Saturday, October 23, 2010

Intro Hand Tools: Practice Materials

Go: Intro Hand Tools Main Page | Table Of Contents

In order to practice techniques, you'll need some materials. These are going to be turned into scrap. Rather than considering that a waste, consider it an investment. Better to make mistakes on materials you intend to throw away than those you're using for a project, where you may have already invested considerable time and energy working on them. The mistakes you make during practice will be highly educational.

That should also give you the freedom to be fearless about trying things. By definition, a piece that's destined for the trash or the fireplace can't be ruined! The time you spend turning these into shavings, chips, and dust will give you the confidence to work on real projects, and you'll know what mistakes to avoid.

Practice Blades
Practice Lumber

Practice Blades

Learning to sharpen well by hand takes practice. You need to grind and hone some blades to learn the angles and build the muscle memory. However, if the only plane blades you have are the ones that cames with your expensive Lie-Nielsen planes or your treasured antiques, you're probably going to be nervous about ruining them. Likewise with expensive chisels and hand saws.

So instead, get some really cheap ones for practice. You can grind these down to nothing while learning and not be upset. There are two sources for cheap blades. First is flea markets. There are always vendors with collections of old, rusty, beat up, used up, bent up, cracked, damaged, and abused plane irons, chisels, and saws. They're usually just a dollar or two, because they're too far gone to be put back to use and too ugly to be collectible, or they may have been cheap junk to begin with.

The second source is the cheap hand tools available at home centers and hardware stores. While they may not be high-enough quality for serious woodworking, they're just fine for sharpening practice. You only need to spend $20 or $30.

Cheap home center blades for sharpening practice: saw, $10; replacement plane iron, $3; set of chisels, $10. None of these have any maker's marks on them.

The one thing to avoid is saws that have visibly hardened teeth (they may say "impulse hardened" or something similar). These teeth are very brittle, so attempting to file them will likely just snap them off. On the other hand, you could snap them all off deliberately to remove the hardened edge and then practice filing teeth into the remaining sawplate.

Practice Lumber

For practice lumber, get one board each of four or five locally-available woods that you expect to be using, approximately 1"x8"x8'. You want a range of woods of different hardness, density, and grain characteristics, because each one will work a little differently as you practice the various techniques. You may master a technique with one wood, only to find you need to relearn it when working with a different wood.

Get the wood rough if you can for maximum learning opportunity, dimensioned otherwise; most home center lumber is dimensioned. You may also want to try both flatsawn and quartersawn wood, as well as thicker 6/4 and 8/4 stock if it's available.

Expect to spend between $80 and $150 total. Remember, that money is an investment in your skills, not a waste. A waste is when you ruin the cherry cabriole leg you just spent the past two days making, because you haven't done enough mortising practice. That's a waste!

For me in the northeastern US, some common woods are pine, poplar, cherry, oak, and maple. If you're in another part of the world, say Australia, you may have completely different woods with much different characteristics (for instance, tropical woods tend to be very hard and dense, wearing down tool edges quickly).

As a beginner, do yourself a favor and start out with softer woods before moving on to the harder ones. This is both because they're physically easier to work, and because you're sharpening skills may not be developed enough yet to tackle the harder stuff. A plane iron that's not well sharpened will just skate across a dense tropical wood like it was glass, without cutting anything. That's not a learning experience, it's just frustrating. On the other hand, harder woods will take more precise shapes, so they may be more rewarding when you're practicing fine joinery. That's why you want a range of woods to try.

Start out with the straightest grained pieces you can find, and save the gnarly-grained stuff for when you've developed some experience controlling the tools. You don't need problem grain getting in the way of learning the fundamentals.

My selection of practice lumber: 4/4 cherry, maple, poplar and oak, and 6/4 pine, all rough. The pine and poplar are softer, the cherry, oak, and maple are harder. The poplar, cherry, and maple have very close grain, the oak has very open grain. Cherry tends to be my favorite due to workability, fine shaping, and appearance.

We'll follow the precision cutting plan below for our practice cuts. The dimensions given are for an 8' length of 8" stock, but you can adapt them proportionally to whatever actual size lumber you have available. The exact dimensions aren't important because you're not trying to build a specific project, but once you pick some dimensions, we'll focus on finishing the pieces to size with precision. And if you ruin a dimension, you can just pick a new one and try again.

Practice cutting plan (click on it for a larger image). Scale on bottom and right show approximate dimensions. Adapt it to the actual board you have. Hopefully your lumber is straighter than this drawing!

The cuts are numbered to show order of operations. This gives a range of large and small crosscuts, long and short rips, working on large and small pieces. The goal is to use different sizes and types of saws, managing different size workpieces, while creating finished-size pieces to be used for practicing subsequent techniques. Some of these pieces will also be resawn to thinner stock and cut on curves.

By the time you've turned this stack of lumber into waste, you'll have done each operation 10 to 20 times. That may not be enough to achieve mastery, but it should be enough to sort through the various problems and mistakes you might encounter on a real project.

But don't start cutting yet! There are a few more things to go over and then we'll start to break the lumber down in Chapter 8, Saw Skills.

For another approach to practice, Robert Lang of Popular Woodworking Magazine did an excellent series of blog posts on the Gottshall Block, an exercise created by Franklin Gottshall for cabinetmaking practice. The full series is listed below. You might want to save some of your practice pieces for doing this. You'll see some similar activities in the following chapters.


  1. Great Idea!
    One of the first I had to learn as a apprentice carpenter was to sharpen saws, plane irons and chisels. it was my responsibility every Friday to sharpen to crew box saws and chisels, and what ever else the guys on the the crew needed sharpened. I caught hell if they wasn't done right, so I picked it up quickly just to save the skin on my ass. Looking back on I am grateful to them old bastards for being so hard on me and teaching me how and when to use hand tool and how to take care of them. They gave me my first saw, plane and set of chisel all I still have and use them on a daily basis and would take no amount of money for them.

  2. Steve,

    Just wanted to point out that the links to all of Lang's blog posts have 404'd. Looks like PWW's webmonkeys updated the blog configuration without ensuring old "permalinks" would work.

  3. Those darn webmonkeys! Thanks, Ben, I've corrected and tested the links.