DIY Furniture Making Glossary: Tools, Terms & Tips
It can seem like a lot to learn to build your own furniture, but it's often easier than one might think. Whether you're crafting something for yourself, or making custom furniture to sell or give as gifts, the options are as endless as your imagination. Here are some basic tools, materials, and terms to keep in mind as you're planning your next project. For more ideas and inspiration, check out our DIY furniture tutorials.
- DIY Furniture Making Tools
- Types of Wood for Furniture Building
- Where to Buy Wood for DIY Furniture
- Sanding Your DIY Furniture
- Furniture Finishing: Stains, Poly, & Epoxy Resin
- Fasteners: Screws, Bolts, & Wall Anchors
- Safety Gear for Furniture Making & Refinishing
DIY Furniture Making Tools
With Semi Exact, you don't need a lot of tools or materials to get started. A power drill/driver is a great first investment, and an orbital sander will make light work of sanding if you plan to do a few projects with wood. In terms of cutting pieces down to size, many home improvement stores will make a few basic cuts for you for free. You'll also want to wear gloves, eye protection, and other safety gear as needed for your project.
Power drills/drivers can be used for both screwing and drilling by changing out bits in the drill/driver head (drill chuck).
Use a table saw to make rip cuts (along the grain) and crosscuts (across the grain). Table saws consist of a base (table) with a protruding blade that can be raised or lowered to fit different thicknesses. With a table saw, you set the blade height and guide your material through. Push sticks are recommended for narrow cuts to keep your fingers away from the blade.
Miter Saw (Chop Saw)
Miter saws have blades that come straight down to make a cut, making them ideal for shorter cuts and angles. They're often called chop saws as they can cut 90-degree angles, but you can also adjust them to any angle.
Circular saw (SKILSAW)
With appropriate blades, circular saws can cut almost anything including plywood, wood, metal, and concrete. They can make rip cuts (along the grain), crosscuts (across the grain), miters (angles), bevels, and more. With circular saws, rest the shoe (base plate) on your surface, set the depth and angle and guide the saw across your material by holding the handle.
Hacksaws are hand-operated and have fine-tooth blades to smoothly cut through materials. Their frames can be fixed for one blade length, or adjusted to accommodate different blade sizes. Hacksaws are simple to use: just saw back and forth with slow, steady strokes.
Jigsaws make it possible to cut freehand shapes and curves in wood, metal, or plastic. You can also use them to cut lines and notches. Just guide your jigsaw along the line or shape you want to cut.
Routers are popular furniture-making tools as they can be used to make dovetails, grooves, rounded edges, and more. Rest your router on your surface and guide it with the handles.
Power sanders speed up sanding and make the smoothing and stripping process easier and less messy. Many electric sanders can be connected to a shop vac for less mess (but more noise).
Types of Wood for Furniture Building
When it comes to lumber, there are three main types of wood: hardwood, softwood, and engineered wood. Check out our wood species section below for more detail on natural wood.
Hardwood vs. Softwood
Hardwoods are generally harder (more dense) than softwoods, but that doesn't always mean they're stronger or more durable. The distinction comes down to the type of tree and its seeds.
Hardwood trees are slower growing and lose their leaves each year. They produce seeds that have some type of covering, such as an acorn or fruit. Popular hardwoods are ash, birch, cherry, mahogany, maple, oak, poplar, teak, and walnut.
Softwood trees are evergreen with needles, and grow faster than hardwoods. They have uncovered seeds such as pine cones. Common softwoods include cedar, fir, and pine.
Human-Made Engineered Wood
Engineered wood is human-made, and manufactured for a variety of reasons including cost, usage, aesthetics, and size. Most engineered woods are a blend of wood fibers and other materials such as glue or dyes that are mixed or layered together.
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
MDF is a smooth, heavy, and budget-friendly option that can be used for a variety of projects including cabinets, shelves, and bookcases. It's made of small wood fibers bonded together with resin, pressure, and heat. Given its composition and dust, it's generally recommended that you work with MDF in well-ventilated areas, and wear a dust mask or respirator as well as eye protection.
Oriented Strand Board (OSB)
OSB is affordable and versatile, which makes it a great choice for large or experimental projects. As the name suggests, OSB is composed of thin, cross-oriented strands of wood bonded together with wax and resin.
Lightweight, affordable, and easy to work with, particleboard is a common choice for DIY furniture. It's made from coarse wood scrap and dust pressed together with heat and resin.
From tables to chairs, benches, desks, and more, you can create all sorts of furniture from plywood. Made from thin layers of veneer (plies) glued together in layers and cut into sheets, plywood is durable and economical.
Veneers are thin slices of natural or reconstituted (human-made) wood that are typically glued, pressed, or laminated onto another surface. With a veneer, you get the look and feel of natural wood without the cost. Veneers also make it possible to source expensive or exotic woods that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. Just note that veneers aren't easily sanded and repaired due to their thinness. They may peel if not adhered properly.
