Seven Secrets of Successful Woodworking Jigs

Like most woodworkers I have a bunch of jigs kicking around the shop and like most guys my age I have firmly held opinions. As a reader I’ve seen more than enough articles about jigs for this and fixtures for that. As an author I’ve tried to steer clear of writing too much about jigs, although from time to time my name has appeared. To me, jigs exist to make certain tasks (usually repetitious ones that require a consistent degree of precision) safer, faster or easier. A really good jig will do all three of those things. Some authors are specialists in devising intricate solutions and some woodworkers get sidetracked into making jigs as their hobby instead of using jigs to make things. I am neither of those.

At right is my set-up for drilling the cup holes for Euro hinges. It’s a straight fence glued and stapled down to a piece of 3/4″ thick plywood. There is a rabbet on the fence that keeps chips of wood from keeping the edge of a door off the straight edge. The three pencil lines are my intricate system for placing the holes in the same location on every door. The center line is in line with the center of the bit, and the other two lines are an equal distance away. When I have the jig positioned where I want it, I lower the bit 1/4″ or so into the plywood base. The next time I need to use it, I lower the bit into the hole and clamp the base down to the drill press table. That puts the jig back in the right position without any fuss or measuring. All I need to do then is set the depth of the bit and I’m ready to go. In use, I line up the corner of the door to one of the outer pencil lines and drill. This is a pretty good example of my philosophy toward making and using jigs.

  1. Don’t expect a jig to give you skills or precision you don’t have. Simply put, if you can’t measure accurately, make parts to an exact size or put a square line in the right place you won’t be able to make a working, reliable jig; you’ll end up spending a lot of time without getting the desired results.
  2. If it takes longer to make the jig than it does to perform the task without the jig, you’re wasting time unless it’s a task you’ll be doing on a regular basis. Knowing how long things will take is an essential element of successful jig use. If you don’t know, you’re better off working without jigs for a while. When you find yourself in the midst of a repetitious task, you’ll start thinking of ways to make life easier and you’ll probably come up with a good idea.
  3. Good jigs are one-trick ponies. Universal and micro-adjustable take way too long to make, take up too much room to store and usually don’t work as well as simple, quick and easy. These are the kinds of things you’ll see in print and if you’re tempted, ask yourself how often you’ll be tapering legs and what range of lengths and angles you’ll be needing. Chances are pretty good that it’s a narrow range and for me it’s a lot quicker to make a new dedicated jig each time I’m faced with this task. It isn’t likely that you really need the T-track extrusion and all the gizmos that go with it.
  4. Make jigs from material you have on hand. A trip to the lumber yard or hardware store can easily wipe out the time-saving advantages of making the jig. The exception to this rule is to keep some 1/2″ and 3/4″ plywood, a couple of hold-down clamps and an assortment of fasteners on hand so that you’re ready when inspiration strikes. It still  isn’t likely that you really need that T-track and all the gizmos that go with it.
  5. Put the jig together quickly, glue with staples or nails, a couple of screws or hot-melt glue work just fine. One of my uncle’s favorite phrases was “you ain’t making a grand piano here” and it applies to jig construction. Get the job done, but don’t get fancy with it.
  6. Don’t make a jig for an anticipated need, wait until the task is in front of you. That micro-adjustable finger joint jig that will handle any size material and any size of fingers might look tempting but will you ever really use it? Most woodworkers make finger joints once or twice an move on. If I had a nickel for every finger joint jig gathering dust in American wood shops I could probably retire.
  7. Use a minimal number of pieces put together in the simplest possible way and don’t bother to apply a finish other than some paste wax where things need to slide. As the parts list grows, the chances of making something that actually serves a useful purpose diminishes exponentially.

Jigs are essential in most shops, and I’m not against them.  I am generally opposed to wasting time and my thinking is influenced by experience making things for sale. In that world, I only get paid for the time I spend making pieces of wood smaller, so jigs are only worthwhile if they enable me to make more pieces of wood smaller in less time.

