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8 Common Woodworking Mistakes (And How To Fix Them)

December 19, 2021 8 min read

Chip out on a finished edge. Gaps between panels. A rogue combination square that inadvertently flies out of your hand and impales a just-sanded workpiece.

When mistakes happen in the woodshop, it can feel like all joy has been drained from the world.

But take a deep breath and resist the urge to hurl a tool across your shop. Because mistakes are an integral part of woodworking.

Years back, I took a class with a master woodworker who told me he still makes major mistakes on every project — and a bunch of smaller ones along the way.

That’s why I always say: the difference between a good woodworker and a great woodworker is knowing how to fix your mistakes.

And today, we’re looking at some of the most common woodworking mistakes you’ll run into:

But first, you need to know...

THE #1 RULE ABOUT WOODWORKING MISTAKES:

Stop pointing them out to everyone! You’re a better woodworker than over 90% of people on the planet just by starting woodworking.

No one will notice your mistakes — let alone know what the hell you’re talking about when you berate the pins in your dovetails.

HOW TO AVOID WOODWORKING MISTAKES

The more woodworking experience you have, the more you’ll be able to anticipate mistakes before they happen.

Still, here’s a few pointers to save you some heartache.

HAVE A PLAN

Whether you use Fusion 360, the free version of Sketchup, or the back of a piece of junk mail with a great new credit card offer, laying out a build plan is a game changer.

It lets you see where you might run into potential problems before you start — and serves as a reference while you’re cutting.

It also makes it easier to use your lumber as efficiently as possible — and we all know good hardwood ain’t cheap these days.

USE THE RIGHT TOOL, THE RIGHT WAY

You don’t want to bring a chisel to a router fight (though I’d avoid both).

There’s a million ways to get the same result in woodworking — but knowing the best way for a specific situation is key to avoiding mistakes.

While the speed and efficiency of power tools is great, hand tools might be better for fine joinery that requires micro-precision.

And if you’re using power tools, remember to take a few small passes instead of a single massive pass. It’s safer, and you’ll get better results. This is especially important to keep in mind for routers and dado stacks.

MEASURE ONCE, CUT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN

It sounds ironic, but your results will be more accurate if you set yourself up to measure as little as possible. Repeatability is the name of the game — and jigs are your best friends for making repeatable cuts.

If you need four table legs to be the exact same length, find a way to measure only one leg and use it as a reference for the rest.

For example, you can set up a stop block on your table saw, or line the legs up and cut them with a single pass of a track saw.

This gives you a WAY better chance of having equally sized legs than if you just attacked each one individually with a tape measure and a marking knife.

MUST-HAVE MATERIALS FOR FIXING WOODWORKING MISTAKES

Keep these items stocked in your shop so you’re always ready to do some fixin’.

  • CA glue: Also known as super glue, this fast-drying adhesive is an absolute lifesaver in the woodshop.
  • CA glue activator: Fastens CA glue bonds even faster, so you don’t have to pause your workflow.
  • Blue painter’s tape: Has a little bit of stretch that gives some clamping pressure for quick fixes — also good for keeping glue off where you don’t want it.
  • Wood glue: If you have a little more time and patience, it provides ultra-strong bonds.
  • Wood filler: Timber Mate is my favorite (this isn’t sponsored, FYI). They have great color match for several wood species, are water-based so they don’t go bad, and take finishes well. If you’re curious, check them out here.
  • Putty knife: For slathering on that filler.

8 WOODWORKING MISTAKES YOU CAN EASILY FIX

Here are some of the most common mistakes you’ll run into as a woodworker — ordered from “oh shoot” to “Honey, put down the pipe clamp.”

1. SMALL DINGS AND SCRATCHES

If you’ve got a knick that’s too deep to sand out, it’s time to pull out the wood filler.

