All Posts by Nick Lieurance

Choosing Your First Workbench

The Workbench is the Backbone of any Shop.

Hand tool woodworking involves a collection of tools, fixtures, and skills. An average woodshop may be home to various saws, chisels of different kinds, and numerous planes, in addition to a slew of other items. But the most important piece of equipment in any hand tool shop is, without a doubt, the workbench. No matter what kind of hand tool woodworking you enjoy (building furniture, making cabinets, etc.), you’ll spend most of your time at the bench.

Criteria for a Quality Workbench.

Your first workbench should fulfill a few basic needs. The primary one is rigidity. Surfacing, chopping, and sawing will cause a flimsy bench to wobble or slide along the floor. To get flat boards and accurate joinery, your bench needs to stay put. For this reason, a good workbench is heavy and sturdy. It should weigh enough that it doesn’t slide in any direction without a lot of intentional effort. Woodworking benches are often made of solid oak or maple, woods with the required heft and toughness. Thick, solid legs and a well-built frame prevent wobbling. Manufacturers employ different types of joints and mechanical fasteners to make their benches rigid. They use big mortise-and-tenon joints, snug dovetails, and sometimes even lag bolts or knockdown hardware made of ductile iron.

To plane rough boards into flat lumber, you need a flat work surface. The benchtop must be as smooth and even as possible. A warped, dented, uneven top will make it almost impossible to surface material properly. Hills and valleys in the top will transfer to workpieces as you apply downward pressure with your plane. Even a quality bench from a reputable manufacturer will need occasional resurfacing to keep it flat and serviceable. Dried-up glue, mallet dents, and other deformities need to be scraped and planed away regularly. Because of these considerations, a plywood, particleboard, or melamine benchtop won’t do for hand tool woodworking. You can’t simply plane away defects in these surfaces.

Main functions of a Workbench.

Almost all woodworking tasks require some kind of clamp or hold-down. Whether you’re cutting dovetails, chopping a mortise, planing a board flat, or trimming a tenon, you can’t get the job done without first securing the workpiece. Woodworking benches offer several ways to hold materials in place. The most familiar work-holding solution is probably the vise, which is essentially a screw-driven clamp mounted to the bench. Vises come in three forms. There’s the face vise, which is meant to be secured to the front of the workbench. Another version is the end vise. It can be attached to either end of the bench. A leg vise, as you might expect, is built into one of the workbench legs.

The first two kinds of vises are usually made of metal, but wooden versions are also available. The jaws of a metal vise can mar your workpieces. To prevent this, you can screw boards to the inside of the jaws. Most vises come with pre-drilled holes for this purpose. You will probably find yourself using two of the vises in concert for a lot of your work. For example, to plane the long edge of a board, you might clamp one end in a face vise and secure the other end in a leg vise.

Dog holes and holdfasts provide lots of clamping versatility. A dog hole is just a hole drilled all the way through the benchtop. A holdfast is a clamp that fits into the hole. Most benches include two or more rows of dog holes. This solution gives you as many clamping opportunities as you have holdfasts and dog holes. You can clamp workpieces, shooting boards, bench hooks, and just about any other kind of jig with holdfasts. Just insert a holdfast into one of the holes so that the clamp rests on top of your work. Tap the bend in the holdfast with a mallet. Now your work won’t budge. To release the holdfast, strike the back of it with your mallet.

Consider Buying Your First Workbench.

Sjoberg Nordic Plus 1450 Workbench

There are several good reasons to buy your first workbench instead of building it. The primary one is that it’s difficult to build square, flat, and accurate projects if you don’t already have a workbench. You’ll struggle to surface lumber without a flat benchtop. Work-holding will be a real challenge. If you’re just getting started in woodworking, you might not have the skills required to build the project. You need to know how to plane rough boards into finished lumber. You must be proficient at sawing, with and across the grain. Your joinery skills must be on point— a workbench might employ several joints, including dovetails, mortise-and-tenon joints, lap joints, and others. Trying to acquire these skills while building a bench might be unwise. The success of your future projects depends on how well you do with this one.

If You Build Your Own Bench Make a Better One Later.

Although it’s difficult to build a workbench when you don’t already have one, it’s not impossible. In fact, there are several videos on YouTube from people who have done it successfully. Dimensioned lumber (2x4s, 2x6s, etc) works well for woodworking benches, and all it takes is some nuts, bolts, and washers to put one together. Still, the kind of bench you’ll build on your first go-around is probably not going to suit your needs for long. You can build a decent bench to help you while you develop your woodworking hobby. By the time you’re ready to upgrade, you’ll know what kind of projects you like to do and will have the skills and tools to build the bench that best suits your needs.

