Getting Started in Woodworking With No Tools

Reader Brady Fretland writes:

I’m tired of drooling over the designs in your employer’s publications and want to get to work. However, here is my situation: My tools consist of a framing hammer, a ball peen hammer head with a broken handle, a Delta compound miter saw that hasn’t even made it out of the box yet, and a little Black and Decker multi-purpose drill-screwdriver tool.

No chisels, no clamps, definitely no spokeshave, 17 different wooden mallets, or pi-angle truffle planes designed and manufactured by the Elves of Middle Earth. My experience consists of several month-long forays into and out of frame and finish carpentry, before seasonal layoffs and thus, reality, intervened.

My completed projects include some restored floors and mouldings in a huge Victorian in South Minneapolis, and a letter holder made of a clothespin screwed onto a piece of 1 x 2 and stained with linseed oil for a 4th grade 4-H project.

I’ve read Woodworking Magazine for almost two years now, and have taken note of the required reading lists from your blog and from the Autumn 2006 issue, though I haven’t made any purchases. I also haven’t bought any of the recommended tools, because while it would be nice to own and eventually use a Lie-Nielsen jointer plane, I shy strongly from dropping $300 on one until I know that I’ll need it and have a damned good use for it.

So, from the recommendations in your reading materials and the projects they suggest, can you name for me: Two books to start with, four must-have tools, and a good couple projects to keep me busy this summer? I realize that you’re busy and I just dropped a tall and unbelievably generalized order on you, but just remember when you started, and shoot for something off the top of your head. Any advice you can give is much appreciated.

Editor Chris Schwarz responds:

I’ve been woodworking a long time, but I can still taste the frustration at getting started that you are experiencing. Right after college I was cursed with a burning desire to build furniture but had almost no tools. No shop. No money. And I wasn’t smart enough to have any good books (and I’m a writer — how dumb is that).

But I sat down at the kitchen table one night and sketched out a bench we needed for our kitchen. I went to the lumberyard and bought some pine. And I built the entire project with a circular saw (1960s vintage), a cheap drill, a block plane and a hammer. I keep the piece around to remind me (see above).

I built four or five more projects this way, and then the path became clearer. I could see better what tools I needed and the next steps on the path.

So here’s my advice: We have a special section of our web site called “I Can Do That,” that shows you how to assemble a very low-cost toolkit for building furniture. There’s a free digital eBook you can download there that shows you how to use these tools. And we have a few basic projects there built using these tools. (We feature one of these projects in every issue of Popular Woodworking).

Here’s where you can get started:

http://popularwoodworking.com/icandothat

After that, I would buy a good book on hand work. Either Aldren A Watson’s “Hand Tools” or Robert Wearing’s “The Essential Woodworker.”

And readers: If you have further advice for Brady, please post it in the Comments section. Any tips on getting started are appreciated. The hardest part of starting in woodworking is starting.

– Christopher Schwarz

10 thoughts on “Getting Started in Woodworking With No Tools

  1. Chris C

    Make that two. I think I use my good ol’ reliable
    Veritas low angle block plane on about every single
    project I can recall. It makes some tasks so simple,
    I can’t imagine not having it around.

    Which leads me to my advice for you: learn to sharpen
    early on, it will help you unlock a lot doors. I’m
    still learning myself, but it is time well spent and
    not nearly as hard to pick up as you might think.

    chris

  2. Rick Gayle

    Concerning getting started in woodworking, I’d like to add some thoughts on the approach and the process. First, never be in competition with anyone except yourself. Like a cross country runner, you want to be better than YOU were the last time out. Second, never become angry, embarrassed, or discouraged by your mistakes. If you’ve done something wrong, that means that you’ve at least done something. Third, enjoy the PROCESS more than the end result. As hard as it is to imagine doing something like sanding lovingly, you must complete each step of a project with joy and then step back and admire what you have done. Good luck to all novice woodworkers!

  3. Ian Willson

    Lots of great advice. I’ll add my 2 cents worth.

    I have the same problem myself – no money, no tools, limited experience.

    First – why buy tools when other people will do it for you? Learn the art of borrowing tools!

    Perhaps it’s my professional training coming through (architect don’t ya know), but why build when you can draw? Pick a project as your starting point and draw it out. Meticulously. Keep on drawing it until you know every nuance of every piece you have to cut. saves bother down the line.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY! Every dollar you invest in your square will come right back to you in tijme saved. Most "Tri Squares" are fine for framing, but a disaster when building smaller more intricate pieces.

