This article is taken from the ongoing Back to Basics series in Good Woodworking magazine. To keep up with the latest instalment, be sure to get your hands on a copy, which you should find in all good newsagents. If ever you can't find it, please contact 01689 899257.
With so many tools to choose from, getting started in woodwork can be confusing. There’s so much to take in – what should you spend your time learning first, what tools do you need and why? How much do you need to spend?
With the exception of the battery drill, the kit we’ve assembled here consists of hand tools. There’s nothing wrong with using power tools and machinery, but if you take the time to master your hand tools first you’ll be thankful you did. If you start with power tools the temptation is often to stick with them, as they don’t require the same learning curve as hand tools. However, in many cases hand tools allow you to do a better job, so it’s best to put the time in now and invest in your woodworking future. Practicing with hand tools is all about developing your hand-eye coordination. Cutting square with a saw or paring to a line with a chisel involve skills that are developed over time and through experience.
Remember, too, that this is a ‘starter’ kit. As your woodworking progresses, you’ll add more tools to suit your needs.
TENON SAW. You’ll need a tenon saw for cutting tenons, bridles and other joints. Tenon saws are designed to cut with the grain, termed ‘ripping’, and are classed as back saws, meaning they have a solid metal strip, often brass, that runs along the top of the blade, keeping it rigid while you cut for more accurate results.
A versatile tool that cuts curves and has a blade that can be rotated to accommodate all sorts of angled cuts. This makes it a vital tool for cutting out waste material when cutting dovetails. Have some spare blades at hand because you’ll probably go through a few when practicing!
CROSSCUT HAND SAW
Also known as a panel saw, this large 22 or 24in general purpose saw is useful for cutting timber and board material roughly to size. Good hard-point (hardened teeth, non re-sharpenable) saws, such as those available from Bahco, are relatively cheap and last well.
COMBINATION SQUARE. For marking at 90° and 45°. Check the square in the shop before you buy by taking a piece of board material approximately 200mm square with one absolutely flat edge. Mark a line with the square placed on the flat edge, flip the square over and mark a second line over your first line. If the two lines overlay each other precisely you’ve got an accurate square. If not, best to put it down and try another.
MARKING GAUGE. For scribing lines and marking mortises. You can drop this if you use the combination square to gauge lines, but they are only about a fiver. The best type to buy for general use is the mortise gauge which has two adjustable pins on one side for marking mortises and a single pin on the other for scribing lines.
SCRIBING KNIFE. These inexpensive tools are a must-have for cutting accurate joint shoulders by hand. I’ve found one of the best and cheapest solutions is to use a small craft knife with disposable snap-off type blades. Stanley manufactures a very reliable metal-bodied knife – the Stanley 10095 – that I’ve been using successfully for years. It’s priced at £3.85 from Axminster.
SLIDING BEVEL. An adjustable tool for marking different angles; indispensable when marking out dovetail joints.
TAPE MEASURE. Your tape measure will be one of your most useful tools, and it’s also one of the cheapest. Make sure you choose a model with an adjustable hook, which will ensure accurate readings both when the tape is pushed against and hooked onto a surface or edge. I’ve personally always used Stanley Powerlock tapes but other makes to look out for include Fisco and Lufkin.
No.5 or 5 1⁄2 JACK PLANE. The jack plane is a good all-rounder that’s just long enough to flatten timber while also being useful as a general purpose tool. The 5 1⁄2 is slightly wider than the 5 and it’s really down to personal preference which version you go for.
No.4 or 4 1⁄2 SMOOTHING PLANE. The smoothing plane is very flexible in its uses and ideal for taking very thin shavings prior to finishing. As above, the 4 1⁄2 is wider and heavier than the 4.
Andy King says: “To start with, you’ll find either a jack or a smoother sufficient. My preference would be a smoother, unless I was leaning more towards shooting and straightening work. You can use it as a block plane to a degree too.”
BEVEL-EDGE CHISELS. These are ideal for all sorts of tasks, from chopping out the corners of a mortise to paring back the shoulder of a tenon. The most useful widths for general purpose use being 1⁄4, 1⁄2, 5⁄8 and 1in. The finer tools tend to have wooden handles – if you go for a set of these make sure you include a wooden mallet on your shopping list because wooden handles don't mix with hammers very well!
Manufacturers to look out for (from the cheapest to the most expensive) include Irwin, Bahco, Ashley Iles and Lie Nielsen.
BATTERY DRILL. You don’t need anything too fancy, just a drill/driver with simple torque control will be ample. Do some hunting around and if at all possible, try before you buy – comfort and balance is very important here.
SCREWDRIVER BITS. These are often thrown in when buying the drill/driver so you may not need to buy them separately.
You could buy an expensive diamond stone to sharpen your tools or you could opt for a more economical but less efficient oil stone. Yet another option would be to buy a couple of grades of Japanese water stones which give lovely sharp edges but are soft and therefore not ideal when starting out.
For more information on sharpening flat-back tools see our ‘Fine Art of Sharpening’ feature in GW200:84.
Some workshop-made tools like a bench hook and a shooting board are also very useful. Don’t worry if you’re not sure how to make these, we’ll be featuring them in the future.
If you don’t already have a workbench, this could be as simple as a couple of trestles with an MDF top. Whatever it’s made of, though, the more solid it is the better; you’ll also need a vice to hold your wood while you work with it.
How much to spend?
If you can, I would urge you to try these tools before you purchase – it’s really important that you find tools that you like to use. If you buy too cheap the chances are you’ll want to replace your tools as your skills improve. You need good tools to do good work but you don’t necessarily need the best – the key is feeling comfortable with what you have.
You could purchase the contents of our starter kit for around £150, though you’ll need to look closer to £200 or £250 for a collection of good quality tools.
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