A Beginning Woodworker’s Toolkit

If you want to begin doing woodworking with hand tools, it’s hard to know where to begin.  There are so many woodworking tools on the market.  A beginner’s tool kit need not be large, and you can do good work with only a few basic tools.  I posted the following list here on my blog nine years ago, and I still think it’s a good list (with a couple additions at the end). 

When I began working wood in earnest, I had almost no woodworking tools.  I owned a circular saw, an electric drill, a couple hammers, a tape measure, 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.

Smoother in Shavings 2012 - - 3

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 Lee Valley and 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 ball peen or small claw hammer works well.
  • A solid joiner’s mallet.  Buy one, or make your own.
  • A handplane.  A used Stanley, such as a #4 or #5, is a good choice.
  • A jointer plane.  Again, a used Stanley #7 is excellent.
  • A flat-bottomed spokeshave.  A vintage Stanley 151 works very well.
  • 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 smoothing 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, and a saw set.  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.

As I read over my original list, I have only two additional tool recommendations, as well as recommendations for books that weren’t available when I made the initial post.

  • Clamps.  You will need to clamp your joints together as the glue dries.  (Did I mention you will also need wood glue?  Any wood glue on the market will be fine.  Don’t over-think this one.  And don’t buy too much at a time–the small bottle is just fine.)  The most versatile clamps for a beginner are pipe clamps.  Get the kind that work with 1/2″ black pipe, and buy lengths of pipe as you need them.  You should have at least four pipe clamps to begin with.
  • A workbench with a vise–a woodworker’s vise, not a machinist’s vise.  You don’t need a big, fancy bench at first, but you do need something that is sturdy and heavy enough that it won’t wobble or scoot across the floor in use.  There’s nothing wrong with screwing together 2X6s from the lumberyard.  (2X6s tend to be better quality than 2X4s and aren’t any more expensive inch-for-inch.)  Good dimensions are 6-8 feet long, 2-3 feet deep, and 32-34 inches tall.

And that brings me to books.  One of the best investments you can make in this hobby is not in tools or wood but in information.  Before you build your first serious workbench, buy and read Workbenches: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use by Chris Schwarz.  You will learn all about what a workbench can and should do, and you will avoid many pitfalls in design and construction.

Lastly, as you continue to build your tool kit, it will be worth your time to buy and read The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, also by Chris Schwarz.  The book isn’t cheap, and the writing style is pedestrian, but you will not find a better single-volume guide to selecting and using hand tools any time soon.

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2 Responses to A Beginning Woodworker’s Toolkit

  1. Joeleonetti says:

    I’ve looked the list. It is pretty solid and you can do a lot with these tools. Compass, coping saw, a 4 in 1 rasp added to the above is really all I used for the first two years.

  2. I got started in woodworking with a coping saw, a keyhole saw, three dull chisels and a hammer. Of course I was a kid making crude toys so it didn’t matter.

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