Tool Tips

If, for some bizarre reason, you find yourself inspired to work wood with hand tools, you’ll need somewhere to start. I’m not the most experienced person at this sort of thing, but here are some tips that you might find useful; they have worked for me and there is a general consensus in literature and fora that approximates this.

I started with the basics from from Peter Korn’s book Woodworking Basics: Mastering the Essentials of Craftsmanship. It is inexpensive, clearly written, concise (208 pages!), starts from the beginning, and gives separate approaches for making the basic mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints with both hand tools and power tools. You’ll learn how the tools work and how to sharpen them (we’ll get to that later). It’s not comprehensive–there are other approaches for doing operations than the ones shown in the book–but you’d drive yourself nuts trying everything at once.

You need tools but you don’t want to go overboard. Common wisdom says to buy only the tools you need as you need them. Indeed, it’s more important to make your tools work correctly than to collect a pile of them. That said, here are the ones I use the most, and the ones that I would start with if I were doing everything all over again:

  • Sharpening equipment, either stones or a flat-surface/sandpaper “Scary Sharp” system. The latter is a pretty inexpensive way to get started and does produce top-notch edges with practice. In addition, it’s usually easier to flatten the faces of chisels and blades with sandpaper (such as the Norton 3X 80-grit).
  • A set of bevel-edge chisels (1/4″, 1/2″, 1″; add more thicknesses as you need them). The cheapest are the Irwin/Marples Blue Chips, which sharpen easily but typically don’t hold an edge as long as others. I think the Lee Valley yellow-handled bevel-edge chisels are decent, and they are also inexpensive. If you get into this kind of stuff, you’ll eventually find yourself scouring yard sales, flea markets, and the like for vintage wooden-handled chisels. These can be fantastic, but you should learn how to sharpen a chisel before any wild goose chases.
  • Small carcase saw, like this one I made. You can buy a new one from a number of vendors that work well new, but you will spend at least $65 on it. Mine cost about $10 for the original cheapo gents saw, but it was worthless until I learned to sharpen it.
  • Dovetail saw. The Crown or Stanley gents saws are probably the cheapest option here, but you need to touch them up to make it work properly. This is somewhat difficult for the beginner. As with the other saw, the cheapest one that’s ready-to-use is about $65.
  • Mortise (marking) gauge. To make a mortise-and-tenon joint, you sort of need one of these, and it can double as a regular marking gauge until you accumulate more marking gauges (and you will).
  • Adjustable-mouth block plane, preferably a low-angle one. You’ll use it for trimming end grain and touching up joints. You must learn how to sharpen the blade.
  • Jack plane (roughly a 14″ sole, 2″ blade), like a vintage Stanley #5. This plane can do many planing operations fairly well, it’s one of the easier ones to get working properly, and you typically won’t spend too much money on one. However, you must learn how to sharpen the blade.
  • Square, such as a small try square or a 4″ adjustable double square. Just make sure that it really is square.
  • Marking knife. There are endless variations on what people like, but even a utility knife works.
  • Workbench. You need something flat that is not going to move, with some way to secure wood as you’re working on it. There are many ways to do this, but a big challenge in the beginning is how to do it without breaking the bank.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to learn how to sharpen your edge tools. This is the biggest barrier of entry to hand tool work. With the exception of high-end products, hand tools will not work correctly when new (not to mention what horrors lurk with vintage tools), and you must maintain the edges on your tools even if they are sharp when new.

Then there’s the subject of saw sharpening. It’s not difficult, but it requires patience. When starting out, you can get away without learning how to sharpen saws; higher-end saws come ready-to-use and they will remain sharp for a while. But sooner or later (especially if you want to use larger handsaws and panel saws), you’ll either need to learn how to do it or find someone who does.

Or you could try Japanese saws, especially if you plan on working primarily with softwoods. These saws come quite sharp and do a great job. Their downsides are that you normally can’t sharpen them yourself, and the teeth are brittle. You have to be careful with your technique, especially in hardwoods.

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