Every week I get asked where to begin when trying to become a hand-tool
woodworker. The snarky answer is, “I have no idea because I did it the
There are as many different paths to take as there are woodworkers. So
anything I write on this topic is sure to be dissected, digested and
disagreed with. And that’s fine. Every hand-tool blogger should probably
make his or her own recommendations so that people can see the
diversity of opinion as they troll the web.
But here are my recommendations. I tried to keep this list as brief as
possible. My unabridged list would take me weeks to compile, and I don’t
want to scare people off. A photo of my library at home would send
people screaming to buy a screaming plunge router.
I like these books. So that’s where I would begin.
1. “Woodwork Tools” by William Fairham or “Tools for Woodwork” by Charles H. Hayward. This book is a fantastic foundation for understanding what tools are required
and what they do. I grew up with the Hayward edition, which is hard to
find; Toolemera Press has reprinted the Fairham edition, which is
excellent (look for a review next week). I twisted arms around here to
get this book in our store.
2. “Woodwork Joints” by William Fairham or Charles H. Hayward. This book details all the
joinery that goes on in a furniture shop. It is a complete education,
from the basic butt joint up to complex stuff that even I have yet to
try. Again, I grew up with the hard-to-find Hayward edition. Toolemera’s
Fairham edition is fantastic and inexpensive. Avoid the Sterling
edition if you can. All the copies I have encountered are odd in one way
3. “The Essential Woodworker” by Robert Wearing. This book puts all the
puzzle pieces together. It shows you how to take the tools in hand, cut
the joints and make the foundation projects that lead to a lifetime of
proper woodworking. It detail all the processes for a table, a cabinet, a
drawer and a door. Yes, you can teach yourself this stuff, but you’ll
always have an instructor that is just as dumb as you are. This book is
based on traditional training and is very practical.
After reading these books, I would then find someone who knows how to
sharpen. Take a one-afternoon class at your local Woodcraft, school or
woodworking club. Experience a sharp edge and what it can do. Then
sharpen a 1/2” chisel as best you can and just start making cuts on a
block of white pine from the home center. See how the wood reacts
differently to cuts with, against and across the face grain. Pare end
grain. This basic exercise will help you understand how wood fails and
start you down the road of understanding how to read a board so you know
how to apply the tools.
Start buying your tools, but don’t get too bogged down in the details and
trying to compare one brand to another. Buy the best tools you can
afford, and buy only the tools that are discussed in the three books.
Let me say that again in a different way:
Don’t buy a tool because it looks cool or you think it could do the jobs of
three of four tools. Buy simple tools. But buy the best you can afford.
Before you take another step, build something small and simple using basic
joints and inexpensive and soft wood, such as a box with a lid. Some
people wait years to actually begin building. Don’t do that. Make
something and the next steps will be revealed to you.
— Christopher Schwarz