There are many types of wood that can be used for furniture. The best choice depends on the type of furniture you want to create, your desired look and feel, ease of use, budget, and availability.
Known for its woodsy smell, durability, and resistance to rot and insects, cedar is an ideal wood for dressers, outdoor furniture, and more.
With a reddish-brown color, even grain, and good finishing potential, mahogany is a popular choice for woodworking.
Oak is a strong, sturdy wood with a pale brown tinge. It's cost-effective and easy to find.
Pine has a gray/greenish-white color, and is a common wood for building furniture.
Affordable and easy to work with, poplar is a good choice for beginners.
Teak ranges in color from honey to dark brown, and turns a weathered gray in the sun. Well-suited for the elements, it's commonly used in boats and outdoor furniture. Teak can be stubborn to sand and difficult to work with.
Walnut is a durable wood with a beautiful finish and wavy grain.
Live-edge wood slabs and rounds show off the natural beauty and rich texture of wood, for beautiful statement tables, stools, benches, headboards, and more. Popular live-edge species include beech, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, and pine. You can also source more exotic woods including mango, rainbow poplar, rosewood, and eucalyptus.
Many furniture tops are made from several smaller boards edge-glued together side by side, due to the difficulty and increased cost of wider pieces. If you look closely at a project board or wood tabletop, you can usually make out subtle lines of boards pressed together.
Where to Buy Wood for DIY Furniture
Home improvement stores are great for sourcing common wood types, but they typically don't carry specialty lumber or 1/16"–1/8" thicknesses. If you haven't been to a specialty lumber store yet, it's worth the trip just to see new and exciting options for your DIY projects.
Specialty lumber stores are hidden gems that stock a wide selection of hardwoods, softwoods, veneers, and more. You can also salvage used materials for inexpensive solutions such as do-it-yourself pallet furniture or upcycled DIY furniture.
Measuring Wood & Dimensional Lumber for DIY Projects
Dimensional lumber is cut to a certain length, width, and thickness. But there's a difference between the nominal size and the actual size.
Nominal Size vs. Actual Size
Run a tape measure along a 2x4 or a pine board at a home improvement store, and you'll find the numbers don't quite add up. That's because the nominal size refers to the size of the board when it's rough cut. The actual size is the true finished size. Be careful to plan your project around the actual size rather than what's listed on the label when purchasing your supplies.
Sanding Your DIY Furniture
Sandpaper sheets and blocks are great for small areas and light finishing, but you'll want an electric sander for large jobs. Be careful when sanding veneers or old furniture pieces that need to fit back together. Less is definitely more in these instances. Dust masks are highly recommended for all sanding projects, and you'll want to wear a respirator when sanding extensively or working on surfaces such as metal or paint.
Electric Furniture Sanders
Orbital Sander (Palm Sander)
Orbital sanders have square feet and are good for fitting into corners, light sanding, and finishing.
Random Orbital Sander
Random orbital sanders use circular sanding pads, and are great for stripping wood or removing material such as paint.
Belt sanders use a loop of sandpaper and are more powerful than orbitals. They're engineered to remove material quickly, so be very careful not to cut deep, unsightly grooves.
Sandpaper & Sanding Blocks
Sandpaper is available in different grits ranging from a very coarse 24-grit (#24) to an ultra fine 1,000-grit (#1000). For furniture building, you'll typically stay in the #60 to #320 range. When sanding, use a few different grits, working from rougher grits to finer ones (for example, #80, #150, #220).
Sanding with Sheets
You can tear or fold sandpaper into small pieces to make the most out of loose sheets. Just be careful to keep your sandpaper flat against your surface to ensure even sanding.
Sanding blocks are easy to use but more expensive than loose sheets. For the best of both worlds, wrap sandpaper around a scrap block for a DIY solution.
Furniture Finishing: Stains, Poly, & Epoxy Resin
Finishing your project can dramatically improve its appearance and durability. Choose a finish that fits your desired aesthetic and use. You'll want to work in a well-ventilated area and wear safety gear such as gloves, a respirator, and eye protection when finishing furniture. When using stain or a clear finish, sand and prep your finished piece carefully. Prep work is often 80 percent of the work for a beautiful finish.
Oil-Based Stains vs. Water-Based StainsStains come in oil- and water-based varieties, with oil-based stains usually producing a better result and richer color. Oil-based stains are slower drying, and therefore better for larger projects. However, water-based stains win when it comes to cleanup. You can use just soap and water instead of mineral spirits which are needed for oil-based stains. Water-based stains are also resistant to mold and mildew.
Polyurethane (poly) is a highly durable varnish that dries clear or with a slight amber hue. It comes in a number of different finishes including gloss, semi-gloss and satin. Exterior polys such as spar urethane protect finishes from UV rays and water.
