Bare minimum woodworking tool kit
I know more now than I used to: that's a good thing.
I became interested in woodworking for purely functional reasons: I was recording music and I needed some racks to hold some recording gear. Buying standard gear -- let alone hiring someone to build it for me -- was beyond my budget. And because space was tight (I lived in an apartment), the racks had to be certain sizes to fit among my other things.
So, I built them myself.
Or, at least, I tried to. I didn't know what I was doing, I lacked the tools, and I lacked a workspace and workbench. I was balancing pieces of wood on the back railing of our apartment while trying to cut it with a handsaw: this resulted -- not surprisingly -- in uneven cuts.
And now I'm a ''low intermediate'' woodworker -- with a co-worker whom I just discovered is just getting started in handtool-based woodworking. So, here's -- based on my experience -- the barest minimum tool kit you need to get started in (handtool-based) woodworking.
I'm putting this on the internets, in the hope that it might be useful to other people as well.
I've grouped the items into approximate categories -- although of course some tools could be used for multiple tasks. How to use the tools, and tricks of the trade for finding decent-quality inexpensive and/or used tools (that aren't pieces of garbage) is a whole 'nother topic.
This list is all my own work -- although I cross-checked it with a similar list from Christopher Schwarz that I found online. It's based on my own working habits -- and my noticing that although in my earliest days of woodworking I accumulated a lot of tools, I now do about 95% of my work with about 10 tools. Admittedly, my current projects are more "carpentry" and "country cottage" than "fine woodworking". But the items on this list will let you build simple jewelry boxes, blanket chests, bookshelves and the like, with dovetails, morticed joints, rabbets and dadoes.
Again, this is the bare minimum kit: I'm intentionally keeping costs (and clutter!) down. As I'll discuss below, having multiple (more specialized) saws and more than one handplane -- for example -- would be good. But with this kit you can start doing -- and add tools as money (or gift-receiving occasions) occur. ;)
The crucial items are in the bullet points; the nearly-crucial items are in parentheses. If you don't know what they are, do a Google image search. And a lot of these will already be owned by most people (e.g. a claw hammer). If you already have more than these, that's excellent! This list is just the bare minimum you need to start building things from scratch. About a quarter of them are minimal cost: either essentially free (e.g. a squirt bottle! scrap pieces of tile!), or around five bucks for something simple but functional (e.g. whisk broom).
Finally, I've over-simplified a few things, and skimped on some technical jargon. This is intentional, to keep things streamlined. So please, no Comments on how I've failed to call something the correct name. ;)
- Workbench. Workbench, workbench, workbench. The number-one thing I would tell my younger self is that I should've just grabbed a bunch of 2" x 4"s and built a simple, solid, heavy workbench -- and stuck it in the spare bathroom in our apartment. Without a workbench, handtool woodworking is frustrating. As Chris Schwarz points out in his two workbench books, a good workbench is a three-dimensional clamping surface (so therefore, make the front of the legs flush with the front of the benchtop), and it should be heavy, cheap, a good height (to your knuckles or the back of your hand), and not too deep (maybe 20" to 24" [50cm-60cm]). And -- my point -- it needs to be there. Instead of being daunted by the need to build the perfect workbench, just slap something together and move on! As long as it's hefty and there, you can get started on actual projects. You can always upgrade later, or modify your existing bench to suit your needs (e.g. dogholes and dogs or holdfasts; a sliding jack). With very few exceptions, you probably have room for a workbench somewhere. If it's in your bedroom or living room, you can just throw a tablecloth over it when not in use (and keep your tools in totes underneath it), and just sweep and vacuum a lot. One advantage of handtool-based woodworking is that the sawdust is coarser than with power tools -- so it doesn't get into the air, and is thus easier to clean up. Hand-sanding is the exception, though: if your workshop is in a living area you may need to do that elsewhere. Finally, the workbench length is a function of your available space and what you intend to make. As Schwarz points out in his second workbench book, try to make the largest workbench that will fit (8 feet [2.6m] is a good size), but if you're just making jewelry boxes then that's not necessary. But having a short workbench will limit the size of what you can build.
