A beginner’s guide to carpentry

Carpentry has got to be one of the most rewarding activities around. Not only can building things yourself save you significant amounts of money, but the process itself can be relaxing and enjoyable. As one of the world’s oldest trades, there’s also something uniquely satisfying about learning carpentry, and it can make you feel accomplished and fulfilled. You don’t have to be especially “crafty” to learn carpentry – all you need to succeed is patience and motivation.

If you’re interested in learning carpentry, then these 5 tips will show you how to get started

1. Build up your knowledge

Before you set up your workbench and buy your tools, it’s helpful to build up a basic knowledge of carpentry. Carpentry can be a physically demanding hobby, and using power tools and drills comes with some risk ­­– so it’s important to do your research before you start. It’s also helpful to think about where you’d like your carpentry journey to take you: do you just want to know how to build and put up a shelf, for example, or are you hoping to make more elaborate items, or perhaps even install your own kitchen?

Once you’ve thought about where you want to take your carpentry, it can also be helpful to brush up on your basic maths skills. You don’t have to grapple with complex equations to develop your woodworking skills, but geometry is an important part of carpentry, and being confident with numbers and measurements can help you advance more quickly. There are lots of ways you can boost your maths skills without too much effort – you can find some ideas here.

You will also likely want to do some of your own research about different types of carpentry. If you enjoy reading, you might want to consider buying some books and magazines about carpentry. These can teach you about basic skills and are a great way to introduce yourself to carpentry as a subject – plus, you’ll probably find lots of inspiration among the glossy pages. You can have a look at some of the most popular woodworking and carpentry magazines here – and whether you’re aiming to make cabinets or wooden bowls, there’s likely a magazine to suit you!

We’d also advise you to watch some online tutorials. These are free and can be really helpful for visualising how projects are completed and seeing carpentry techniques in action. YouTube is absolutely jam-packed with carpentry videos, from tutorials on how to make specific objects to more general advice and guidelines on techniques. It’s worth having a search for any specific carpentry skills you want to learn. There are videos on everything from how to accurately measure wood to how to build a shed from scratch. It’s always a good idea to watch videos that are created by licenced carpenters, so you know you can trust their advice!

Here are 6 woodworking tips and tricks for beginners to get you started:

