53 Ridiculously Simple Shop Tips

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This article is from Issue 100 of Woodcraft Magazine.

“Second-nature” tricks from the pros

The typical woodworker’s hunger for shop tips seems insatiable. We’re always looking for clever ways to do better work, increase efficiency, save money, and just plain make things easier. Over the years, our “Tips and Tricks” column has presented hundreds of slick solutions involving everything from layout, joinery, and jigging to furniture fixes, and finishing, usually fleshed out with explanations and supporting drawings.

But sometimes, very worthy tricks are just too ridiculously simple for the Tricks column. But simple doesn’t mean silly. These are the sorts of things that have become almost second-nature to seasoned woodworkers. They’re maneuvers and approaches that we don’t even think about anymore as they have become incorporated into daily work routines. In an effort to share some of these, we have amassed a bunch of tips from staff members and contributors, including Paul Anthony, Craig Bentzley, Ken Burton, Larissa Huff, and Rob Spiece. If you want to move through your day as a better, more efficient woodworker, you might want to post this list on your shop wall until they become second-nature to you too.

Instant soft-faced mallet. Need to knock something apart or tap something together and don’t have a soft-faced hammer or mallet? Outfit the head of your hammer with an inexpensive rubber tip made for chair legs. —CB

Compare and contrast. When sighting down a board for warp, view a light board against a dark background and vise-versa. —PA

Clean up spills with sawdust. Accidentally spill something? Open up that dust collector and throw some sawdust on it! After about 15 minutes, the sawdust will absorb most of the spill. —RS

Clean delete. When erasing pencil layout lines, use a white polymer eraser (available at office supply stores). It won’t smear like a typical rubber eraser. —KB

Don’t break that blister. When fighting your way into stiff blister packaging, try not to bust it up too badly. The plastic makes a good disposable tray for glue or epoxy. —KB

Avoid stain pain. Wet glue squeezeout contacting black iron pipe clamps can stain workpieces. To prevent it, cut a roll of wax paper into 2" lengths and place the strips of paper between the pipes and the work. Tape will hold the strips to the pipes resting on the bench. —LH

Let it sit for a bit. Leave a tool set-up as-is until you’re certain you’re done with it, lest you have to return to it when you discover that you forgot to make one of the cuts. —PA

Keep it clean. Constantly refresh glue clean-up water to prevent wiping diluted glue into wood pores, where it will impede finish. —PA

Mini-scraper. Use a burnisher to turn the edge on a common single-edged razor blade to create a small scraper for leveling dried finish drips and getting into tight spots. —CB

Forget the finger. An ink brayer—available at art supply stores—is a great glue applicator. It works much better than a finger when it comes to spreading glue evenly, efficiently, and economically. —KB

Don’t be depressed. After edge-gluing panels, give them at least a day or two to dry thoroughly before flattening them. Otherwise, any areas slightly swollen with moisture may shrink as they finish drying, creating glue-line depressions. —PA

Keep a cool hand. In use, a card scraper can generate enough heat to hurt. Try attaching an advertising sheet magnet that’s cut to an appropriate size. It will serve as a heat sink to prevent burning your fingers. —CB

Combustion prevention. Drape flattened solvent- finish rags over ladder steps to allow air circulation as they dry. If left crumpled up, heat-releasing drying agents trapped in air pockets can lead to spontaneous combustion. Those warning labels are no joke. —LH

Health and safety matters. Locate anti-fatigue mats on the floor at your bench and commonly used machines. Your back and legs will thank you for it. As an added benefit, mats pay for themselves the next time you drop your favorite chisel or a freshly sanded workpiece.—LH

Good shop hygiene. Save those old toothbrushes for cleaning up excess glue. They reach into small reveals and other tight spaces where squeeze-out can be hard to access. Old toothbrushes are also great for brushing sawblade teeth after applying a cleaning solution. —RS 

Easy offset. To mark a consistent offset from a template, trace the outline using a washer as a spacer. This also works well during cabinet installations when scribing face frames to match out-of-flat walls. —KB

Release hot-melt glue. To remove hot glue from small jigs or workpieces, put them in the freezer. Once frozen, the glue will pop off cleanly. —RS

Knife stop. For pinpoint accuracy when knifing a cut line, poke the tip of the blade into your layout mark, and then slide your try square against the knife edge before knifing the cut line. —PA

Yoga mats for sanding pads. Is someone in your home upgrading their old yoga mat? Put it to work as a sanding pad. The non-slip surface will grab both your workpiece and your bench for tasks such as routing edge profiles. It will also protect your workpieces from dents and dings. —RS

Slippery surfaces. Wipe cast-iron machine surfaces with paste wax to make your workpieces glide with ease. Waxing plane soles and router bases will also reduce drag and ease wear and tear on your body. —RS

A tab for grabs. Anytime you need to temporarily apply masking tape, cellophane tape, or electrical tape, “tab” one end first by folding the last 1" or so of one end back on itself. This gives you something to quickly grab to remove the tape. —PA

Call for extras. Whenever purchasing screws, bolts, and other hardware, buy at least a few more than you need in case of loss or manufacturing defects. Plus, it’s always good to have a wide variety of fasteners in store. —PA 

Let there be lotsa light. Dim shop lighting will strain your eyes, create shadows, and invite mistakes or injury. Overhead fixtures should cast broad ambient light for general machine work, while adjustable task-lighting fixtures are key to precise work at benches. Small magnetic lights easily attach to lathes, bandsaws, and mortisers. —LH

Custom sanding sticks. To make sanding sticks for detail sanding, use spray adhesive to glue 1⁄4" thick plywood sticks to a full-sized sheet of sandpaper. Then knife them apart and glue another grit to the opposing side. —RS