- (Vice, or clamps and jigs. Arguably this is part of the workbench. But it doesn't have to be: some people do woodworking with workbenches without any vice. Cheap-o vices around here are $30-$50, and they'll work fine (you need to line the jaws with wood, first). A vice is just a clamp that's permanently mounted to your workbench -- so if your workbench is well-designed and money is super-tight (or you just want to be rustic), you can get by with clamps and a series of clever jigs. But a vice is easier.)
- Bench hook. Google it and make one. An easy "first project" -- after building your workbench, of course!
- (Pair of sawhorses, or two harm-able wooden chairs. You may need these to "bootstrap" your workbench into existence. Note that if you hold your work on wooden chairs and you're cutting wood the long way, you'll have difficulty in cutting straight up and down. Once you have your workbench, you probably won't need these -- unless you have something longer than your workbench, or you're painting, varnishing, or oiling a project and you don't want to make a mess at your usual work location.)
- A clamp.
- Another clamp. I'd suggest bar clamps for your first two clamps. Again, if you already have clamps of some other type, then use them. In general, longer clamps cost more than shorter clamps -- but long clamps can clamp short things, but not vice-versa. The required clamp length depends on the size of what you're building.
- (Another clamp.)
- (And another clamp. Two clamps is a super-bare minimum. There's a woodworking maxim "You can never have too many clamps." Try to get a minimum of four, total. The second pair can be G-clamps or F-clamps -- or more bar clamps. With G-clamps and F-clamps, the cheaper ones sometimes have jaws that don't align, which means that the clamping pressure on your workpiece will be twisty. So try to get clamps that align. And clamps are a great gift-receiving idea: if people don't know what to get you, tell them "more clamps".)
- (Even more clamps. Really. Yep.)
- Ripsaw. Basically, a "regular-sized" handsaw. Try to get one with a wooden handle, as it will be sharpenable (a useful skill, and not that difficult), you can adjust the handle with rasps and files to better fit your hand. Most people would suggest getting one with crosscut teeth, but as Tage Frid (I don't have the book handy) showed, a ripsaw can both rip cut and crosscut, but a crosscut saw really can't rip. One with fewer teeth per inch will cut faster, but the resulting cut won't be as smooth.
- (Crosscut handsaw. This is a "regular" handsaw. Again, get one with a wooden handle. And again, finer teeth mean a smoother cut but it'll be slower cutting. Until you get one of these, if you're just cutting 2" x 4"s and smaller, you can just use your backsaw, which is what I usually do.)
- Trysquare, speed square, combination square, or engineer's square. Most things you build will be based on 90-degree corners -- so you need to be able to mark, and therefore cut to, perfect "right angles". Do a web search for how to test that a "square" is truly "square". A carpenter's square will do in a pinch, but it doesn't have a shoulder so it's awkward for non-carpentry woodworking. I often use a medium and a small one, for various purposes -- but you can get away with just one. (You'll also use the straight portion as a straightedge, such as for checking the flatness of plane soles.)
- Tape measure or ruler. Depending on the size of what you're building, in the initial stages you'll need to measure things. But once you've gathered the basic components of your project, you'll move away from measuring, and more towards "comparing and marking": holding a piece next to another piece, marking it, and then cutting it to fit.
- Pen or pencil. Depending on the precision, you can use a ball-point pent, or a pencil with a chisel-like point. I actually have a few colors of grease pencil for various tasks -- but since this is a "bare minimum" kit, just a pen or pencil to start with.
- Marking gauge. You use this to make lines parallel to the edge of the wood. This, plus your "square" (see above) lets you make all the additional perpendicular and parallel lines (and cuts) on your already-rectangular pieces of wood. It's handy to have more than one marking gauge, so that you can retain different lengths during a project. But it's not crucial. (Handy tip that I read somewhere: file the metal "pin" so it's more like a knife or chisel end: this makes it leave a clearer mark on the wood.)
