Working Alone - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Working Alone

 In Projects, Questions And Answers, Techniques

Solitary Strategies for Three-Handed Tasks

by Tim Johnson

One of woodworking’s major attractions is being able to say, “I built that myself.” On the surface, this statement is about mastering skills and techniques. But on another level, it’s about independence—the satisfaction that comes from discovering methods that allow working successfully by oneself. Woodworking is loaded with situations, large and small, in which a little ingenuity can replace a call for help. So put down the phone and read on!


Keep It Together with Brackets


Keeping large or complex assemblies square during glue-up can be a real headache. Heck, when you’re alone, just assembling all the pieces can be a pain in the neck. You won’t need aspirin or an assistant if you use 90-degree brackets. They’ll hold things in position during assembly and keep the assembly square when you glue and clamp it together.



Support Unwieldy Clamps


Without help, it’s tough to hold a long, heavy pipe clamp level while you draw it tight. By supporting one end, a spring clamp eliminates the need for help from extra hands.



Hit the Skids


Managing the space in your shop can be a real chore during a kitchen cabinet project. Nailing skids on the bottoms makes cabinets easy to move and also keeps their veneered plywood sides from chipping out.



Glue Complex Assemblies in Stages


There’s no rule that says you have to glue together a tabletop or a cabinet all in one shot. When you work alone, it’s easier—and a lot smarter—to glue in stages, tackling only as many joints as you can safely manage. (Here, for example, the left side joints are being glued first.) Then you won’t risk having the glue dry before you can assemble and clamp the joints. To ensure everything stays square and properly aligned when you use this method, always clamp the entire assembly together, even though you’re only gluing a portion of it.




Turn Your Back on Sheet Stock


I’ve tried all kinds of carriers and lifting strategies to move heavy sheet stock, like MDF, but this method is my all-time favorite. Stand the sheet on edge, grab the sides, lean forward and go. Ninety pounds never felt lighter. Of course, this method is incompatible with low ceilings inside and windy days outside, unless you enjoy MDF sailing.




Store Lumber Vertically


When you’re alone, it’s a real chore to unearth boards from the bottom of a horizontal stack. Boards stored upright against brackets are easy to see and sort. Just flip through the boards and tip out the ones you want. You don’t have to lift anything.




Use a Brad Nailer


By simultaneously holding brads and driving them, this air-powered hammer allows you to perform a two-handed job with one hand. That means you won’t need a third hand to hold the workpiece. A brad nailer is great for securing mitered corners, tacking drawer fronts in position or fastening delicate moldings. Face frames secured with a couple brads won’t slide out of place when you apply clamps during glue-up. The tiny nail holes are easy to disguise. You can buy a brad nailer and a small compressor for as little as $200.




Go Mobile


Nothing helps a solo woodworker move materials and machinery like a good set of wheels. Size matters: Buy casters that can handle heavy loads, at a minimum, a 125-lb. capacity per caster. Large wheels, at least 3 in. in diameter, provide clearance on uneven floors and are less likely to stall on cracks or power cords. Rubber tires ride more smoothly and quietly than solid plastic wheels. They’re also more skid-resistant when the casters are locked.


Four swivel casters provide the best maneuverability; pairs of swivel and fixed casters make a cart easier to steer. Ball bearings and wheel locks are essential. Swivel casters should have dual-action locks, so they won’t roll or swivel.




Let Horses Carry the Load


Trying to rip sheet stock single-handedly while standing 8 ft. behind the saw is no picnic. A pair of horses the same height as your saw table carry the load and leave a path so you can easily guide the sheet from start to finish. Used beside the saw, saw-height horses provide the same stabilizing support for crosscutting sheet stock.




Reduce Friction


Like helping hands, slippery surfaces make heavy stock slide easily and seem lighter. Reduce drag on your steel machine tables by coating them with paste wax or a dry-lubricant spray. Use melamine, which is MDF with resin-impregnated paper faces, for support tables. In addition to reducing muscle strain, melamine brightens your shop, is easy to keep clean and costs only one-third more than plain MDF.




End Gluing Time Trials


Yellow wood glues typically have about five minutes of open time—that’s how long you have to assemble the joint after you’ve applied glue. Five minutes is sufficient for simple glue-ups, but this short window puts a real squeeze on a solo woodworker facing an assembly with numerous joints.


One way to beat the clock is to buy wood glue with a longer open time, from a couple extra minutes to half an hour, depending on the formulation. The only trade-off is longer clamp time, because these slow-setting formulations take longer to dry.


Another clock-beating method is to spread glue with a trim roller. It’s amazingly fast and the roller leaves a nice even layer of glue. Trim rollers, packaged in a small plastic tray, cost about $4 in a home center’s paint department. The rollers are reusable; just rinse them out. Short-nap rollers produce the best results.




Short of Hands? Use Feet


To hold a workpiece on its edge for mounting hinges, gluing on edge banding and similar tasks, simply clamp handscrews to the bottom.





Use Feathers, Not Fingers


Featherboards make it easy to process long pieces. Like extra hands—only better, because they keep fingers out of harm’s way—featherboards firmly hold long pieces in position at the start and finish of a cut. Using them, you’ll get smooth results from end to end.



Go Wireless

Activate your dust collector from anywhere in your shop by installing a remote-control system. You’ll save steps every time you turn it on or off. Even in a one-person shop, saved steps mean less wasted effort and greater productivity, so remote controls are as beneficial as an extra pair of hands. Basic systems with a transmitter and relay box cost no more than a premium-quality filter bag. If you don’t want to carry a transmitter, you can install switch-equipped blast gates, so your dust collector starts and stops whenever a gate is opened or closed. Upper-end systems activate the dust collector and appropriate blast gate when you turn on any wired-in tool.



Unhinge Hollow-Core Doors


Economical and light in weight, hollow-core doors make great temporary work surfaces, because they’re so easy to maneuver. Used with sawhorses and a couple 2x4s for support, they can handle a surprising amount of weight. Workshop doors don’t have to be good-looking, so bargain-shop at salvage yards or scratch-and-dent bins.



This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2005, issue #117.

Source information may have changed since the original publication date.


Penn State Industries, (800) 377-7297,  Long Ranger RF Remote: LR110-3 (110V), transmitter and 1-1/2-hp relay/receiver, $60; LR220-3 (220V), transmitter and 3-hp relay/receiver, $70. Rockler Woodworking, (800) 279-4441,  Titebond Extend wood glue with 7- to 8-minute open time, #24623, $6.50 a pint. • Garrett Wade, (800) 221-2942,   Slo-Set Glue with 30-minute open time, #62J04.01, $7 a pint. Highland Hardware, (800) 241-6748,  3-in. locking swivel caster with plate, 150-lb. capacity, #084050, $8 ea.; 3-in. fixed caster with plate, 150-lb. capacity, #184050, $4 ea.


October 2005, issue #117

Purchase this back issue.

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