Oddball Aids For Woodworking: 20 Surprising (And Cheap) Items To Help You Work Smarter

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 63 of Woodcraft Magazine.

20 surprising (and cheap) items to help you work smarter

I’m betting that the fellow who first said “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” was a woodworker. After more than three decades of woodworking, I’ve come to rely on dozens of different objects that were never intended for furnituremaking–including a few bits and pieces of salvaged items from the local dump–that I wouldn’t want to work without.

Dumpster-diving is encouraged, but it’s not a necessity. A quick rummage through your house, and perhaps stops at a few stores, can reward you with a wealth of low- and no-cost shop helpers.

In this article, I’ll describe 20 of my favorite non-traditional shop aids. Many are stone-simple, and a few are downright odd. But don’t be fooled by appearances. These humble items can make you more comfortable and organized in the shop, bring a higher level of woodworking precision, and, ultimately, lead to better-looking projects.

From the Recycle Bin

Woodworkers were finding new uses for junk long before upcycling became hip. Many such items began life with different intended purposes, but later were reassigned as a woodworking aid. Still other useful items hailed from such unlikely sources as the local friendly dentist.

Bicycle and motorcycle inner tubes

These elastic strips apply pressure where ordinary clamps can’t, making them invaluable for nonlinear assemblies, such as curved or twisted work. To turn a trashed tube into a valuable clamp, simply cut away the valve stem and then slice it into 3⁄4"- to 11⁄4"-wide strips to suit your needs. If you don’t have a few old tubes hanging in your garage, check out your local bike or motorcycle shops. Regular tubes are stretchy; heavy-duty tubes, made from thicker material, stretch less but are more durable.

Heat sink

Check your local computer store, or ask your neighborhood whiz kid, for a used motherboard and its attendant heat sink (a small square of metal with grooves etched into the underside). Attach the sink to a square of plywood, grooved side down, using hot-melt glue or double-sided tape, and keep it near your grinder. When your tool starts to get hot, holding it against the sink will remove the heat in seconds, without any risk of damaging the steel.

Zip ties

Named for the zippy sound they make when cinched tight, these toothed strips of plastic tie together just about anything, including dust-collection and air fittings; they’re also great for keeping cord clutter to a minimum. You can borrow a few from the kitchen drawer, but in time, you should buy a selection of ties in different lengths. Unlike the trash-bag variety, better-quality zip ties can be released and reused.

Leather scraps

Leather is good for making shop accessories and for adding final touches to fine furniture. For example, gluing a thick leather piece to a wood block (regular PVA works fine) creates a persuader that’s great for hammering parts together without dents. Attaching leather pads to the bottom of chair and case legs protects the furniture and hardwood floors. Thinner leather can be attached to a wood block as an elegant and soft drawer or door stop or cut into tabs and used instead of metal pulls or hinges. In addition to old belts, you can pick up an assortment of thick (1⁄4") and thin (1⁄64" or less) scraps of leather at a tack (horse) shop or craft supplies outlet.

Dental tools

Make your dental visits more amenable by asking for any leftover or used prodding and poking tools. Made from high-tensile stainless steel, dental tools are highly durable and available in a variety of shapes and sizes. The small scraper-style tips are perfect for removing glue in tight spots, cleaning up the edge of a recess to fit an inlay, or scraping small parts to shape. Hook-edged tools let you reach around corners and into hidden pockets.

Scrap iron

I keep an assortment of heavy metal for a variety of chores. Stacking free weights on milled wood can help keep the material flat until you’re ready for joinery. Stashing a few weights under vibration-prone machines, such as lathes, can provide smoother operation. Metal weights can also serve as an extra hand when laying out dovetails.


Sandbags can easily drape over the leg rail of a floor-standing machine to dampen vibration. As clamps, sandbags can conform to curved work and apply pressure where a standard clamp can’t reach, like in the middle of a wide panel. You can buy bags from photography and sporting goods stores or make your own from play sand and canvas.

Food containers

Tuna fish and yogurt containers rank as some of the best glue and finish containers money can’t buy. Besides putting products close at hand, smaller containers keep larger bottles fresh and minimize cleanup if there’s a spill. Don’t worry about the labels. Select containers with low centers of gravity (so parked glue brushes won’t tip them over) and wide mouths (so that you can easily dip a brush or wiping pad). Reserve resealable plastic containers from your local take-out for jobs that span several days.