Benches Come in Different Sizes.

Woodworking workbenches come in a variety of widths and lengths. A longer bench is certainly better equipped for bigger work, so you may want to look for the biggest workbench that will fit your space while allowing plenty of room for you to move around. Almost all of your woodworking will take place at the bench. Surfacing lumber, cutting dovetails, chopping mortises, drilling, and assembling projects—you’ll do every one of these tasks here. So it makes sense to fill as much space as necessary with just this one piece of equipment. The goal is to have a benchtop that’s big enough for your woodworking projects, and to have room for all of your tools and materials. Remember that you have to store lumber, clamps, sawhorses, finishing supplies, and other items in your shop. You’ll also need to be able to get to these things easily. If you organize your space so that it’s easy to get to the things you need, your woodworking time will be enjoyable.

Check out the Benches at Local Stores.

You can price workbenches online, but before buying one, you should check it out in-person. Make sure you’ll be comfortable with the height, width, and depth. Try turning the vise screws to see if you like the way they move. Examine the fit and finish. When you have the thing right in front of you, it’s easy to tell whether it’s rigid and heavy enough to serve your needs. That’s a big advantage over shopping online. If there’s a Woodcraft or Rockler store near you, go there and take a look at their workbench selection.

A good workbench is an investment.

When you start looking at workbenches, you may be surprised by the cost. Some models can be as low as $500 or $600. Others cost upwards of $2500. The pricier benches often have built-it tool cabinets, better joinery, and higher-quality materials. But you probably don’t need a top-of-the-line bench if you’re just starting out in woodworking. If it’s sturdy, heavy, has enough dog holes and vises, and fits in your shop, it’s probably worth your consideration. Actually, there are decent benches in the $500-$1000 price range that might suit your needs for the next 20 years. If shop space is limited, a built-in tool cabinet can be very helpful. But you can add one later if your current budget isn’t sufficient to get one now.

Sjoberg (SHOW-berg) makes quality benches to fit a variety of budgets. You’ll find this Swedish manufacturer’s offerings at any Woodcraft store, and the quality of everything they make is  outstanding.

Rockler Woodworking has its own line of benches starting around $500. The online reviews are good, and you won’t find much worthy competition in this price range.

Avoid benches from the big box and import stores. These products are cheap and flimsy. You can’t expect to get a good bench for $200, so keep that in mind when you see the circulars from those imported-tool retailers.

Read Christopher Schwarz’s books.

Christopher Schwarz, former editor of Popular Woodworking magazine, knows a lot about hand tool workbenches. He’s designed, built, and written about them for years. The Practical Workshop and The Workbench Design Book are two titles every hand tool woodworker should own. Before you buy or build a bench, read Chris’s work for a thorough understanding of everything workbench related.

Basic Power Tools for Woodworking

Various Styles Of Saws

There are many things to consider when choosing a saw blade – making safe, smooth cuts with your radial arm saw, table saw; compound slider miter saw or chop saw depends on having the correct blade for the tool and, for the kind of cut you would like to make. Performance varies from blade to blade and presently, not a lack of them in the stores today, so choose wisely.

Choosing the correct saw blade –

saw bladesIt’s not all that complicated, really. In order to put together a top rate saw blade assortment of your own, you required to identify a small amount about what diverse blades do and what distinguishes the top-quality from the cheaper ones. Once you figure this out, you’ll be able to decide the blade that is best for the type of woodworking you will be doing and you budget can afford.

There are blades that are intended to do a number of things. Some blades are for crosscutting wood, ripping wood, cutting veneered panels and plywood, cutting melamine, cutting non-ferries metals and cutting plastics and laminates. Combination blades and general purpose, these blades are for using two or additional kinds of cuts. The amount of teeth, the gullet, the hook angles (the tooth angle) and the tooth configuration all determines how good the saw blade is.

Amount of teeth –

Saw blades with less teeth move the wood faster furthermore blades with more teeth offer a smoother cut. For example, a 10’ blade considered for ripping wood usually has fewer than 25 teeth plus are intended to move the material quickly through the machine along the extent of the grain. With the least little bit of effort and leaving a fresh cut and a least amount of scoring, the higher quality rip blade will out perform a lower quality rip blade which is not designed to make mirror-like smooth cuts. (mirror meaning both edges are the same).

Alternatively, a crosscut blade is well thought-out to give you a even cut crossways against the grain of the wood without any tearing or splintering. Between 60 and 80 teeth are found on the crosscut blade. Remember, moving less material, each tooth comes in contact with the wood less and this means a crosscut sharp edge makes numerous additional single and smoother cuts than the ripping blades. A polished finish will appear on the wood if using a good quality crosscut cutting edge.