- (Saddle square. Used to wrap a perpendicular line around the corner of a piece of wood. I'm cheap, so I use a rectangular hinge (probably cost me a dollar at a garage sale). Not all hinges will work -- you need to test them for squareness. You can also make your own out of wood, or buy a ready-made one.)
- Sandpaper (various grits, including the black wet/dry sheets). There are many different approaches to setting up a sharpening system, including water stones, oilstones, and diamond stones. But I think that a variant of the "Scary Sharp" system (Google it) has the cheapest startup cost. If you already have some sharpening stones then of course use those. But you'll need at least two levels of coarseness, ideally more -- and you'll eventually need a way to flatten your stones. So you'll still need the sandpaper, etc.
- About five pieces of floor tile, or a few large pieces, or some thick, flat glass (with rounded-off edges!), or a marble pastry block. You'll be gluing "landing strips" of the sandpaper to these. Check with a straightedge that they're flat, at least the main section in the middle away from the edges. If you know someone who's done some remodelling, they probably have some extras lying around in the basement. Dumpster-diving (with permission!) at new home construction or remodelling sites is also an option.
- Spray adhesive. Use this to glue the sandpaper to the flat surfaces of the tiles, to provide replaceable sharpening stones. When you use oilstones or waterstones, they eventually lose their flatness and you have to flatten them. With the "sandpaper" approach, the underlying tile never gets rubbed -- just the sandpaper -- so it never loses its flatness
- (Rubbery kitchen shelf liners. When you're sharpening the sharpening plates will have a tendency to slide around. A rectangular scrap of shelf liner, about the size of your sharpening plate, will prevent this. You may need to give it a quick squirt of water, above and below.)
- Honing guide. You can make your own if you're mechanically inclined, or just buy one for about fifteen bucks. Some people treat it as a point of pride to not use one. I tried to "not use one", but my sharpening massively improved once I started using one. The Schwarz says it's OK to use one, FWIW.
- Squirt bottle. Save a used laundry stain remover bottle, etc., clean it out, and fill it with water (for the wet/dry sandpaper).
- Cloth rag or old washcloth. You need to wipe off your chisel blades and such after sharpening, to prevent rust. Hang it on a peg or nail at your work space, and it'll be sufficiently dry to use the next time.
- Another squirt bottle. This one will have some sort of oil, for squirting on the metal parts of your various tools, to prevent rust.
- An oily rag. I use the same rag over and oil, to wipe off the excess oil from my tools after I squirt them. Because it's not a "drying" oil, spontaneous combustion shouldn't be a problem. But to be safe, I hang it on a nail rather than wad it up. Always give your metal tools a wipe before packing them away.
- Access to a grinder. You don't need to actually own a grinding wheel -- although you can pick up an inexpensive one for around thirty bucks. I did, and it works well enough. But it also makes a mess, so depending on your living situation you might have to use someone else's. You'll only need this occasionally, for when when you need to tidy up the edge of a newly-acquired tool, or repair dings in the edge of a blade (e.g. handplaning into a hidden nail). Remember to keep dunking the sharp end of the tool into water, to keep it from overheating and losing its hardness -- and avoid grinding all the way to the very tip, for the same reason (less mass at the tip, so it gets too hot).
- Triangular file. For sharpening your handsaw. Some people are intimidated by it, but it's not that difficult to do it at least adequately. If your "regular size" handsaw has really big teeth, you might need two different sizes (one for the backsaw and one for the larger saw).
- Flat file (large). For jointing (making consistent) the teeth. You can optionally also make a wooden jig (or purchase a jig) to hold the file perpendicular to the "plate" of the saw. Or you can just eyeball it. You can also use it to smooth out wood after you've shaped it with a rasp -- although I tend to keep my wood-shaping files separate from my metal-rubbing files. Note that files are brittle (because they're tempered to be very hard), so don't let them clank around with other metal things or they might crack. Also, only push, never pull (it supposedly dulls the cutting teeth). And finally, if it comes with a metal tang rather than a handle, then impale it on a used cork (read this in a "woodworking tips" book!), or get/make a handle for it.
