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. Grandpa 580

    Adam, I think you made a serious mistake in your article. You are telling me what I don’t need when you should have been telling this to yourself. You don’t need those tools. You don’t know what I need because you don’t know what I do. You are correct when you say I don’t need those because I don’t own most of them. They are hand tools and I like power tools. There are some things that can’t be done as well with power tools so we have to resort to hand tools and they did in the old days. Some people like to begin there and not go to the power tools. Fine by me. Just don’t try to tell me what I need and don’t need. I have some friends on the list above and I respect their way of doing this. I often wish I could do some of those things the way they do them but I don’t own those tools so you and I will probably never learn the skilled methods they employ. You have raised a stink in the areas I read. Don’t lose your job over it. Apologize now before it is too late. By the way, I do own and use a block plane. Why not? I works.

  2. bertha

    I must be a real sucker, as I have every tool on your list. I can’t comment on the witty earring transition, as I think it’d look pretty smart with that mock turtleneck. Maybe you could get a itty bitty woodbodied smoother on a post; that’s clearly all that’s needed. I wonder why many of the tools you list are so prized and desirable. It must be those nasty collectors whose planes rest within glass cabinets and not the bench. I’ll hazard a guess that you have an amazing stationary mortiser, wide helical head planer and jointer; and an exquisite dado set in your cabinet saw. Clean lock mortises can surely be executed with the proper machinery. I feel sorry for all the traditional woodworkers who carry these tools in their sets. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and both of ours are found here.

  3. Adam Cherubini


    You raise some great points.

    "… some things are not worth the time and aggravation to learn how to do the old fashion way."

    I agree (hopefully not surprisingly). The trick is knowing what is on offer and what we loose when we turn our backs.

    In this particular case, sharpening freehand is probably the most obvious example. If one can learn to hone freehand, one will be able to hone and use carving tools, and lathe tools. If one can only hone with a jig, these doors will be closed. Maybe you don’t want to carve or turn. And that’s fine. I’d prefer that be a choice one has, not a consequence of one’s tool choices.


  4. David

    I’m with you on a lot of things, but I really think this is an incomplete picture.

    1. Block plane – So much easier to use than a #4 or larger on really small stock (draw dividers, wedges, etc.). Good for chamfers too (I now have a dedicated plane for chamfers).

    2. Mortise chisel. I just purchased some Japanese mortise chisels (don’t have them yet). I have the Ray Iles chisels but find them overkill for most of the mortising I’m doing, which includes a lot of through wedge m&t. I want something lighter, shorter, and that I can hit with a small brass head hammer (glen drake). I don’t like a wooden mallet. I find them awkward to use compared to my glen drake hammer.

    3. Sharpening gadgets – Totally agree with the hand sharpening thing. So much faster and more efficient, and really not that hard to master. There are definitely cases when I’m glad to have the MKII for establishing the primary bevel of a new plane iron (I don’t use secondary bevels btw).

    4. Dovetail chisels – Total waste. Don’t buy them. They offer no advantage over bevel-edge chisels. They might if there was no land (I believe that’s what you call it). I thought they would be sharp on the edges. They’re not. They’re just hard to hold because of the point on the top. Skew your chisel to get into the corners. Problem solved.

    5. Fishtail chisel – I have one. Hardly ever use it. Makes the half blind job a little easier. Get a paring chisel version (long handle) and not a striking chisel.

    6. Low angle planes – Do yourself a favor a get a low angle plane for shooting. So much better than a 45 degree plane. I sold my LN no. 9 and got a philly plane shooting plane. BTW, wooden is so much better for this job. Less friction and lot’s of surface area.

    7. Swan neck – Love mine. I find them way easier than levering out waste with the mortise chisel once you’re in deep. They’re not expensive (

    8. Jointer fence – Never owned one. Kind of embarrassing to be honest. Learning to square an edge with a cambered iron is not easy. It takes practice. I tried to skip learning this skill for a while. Glad I gave in and finally just learned how to do it. Much better than any fenced tool (I was using an edge trimming plane for a short while).

    9. Shoulder plane – I didn’t use mine for a long time. I now use one to clean up the shoulders of tenons and think it’s the best way to get perfect shoulders. Which is also the best way to get a perfectly square m&t. So bottom line, if you can do this from the saw cut or with chisels more power to you. I couldn’t, but I can with a couple passes from a shoulder plane and some checking with a double square.

  5. Jorge

    hmmmm…..Let me check my list..

    Block plane…got it
    Shoulder plane…got it
    Low angle planes…yep, jack, jointer, smoother, miter
    Sharpening gadget….yep, Veritas MKII guide
    Marking gauge with measurements on it….check
    Jointer fence…..check,
    Side rabbet plane….yep, LN 98 and 99
    Scraper plane….got it…

    So let see, as a novice woodworker (3 years and counting) I should learn how to woodwork in this manner.