  1. Find the closest color match to your wood species and spread the filler over the scratch with a putty knife. Avoid excessive build up.
  2. Give the filler a minute or two to dry. You’ll know it has when the color changes from dark to light.
  3. Sand down with fine grit sandpaper.

Part of the reason I like Timber Mate is that it’s water based and won’t go bad. If it ever dries out, add a spritz of water and let it sit for a few minutes.

You can also combine different colors for a customized color that more closely matches your stock.

2. DENTS

This trick blew my mind the first time I saw it. It works for dents where the wood grain hasn’t been cracked or penetrated — like what a falling hammer would cause.

  1. Take a damp rag and set it over the dent on your workpiece.
  2. Pass a clothes iron over the rag a few times.

The heat and moisture should pull it up back flush, giving you a flat, undamaged workpiece.

3. CHIP OUT (WITH CHIP)

If you’re using a chisel or handplane, you may chip out a splinter of wood along one of the edges.

FIND THAT CHIP. This is a great reason to keep your shop clean and have a dust collection system in place.

Once you have the missing chip, it’s just a matter of putting it back in place.

If you’re in a rush:

  1. Put a bit of CA glue on the inside of the chip.
  2. Spray where it will be reattached with activator.
  3. Hold the chip in place with your finger for a few seconds.

You can also do this with chips that haven’t fully separated from the wood. Fill the crack with CA glue, spray with activator, and hold it in position with your finger.

Note about CA glue: Your finger WILL get glued to the workpiece. If you pull your finger straight off, you’re liable to rip off the wood chip all over again.

That’s because CA glue has great pulling strength. However, it also has terrible shear strength.

By twisting your finger before pulling it off the chip, you avoid the risk of re-ripping it off.

If you have more time, use wood glue to attach the chip, and a strip of painter’s tape to hold it in place and create clamping pressure.

4. CHIP OUT (WITHOUT CHIP)

You’re finishing up the edge of a board when a chip flies off and sails to the floor. You search for it through mountains of saw dust, but to no avail.

  1. No need to panic. This is a great tip I picked up from Marc Spagnulo a.k.a. The Wood Whisperer.
  2. Use a hand plane to flatten out the section of your board that chipped out.
  3. Cut a strip from an offcut that matches your board. This strip should extend beyond the bounds of the missing chip.
  4. Put CA glue on the section you flattened, spray the offcut strip with activator, and place the strip onto the flattened section.
  5. Use a hand plane to take the strip down to perfectly fill out the missing section of the board.

If you put a little effort into matching the grain, you can get amazing results.

5. CUPPED BOARD

After resawing lumber, you might come back the next day to a cupped board. It can feel pretty devastating — especially if you’re trying to bookmatch the grain.

Wood movement like this is caused by moisture differences between the inside and outside of the board — and this trick takes advantage of that same principle.

Note: It doesn’t work every time, but is always worth a try.

  1. Place the cupped board cupped side down (like an arch) on some cauls. The cauls are important to keep mildew from growing.

  2. Wet a rag with water and wipe down the non-cupped side of your board until it’s good and wet.
  3. Put something heavy on the board to flatten it out and leave it overnight.

When you come back the next morning, your board should be flat and ready to use.

6. GAPS IN PANEL GLUE UP

Ever placed two boards together for a panel glue up and see a big ol’ gap in the middle? This can feel like a dire situation — but it’s easy to fix.

  1. Fold the two boards back to back, so both their show faces are facing outward. You can use double stick tape (or two pieces of blue tape with CA glue in between) to hold them together.
  2. Take a hand plane to both edges at the same time and flatten them out.

Even if you plane the edges at an insane 30° angle, the boards will fit together perfectly when you lay them back out. No jointer necessary.

7. GAPS IN JOINERY

You put hours into cutting a seemingly perfect joint — only to find gaps in it when assembled.

This is a great time to use my favorite homemade “wood filler:” sawdust and glue.

