The learnings of a furniture maker

Having jumped head first into my passion that is furniture making I want to accumulate and share some of the learnings I make along the way. Going from Level 0 to Level 100, hopefully, in skills and craftsmanship will take time, dedication and a methodical approach. Collecting my learnings is first and foremost for myself to first externalise and in turn internalise and visualise my development to make sure I stay on the right path forward.

Having been a game developer for most of my life the transition to working in the physical world, apart from being extremely rewarding, surprisingly has many parallels to both the creative and technical aspects of creating games. Having a conceptual idea, visualising it in sketches and finding a technical solution to realising it into a final product. At the same time the art of working with wood is truly unique and has an endless depth of opportunities to become better; more accurate, more efficient and more creative. I want to capture what feels natural and appropriate for the level I am at that point in time, no matter how basic it may seem. So that I can hopefully progress and learn quicker. 

The learnings will vary in detail and are in most cases blatantly obvious, the page is under constant editing and will never be complete, and at any point in time the learning may be wrong or I will re-learn on top of it. I am using the word "you" because I need to keep reminding myself these things, not because I am stating a truth that you should take as valid.

There is so much to learn and so much fun to be had!

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1. Measure twice - cut once

Every list of learnings has to start with this old classic. Whilst the advice itself is easy to remember and simple, actually following through on it in practice can be harder. Especially under time pressure. The main thing for myself to learn here is to both mentally and visually check through the intended outcome of the cut before performing it. Especially when angled cuts are involved it is not enough to just measure and validate the right angle mentally, it is crucial to make sure the angle is going to be cut on the right side in the right direction by visually placing or comparing the angle to a reference or drawing.

Too much wood and time is wasted by hasting past the most basic rule of all. I must be dilligent!


2. Sneak in on your cuts

Wood cannot be made longer. Also a basic rule which has a nice approach to make sure you don't end up with a sad face. Sneaking up on a cut, or any operation, means you intentionally make the cut slightly longer and adjust it for the perfect snug fit. Typically when you are making a joint or placing a piece of wood between/within other pieces. It is always better to cut too little than too much.


3. Don't rely on sanding to fix mistakes

Often when making a joint or gluing together pieces I find myself thinking "Oh I can fix that later when sanding". This is not a good idea. It means at least one of two things, typically both; 1. It will take longer time than getting it right the first time around (i.e. measuring and cutting more accurately, aligning and clamping better when gluing and so on) 2. The end result will be less good, when sanding edges or trying to remove blemishes it is very hard to get a straight and good looking edge.

Take your time and get it right the first time around.


4. Use the right material at the right quality

Being able to make the right choices of when and where to use the wide variety of woods and composites available is something I feel will be a trial and error experience over time and I don't aim to write a full and comprehensive list of what materials work where. But more of a mental note of some of the thinking I have done for myself.

More often than not choosing materials is a balance between cost and aesthetic. I love working with hardwood like Oak or Wenge, but hardwoods are not suitable for all projects or budgets. At a basic level I find it is about using high quality material where a good finish is required, and other suitable materials where either the weight, budget or physical appearance require it. Compromising on material quality means a compromise on product quality. 

My biggest learning so far is that Plywood is very exposed to variable quality and the final result is more impacted by the quality of the wood. Finding good Plywood in the north of Norway is not easy so ordering from specialists around Norway and Scandinavia is a must for ensuring a good finish. Plywood typically has different qualities on each side and anything less than BB should not be used for making furniture. I learnt the hard way from using cheap plywood for a piece that ended up warping and splitting only after a short period of time.

ps. For curved project is is ideal to use Plywood that is specially made for being curved either vertically or horizontally.


5. Lower your pulse when work requires accuracy

Especially for me coming from a high pace gaming culture it is crucial to take a second to breathe and lower my pulse before doing an accurate operation. A smooth motion using the whole body in a single motion is the best way to get a good result, be it a cut, routing or anything requiring accuracy. Visualising the action, doing a practice run, slowing down is for me a great way to improve the quality of my work. 


6. Plan as much as possible ahead of time

I love to just start working straight away, the same as I always did with programming. By nature I feel that spending a lot of time planning reduces the amount of time available for actually doing the work. However, this as with programming, is not true.

The more detailed and thought through the building plans can be the better. Best case is having a full cut list of all required parts and pieces before starting, I am not diligent enough to have this at each time. Something I need to improve on, especially for the more complex projects.

A good learning for me is that for all projects, even the smallest, I create a 3D model and a CAD-drawing with measurements so I have time to  both visualise and prepare for a more efficient workflow.

Not only are measurements good to have ahead of time, also a clear plan for what sequence to do things and why that sequence is the right one.


7. Buy the best tools possible within your budget. The first time around.

I, as many others, started out by buying at the cheaper end of the scale in order to save money. Without exception I have upgraded over time, often multiple times and each time buying a better and more expensive option. Over time this becomes more expensive than buying the best tool in the first place.

Buying the best you can get within a category is a good plan, the quality and efficiency of your work is very closely linked to the quality of the tool used. The longevity and predictability of better tools is also a good reason to invest in proper tools for your jobs.

My thinking is that I should buy just so it hurts in the budget, but not go completely nuts. 


8. Invest time in organising your workshop

The most fun and lucrative work is naturally creating furniture. But the end quality and efficiency is directly proportional to how well organised and layed out your workshop is. Spending time creating storage, workbenches and time saving systems for your workshop is time very well spent.