2. Purchase your tools

If you’re a beginner, you may not already have a toolbox bursting with tools and supplies. But you don’t have to immediately rush out and buy a complete carpentry kit, especially if you’re just trying it out to see if it’s for you. Depending on the extent of your existing toolbox, you may still need to pick up a few essential tools and get comfortable using them. Carpenters use a wide variety of hand and power tools, and the specific type of tool to use depends on the project. However, there are some ‘universal tools’ that you’ll almost always need to have to hand:
    • Carpenter’s pencil & sharpener. The most important tool for any carpenter isn’t a saw or a drill – it’s a pencil. You’ll need it to mark out every cut on the wood you want to make – usually more than once, if you want to be accurate (“Measure twice, cut once,” is a popular carpentry saying). Carpenter’s pencils have rectangular bodies to stop them rolling away, and are easier to grip than normal pencils. It’s definitely worth getting a proper carpentry pencil for the job – it’s going to spend enough time in your hand that it’ll be worth it!
    • Tape measure. Measuring is an integral part of carpentry – you’ll be measuring everything, and because you need your measurements to be precise, you’ll want to get the right tape measure. In terms of  length, 25 feet is a good size because it’s long enough to measure most things, including rooms to fit items into, but still short enough to spring back easily.
    • Hammer. In carpentry you use a hammer for much more than just hitting nails. You can use them to remove nails, lever your wood into position, blunt the bottom ends of nails so they don’t split the wood, and much more. If you only want to buy one, then a claw hammer is the best choice. You can read more about the different types of hammers and their uses here.
    • Saws. If you’re serious about progressing with carpentry, you’ll need to learn how to use a variety of saws, including a hand saw, table saw, circular saw, band saw, and coping saw, so that you’re able to cut wood to any specification. You can start off with a hand saw though, as these make it easy for beginners to understand how different types of wood respond to the blade – something that’s difficult to do with power saws. You can read a detailed guide to the different types of hand saw here.
    • Chisels. Chisels are used just as much as saws in carpentry. They’re used to chip wood and clean out joints and saw cuts. It makes sense to buy chisels in sets, rather than individually – 5–7 should be enough to cover most projects. It’s best not to buy the cheapest sets, as they go blunt quickly. Bevel edge chisels are great quality and will hopefully last a lifetime. Wooden handles tend to be the most comfortable. You can have a look at some chisel sets here.
    • Screwdrivers. Every tool box should contain screwdrivers – both flathead and Phillips head screwdrivers, and in a variety of sizes. Again, buying a set often makes the most sense when you’re starting out.
    • Screws and bolts. There are lots of different types of screws and bolts, and using the right type can make a big difference to your work. Ideally, you want to be familiar with wood screws, machine screws, thread cutting machine screws and sheet metal screws. If you want to find out more, have a read of this guide to screws and bolts. As they come in so many shapes and sizes, it’s likely that you’ll want to buy specific items, purpose made for the type of project you are working on, to ensure the highest quality finish.
    • Marking knife. As the name suggests, a marking knife is used to mark and outline the precise place you’ll be cutting with your saw and make accurate lines. You can also use it for getting into tight joints and cleaning. You don’t need to spend a fortune on this – Amazon sell plenty of decent marking knives for under £10.
    • Clamps. You’ll need a clamp to secure the wood you’re working on to the table, and stop it wobbling around as you saw. You can have a look at a selection of clamps here.
    • A workbench. A sturdy workbench is a must. But we’ll cover that in more detail below.
You can read more about essential carpentry tools here. If you’re able to, it can be helpful to go into a DIY shop and talk to an advisor about which tools to buy. Once the advisor knows what you want to make and what your ability is, they can provide you with expert tips, as well as suggestions for which complete tool kit might be best. You can find your nearest B&Q store here, your nearest Wickes here, and your nearest Homebase here – although popping into your local hardware store is often the easiest option and is usually more personal. Here is a quick rundown of the various carpentry tools and what they are used for.  

3. Set up your workspace

If you want to get into carpentry, you’ll need a proper space to enable you to get to work. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need to have a huge garage, basement or workshop to get into carpentry – but you do need to have a proper workbench – a kitchen table definitely won’t do! The exact design of your workbench isn’t very important if you’re just starting out, but you should choose a workbench that’s sturdy enough to handle weight and ideally, comes with a built-in vice.

Treated workbenches can be kept outside, meaning you can enjoy doing carpentry in the garden, if you wish. Because it’s important to work somewhere well-lit and well-ventilated, working outside might be a good choice for you. But, having a dedicated indoor workspace for your carpentry gives you lots more options when it comes to choosing a workbench. Arbor Garden Solutions sell a wide range of workbenches for both indoors and outdoors, so you can take a look at their website to see which might suit  you. Alternatively, you can contact them to ask for advice.

It’s important that you try to keep your workstation clutter-free. Obviously, any rookie carpenter is going to make a bit of a mess – wood shavings, sawdust…carpentry can be a messy business! That’s why it’s crucial to keep your workstation clean and tidy, so you’re able to focus on the task in hand and not get overwhelmed by clutter, or get distracted looking for things. This way, you’ll feel more comfortable working and will enjoy the process more, which can inspire you to keep practicing. It’s also important to make sure that you’re working in an area with no trip hazards – so be aware of wires and extension leads.

You can find out more about creating an ideal workspace in your home here – and, once you’ve got some practice in, you might want to consider even making your own workbench. As the video below shows, it’s actually a relatively straightforward project.

4. Get comfortable using your tools

So you’ve bought your tools, set up your workstation… now it’s time to start experimenting and practising some techniques using your tools. Some carpentry beginners feel nervous about using sharp or heavy tools – not to mention power tools – which can hold you back. Ironically, it can also be more dangerous using tools nervously – than with confidence.