    I should learn how to balance a wide plane on a 3/4 or 1/2 inch side of a panel instead of grabbing a block plane, put a knuckle under the edge and guide it just like a fence to get a straight 90º edge.
    I should learn how to adjust tenon shoulders with a rabbet plane instead of of a SHOULDER plane.

    I should have bought 6 or 9 planes, some with York pitch and gotten used to hassle with them 5 minutes each time I wanted to change the mouth opening instead of buying 3 planes I can just change the blade for the required angle and spent 30 seconds to open and close the mouth.

    I should ruin the edge of my expensive japanese and mortise chisels while I spend a couple of months learning how to sharpen them free hand instead of spending a couple of more minutes while I put them on a sharpening guide and get a perfect edge every time… and all so I can say I can sharpen free hand…uh huh, check.

    I should get used to using a pencil and a ruler to mark my tenon shoulders instead of a marking gauge with measurements and then practice using my rabbet plane to trim the shoulders.

    When making a table I should hire and assistant to help me make sure I get perfect jointed edges on the jointer, and if we mess up I should learn how to balance a 22 inch jointer plane on an inch an a quarter edge and possibly never getting an invisible joint instead of grabbing a fence. Still with you.

    Instead of using a table saw or a router table to make grooves and dadoes and then shaving just a tiny bit with a side rabbet plane I am stuck using a plow or dado plane forever to get a perfect fit. Bummer….

    Suffering is good for the soul, instead of using a 4 inch blade on a scraper plane I should use a 1 3/4 inch cabinet scraper blade to scrape a 10 feet by 4 feet table top.

    I know I am being sarcastic, but perhaps you should consider that some things are not worth the time and aggravation to learn how to do the old fashion way.

    PS. I have another tool I bet my bottom dollar you think it is useless as well…a compass or ship plane… 🙂

  6. Adam Cherubini

    Sorry for the confusion Auguste. Try me again on the next blog entry. Clifton/Clico make the S#45.


  7. Auguste Gusteau

    Please replace
    "like Christopher Schwarz, Editor, and others that are not, like you." with
    "like, for example, Christopher Schwarz, Editor, and others that are not, like, for example, you".


  8. Auguste Gusteau

    So, Ada+, if this time I hit the point, with this post you are critiquing the industry because… Why? Because they design and produce tools that you don’t need but someone else find usefull? And you want to convince people not to buy their products or you want to convice who find their product usefull to throw them away? I really do not understant this critique. Anyway, just for information, could you tell me which is the industry who still produce Stanley #45, #55 and #46?
    And however, don’t you feel hypocritical to criticize the advice coming from magazines and then write for a magazine that, like most other magazines, can’t wait for new tool so to fill a few more reviews pages?

    And I still have something to say and then I’ll leave you in peace.
    This is just an information for you.
    I read many english woodworking related and not related blogs, forums and websites.
    There are people who are easy to read for a foreigner, like Christopher Schwarz, Editor, and others that are not, like you.
    I repeat that this is only an information for you, it is not a criticism, probably your English is perfect, I’m just explaining you the perspective of a foreigner who knows English, but not as a mother tongue one.


  9. Adam Cherubini

    One more time, August- I think you are missing the point. This post is about more than tools and my views of them. I’m critiquing the industry, and attempting to expose the difference between brotherly advice we might give or get, and the advice we get from magazines and guys who just bought the tool and love it. So I wrote the post with that language to make that point.

    I’m familiar with your biting rhetoric, Auguste. Criticism is welcome here. I’ll consider it respectfully. And you’ll find things here that deserve arguing over. You’ll also find something truly arrogant. I think you should hold your fire until then.


  10. Auguste Gusteau

    Ada, I’m not criticizing the content of the post, but only the form and manner in which you expose it.
    I don’t need fishtail chisels and scarper planes to.
    I don’t need Stanley #45, #55 and low angle planes too.
    And I agree with you about other tools too.
    But it really annoy me when someone wants to impose on me his ideas.
    It is like as a japanes woodworker who say you: "oh my god, do you use vices? Made you smarter, you don’t need vices".


  11. Bruce Jackson

    After I priced shoulder planes, I said, you know, the critical part is the blade rather than the body. So, I sent away for the blade, all of $40. Then I built the plane around it. Still, I put too many bells and whistles on it, so this fall, I will build a better, simpler body, plus a separate body for using the blade like a chisel plane.

    The upshot is that I took your list and turned some of the items into, Make rather than buy … if I feel the need for it. I did need the shoulder plane, and would really like a rabbet plane, too. So I’ll wind up buying the blade and buiding that, too.

    Really, Adam, isn’t that what a good number of 18th c woodworkers do?

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