Woodworking Projects Parents and Teens Can Do Together

Woodworking is a Great Way to Spend Time with Teens
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Many of today's teens don't have hobbies. Instead, they're busy with sports or other after school activities, or they've got their noses buried in their electronics. Many parents struggle to find quality time together.

I recently spoke to A.J. Hamler, the author of many woodworking publications, including his most recent book, "Build It with Dad." Although some of the projects are geared toward younger kids, many of them are appropriate for teens. Another of his books, "Birdhouses & More," offers instructions for a variety of projects parents and teens could build together.

I asked Hamler a few questions about how parents can get started on woodworking projects with their teens. Here are my questions and his answers:

What are some of the benefits of parents and teens working together on woodworking projects?

Absolutely any activity parents and teens do together is a good thing -- hiking, travel, a shared sport, anything at all are both fun and help to build or strengthen a relationship. However, activities that create something that lasts pay dividends long after the activity itself has ended.

A woodworking project, especially one that is useful such as a desk, bookcase, music stand or anything like that will be used for many years. And every time it's used can evoke memories and feelings of the time spent working together on the project. As an example, several years ago my dad (an accomplished woodworker himself) and I cut up an enormous cherry tree that had fallen on his property. Together we cut it, milled it, and loaded half of it up into my car. He kept the other half. 

Now, cutting wood is probably on the fringes of what you'd classify as a "woodworking project," but we both used the lumber we created together that day to build other projects. My dad has been gone almost a year now, but I still have some of that cherry left in my shop, plus several items I made from it. Every time I see it or one of those projects I made with it, I think of him.

What types of projects could a parent and teen work on together?

The simple answer is, anything at all.  However, the project should be matched, if possible, to the teen's experience level. The best projects are those that become immediately useful, like the desk or bookcase I mentioned earlier, but any project that's fun to make is a great choice.

If it's something the teen wants or needs, but they don't have all the skills, the parent can handle anything complicated and leave the parts that match the teen's experience to them. By the same token, with the parent handling the more complex parts of the project it's a perfect time to teach new skills to the teen by example.

What type of woodworking skill level should a parent have?

Obviously, if the parent is an experienced woodworker then the possibilities for the type and scope of projects are the broadest, but a parent doesn't have to have an extensive skill set (or an extensive collection of tools) to build some rather impressive projects by following easy-to-find plans for items that might look difficult, but really aren't.

As an example, I just built a picnic table that will be featured as a cover project for a woodworking magazine. The table looks amazing -- and, at first glance, amazingly hard to make -- but it really isn't. Although I made it in a shop decked out with every woodworking tool and machine you can imagine, you don't really need any of that stuff since the table itself requires no complicated joinery or procedures to make it. 

While I used my shop machines to build it, anyone could follow the plans and make it with just two common power tools they probably already own: a drill/driver and a handheld circular saw. No extensive skills required at all, but the results are impressive.

What sort of space is necessary? Do parents need a garage or a shop?

Shop space is great if you have it, but all you really need is a bit of elbow room. The amount of space needed depends on the project, of course -- you can build birdhouses on the dining room table, for example. For a larger project, a patio or driveway is really all you need. Set up a couple of sawhorses anywhere, and you have an instant "shop."

For basic woodworking projects, what types of tools and materials are necessary? Where can parents buy those materials?

The basic tools needed for simple projects include those most people probably already have in the basement or garage. For most basic projects the hand tools you'll need include hammer, screwdriver (Phillips and flat-blade), handsaw, square, tape measure, chisel and an assortment of sandpaper.  Basic power tools would certainly include a drill/driver with an assortment of bits, a small power saw such as a circular saw or jigsaw, and a sander. 

I'm betting that 95% of the basic projects you could think of can be done with the tool kit I just described, including that picnic table I noted earlier. For materials needed to make basic projects you need look no farther than your local home center. There's no basic project that can't be built with a quick, and probably inexpensive, trip to the local Lowe's or Home Depot.

What are some safety issues parents should keep in mind?

Woodworking involves using sharp things, so all the appropriate precautions to avoid getting cut should be observed. Beyond that, I firmly believe in three overriding safety issues that always, always, always should be observed over all others.

The first is eye protection. Never work with tools without wearing eye protection of some kind.  It can be safety glasses or goggles, or even shatterproof regular eyeglasses. (I need glasses, so I always get them with shatterproof lenses.) Safety glasses are light, unobtrusive, easy to wear, and very inexpensive. Buy them and wear them.

The second thing is that you should never attempt to do anything that makes you feel in any way uncomfortable. If you're unsure, don't do it. If you don't think you can quite reach, don't try to. If you're nervous using a particular tool for a certain task, don't do it. If something you're doing makes you uncomfortable or even just "doesn't feel right," stop. The beauty of woodworking is that there are dozens of ways to do every task or procedure. If one makes you uncomfortable, use another. It may take a bit longer, but it's always safer. 

Along these same lines, be aware of your teen's comfort level.  You know your kids, you know their moods, you know when something is bothering them.  If you sense any discomfort on their part or if they appear unsure about a procedure they're attempting or a tool they're using -- especially a power tool -- stop. Find another approach, or perhaps practice with the tool or the procedure on some scrap wood till they're comfortable with it. Or for those kinds of things, simply handle the task yourself.  Projects have plenty of parts and steps to complete so there are plenty of things for both of you to do.  

Finally, never work when you're tired or frustrated. At the very least it leads to errors and mistakes; at worst it could lead to accidents or injury. Again, you know your kids. If they appear tired, bored, or look like other things are on their mind, stop working and come back to the project later. It's not going anywhere.

Do you have any tips for parents about how to make working together on a project go smoothly?

The best way to do that is to make sure you're both on the same page regarding the project.  It has to be practical and within the skill range of at least one of you, or it won't go smoothly. That means you shouldn't overreach by attempting a project beyond your skills or equipment. 

A challenging project is fine, but your goals have to be realistic. If the project requires skills or procedures you simply don't possess -- or can't easily learn as part of the project -- no one will have a good time.

Read and understand the plans from beginning to end before you start. Make sure you have everything you need in the way of tools, material, hardware, etc., before you start. Nothing derails a project more quickly than having to stop dead right in the middle of the time you've set aside for it and having to get in the car and go shopping for something -- not only can enthusiasm dwindle for both of you, but you can suddenly find yourself with insufficient time to do a proper job.

Along those lines, be sure you've set aside an ample amount of time for the project -- a rushed project, no matter how simple, never turns out well. Having a sufficient block of time allotted to a project helps to avoid distractions and interruptions. And revisiting part of the safety procedures, never work when tired, frustrated, unsure or preoccupied with something else. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.