I’m a Messy Woodworker Who Screws Up Constantly – 5 Things That Help

Last Updated:  July 1, 2021

It’s true. I can’t use a tape measure without making a mess.

I used to feel inferior to those TV and magazine woodworkers that would fly through a project, not a wood fiber out of place, with their testosterone-infused flannel and denim still sparkling clean and pressed. They make it look so effortless. Meanwhile, I come out of a glue-up looking like I’m shedding my waterproof, extended open time, strong tack, one part, low application temperature, superior strength skin.

And, I make mistakes. I don’t screw up near as much as I used to, but I have been known to rebuild entire portions of a project. Much more often, I’ve been known to cut large, expensive workpieces way too short and ruin them. It’s a right of passage – a badge you get when you, not only proclaim you’re a woodworker, but actually start “building stuff”.

Once I started a Youtube channel, and began filming my work, I realized that my projects appeared to go much more smoothly than they do in real life. Through the editing process you only see a few seconds of each step, maybe a little more, and you don’t really experience the screw-ups. You also can’t really tell how messy everything is. The camera doesn’t usually pick up enough detail to let you see the fit-and-finish clearly. Everything is sort of smoothed over. I’m starting to consciously incorporate more of the trial-and-error that goes into designing and building a project.

I’m telling you this so you won’t get discouraged. Don’t let someone on Youtube or on TV or in a magazine give you a false sense of how you should be woodworking. Experience and repetition will make you better, of course, but you’ll never overcome your “human-ness”. We’re all born flawed and mistakes are just going to happen.

For some it’s about the end product and some enjoy the journey just as much. There is something therapeutic and satisfying about working hard and making a massive mess in the shop – when the project is done and you’ve cleaned the shop, that is. But, woodworking is more enjoyable when, a majority of the time, the pieces you cut fit nicely and your joints are tight.

So, in the spirit of trying to help limit the frustration of the collective woodworkers of the world, especially beginners, here are some things that have helped me over the years:

#1 Plan Ahead

This may sound simple, and it might seem like a pain, but the amount of frustration you experience with a project can be greatly reduced by knowing at least the basic steps you’re going to take.

Ultimately, you’ll want to have a project plan with dimensions and even the steps that need to be taken to get the final product. For beginners, this is critical to learn how to work with wood.

You’ll also need to know what tools you’ll need and how to use those tools. I’ve been guilty of getting in the middle of a frantic glue-up and not having what I need – enough clamps, nail gun, enough hands, etc. There is no worse predicament for a woodworker than not planning through a glue-up. I’ve also had to stop in the middle of a project, load up, and make a run to the lumber yard 17 times – all momentum erased.

As you get more experienced you‘ll be able to wing it when it comes to certain things. I’ve made so many cutting boards that I barely have to think about what I’m doing.

So, make sure you plan out the wood, accessories, and tools you need to build the project.

#2 Slow Down

I could have saved myself a lot of headaches by simply stopping and taking a second to think about what I was doing.

Am I cutting the right side?

Do I have the right measurement?

Do I have everything I need before I start this glue-up?

Take a minute to make sure you aren’t being a bonehead.

#3 Take a Break

The other day I took a perfectly nice, shaker-style door that was beautifully painted with hinges attached…..and mangled it. Ok, I just cut it too short while trying to perfect the fit and finish, but I might as well have squirted lighter fluid on it, lit it on fire, and watched it burn.

After that the best thing I could do was take a break and do something else – if only for a bit. I had to cool off and let it pass. Don’t dismiss this point or it could turn into several bad mistakes instead of just one.

#4 Get It Square

This is something you must learn as you go further into woodworking. It is very difficult to join wood together when it isn’t square.

Let’s take a minute and talk about what square means. The term “square” means a 90 degree angle. For a piece of wood to be square it would need have four 90 degree angles and each edge would be square to each face. The faces are perfectly parallel to each other and both edges are parallel.

Getting wood to this state is a skill and requires specialty tools. The wood you purchase at lumber yards or the home center may have been square at one point, but it has almost always released its tension and either twisted or cupped.

90 degree angles are the referenced basis of almost everything in woodworking. Your tools need to be tuned to 90 degrees and your workpieces need to start at 90 degrees.

#5 Limit Your Use of a Tape Measure

This will sound unintuitive, but a tape measure can be your worst enemy.

You will need it to start, but that’s it. Once you’ve started a project it is much more accurate to hold a workpiece up to your project and make a mark to measure its length/width. This is called “reference measuring”.

These 5 tips aren’t a magic bullet, but using them alongside a healthy dose of repetition will make this hobby become much more enjoyable – and your projects will turn out better!

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