My kids love to work with me in the shop. I allow the oldest, who's thirteen, to use the lathe while being supervised, while the younger kids need to be content with non-power hand tools. Our projects can range from space blasters and doll furniture to pirate chests and catapults. Generally the boys like to cut, drill and nail, while my daughters want me to hurry up so they can paint and finish. My wife likes the fact that they're out of her hair and spending time with their dad.
Here are the keys I've discovered that ensure that all of us have a great time:
1. A PLACE TO WORK
Shops with all their machines, sharp tools and chemicals can be pretty dangerous places. Most of us work in fairly tight spots, so finding a place for the kids to work can be a challenge. The ideal place in my shop is at the bench far away from the machinery and finishing room, but the bench itself is too high for most of the kids. One solution was to fasten a 2x12 to a couple of wooden crates for them to stand on, but that limited their mobility and I worried they'd fall off. We eventually settled on a kid's bench. Made from scrap plywood and 2x4s, we mounted a clamp-on vise (199153) at just the right height. When not in use, the whole thing (except for the vise) stores outside under the deck behind the house.
When I took shop in middle school, 7th graders were allowed to use the bandsaw, scroll saw and drill press. Everything else had to be done with hand tools. 8th graders could also use the lathe, but the table saw was off limits. It was reserved for high school kids in occupational training. The shop teacher of course closely monitored all of this activity. These still seem like reasonable guidelines to me now, but I choose to emphasize hand tool skills with my kids over machine operations. For me, the point is not to teach a trade necessarily, but rather to achieve other benefits like self-sufficiency, together time, etc.
As for safety rules, we tend to practice principles over an overt list of dos and don'ts. The biggest rule is no one is allowed in the shop without an adult. Period, end of story, no exceptions! The next hard rule requires eye protection at all times and hearing and dust protection when appropriate. I just love Highland's new child-sized safety glasses (818349). Needless to say they fit smaller faces, so they're not constantly having to push them up. Plus, they don't fog up like goggles tend to do.
After that, I like to instill in my kids what I call mindfulness. Mindfulness is a general awareness of where you are and what you are doing in the here and now. This typically involves concepts like no hands in front of cutting tools, and no holding things with one hand while working with a tool in the other. That's what vises and clamps are for. Sharp tools are important too. Along with being a primary woodworking skill, sharpening and sharp tools will help prevent and lessen the severity of accidents. Oh yes, we also keep a well-supplied first aid kit right on the wall.
Even though we want to emphasize safety, too often these projects become our projects. Let the kids do the work. The point is not necessarily to accomplish a task or even finish a job. Kids operate in the moment, and are more interested in the process than getting the job done, sometimes.
4. THE RIGHT TOOLS
Broken down into a sum of its parts, woodworking is a fairly simple endeavor. You have cutting, drilling, driving and shaping. All other operations are subcategories of these four, and are basic enough for most children to accomplish safely with primary hand tools. You must discern at what age these tasks and tools can be introduced to your child on a case-by-case basis.
Almost all cutting operations for younger children can be done with a coping saw (051901). These inexpensive frame type saws cut on the pull stroke, which most kids find easier to do than push cutting. Since the blade is in tension while cutting, it won't bind like saws designed to cut on the push. You can use these saws to cut straight lines, curves and circles. Older children can graduate to a ryoba saw (126421). A ryoba is a traditional Japanese carpenter's saw that has two sets of teeth. One side cuts with the grain of a board (lengthwise), while the other cuts across the grain (widthwise). Again, ryobas work on the pull and are more intuitive to use than western style saws.
Unfortunately the venerable hand drill is disappearing from the woodworking lexicon, having been forced out by inexpensive electric and battery-powered models. Yet the bit brace and gear-driven eggbeater drill (071817) are ideal tools for children who are learning to work wood. Since they're safe, muscle-powered and efficient to use, what better way could there be to make a hole? Oh, and did I mention quiet? Braces tend to make larger holes, generally from 1/4" to 1-1/2". Eggbeaters drill holes from 1/16" up to a 1/4".
Here's the part my kids love. What kid can resist bashing something with a hammer or mallet? But driving isn't just for nails and dowel rods. Screwdrivers are also driving tools. You'll want one slotted and one Phillips. Any small hammer will do, but we've found that traditional Japanese hammers (146605) are better balanced, and more comfortable for kids to use. Use them for pounding nails and setting dowels, although some purists might frown upon hitting a wooden dowel with a steel hammer.
Shaping comprises a wide range of tools like files, rasps, sandpaper, chisels, gouges, knives, planes and scrapers. In the beginning, stick with tools that don't require sharpening, like files, rasps and sandpaper. Once the child gets older and is mastering sharpening, then he or she can move on to chisels, planes and carving gouges. I like the Surform (8131219) as a shaping tool for beginners. Surforms smooth and shape wood fast, fit small hands and have replaceable cutting surfaces. Unlike a handplane, a surform doesn't need to be tuned or sharpened to work.
Initially stick with softer woods like eastern white pine, sugar pine and basswood. These species are relatively inexpensive and are easy for kids to manipulate with hand tools. You can find these woods at most home centers and some craft stores. If you really want to go cheap, then check out my article in the May 2007 (No. 24) issue of Wood News Online, "Alternative Sources for Wood." There you will find all kinds of ideas for securing materials for next to nothing.
I guarantee you that you'll have no shortage of project ideas once you get started. You may have to make some suggestions at first, but once your kids see what's possible, they'll find their own projects, trust me. Keep things simple at first. Quick plans like toy boats and cars will build confidence and lead to more interesting things later. We carry several books that you might find helpful, including Easy Carpentry Projects for Children (20264) and Woodworking for Kids (200931).
Waterbased craft paint is an obvious finishing choice. Many times my kids want to start playing with their creations before the glue dries, so finishing may never happen. As their skills progress, their attention spans increase, and their projects become more complex, you'll want to expand their finishing options. We like shellac. It's food safe and dries quickly. What's not to like about it? It's perfect for all but permanent outdoor projects and water toys, which we usually paint. Be safe and have fun!
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