A Guide to Getting Started with Hand Tools: Part 1
Introduction to the Series
Hand tools have a place in every workshop. Whether you are just getting started or have a well-equipped woodshop, the right hand tools and the knowledge to use them will go far in your journey as a craftsperson. Knowing where to start can sometimes be challenging and finding the right tool(s) for YOU can prove to be a long exercise in research and occasionally wasted money. There is an incredible amount of information out there covering hand tools, hand tool techniques, and tool recommendations. The goal of this series of articles is not to regurgitate what is already available but to hopefully save you a bit of time and energy by summarizing my thoughts on hand tools, provide some recommendations on where to get started, and to provide references when and if you are ready to dive deeper into the world of hand work.
Over the last few years teaching introductory hand tool woodworking classes at the Austin School of Furniture and Design, these are the conversations I inevitably have with students. While you cannot beat a good, interactive conversation I have wanted a reference that I can direct students to once the class is over. This is my attempt at that reference and part one of an eight part series on getting started with hand tools.
How to get started with woodworking hand tools?
- Buy it once
- Buy it when you need it
- Don’t go crazy with acquiring tools
- Start with new and sharp hand tools
- Spend time in the driver’s seat
- Research what you actually need
- Start with the core sets of hand tools and then expand
My Philosophy on Buying Tools
Buy it Once
Okay, let us elaborate a bit. I, like almost every newish (self-starting) woodworker that I have met started with hand tools from either a big box store, a larger woodworking store, a yard sale, or perhaps a hand-me-down. And why not? There they are sitting on the shelf; the price isn’t bad, and you are curious. So, you put down $15, $30 or $45 bucks for a set of chisels or a hand plane, excellent! But what now? To quote Neil Young:
Saw it on the tube
Bought it on the phone
Now you’re home alone
It’s a piece of crap
Without being too flippant, the issue with many of these tools is that they are not ready to put to work out of the box. While this can often be remedied by some hard work tuning the tool, if you are relatively new to hand tools, you likely do not yet have a reference for how the tool should perform. This in my experience is the sticking point with lower quality tools. It is not that these tools cannot be brought up to a usable condition (though sometimes there just isn’t any hope) but it is that the pilot of that tool often does not have the experience and/or knowledge to know what the end results should look like. Not to mention the incredible effort and time that is needed to flatten the back of a chisel or the sole of the plane, or perhaps that effort was wasted, and the banana-shaped plane sole is simply fine as is! How do you know? Ultimately, you won’t know until you learn what a good tool feels like. This may mean that you will continue on with a poorly tuned tool until you inevitably purchase a better tool. My suggestion is to get some hands-on time with well-tuned tools. For ways to accomplish this see the section below Time in the Driver’s Seat.
Buy it When You Need it
Buy it When You Need it
I would suggest that for the most part you let your projects dictate your tool purchases. Start with a simple set of core tools that we will discuss below and add to that as necessary. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is real and can be hard to fight when you are starting out (or honestly, at any point along your journey). It will often seem like the answer to becoming a better or more efficient woodworker is to purchase a new tool. I will advocate that you should keep your tool kit as simple and streamlined as possible for the following reasons:
- Your wallet – self-explanatory.
- Less to maintain and keep sharp.
- You will become proficient with the tools you do have.
- By limiting yourself you will begin to understand which tool additions make sense for the way you work. I think you will also be surprised at how much you can accomplish with a small set of sharp tools.
I started woodworking with a single ½” bevel edge bench chisel from Lie-Nielsen, and exclusively used that chisel for 4 years. That is not entirely truthful though, I received a set of 6 plastic handled chisels as a gift a long time ago but my poor sharpening at that time meant many of these chisels remained dull from the factory. In fact, most of those chisels still have the same dull edge and can be found in a tool bag that I keep around for home projects. The point is that in many cases one or two carefully chosen tools from the categories below (and the knowledge to use them) will allow you to build a household full of furniture.
What about Vintage Tools?
I love vintage tools; plain and simple they are just awesome. A lot of other folks love these tools as well though, and some of the more sought-after tools can be more expensive than a similar new tool from a reputable manufacturer. This is not to say you cannot find great deals on serviceable tools, but it does pose an issue like what we discussed about modern low-quality tools above. If you are not familiar with a tool, how do you know when it is in good enough shape to be pressed back into work? This is especially the case if you are buying a vintage tool online and cannot inspect it for any potential issues. Once you have a better understanding of what you are looking for in a specific tool (see below) vintage tools can be a viable option. For example, older jack planes can often be reasonably priced and are a great tool to look for a vintage example of. Whereas, I would suggest a beginning woodworker avoid older backsaws, as saw sharpening can be an involved process (don’t get me wrong this is a skill you will want to learn, but it might not be where you want to start). Here are some suggestions on buying vintage tools.
1. Try to purchase in person if possible. If you have access to the Mid West Tool Collectors Association meets or similar this is likely the best option for finding good user tools at reasonable prices.
2. If shopping online, purchase from reputable tool sellers that offer returns. Here in Houston Texas for example, it is quite rare to find vintage tools in person, especially at a reasonable price so I often use these sellers when looking for something specific. I’ve provided a list of tool sellers that I have bought from and had a good experience with below.
