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Have you ever been in the middle of a woodworking project and fallen just one piece short? Or been making roof repairs during a break in a storm, but then discover there’s not a single piece to fit the space you’re covering? What do you do? Both of these things have happened to me. Luckily, I have a pile of scrap wood, and I was able to find what I needed when I needed it.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression. Long before recycling became a catchphrase, they learned to make do on less, wasting nothing, and reusing whatever they could. When I was growing up, my parents saved everything. While my dad was by no means a woodworker, we had coffee cans filled with nuts, bolts, screws, and nails lining the shelves in our garage, as well as lumber of all sizes on hand. This mindset is what I grew up with, and it’s one I still live by to this day.
Stuffed in and behind my shed are stacks of boards and plywood in all sizes, all salvaged lumber. I use that pile for any number of projects around the homestead. I even use it to make items I can then give as gifts or use in trade. Having a constant supply saves me the time and money required to track down materials for individual projects.
The World of Woodworking
In its simplest form, the term “woodworking” means any work using wood. That could include basic carpentry, making furniture, or carving. In this article, I’ll look specifically at making items you can use around the home, give as gifts, or use in a bartering situation.
These bear claws, perfect for salads and pasta, were made from scrap pieces of pine.Photo by Dana Benner
My fascination with woodworking started when my father gave me my first pocketknife. I started carving any wood scrap I could find. The more I carved, the better I became, and the more I linked myself to the past. I imagined early pioneers sitting by the campfire at the end of a long day, knife in hand, creating things that represented what they saw and their way of life. I imagined sitting on a front porch in the mountains of Kentucky with just a few simple tools and some wood, doing the same for my home. I made picture frames and candleholders, all out of scrap wood. I also took the wood from pallets and made sconces to hang oil lamps. Some of those early pieces are still in my home today.
I originally focused on my building and construction skills, and ignored my finishing woodworking skills (those needed for making furniture). I knew I eventually needed to learn these techniques to fully round out my skills, so I started working under the tutelage of a master finish carpenter. When I got married, I made my first kitchen table out of scrap wood I’d salvaged from the construction site I was working on at the time. That table was crude, but it lasted for many years of use.
This oak table was made from recycled oak flooring and oak pallet. Photo by Dana Benner
The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Those skills became a fundamental part of my lifestyle, which requires me to rely a great deal on my own ability to get things done. Money is always tight, so if you can’t make an item yourself, you often have to do without. When we married, my wife and I spent a great deal of time looking at things for our home. Not only did we find everything to be overpriced, but it was all so cheaply made that we knew none of it would last long. I decided to use my skills and make our household items myself. I tackled everything from trivets for the kitchen to chairs and tables. It was a lot of hard work, but luckily, it was work I enjoyed.
I continue adding to my knowledge, learning from everyone I meet and every place I visit. Wherever my travels take me, I manage to find the few individuals that still practice traditional woodcraft methods. For example, while in Alaska, I met people who still make totem poles the traditional way, using mallets and chisels. Totem poles are more than works of art; they tell the story of the people who made them. They depict the different clans and spiritual beings. On a visit to Hawaii, I met a man sitting on the beach, carving turtles and other creatures that have special meaning in the Hawaiian culture. The people of Hawaii believe that people, objects, and places possess mana, a spiritual energy and elemental force. It was my honor to purchase a piece of this man’s work.
Making duck decoys using scrap lumber. Photo by Dana Benner
I have a fair share of power tools, though I prefer to use old-fashioned hand tools. Power tools take electricity to run, and that power costs money, so unless the job needs to be completed right away, I tend to avoid using them. I can do a great deal of work with a sharp knife, bow saw, drawknife, wood chisels, and hand-operated crosscut and ripping saws. While these tools may take more time to use, they also keep me in touch with the wood. Using hand tools reminds me of the Hawaiian mana; there’s something more personal about smelling, tasting, and feeling the wood. It connects you with the piece you’re making.
At one time in the United States, everything was handmade. People put their hearts and souls into the things they made. They took pride in what they made, and it was made to last. Unfortunately, our world has changed. The majority of things we use are mass-produced by machines that don’t care about the end product. These products don’t have the same quality as those made a century ago. Just look at what people throw out, and what they pay big bucks for at flea markets and antique shops; it’s easy to see that handmade items are more cherished.
Finding Scrap Wood
People often ask me where I get my wood. My answer is simple: Wherever I can. Unless you’re looking for something specific, there’s really no need to go out and buy wood. Scrap wood is all around us. Just go to any landfill or scrap yard and you’ll find all the wood you need.