Epoxy resin finishes harder and is more durable than poly. It's commonly used to add high gloss to surfaces or decorative elements such as color, images, or even 3D objects such as rocks. Epoxy resin consists of two parts: the resin and the hardener which are mixed together to create a chemical reaction that turns the liquid epoxy into a solid.
Fasteners: Screws, Bolts, & Wall Anchors
Each of our furniture components has pre-made slots for easy attaching and mounting. When choosing fasteners, you'll want to make your selection based on the following considerations. (You can always ask your local hardware or home improvement store for help.)
- Type of fastener (based on your surface)
- Diameter/gauge (according to the slot diameter)
- Length (based on the thickness of your surface + mounting plate)
- Head (if the screw will be flush or visible)
Fastening Tools & Terms
Fasteners include screws, nuts, bolts, and other hardware that's used to join materials together.
Washers are flat, disc-shaped metal pieces that are used in conjunction with a fastener, like a screw, to help distribute pressure across a greater surface area. There are different varieties of washers, all of which can help enhance the strength of the connection between your fastener and fastener surface. We recommend using washers with our Flat Bar products for these reasons.
Drill/driver bits come in different diameters and lengths, and are designed to cut holes in specific materials. Be sure to choose the right drill/driver bit for your DIY project.
Pre-drilling pilot holes helps to ensure that you don't crack or damage wood surfaces. Pilot hole sizes vary with different softwoods and hardwoods, so choose the right bit size for your specific material.
Screws are all designed for different purposes, so it's best to choose yours based on the material you're driving the screws into.
Shorter wood screws are fully threaded. Longer ones are partially threaded with a shank (smooth portion) to help pull the screw into the wood. (You'll want to pre-drill wood with a pilot hole before driving in screws so the wood doesn't split or crack.)
Metal screws are fully threaded with sharp threads that cut through metal.
Self-tapping screws have a sharp drill point and work for metal, stone, and other materials.
Drywall screws are generally thinner than other screws. They curve at the head (bugle head) so they don't tear drywall paper.
Concrete screws are usually blue and have alternating high and low threads to help them hold.
Zinc screws are usually suitable for most projects, but you'll want rust-resistant screws for outdoor projects.
Screw gauge is the diameter of the screw thread. The larger the screw gauge, the larger the screw diameter.
As the name suggests, screw length is how long the screw is. You'll want to select screws that are shorter than your surface material plus the mounting plate.
Screw Drive Style
Screw drive style refers to the recess in the top of the screw. If you've used a Phillips or flat-head screwdriver before, those are two common drive types. The more points of contact on the screw drive style, the more you can tighten the screw without damage (stripping) the screw.
Slotted (Flat Head)
Slotted drives have a straight line down the center.
Phillips drives are cross-shaped and slightly rounded at the center.
Square drives have square-shaped cavities and a lower chance of stripping.
Star drives are star-shaped and the least likely to strip.
Screw Head Type
Your choice of screw head determines how the top of the screw sits against your legs/bases/shelf brackets or surface.
Flat-head screws can be drilled/countersunk to sit flush with your surface.
Oval-head screws have slightly rounded heads and are commonly used as finishing screws.
Pan-head screws have a rounded head with a flat bottom.
Rounded-head screws are completely rounded.
Hidden Furniture Fasteners
Hidden fasteners are widely used in cabinets, tables, chairs, bookshelves, and other DIY projects to create an invisible joint.
Pocket hole joinery allows you to fasten surfaces together by driving your screw in at an angle. You'll need a pocket jig, special drill bit, and a special screw to create these strong, permanent joints. Pocket holes are filled with pocket hole plugs or dowels to hide them.
It's best to drill directly into wall studs when hanging shelves, but the right wall anchors can also be suitable when installed correctly using the appropriate screws. Choose anchors based on your wall material and shelf length/weight capacity.
Safety Gear for Furniture Making & Refinishing
Whether you're just starting out or moving fast on a task you've done hundreds of times, safety is always important. Basic safety gear includes safety glasses, a dust mask/respirator, and gloves. You'll also want to pick up additional safety equipment as needed.
Safety glasses should be made from high-impact plastic, and fit comfortably. Many DIY projects involve chemicals and dust, so safety glasses that pair well with a dust mask and/or respirator are a plus.
Dust masks fit loosely over your nose and mouth, and offer protection against nontoxic dust.
Respirators seal tightly against your face and use cartridges to keep fumes, vapors, and other harmful substances out of your lungs. They're rated by filtration efficiency such as 95, 99, and 100 (filtering at least 95%, 99%, or 99.97% of particles, respectively).
There are a number of work gloves that are ideal for DIY. Depending on your project, you'll want to look at gloves that offer a snug fit, good grip, and protection against different surfaces or chemicals.