- Flat file (small). For sharpening the spurs of your bits -- if you actually have a brace and bit (see below. Ideally it would have a "safe" side -- an edge with no teeth.
- Small hammer with a flat peen. For adding the tiniest bit of "set" to your backsaw. And also for hammering small nails and such. I prefer wooden handles, which I then rough up with coarse sandpaper and wipe with a 50-50 boiled linseed oil and spirits/alcohol mix (see below). Also, the wooden handle will be strongest if you get one where the grain runs the length of the handle, rather than "running out" the side.
- A saw set, or (linesman?) pliers. I prefer a sawset for setting the teeth of the larger saws, but they're probably not easy to come by. Pliers will work -- but you have to eyeball how far out to bend them (it's just a wee bit!). Google for articles on saw sharpening...
- (Straightedge. For seeing if things are flat. The blade of your trysquare, or the blade of your sliding bevel, should be flat, and can serve this purpose. My test of straightness is to hold the edge of the ruler or blade against a glass window (but not one that you don't want to scratch!). If you can wiggle the middle, it's not straight; and if you can rock it like a rocking chair, it's also not straight.)
Finer dimensioning (and dovetailing, mortise/tenons)
- Bevel gauge, sliding bevel. For laying out dovetails, as well as misc. transferring of angles. St. Roy, in his "edge and wedge" book, says that you should use whatever angle looks good to you. As with marking gauges, it's handy to have more than one -- but you only need one. You can buy -- or make -- specific dovetail gauges. I haven't bothered yet.
- Backsaw. Some sort of dovetail saw, tenon saw, or gent's saw. I have a few of these, but I tend to use the same one over and over. Mine is filed for rip-cutting (again, based on Tage Frid's logic). I also have a gent's saw with even finer teeth, which I use very occasionally, plus many other backsaws of a similar size to my main one. But basically I use just the one -- even for cutting 2" x 4"s (it gives a smoother surface than my crosscut saw, and it's easier to control because it's smaller).
- Wide chisel. Use it for cleaning up tenons and the sides of large mortices. There are specialized handplanes for cleaning up tenons. But, eh. I own a whole lotta chisels, but I use my "main" chisel (about 4cm/1-1/2" side) for just about everything. And try to buy one with a wooden handle: it's nicer to hold, and it's probably (although not necessarily) better quality than a plastic-handled one. And you'll most likely need to flatten the back of any chisel you buy, new or used.
- (Medium chisel. You can get by with just a wide chisel and a narrow chisel. But a medium-width chisel adds some flexibility: it's good to use as wide of a chisel as will fit in the opening.)
- Narrow chisel. For tiny places, like dovetails -- but the edges need to be beveled. You can also use it for narrower mortices. There are specialized mortice chisels, of course. But you can get away with one of these.
- Wooden mallet. For driving the chisels. Not a rubber mallet, as those things bounce weird. You may eventually get a range of mallets of different hefts. If money's tight, just cut a scrap of 2" x 4" into a somewhat "turkey leg" shape and use that. Making your own wooden mallet is a nice little project, with a broad range of possible levels of fancy-ness.
- Handplane. For making the wood straighter, smoother, and/or a tiny bit thinner. Get one with a handle sticking up on the back and a knob in the front. As with chisel handles and saw handles, try to get wooden handles, not plastic. You could get a smoothing plane or a jack plane (Google 'em; most of the ones you'll encounter at garage sales will be smoothing planes), but probably not a wooden-bodied plane, as they're trickier to set the blades to the right depth. But, if you already have one, then, sure -- use it. Unless the mouth is really tight, I'd suggest setting it up as a scrub plane (Google it). You can get away with using a smoothing plane as a block plane (Google image it) -- but if you already have a block plane, then good, use it. Also, I prefer a heavier plane (more inertia), but some people prefer lighter planes (because they find they don't get tired; although I've never personally got tired from handplaning, even with my hefty plane). You'll eventually get several handplanes, because each is optimized for a different task, and it's handier to leave each one set up for a specific task than to have to keep changing the settings. But you can just start with one. And you'll probably have to tidy it up a bit before you use it -- at least by sharpening it.
