Working with Wood: 5 Things to Consider Before You Start

Readers, meet my boyfriend, Austin! He is an incredible woodworker and loves working with his hands (and wood, of course). He has made several different pieces in our home including our coffee table, both of our desks, and our night stands.

Recently, I made a wood shelf and I learned that there are so many different ways to work with wood depending on which wood you’re working with.

So, I asked Austin to spill some of his knowledge to me for this blog post. This is going to be incredibly helpful if you’re starting any DIY projects and plan on working with wood.

Here’s everything you need to know:

1. Are you using a hardwood or a softwood?

Softwoods include species like pine or cedar. Hardwood, on the other hand, includes woods like oak, maple, and walnut. If you ever forget, you can think of hardwood as coming from trees that lose their leaves every year in the winter. Pine trees keep their needles all year round.

The big difference when working with softwood vs. hardwood is that softwood doesn’t absorb stain as evenly as hardwood does. If you put stain directly onto softwood, it’ll likely come out blotchy and uneven. To avoid this, we need to use a wood conditioner before applying stain. The wood conditioner will prep the softwood for stain and you won’t end up with blotchy spots on your wood.

2. Should you use stain?

If you’re looking for a natural wood color for your end result, you have one of two options:

  1. Use the type of wood that is the color you’re going for (i.e., if you want walnut-colored wood, work with walnut).
  2. Use a different colored wood and stain it to be whatever color you want (i.e., if you want walnut-colored wood, work with pine and stain it with walnut stain).

It might seem like an obvious decision to go with the first option, but oftentimes, rich-colored wood comes with a price. I love the look of dark walnut wood, but it’s expensive! I can get a very similar, much more affordable end result by using pine with a stain.

–>Read about my latest project with pine and walnut stain: DIY Wood Shelf<–

That said, I’d rather use walnut wood because it feels more natural and luxurious to me than staining pine. It’s just not in the budget right now! So, you’ll have to make a few decisions about how important it is to keep your project as inexpensive as possible. If you can afford to buy more quality wood, I’d say go for it and skip the stain!

Keep in mind that if you do opt to stain your wood, the same stain color will look different on different types of wood. If I use walnut stain on a pine board, it’s going to look a lot different than if I use walnut stain on a cherry board. So, make sure to test part of the wood before you commit to an entire color.

3. Do you want the end result to be shiny or more rustic?

After you get the color how you want it (either by using stain or simply by buying the particular type of wood), you’ll want to seal it. Using a sealer will protect the wood against any liquid spills and everyday damage.

There are a couple different sealers you can choose from. The most popular seem to be shellac, polyurethane, lacquer, and varnish. We generally like to use polyurethane probably just because we’re most familiar with it. It also comes in a range of finishes – from matte to glossy.

The DIY Network does a good job of explaining the differences between the different types of sealers and finishes.

After you read their article, you’ll probably start to understand that if you want a matte or satin finish, you probably don’t want to use a lacquer finish. However, if you want your project to be glossy, lacquer could be a good option for you as well as polyurethane.

4. How will you cut the wood?

This is something you’ll definitely have to consider if you don’t have a lot of tools on hand. The ideal method would be to use a circular saw, but a hand saw can also work. Austin cut the board I used for my DIY wood shelf using a handsaw and I just sanded down the somewhat rough edge it created.

If you don’t have either of these tools, the store, lumber yard, etc., where you buy your wood might be willing to cut it for you. Austin has had experience with Home Depot making quick cuts for him, but they won’t get too fancy with it, so just ask them before you assume.

working with wood to build a coffee table

5. Where will you work on your project?

Of course, the ideal space to work on a project like this would be an outdoor garage with a good air filtration system or an open garage door. The fumes from the stain and sealer tend to be pretty strong and oftentimes give us headaches in enclosed spaces.

However, we live in an apartment complex, so we don’t have access to such luxuries. Luckily, we have an outside porch that I set everything up on to make the shelf. That night, it snowed about 3 inches! So, I hauled everything back inside into the bathroom and finished it there with the fan running the whole time. This definitely is not ideal because the fan can only filter the air so much, but we just didn’t use that bathroom for the time being and kept the doors closed.

So, ideally, you’ll find a spot outside to build your project. If you have to come inside, the bathroom with the fan on is probably your best bet.

Have any other questions about working with wood?

If any other questions come up about working with wood, throw them in the comments below and we will personally answer them as best as we can!

I hope this was helpful and I can’t wait to see what you make!



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