Tools you don’t need

Over the years, I’ve turned to my brother Steve for practical advice on a range of subjects. Older brothers are good that way. Several gems of brotherly advice have included the phrase “nah, you don’t need that…¦..”. Though this is rarely the answer I was seeking, it’s been helpful none-the-less this. One that stands out in my mind was when Steve advised me against piercing my ear. It was the 80’s. I have nothing against men who pierce their ears. But I certainly don’t need one. If you have one, don’t let me convince you it’s stupid. If you are following me (and my brother), I’m just saying it’s “skippable”.

When magazine editors review tools, they generally look for the good in the tools. They analyze whether the tools serve their intended purpose and if so, how well. What I don’t often hear them say is “it works, but nah, you don’t need that…¦”. So I’ve put together a list of tools I think you can skip. These tools may be very good performers. They may be of very high quality. People may love them. All this can be true and they can still make my “skip list”. Just like the earring. Ok? Here we go:

1) Block plane- I’ve had several of these over the years. The only new plane I ever bought was a jewel-like LV LA block plane. It’s a lovely tool I never use. I bought it for planing end grain, but never use it for that. I use my humble wood bodied smoother, typically the sharpest plane in my shop. The high angle of the smoother seems to matter not at all. More about that later. I even prefer the cambered iron for this operation as it works just like a try plane. Center the plane on the high spot, holding the tool flat against the end grain. The cambered iron takes a heavier shaving there and less or none on the low side. Works like a charm.

2) Shoulder plane- People who have these planes love them. In a recent ww forum thread, advocates of these tools agreed they aren’t always needed for planing tenon shoulders, but they ARE useful for a host of other operations such as rabbets. Well I have rabbet planes for rabbets and they work just fine. When cutting a rabbet with a rabbet plane, I need a plane that removes wood quickly. I generally don’t care if there’s tear out in the rabbet. I need a rabbet that performs like a jack plane, not a smoother. What I think is guys don’t use rabbets to cut rabbets. They use table saws to cut rabbets and fix the error from the table saw with a shoulder plane. That seems like that’s the long way. I say skip both tools and buy yourself a rabbet plane to cut rabbets. Novel!

3) Low angle planes- I’m not a huge fan of low angle planes in general. I don’t like what happens to the back of the iron (wear bevel) and many of these planes aren’t significantly lower angle than normal planes. I think the chief advantage of a low angle plane is that it has a stiffer load path between the wood and the plane’s sole. The iron doesn’t see as much bending and therefore doesn’t have to be as thick as a normal plane. I wonder if manufacturers wouldn’t be better off using thinner irons in their low angle planes. That would make them easier to grind, certainly. Maybe I’d like them more then. As it is devotees tell me these planes out perform normal planes. Well I’m happy with the performance of my normal (as well as some of my abnormal) planes. So I say skip these. But let me add the caveat that I work with woods that are notoriously easy to plane.

4) Sharpening gadgets- I’ve tried several sharpening gadgets. I’m convinced all of these are on the market solely to help woodworkers put off the inevitable mastery of free hand sharpening. As such, I really can’t quibble with them too much. The basic honing jigs are not so bad. I bought a worksharp a few years ago thinking it would help me flatten backs on new chisels. It works, but it doesn’t do what I needed. I say skip it. I also bought this delta thing years ago with a horizontal water wheel and a small grinding wheel. These things don’t really replace hand work and elbow grease. Like adulthood, old age or similar inevitabilities it may well be best to put it off as long as possible. But for those of you on the quest to find the best sharpening machine, I think it’s time to turn your horse around and head back to Camelot. Every thing you need is already there. Skip the gadgets.

5) Swan neck chisels- I’m sorry but these tools are just plain goofy. What are they for again? Levering the waste out of the bottom of a mortise? Why do I need to do that again? Skip it.

6) Sash mortise chisels- Are we making window sash? I don’t think so. Skip it. If you want to cut a mortise, get a proper mortise chisel like this one.

7) Marking gauges with measurements on them- The point of a gauge is to transfer a measurement from one item to another. In industrial applications, guys have “master gauges” or “gauge blocks”. If you are looking for precision, use master gauges (your chisels are a convenient and consistent source of repeatable dimensions). Otherwise, just use a pencil and a ruler and skip the gauge with the micrometer adjustment.

8) Jointer fences- Some manufacturers make these machined fences that attach to your planes to help you hold the plane square to the face. I say if you want to use a power jointer just go use it and don’t feel bad about it. If you want to use a hand plane, learn how. To square an edge, get a try plane with a cambered iron and learn the trick.