  4. Chris

    First of all, "what they said."

    But ‘woodworking’ is such a broad subject that it’s almost like saying you want to work outdoors, or indoors. SO far you’ve only done some carpentry and read about workshop projects, just enough to have some idea what you’d like to try next. So your next step is decide clearly what you want to do first as a project, as well as for a living.

    If you want to continue with carpentry, the absolute first step would be to get that chopsaw out of the box and onto a decent stand with wheels. Mount the saw (if possible) all the way to the side , whichever handed you are — to the right if right-handed, because your ‘off-hand’ is your work-holding hand, and you’ll want that part supported by the work rest of the stand. Then get all the few little accessory jigs for it that will help you work efficiently. You can do a LOT more than just carpentry with that chopsaw — it’s basically the little brother of the full-size radial arm saw, that will never ‘climb’ on you either.

    Next you’ll want a decent table saw with a good rip fence. Forget the monsters or even the so-called "hybrid" cabinet saws, you’re just starting out, remember? Portability is what you’ll want, so get a Mobile Base too. Right now Lowe’s is closing out their inventory of Delta MB kits, which need only four (nominal) 2×2’s cut to fit the stand. To save a few bucks grab a couple right now before they’re gone, one for the table saw and at least one more for any future floorstand-mounted tool(s), whatever it/they may be. A couple years ago I got a nice ‘refurbished’ Delta ‘contractor saw’ (as opposed to a bench-top "table" saw) complete with stand & 40 tooth blade for $160 at a Porter Cable Store, so shop carefully and don’t fall in the trap of paying too much in haste for the first nice saw you encounter, especially if you’re still between good-paying jobs. DO snap up any bargains when they happen, if you can.

    About 30 years ago I built a Youth Bed (that’s actually a standard size, like Twin or Queen) for my daughter, out of 2×8 lumber using only a tape measure, drill, belt sander and (I think?) a hand-held circular saw (unless I had them cut to length). Point is you can do a lot with very few basic tools. One of those first most essentials is a good drill. I happen to prefer Made In U.S.A. Milwaukee corded drills but NOT the Made In CHina throwaway cordless — the brushes cannot be replaced; the entire motor frame must be replaced, for the cost of a new one that also comes with a new battery! (Plus I do not buy Made In Communist Red China!!!)

    All the New Yankee Workshop second-mortgage vunder- machinery is for advanced cabinet making. At this point, you still need the most basic general-purpose tools. Get a large set of Craftsman screwdrivers ASAP — only buy replacements singly as needed. You can’t have too many tape measures but you will need at least two: One small one for measuring within arms-reach, and a FatMax for measuring beyond arms-reach. A word-to-the-wise: Keep all tape measures out of sight from plumbers — they collect Other People’s Tape Measures like Liberals catch STD’s: Whenever & wherever they can.

    Then buy a Crescent AT610CS Adjustable Wrench Set and either a Crescent LB810 Dura-Pliers Box Joint Pliers Set or a similar set of Channellocks — unless your best buddy is Data from Star Trek you’ll need these to put just about everything together (or take it apart) in life. An assortment of squares, levels and clamps are also essentials.

    So you have the chopsaw now; next get a good 3/8" drill; then a table saw, preferably ‘contractor’ size; at which point you can make almost anything fairly basic, like shelf units, for example (using a dado head or set on the table saw. A 7-1/4" circular saw is also essential since you can’t always take the work to the table saw or vice-versa.

    A shop-vac and an HPLV sprayer will make life a whole lot saner fairly early on. A sawzall (any brand) is like a dishwasher or central A/C: You think you have no need until you get one, then can’t imagine ever living without it. Like a Life Saver (not the candy) you won’t need it until you need it REALLY BADLY. Get an assortment of blades with it. And DO NOT buy the biggest & baddest — you simply cannot stall the damn thing, and More Power always means More Weight and More Expense.

    I would suggest a good router as the next major purchase, followed by a Porter-Cable 343K Random Orbit sander since your arms will be very tired from hand-sanding by then, followed by a Porter-Cable 371K belt sander. You will want a 4×24 later but start with this little guy first.

    When you have all the above and are using them, you will then know exactly where you are going and will also know exactly what more you will need to get there.

    BTW, nobody uses hand planes anymore. Good luck & have fun!

  5. Dave Cagle

    Brady,

    Lots of good advice above, particularly about going slowly and buying good-quality tools. (The most expensive tool you will ever buy is a cheap one that you have to replace before you finish the project that you bought it for.)

