Tool Tips

If, for some bizarre reason, you find yourself inspired to work wood with hand tools, you’ll need somewhere to start. I’m not the most experienced person at this sort of thing, but here are some tips that you might find useful; they have worked for me and there is a general consensus in literature and fora that approximates this.

I started with the basics from from Peter Korn’s book Woodworking Basics: Mastering the Essentials of Craftsmanship. It is inexpensive, clearly written, concise (208 pages!), starts from the beginning, and gives separate approaches for making the basic mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints with both hand tools and power tools. You’ll learn how the tools work and how to sharpen them (we’ll get to that later). It’s not comprehensive–there are other approaches for doing operations than the ones shown in the book–but you’d drive yourself nuts trying everything at once.

You need tools but you don’t want to go overboard. Common wisdom says to buy only the tools you need as you need them. Indeed, it’s more important to make your tools work correctly than to collect a pile of them. That said, here are the ones I use the most, and the ones that I would start with if I were doing everything all over again:

  • Sharpening equipment, either stones or a flat-surface/sandpaper “Scary Sharp” system. The latter is a pretty inexpensive way to get started and does produce top-notch edges with practice. In addition, it’s usually easier to flatten the faces of chisels and blades with sandpaper (such as the Norton 3X 80-grit).
  • A set of bevel-edge chisels (1/4″, 1/2″, 1″; add more thicknesses as you need them). The cheapest are the Irwin/Marples Blue Chips, which sharpen easily but typically don’t hold an edge as long as others. I think the Lee Valley yellow-handled bevel-edge chisels are decent, and they are also inexpensive. If you get into this kind of stuff, you’ll eventually find yourself scouring yard sales, flea markets, and the like for vintage wooden-handled chisels. These can be fantastic, but you should learn how to sharpen a chisel before any wild goose chases.
  • Small carcase saw, like this one I made. You can buy a new one from a number of vendors that work well new; you will spend at least $65 on it. Mine cost about $10 for the original cheapo gents saw, but it was worthless until I learned to sharpen it. That $55 extra can be well worth every penny.
  • Dovetail saw. The Crown or Stanley gents saws are probably the cheapest options here, but you need to touch them up to make them work properly. This is somewhat difficult for the beginner (you need to touch up the teeth with a needle file and stone/file the sides slightly to remove some of the set). As with the other saw, the cheapest one that’s ready-to-use is about $65.
  • Mortise (marking) gauge. To make a mortise-and-tenon joint, you sort of need one of these, and it can double as a regular marking gauge until you accumulate more marking gauges (and you will).
  • Adjustable-mouth block plane, preferably a low-angle one. You’ll use it for trimming end grain and touching up joints. You must learn how to sharpen the blade.
  • Jack plane (roughly a 14″ sole, 2″ blade), like a vintage Stanley #5. This plane can do many planing operations fairly well, it’s one of the easier ones to get working properly, and you typically won’t spend too much money on one. However, you must learn how to sharpen the blade. It’s perfectly acceptable to buy a new premium plane; it will work properly out of the box and give you an idea of what these planes can really do.
  • Square, such as a small try square or a 4″ adjustable double square. Just make sure that it really is square.
  • Marking knife. There are endless variations on what people like, but even a utility knife works.
  • Workbench. You need something flat that is not going to move, with some way to secure wood as you’re working on it. There are many ways to do this, but a big challenge in the beginning is how to do it without breaking the bank.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to learn how to sharpen your edge tools. This is the biggest barrier of entry to hand tool work. With the exception of high-end products, hand tools will not work correctly when new (not to mention what horrors lurk with vintage tools; see below), and you must maintain the edges on your tools even if they are sharp when new.

Then there’s the subject of saw sharpening. It’s not difficult, but it requires patience. When starting out, you can get away without learning how to sharpen saws; higher-end saws come ready-to-use and they will remain sharp for a while. But sooner or later (especially if you want to use larger handsaws and panel saws), you’ll either need to learn how to do it or find someone who does.

Or you could try Japanese saws, especially if you plan on working primarily with softwoods. These saws come quite sharp and do a great job. Their downsides are that you normally can’t sharpen them yourself, and the teeth tend to be on the brittle side. You have to be careful with your technique, especially in hardwoods.

Regarding Expense

There are large variations in tool prices. As a beginner, you will likely be sensitive to price and this is understandable. However, as I’ve said above, it’s better to have a few tools that work rather than a big pile that do not. Therefore, if you find yourself wondering if you should really spend a lot of money on premium products, you should definitely consider it for a couple of them. For example, I bought a Veritas low-angle block plane early on because I didn’t like the prospects of anything else I saw. It was a great decision; I use that thing all of the time. Though I’m a big fan of vintage tools, I have no desire to get an old low-angle block plane because I have a new one that works like a champ.

Vintage tools often can be made to work just as well as anything out there, but you must practically always spend a lot of effort to do so. Do you really want to spend that kind of time? Do you know how to bring a tool back to life? Then there’s the cost. Prices are highly variable on old tools, with some priced far higher than they really ought to be. Sure, you can make out like a bandit sometimes, but for whatever reason, it often seems like you find good deals on stuff that you already have or that you don’t need.


Hand tools really bring out the contrasts between different woods. A common starter wood is yellow-poplar (tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera). This hardwood has a low cost,  and it is easy to plane and saw. Common complaints about it are that it is quite soft (dents easily) and that it tears out easily. It turns out that a wood like this practically defines a sharp tool–a chisel or plane that is even moderately sharp will easily pare yellow-poplar endgrain. And proper technique is the only thing that will save you from tearout; it’s just that yellow-poplar will punish you every time for bad technique.

Clear (or clear-ish) pine is also an inexpensive starter wood, and is certainly a nice one to learn the feel of a softwood. It’s generally softer than yellow-poplar, so your tools must be quite sharp. My only real complaint about it is that it’s difficult to find roughsawn and in decent thickness, so it’s hard to learn the milling process.

Try out new woods when you can. You’ll find out why cherry (Prunus serotina) and black walnut (Juglans nigra) are favorites. You’ll find out what “hard” means in hard sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and you’ll wonder why I bother making so much stuff out of beech (Fagus spp.). Try reclaiming some wood. You’d be surprised what you can get out of shipping pallets and waste from renovations.