Gullet –

The space missing from the blade plate in front of each tooth, which allows for chip removal, is called the gullet. In the crosscutting blade, the chips are fewer and smaller per tooth so the gullet is much smaller. In the ripping blades the rate is much faster than the crosscutting action and the chips are bigger so therefore the gullet needs to be bigger to accommodate the larger amount of material coming through it.

The hook angle –

Rather than be perfectly in line with the blade, the teeth are tipped either inward or outward, depending on the configuration of the blade. Hook angle is the slant shaped connecting a tooth face and a line drawn down the middle of the blade across the tip of the tooth. A downbeat hook angle signifies the teeth tip away from the path of rotary motion and the reverse is said for the positive hook angle. A zero hook slant demonstrates the teeth are in line with the midpoint of the blade.

A very aggressive hook angle (degrees of 20 or more) will also have a very fast cutting rate. A negative or low hook position will have a slower supply rate and will stop the blade from ‘climbing’ the material as often happens.

Tooth configurations –

The way the blade cuts is often affected by the way the tooth is shaped and the way they are grouped together. The configuration has to do with the way a blade will cut, if it’s a crosscutting, ripper or laminates cutter.

Hand saws –

No one can deny the aggressive speed of a table saw or a sliding chopsaw, however, for joinery; it’s hard to beat the backsaw’s precision for slicing just what you need. Hand saws are much cheaper and easier to control than machine saws. The backsaw can hold the sharpest, thinnest of blades and they can slice wood with minimum waste and maximum control.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

tape measureMost woodworkers don’t give much thought to most basic tools in their shop, they are too busy picking out the best chisels, scrapers, clamps, special jigs, tool, woodworking machinery, hand planes and all manner of accessories to make their work go smoothly and more accurate. What they are missing is the measuring and marking tools.

Look at what you own in the way of measuring and marking tools. Many of the frequent troubles in woodworking are out of a four-sided figure frames, casework, joints that fit poorly, etc. can be traced back to the measuring and marking mistakes. The culprit is usually only a matter of using the incorrect measuring and marking too for the job. A tape measure was not calculated for the extremely accurate measurements that most woodworking projects require.

Making for some exacting work, in most woodworking projects, the first thing you do is marking and measuring linear dimensions. Miscalculations as small as 100th of an inch when marking and measuring in such complicated joinery or small, tight parts will later show up as gaps in joints or uneven parts or a host of other less-than-perfect results.

Depending on how correctly you are able to interpret a measurement into an objective mark on a piece of wood is the outcome of measuring from point 1 to point 2. Holding down a tape measure while trying to accurately mark off a measurement is a difficult task, mainly because tape measures are not meant to lay flat. An accurately calibrated and readable marking and measuring tool is needed for all woodworking projects.

Rules and tape measures –

Since even the best measuring tools are relatively inexpensive, most woodworkers acquire a variety of rules and tape measure to meet different need. However, it is advisable to use the same rule or measuring tool throughout the project, just in case there is any variation between one tool and another. Purchase both rules and tape measures with standard and metric graduations – but take care not to confuse one system with the other once you have begun to mark out a work piece. You can measure one piece of wood accurately and then use it as a template for the other pieces if more than one of the same size is needed, this will save you time in the marking and measuring department.

  • Tape measure – retractable steel tapes, measuring from 6 to 16 ft (2 to 5m) long, are usually graduated along both edges. A lock button prevents the tape from retracting automatically. Some tape measures incorporate a liquid-crystal display that tells you how far the tape had been pulled from its case; a built-in memory retains the measurements when the tape is retracted. Self-adhesive steel tapes are sold without cases fro sticking along the front edge of a workbench.

  • Four-fold rule – The folding carpenter’s rule made from boxwood with brass hinges and end capes is still popular among traditional artist. Most folding rules are 3ft (1m) in length fully extended. Because it is relatively thick, you have to stand a wooden rule on edge in order to transfer measurements accurately to the work. Similar rules made from plastic are sometimes made with beveled edges to overcome this problem.

  • Straightedge – every workshop needs at least one sturdy metal straightedge, measuring between 1ft 8in (500mm) and 6ft 6in (2m) long. A beveled straightedge is ideal for making accurate cuts with a marking knife and for checking that a planed surface is perfectly flat. Some straightedges are etched with standard metric and/or graduations.

