Woodworking Part-2 – Hand Tools

clip_image002Note: If you follow this blog, you are in for a bit of unusual activity. The next subject is spread over six posts, and I am going to upload them over the course of the next six days. If you like woodworking, it’s a great chance to express your opinions in the comments. If you don’t like woodworking, hang on until next week – thanks for following!

Continuing this little series on woodworking, I think that I need to focus on hand tools. I use power tools in almost every woodworking project I work on, but I love using hand tools. Hand tools let you connect with the piece of wood you are changing. You can feel the wood talking back to you, giving you little hints about the grain and warning messages about knots and hard spots. I have a repurposed microfiche cabinet in my shop for hand tools, and all it takes to know how I feel about them, is to run down the first three drawers. The drawers are labeled, so let’s take them one-by-one:

Measuring and Marking – It all starts with these tools, and it all goes off the rails when these tools aren’t as good as they should be. Rules, tapes, squares, striking knives and pencils; the drawer is full of these things but they all have one thing in common – they are woodworking tools. By that, I mean, these are not used for construction, home maintenance or laying out the garden. In fact, next to this drawer, I have a drawer labeled “construction measurement” which holds similar tools, but heavier duty varieties. A good 10-12’ tape measure is essential. I prefer Lee Valley’s 10’ tapes that are printed for left or right handed reading. This makes layout a breeze from either side of your piece. A folding rule with an extension is useful for its designed purpose of inside measurement, and it works well as a depth gauge for mortises. A tri-square is good for marking cuts and checking corners and a combination square handles most every other 90° & 45° layout need. I like a steel rule for fine measurement and drawing lines. For the latter, I prefer 5mm pencils which I buy at a wholesale club in packs of 25. I have a marking gauge, and I should use it more than I do; it’s great for laying out mortises and bevels that you plan to cut by hand.

Chisels – You simply cannot start woodworking without a set of chisels. You can buy cheap chisels, but you will regret doing so. A mid-range set of 4 (1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″) give you the tools you need to clean up the most common mortises, rabbits, dados and the shoulders and cheeks of most tenons. You can also use a chisel to cut some of those joints by hand, but most of the time, you will be tweaking a joint. Get them sharp, and protect the edge by not using them for construction. Match these up with a mallet; wood works, but I prefer rawhide. Expand this set by adding at both ends 1/8 (maybe curved) for cleaning grooves and 1 ½ for wide clean-up. Your second set of chisels should be mortising chisels. These are heavy and ground at a steep angle for easy use. Also in this drawer is a small selection of dovetail saws, which are small back saws designed for precise cuts on small stock and joints.

Planes – The Stanley Jack Plane was the first tool we learned how to use in Wood Shop. We were given a block of wood, a marking gauge and a plane and the assignment to bevel the edges. You need one of these, but the first plane I would buy, and the plane I use most often is a block plane. Block planes are easy to use with one hand, great for cleaning up end grain and superior for easing the edge on just about anything. The other plane I would not be without is a Spokeshave. Spokeshaves are great for working on curved stock, narrow edges and tapers and they are pure fun to use.

Miscellaneous – No, I don’t actually have a drawer with this label, but I have some other tools in these three drawers that are worth mentioning. First is a utility knife. Again, these are cheap enough that you can afford to leave one with your woodworking tools – when you need this tool, you don’t want to start looking. I prefer the Stanley FatMax, because its slight curve makes it comfortable to hold, it contains its own blades and it doesn’t require a tool for blade changes. I keep a selection of Scrapers in with my planes. These are a fantastic addition to your hand tools, but plan on practicing sharpening (truing the edge), burnishing and using these on some scrap. Nail sets, in a variety of sizes and a small claw hammer to smack them are necessary, as are a good pair of diagonal cutting pliers for removing the things you bend over with the nail set.

I could go on and on but I’ll stop here for today. Please, if you have some suggestions, or favorites, add them in a comment.


  1. Dan, I’m loving the series. This is a great list and I agree with the great recommendations so far. Very helpful.

    I’d agree, for persuading a tight fitting joint, and smoothing – a good Stanley knife with old school razor blades in the handle is a must. The older models have a better grip pattern.

    Note – when using with a metal ruler for scoring/cutting light stock – be very careful.

    If you ever come across an old fridge, they’re a great alternative to the microfiche drawers.
    Add a leather loop and ply/holed panel to the door for ‘most used’ (just like the milk). Then follow your priorities from top to bottom shelf. The tight door seal helps against oxidisation in humid climates. The older grill shelves instead of glass panels means you can just dust out the bottom occasionally.

    Does dissapoint those expecting a beer fridge though…


    1. Thanks Nick. I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying this series. I was nervous about going off on a tangent for 6 days, but I had fun thinking about this. I have one of the old Stanley knives, and I agree that the grip and the tensoin on the blade is great, but I love the convenience of the new ones. Still, I reach for that old one if I am trimming something close.

      I pretty much stick to nothing more dangerous than a pencil next to a steel rule. When I was doing some roofing, I dragged a utility knife along a steel square, and I whacked my thimb pretty good. It’s too easy to slip off something that thin, and a square is a lot thicker than a 12″ rule.

      I’ve used just about everything for tool cabinets, but I haven’t thought about a fridge. Still, if I put a fridge in my garage, I might want it to hold something cool for when I’m done working :)


  2. A block plane and a good set of chisels. Mind you, I have never managed to sharpen a chisel so I always sent them out. Great series Dan. Btw, I still have the photo of your old Shop in the woods.


    1. There’s nothing wrong with sending them out to be shapened. the important thing is that you understand that they need to be sharp. Thanks for following and for taking the time to comment.


  3. Picture Reference – It was difficult to choose one picture because I have pictures of so many of these tools, but this tool is my favorite hand tool. This is a Stanley Low-Angle Block Plane and it feels so good in my hand that I truly enjoy using it.


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