make tables for our cabin, and utility tables for the shop and yard. Each leg is made from a 1×6, ripped to make two tapered pieces. Glue and nail (or screw) the two pieces together, sand as much as you feel is necessary, and you’re done. The taper jig is quick to make, but it works only for this particular taper.
In the photo above, our table saw’s blade guard has been removed for presentation clarity. Use yours!
Overhead rag storage
Reach and grab
A box of paper shop towels fits neatly between the floor joists.
My shop is in my basement, so I end up storing all sorts of things in the ceiling. One of the handiest is a box of paper shop towels. A box of 200 towels from Scott fits neatly between the floor joists above my workbench. Just reach up and pull one down to wipe up errant glue or stain.
Fail-safe drill stop
Use a wood block
It just takes a minute to make out of scrap, and you can fine-tune the depth of the hole by readjusting the bit in the chuck of the drill.
I used to use a metal drill stop (you know the kind—a little ring that goes over the bit and tightens with a setscrew). Then one time while I was drilling dozens of shelf support holes, the setscrew slipped and I drilled a hole right through the side of an expensive cabinet!
Now I use a wooden stop instead. It just takes a minute to make out of scrap, and you can fine-tune the depth of the hole by readjusting the bit in the chuck of the drill. Your bit will never, ever drill too deep.
Finish both sides at once
Screw screws through pieces of scrap wood to make finishing stands.
These simple little contraptions are immensely useful for staining and finishing. Make them from scrap, but be careful to countersink all the screws to the same depth so their points all protrude the same length. For many projects, you can stain or finish both sides at once. The little mark left by the screw tip won’t be detectable.
Plastic laminate labels
Erasable drawer labels
Use scraps of plastic laminate for drawer labels. You can erase what you write on them with a little solvent.
I use scraps of plastic laminate for drawer labels. Round the corners, smooth the edges and attach them with hot-melt glue. You can write on the labels with pencil or marker, and erase them with a little solvent.
Shop-made parts boxes
Use up your plywood scraps
Make the front, back and bottom from 3/4- or 1/2-in. material, and the sides from 1/4-in. plywood. Nailed and glued together, they’re plenty tough.
Have you priced those plastic parts bins? Too expensive for me! So years ago I started making my own out of scrap. The trick is to keep them modular. I make the front, back and bottom from 3/4- or 1/2-in. material, and the sides from 1/4-in. plywood. Nailed and glued together, they’re plenty tough. Mine are 12 in. front to back (to fit in old kitchen upper cabinets), 3 in. tall, and either 3-1/2 in. or 7 in. wide. Save up some scrap and you can make a couple dozen in an hour or so.
The slop can
Recycle your solvent
Pour used solvent into a “slop” can. The solids settle to the bottom and congeal, leaving pretty clean solvent at the top.
I use polyurethane varnish a lot, so cleaning out brushes in mineral spirits is a regular chore. I use tin cans to rinse the brushes, and pour the used solvent into a “slop” can. The varnish solids settle to the bottom and congeal, leaving pretty clean solvent at the top. That recycled mineral spirits gets used for the first couple rinses of a brush, followed by one final rinse of fresh solvent.
Eventually the slop can fills up with congealed goop, at which point I use a can opener to remove the entire top. When the goop hardens, into the trash it goes.
Test-fitting dowel joints
Kerf your test dowels
Cut a couple of saw kerfs in the test dowels, and they’ll be easy to remove.
When you make dowel joints, it can be difficult to test the fit of the joint, because the dowels often fit so tight the joint is hard to disassemble. Here’s what to do: Simply cut a couple of saw kerfs in the test dowels, and they’ll be easy to remove.
Bright lights for final inspection
Illuminate the flaws
Go over the whole piece with a trouble light flat against the surface, looking for flaws.
I learned the hard way that the room where cabinets end up is usually much brighter than a workshop, making flaws much easier to see. So when I’m ready for finishing, I go over the whole piece with a trouble light flat against the surface, looking for flaws. A light coat of mineral spirits helps reveal any glue stains.