If you’re apprehensive about using certain tools, you might not pursue carpentry in the way you’d like, or you might be reluctant to get stuck into more challenging projects down the line. This is where it can be really helpful to watch instructional videos, or speak to a friend, neighbour or local tradesman who’s an experienced carpenter if you’re at all unsure of a technique. Your local hardware shop can be a great place to ask for advice, and keep an eye out for local community carpentry groups and adult education courses to share ideas and help support one another. It’s normal to feel a bit nervous when you’re trying something new, but try not to let nerves hold you back. It’s all part of the carpentry journey.

Practice using a hammer

Even if you feel excited to begin working on your first project, it’s still best to take some time to practice using your tools first so you can get a sense of how they feel working in your hands. A good place to start is learning how to properly hammer a nail. We know that might sound very basic, but you’d be surprised at how many beginners don’t use the correct technique – you don’t want the nail to split the wood, and you definitely don’t want to hit your thumb. Less is more when it comes to hammering, and accuracy is much more important than power. Have a look at the tutorial video below to refine your hammer technique.

Practice measuring

Before you get your saw out, it’s also helpful to practice measuring properly. For every project you do, no matter how small, you’ll need to measure your wood and perform basic calculations, to work out sizes and distances. It might seem like a small thing, but even getting a single measurement wrong can totally derail a project. The video below will show you how to accurately measure and mark.

Practice your basic sawing technique

One common problem carpentry beginners face is not being able to saw in a straight line and get straight cuts – but if you have a stable workbench, use clamps, and have a good technique, your saw lines should be straight. Once you’ve made your markings, rest the saw blade on the line at a 45 degree angle. Place your index finger on the side of the blade whilst you get the saw cut started, so you’re more in control, and grip the saw handle. Use your free hand to brace yourself, and work the saw blade back and forth with full strokes – “Let the saw do the cutting,” is a good reference here. You can watch a tutorial video on sawing technique below.

Practice using power tools

The last thing you should practice before beginning a project is using your power tools (if you’ll be using them). While you should treat these tools with respect as they can be extremely dangerous when they’re not used correctly, learning how to use them can be enormously fun – and once you know how to use them, you’ll be amazed at how time-saving they are. They make it infinitely easier and more enjoyable to build things from wood, so they can be well worth the investment, both in terms of time, money and in preventing aches and pains!

Power drills are the most common tool used by beginners, and there are lots of different types. Before using a power drill, it’s important to watch the correct technique and get tips from an experienced carpenter here. If you want to know which other power tools are best for beginners, you might want to watch these informative videos below, too. Do bear in mind that while cordless power tools are seen to be more useful, as well as safer, this is usually reflected in the price and cheap ones can have issues with battery life.

5. Start making things

If you now feel confident enough to get to work, then you’re probably ready. Now it’s onto the fun part – where you can start making things! When you’re starting out with carpentry, it’s better to first try out some of the most simple projects you can find. This way, you’re not only forced to learn the basics of carpentry, but you’ll also learn the value of simple design. Even if you find the projects too easy, it will be a great way to boost your confidence and really nail some of the key carpentry skills. Then, as you progress, you can move onto more complex projects, like refurbishing decks, or building a chair.

You can have a look at some of the simplest projects for beginners here. From making attractive coffee tables from old pallets, to creating cosy homes for the family pet, and making sleek cutting boards, there’s a project for everyone. Alternatively, check out the video below for more inspiration.

If you want more guidance before getting creative, you may want to consider taking a course. While YouTube has a wealth of in-depth tutorial videos, you might still benefit from the structure and teaching of a class or course. Alison.com offers a free Introduction to Carpentry course which will help you enhance your skills and learn how to become a responsible carpenter.

Final thoughts…

Carpentry is an art, and like most arts, it can take a while to master. It’s better to work slowly, going at your own pace, and not rushing, than to take on large-scale projects before you’re ready. Once you get into it, you’ll probably start enjoying the meditative benefits of carpentry, as well as the satisfaction of making things from scratch – and there’s a unique joy in giving your loved ones gifts you’ve made yourself. The more time you put in, the more skilled you’ll become, and the more adventurous your projects can be. But for now, try to focus on building your confidence, and enjoy the fulfillment you get from learning one of the world’s oldest trades.

Have you recently got into carpentry? Or have you made anything you’re particularly proud of during the lockdown? We’d love to hear from you and see some photos of your creations! Send us a message at [email protected] or leave us a comment below.

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