Hand Tool Instruction

Updated November 6, 2021

I offer two choices for private lessons from my basement workshop.
  1. For those who live within driving distance of eastern Massachusetts, I offer private classes in the workshop. See Private instruction in Ayer, MA below for full details, including hand tool safety instructions.
  2. For those who would like remote instruction, I offer virtual private classes, hosted from the workshop. See Virtual Private instruction below for full details, including hand tool safety instructions.
The benefits of in-person classes are a chance to work directly with an instructor and try a variety of tools. Virtual instruction also allows working directly with an instructor, but in your shop with your tools. As an adjunct, I have information here for anyone who'd like to follow along on their own; look for the Intro Hand Tools heading.

This is for those who already know a little bit about hand tools as well as those who know absolutely nothing about them. I'm not an expert or a professional; my goal is to teach people the basics to get started, preparing them for more advanced instruction or self-paced learning. This information is useful whether you want to work exclusively with hand tools, or mix them with power tools.

If you're not in the area, or this isn't the instruction you're interested in, take a look at the list of schools on the Links page.

If you'd like to teach classes of your own, feel free to use any of the materials or ideas you see here, provided you attribute them to me and CloseGrain.com. Fair use is fair use, but plagiarism is plagiarism, even on the Internet. Also remember that safety is of paramount importance at all times.

Part of what I want to convey is that this is well within the scope of most people's ability. Hand tool woodworking is often viewed as impossibly difficult and laborious. It's true there are a number of distinct skills to master, and large projects like boats and houses, requiring hundreds of feet of lumber, are massive undertakings. 

But projects on the scale of furniture are not. Broken down into steps, they aren't that physically laborious. They can be time-consuming, but that's more a matter of the complexity of the project than whether it's done with hand or power tools. With a little patience, most people would be surprised what they can do if they stop and give it a try. Sharp tools make all the difference.

The format is typically skills-based, not project-based, but you can also do a project. Beginners often get too focused on trying to complete a starter project or set impossibly high goals for themselves, and get frustrated when they make mistakes. Instead of trying to build something specific, I recommend following the advice of Ian Kirby and Frank Klaus and practicing individual skills.

Like a musician learning an instrument, it's a matter of taking the time to develop the motor skills. Mistakes are a normal part of practicing. The musician starts simply, not with a Mozart symphony. Do something 20 or 30 times, and you start to get good at it.

We'll make shavings, sawdust, and chips, with the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, because it's all going to be thrown out anyway. This approach gives students the skills, experience, and confidence to build projects on their own. It also gives them a method for acquiring new skills. This may seem terribly wasteful, but ya gotta burn some to learn some.

Steve Branam

Private Instruction In Ayer, MA

Updated May 2, 2021

I offer private classes on the basics of hand tool woodworking in my basement workshop. Topics covered are your choice, on your schedule.

The photos below show the student space. Current use is limited to 1 or 2 students in the same pod due to Covid-19, but once conditions allow, there's space for up to 4. All participants must have completed Coronavirus vaccinations at least two prior to lessons.

There are three Paul Sellers workbenches and one Apartment Workbench. My larger Roubo workbench area is also available, allowing you to try out different setups.

The two left benches (I've replaced one of these workbenches with my Apartment Workbench) and tool cart...

...and the two right benches.

The tool cart with enough tools for 4 people. The plane toes are resting on a strip to elevate their irons off the shelf.

The hanging bookshelf is well-stocked with books and videos.

You don't need to know anything starting out, and you don't need to have any tools. I can take you through the whole process of learning the basics.

The end result is that you'll be able to make basic furniture and cabinetry projects using a variety of classic joinery methods, either all with hand tools or with a mix of hand and power tools, whatever works best for you. You'll also be ready to take more advanced classes from other woodworking schools if you'd like to further expand your skills.

Once you've learned these skills in class, the key is to practice them at home, just like learning to play a musical instrument. Put the time in just making shavings, chips, and sawdust without worrying what it looks like or what mistakes you make, and pretty soon you'll be confident working on real projects.

Cost is $45/hour for one person; if you'd like to bring one other person from your Covid-19 pod, cost is an additional $30/hour. Materials provided at extra cost, or bring your own.

My location is 46 Fletcher St., Ayer, MA (the house has light-blue siding and green shutters, front door, and garage doors).

Note that we have two dogs and two birds in the house, in case you have allergies.

To Schedule A Class
Classes are weeknights and Saturdays and Sundays, subject to availability. I recommend sessions of 1 to 4 hours at a time. To schedule a class, send an email, no deposit required:
Steve Branam
All necessary tools are provided, ranging from 19th century wooden planes to modern handplanes, or you can bring your own. Do you have some you'd like to learn to use? Are there some you don't have that you'd like to try?

I also occasionally have random tools available for sale.

Be sure all personal tools are marked for identification. A simple marking method is to put blue painter's tape on a tool and write your initials on it.

  1. All participants must have completed a full set of Coronavirus vaccinations at least 2 weeks prior to any lessons.
  2. No smoking.
  3. Payment is due on the date of class in cash, check, or Venmo; a deposit is not required.
Classes can be skills-based or project-based. For skills-based, you can follow my standard curriculum below, breaking up the time as necessary, or suggest something different. Spend as much or as little time on a topic as you want.

For project-based, you can do small projects entirely in class, or work on techniques needed for a bigger project you're doing elsewhere. If you're looking for a project, one suggestion is this Shaker Step Stool that I used for a group class at Cambridge Center For Adult Education. It covers many of the skills below and is suitable for beginners.

