Saturday, April 16, 2016

Evaluating The Tool List By Function

I was reviewing the tool list I included at the end of my post about Ken Aucremanne and VetWoodworks, and I thought it would be useful to consider the list from a different perspective.

Ken had a couple items he would add, and so did I. Of course everyone has their own version of this list, based on their experience and work habits. We all agonize over every choice.

In fact you see this all the time on the woodworking forums: someone asks what tools are good for a beginner, and the answers come rolling in, some in agreement, some in disagreement. Many of the form "you should have an xyz".

What's often missing is why you should have an xyz. Each tool needs to be justified. It costs time and money to acquire and prepare these tools, whether you're gathering a single set for yourself or multiple sets for a group.

Plus you need to avoid overwhelming the beginner with an enormous list of hundreds of doodads that they are going to have to learn how to use.

For that reason and the cost, each tool needs to earn its keep. So here is the list from the functional perspective. What purpose does each tool serve in the various operations that a beginning woodworker would do in the first year, carrying a variety of projects through to completion?

That time period is important because it limits the scope to a reasonable starting set. Over a full professional or hobby career, a woodworker can explore a wide range of specialties, each with its own specialized tools. If you try to cover all those possibilities, once again you're headed down the road to that list of hundreds of tools.

So the focus here is on a fundamental set of tools, based on a fundamental set of operations common to a variety of disciplines, like furniture making, cabinet making, luthiery and musical instrument making, boat building, and home building and repair.

Can you add just that one other thing or two? Sure. Just be careful what that commits you to, what additional cost, preparation, and usage skills. At some point you have to call stop and decide you have a good list that covers enough useful ground. You can always add more as people advance.

It's also useful to divide operations into rough and fine stages: start with the tool that takes the biggest bite to remove most of the material, then switch to the tool that gives the most precision to carefully remove the remainder. Most operations have some kind of final finishing tool.

This "teamwork" approach to using the tools is the key to efficient, high quality work. No single tool is capable of doing the whole job. They each have a part to play in the operation, just like a surgical team.

Based on this evaluation, I've added these items to my original list, incorporating some of Ken's suggestions and some of the variations in methods that I use:
  • Rip tenon saw: 12-15 tpi. This joinery backsaw is bigger than a dovetail saw, to handle bigger tenon cuts. Meanwhile for dovetails, you want a very fine, delicate saw.
  • Brace and bits, eggbeaters and push drills, awls and gimlets. Drilling holes is an excellent way to excavate wood, and is required for pilot holes.
  • Block plane. This is a single-handed plane at lower angle for a variety of fine fitting and shaping tasks.
  • Shoulder plane. This is a fine finishing plane for fitting joints.
  • Coping saw. This is a narrow, fine-bladed saw for curves and tight places.
  • Spokeshave. This is another tool for basic curved work, and an enormously fun introduction to working with wood. For beginners, the metal-bodied style is less finicky than the wooden style.
  • Assembly tools: hammer, screwdrivers, and pliers.
This all has to be tempered by availability at acceptable cost. Some items are easy to find in either new or antique form, but some are hard to find in any vintage. Some may stretch the budget too far. These realities definitely affected the original set of tools I put together for teaching.

It doesn't take a huge amount of resources to set up a workshop. An investment of $200-$500 is enough to equip it with used hand tools, or $500-$1500 for new tools. Building a 4' workbench with some kind of workholding setup takes $50-$200, or buying one takes $500-$1500.

For my original 4 student setups, tools and workbenches without the above additions, I spent a total of about $2000. The most expensive items were the quick-release vises on the shop-built benches, $150 each.