From Around the House

Who said a home couldn’t supply a woodshop? Take a look around, and see if you can snag a few of these useful household items.


Natural cork stoppers (easily identified by cracks, fissures and other irregularities) make great point protectors. Stab the end of a cherished knife or other pointed tool into the end of a cork. Your edge stays sharp–and you stay safe. Synthetic corks (look for even texture) are highly effective at removing dust buildup from sanding discs, drums, and belts.

Playing and business cards

Business and playing cards make great shims. I use them when adjusting setups by incremental amounts, such as when setting or adjusting a machine’s or jig’s fence. Ranging from 0.011" to 0.014" thick (a bit less than 1⁄64"), you can fine-stack cards to get a perfect fit, and then deduce the amount you need to cut away or add to by “counting” the cards.

Bath towels

Did you accidentally add bleach to the laundry? Here’s some good news: discolored or old (but clean) bath towels protect unfinished and finished surfaces without scratching or leaving an unsightly embossed pattern. I keep a few towels handy for sanding between finish coats or polishing the final coat.

Drawer liners

This rubbery, pliable mat is terrific as a cushion when sanding, preventing dings and scratches. It even works as a clamp of sorts, offering friction to keep parts in place as you rout or sand. The softer varieties grip better, but tend to leave impressions that require further sanding before finishing.

Squeeze bottles

Save your empty plastic shampoo, soap, or detergent bottles, and recycle them as glue, finish, and solvent dispensers.  (Test the bottle with your solvent to be sure that the plastic doesn’t melt or soften, and label the contents clearly.)


You drilled a hole in the wrong place and must fill it before anyone finds out? Try dipping a round or square toothpick (depending on the hole’s shape) in glue and then pushing it into the hole. Once the glue dries, pare the pick flush with a chisel.

Bamboo skewers

When grilling season’s over, relocate the 1⁄8"-diameter skewers from the kitchen to the shop.  Skewers are good for spreading glue or removing it in tight spots with the super-pointy tip. Bamboo’s tensile strength also makes it a good choice for pinning parts, such as when pegging small mortise-and-tenon joints. Use a fine-toothed handsaw for cutting the needed pieces cleanly.

From the Art Store

You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate some of the goodies you’ll discover inside the average art store. Much of the offerings cater to the drawing and drafting trade, so precision and exactitude are the order of the day. 


Crayons can help minor blemishes disappear. First, apply a couple coats of your favorite finish to the work, and then fill any small blemishes by rubbing the appropriate crayon–or a combination of colors–into and over the hole. Remove most of the excess with a sharp chisel, and then level and buff it with a clean cloth. (If you plan to apply a finish, seal the patch under a coat of shellac, and then apply your desired topcoat.)

Binder clips

These inexpensive plastic clips offer a surprisingly powerful grip, and their small size makes them great for a myriad of positioning or clamping tasks when working on small shop items. The smaller clips have a maximum jaw opening of 1⁄4", while jumbo clips open as much as 2". The mid-sized “large” clip has an opening of about 1".

Palette knives

Although intended to spread paint, enlist palette knives to spread all sorts of gooey stuff better than your finger. For example, you can use a knife to push putty into holes and cracks with surgical precision or heat the blade to melt a shellac stick, and then push the shellac into a blemish. For making pinpoint repairs or for reaching into corners, simply grind the tip to suit. (Note that painter’s palette knives tend to be floppy; look for a stiff blade to better handle stiffer mixes, such as putty and epoxy.)

Glue stick

The sticky stick used by 10-year-olds is also good for light-duty chores, such as holding paper patterns to wood parts, attaching leather to wood, and even joining small wood pieces, as when making models. The lipstick-style tip makes application quick and clean, and the glue reaches full strength in only five minutes. Uncured glue cleans up with water.


Looking for a dead-accurate setup tool? Often called an artist’s triangle, or drafting triangle, these thin plastic triangles come in 30°/60° or 45°/90° configurations (the numbers refer to the angles on each triangle). Don’t be fooled by the low price; plastic triangles are manufactured to strict tolerances and remain true–even when dropped. A 45°/90° triangle (I prefer the larger 12" model) is a handy tool for calibrating machine fences, bits and blades for square, and setting mitersaws or miter gauges for making perfect 45° miters.  


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page