Squares and T-Bevels –

Squares are used to make sure things are at a right angle to one another. In a woodshop, these things might be the edge of a board, the shoulder of a tenon, the fence on a jointer and so on. However, square is an abstract term. Looked at closely enough, nothing is truly square; some things just approach the idea of being square than others. There are three types of square generally used in woodworking.

  • Try squares – are the most commonly used squares among furniture makers. They have blades of brass or steel (generally from 6in to 12in long) set in a thicker wood or metal stock. If the stock is wood, it should be faced with metal to ensure long-term accuracy. The reliability of try squares can vary sharply, even among those made by the same manufacturer.

  • Engineer’s square – these are similar in design to the try squares, but made entirely of steel. Blades lengths start at approximately 2 in. these squares are more reliable than try squares, probably because engineers are a more demanding bunch than woodworkers. Engineer’s squares can be used interchangeably with try squares in a wood shop.

  • Framing squares – these are made for house building. They have two large blades that form a right angle. One blade is 2in wide by 24in long; the other is 1 ½ in by 18in long. Framing squares are not expected to be precise as try squares or engineer’s squares.

Marking tools –

marking tools

  1. Pencils – every shop needs pencils for marking out your designs and marking wood in order to keep track of jointed surfaces and which piece fits together where.

  1. Knives – these are indispensable in a wood shop for tasks such as marking tenon shoulders and cutting cardboard templates. Knives are a preference, pocket knives, box cutters; utility knives with a retractable blade are all useful in a woodworking shop.

  1. Awls – these are sharp, pointed instruments with a variety of uses. They differ in the fineness of their points and the thickness of their shafts. A fine-pointed awl is useful for marking out joinery and scribing lines and a thick-shanked, broad-pointed awl is good for making pilot holes in wood prior to drilling. The dimple it leaves when tapped with a mallet forms an exact starting point for a drill bit.

Chisel Basics

There are only a few truly indispensable hand tools for woodworking today. Near the top of the list would be the basic chisel. This is a tool that does it all, from carefully paring away thin shavings in intricate detailed work to quickly scooping out large chunks of waste wood. You will find chisels in every basic aspect of woodworking from furniture making to trim carpentry to woodcarving.

wood chiselsThere are several different types and sizes of chisels one should carry in their woodworking shop and each is designed for a specific job. You could consider purchasing a 4 piece set which includes ¼-, ½-, ¾- and a 1 inch beveled bench chisel with blade lengths from 4 to 6 inches. Plastic handles are best because they can stand up to being hit by a mallet and are comfortable to hold for long periods of time. If you only have the budget for one, purchase a ¾ inch chisel and be sure to purchase a reputable brand because quality counts, it will hold up to repeated sharpening longer.

Using your chisel –

To chisel a shallow mortise or notch at the border of a piece of wood, begin by placing the indentation edge with a blade grove. And then, place the beveled edge in front of the throw away area, position the chisel edge in the subsequent line, holding the chisel perpendicularly and tap with your mallet which makes the cuts around the border. Place the bevel downward; make one-sided cuts from the stock facade to the boarder cuts to make the indentation walls. Following the angled boundary cuts to the preferred deepness, rotate the chisel bevel side up and cut diagonally against the grain and taking away the majority of the unusable portion. When the indentation has come to its estimated dimension, use tiny cuts to help reach its final size and deepness.

Use a wide bevel chisel, with the bevel up in a semi-circular sweeping motion with the straggling end of the blade doing the slicing if you need engrain paring done.

The easiest and quickest way to slice a cavernous mortise is to first drill a sequence of holes with a drill bit that is to some extent tinier than the depth of the hole. Then use the chisel to shear away the throw away pieces amid the holes.

Concave curves can be trimmed by using a chisel so as to be somewhat wider than the width of the reserve. Press down on the blade while rotating downwards on the handle and pushing straight ahead all while holding the bevel down.

Sharpening –

For fast cutting and clean, a sharpened edge is necessary as well as for individual safety. An unsharp tool makes a rough cut – you want everything to be smooth – but the additional strength necessary to drive the tool could cause you to have less control over the situation which could lead to accidents.

By honing a chisel regularly on a water or oil stone, you will keep it sharp and in top shape for cutting and scraping. The cutting edge bevel is typically around 20 to 35 degrees, however you don’t have to hone the complete bevel, in its place, hone a small, minor bevel at the top to a little more of an angle than the most important bevel.

Set the bevel steadfastly on the stone and then rise the chisel about five degrees. Shift the blade back and forth until a wire edge builds on the back of the blade. Flip the blade over and lay it entirely level on the stone, glide it back and forth a few times to eliminate the edge of wire. Pare across an end grain as a check for unevenness.

