When I was a kid I spent a fair amount of time with my mom, dad, and papa working on various projects. We would build things from bare wood up to something fun (go kart! fort!) or practical (furniture!). But I would never consider myself to be a "woodworker" or really good with wood. Wood is fun - the tools and techniques for handling it are fairly cheap and easy - but it is also really tough to do "well." So, here are my secrets to having fun and making decent wood projects, in an environmentally friendly way. I've listed the secrets as part of narration of a little counter that I built for an empty spot in our kitchen. Our stove left an 11 inch gap going to the wall. Given that we lacked counter space, gaining that 11 inches of extra space became a welcome improvement to cooking happiness.
1. Start with Scrap Wood
It's not just good for the environment, it's good for your bank account and your creativity. Start with scrap wood!
These are leftover pieces of wood selected from among the rotten pieces we tore down when we replaced our fence. We're giving life to something that would be trash. It also gives a fun feeling to the end result: weathered and full of character from the first minute. If you don't have your own scrap wood, go to a construction site and scrounge from their dumpster. They'll be happy to let you do that because it's less waste for them to pay to haul off. Other great sources include your local dumpster, the alley, fence replacement projects(!), any business that deals in large goods delivered in crates, wooden sign companies (they have to take them down too...).
Dealing with scrap wood also helps with secret number two.
2. Measure twice, cut once, but only if necessary
Ever cut something too short? Your local hardware store will love it if you come in and purchase a wood stretcher (hint: no such device exists). So, measure twice and cut once. If you have a lot of scrap wood, though, you may be able to use existing pieces and a little creativity to not have to cut anything at all.
This shows some cut pieces of wood with cross braces underneath. The cross braces add stability to the platform. These were made with 5 total cuts. Keep those cuts to a minimum to increase your happiness.
3. Plan for the forces on the piece
You may have noticed that the particular design shown below for the scrap-wood-counter-near-stove (flat top with 4 legs) works well for front to back stress and straight down forces. It is totally not made to handle side to side forces which is fine because it is wedged between the stove and the wall.
On the other hand, consider this coffee table we made out of a discarded window:
We replaced some windows in our house and made a table out of this one. The legs were "distressed" so that they would match the finish on the window itself. Our technique for distressing the legs was to paint them green, let that dry, then paint them white, then use a block sander to sand them. The natural pits, ridges, and grooves in the legs created high points where the white paint would be sanded off first letting the green show through.
The legs are held into the wood frame with some giant lag bolts. To give stability for sideways stresses we used turnbuckles attached to screw eyes at each of the corners with copper pipes in between the end legs to keep the turnbuckles from pulling the legs together too hard.
Extra note: on the bottom of each leg is a little caster that can be screwed in/out to different heights which helps even out the legs and provides a smooth felt-covered surface for sliding the table on the floor. Now that's professional.
4. Pre-drill holes in the wood before screwing
You aren't building a piece of crap, you're building something good. So use screws. Nails will just loosen up and fall out over time. Screws can be easily reversed, removed, and re-used. Screws also reduce the chance of nailing your thumb with the hammer...
Particularly when screwing into old wood, thin wood, or near the edge of a board it's important to pre-drill the holes for your screws. Choose a drill bit that is a shade or two smaller than your screws so that the screw still has some wood to bite into. This results in a much higher level of quality.
5. Install, and rejoice in the glory of a job well done
That's it - with a little measurement, creativity, and time you can build something that will make your life better.
Installed in our kitchen it adds a little charming flair to an otherwise drab kitchen.
6. Bonus tip: use wood glue!
While it doesn't work quite as well on weathered wood, don't underestimate the strength of wood glue. The glue is actually stronger than wood. When building something where it seems like normal screws might just split the wood, use tiny screws and some wood glue to hold things together. You'll be amazed at how much wood glue can help.