9) Combination planes (Stanley #45, #55, #46 is iffy)- If there was ever a tool you can skip its the combination plane. The quintessential Swiss army knife of woodworking tools, these planes do a hundred and one jobs and none of them well. The way the cutters are held is goofy, and the lack of a sole is a significant disadvantage. The fact that you find pristine planes in their original packaging should be the tip off.

10) Snipe bill planes- These are traditional wooden molding planes I have never found useful. I always thought their chief purpose was to refine quirks, features found on some sorts of moldings. I have planes that produce quirks and I’ve never felt the need to refine one. I now wonder if they weren’t used to blend certain features when 2 lengths of molding are spliced together. I’ve had this problem in the past. I just don’t know how many people are doing architectural moldings by hand besides me. The only reason I did it was because I needed molding I was too cheap to pay for and I don’t have a molder/shaper/router thingamabob.

Recently Don McConnell of Clark and Williams showed snipe bills as “entry planes” used to start features in complex moldings. Don cited documentary evidence for this, so he wasn’t guessing. Don’s use is impressive and convincing so you may choose to take this tool off the “skip list”. With all due respect to Don, there are 100 ways to cut moldings. I’ve learned most of them from stuff Don wrote (Thanks Don!). I currently use a square rabbet for this job or I use my finger tip fence and I’m happy with my results.

11) Side Rabbets- These too are traditional planes. Mine don’t work well. The throats are uneven and the cutters move sideways in use. Otherwise, they are pristine. People say these are used to adjust the inner walls of dadoes. Really? If you used a decent dado plane to cut the feature, you’d be making a mistake adjusting it’s walls. I’ve heard guys love the Stanley version of these tools. If you are setting up shop, or looking to buy tools you don’t have, I’d move this tool pretty far down on the list.

12) “Dovetail” Chisels- Some manufacturers make chisels with a triangular cross section and market them as dovetail chisels. The idea is to help you chop out the waste between tails. Problem number one is that there isn’t in fact wood that needs to be removed in the acute corner of a tail. The saw removed that. So a sharp cornered chisel isn’t absolutely necessary. Now it could be that if you used a saw that had a .010″ thick blade, there is material very close to the corner. One possible solution is to buy a proper western dt saw which leaves a massive .020-.026″ path in it’s wake. This should allow you to use just about any old chisel to clean out the waste. I think it’s worth noting that 18th c Anglo-American cabinetmakers didn’t have dovetails chisels or indeed bevel sided chisels. They had thin square sided chisels which brings me to problem number two: When chopping out waste, you must chop a hole for the chisel to penetrate. The goal is penetration/removal of the waste. So thicker chisels are simply more work. The same logic that tells us Japanese saws are faster cutting because they are thinner and remove less wood, tells us Japanese chisels chop slower because they are thicker and remove more wood.

13) Fish tail chisels- I’d like to make some fish tail chisels. It’s on my to do list. I think they would be fun. So let’s pretend its sometime in the future and I am making and selling fishtail chisels. I have to look you in the eye and tell you these tools are skippable. You don’t really need a fishtail chisel to clean out the waste between half blind pins. I just use a narrow chisel for that. The case for these tools is a bit better than the dovetail chisels above however. Typically you can’t get your saw all the way into the corners at the bottom of a half blind pin. I think it’s even harder when the drawer is lipped. I certainly try, though! If you’ve got money in your tool budget, these aren’t a crazy purchase (though I’m not sure you need a set of them).

14) Japanese flush cutting saws- These tools are made from thin flexible steel and have their teeth set on only one side. I find them very…¦helpful! Surprise! Just breaking up the monotony. I only have one and I wish I had the other They are available with either the left or right sides’ teeth unset. These are not traditional tools. Scratch marks on the backs of cases where craftsmen sawed moldings flush with cases attest to that. I like these WAY better than the western backed versions (which probably aren’t traditional either). The advantage over a western saw is how they can reach areas western saws can’t and how you can flex them to conform to non-flat surfaces. I use my left hand’s finger tips to hold the saw down and slip the saw back and forth under them. The teeth are sharp and I’ve cut myself doing this at least once (and it hurts). I find these to be helpful, often overlooked tools.

15) Scraper plane- I’m really not looking to be difficult. These are great tools and they work well. But in my opinion, cabinet scrapers do essentially the same job and are a bit easier to use. They can work into depressions etc. Scraper planes might be helpful for leveling super difficult wood or veneers. Maybe this one doesn’t belong in the same category as a swan neck chisel. But I would certainly start with a cabinet scraper and only buy a scraper plane when nothing else works.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few. That’s where you come in. Be sure to add those tools that you’ve bought and really didn’t find all that effective. Also, as always, feel free to argue if any of your favorites made my skip list. This is just my opinion at this point in time. If you’ve got a different opinion, share it. But I’m warning you- if anybody says anything nice about the swan neck chisel they may be forced to wear high heeled buckle shoes until they recant.