How Hand Planes are used in Woodworking

Hand planes come in so many different sizes, shapes, and materials. A beginning woodworker might have a difficult time figuring out where to start. There are planes for flattening boards, planes for making moldings, planes for joinery, and planes for several other tasks. Over time, you’ll probably acquire dozens of these planes, but you don’t need more than a few just to get started.

There’s a specific plane for every task.

Each plane is designed to handle a certain job. Jack planes are handy for surfacing rough boards and trimming panels to fit an opening. Jointer planes—the longest of the bench planes—let you smooth out the edges of boards so you can glue them together. Jointer planes are the hand tool equivalents of power jointers. Smoothing planes put a glass-like surface on wood in preparation for finishing. Block planes are small and versatile. To get the most out of a plane, you need to know what it’s made for and how it should be used.

Bench planes turn rough boards into finished lumber.

Much of your woodworking time will be devoted to surfacing rough stock with what are called “bench” planes. During this process, you’ll flatten the faces and square the edges of a board. Most woodworkers use two or three planes for the job, but it is possible to use just one. Ideally, though, you should have a jack plane, a jointer plane, and a smoothing plane. The jack plane takes thick shavings and flattens out crooks, cups, and bows. For even more aggressive stock removal on particularly crooked boards, there’s the scrub plane. Next, a jointer plane removes any high spots along the length of the board. Finally, the smoothing plane creates a finish-ready surface. To save some money, you can start with just a jack plane or jointer plane. It’s possible to surface a board with just one of these planes.

Hand tool woodworkers often use bench planes to clean up saw cuts.

Woodworkers usually trim their saw cuts to perfection with bench planes. To do this, they build shooting boards, which are simple jigs that hold their workpieces in place during planing. A shooting board can be as simple as a few pieces of MDF or plywood glued and nailed together. It’s essentially just three layers of wood attached in such a way that the plane can ride in a channel on the bottom layer, while the workpiece rests on top of a platform.  The platform is the second layer. Behind the workpiece, another piece of wood that’s attached to the platform keeps the work secure while the woodworker runs the plane across the end of the cut. During this operation, the plane is held on its side so its cutting edge can trim the end of a board.

Shooting boards work for straight cuts and for miters. It would be impossible to make gap-free joints without these jigs. A shooting board is a crucial shop fixture for so many projects, including cabinets, doors, picture frames, and furniture. Before you build any of these items, you’ll probably want to make one or more shooting boards to help you produce tight joints.

Specialty planes help the woodworker make moldings and joinery.

To carve profiles into table edges or produce decorative moldings, woodworkers turn to molding planes. The irons of these tools are ground into special shapes. It’s necessary to make many passes with a molding plane to produce a decorative profile. Molding planes are usually made of wood.

Fine joinery would be difficult or impossible to make without the shoulder plane. It’s useful for trimming tenons to fit into mortises. When you need to make a dado or groove in a board, the shoulder plane is often your best bet. Plane makers offer these tools in several different widths, and with metal or wooden bodies.

The router plane is an indispensable tool in the furniture and cabinet shop. Its l-shaped cutting iron flattens out dados and mortises. This tool looks quite different from most planes. A router plane has two handles and should be held much like its power tool cousin (the router).

You can use wood or metal planes.

There are two materials commonly used to make handplanes: wood and metal. Most planes incorporate both, but a wooden plane is one with a solid wood body and sole. The bodies of metal planes are cast iron, or sometimes steel. Any of these materials can produce excellent results, so the choice between wood or metal is purely about personal preference. Wood planes can crack and warp over time, but a skilled woodworker can easily get them back in working order with another plane. The soles of metal planes may also need occasional tune-ups, but a flat surface and wet-or-dry sandpaper can do the job quickly.

Wooden planes are lighter and don’t usually have handles, or totes. To use one, you hold the plane by the body and push across the surface of a workpiece. When using a metal plane, you put one hand on the rear handle and the other on the knob at the front of the tool.

Almost all metal planes have the same basic components.

With a few exceptions, any metal plane will have the same essential parts as any other. The body should be one solid piece of metal. The bottom of that piece of metal is called the sole. At the front and back of the plane are handles. The front handle is usually just a simple knob. Next to the rear handle you’ll find an adjustment dial, which sets the depth of cut. The plane iron, or blade, sits right in front of the adjustment knob, and the cap iron—sometimes called the chipbreaker—sits on top of that. A clamp keeps the chipbreaker and iron in place. The big piece of machined metal in the middle of a plane, under the iron and chipbreaker, is called the frog.