- Methyl alcohol, rubbing alcohol. Spray it on the end grain to soften it, prior to handplaning. It'll evaporate quickly after you're done. You can also use it to raise the grain on the faces of the boards as well.
- (Yet another squirt bottle. Use it to apply the alcohol. Not crucial, but handy.)
- (Used toothbrush. You can get away without this, but you may as well use it. Clean the crud out of your handplane before oiling it and putting it away.)
- (Router plane. I love my router plane: it lets me cut troughs to precise, consistent depths. It's a clever little invention. You can get away without one -- but it's much nicer to have one. A powered router would work, but it's harder to control with fine work, and if you're inside an apartment it'll make a much bigger mess (sawdust) than a router plane. For troughs that aren't too long you can just use the (flattened!) back of your chisel as a reference, and do it by eye and by feel
- Marking knife, striking knife. For showing where to cut; much more precise than a pen. I recommend a double-edged knife (Google "spear tipped marking knife"). You can buy one, or make your own if you have access to a grinding wheel and a long piece of scrap metal. It can be as simple or as fancy as your time, tastes, and money allow.
- (An old candle, preferably white. Use this for lubricating the sole of your handplane, and the sides of your saws. It's optional, but it's good to have and it's cheap (garage sale?). You can use colored candles, but the color might spoil the wood. Don't use beeswax candles: it actually makes things sticky and grippy.)
- (Winding sticks. Clever little things: you use them to tell whether your board is flat, as opposed to having a twist. Chris Schwarz recommends two lengths of aluminum angle iron, and painting them contrasting colors.)
- (Bench brush, whisk broom, bannister brush. For clearing the sawdust off your work. Also for sweeping off your workbench. Not crucial, but very handy.)
- (Broom OR vacuum cleaner. Presumably you already have one of these in your household. Depending on where you set up shop, you don't need one just for woodworking. But having one handy makes it easier to stay tidy.)
- (Dustpan. Use in conjunction with the above-mentioned brushes, to gather up the sawdust and wood shavings. But a stiff piece of paper works OK)
- (Poof tube, long straw. Keep your eyes open for a stiff length of tubing about two-thirds or three-fourths the length of your arm. Label one end "Mouth" and the other end "Wood". Use it to blow sawdust off of your workpiece. The tube lets you do this from a distance, which minimizes the about of dust you get blown back into your face.)
- Half-round rasp. Flat on one side, curved on the other. Use to rub wood away, such as if you were making a new handle for a handsaw. Be sure to wrap a rag around the tip when you're using it, or you'll get mysterious cuts on your finger that you can't figure out.
- Rat-tail rasp. Looks kind of like a chef's knife-sharpening rod. Used for rubbing away wood, but in a tighter radius.
- (Spokeshave. Easier to control than a drawknife. Really only needed if you move away from making rectangular objects and start making long narrow objects with curves to them (e.g. chair spindles, canoe oars).)
- (Needle-nose pliers. You'll probably have need of these. Most households would already have one, so this probably doesn't count as a "new item".)
- (Slip-jaw pliers. Also handy. I use mine for pulling nails where the claw hammer failed (i.e. tore the head off the nail -- gah! For for "normal" woodworking you probably don't need it.)
- Glue. I use just regular PVA wood glue. Some people use liquid hide glue because it's reversible with steam and pressure. But I live in subtropical Australia, so using a glue that would potentially come apart during the summer just seems silly. In fact, I use the "water resistant" flavor of glue.
- (Old toothbrush. For spreading the glue. A tip from Chris Schwarz's blog. Be sure to wash it off after each use.)
- Claw hammer. For driving nails. Also pulling nails. Most households would probably already have one, and they're plentiful at garage sales. As above, I'd recommend one with a wooden handle. Try to get one where the grain runs all the way from the head to the butt of the handle: otherwise, it may be prone to splitting.