33 thoughts on “Tools you don’t need

  1. Shannon

    This is good timing on this post Adam. BTW, I love that I can hear your voice in your writing! I have been working on some videos for my blog about building furniture with as few tools as possible and learning a lot about my own tool excesses. It was nice to hear your opinions and I have to say I agree with most of them. (I do use my block plane a great deal, and I fought hard for that set of Snipes Bill planes so nothing you say will make me admit I don’t need them!)

    Keep up the "off the beaten path" posting

  2. Adam Cherubini

    A little more for our August friend, I think advice like this is common in our normal lives but for commercial reasons, or other reasons, you won’t get it in the ww press (or often at least). So it’s lack of frequency shouldn’t lull us into the belief that this is never appropriate, accurate etc etc. It’s the sort of thing we can talk about here as friends, but even I (I who am fearless) wouldn’t discuss this in a magazine article.


  3. Adam Cherubini

    Sorry Jaysen. Carving tools are about the best I can offer you.

    Kari, how do you feel about your wooden planes? I wonder if size is an issue with you. From what you said, it sounded like you liked your block plane for jobs in which you are using your plane one handed. Even if you have hands the size of a catcher’s mitt, it isn’t easy to control a S#4 one handed. I can easily handle a wooden smoother. So maybe I feel less attracted to the block plane. What I’m saying is it could be a hand size thing. You got me thinking….

    Warren, this is the sort of advice I’ve heard you give me and others. I think it’s fun and super helpful. Underhill is all about this sort of stuff. He’s anti-consumerist. I don’t mind a healthy dose of capitalism. I just think there’s so much stuff to buy, it’s smart to be choosy.


  4. Adam Cherubini

    I agree. It’s a bit arrogant. Everybody gets to use what they want.


    This is (obviously) not your average blog. We tend to run a little deeper here. On this blog, I’m exploring the relationship between the sort of negative advice (that we’ve all gotten over the years) and attempts to be diplomatic with tool reviews. I think PWW does a better job of this than others do.

    Had I phrased this as "tools I don’t feel I need", the real message (maybe there are tools we don’t really need, no matter how good they are) would have been further obscured. Hope it wasn’t lost on you Auguste!


  5. Auguste Gusteau

    I agree with some tools and diagree with some other, but this is not the problem.
    The really unbearable thing is when someone wants to impose with arrogance someone other which tools use and which not.
    Was it really necessary to entitle this post "Tools you don’t need"?
    Did you seemed to be too humble to entitle it "Tools I don’t need"?


  6. W Mickley

    Very nice list, Adam. I almost wondered if you had nosing about my shop. There are 10 items on the list I have never tried and there are two that I use. (1) Sash mortise chisels. I do make a lot of sash; at one time sash was good part of my trade. The 19th century style you show is alright for mortises that are long or shallow. 18th century mortise chisels tend to be a lot lighter. (2) 45 plane. When I bought this 30 years ago it really opened up new worlds for me. There isn’t any operation it does that another plane doesn’t do better. Yet to assemble a set of dado planes, moving fillister, plow, sash planes, match planes, center beads and beading planes and get them all working well is quite an investment. Both time and money.

  7. justin ashley

    Ditto on the bevel up planes. My first real purchase was a Veritas bevel-up jack. And while Schwartz and the rest of the hand-tool world proclaim the "you can use this plane for so many things" flexibility of these tools, I find it to work just well enough to frustrate me. Oh, and getting a cambered iron to cut is a pain, and the depth/lateral adjuster is crap. I should have just bought an e-bay jointer and smoother instead… (if anyone has a #7 they’d like to trade, it’s….)

    Oh, and my pick goes for tape-measures.


  8. gdblake


    The Stanley 45 gets panned all the time. I have the Record 405 clone. Mine works well. I use it as a plow, rabbet, tongue & groove, and simple moulding plane. It has gotten me by quite nicely. Even Roy Underhill has been known to use one now and then.

    Still, I agree if you have the dedicated planes for these functions, It is a tool most people can skip.

  9. The Village Carpenter

    Adam, I love the way you stir the pot. ; )

    I’m going to have to give you a hard time about the block plane. I use my Lee Valley, low angle plane just about every time I’m in the shop. It’s ideal for chamfering edges on small projects, rounding thin sticks into dowels, and edge- and face-planing thin, small boards. A larger plane would be hard to handle with those tasks.

    Will we see you at WIA? Hope so!