A metal plane also has a lateral adjustment lever under the iron. The opening on the bottom of the plane is called the mouth. For proper cuts, the iron needs to be set in the mouth just right. As a general rule of thumb, you usually want no more than 1/32” between the front edge of the mouth and the cutting edge of the iron. If you have more than that, you’ll get a rough-looking surface and excessive tear-out. Set the opening narrower and the plane will clog with shavings, which will cause it to get stuck.

Pushing a plane shouldn’t require much force.

Planing by hand might be one of the most satisfying activities you’ll ever do. When your plane is set just right and you have a fresh coat of wax on the sole, it glides almost effortlessly across the surface of a board. The shavings peel and curl away from the wood as you make your way from one end to the other. It’s a soothing process, but the tool must be properly adjusted to work this way. If you find yourself struggling to push a plane forward, it’s time to stop and make some tweaks.

The first thing to consider is the blade depth. If you have the iron set too deep, you’ll have a hard time pushing the plane. For optimal performance, you want the iron to stick out just below the sole. The best way to achieve the proper depth is to first back the iron off so that it doesn’t stick out of the sole at all. Then turn the plane upside down and sight down the sole. Turn the depth adjustment knob until the iron starts to peek out above the bottom of the plane. Now move the lateral adjustment lever until the iron sticks out evenly from side to side. The cutting edge should be parallel to the sole across the entire width of the iron. Test the depth by running a 3” long piece of scrap wood across the sole of the plane. The iron should take a small shaving across the full length of the wood.

To get a plane to glide smoothly over the surface of stock, apply some paraffin wax to the sole. You don’t need much. Just draw a zig-zag pattern over the sole with one corner of a block of wax. Go all the way from the front of the sole to the back. As you plane, you’ll notice when the wax begins to rub off. At that point, it’s time to apply a bit more.

Proper technique is essential.

To get good results with a handplane, you need to use the right technique. Think of the motion of a hand plane like the arc of the pendulum on a clock. Instead of simply pushing the plane in a straight line, start by putting downward pressure on the front of the plane. Then transfer that pressure toward the back as you glide the plane forward. Almost all of the downward force should be at the back of the plane when you get to the end of the stroke. Lift the plane off the workpiece and repeat. If the blade is sharp, the cap iron is set properly, and the sole has a fresh coat of wax, you shouldn’t need to use much muscle.

To keep things simple, you can start with a single plane.

To get used to sharpening the iron, adjusting the plane, and taking proper shavings, you may want to start with one plane. When you feel comfortable with it you can start expanding your collection. For a first plane, consider a jack plane or a block plane. The former will get you accustomed to using bench planes and might be the better choice. If you can use a jack plane, you’ll have an easy time transitioning to any other bench plane.

Alternatively, you can buy an inexpensive block plane and learn to use it well. A block plane has no handles and is a simple device. It’s also extremely useful. You can use it to trim a door to fit an opening. It’s also handy if you want to put a chamfered edge on a project or trim dovetails on a drawer. Because a block plane is small and light, you may find yourself grabbing one for a variety of tasks, even some you would normally handle with a bigger plane.

Practice using hand planes before taking on an elaborate project.

You will need practice to use your hand planes well. For this reason, don’t plan to build a project until you’ve mastered the necessary planes. To get comfortable planing, you can purchase some inexpensive rough pine for practice material. Pine is a good choice because it’s soft and easy to plane. Grab your jack plane, jointer plane, and smoothing plane. Try to surface a rough board into a flat, square piece of lumber. Then do it again and again until you’re good at it.

Do the same whenever you acquire a new plane. After you buy a shoulder plane, cut some tenons and practice trimming them down. Rough out a few dados and perfect your technique when you bring home a router plane. And before you do any planing at all, make sure you know how to sharpen the iron.

Beginners Guide to Hand Tools for Woodworking

woodworker hand tools

An experienced hand tool woodworker can make woodworking projects look easy. But if you’ve ever watched a professional cut a dovetail and then tried to make one yourself, you know woodworking can be much more difficult than it looks. However, that’s no reason for the aspiring woodworker to be intimidated. You can learn hand tool woodworking in small, easy steps. The process should look a bit like this: Learn to sharpen, get a good-quality workbench, practice sawing, figure out how to plane a rough piece of lumber into a flat and square board, learn how to use your bench chisels, and study joinery. That may not be the exact order of the steps for you, but it’s a rough picture of your transition into a skilled woodworker. When you have acquired the necessary equipment and mastered the required techniques, you’ll be able to build just about anything out of wood.

Start by learning to sharpen.