  1. Grab your sander, vacuum out the dust bag, then sand an offcut of the same species as your project with 80 grit sandpaper. Shake the dust bag onto your workbench and you’ll have a nice pile of perfectly matched sawdust.
  2. When you go to do your glue up, make sure you put enough glue to have squeeze-out from all parts of the joint. Do a thorough job of wiping off the excess glue.

  3. Rub the sawdust over all the edges of your joint. Go crazy.

When the glue dries, you’ll have a joint that looks as tight as a ½ inch dowel smashed into a ¼ inch hole.

Truth be told, I even use this trick on joinery that looks perfect. It guarantees I won’t find a gap a few weeks later I’ll obsess over forever.

8. MISPLACED MORTISE OR DOWEL

You just cut a perfectly square mortise — then realized it’s not in the right spot. Don’t burn the shop down. There’s a solution.

  1. Cut an offcut of the same species to the rough dimensions of the mortise. It doesn’t need to be perfect — just taper the edges so you can hammer it in part of the way.
  2. Put glue in the mortise and wedge the offcut into place.
  3. Cut the offcut flush to your workpiece with a flush cut saw, then flatten with a hand plane.

Even if it doesn’t fill the mortise completely, it’s ok. And there’s no problem if your new mortise and the old one slightly overlap.

Just pay attention to the grain direction. If you’re filling in a round hole, make a short dowel with long grain ends so the finish will soak in evenly.

YOUR MISTAKES MAKE YOU BETTER

Even the most experienced woodworkers make mistakes. But over time, you learn how to deal with them without burning rage…

Don’t take your mistakes too seriously, and know that each one is making you a better woodworker.

Got any tips for fixing mistakes? Do you hold the record for heaviest tool heaved across the shop? Share it in the comments below!

Be sure to follow us on Instagram @katzmosestools and check out our YouTube channel.

Questions or concerns? Email us at support@kmtools.com.

And as always, STAY SAFE IN THE SHOP.

Jonathan Katz-Moses
Jonathan Katz-Moses


17 Responses

Simon
Simon

March 05, 2022

Woodworking is really my passion. I can’t say I’m a pro yet but i would like to know and learn more from the experts. Thanks really for this information and hoping to learn more from you! I’ll be glad if you check my work at https://prettywoodworks.com/

Rob Aronson
Rob Aronson

December 26, 2021

Wow. Just the revelation that I’m a better wood worker than 90% of the population was enough to make my day. The rest of the article I’m saving for the next time I feel overwhelmed by the project on my bench.

Thanks so much,
Rob on Beautiful Cape Cod

Dennis
Dennis

December 23, 2021

Looking into the problem of warped wood a little more, I’ve found several references to case-hardened lumber. That’s when a hard dry covering of wood forms over the moist center. This can be a real issue with kiln dried lumber because the outside dries so much faster and the inside moisture gets captured inside. When you cut the case-hardened lumber, the unequal moisture content causes the warping. Some have suggested wrapping the wood with a damp (not soaking) towel and then using an hot iron to steam some moisture into the wood. I going to try that method on a piece of red oak, I’m having problems with.

Phil Goulding
Phil Goulding

December 22, 2021

JKM, love the videos and the blog. Great tips on mistake repairs. I’ve actually got to the extent of vacuuming out my random orbital sander collection bag prior to the next project in order to save the purest form of sawdust. After the sanding is done, I will empty the sander collection bag.I have small plastic bags of oak, walnut, cherry and ash sawdust separated and labeled for when they become needed to make a small repair. I use Titebond II as my main wood glue and it has served me well. These tips and comments are really appreciated. Those of us who are long long time woodworkers know, “ you’re never too old to learn”!
Many Thanks
Phil Goulding

IWE
IWE

December 21, 2021

@BUD, @DENNIS,

I am assuming that the “cupped” side was the inside part with the higher moisture content and is now exposed due to being ripped. So as it dries out, it cups and becomes concave.

