Beginning woodworkers have it bad when it comes to buying their first hand tools. First you have to figure out what tools you need to get started. Then you have a hard choice. You can buy the cheapest stuff at discount stores and risk being disappointed with the quality later. Or you can buy the nice stuff from catalogs and specialty woodworking stores that is considerably more expensive. However there’s a third option that few beginning woodworkers consider: buy used hand tools.
Flea markets, garage sales and antique malls are usually awash with quality used hand tools at reasonable prices. A #4 Stanley smoothing plane that costs $57.50 new in the box can be had for $15 to $20 used. Wooden handled chisels that average about $10 each new can be bought for $5. There are some downsides to buying used, though. If you’re not happy with your purchase, it’s unlikely you can get a refund. And some used tools need restoration before use. But if you follow the guidelines in this article, you can minimize the amount of time you’ll spend fixing up your old tools and quickly put your new toys to work.
Let me first say that buying used isn’t for everyone. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to go to one flea market on a Saturday morning and equip your entire shop. So you’re going to have to shop around. And for many people there’s something inexplicably appealing about owning a brand new tool. But if money is tight and you’ve got a few weekends free, it’s entirely possible to equip your shop with all the basic hand tools for less than $100.
Your Shopping List
First figure out what you need to get started. Even if you’re a power tool junkie you’re going to have to buy about 20 hand tools (until they invent an electric scratch awl). If you’re inclined to do all your work with hand tools, this list is still a great place to start — you’ll be able to do a lot of things with these tools. The chart below is a decent shopping list with some average flea market prices that we’ve seen in the Midwest, South and East. When you go shopping, be sure to take a list of the tools you need, a good-quality steel ruler marked in inches and a pencil.
There are four places to find good used tools: auctions, garage sales, antique malls and flea markets. Auctions are great because you can sometimes pick up an entire box of tools for $20. The prices are reasonable because this is where many flea market vendors purchase tools to sell. But auctions are time consuming. You can sit all day waiting for the tools you’re interested in to come up for sale. And even then you might lose to a higher bidder and end up only with a few extra pounds from all those pimento cheese sandwiches you ate.
Garage sales are nice because the person running them might have no idea how to price the tools. I’ve found good hand planes at yard sales for $5. Problem is you usually have to drive all over town to find a garage sale that may or may not have tools for sale. And most garage sales have just a few tools for sale. Antique malls, on the other hand, are nice because there are usually lots of tools to choose from. But you have to pay for that convenience. Prices can be higher than those listed here and there’s little chance to bargain.
I prefer the flea markets. There are lots of tools to chose from, there’s no waiting around and the prices are low, especially if you are willing to haggle.
You’ve gotta have chisels. From squaring up rabbets cut with your router to paring dovetails, chisels are a necessity. Luckily, used chisels are easy to find and inexpensive. The nice thing about used chisels is that the majority of them have wooden handles, which I’m partial to. The downside to used chisels is you’re going to have to grind the cutting edge back to square. I’ve never seen a used chisel that didn’t need work.
But don’t get too worked up about that. Many new chisels need to be reground right out of the box, too. So when you’re looking to buy a used chisel, here’s what to keep in mind. First measure the chisel with your steel ruler to make sure it’s a size you need. Look for chisels that aren’t too rusty, especially on the back. Surface rust is OK, but if there are deep pits on the back of the chisel, you’ll have a lot of flattening to do before you can get a decent cutting edge. Rust on the front isn’t a big deal, as long as it’s not too severe.
How much of the blade is left is also important. Unless the chisel is a butt chisel (which is supposed to have a short blade) you should have at least 3″ to 4″ of blade remaining. If you’ve got less, you might not have any tempered steel left in the blade and the chisel won’t hold an edge. Pass.
Now check out the handle. Can you pull the handle out of the socket? If you can, you’ll need to fix that or turn a new handle. Follow the same rules with mortising chisels, which have considerably thicker blades and no bevel on the sides. In addition, make sure these look like they can take a lot more abuse, such as getting whacked by a hammer every day.
Backsaw and Coping Saw
You need a backsaw for cutting dovetails and tenons, and other small work. Backsaws are so named because they have a rigid spine clamped to the back of the blade that stiffens the blade during the cut. Larger backsaws are called tenon saws. Smaller ones are called dovetails saws. And little ones with a round handle are often called gent’s saws. You’ll find a lot of saws for sale, but they usually need a lot of work, such as fixing missing teeth and resharpening. Let a professional do this for you.
If you’re not an old tool purist, I recommend you buy a new Japanese-style backsaw. Lee Valley Tools, for example, sells a great Korean-made Dozuki backsaw for $18.95 (item# 60T55.01 * 800-871-8158). I like Japanese-style saws because they cut on the pull stroke, instead of the push stroke, so they’re easier to control. Plus the kerf is considerably thinner than Western saws.
Coping saws are simple tools that are great for cutting curves and cleaning out waste between dovetails. Make sure a used one is fully adjustable. That is, you can lock the blade at any angle. Buy some new blades for about 30 cents each at the hardware store that have 15 teeth per inch.