Chris Schwarz's Blog

Get Started in Hand Tool Woodworking

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
wrong way.”

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
or another.

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

31 thoughts on “Get Started in Hand Tool Woodworking

  1. jbaker.rower@gmai.com

    I’m sipping the Kool-aid – buying vintage handtools and learning to sharpen from books and videos. Haven’t built a Roubo yet, so I’m making do with a 25 year old trestle bench that I made. What I am missing is clamps, and the knowledge to purchase them. What kind of clamps? What sizes? How many? How to use them… I’ve purchased lots of the wrong clamps (cheap) and most don’t survive more than a year but spending huge bucks for ONE clamp, when I’m choosing blindly, is also not rational.. Add a section to the “mastering handtools” video on clamps / uses / choosing – please!

  2. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawn78h1k6C8T7gZcOzlFDHL7w09Wer0FyQ4

    Dan:

    I have that book and watched Chris do this at WIA ’10.

    I think you are thinking about it too hard. Look at the picture in the book (sharpening section). You are looking at the plan iron with the bevel side facing away from you. If you follow Chris’ advice about using a sharpening jig and the number of strokes per blade part (end, middle, etc.) it all falls into place.

    As far as trying to be exact about the shaving thickness, lighten up. This is wood. a shaving can change thickness faster than the eye can see.

    One other revelation that took me from playing to planing is that it is not the plane’s job to make things square–that is the operator’s job. Use a square often when jointing boards.

    You now have the limit of my knowledge on jointing. :)

    TS Stahl

  3. Dan

    I have Chris’s handplane book as well as his DVDs from Lie-Nielsen. I am just getting into planes, and have purchased a few from L-N. I am confused by the recommendations for cambering the plane iron. I believe the guidance is something like the following for a jointer plane: aim for a shaving of about 6 thou’s. Camber the blade so that the corners are about 8 thou’s back. Here’s my problem. With a bedding angle of 45 degrees the center of the blade has to project 12 thou’s from the plane sole (the 45 degree angle halves the vertical projection). Now the corner of the blade is below the sole and you should get plane tracks? What am I missing?

  4. Gordon

    Folks,
    I can only speak for myself, but I find hands on learning better than reading and listening to a CD or DVD. A weekend course in dovetailing and week course in furniture making that included basic hand tool use has been the foundation of my woodworking for the last 5 years. Also, practise on basic hand tool skills and tool preparation has significantly helped to hone skills. If you can’s get to a course at your local Woodcraft or Rockler store or school of woodworking, suggest you take advantage of Woodworking In America and/or any Lie-Neilsen Tool Event. I’ve done all and have benefitted from each.

  5. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawn78h1k6C8T7gZcOzlFDHL7w09Wer0FyQ4

    I prefer the thought experiments of reading about woodworking over watching a DVD. A DVD teaches me to ape whatever procedure. Reading forces me to come to terms with the concept before mastery.

    I fell into a trap with my first DVD concerning dovetails. I practiced what I saw faithfully six or eight times until I ‘mastered’ it. My first project after that presented me with circumstances just outside the realm of my ‘mastery’. My dovetails still suck in my opinion, but a book taught me the concepts of how to correctly lay them out. Now, my problems are undeniably behind the saw, not under it.

    To Kelly: The rule of thumb is one year of air drying per inch. Maybe consider a 3-4" slab–still pretty hefty but ready sooner? I’m still air drying my first crop of wood; I am by no means an expert in wood. Free advice is more often than not worth the price. ;)

    To Charles: The allure of hand tools for me is frugality. I’ve been accused more than once of being a cheap bass turd. Hand tools allow me to work larger material economically. Also, powering them is only one PB&J away.

    I can buy a jig to do almost anything. If my livelihood depended on woodworking, I’d be all about jigs and production. It is a bit sad that I can afford the time to learn hand tools only because it is a hobby.

  6. Charles

    While I cannot comment on the best reading materials to help, I started my journey with hand tools through power tools and necessity.

    I needed to trim some angled tenon shoulders to fit the legs of a vanity I was making. In my mind this was WAY too fussy and dangerous, for my precious stretchers, to do on a table saw. I also needed to trim the tenon faces and shoulders of the aprons for a good fit in the mortises. This resulted in a set of chisels, a shoulder plane and an angled rabbet block plane.

    When making some new porch doors, I remembered reading about beveling the hinge side for clearance, which seemed like a good idea. This resulted in a jack plane.

    There were some other similar experiences which resulted in a few additional purchases until the value of hand tools, in and of themselves, became apparent. I am still committed to power tools as well, but I love using hand tools. Power tools? I love what they can do, and can do quickly, but hand tools have their own special allure.

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