Sunday, March 17, 2013

How Do I Get Started With Hand Tools?

This question comes up repeatedly in demos and online woodworking discussions. Often it's the even more generic "How do I get started in woodworking?"

Invariably it elicits dozens of opinions, all of them perfectly valid, because there are many ways to skin a cat. Everybody has their favorite way of getting the job done and the tools to do it. This is my contribution to the fray.

The answers depend to a large extent on your interests in working with particular types of tools. There's an entire spectrum from all hand tools to all power tools. Here I'll cover what it takes to do at least some of the work with hand tools.

You can read my commentary on the motivational aspects in Why Use Hand Tools? and Why Use Power Tools?. This post is a brief instructional overview for those who are just learning about it. For more in-depth instruction, see Intro Hand Tools.

Say you've caught the woodworking bug and want to build a straightforward starter project, like a toy box for the kids. When you get home with a load of lumber, you're going to need to do the following:
  • Break the boards down into rough manageable size.
  • Take the parts down to the final dimensions in the plan.
  • Cut the joints for the parts.
  • Assemble the parts and any hardware.
  • Apply finish.
This is the basic procedure for any project starting from raw lumber, whether it's a bit of household carpentry, a piece of furniture, or a bit of cabinetry, no matter how simple or fancy the joinery.

The amount of rough and final stock preparation depends on the lumber you're using. If you're using surfaced and dimensioned stock from a home center, this might be fairly minimal, working with standard thickness and widths.

If you're using lumber from a woodworking store or a lumber mill, whether rough or surfaced, it will be more involved.

Even if they've done some rough cutting for you, you'll probably need to cross cut to final length, you might need to rip something to final width, and you might need to plane to thickness. If you're using rough lumber, you'll need to plane for surface.

In addition to the tools to do these operations, you need the skills to use them. It just happens to be a different set of skills depending on whether you do a given operation with hand tools or power tools. You need to learn the skills and practice them on scrap before you start on your good lumber.

Breaking boards down: to do this by hand, you need two full size saws, one crosscut and one rip. You need some kind of support for the lumber while you're cutting it, like sawhorses or a saw bench.

Taking parts to final dimension: to do this by hand, you need handplanes, typically a jack plane, jointer, and smoother, and a small or medium handsaw like a crosscut backsaw. You need a workbench to work on, and bench accessories like clamps, hold-downs, bench hooks, and shooting board. For marking out, you need a square, a marking gauge, and a marking knife.

Cutting joinery: to do this by hand, you need small rip and crosscut back saws, chisels, and a mallet; a coping saw is also useful.

Assembling parts and hardware: to do this by hand, you need hand drills, both egg-beater and brace style, an assortment of bits, screwdrivers, and a hammer, to drill pilot holes and drive screws and nails. Typically only rough carpentry jobs call for large nails and hammers; most other jobs where nailing is required use smaller nails and hammers. You need clamps for gluing up (there are a large variety of clamp styles, and you can take it on faith that you never have enough).

These are the basics to get started. There are plenty of other specialized tools as you advance your skills or need to take on specific tasks.

Unfortunately, most of the hand tools you can find in home centers and hardware stores are of such poor quality they're not worth using. You either need to get old ones from the time when everything was built with hand tools and people depended on them for their livelihoods, or get brands from modern specialty manufacturers, typically only available from woodworking stores or online.

Good tools are an investment. Avoid cheap junk, because you'll just have to spend more money replacing them with better ones.

There's one more important area: sharpening. Trying to learn how to use hand tools without learning how to sharpen is like learning how to drive without learning how to put gas in the tank. It's a basic frequent maintenance procedure, and despite all the mystique that's built up over it, it's not that hard. No harder than filling the tank.

You can have someone else do it for you, but after a few hours of use, you need to do it again. Maybe sooner depending on the wood you're using. Even the best sharp edge wears down in use, just as the gas in the tank gets used up.

If you don't learn how to sharpen your tools, they'll turn into single-use items. This is different from working with power tools, where power overcomes a dull blade until you replace it with a new one. Like a pencil, you sharpen it, you use it and wear it down, you sharpen it again. Unlike a pencil, a good tool will last for decades.

Sharpening: this is an entire topic unto itself due to the variety of methods available. But you'll need some kind of sharpening system, whether it's oilstones, waterstones, diamond stones, abrasive papers, or some kind of mechanical system.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing to me that no matter how often this question gets answered, it still gets asked.

    Good overview. I agree that a beginner needs to avoid cheap junk. Seeing how much of it is available at a home center, one wonders how the market supports this stuff. Who buys these worthless tools?