There are other sources out there as well. For instance, a small lumber mill once allowed me to pick up scrap wood free of charge. I ended up bringing home enough live edge lumber to make a bench for my daughter. I also have a friend who worked for a flooring company, and he would occasionally give me scrap wood flooring that was going to be thrown away. I even found free scrap wood from a casket maker who regularly threw out defective wood. It actually saved him money, as he had to pay to have the extra wood hauled off.
A dumpster at the town transfer station is a wealth of useable lumber. Be sure to get permission before you take any. Photo by Dana Benner
One of my favorite ways to pick up free scrap wood is to visit construction sites. When taking wood from these sites, always make sure you have written permission to take what has been thrown away. One time I was given numerous rough-cut cherry boards that were considered the “bad” ends of wood used to make cabinets. I turned those ends into a beautiful bowl and numerous trivets, which I gave away as gifts. The bottom line is that usable wood is all around us. Take advantage of it.
Sometimes taking advantage of free wood means knowing what you already have. Every year, three tons of wood pellets are delivered to my home on pallets. While many people burn pallets in their woodstoves, I see that as a waste, so I choose to use the wood for better things. I end up making small “log cabins” for my friends and family to use as birdhouses.
Moisture is wood’s enemy, as it causes rot and encourages insect infestations. It’s fine to leave wood in a pile for a short period of time, but if you don’t plan to use it quickly, you’ll need to come up with a storage solution.
Some types of wood hold up better against moisture than others. For the most part, softwoods, such as pine, spruce, and hemlock, tend to be less moisture resistant than hardwoods, such as oak, chestnut, and walnut. The exceptions to this general rule are redwood and cedar, which will both stand up well to moisture and resist insects.
Pallets are a good source of lumber. Photo by Dana Benner
No matter your lumber type, long-term storage requires some special attention. The wood needs to be covered in order to keep it dry from rain and snow. A tarp isn’t the answer, because you still need air circulation around and through the wood. Instead, either build an elaborate wood storage system, or simply cover the lumber with a sheet of plywood. Either way will work.
Goose decoys made from scrap plywood. Photo by Dana Benner
Working with wood takes us back to earlier times. There’s a satisfaction in producing something with our own hands, and if it’s something we (or someone else) can use, so much the better. In our world of cardboard and pressed wood, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to build something from solid lumber, to put a piece of ourselves into our labors. Woodworking allows us to be creative and to express ourselves, while working with scrap wood lets us save money at the same time. You may even find yourself using your lumber-foraging and woodworking skills to make a bit of extra money, which is always a well-deserved bonus for your efforts.
Making a Trivet
Photo by Dana Benner
When making a trivet, the type of wood isn’t as important as the size. Whether you’re using scraps of wood flooring or pine boards, the wood should be no less than ¾ inch thick. You’ll likely be putting hot and heavy pans on the trivet, so you want it to hold up.
- Scrap wood, 3/4 inch thick
- Hand-coping saw, scroll saw, or jig saw
- 60 grit sandpaper
- 100 grit sandpaper
- Carver chisel, optional
- Acrylic paint, optional
Prior to making any cuts, decide what shape you’re going to make. There are no set rules, so have fun. I like to draw a pattern on a piece of cardboard or stiff paper so I can replicate the trivets. Using the pattern, transfer the shape onto the wood.
When you’re ready, use a saw to cut your piece of wood. If you’re making multiple trivets, you’re probably better off using either a scroll saw or a jig saw. It’ll be easier on your hands and will save you time.
Once you’ve made the cuts, sand the edges of the blank using 60 grit sandpaper and then 100 grit to create a smooth edge. From there, you can leave the trivet as is, or you can do a little more. I like to carve images that have a special meaning for the person receiving the gift. It can be a favorite animal or flower, or it can be a simple saying.
If you’re putting a design onto the trivet, draw the image onto the wood, and then cut the image out using small carving chisels. After you’ve carved your design, you can use acrylic paint to bring the carving to life.
Seal the trivet with multiple coats of water-based polyurethane. I recommend no less than four coats. This’ll protect the surface from the wear and tear of constant use. Once the coatings are dry, put feet on the trivet (I use old cabinet drawer pulls).
Dana Benner has been writing about the outdoors and rural life for more than 30 years, and he believes preparation is the key to success as an outdoorsperson and homesteader. His work has appeared in many publications.