Some of Our Favorite Shop Tips
Looking for ways to work smarter in your woodshop? Here are 19 tips from a seasoned woodworker and do-it-yourselfer.
Overhead rag storage
If your shop is in your basement, you can store all sorts of things in the ceiling. One of the handiest is a box of paper shop towels. A box of 200 towels fits neatly between the floor joists. Just reach up and pull one down to wipe up errant glue or stain.
Quick table legs
If you need to build a quick table, here’s a great way to make the legs. 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.
Fail-safe drill stop
If you’ve used a metal drill stop (you know the kind—a little ring that goes over the bit and tightens with a setscrew), you may have had the setscrew slip causing you to drill a hole right through the workpiece. 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.
Plastic laminate labels
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. Check out more labeling ideas here.
Shop-made parts boxes
Have you priced those plastic parts bins? They’re expensive! So, make your own out of scrap! The trick is to keep them modular. 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. These 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
If you use polyurethane varnish a lot, cleaning out brushes in mineral spirits is a regular chore. 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 you can use a can opener to remove the entire top. When the goop hardens, you can dispose of it in the trash.
Test-fitting dowel joints
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
The room where a woodworking project ends up is usually much brighter than a workshop, making flaws much easier to see. So when you’re ready for finishing, 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.
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. To maintain the order of boards when 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. This is particularly useful for indicating the layout of door parts or the order of boards that are being edge-glued.
Fold sandpaper into a pad
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.
Marking gauge with pencil
This is a real favorite: a marking gauge with a hole drilled in it to accept a pencil. Use it when you want to align screws, drawer pulls or other hardware that doesn’t require a high level of precision. It’s an exceptionally useful tool.
These are wonderfully simple versatile shop aids. You can use them to raise a project off the bench for clamping, or you can clamp or even screw parts to them to keep things flat. Make them 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
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.
This countersink with a handle is an exceptionally handy tool. 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 you make dowel joints, use it to chamfer the edges of the dowel holes so excess glue doesn’t squirt out.
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
This classic self-centering dowel jig from Dowl-it 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. Spread glue inside the hole, not on the dowel itself.
T-square router fence
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.