Hand Tools: What is Most Common is Most Precious
At the beginning of a hand tool class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, one of the students stopped me as I was passing by his bench.
“I have a question for you,” he said. “What is this plane for?”
He held up a chisel plane.
“I thought it looked really useful,” he said, “maybe for planing tapers on legs.”
I knew I was about to break his heart. There is a significant number of hand tools out there that are intended for extremely specialized tasks. And yet many beginners buy them for one of three reasons:
- They look really useful for some imagined task.
- The woodworker is a “completist” and psychologically requires a full set of anything he or she purchases.
- The vintage versions of the tools are quite rare and expensive, and they mistakenly equate monetary value with utility.
Why are there 2,000 No. 5 jack planes for every two No. 212 scraper planes in the wild? Why are 8-point crosscut handsaws in every barrel at a flea market, and yet I’ve never seen an original halfback saw for sale? Why is nearly every No. 444 dovetail plane found in the box with its original cutters – untouched by human hands?
There are several reasons. But to boil it all down: If a tool is rare that usually means it was a commercial failure or it was intended for an extremely specialized operation.
(That said, there have been several rare vintage tools that have become useful as a result of modern manufacturing. Two examples: Shooting-board planes and bevel-up bench planes. Vintage examples were too fragile or difficult to make for a wide audience. But modern milling machines and surface grinders have made these tools robust and affordable.)
So when woodworkers ask me what a beginning set of tools should look like, I tell them to look for the most common tools at a tool meet for the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. If you need bench planes, you’ll find tons of No. 4s, No. 5s and No. 7s. Need a block plane? It’s difficult not to find a No. 60-1/2 (or its equivalent). How about chisels? The 1/4”, 1/2” and 3/4” sizes litter the “Everything’s a Dollar” boxes at tool meets.
If you’re a tool collector, seek the rare. If you are a beginning user, seek the common.
Once you have the basic set of tools and know how to use them, your work will dictate the specialty tools you might need. For example: I make lots of chairs. So having both a flat-bottomed and curved-bottom spokeshave are essential for my work. But most woodworkers need only the flat-bottomed one.
The more important point is this: Tools are like kittens or puppies. Having one or two around the house can be a rewarding, meaningful experience. Having a houseful of them is a sure path to misery and neglect for both you and the animals.
— Christopher Schwarz