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In:In the Shop

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I’ve been asked a few times about what tools are required to get started in woodworking… specifically working wood by hand.  Chris Schwarz compiled an excellent list of necessary hand tools for his book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  To see that list, check here.  And while that is an excellent list, it assumes you are not using any power tools and doesn’t really give any ranking in terms of what to buy first and what can come a little later.  The following is my opinion on what to buy and when to buy it (the tools I mention first are the ones I would buy first), especially if you’re going to be using the hybrid approach of some work done by hand, some with the assistance of electricity.

A Bench – Sounds obvious, but without something to hold wood flat, on its edge, and vertically, you won’t get very far.

Bench Planes – Get three: a jack, jointer, and smoother.  Ideally you will have all three, but the jack will be used a lot and a vintage one will do fine (low cost) as it is primarily a roughing tool.  This is also the easiest plane to learn on as many of its properties (mouth opening, sole flatness, etc) are not critical for it to function properly.  The jointer is next and will leave your surfaces flat… but powered jointers and planers can replace this if you so choose (though not in my shop).  Finally, a smoother is another work-horse in my shop, but the reality is that once your surface is flat, you can (and a lot of people do) use sandpaper to get the final finish.  Again, a smoother is better for a lot of reasons, but if money is tight it can be purchased last (and if you’re able, buy a premium model).  Purchasing this last also allows you to get comfortable with hand planes before getting into the most temperamental of all models.  A smoother must have a razor sharp blade and be tuned to perfection if you want the results we all dream about in our sleep (we do all dream about hand planes, yes?).  And on a similar note, a card scraper is critical in my shop while others go their whole careers never even seeing one and get by with sandpaper.  Oh, and you’ll need a way to sharpen these tools (and a grinder isn’t it).

Chisels – 1/8″, 1/4″, 1/2″, and 3/4″.  A bit bigger is nice as is a skewed pair or fishtail chisel, but not essential.  Mortise chisels are also nice, but if you drill the waste out or use a mortising machine, they aren’t going to see any use.

Saws – Start with a dovetail saw, next I’d get a carcass (or crosscut) saw.  That will be all many woodworkers need.  Full sized hand saws, tenon saws, or bow saws are commonly replaced by table saws and bandsaws today, but a backsaw filed rip and another crosscut are worth their weight in gold.

Specialty Planes – A spokeshave, block plane, and large router plane will see a lot of use, even in a power tool shop.  I’m not going to get into the uses of these tools, the router plane especially may seem foreign to some, but they are critical in my shop.  I’m not recommending shoulder, rabbet, or plow planes because, while they are essential in a hand tool shop, many will be just fine using a table saw or router for these operations so I wouldn’t rate these as essential (unless you’re not using any power tools).

Drills – I can’t say these are essential, most people have a cordless drill and/or drill press, but for the cost I find an “egg beater” drill and hand brace to be very useful and more responsive for fine woodworking.  For more info on drills, see here.

And finally, the usual mix of hammers, dividers, marking gauges, a tape measure, clamps, etc. are all necessary in any shop.  Schwarz’s list does a good job outlining those tools, plus some useful shop accessories like bench hooks and shooting boards, but above are the critical tools I believe everyone in every shop will use, regardless of your woodworking preferences.

Hopefully that helps.  It can be overwhelming to see a complete hand tool shop, the cost and time associated with purchasing and learning to use those tools is substantial.  If you start with what I recommend above, you can slowly add to it as your skills and preferences take over.  Good luck, get working.

-WMT

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