Woodworking

The classic book that started me woodworking

How I learned to make my own furniture, from cheap materials, using just a few hand tools

27 Jan 2018 /

27 Jan 2018 /

I am now retired, and I’m really lucky to have a beautiful workshop full of expensive tools. But when I first started woodworking, in my early 20s, and newly married with a young family, I made everything with just four basic hand tools — a cheap handsaw, a hand-powered drill, a cork sanding block, and a screwdriver.

The 1970s was a really exciting time to be setting up home. Britain had just emerged from post-war austerity, and Terence Conran’s Habitat stores were filled with fresh new designs. But, we couldn’t afford to shop there then, and so I decided to learn how to make my own furniture.

I learned everything I needed from this brilliant book

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The Reader’s Digest Complete DIY Manual

I was hugely helped, and inspired, by The Reader’s Digest Complete DIY Manual. This was an absolutely brilliant book. It was first published in 1969, and it’s still a classic.

The original version had an unusual format — a grey plastic binder with two separate loose-leaf sections. The first section covered DIY techniques, with advice on everything from changing a fuse to bricklaying.

The second section was much more exiting — it was brimming with fresh, modern-looking DIY furniture projects. Many of them could be made by beginners, and better still, most of them only needed a few simple tools.

I recently bought a second-hand copy of this amazing book — for just £15 on eBay. I’d lost my original a few years ago, so I was delighted there were still so many for sale.

My first projects

Here are some scans of the first three projects I made for our first home:

Workbench

The workbench I used for over 30 years / Enlarge

Bed

Our much-loved pine bed / Enlarge

Wall Unit

I made three of these wall units, complete with drop-down doors, stationary drawers, and glazed sliding doors / Enlarge

My thoughts on seeing these designs again, after over 40 years

Maybe I’m seeing them through nostalgic eyes, but I think that their clean and simple lines could easily fit into today’s homes, with only minor changes to colours or materials.

Their construction methods are super-simple, and ideal for beginners. Everything could be cut out with a basic hand saw, and all the joints were made with wood screws.

The workbench was the very first project I made. Simple in construction, it was easy to assemble, easy to take apart, and really strong.

The pine bed was my second project — quickly cut from softwood planks, then simply screwed together (with little brass screw cups), and finished with a couple of coats of polyurethane varnish.

The wall units were also sawn by hand, from cheap chipboard panels, and again screwed and glued together. These were then simply painted white, inside and out, after the chipboard’s crumbly cut edges had been filled with Polyfilla.

I’d love to make these wall units again from 18 mm birch plywood, with nice exposed-ply edges, and I think they would look great.

Shelves

Update: I bought another book on eBay (for £3.99) and here is that missing page / Enlarge

I also remember making lots of wall-mounted bookshelves, but unfortunately, this project is missing from the book I bought on eBay. Its design was similar to Dieter Rams’ classic 606 Universal Shelving System, but with pine vertical supports, pine shelves, and white painted plywood for the shelf ends. Holes were drilled down the vertical supports, and little dowel pegs linked with holes in the shelf ends, so the shelves could be repositioned.

There are dozens more brilliant designs in this book, for every kind of furniture, and every room of the house. Some of them definitely need more skills, but all of them are really well designed, well explained, and (in my eyes) well worth making.

If you’re inspired to bid for a cheap copy this classic book on eBay, and maybe make your own furniture, too, please let me know in the comments.

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