beginners guide to hand tools for woodworking

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.

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