Moistening the now convex face increases moisture content at this face, and this may initially seem like giving it more reason to increase the cup. But in fact, as long as there is an adequate weight on the suitably supported board, then as it dries out overnight it will shift hopefully sufficiently to cancel out (or almost) the bow.

Theoretically, because the whole board was doused in water and left to dry out evenly across the entire surface of the board, the moister content will now even out throughout the board.

Shifting will probably be minimal or may not occur at all if the board was suitably supported and weighed immidiately after ripping. There would be no need to add moisture, and as the moisture content balances out, the applied weight should hold the board flat.
Leaving the weight on the board, irrespective of being wet or not for a number of days will cause a shift anyway. Adding mositure further encourages movement to occur as it dries out.
Another significant reason for adding water is that it discourages cracking as the board stabilises.

Corrections always welcome..

Harry B. Davis Jr.
Harry B. Davis Jr.

December 20, 2021

KM, you`re an asset to many of us that love woodworking. Your videos are beyond helpful, thank you.

John
John

December 20, 2021

I’ve heard that the man who never made a mistake, never made a thing

John
John

December 20, 2021

I’ve heard that the man who never made a mistake, never made a thing

Moe
Moe

December 19, 2021

An old foreman I worked with years ago had the mantra of “it ain’t a mistake till you can’t fix it.”

Ken
Ken

December 19, 2021

Some eastern religion or another (I’m told) believes that you should never make anything absolutely perfect, otherwise you risk the gods becoming jealous and angry. So I don’t make mistakes, I just appease the gods. A lot.

Jim
Jim

December 19, 2021

In high school, we always sent freshmen to ask the shop teacher for the board stretcher. Another trick I use for sneaking up on cut with my miter saw (horrors!) is to press the piece against the body of the blade, then it just peels off the amount that the carbide teeth extend laterally. Another trick for handling acute frustration without wrecking anything is to swear a blue streak. We just watched the movie Cloudburst where Olivia Dukakis delivers a master class in the technique.

Dennis
Dennis

December 19, 2021

I too, am puzzled liked Bud. It would seem the convex side would have more moisture and that adding more moisture to the convex side would compound the problem.

Bud
Bud

December 19, 2021

Very helpful post with good ideas that I need; thanks. Regarding cupped boards, it seems to me that the convex side has too much moisture and the concave side too little. I’m confused about adding moisture to the convex side rather than the concave. Have I missed something?

Emma Gray
Emma Gray

December 19, 2021

Excellent tips, thank you!

michael
michael

December 19, 2021

Yes, true story. No, I care not that you believe it.

I threw my drill press.

No, it was not a benchtop, it is a full-size Delta 14-070. I cannot even remember the minor screw-up, but in my rage I bumped into the press which rebounded off something and tilted onto my back. I turned and grabbed it about its neck and heaved it about 2 feet away from me. Thankfully, it perched itself between two filing cabinets and did not fall, and the only damage was to the belt housing.

I am 5’7", 165 lbs and 55 years old. Thus was the extent of my rage/stoopidity.

I post to illustrate how dumb it is to get pissed off. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Don Burdg
Don Burdg

December 19, 2021

Just wanted to mention that I have dealt with Mason Wheeler of Mason Wheeler Woodworking who makes those fantastic cutting boards that you featured a week or so ago. He is a master craftsman and an outstanding human being. It was true joy working with him. Thank you for turning me on to him and his products.!!! I will promote him and his cutting boards whenever I can.

BRUCE
BRUCE

December 19, 2021

I have been building model planes and boats since I was 10 years old—-75 years ago
Just a word about CA. If you get your fingers stuck on an work piece or together, be aware that the chemicals generate heat.
And, there is a product to un-stick/bond, but again, this can create burns. CA is great stuff for models, used sparingly, and as you mentioned, at the times when you cannot wait for wood glue to set up. You have to be especially extra careful when using.
Really enjoy your videos.
Bruce Newman, Tarzana, CA

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