When edge gluing
Maintain the order of boards you’re edge gluing. Lay them out, draw a triangle that marks each board, then disassemble the boards. Now you’ll know how they go back together when you glue them up.
When putting together a frame
Draw a triangle in parts on the sides, top and bottom and you’ll assemble them properly.
This marking system is the quickest way to avoid mixing up parts during assembly. It’s easy, once you get the hang of it, and goes back to the old days of hand woodworking. I use it all the time. It’s particularly useful for indicating the layout of door parts or the order of boards that are being edge-glued. The photos tell it all.
Fold sandpaper into a pad
Photo 1: Fold the sandpaper in half
Photo 2: Fold the sandpaper in half again
Photo 3: Tear back the sandpaper halfway along a crease
Photo 4: Fold one half of the sandpaper inside the other
Photo 5: Sand away
For sanding edges and curves by hand, this sandpaper trick can’t be beat. Take a quarter sheet of sandpaper and fold it as shown above. It makes a firm but flexible pad, and the inner surfaces don’t wear against each other. When the two outer surfaces are used up, simply refold to expose the two inner surfaces. Slick, huh?
Marking gauge with pencil
Cooler than a combination square
Use it to align screws, drawer pulls or other hardware that don’t require high levels of precision.
This is one of my favorite and most-used tools: a marking gauge with a hole drilled in it to accept a pencil. I use it when I want to align screws, drawer pulls or other hardware that doesn’t require a high level of precision. It’s an exceptionally useful tool.
Use them to raise a project off the bench for clamping. You can also screw parts to them to keep things flat.
These are wonderfully simple versatile shop aids. Most of the time I use them to raise a project off the bench for clamping, but sometimes I’ll clamp or even screw parts to them to keep things flat. I made mine from 5-in.-wide strips, with a double thickness on the upright. A little masking tape on the top edge makes them easy on finished surfaces and keeps glue from sticking.
Right-angle clamping jig
This right angle clamping jig is like a third hand for holding cabinet parts together for assembly, or for clamping miter joints.
Here’s a little helper that you can make in about two minutes. It’s like a third hand for holding cabinet parts together for assembly, or for clamping miter joints.
Quick and easy countersinking
Besides making a quick countersink, this tool will quickly remove splinters from the edges of a hole.
One of my handiest tools is this countersink with a handle. It’s made from a bit designed for an old- fashioned hand drill, but you could make a similar one from a power-drill countersink. Besides making a quick countersink, this tool will quickly remove splinters from the edges of a hole. And when I make dowel joints, I use it to chamfer the edges of the dowel holes so excess glue doesn’t squirt out.
Keep your clamps upright and evenly spaced
These simple-to-build clamp bars will keep clamps from tipping.
Anything that gives you more control when gluing is a good thing. These simple-to-build clamp bars, made of 2x4s, will keep clamps from tipping, and can be set up on a couple of sawhorses to free up space on your bench. Screw the two 2x4s together so you can cut the notches on both at the same time.
Dowel joints are DIY-friendly
Self-centering dowel jig
Use a self-centering dowel jig like this classic model from Dowl-it.
Use a block
Use dowels made for joints, a stop on your drill bit to control depth, and a 1-in.-thick block to help you pound in the dowels to a consistent depth.
I’m a fan of old-fashioned dowel joints, especially if you use a self-centering dowel jig like this classic model from Dowl-it, which does two holes at a time. Dowel joints are especially handy for making a quick pair of doors, windows, and mirror frames and many other little projects. Use dowels made for joints, a stop on your drill bit to control depth, and a 1-in.-thick block to help you pound in the dowels to a consistent depth. I spread glue inside the hole, not on the dowel itself.
T-square router fence
Easy, consistent alignment
Build a T-square for one particular router and one particular bit.
If you need to cut dadoes or grooves across the sides of a cabinet, this tool is the way to go. Build the T-square for one particular router and one particular bit, and test it on a scrap. Once the “head” of the T-square has been cut, you can use that cut to perfectly position the rest of the cuts.