    The best advice I can offer is to find a good woodworking club in the nearby area. Find one and become friends with the members. Most of them have large numbers of now-unused tools that have been replaced by something better. The unused tools are cluttering up their workshops. If you tell them of your burning desire to be a woodworker and that you don’t have much dough, they can find all kinds of tools that are underfoot.

    So, you are doing them a favor by taking their clutter off their hands and they will provide invaluable advice on projects as well as major purchases.

    The old guys generally love to share their passion. Give them a chance to talk about what they love. They and you will be rewarded.

    Good luck
    Dave

  6. Bill Dalton

    I was lucky when I started my dad had all kinds of woodworking tools and I started working in a furniture plant when I was 14. Now I’m 50 and I still have the same problem you do where do you start and where do you put your money I have all kinds of equipment that I wished I had waited and bought something else… Don’t buy anything you are not going to use tomorrow (unless it’s really cheap or really cool) Check out garage sales you can find some great stuff and restoring tools is a great way to learn to use them. I have the expensive hand planes but the one I use the most is an old sargent hand plane that I restored and paid $8.00 for it, now has a better blade but that plane gets as much use as any tool in my garage. Make something practicle a book case or table, only buy what you need to do the project cutting sheet material is a problem because you can cut it with a $10000 table saw or a $10 hand saw I would use a sabre saw to begin with. Make a bird house with a hand saw and nails but build something it’s the only way to get started and see if it’s really what you want to do or if you just want to watch.
    Bill

  7. Norman Boucher

    Brady, I’m not all that far ahead of you in experience, having been a woodworker for only a year and a half. I started when I got five $20 bills from my parents a couple of birthdays ago and, not knowing any better, went to Home Depot and bought a $99 portable table saw. With that, and a screwdriver and a wrench, I made my workbench out of plywood and two-by-fours.

    The tablesaw lasted about a year before giving up the ghost, and I’ve replaced it with the one I should have bought in the first place, but the bench is solid and gets used almost every day.

    So my recommendation for a summer project is to build yourself the most important tool of all: a solid workbench. Mine is nothing fancy—I used plans available on another website—and probably cost me $100 to make, but I learned a lot about woodworking while building it, and only I can see the mistakes I made.

    Something else I did was hunt down inexpensive pre–World War II hand planes on eBay and from old tool dealers (some people find them at flea markets, but I didn’t know enough yet to evaluate what I was seeing). There’s plenty of info out there on getting them into top condition. I’d recommend a jointer, a jack plane, a smoothing plane, and a low-angle block plane. These will do just about anything you’re likely to need for a while.

    Someday I may to try to build one of Chris’s benches, but I’m too busy learning how to be woodworker on my plywood-top bench to do so now. (Looking foward to your book, Chris.)

  8. Chris Schwarz

    John,

    Great story! What do you use the changing table for now? All our baby furniture had a Viking funeral.

    Chris

  9. Derrel

    Woodworking can be a “black hole” just like any other hobby…. You can pour lots of money in and not get much valued return back out… in pleasure or production…

    Here are two mistakes I think a lot of people make… If not a lot… at least me…

    One mistake is to buy too many tools at once… Go slow… Buy the tools you need not the tools you want… or think you want… Do you want to use power tools or hand tools or like most of us both… Do not try to “match tools” with other wood workers … Find your niche in woodworking… What do you want to do… make jewelry boxes, crafts, turning, carving, or furniture… Find the tools to meet your area of desire… It amazes me how many experienced woodworkers only do a few things… but they do them well… Their tools match their desire…

    Another mistake that I made was to buy “cheap” tools… There is nothing in getting a good bargain or even buying cloned tools but be sure of the quality. I have bought more than one tool only to have it break or I could not adjust it properly or it would not keep sharp… Read the tool reviews out on the web and in great magazines like Popular Woodworking. Talk to other woodworkers. Browse the woodworking stores … Even some of the home stores such as Lowes and Home Depot have some good tools but the selection may be limited…

    Here are some suggestions…

    Find a woodworking club in the area… They are a GREAT resource of experience and help. Many have libraries of books and videos to share.

    And spend the money to go to a woodworking school or class. Many woodworking stores offer local classes that are great to build your confidence… They will teach you the proper and SAFE way to use your tools… YOU CAN NOT BEAT THAT! You can also experience different areas of woodworking to find your niche…

    Hope this helps!

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