The first skill any hand tool woodworker must learn is sharpening. It’s impossible to create tight-fitting joints or make clean saw cuts without razor-sharp tools. So the woodworker who wishes to saw, chisel, and plane by hand needs a solid understanding of sharpening techniques and a good deal of practice. When you can slice cleanly through a sheet of paper with a chisel or plane iron, that tool is sharp enough for woodworking.

There are three common sharpening methods, but you only need to learn one. Your options are oil stones, water stones, or wet/dry sandpaper. Sharp edges are possible with all these methods, but you may find one preferable to the others.

oilstone sharpener
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For example, oil stone sharpening requires a cutting lubricant, which can be messy. To use an oilstone, apply a few drops of oil to the stone, and then run the edge of the tool back and forth across the oiled surface. Start with the back of the tool. When you can see a small burr on the edge, flip the tool over and repeat the process with the bevel down. Small bits of metal will accumulate during sharpening, and combined with the oil, they’ll make a nasty mixture. But once you’re done with the stone, you can wipe away the excess oil with a rag.

Water stones work just like oilstones, but instead of oil, you use water as a lubricant. The water and metal shavings mix, just like the oil and metal. However, the resulting mixture isn’t sticky like the result of oilstone sharpening. Wet/dry sandpaper sharpening can be fast and efficient. It works just like the water stone method but with sandpaper. Put a few drops of water on the paper, and run the tool back and forth to produce a burr. Flip the tool and sharpen with the bevel down.

Whether you choose stones or sandpaper to hone your tools, you should finish up with a leather strop. Stropping is the process of putting a fine, mirror-like polish on an edge. To do it, you must have a small leather strap placed on a flat surface, plus some kind of polishing compound. Apply a small amount of the compound to the leather. Put the back face of the tool on the strap and pull it toward you, pushing down gently. After a few passes, flip the tool and repeat with the bevel down. When you’re finished, you should have an edge that can split a hair.

Get some good measuring and marking tools.

tape measure

Before you can cut a board to size, saw dovetails, or chop a mortise, you have to know where to make your cuts. A good 16-foot tape measure and a small steel rule will help. If you don’t already know how to read a tape measure, don’t worry. You can pick up this skill in an afternoon.

Other helpful devices include a combination square, small framing square, bevel gauge, mortise gauge, marking knife, and a sharp pencil. Among these tools, the bevel gauge and mortise gauge are probably the only foreign objects to most aspiring woodworkers. A bevel gauge is like a square with one edge that can pivot. It’s used to mark angles and works well for laying out dovetails and other joinery. The mortise gauge has two scribing pins that etch parallel lines into a workpiece. It’s mainly for marking mortise sides, but is also useful during surfacing and other jobs.

Although you can mark your cut lines with a pencil, a marking knife is preferable in many situations. When cutting dovetails, for example, some woodworkers like to scribe deep baselines for their pins and tails. These lines won’t accidentally smudge or get rubbed away. The blade of a marking knife has one flat side, which can be run along a straight-edge for accurate cuts. The other edge is beveled. Although an awl doesn’t work quite as well for scribing lines, it can double as a marking tool and is the best option for marking hole locations before drilling.

A workbench makes every hand tool operation easier.

woodworking workbench

It’s possible to saw, chisel, plane, and assemble woodworking projects without a workbench, but it isn’t practical or easy. To get work done efficiently and accurately, you must have a good workbench. It should come with several pre-drilled “dog” holes and two vises. You will find the face and end vises are essential for so many of your woodworking operations. Whether you’re sawing a board to width or chopping out the waste between dovetail pins, you’ll be glad to have them.

Bench dogs are small pegs that fit into the dog holes in the benchtop. Often, you will use them in conjunction with a vise or holdfast to keep your work in place. Good workbenches have dog holes drilled into the vises as well as the top. This allows you to clamp boards between the bench dogs.

There are many different kinds of workbenches, ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars in price. For the beginner, an expensive bench probably isn’t sensible. Rockler and Woodcraft stores sell beginner benches starting around $500, and these are perfectly acceptable for those just getting into the hobby. If you’re tempted to build your own bench, don’t do it. Even after you’ve acquired the array of skills needed to build such a project, you’ll find yourself running into a paradoxical roadblock: To build a good workbench, you need a good workbench. You’ll have a hard time doing precise work without a flat benchtop, numerous clamping devices, and an elevated work surface. Get a quality workbench from a woodworking retailer. You can build your own upgrade later.

Buy saws for ripping, crosscutting, and joinery. Then practice using them.