At a minimum, I recommend the sharpening class, because without sharp tools, you just can't work. Sharpness is like the gas that makes a car go, and sharpening is the most basic of maintenance skills; just as you need to know how to fill the tank when it's empty, you need to know how to sharpen a tool when it's dull. It's just as easy as filling the tank once you know what to do.

Standard Curriculum These 3-hour classes cover the kickstart skills, the basic basics. You can treat this as a linear curriculum or pick and choose specific classes in any order. Once you've acquired these skills, you'll be prepared for more advanced training, on your own or from other instructors.
  • Sharpening: The gateway skill. Plane, chisel, scraper, and saw sharpening, using a variety of abrasives (oilstones, waterstones, sandpaper, diamond plates), freehand and with sharpening guides. Bring some tools to practice on! Read more about this class here.
  • Rough Stock Preparation: Breaking down boards into rough dimensions with handsaws. Includes crosscutting, ripping, and resawing. Read more about this class here.
  • Final Stock Preparation: Final dimensioning of parts previously roughed out with hand or power tools, using saws and handplanes in the FEWTEL sequence. Includes fine sawing, and face, edge, and endgrain planing. Read more about this class here.
  • Simple Joinery: Lap joints, rabbets, dadoes, and grooves. Read more about this class here.
  • Mortise and Tenon: Blind mortise and tenon, through mortise and tenon, and bridle joints, including drawboring. Read more about this class here.
  • Dovetails: Through and blind dovetails. Read more about this class here.
  • Boring and Curves: Boring holes with braces and bits, eggbeater drills, and specialty tools. Forming and refining curves with bowsaws, chisels, spokeshaves, and rasps. 
  • Tool Restoration: Restoring old tools, covering handsaws, handplanes, chisels, and specialty tools. Many a dirty and rusty hunk can be restored. Put your old family heirlooms and Internet, flea market, and antique store finds back to use.
Hand Tool Woodworking Class Safety

General Safety
  1. Safety is YOUR responsibility. Your attention to safety is the best way to prevent injury.
  2. Handle and use tools in a safe manner at all times. If you aren't sure, ask the instructor.
  3. Splinters and small nicks and cuts are common, even for the most experienced woodworkers. Tweezers and bandaids are available in the first aid kit. 
  4. Report all injuries to the instructor, no matter how small. 
  5. Many hand tools have extremely sharp edges, teeth, or points. Be aware of them at all times.
  6. Be aware of the cutting path of a tool. This includes the exit path of the tool.
  7. Be aware of the path a tool may take if it slips or the workpiece breaks off unexpectedly.
  8. Keep your free hand (the hand not holding the tool) out of the path of the tool. 
  9. Keep your body out of the path of the tool.
  10. If a tool falls, stand clear and do not try to catch it. A damaged tool is preferable to an injury.
  11. Do not use a dull tool. Dull tools slip on the work more easily, and you need to apply more force to make them work, increasing the risk of an accident. Bring dull tools to the instructor's attention.
Chisel safety
  1. Chisels are the most dangerous tool because of their long length and fully exposed sharp edge and corners. They are capable of penetrating and cutting skin, muscle, tendons, blood vessels, nerves, and bone. Handle and use them with care.
  2. Except when using a stopped grip, do not have your other hand or any part of your body in front of the chisel, and do not direct the chisel toward any part of your body.
  3. The safest grip is to have one hand on the chisel handle, and the other hand on the blade, well back from the edge. This keeps both hands out of the cutting path.
  4. For a stopped grip, choke up on the end of the chisel, exposing only enough length of blade to do the work. Your fingers around the end act as a stop, preventing it from going further.

    This is a stopped grip, holding a narrow chisel to clean out a dovetail. Even though my left hand is close to the sharp edge, it is safe because it is below the dovetail, out of the direct path of the tool, and my right fingers are wrapped around the chisel, exposing only the end and limiting it to within the thickness of the wood.
  5. Control the force and path of a chisel. If it requires extra force, it may be dull.
Plane Safety
  1. Plane irons are like short, wide chisels, but only the very edge is exposed.
  2. Keep fingers away from the plane iron edge.
  3. Do not brush fingers down the sole of the plane from toe to heel.
  4. Handle the iron carefully when setting the cap iron.
Saw Safety
  1. Keep free hand out of the cutting path, including on the underside of the work.
  2. Do not force the saw.
Miscellaneous Tool Safety
  1. When using a marking knife, keep free hand out of the path of the knife. This includes when holding a rule down and using it as a guide to mark along its length.
  2. When boring holes with drill or awl, be aware of where the point will exit and keep clear of it.
  3. When using a mallet or hammer, keep other hand clear of strike point.
  4. Be aware of pinch points in clamps and other articulated tools.
  5. Avoid sharp points on marking gauges.

Virtual Private Instruction

Updated November 6, 2021

I offer virtual private classes on the basics of hand tool woodworking, hosted from my basement workshop. Topics covered are your choice, on your schedule.

Everything is the same as what I cover in-person in my workshop, except that you'll be in your workspace with your tools. See Private instruction in Ayer, MA above for topics, including hand tool safety instructions.

Online Platform
There are a variety of online platforms that work for this, such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype. We can use whichever one works for you.

Cost is $40/hour for any number of people at your location.

You may record classes for you to keep, a benefit not available with in-person classes. If you aren't able to record from your end, I should be able to from mine.

To Schedule A Class
Classes are weeknights and Saturdays and Sundays, subject to availability. I recommend sessions of 1 to 4 hours at a time. To schedule a class, send an email, no deposit required:
Steve Branam
  1. Payment is due on the date of class via Venmo; a deposit is not required.