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5 common mistakes every new woodworker makes

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5 common mistakes every new woodworker makes

Doing things properly isn’t often the easiest option

Although this post is aimed largely at helping new makers avoid common woodworking mistakes, I bet a fair few old hands are guilty of a few of them too! Take a look, how many have you done in the past?

1 – Using the wrong tools

Just go back to your tool store and get the right one.

This has to be something everyone, even experienced woodworkers are guilty of. It might be because you don’t own the correct tools, or more commonly, because it’s not easily to hand. Here’s a few examples I’ve seen over the years (and at one time done myself):

  • Using a mallet as a hammer (or visa-versa)
  • Using the wrong size/type of screwdriver
  • Cutting wood with a hacksaw
  • Drilling walls with anything other than a masonry bit
  • Marking lines with anything other than a pencil
  • Struggling on with a blunt utility knife blade

Pretty much all of these mistakes are being made to save time and/or money but almost certainly end up costing you time and/or money in the long run. Worse still, you can actually hurt yourself using the wrong tool in some situations.


The next time you find yourself struggling forward with the wrong tools ask yourself, “Would it not just be quicker and safer to go and get the right tool for this job and come back to the job?”. I bet the answer is yes.

If you don’t own the tool you need then you could probably borrow one with a bit of forward planning. If you’re planning to do a lot of woodworking or DIY then it’s likely you’ll need that tool again. Why not just invest some money and get one for yourself?

2 – Cutting on the line

Left: Correct method, Right: Cutting on the line wastes material you want to keep.

Have you ever carefully marked out your pieces of timber to the half millimeter with a painstaking degree of accuracy, cut your wood and then found it’s just a tiny bit too short? Yeah? Then you almost certainly cut your wood on the line.

This one is so simple once it’s explained to you but something I see over and over when teaching woodworking. When you mark out a piece of wood, the pencil line marks the end of the wood you need to keep. If you directly place your saw on the line then half the width of the cut will be in the wood you were supposed to keep. This isn’t a huge problem if the saw you’re using has a fine blade. However, if you’re cutting with a circular or compound mitre saw this could mean you’re removing as much as 1.5mm of wood you need!


What you actually need to do is cut on the waste side of the line; align the edge of your blade with the pencil mark. This way all the material you remove will be outside the area you want to use.


3 – Skipping pilot holes

I think this speaks for it’s self.

Pilot holes are drilled to both guide the screw and remove the material the screw is replacing. Skipping theses is bad for both the final strength and look of your project. It also runs the immediate risk of totally ruining a piece of wood you’re working on.

When you skip a pilot hole and simply drive a screw straight into the timber you force apart the fibers in the wood; it’s like driving a wedge into the timber. This runs the risk of splitting the timber if the screw is near the edge or end of a piece of timber. If you get away with not fully splitting the wood you will still definitely weaken it around the screw. This increases the chances of the wood splitting at that point as it ages or is stressed through use.

The same thing goes for countersinking the tops of the pilot holes. I know it takes extra time but do it! It’s worth it for the quality and strength it will help you achieve. Why not invest in a bit that both taps holes and countersinks in one go? That’s what I did.


Use a brad-point drill bit with a width that matches the minor diameter of the screw (the shaft without the thread). Then, drill to a depth just slightly deeper than the over all screw length.

4 – Not considering knots

Knots are the dark eye-like marks on the surface of your timber. They are where branches grew out of the original tree trunk and have grain that runs almost perpendicular to the rest of the timber. They are more common in softwood as this mostly comes from coniferous trees such as pine which have far more branches lower down the tree.

I personally like the look of a well-formed knot as long as it’s in an aesthetically pleasing spot. The problems start when a knot lies near the edge of a piece of timber or in the way of one of your cuts. Cutting a knot in half just looks odd and like you didn’t plan things well. It’s also much harder to cut through knots if your sawing by hand and very hard to drive a screw into one without splitting it. Plan ahead and avoid knots in places that will cause you problems or look ugly.

loose knots can actually fire out of a piece of wood when cutting

Another thing to bear in mind is that depending on the moisture content of your timber, they can become lose and fall out as the timber dries. They can also distort the timber entirely as they dry. An already loose knot can actually fire out of a piece of wood when cutting using power tools – so watch out!


When selecting timber, avoid pieces with large knots, ones that are loose looking or near to the edges. When you’re marking out your cuts, try to order your pieces in a way that knots are away from your cuts.

5 – Skimping on finishing

So, rather aptly, the last point is about finishing. By this I mean scraping, sanding and applying wax, oil, varnish or paint to your project. It’s my least favourite part of making anything because it’s so time consuming and for me, boring. However it’s really important if you want all the work you did up until that point to really shine and last as long as possible.

The main thing people tend to skip is sanding enough and/or properly. Yes, it’s tiresome and creates tonnes of dust but you simply have to do it for a good looking final product. Another easy misstep is not sealing knots before painting. If you’re using a softwood with high resin content like pine, the knots will soon show through the paint as ugly brown circular stains.


Work your way through at least 2-3 grits of sand paper, starting with the coarsest grit. Lower numbers of grit are courser. I usually start with something like a 120, then go to a 180 and finish with 240. If your piece has a very rough surface to begin with you may want to start lower down, probably with 60-80. I’ve never used anything lower than 60 for anything.

When applying coats of finish make sure you follow the directions on the container to the letter. Don’t assume you know better than the people who manufactured the product and just do it your own way. Those directions are there for a reason.

Are you guilty?

How many of these have you done? If I’m honest I’ve done all of them at one time or another. Hopefully having them pointed out will make you more aware the next time you’re making those compromises in your head. Happy woodworking.



A lifelong fan of making and breaking things. If you can do it yourself, why wouldn't you?

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