Ian McFarlan

Wood Working for Developers

07 Jan 2017

After a long day of slugging ones and zeros, it’s nice to relax with some wood working (not to mention the badass results you can get). Over the past couple months I have been able to dig into wood working more.

I have to say, coding and wood working aren’t that different from each other in many regards. Often I find myself falling back on traits of being a developer when creating or fixing something through wood working.

Safety is Paramount

Typically when you program and actively write code, you aren’t doing so on a live system (unless your a keyboard cowboy/cowgirl). Rather you code on a local or development environment. Why? Safety. Likewise version control, SSL, continous integration, code reviews, etc. all works for a safer, more stable end project.

At every turn you try to mitgate the chance for mistakes when creating something with code. Take the same approach to wood working – the default solution should be beyond safe. This involves push sticks, blade guards, eye protection, jigs (more below), dust collection, etc.

The few horrors stories I have heard usually involved someone working too quickly, has become too comfortable, or is became lazy (through some means like lack of sleep). Take all safety steps you can and don’t cut corners. And, please do not operate any power tools with even a drop of alcohol in you.

Jigs & Sleds

When you’re developing something, it is very rare you are programming in a single language in isolation from any other framework or system. Usually you are working with a stack of technologies and you pricinpally write your code in smaller pieces at a time. Frameworks and CMSs are great for this kind of structure and really save a lot of time when you need to get something up off the ground quickly, effectively, and safely.

In wood working, often you will be making many repetition cuts, actions, or measurements. Jigs can really speed and make for a more consistent end product.

Table saw sleds are another example of a slight modification speeding up repetitive tasks while being safer and resulting in a better final product. Cross cutting a piece of wood longer than it is wide? Use a sled to avoid kickback versus a fence along on your table saw.

And similar to coding frameworks or CMSs, you don’t have to buy jigs or table saws. There are plenty of freely available fantastic plans online. Some good starting points.

Or you can do what I like to do: use the above for guidance and wing it! Build your own jigs and sleds for your specific setup and needs. To each their own.

Right Tool for the Right Job

Let’s say you need to build a single page website with no server-side component required at all. You wouldn’t pickup a language like Java or C. Why would you when you could just write HTML? Using the right language for the job saves you time and massive headaches.


What’s the right tool or strategy for a given problem? It’s debatable but there are clear winners in many situations (not to state the obvious but tabs > spaces).

Likewise in wood working, using the wrong tool for a specific job can not only lead to bad unpredictable results, it can be very dangerous. For example, don’t use a chop saw to rip long pieces of ply wood; use a circular or table saw. Use common sense and a tool that is meant for a specific task. Modifying your tools with jigs is a good way to extend what their functionally capable of in a safe way.

Have Fun

When I am programming I am pretty damn content. I wouldn’t be coding if I didn’t enjoy it and the same is with wood working. It’s become quite the rewarding hobby. And the results are all that much sweeter when it is something that you have made.

Walnut and maple end-grain cutting board

What’s Next?

I have a simple how-to around the corner on how to make simple end-grain, butcher block style cutting boards from raw lumber. I’ll try to get it published as soon as I can. Check back later in January or watch on Twitter.

Footnotes & Pointers

  • The original working title for this piece was How to Not Decrease Your Productivity as A Programmer by 10% per Mistake while Wood Working.
  • Finding good material to work with can be expensive and if you’re just starting this can be a detractor:
    • Checkout your local cabinet maker for scraps (ask before helping yourself though to their scrap pile).
    • Use old palettes you find online, most people give them away if they don’t wan them any more. Be careful to take all nails and screws out from used wood (a small hand held metal detector is handy).
  • Your first few projects will probably suck. But each subsequent project will suck less. Keep digging.

My name is Ian McFarlan and I have been a web developer since 2003. I’ve mainly worked in client services and advertising but lately I have been getting my hands dirty with product development.

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