I tend to end up with a mess pretty quickly, especially when working towards tight deadlines. Both the quality and patience decrease as the mess in the workshop increases. 

My experiences is that you do need to get a good feel for how you work and what is needed in your particular workshop for your particular work process before taking too drastic measures.


9. You will never find your folding rule or your pencil. 

No matter how tidy your workshop is, you will 1 time out of 3 end up not finding your folding rule or your pencil. Even if you have a tool belt. Best solution I have found is to have many different storage locations around the workshop with a multitude of pencils and measuring tools.


10. Batch jobs together in a series

When making multiple pieces of the same design I tend to want to complete every single piece as much as possible before moving on to the next one. I just want to see something complete. Of course, this is not the most efficient or accurate way of working.

Context switching is expensive, as it is in computers, so the best way to get good results and optimise time is to batch together all operations of the same type and/or with the same tool. Resisting the temptation of taking too many steps on a single piece.

Maybe one or two exceptions? Glueing and finishing have long wait times and many times I have found it more efficient to get a glue-up done before continuing on a batch on the table saw or similar


11. Function vs. Form

I typically tend towards form over function in most case in life. But there is a time for everything. I swing back and forth, but at this point in time i see function as the defining factor and that form must follow function. Especially when it comes to pieces that have an everyday use, and especially chairs.

But then again, if a piece of furniture is art. Should things be a little crazy some times?

Every piece has its use, so I will go probably go back and forth a few times on this.


12. Don't move big power tools whilst they are on

Obvious, yes. I had to learn it the hard way.


13. Use long continous strokes when finishing

The only way to apply any finish is to use long continuous strokes with the grain. Don't try to fill in patches or start from the middle, it will not look good. Long, controlled and measured strokes always work best.


14. When possible use a template, guide or stop

Trying to freehand an operation typically means you are lazy. When at all possible use a guide, template or some kind of stop to ensure you get an accurate operation exactly where and how you want it. 

Trying to save time by not doing it? Don't, relax and take your time!


15. Clamp your work piece to the bench

Following on from 14. Make sure to clamp your work whenever you are going to do an operation. Especially small pieces. Again, the time you are trying to save or impatience you are trying to please by not clamping the piece will not pay off. You will most probably waste wood and end up having to redo a lot of work.

This also means you have less to think about and free up your hands to focus on the most important action you are about to do.


16. Find a natural stance

Feel uncomfortable? Reaching too far? Holding a two handed tool with one hand? Balancing a piece on something random on your bench? Just resist the temptation, it will not turn out good enough. Take your time and move things around until you, and your work piece, have a natural and relaxed stance.

Zenish, but it has to be done!


17. Ensure consistency across platforms when CNC'ing

Often when CNC'ing I find that i need to 1. End up with a certain shape on the final piece. 2. Have the shape in Illustrator 3. Move the shape to Fusion 360 (or other application) 4. Export shape to g-code 5. Place work piece on CNC and 5. Send g-code to CNC.

So many times have I forgotten to ensure that orientation and measurements are consistent between all steps. Never start the CNC before you are 100% sure that all things are consistent and correct. And yes, I learned this the hard way a few times, I seem to have to learn this many times... 


18. Sawdust is your enemy

Get a good dust extraction system quickly. Have it on all tools and don't be lazy about it.


19. Have sharp tools, always

Spending that extra amount of time or money to ensure all your tools are clean and sharp is worth it. Nothing is worse than a blunt blade or chisel. It will show in the final work, and it will make your work less enjoyable. 


20. Sketch when needed, 3D when needed

I often find myself deciding wether i should sketch on paper or work in 3D. Some times working directly in 3D has worked well for me, but I need to remind myself to take a step out into the real world and sketch on paper when i feel stuck. Sketching on paper is much more free and allows you to explore variants and directions quicker than in 3D. At the same time working in 3D directly can end up giving more minimal and practical approaches, at least for me.

Being aware of the pros and cons of each approach, and level of skill in each tool atleast is important to remember when working on designs.


21. Track your time in categories

I mainly work on custom orders for customers. This means being able to, relatively, accurately predict how much time will be spent. Typically I underestimate time and end up spending more time than expected, mostly because I am still inexperienced. For me it is key to track time across projects and categories of work so that I can get a better understanding of what takes up time and where I need to adjust my estimates.

Typically planing, sanding and finishing is something I underestimate the amount of time needed for. I need to be better at predicting that time, which means I need to keep track of what I spend my time on.


22. Ask for help

Or just check youtube. There is always someone with a good idea or a neat solution for the problem you are facing. Don't try to reinvent the wheel, look and ask around and most probably you will find an answer from some clever person out there.


23. You can never clamp well enough when glueing

Having good and consistent pressure when glueing is key to a strong joint. Don't be scared to adjust or move clamps in order to get strong pressure across the whole glueing surface.

ps. You always need one more clamp than you own...

pps. Don't forget you can make your own clamps and placeholder clamps or use some waste wood to fix hard-to-clamp glue-ups.


24. Turn the speed of your drill down when screwing

Screwing at too high speeds will force your screw too far and too fast into the wood. It will not look good, possibly break the screw head or make the connection with the wood weaker.


Turn down the RPM and limit the max torque of the drill so that you get a nice, clean and controlled action into the wood.