Sawing is an easy skill to master. With only minimal practice, you should be able to make straight cuts with and across grain. Cutting along the grain is known as “ripping,” whereas cutting perpendicular to the grain is called crosscutting. Saws designed to rip boards have relatively large and comparatively few teeth. Crosscut saws have many small teeth. Woodworking retailers sell both types, but you may want to consider an inexpensive alternative for your first saw. Most home centers sell general purpose tools called “sharptooth” saws that have hardened steel teeth. These tools can make rip cuts and crosscuts, and they’re perfect for learning.


To rip with a handsaw, start by marking a line down the length of a board. Continue the line all the way around. Make a small notch at the beginning of the line with a knife or chisel. Then place the saw in this notch to start the cut. As you saw, watch the line to make sure the tool doesn’t wander. Stop cutting periodically and check the line on the other side to ensure you’re cut is perpendicular to the board’s face.

The most important rule about sawing is to cut to the waste side of your line. Don’t cut right down the center. In fact, you want to end up with a small space between the line and the cut. You’ll finish by cleaning up with a plane. The great thing about this process is that you don’t have to make perfectly straight cuts. However, the straighter a cut, the less planing you’ll have to do. But don’t fret over imperfections. Just make the best cut you can and then plane down to the line.

Practice your rips and crosscuts on scrap material until you’re able to make them accurately every time. When you have these basic cuts down, you can also practice cutting dovetails, tenons, and other joints like half-laps. For joinery, you’ll need a backsaw. The stiff blade provides more control than rip or crosscut saws. Accuracy is paramount for all kinds of joinery work, so practice with this tool as much as possible before undertaking your first project.

Surfacing wood is time-consuming, but necessary.

Surfacing is a series of operations required to turn a rough board into a flat and square workpiece. There’s an order to the process. First, flatten one face of a board. Then straighten and square one long edge. Next, plane the other face parallel to the first. Last, prepare the other long edge. Ideally, you will have a jack plane, a jointer plane, a smoothing plane, a marking gauge, and a good saw for surfacing. A sturdy bench is also necessary. The flat benchtop aids in producing flat workpieces, and its work-holding devices keep boards in place during planing. Try planing without a bench; you’ll quickly learn that it’s difficult or even impossible.

Practice chopping, paring, and levering with your chisels.

hand chisel

The chisel is a versatile tool. It’s handy for chopping mortises, paring end grain, creating small bevels, and many other tasks. There are different types of chisels, each designed to do a specific thing, but a set of good-quality bench chisels can handle any kind of work. You’ll need a number of different widths: ¼”, ⅜”, ½”, ¾”, and 1”. Marples is a popular brand. Once you have your chisels, you should get familiar with what they can do. Try taking thin shaving from a piece of wood. This is called paring. Then do some chopping. A mallet comes in handy. Hold the chisel upright and tap it with the mallet. You can make a series of chops about ⅛” apart. Then you can “lever” out the wood between the chops with the bevel of the chisel facing down. You may even want to try producing small chamfers in the edges of scrap material with different chisel widths.

Learn about the different types of joints and practice making them.

After gaining competence in sharpening, sawing, surfacing, and chiseling, you’ll be ready to master the art of producing strong and attractive joints. A woodworker needs a thorough understanding of joinery. Your goal when starting out should be to learn which joints to use for different kinds of projects. For example, you should know whether to use miters or butt joints in the construction of a kitchen cabinet. If you choose a joint for a project, you should know why. End grain doesn’t hold glue well. Miters can be difficult to align. Box joints can break easily in straight-grain wood. Careful study will help you determine the appropriate joint for a project and will aid in material selection.

The hand tool woodworker who understands dovetails, mortise-and-tenon joints, miters, lap joints, and rabbets will be ready for any kind of job. These are the fundamental joints, and although some of these have variations, knowing the basic forms will get you through any project. Joinery books can help you educate yourself about the mechanical properties of different joints. They will also give you the knowledge you need to select the appropriate joinery for your projects. The Complete Guide to Joint Making, by John Bullar, is a good title to add to your library.

Get a woodworking education.

Classes and workshops can help you build your joinery skills. Online classes can give you a look at joinery and introduce you to the techniques, but in-person classes are even better. Woodcraft, Rockler, and other woodworking retailers usually offer classes at their brick-and-mortar stores. If you live near one, it’s a good idea to see what classes they offer.

Take it slow.

A woodworker needs patience. Give yourself time to build skills and get a feel for different kinds of material. Make sure you can produce a sharp edge before putting a tool to a piece of wood. Get good at making straight cuts with your saws. Allow yourself time to practice before you build a real project. If you follow this advice, you’ll should find woodworking satisfying and enjoyable.