I ran across an article by Steve Maxwell in the Ottawa Citizen a while back (unfortunately the link has expired). He wrote about 5 basic principles that apply to anyone in a shop. It’s well worth the read and I have to agree with him. Here’s my summary of what he said:
1. Sharpening Skills. Practice, practice, practice. Whatever sharpening method you use that gives you good results, become a master at it. I talked here about how much I like my diamond stones. Steve recommends a buffing wheel for honing. I’ve used a buffing wheel for sharpening my carving tools, but haven’t made myself convert to using it for chisels and plane irons. A buffing wheel works fast and gives you a polished edge.
2. Proper Sanding. How many of us hate sanding? I do. But we need to slow down and do it right if we want the best surface for a finish. And that means working through the grits. Steve starts with a belt sander. Belt sanders scare me because it’s too easy to get distracted and the next thing you know you’re rounding over an edge, gouging the workpiece, or sanding through veneer. I follow the advice of starting with 100- or 120-grit paper, but a random orbit sander is usually all I need. Then I work my way up to 180-grit. I usually don’t go any finer than that if I’m applying an oil finish. That recommendation comes from General Finishes when using their Arm-R-Seal product.
3. Know Your Tools. What I mean is, know intimately how they work and how to fine-tune them for the best performance. That goes for hand tools as well as power tools. Maintain and tune-up your table saw periodically. Make sure all of your chisels and planes are set up, sharp, and ready to put to use. Having to stop in the middle of a project to sharpen or fuss with a tool is a distraction you don’t need.
4. Invest in Your Tools. In other words, buy the best tool you can afford. And if you can’t afford it right now, save up until you can. I’ve learned my lessons on buying tools just because the price was right. It’s when you come to rely on the tool that it disappoints you. Steve’s comments on this topic are so good I have to repeat them here:
Choosing tools and gear successfully is a lot like hitting someone with a snowball as they’re running. Unless you aim way ahead, you’ll always miss. The tools and gear you need tomorrow will almost always be more than you need now, especially if you’re a beginner.
That’s why you should always buy better than you think you need. My only tool regrets have come when my snowball fell way behind the results I was aiming at. You need to buy for the ultimate woodworker you want to become, not the woodworker you are now.
Also — and this is crucial — always let actual needs guide your tool investments. Struggle for a while with a process or situation, then use the insights you gain to invest in gear that actually meets the needs you face. You’ll buy smarter.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm. As Steve says, being motivated to get out in the shop and be productive is one thing. But being in a hurry and taking shortcuts (like not properly sanding, or assuming that the glue will fill the gaps in an ill-fitting joint) are another thing. So the key is not to be impatient. I have to talk myself into slowing down and “doing it right.” (Yes, I talk to myself often when I’m in the shop.) To quote Steve:
“The pursuit of quality is much more important and enduring. “