7 Tips for Professional-Looking DIY Wood Projects

Frustrated with the final look of your DIY wood projects? Here are 7 simple tips for professional-looking woodworking projects that are second nature to experienced woodworkers.

professional looking DIY record player stand

Have you ever finished a project only to feel disappointed because the finish didn’t look anything like you had hoped or the original inspiration looked like? It isn’t nearly as clean or professional-looking.

You are not alone.

Achieving that professional, sleek finish can feel challenging – especially if you are just starting out.

Woodworking projects usually require a lot of detail – some details become second nature to most experienced woodworkers that they forget to talk about them during the project tutorials.

These details/tips are crucial to achieving accurate cuts, smooth finishes, and good-looking projects, and you should follow them for every project.

Here are seven things you should be doing to make sure your next project makes you look like a pro.

Tips for DIY Wood Projects

As always, I have a detailed video diving into all the tips I am sharing here. The complete written article follows below.

1. Align the Saws

One of the most common reasons your boards do not fit tightly or you do not get clean joints without gaps is the misalignment of saws.

No matter what saw you are using, you want to make sure that the saw blade is aligned with the table, baseplate, or fence so you can get the most accurate cut.

woman aligning a miter saw blade

If the saw is misaligned, you will not get the accurate cut you need for the project, which can lead to frustration and waste. You may also end up spending a lot of time in the later stages of the project trying to fix the misalignment’s results.

Alignment of saws is also important for safety – to make sure that the material or blade doesn’t get pinched and introduces kickback.

Plus, alignment means less stress on the saw motor and blade so you can extend their life.

checking the alignment of the circular saw blade with a speed square

Usually, I check the alignment of my saws at the start of a project or monthly.

2. Cut off the Factory Edges

Once you get the boards home (after making sure they are straight and free of major defects), the first thing you need to do is cut off the factory edges.

They are usually pretty rough.

But most importantly, they are almost never square (aka at perfectly 90 degrees). In my 13 years of building, I have only found boards with square ends about 20% of the time.

Edge of a board with a speed square on it.

If you start measuring from the ends that are not square, you will introduce inaccuracies in the measurements and cuts. The final pieces also won’t have square ends.

You want to use an aligned saw and cut off about 1/4″ – 1/2″ from the end (depending on the amount of misalignment) before you start measuring from the end and making cuts for your project.

After all these years, I usually don’t even check the ends. I simply go ahead and cut off about 1/2″ from the end.

3. Kerf

One of the key concepts for getting accurate cuts in the Kerf.

Kerf is the part of the wood that turns into sawdust when you cut it with a saw blade.

woman pointing to the kerf of the saw blade on a board

In other words, the kerf is the thickness of the saw blade. I go into all the details about kerf in this article.

You always want to make sure that you align the saw blade such that the kerf or the blade is on the outside of the line where you want to make the cut.

how to align the saw blade to the line on the board to get accurate cuts

Accounting for the kerf will immediately make your cuts extremely accurate. And accurate cuts are the backbone of good professional-quality projects.

4. Cut in Phases

The most efficient way to do anything is to batch similar tasks. While that might be true in many areas of life, it is not true in woodworking projects.

It may be tempting to make all the cuts needed for a project at once because you already have the saw set up. However, I do not recommend this.

No matter how careful you are, as you build, you may end up adding variations to the project dimensions. The best way to account for this is to cut and build in phases.

cutting in phases to get a good tight fit

When you start a project, you want to review the plans in detail and divide it into phases. For example, for this planter project, I built the box, and then I used the dimensions of the box to double-check the dimensions of the cuts for the stand. By doing this, I was able to make sure that the box and the stand were a nice tight fit.

So, always cut in phases for your project as you go.

5. Sand Before Assembly

Sanding is nobody’s favorite part of the process, but it is also the most important. It defines how your final finish will look.

You always want to sand the boards before assembling them. Once they are assembled it can be really hard to get into the nooks and crannies and sand all of the details. It is much easier to sand the boards before they are assembled.

woman sanding boards on the ground

It may be tempting not to sand the side of the boards that will be completely hidden in a project (like the bottom of a nightstand or the back of a drawer front). In such cases, you want to make sure that you mark that side and keep track of it as you assemble the project. For all other sides of the board, you want to be sure to sand.

Depending on whether you are painting or staining, you want to sand it down to 150 grit or 220 grit. Once the project is assembled, you can go back over it with a fine-grit sanding block to remove any blemishes or unevenness.

6. Sand in the Right Sequence

When you sand boards for your projects, you should start with a low grit, depending on the amount of roughness on the board. Then, you want to go up in grits until you reach the desired smoothness.

You should never skip more than 60 grits at a time when you are sanding.

The reason for this is that every time you sand, the particles in the sandpaper scratch the surface and create peaks and valleys. The next grit turns those peaks into shorter peaks and valleys. As you go through this process, you will flatten the peaks and valleys and get a smooth board.

various sandpaper on the workbench

Be sure to watch the video to see the illustration of the process.

If you skip too many grits at a time, the small particles of the sandpaper will not be able to flatten the original peaks and valleys and you will get swirl marks. These may not be visible while sanding but get exaggerated when you apply a finish.

Therefore, remember not to skip more than 60 grits at a time.

See more tips for sanding wood here.

7. Use Pre-stain Conditioner

When applying the final finish, if you are staining, it is extremely important to use a pre-stain conditioner.

This is important whether you are using oil-based or water-based stain.

Usually, by the time I am at the final finish stage of a project, I am highly tempted to hurry up the process and get to the final project. However, it is important to follow the plan and apply the pre-stain conditioner following the directions on the can.

affect of using pre stain conditioner vs not

If you apply stain directly to the wood, the grains absorb the stain unevenly and create a blotchy effect. The pre-stain conditioner helps the stain absorb evenly across the surface giving you a uniform color and coverage.

You can learn more about how to get the best stain finish here.

These are just seven of the most important tips for achieving the best finish for your projects.

If I were to summarize all the tips, I would say that the key to getting the best results on your projects is to be patient and follow the process. You will be building amazing projects in no time!

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Anika's goal is to inspire and empower beginners with woodworking, DIY, home improvement, and home decor ideas.
She wants everyone to unlock their creative potential and experience the feeling that comes with making something. Nothing feels better better than seeing something and saying "I can make that!"

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