- (Nail set. If you use finishing nails. If you don't, then you don't need one.)
- (Wide flatblade screwdriver. You don't actually have to use screws in your projects -- so I'm making all the screwdrivers optional. Plus, most households have a few already. Please don't use this as a prybar, as you'll bung up the tip. At the very least, reserve a specific screwdriver for prying purposes.)
- (Medium-width flatblade screwdriver. Ayep.)
- (Small flatblade screwdriver. For driving small screws. Of course.)
- (Larger Phillips screwdriver)
- (Medium Phillips screwdriver)
- (Small Phillips screwdriver)
- Power drill/hand drill, OR eggbeater-style drill. For making holes, either for dowels, pilot holes for screws, or possibly pilot holes for nails. When I was starting out I bought a cheap ($30) rechargeable drill. But it had the cheap type of battery, where you couldn't leave it charging, you had to put it in the charger overnight, then remove it. But if you let the charged battery sit for a month, then it lost most of its power. So basically, you had to know a few days in advance that you were planning to drill something. In the end I bought a cheap (also $30) electric drill, and it's much more reliable. I don't mind using an extension cord. Power drills are one of the few concessions to electricity in my woodworking: they're inexpensive, faster, not too noisy, and you can use your other hand for steadying the drill.
- Drill bits. Inexpensive ones work fine, if it's what you need to get started. The smallest ones always break. The work-around (I read this somewhere) is to take a nail, snip off the head, and file it to a point. Use this as a replacement drill. For smaller diameter, drilling in to wood, it works fine.
- Awl, bradawl, ice pick, or nail. Poke this in to the wood to make a depression prior to drilling, so your drill bit doesn't skitter around and drill in the wrong place.
- (Countersink bit. You'll want one if you use screws with that head shape. I you don't, then you don't need it.)
- (Brace. For driving the auger-style bits.)
- (Auger-style bits. For drilling medium-diameter holes (about a half inch or less). Or you could try a spade bit with your electric drill.)
- Miscellaneous sheets of sandpaper. You'll need a range of grits. Although if you're doing all flat-surfaced things, if you handplaned the surface it doesn't need any sanding.
- (Sanding block. It provides support to the sandpaper, and helps your hand not cramp up. It doesn't have to be fancy: you can just wrap the sandpaper around a scrap of wood.)
- Boiled linseed oil (BLO). I make a 50-50 mix of this and methl alcohol (listed above) and rub it on my wooden tool handles. It's an easy finish for other projects as well.
- (Yet another squirt bottle. For the BLO.)
- (Danish oil or tung oil. As near as I can tell from my web search, they're nearly the same thing. It's a varnish + oil mix, so it's easy to apply but also provides a somewhat protective coat. It was my paternal grandfather's preferred finish.)
- (Paint. Ayep. If you have wood that looks nice, use the BLO or the Danish oil/tung oil. If the wood is boring -- or you have a favorite color, or want to support a color scheme, then paint it.)
- Rags. Now that I'm old enough that I'm no longer growing, my clothes are finally starting to wear out, and I have rags. I never use a paintbrush: for painting, BLO, and Danish/tung oil I just "rag it on" (that's the phrase). Make sure you never wad up a rag that you used with finishing oils, because there's a chance it could combust. Instead, spread it out (outside?) to dry, before throwing it away -- or soak it in a bucket of water.
The above is a fairly long list, considering it's just "the basics". Hand tool woodworking does require a bit of infrastructure. That said, much of what I've listed is inexpensive, free, already in your homeowner's/apartment-dweller's stash of tools, or on the "optional" list. I count 19 items that you have to buy -- rather than build or scavenge, or probably already own.
If you don't include the costs of the "lotions and potions" (boiled linseed oil, glue...), the consumables (sandpaper, nails...), and things that most people already have (claw hammer, tape measure...) -- if you were a smart shopper (and/or had a mentor) I reckon you could build a simple but solid workbench for $80 in lumber (dunno how much the bolts would be), a simple $30 vice, and $240 in used tools.
So, about $350, and you're good. That's not bad.