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. Kirk Brinker

    I agree with Mr. Demers note above regarding a workbench. The ease work holding on a good bench will make hand tool work much more enjoyable.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Dean

    Gary, just as I clicked on "Save Comment" I saw that I typo’d "Toolemera". Too late!

    Thanks again,

  9. Dean

    Gary, on the Shop Woodworking site, how do I do a search for the Toomemera book titles only?

    Thanks much,

  10. Gary Roberts

    Seems the links at Shop Woodworking are live again. If you search by title or author, the Toolemera books appear. I am back in the fold once again.

    Gary

    PS: On the bright side, the price of Fairham’s Woodwork Joints remains the same.

  11. openid.aol.com/fr8dogg

    Chris, bought your book; built the bench-LOVE IT!! Got the DVD’s, books and articles, etc. Alas! I have been smitten with the desire to learn 17th century joinery ala Follansbee. Got the DVD, bought a log, splitting wood, feeling sore and having a ball! I am enjoying the journey…
    Roy

  12. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawk9v6PStswnpXpzkrFMWelHsuOJKkP412s

    Make stuff. Everything else is a distraction. Some distractions, like tools, are necessary – but make no mistake they are distractions that require considerable investment in time to tune and then to maintain. Aim to keep and use as few tools as you need to do good work. Keep your eye on the prize – the ambition is to make things well, not grow a distracting collection of shiny objects.

    For learning, you can’t beat learning from another person – so it’s a great shame that good hand-tool skills are all but lost. And it’s an invaluable service that those who share their skills with videos, classes, books and blogs provide to the rest of us.

  13. Gary Roberts

    James

    The steps go like this:

    1. You order at the Shop Woodworking website
    2. An electronic order is bounced to me
    3. I order your book through the online Lightning Source publisher form
    4. LS prints and ships within 48 hours direct to you (adding the Toolemera Press address in the event the book is returned by the PO and so you know who it comes from)
    5. You get your book.

    Cool it is!

    Gary

  14. James Owen

    I have to second Gary’s comment on Chris getting Toolemera titles in the F+W book list: It’s really, really cool!!!!!

    On the 8th of January, I ordered several titles from the PWW store, including 3 Toolemera titles; I received them on the 15th of January. In between, my order was sent from (I presume) Ohio to Toolemera in Massachusetts; Toolemera arranged to have the books printed to order; they were printed on the 12th of January in Tennessee; they were then sent to Toolemera in Massachusetts; and then they were sent from Massachusetts to me in New Mexico, to arrive on the 15th. In ONE WEEK, my desire for a couple of new books went from being a concept organised in one state and being marketed by a third-party seller in a second state, to a printed-to-order physical reality in a third state, sent back to the originator in the first state, to being received by me in a fourth state two-thirds the way across the country….ONE WEEK!!!!!

    Is life in the 21st Century cool or what?????

  15. Kelly

    I am in the process of getting some basic tools, once spring comes to the North Woods I will get out into the shed to the area I have cleared to be my "shop" and build a quick/easy torsion box bench to use while developing some semblance of skill. My question is this: I have access,on my land,to off cuts from the Logger who harvests my timber, some of these are White Oak and some Soft Maple, these are up to 36 inches wide and as much as 7 feet long,knowing that some length will probably be lost due to checking as they air dry in my shop after the mill cuts them for me, Would a single slab 6 to 8 inches thick be preferable to having it cut into boards to construct my second bench? With a realistic length of 6 feet or less it will be less than optimal but being made with essentially found material is a big plus. These off cuts are destined for the fireplace, seems a shame to waste them.

  16. Fred West

    Chris, You mentioned some great books but I am a little surprised you did not mention "Exercises in Wood-Working" and/or the video series that you can also buy. Great book with great exercises.

  17. Gary Roberts

    Almost forgot: for the Toolemera books, please use the links from http://shop.toolemera.com as the Search function at Shop Woodworking is not yet picking up on the titles.

    And, my sincere thanks to Chris for fighting to get the Toolemera titles included in Shop Woodworking. We’re a relatively unknown independent publisher. The folks at F+W Media took a chance on partnering with us, all due to Chris’s arm twisting.

  18. Bob Demers

    All good advices, but early on, the biggest enabler or stumbling block to good handtool work, will be a good workbench. For too long I made do without a proper one, my main excuse being that I’m on the move a lot, being military. But of late with all the excitement and buzz generated by Chris on the subject, I knew I just had to build one. OMG, what a difference my baby Roubo makes!
    I can plane all day without chasing my bench around the the floor, I can pound on it all day without it flexing, what a treat. Damn the movers, they just are going to move it with me next 🙂

    A proper bench is definitively a must have tool in handwork. Read this blog, get inspired, build one TODAY!

    Bob

  19. Gary Roberts

    Warning! Soapbox Ahead!

    Reading anything does not make anyone an expert in any particular whatever it is. Trial and error, while a valuable teaching experience, does not fill in the blanks left by the authors of the books read. Learning through demonstration is still the best way (the Manual Arts people had it right on that account, though a bit rigid in other aspects) to finesse skills.

    Video is great, but not lasting. Hence the need to document in print.

    Reviving hand tool work could be the best thing accomplished in the last few decades.

    Too much snow is a PITA. I know there’s a Toyota Corolla somewhere in there, I just can’t find it.

    Ditto on Kunz.

    Gary

  20. Tom Holloway

    I take "if you teach yourself, your teacher will as be as dumb as you are" as at least half a joke. It is possible to learn through trial and error, otherwise known as experience, but it’s not as efficient as learning from others can be. That said, reading all the books in the world, and some good ones have been mentioned, will not make anyone a woodworker. Nor will accumulating tools, even the best you can afford. There’s no substitute for putting tool to wood, at the bench.

  21. Rob Young

    While I’m no fan of Gottshall’s reproductions (many seem clunky) his "Gottshall’s Block" is a great exercise. Bob Lang’s blog entries make a great review of the block and I’m almost 100% certain he had Sketchup drawings (suprise!) of the block.

    If you can make one of those, starting with a rough block, then you have the basic skills to tackle your first project. And if you have the tools to do the block, guess what? You have the tools to do your first project!

    As to books, I would add Bernard Jone’s "The Complete Woodworker". But be advised, the bench planes are woodies in his book. If you have or want metal body bench planes, Wearing’s books might be a better first choice.

  22. Jake

    Great advice. I made many mistakes when I began working with hand tools, but the best thing I did was buy Jim Kingshott’s DVDs. There are lots of good videos and even more bad ones out there, but Kingshott makes it simple, easy to understand, and he is an absolute joy to watch. His passion for the craft is clearly evident. There is a disk on dovetails, mortise and tenons, hanplanes, and specialty planes.
    Also, NEVER EVER EVER under any circumstance buy anything made by Kunz!!! EVER! If you’re strapped for cash buy pre-war stanley.

  23. Tom Dugan

    Books? You and I came up when that was the most obvious path to take, and you’re an editor and all, but I sure could have used videos to truly understand what was supposed to be happening. Howzabout adding a couple of DVDs?

    -T

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