The problem with the simple jigs I tend to use is that they look a lot like scraps. So I tend to keep them piled in one place and I also like to label them. When I’m feeling really clever I give my jigs a name, generally what the thing is good for followed by . . . Master and a number with a lot of zeros at the end.

–Bob Lang

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11 thoughts on “Seven Secrets of Successful Woodworking Jigs

  1. Very good article,Bob. I’m glad to see some advice with the time factor involved. Most hobby guys don’t think about the time factor but they should. Being more productive in the shop allows us to be more productive in our personal lives and allows more family time. Wasting time making non used jigs is right up there with wasting money buying non used tools and gadgets. I hate it when I am tricked into buying the latest gadget that seems to be a really good idea, but in practical use it just comes up short. Thanks again, Dale

  2. I agree wholly with your attitude And, a great example of easy fast constructed and often reused by me are Glen Huey’s “Dirt Simple Router Jigs”, Poplar Woodworking November 2008. Thanke for your in-depth blog entry.

  3. Good talk Bob. I’m with you because I built one of those finger joint jigs and haven’t used it since I tried it out. Every time I see one of Woodpeckers new tools I think, why the hall do I need that now, I’ve been doing it my way for all this time already. I’d rather spend my money on wood! j

  4. Great post, Bob.

    I bought some T-track and associated gizmos over 12 years ago and haven’t found a reason to use it yet. Maybe I should build a decorative plaque with these seven rules (paraphrased) and mount a section of that T-track and a few gizmos to help focus my attention on woodworking projects instead of shopclutter projects.

    Charles

  5. Hi Bob,

    I actually like designing and making jigs. At first, before I began buying specialized tools, they were used to adapt a basic power tool, like a hand held planer, to a new purpose, like simulating a joiner. This was fun and helped me to get in the mood for a new job. They were often quite elaborate. As I got older I started to simplify them to the simplest possible design.

    My most satisfying job, jig-wise, was a wine cellar which used 3/4″ dowels to hold the bottles. It had corners built on a radius, and a display row which was angled to display the bottles and their labels. I designed jigs to align the drill press to drill the holes for the dowels in the front and back rails. I built a total of 15 jigs and they were very complicated. But when it came time to assemble the whole thing it fit together like tinker toys and installed like a charm.

    Still, as I continue to get older, I’ve begun to enjoy using hand tools, and to do the things by hand that I used to make jigs for. It’s simpler and more fun. Thanks for bringing up the subject of jigs. They’ve played a large part in my professional woodworking career.

    Will

    1. There are times when intricate jigs are called for, as in the wine cellar you describe above. The trick is knowing when it’s worthwhile to spend the time.

      1. Hi Bob,

        Well, practically speaking, it’s never worth the time. This stuff never pays for itself. It turns an eight hour day into a 12 hour day mighty fast! I guess I used the wine cellar job as an excuse to do something else I also enjoyed – solving a mental challenge.

        1. I disagree, but you need to weigh the time spent in “jiggery” vs. the time it would take to do otherwise and use the simplest possible construction. Tacking together a few sticks to make repetitious work predictable is well worth the time, at least for me.

  6. Great article. It’s often easy to get wrapped up in the hype that is built up by all of the articles and videos surrounding jigs. This article helps to keep us grounded and focus on projects rather than jigs.

    A small technical point about the website. The two images expand into an extremely large size and you’re not able to see the whole image at once(must scroll horizontally and vertically). While I enjoy the high res detail, I think it would be nice to have it consume your browser’s current size and then allow you to click again to get the full detail. Chances are high that the viewer will be satisfied with seeing the image fill their browser. Details: I’m on Win8.1, Chrome 38, browser is maximized on a 1920×1200 screen.

  7. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the heads up on the image size. My bad, I uploaded my “send to the printer” size photos instead of the “web friendly” size. That is now corrected

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