  10. Matt Sullenbrand


    Thanks for the post. I agree with you on all accounts. One problem I have had is finding an antique straight wooden rabbet plane in OK condition. It seems that these were probably workhorse planes and mostly were all used up and are not even good enough to hang on the wall at the local Applebees. So when I got started, all I could find was a shoulder plane. I will keep looking though.

    Folks might already know about this post, but this one by Peter Follansbee really got me thinking about what is necessary to do good woowork:

    Thanks for all you do Adam. Hope to meet you someday.


  11. Jaysen

    Adam, in #12, you stated "…18th c Anglo-American cabinetmakers didn’t have dovetails chisels or indeed bevel sided chisels. They had thin square sided chisels…" Any recommendations?

  12. Adam Cherubini

    Did anybody click on the Night At The Museum link? I found that movie very funny. "Ba-rundon". It was the scene at the end that I was think of when I wrote that about the sash chisels. Its the one where the Pharaoh is talking to Darth Vader.

    Badger, hang in there and consider ebay. You could buy 4 wooden smoothers for $10 each including shipping and find one gem in the bunch. Or you could be blessed like me and get 4 good planes. Planes are simple things after all. Maybe too much has been said about them. Like saws, the best one is the sharp one. Provided the iron is decent, as long as the blade holds it’s position, the plane will be successful.


  13. Badger

    "once you buy and tune up a decent smoother, you probably won’t use your block plane quite so often."

    It’s totally on my list of tools to acquire, tools are hard to find out here (Pacific Northwest) so it’s slow going generally on finding hand tools out here.


  14. Adam Cherubini

    No, you were right Scott. I added the link to Joel’s website.

    Bob, those are all goodies! Corner chisel. Brilliant. I mean, if one chisel is good, why not weld two together? I’m proud to say I don’t know what a butt mortise plane is.

    Mike, I’ll work on that.

    Badger- once you buy and tune up a decent smoother, you probably won’t use your block plane quite so often. I think they were originally designed to fit into a carpenter’s tool pouch.


  15. Badger

    The only one I disagree with (and disagree is almost too strong of a word) is the Block Plane.

    But I feel that way for all the same reasons you cite for not using it. It’s one of my sharpest tools, and I don’t own a wood smoother (although I want one). it was one of my few hand sharpening success stories, and it’s small size is a major asset for fitting and tuning my joints.

    I recently picked up the Millers Falls clone of the hard to find Stanley 140 (skewed block plane with removable side) and it’s very quickly becoming my GO TO plane for end grain.

    However, I could very easily have skipped it. 🙂 I see the point of your post, and I think that the woodworking world (like much of the modern world) can easily become VERY gadget obsessed. Especially in the power tool world, which could be more of a factor of marketing than anything.

    I have Stanley #45 Combo, and it’s just a plow plane for all I’ve used it for it’s intended purpose. Totally skippable, but also I totally enjoy owning it. It’s a very neat tool. The basic 16th century woodworking tool kit could make almost everything that the 18th century kit.

    Good post.

  16. Mike Witteveen

    I read this list with great interest wondering if any of my purchases made the list, and I have to say I’ve done quite well. Maybe it’s my inability to buy new tools as a whim, or my innate frugality, either way, hooray for me. On the other hand, I remember reading of a round table type discussion you would have liked to have at the Williamsburg Conference of what tools an 18th century woodworker really needs. Did you ever come up with that list? I am curious because I think my tool purchases are now driven by a need for a certain joint, or operation, instead of a "general woodworking" sense. The next round of tool purchases is coming up, specifically, cutting rabbets and dadoes.

    I do realize that I may be trying to adapt modern joinery to fit within the context of 18th century work, so maybe I need to investigate whether or not I really need a dadoe in the first place, or if it has to be that accurate to need to be cut by a plane, and not hacked out with some chisels.

    Always learning,


  17. Bob Rozaieski

    16)Chisel Plane and/or Bullnose Plane – I’ve never faced a task where I needed one of these. Anything that these tools are touted to do "well" I’ve done just as well with a chisel.

    17)Butt Mortise Plane – Again, my chisels work just fine for making hinge mortises.

    18)Corner Chisel – Maybe useful for timber framing in wet wood, but for cabinet work, regular chisels can make corners just fine.

    19)Concave Spokeshave – Hard to sharpen and work no better than a flat shave.

    20)Cranked Neck Chisels & Gouges – Maybe useful for patternmakers, but a definite "skip-it" for anyone else.

    I’m sure I could come up with a bunch of others as well :D.

  18. Scott Stahl

    Disregard my last. I just viewed the page source; apparently my security software curtain has rendered the link inert.

  19. Scott Stahl

    In number six:

    "get a proper mortise chisel like this one."

    Implies that there should be a link embedded in the text.

    Is that chisel somewhere else that I’m missing?


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