3. Educate yourself, in the world of vintage tools, what we are looking for is often called a user tool, this means that is not sought after by collectors. As I mentioned earlier jack planes are a great example, the Stanley No. 5 has been produced in mass quantities since 1869 and is one of the most useful and reasonably priced tools for the beginning woodworker to acquire. While you might want to focus in on a sweet spot of production years (see Chris Schwarz’s blog here for more info) some of the earlier or more unique versions of the Bailey pattern jack plane (e.g., the No. 605 Bedrock) that are sought after by collectors can fetch hefty prices.
Time in the Driver’s Seat
When you are just starting out, I think it is important to get your hands on and try out as many hand tools as possible. This will not only allow you to develop a sense of what you like and what fits your hands well, but you can also see, hear, and feel how a well-tuned tool operates. There are several different ways to get these tools in your hands and hopefully one of them will be an option to you.
- Take a class – a weeknight or weekend class focused on hand tools can be a great way to try out tools, ask questions of the instructor and perhaps even walk away with a small project.
- Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Events – Lie-Nielsen takes their full suite of tools on a travelling road show every year where you can try them out and ask questions of their expert staff.
- Make a friend – I have found the hand tool community to be very welcoming and open to sharing their experiences and knowledge. Look for local groups or clubs where you might be able to meet like minded woodworkers and perhaps try out some of their tools.
- Events and Festivals – there are a few events every year that feature a number of hand tool manufacturers where you can try tools and ask questions.
What Tools Do I Need?
Being asked where to get started with hand tools can be a difficult question to answer and often the one asking gets an unsatisfying response. This is often due the fact that where to start depends on what tools you currently have and more importantly what furniture do you intend to make? If you are primarily a power tool user and are looking to add some profiling tools to your toolkit the answer will be much different than if you are hoping to set up a small workshop in a spare bedroom. To make this guide as useful as possible to as broad a cross-section of people as possible I have divided hand tools into four broad categories. There is also an additional fifth category where we will discuss more specialized tools. The next series of posts will expand upon each of these individual categories with recommendations and suggestions for where to get started.
The four (+1) categories include:
- Marking, Measuring, and Layout
- Stock Preparation and Dimensioning
- Surface Preparation and Finishing
- *Specialized Tools
Marking, Measuring, and Layout
A critical category and one that all woodworkers will utilize no matter their woodworking inclination. From marking knives to straightedges and combination squares to marking gauges, precise and accurate layout is key to well executed joinery, irrespective if that joint is cut by hand or machine.
Stock Preparation and Dimensioning
The tools to rough cut, flatten, and dimension lumber prior to joinery. This category may be less relevant to you if you have powered equipment to facilitate preparing and dimensioning rough lumber. I will say, however, that even if your shop is equipped with a powered jointer and planer a hand plane can go a long way toward quick and efficient dimensioning of extra wide or large pieces.
From mortise and tenons to rabbets and dovetails this section will cover the tools required to cut and fettle the joints used in furniture construction.
Surface Preparation, Adornment, and Finishing
The final category includes those tools that are used once joinery is complete to refine and prepare the surfaces for finish. I promise I will not be too harsh on sanding, but I will advocate for broader use of the scraper and similar tools. I have also included tools for adornment in this category, be that chamfers, a radiused edge, beading or curves. More elaborate tools for specific forms of adornment like carving or inlay are included in the Specialized Tools category.
One of the wonderful things about woodworking is its extreme breadth and depth that expands well beyond traditional furniture forms. For that reason, it will be impossible to create an exhaustive guide, but I will address some of the more specialized tools and provide resources for getting started in some of the more popular endeavors.
Including but not limited to:
- Traditional Carving
- Green Woodworking
I want a list of tools now!
If you just can’t wait for the individual posts on each category you can find a nice compilation of other’s lists here.
Other Important Considerations
You can have the best of the best tools in hand but if they are not sharp and you do not have a secure and sturdy way to hold your work those tools are useless. For that reason, I am going to treat work holding and sharpening as two additional categories of ‘tools’ for your consideration and each will have a dedicated post to further elaborate on them.
Handwork requires good work holding, this could be a traditional woodworking bench, or it could take on a different form, but it all serves a single purpose. That purpose is to hold your workpiece in a secure, safe, and stable manner so that it can be worked with efficiency and precision.
There are likely as many ways to sharpen your tools as there are individual woodworkers. I will discuss what has worked well for me and others that I know and trust. Ultimately, if your process gets your tools sharp quickly and efficiently then you can move on and start making shavings.
Up Next: Layout Tools
In Part Two of the guide we will begin to discuss the core tool categories and take a deeper look at layout tools. Here we will discuss recommendations for tools to get started with and resources for further information on layout.
About the Author: Patrick Brennan
Patrick Brennan developed a passion for learning and working with his hands at a young age. Fascinated by his families restoration of their 1800’s farmhouse in upstate New York, he began to develop an interest in building and woodworking. As a graduate student studying geology, he sought out a hobby that would satisfy his desire to work more actively with his hands. Out of a necessity to minimize dust and noise while living in a small apartment, he discovered hand tool woodworking. As Patrick further explored traditional woodworking, he quickly fell in love with using the tools and techniques of the past. He has since moved to Houston, Texas where he continues to share his woodworking journey through his blog, The Tekton Guild.