Build Furniture Without a Shop

It doesn’t take much.When you get started in woodworking there are many paths to follow, forks in the road, dead-ends and shortcuts. It’s a journey that our forebears would make with the help of a living, breathing guide: a master, a grandfather, a shop teacher.

Inexpensive home-center tools and materials can be used to build pieces that are surprisingly sophisticated. All it takes is a little ingenuity and some decent designs.

Sadly, the guides are fewer in number today. And so you are left with people like me to help. Like the making of meat byproducts, it’s not a pretty sight. Getting your woodworking instruction from books, magazines, television and an occasional class is a slow way to learn a complex task. In fact, many woodworkers spend a long time (years!) simply accumulating machines and tools before they ever build a single stick of furniture. And when they do begin to build, they inevitably discover that they actually need different machines and tools to make what they really want to make.

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So they buy more tools and machines.

I want you to know something important that doesn’t get said much: There is another way to begin building furniture. You don’t need a table saw, a workbench or even a shop. You don’t need to spend $1,000 to build your first birdhouse. You can go to the home center in the morning and build something in the garage on the same day.

I’m not talking about building junk, either. The difference between a nice-looking set of bookshelves and a rude assemblage of 2x4s isn’t a table saw. The difference is cleverness, sound design and just a wee bit of patience.

To build nice furniture you need three things: A handful of decent tools that you won’t outgrow, some help getting started and some realistic projects to build.

This story is an introduction to our “I Can Do That” column, which we have featured on our web site and in the magazine since June 2006. The core of “I Can Do That” is a free 79-page manual you can download on our web site at popularwoodworking.com/icandothat that will help you choose all your tools and introduce you to the skills you need to cut wood and put the pieces together. The other essential component – project plans – are something we feature in every issue of Popular Woodworking in our “I Can Do That” column.

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We call the column “I Can Do That” because we want readers to say that phrase (out loud or in their heads) when they open our magazine to that page.

Eventually, we think you’ll outgrow this approach to construction as your skills improve. I bet you will want a table saw someday. And a drill press. And a smoothing plane. When that day comes, however, you’ll also have a house full of well-proportioned, well-built projects under your belt. You will be ready for those awesome tools, and the learning curve will be mercifully shorter.

If all this sounds like something that a bunch of idealists cooked up at a corporate strategy meeting, you’re wrong. Though I had some carpentry training from my father and grandfather, I started building furniture on my back porch in Lexington, Ky., with a similar set of tools. Probably the only major difference is that I had a circular saw instead of a miter saw (at the time I didn’t know those existed). I built a lot of stuff with my simple setup – some stuff we still have today and some stuff was long ago abandoned at the curb.

So this, dear readers, is a valid path.

My only regret in following it is that I wish that I’d had this manual (or a master woodworker) to make my journey easier.

Rules for Tools
I’m not an emotional guy. I don’t get nostalgic about high school, my first car or my first dog. I don’t much hug family members at holiday gatherings. But I do have the deepest respect and affection for my tools. The care you give tools will gush readily into the things you build with them. None of the tools in the kit we recommend should be disposable; if you take good care of them, they will last.

First, take a look at the list of tools in the box on the previous page. You probably have at least a few of these tools already, even if you’re an apartment dweller. The remainder can all be bought at any home center with a minimal investment. But before you rush out and spend your beer money, take a moment to read about my tool-buying philosophy.

You want to be careful when buying tools because these tools should last most of your lifetime. You won’t replace these tools with fancy machinery when your skills advance, so you don’t want to buy the cheapest tools on display in the tool crib.

So what’s wrong with that $39 jigsaw? Everything. Chances are the motor is underpowered, the bearings (if it even has bearings) are flimsy and the electronics are poorly insulated. Push the tool a little hard and it will – no lie – catch fire.

That said, you also want to avoid the tools that are loaded with lots of gizmos and features (with the price tag to match). In general, tools with lasers, bubble levels, wrist straps, micro-adjustable doo-dads and digital readouts aren’t necessary for accurate work. In fact, they might actually make life harder for you.

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