When I began working wood in earnest, I had almost no woodworking tools. I owned a circular saw, an electric drill, a couple hammers, and a helplessly dull hand saw. Then I took a couple courses in hand-tool joinery at the School of Woodworking at Homestead Heritage in central Texas. There I was taught to cut three basic joints using ten hand tools. In preparation for the first class, the instructor distributed a list of basic hand tools that would be used in the course. My skills have developed a lot since then, but I still use many of the same techniques I was taught there. I have modified the list based on my own needs and practices, and I offer it here as a way to begin working wood.
Woodworking doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby, although it frequently is. You can build most anything you need using the tools below. Of course I now have more tools than this, but these are still the tools I reach for most often.
- An accurate combination square. Get a good one. Most hardware store brands are inaccurate. PEC squares, such as the Woodcraft brand, are a good value.
- A set of chisels: 1/4”, 1/2”, 3/4” and 1”
- A layout knife. A utility knife or Exacto knife is adequate to begin with, or you can make one.
- A marking gauge. Eventually you will want several, including a mortise gauge.
- A dovetail or gents saw (Crown is fine)
- A carcase saw. This is a small backsaw, usually 10”-12” in length. A vintage saw, such as a Disston or Atkins, is an excellent choice.
- A regular hand saw, 8-12 ppi, filed for crosscuts. Again, find a good vintage saw, such as a Disston or an Atkins.
- A small hammer for tacks and joint assembly. A Warrington pattern is nice, though a ball peen or small claw hammer also works well.
- A solid joiner’s mallet. Buy one, or make your own.
- A smoothing plane. A used Stanley, such as a #4 or #4½, is a good choice.
- A jointer plane. Again, a used Stanley is excellent. Try a #6, #7, or #8.
- A flat-bottomed spokeshave. Anant makes a cheap one that will do the job.
- Sharpening equipment: coarse abrasive, fine abrasive, and a strop.
- A box Band-Aid Tough Strips. $3 at Wal-Mart, and worth every penny!
It is imperative that you have functioning sharpening equipment. The most expensive tools in the world are useless if they are dull. It is generally recommended that you put your money into a good layout square and a good smooth plane. Many good tools can be found used and at lower costs than they can be bought new. Look especially for used saws, hammers, and planes. However, used tools must often be cleaned and/or repaired before use. There are several excellent guides available for those who wish to learn to restore vintage woodworking tools.
No debate is more intense in the hand-tool world than the ongoing debate on sharpening materials and techniques. My advice is to pick one method and stick with it until you master it. Here are some options for sharpening.
- For starters, try the “Scary Sharp” method, which uses sandpaper on a hard, flat surface. Oil stones, waterstones, and diamond stones are also great choices. DMT makes a 2-sided coarse/fine stone, which is a good economical choice for diamond stones.
- A strop is a piece of leather glued to a flat piece of seasoned hardwood, and usually rubbed with an abrasive compound. Lee Valley sells a very good honing compound. The strop both polishes the edge and cleanly removes any burr left from the coarser abrasives, resulting in a smooth, keen edge.
- Taper files for sharpening saws. This is not an immediate need, but at some point your saws will get dull, and you will have to either sharpen them or replace them.