Tool List By Function
This is the frequent maintenance that you do yourself, like putting gas in the car when it's getting low.
  • Sharpening stones: to grind and hone edge tools, starting with the coarsest stone for rough stage and progressing to the finest stone for fine stage.
  • Strop and compound: to polish final edge.
  • Saw files: to file saw teeth, using a shop-made saw vise.
  • Saw set: to set the teeth every few sharpenings.
  • Mill bastard file: to level saw teeth occasionally and file card scrapers.
  • Burnisher: to turn scraper edges.
Rough Stock Preparation
This is breaking down lumber to rough dimensions, working to rough tolerances of nearest quarter inch and nearest 5 degrees. The lumber may be S4S, S2S, or rough. In this stage precision is not important, only speed and efficiency.
  • Crosscut saw: to crosscut to rough length.
  • Rip saw: to rip to rough width and resaw to rough thickness.
  • Long straightedge: to measure length and mark width.
  • Combination square: to mark crosscuts and measure and mark width and thickness.
  • Jointer plane (#6 or #7): to flatten and square up rough ripped edges for repeat cuts.
  • Wax block: to lubricate saw plates and plane bed.
Fine Stock Preparation
This is four-squaring stock and sizing to precise dimensions, working to fine tolerances of nearest hundredth of an inch and nearest half of a degree (with experience this can be thousandth of an inch and tenth of a degree). In this stage precision is critical. Speed is initially important until the last little bit is left, at which point you creep up on final dimension and angle with the finishing tool one shaving at a time.
  • Jack plane (#5) with iron ground to cambered edge: to rough down surfaces and edges to quickly remove excess material.
  • Jointer plane (#6 or #7): to flatten and square up surfaces and edges, and square up ends to final line using a shop-made shooting board.
  • Smoothing plane (#3 or #4): to provide final fine surface (this may be done after assembly at final cleanup time to remove all dents, scratches, nicks, and tool marks, and to flush up mating surfaces).
  • Metal spokeshave: to shape curves.
  • Scraper: to do fine cleanup of surfaces and shapes, replacing sandaper.
  • Crosscut tenon saw: to cut close to final length using shop-made bench hooks.
  • Combination square: to measure and mark final dimensions.
  • Marking knife: to mark final dimensions.
  • Marking gauge: to mark final width and thickness.
  • Engineer's square: to check final squaring.
  • Wax block: to lubricate saw plates and plane beds.
Simple Joinery
These are basic joints with only simple mechanical interlock, like edge-glued joints, rabbets, dados, grooves, lap joints, and various miters, plus edge treatments like chamfering and bullnose rounding. Working to same tolerances as fine stock preparation.
  • Jointer plane (#6 or #7): to square up mating edges to be glued on edge-glued joints, and shoot miters to final line using shop-made miter shooting boards.
  • Smoothing plane (#3 or #4): to flush up finished joints.
  • Crosscut tenon saw: to crosscut dado walls and lap shoulders.
  • Rip tenon saw: to rip rabbet shoulders, groove walls, and end-lap cheeks, and cut miters close to final line.
  • Block plane: to chamfer and round edges.
  • Chisels: to remove the bulk of the waste in dados, grooves, and center laps.
  • Mallet: to drive the chisels.
  • Router plane: to remove final waste in dados and laps and level them precisely.
  • Shoulder plane: to remove final waste in rabbets and square up joint walls.
  • Combination square: to mark lap and dado width.
  • Marking knife: to mark lap and dado width.
  • Marking gauge: to mark lap depth and rabbet depth and width.
  • Sliding Bevel gauge: to transfer angles.
Mortise And Tenon Joints
These are blind and through-mortise and tenon joints of various types, and bridle joints. Working to same tolerances as fine stock preparation. There are two major procedural variations: chopping out mortises entirely with chisels, or drilling them out followed by paring with chisels.
  • Crosscut tenon saw: to crosscut tenon shoulders.
  • Rip tenon saw: to rip tenon cheeks.
  • Chisels: to chop mortises.
  • Mallet: to drive the chisels.
  • Brace and bit: to drill out the bulk of the waste in mortises.
  • Router plane: to level tenon cheeks.
  • Shoulder plane: to square up and trim tenon shoulders.
  • Smoothing plane (#3 or #4): to flush up finished through-tenons.
  • Engineer's square: to mark tenon shoulders and transfer through mortise ends around.
  • Dual marking gauge: to mark tenon thickness and mortise width.
  • Marking knife: to mark tenon shoulders.
Dovetail Joints
These are through- and blind dovetails, from single to many tails. Working to same tolerances as fine stock preparation. There are two major procedural variations: chopping pin and tail waste with chisels, or sawing it off with a coping saw; in either case followed by paring to the baseline with chisels.
  • Dovetail saw: to saw out pins and tails.
  • Crosscut tenon saw: to saw off outside tail waste.
  • Coping saw: to saw off inside pin and tail waste.
  • Chisels: to chop out inside pin and tail waste and pare spaces to baseline, and to remove waste from blind pin board. 
  • Mallet: to drive the chisels.
  • Smoothing plane (#3 or #4): to flush up finished joints.
  • Marking gauge: to mark baselines.
  • Sliding bevel gauge: to mark angles.
  • Marking knife: to transfer pins/tails to mating piece.
Assembly And Hardware Installation
This is for joining with nails and screws, and fastening hardware such as hinges and latches.
  • Hammer and nail set: to drive and set nails.
  • Screwdrivers (flat and phillips): to drive screws.
  • Awl: to mark hole centers.
  • Eggbeater/push drills and bits: to drill pilot holes.
  • Brace and countersink bit: to ream countersinks for screw heads.
  • Birdcage awl/gimlets: to make small pilot holes.
For all of this work, you need to be able to hold your workpieces, although there are a range of workholding strategies depending on the style of your workbench.
  • Vise: to hold pieces up on edge.
  • Holdfasts: to hold pieces down flat.
  • Clamps: in infinite variety, to how for working, assembling, and gluing.
Cost/Benefit Analysis
Finally, a last word about cost vs. benefit. Some of these tools are absolutely critical to being able to get any work done at all. Saws, planes, and chisels, plus squares and rulers. You couldn't do even the crudest job without them. The mighty, versatile chisel can do so much once you begin exploring it. 

Some are a huge help because they're such versatile finishing tools, like router planes.

Other items are more specialized, such as coping saws, card scrapers, block planes, and shoulder planes. You can argue that for their limited specialties, they really do the best job, justifying the cost. But you can also argue that there are other ways to accomplish the same work, so they aren't justified. This will be heavily influenced by your preferred work methods.

Coping saws and card scrapers are inexpensive enough that you can ignore the need to justify them. They win the cost/benefit argument easily. Block planes are a bit more expensive, so the argument is more of a toss-up.

Shoulder planes are the toughest argument. They're finicky to use, especially for beginners, and have fairly limited use, and yet they're pretty expensive. So they may lose in the cost/benefit argument due to a lot of cost for little benefit. At least until after the first year.

For any of these, you'll find someone who simply can't work without them. If you do, ask them to teach you how they use the tools. You may learn a very useful specialized method.


  1. This is an extremely useful post, Steve! Thanks for putting it together! I'll refer to it while building up my workshop.


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