If I were just learning how to work with wood, it would be easy to become overwhelmed with the volume of information available today. This is especially true when it comes to tools. Many of our readers want to be woodworkers, but they aren’t yet because they are busy gathering all the tools they’ve been told they need, and getting their shops together before they actually start making stuff. There’s a good chance that many of these will pass on before they realize that gathering tools and getting the shop in order can become an eternal effort.
The problem with woodworking is that there is always one more tool that promises to make a daunting task quick and painless. Special tools can indeed do that; the hard part is sorting out the tools you want from the tools you think you need , and the tools you really need from the tools that will help you do what you want to do. The list of tools I want looks like a telephone book, but the tools that will do at least 90 percent of what I want to do are in the picture above. I have more tools than this, but these are the ones that have been with me awhile , the ones that have shorter blades from being sharpened a zillion times and the ones that show some signs of age.
I think this represents a good basic list for any woodworker. If your main interest is power tools, these tools will make your setups more accurate and will save the day when the power tools get you close to what you want, but not quite there. If you want to be a hand-tool woodworker, knowing how to use, sharpen and tweak these basic tools will get you well on your way. You’ll have a better idea of what more specialized tools you need, or you may decide that these are all you need. The important thing is to get going and make something.
At the top of the page are a dead-blow hammer, and a claw hammer. The dead-blow hammer came from Grizzly, and isn’t very heavy, about 14 oz. It was made in Japan, and has the name Yamaguchi on the handle. If you hear me mutter to something I’m working on, ÒLet’s discuss this with Mr. Yamaguchi,” you’ll know that something needs a little persuasion to either go together or come apart.
The claw hammer isn’t anything special, but I’m kind of sentimental about it. My dad bought two of these True Temper 16 oz. Rockets in the early 1950s when he was building an addition to our house. My uncle managed to break the head off the other one, but he did a good job of welding it back on. This one has an affinity for water; I’ve fished it out of both Geauga Lake and Sandusky Bay.
The chisels are an average set, I bought them in the 1970s, except for the big blue one, which is only about 10 years old. The green handles say ÒGreenlee” but they look and feel like the Marples at the top. They seem to take and hold an edge better than the newer, wider one. The reason I have the wider one is that one time I was building cabinets under a stairway while a finish carpenter was working on the stairs. He had just bought an 1½” chisel like this, and he raved about it so much, I became convinced that I had to have one too. I use it more like a timber framers slick or a scraper than a chisel, and it really is a useful size.
Below the chisels is a cheap chip-carving knife that I use for marking and layout as well as general knife duties. This particular brand isn’t available anymore, and the last time I mentioned it in print I had to answer a ton of letters from people who wanted Òthat one”. Find one that looks like it, don’t spend more than $15-$20 for it and you’ll be happy for a long, long time.
Below the knife is a scraper and a burnisher. A sharp scraper can change your whole outlook on getting surfaces smooth, and will save you hundreds if not thousands of hours of sanding time.
In the lower left corner of the picture are measuring and layout tools. This is probably more than you need in a Òjust getting by” list of hand tools. But, I use all of them, with the exception of the bevel gauge all the time. The two small adjustable squares are Starretts, and see a lot more action than the 12″ Stanley (UK). If I weren’t so frugal, I’d have a 12″ Starrett as well. The 6″ Starrett combination square fits in an apron pocket and is big enough most of the time. I like the 4″ double square because I can set one end for a specific distance and still have the other end available for checking corners.
The dial calipers read in 1/64″ increments, and if this one breaks or goes missing; I’ll replace it with a 4″ version. I can’t remember the last time I used calipers to check anything over 3″ and the 6″ one sticks out too far in my apron pocket. The bevel gauge sees the least use of this group, but when you need one, you need one.
Above the bevel gauge, in the center of the picture are a flat carver’s riffler, 3/8″ wide, a hand cut rasp, and a cheap paint scraper. The rasp is one of the most useful tools for controlled removal of small amounts of wood. The hand cut ones cut tiny grooves that can be removed with a scraper. The flat riffler is for tweaking inside surfaces of joints, and the scraper is an all around glue remover/lever. To the right are a pair of end cutting pliers-great for yanking out nails, a screwdriver with interchangeable tips, and an ÒEnglish Clip Point” putty knife. I like the shape much better than putty knives with square ends, but I’m the only one I’ve ever seen use one. The curved side is good for smearing stuff on, and the flat side is good for leveling stuff off.
The saw is an inexpensive Japanese dovetail saw, with a replaceable blade. One of the troubles I have with sawing is I don’t do it enough to stay in practice, and I own too many saws. I usually cut some practice joints before going on to the real thing, and my favorite way to shoot myself in the foot is to grab a different saw when I wander off a line. If you hand-cut joints all the time, then it makes sense to have several different types and sizes. Until you’re practiced enough to recognize the subtle differences, you’re better off to get one decent saw, and stick with that to learn on.
Which brings us around the circle to the planes. At the bottom is a Record low-angle adjustable mouth block plane. It isn’t new, but it isn’t that old. I bought it at the right time, when the dollar was strong against the pound, and just before Record entered the race for the bottom in quality. If I had to replace it, I would get a new Lie-Nielsen or Veritas, or a vintage Stanley. I use it often and for a variety of tasks from chamfering corners to tweaking miter joints to cleaning up end grain and surfaces around joints.
Next up is a Record 3-in-1 plane from the late 1970s. I thought I was being extravagant for spending $35 for it at the time, Record doesn’t make it any more, but Clifton does and it now costs about $250. The front is removable so you can use it as a chisel plane or a bull-nose plane. I bought this version because at the time I really didn’t know what I needed. I needed a shoulder plane, which is how I use this one. I’ve used the shorter front maybe 3 or 4 times, and I’ve used it without the front twice. If I had to replace this, I would get a new Lie-Nielsen medium shoulder plane. The Veritas shoulder planes are also nice, but I don’t care for the way they fit my hand.
The smoother is a No. 4 Stanley from the 1930s. My grandfather bought it new and passed it on to my dad who passed it on to me. My father was an engineer and my grandfather a tool and die maker, so it hadn’t seen much use. I’ve had it apart and filed and fiddled with it quite a bit, and replaced the blade with a Hock, so it works almost as good as a new Lie-Nielsen or Veritas smoother.