Get up oily. Wipe down your tools with WD-40 after honing them with waterstones. This is especially important with planes because moisture can get trapped between adjoining metal surfaces. —KB

Prevent profanity. Sweep the floor around a bench before working on anything with small parts that might get lost in detritus if they roll off the bench. —PA

Angling for center. Fractions get you down? To divide a piece in two, simply angle your ruler to two major increments, and mark the halfway point. The same principle applies when dividing a board into multiple pieces of consistent width. —RS

Hold that screw. Temporarily magnetize a screwdriver by attaching a couple of 1⁄4" dia. rare-earth magnets to the tool shaft. —PA 

Fresh biscuits. To keep biscuits from swelling due to ambient moisture, store them in peanut butter jars or other screw top containers. For good measure, throw in a desiccant pack. —KB

Stale biscuits. If ambient moisture has swollen a biscuit too much to fit in its slot, you can often squash it back to size in a vise with metal jaws. —KB

Save your sander dust. The fine dust from your random orbit sander can color epoxy for spot repairs. Keep commonly used species on hand in a jar. —RS

Stretch out. Use a small roll of stretch wrap (available at office supply stores) for bundling organized lumber and project parts. —PA

Burn an inch for accuracy. For best accuracy when measuring with a tape rule, don’t bring the hook into play. Instead, align the 1" increment with the starting location, and then subtract an inch from the reading on the tape rule. —PA

Positive pressure. PSA-backed sandpaper wrapped around dowels or other shaped backers works great for sanding moldings and other curved surfaces. The pressure-sensitive adhesive also allows folding the paper tightly over the edge of a credit card to sand into tight spaces. —CB

Magnetic tell. Use a magnet to determine whether a screw or other hardware is brass-plated (magnetic), or solid brass, stainless steel, or aluminum (non-magnetic). —PA

Locked tight with make-up. Need to keep a machine screw or other hardware from loosening due to vibration in use? Brush on a bit of fingernail polish, which will keep it tight while still allowing disassembly if necessary. —PA

Secure the gate. Instead of using the thumbscrews on metal dust collector gates, place a few rare-earth magnets on the metal gate housing to hold the gate in place. It makes for much quicker operation. —PA

Easy offsets. Note the widths of various rulers, squares, and straightedges. They are often manufactured to precise sizes such as 1⁄2, 3⁄4, 1, 11⁄2, and 2", which makes for quick, easy layouts of common offsets. —PA

Glue storage. For longest shelf life and best performance, keep liquid glues in temperature-controlled storage. Freezing degrades proteins, compromising adhesion. Ideal working temperatures—listed on the container—typically range from 50°F – 75°F. —LH

A tacky uplift. Nail dome-headed upholstery tacks into a board to create a stand-off platform for finishing. The tack heads minimize contact with the surface without scarring, and allow airflow under the workpiece. —RS

Table saw tell. After making a table saw cut that’s just slightly off of 90°, immediately reset the blade square again or else place a reminder of some sort next to it. It’s too easy to overlook a slightly tilted blade when you return to make a 90° next time. Oops! —PA 

Getting loose with alcohol. To loosen double-faced tape’s grip to remove a template, simply drizzle denatured alcohol into the gap between the template and workpiece. A pipette does a nice job as an applicator. —PA

Organizer quick ref. Tape or hot-glue a sample fastener of other item to the front of its storage bin for quick reference. And when plucking items from a particular bin, leave it temporarily open for quick return to it for more of the same item if necessary. —KB

Getting glue-ready. In preparing for complicated glue-ups, you need every efficiency, so make sure your glue bottle is nearly full for quick dispensing. Either that, or drill a hole in a thick block to create a holder for an inverted glue bottle. —PA

A square that ain’t is useless. To check the accuracy of a combo square, register its beam (or stock) against the straight edge of a piece of scrap, strike a line, and then flip the square over (against the same edge), and compare the lines. —LH

Extra helping. Mill plenty of extra material every time you make parts. Having same-thickness material is key for easy setup throughout the process and inevitable repairs. Extra parts are also great to receive any planer snipe by feeding them first and last. —LH

Spare me. Keep a set of spare drill bits on hand (especially those under 3⁄16") so that a broken bit doesn’t interrupt your work. Put the broken one in your wallet to remind you to replace it the next time you go to town. —KB

Tools at hand. Use rare-earth magnets on machines to keep wrenches, small squares, and other machine-adjustment tools close at hand. —PA

Find the grind. When grinding a chisel or plane iron, it’s easy to lose track of your landing spot among the various facets you’ve created along the way. When that happens, just swipe the bevel face with a wide-tip marker. Now when you touch the wheel again, the fresh grind will be apparent. —PA

Hear ye, see ye! Invest in hearing and eye protection that’s comfortable, so you’re more inclined to wear it. In addition to a good fit, make sure the gear is rated for a woodshop environment. Don’t stint on protecting the only eyes and ears you have. —LH

See-through clamping pads. Acrylic that’s at least 1⁄4" thick makes for great clamping pads. The material is flat, non-stick, and transparent, making it particularly useful for viewing patchwork. Sheet cutoffs are often available from glass shops at reasonable prices. —CB

Miter gauge quick-slip. Rather than trying to insert the washer end of a miter gauge bar in from the front of the table saw’s T-slot, drop the bar in the slot with the washer cantilevered at the rear, and pull the miter gauge toward you. —PA

Chalk it up. Use white chalk to lay out rough-sized parts on roughsawn lumber. It shows up well and wipes away easily as you change your mind about the layout. —LH

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  • TH
    All good reminders and some I did not know.

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