Quest for Tools

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that, if you want to build stuff out of wood, you’re gonna need some tools. Aside from a bunch of screwdrivers, socket wrenches, pliers, and electrical tools, I had none, and it’s not like the soldering iron and crimper are gonna help much with woodworking. When I was still living in Chicago, I got myself a toolbox and gradually started to pick up some smaller things that would probably be useful, such as clamps, a mallet, and a claw hammer.

At some point, I needed to drill something and drive some screws, so I got a cordless drill and a set of twist drill bits. I added a brad-point set later. However, the drill was more of a necessity for non-woodworking tasks. I’d decided by that point that I’d steer clear of a lot of power tools, especially when starting out. Electricity is nice and all, but it’s pretty impersonal, and some of those tools are really dangerous.

As a whole, my approach is going to be one of reading a boatload of stuff about woodworking, then gradually getting the tools as I need them. This is practical for a number of reasons; first, there’s no need to buy anything that I’ll never use; second, there’s no use in buying something that I don’t know how to use; and third, I don’t exactly have a lot of space anyway. Understand that I live in an apartment in a big city. Solving the workshop space problem is already a work-in-progress; I don’t need a bunch of stuff encroaching on my living space.

One my earlier discoveries in woodworking is that, as the beginner, the modern world has generally conspired to deprive you of good hand tools that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Yeah, there are some very high-end tools that you can buy new for hundreds of dollars. And guess what–they are about as good as the same stuff that sold for $3 back in 1930. But most of the new hand tools on the market are garbage, and that means that you have to figure out a way to stock your set with stuff that’s about 70-80 years old.

When you try to do that, you run into these people who collect rare old stuff, driving up the value of this “rare” old stuff, and the weenies who try to fob off old stuff because you might be a collector and hey, “it’s old, so it has to be worth something, right?” Wrong. They made bazillions of these things, so there’s no reason to think that it’s King Tut’s Tomb or something. Sadly, this leaves you with eBay, yard sales, and flea markets, each of which can have its own excessive (and unique) depression factor.

I got four hand saws for practically nothing at a garage sale shortly after I moved to San Francisco. These two ripsaws and two crosscut saws were in decent shape. The two crosscut saws are very unspecial “Warranted Superior” saws, one with a skewback. One ripsaw is another “Warranted Superior,” but a bit better-made; the handle is carved and the blade has a nib. The final ripsaw is a plain old Disston D-7, probably about 70 years old. One thing I immediately liked about these saws, at least in the case of the ripsaws, the previous owner obviously knew something about using them. Unlike any other handsaw that I’d ever seen while growing up, the teeth were actually sharp and not mangled in any way.

With this (and some other miscellaneous non-wood related stuff) in the toolbox, two weeks ago, I made a list of the remaining hand tools that I’d probably need to at least start doing some damage to wood. The items are as follows:

– Try square
– marking gauge
– Tenon backsaw with crosscut teeth
– Saw set and files to sharpen saws
– Mitre box
– Bailey #3/#4 smoothing plane or equivalent
– Bailey #5 jack plane or equivalent
– Bailey #7/#8 jointer plane or equivalent (not a pressing need)
– Shoulder plane (not a pressing need)
– Firmer chisels
– Mortise chisel(s) (not a pressing need)
– Some sort of sharpening paraphernalia (oilstone, waterstone, or “scary sharp” sandpaper/glass)

Keep in mind that this stuff is for the very first project that I have in mind, a bookshelf. I’ll get into more detail on that later.


Four years ago, I decided that I was sick of store-bought furniture, and that, as a Real Man[tm], it was a moral imperative to learn woodworking and build my own stuff instead of buying one more stupid thing that I didn’t really like.

Four years later, my steadfastedness has only resulted in having huge piles of books lying all over my place because I still don’t have any bookshelves. But stuff happened in those four years, it was somewhat crazy, and I am now in a good position to actually make good on that promise I made so long ago. Therefore, I’m going to chronicle my, uh, “adventures” here.

My grandfather worked for a publisher, but also did a bit of woodworking. He was a Real Man[tm]. He knew a thing or two, much like many people of that generation did. Unfortunately, he became ill and passed away before he was able to teach me much of anything. You can call it silly, but sometimes you can’t ignore what runs in your blood, as my friend Linda tells me. Having written three books and worked on many others, I’m now involved in publishing myself. I might as try to live up to my grandfather’s name (well, even if it isn’t exactly my name).

When I decided to do this, I didn’t know where to start. Even though I’d been around many of the tools all my life, I didn’t have any instruction whatsoever on the proper way to use them for woodworking. I didn’t know a whole lot about wood. It was basically square one.

So I figured that since I’d written some books, maybe I’d go down to the bookstore and look for something that might tell me a thing or two. Well, first I checked on Amazon for reviews on books. I decided that “The Complete Manual of Woodworking” by Jackson, Day, and Jennings seemed like a pretty good bet. I found it without a problem. I also picked up “Classic Hand Tools” by Hack, because, well, it had a lot of pretty pictures in it, and there was something about hand tools that I sort of liked. Oh yeah, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. (Now you guys who wrote these things are now honor-bound to buy my books, right? Ha ha.)

In buying these books, I was in the early stages of discovering that the old system of apprenticeship where young’uns learned from a master is pretty much dead. Unless you know someone who does this stuff, no one is going to teach you; you have to learn it yourself. This isn’t such a bad thing, though. You have to understand that, as in disciplines like software engineering, there are about a million ways to do things in woodworking. Not all are equally good. Fortunately, due to the now rich array of literature on woodworking as well as the flood of, uh, stuff on the web, you can find out how to do quite a lot of stuff if you actually know how to read. In another turn of fortunate events, I know how to read. Well, maybe if only just a little.

The “Complete Manual” is eye-opening for someone who’s never seen any of this stuff before. It succinctly covers a lot of ground, starting from the biology of trees. I’d lump the topics in the book into four main areas: (1) trees (2) tools (3) joints (4) other stuff that you do with wood (turning, carving, etc.). Tools are grouped into three categories: hand, power, and machine.

I’ve read the book in its entirety (several times). I’ve now got more that go into more detail on certain topic areas. What I have not done is actually using any of what I’ve learned to actually make anything. And it’s high time I fixed that.