Woodworking without Power Tools or Electricity

You know what? I get it. Wood projects capture the imagination.
After browsing Instructables you got excited. Start way to many projects. You have an unfinished Jelly Bean dispenser, German beer mug, or maybe even a Cigar Box Ukulele taunting you on your Work Bench. But every time you get started you run up against the same problem. You don’t have the right tool. Every time you look at the instructions there is some new powered saw or sander that you just can’t justify. Mostly because you never finish any of these projects.
Anyways, it’s time for you to strap on your Goggles and to wiggle your hands into those fuzzy wood working gloves so you can finish that crazy wooden puzzle.
Below I will outline a couple ways to shape wood without having tons of fancy electric tools. To be fair some of them may be fancy hand tools. But at least they are easier to hide than a chop saw.

Method #1: Sand Away With Sand Paper

Traditional? Yup. Simplest? Yup. Most versatile? Double yup!

Sandpaper is a tool that you will become intimately familiar with. No matter your woodworking level, sandpaper will be need to level, shape, smooth, and finish most of your projects. If you check your local hardware store you will find yourself staring at a wall, no joke, of sandpaper. All have different functions and features. We will cover a few of the things you want to consider when choosing which one to use.

Coarseness (Grit)

Extra coarse sandpaper

Super heavy-duty stuff. Sands away tons of material. You’ll usually find these in the 24-36 grit range.
Uses:
  1. Sanding metal
  2. Removing rust
  3. Leveling very uneven wood
Things to Consider:
  1. Be aware this will remove a lot of material. If you sand for too long or with too much pressure, you risk removing too much of your project.
  2. Make sure to go slow and apply light pressure
  3. Make sure to use long smooth stokes to minimize burs and rough patches
  4. You can press harder /readjust depending on how much material is being removed.

Coarse sandpaper

While these grit usually work well with power sanders, they can also be put to use easily with a sanding block and some elbow grease. Usually used for rough wood and remove old finishes (light coats of polyurethane) coarse grits usually fall between 40-100 grit.
Uses:
  1. Stripping finishes
  2. Removing rust
  3. Leveling very uneven wood
  4. Removing flaws in wood
  5. General shaping
  6. Removing roughness for lower grit sandpaper
Things to Consider:
  1. Be aware this will also remove a fair amount of material. If you sand for too long or with too much pressure, you risk removing too much of your project.
  2. With this sand paper it is will wise to start light and go heavy but the higher the grit the more forgiving it is
  3. Make sure to use long smooth stokes to minimize burs and rough patches
  4. If you are trying to create a super smooth finish you will want to progress to higher and higher grit

Fine Sandpaper

Grits from 100-180 are used for preparing bare surfaces for finish. These work well with sanding blocks and are leaning towards more detailed work.

Uses:
  1. Smoothing surfaces for finish
  2. Removing scuff marks and small blemishes in the wood
  3. Detail shaping
  4. Removing the roughness for lower grit sandpaper
Things to Consider:
  1. Be aware you will need to put more elbow grease into this sand paper to remove significant material
  2. Make sure to use long smooth stokes to minimize burs and rough patches
  3. This grit will be needed if you are preping a surface for stain, shellac or varnish
  4. If you are trying to create a super smooth finish you will want to progress to higher and higher grit

Extra Fine Sandpaper

Grits from 180-300 are considered finishing sandpaper. These will be used to get rid of wood fuzz(tiny wood grains) and preping the previous coat of finish for the next.
Uses:
  1. Smoothing surfaces for finish
  2. Removing scuff marks and sandpaper marks from the wood
  3. Sands away small wood grains
  4. Can be used for removing the roughness for lower grit sandpaper
Things to Consider:
  1. This sandpaper is for fine detail work. This is not meant to remove material
  2. Should be used only on later/final steps
  3. Use water to bring up wood grain first. This sand paper will then help to remove the raised fibers.
  4. Using small rubbing motion works well with this sandpaper.
  5. This grit will be needed to prep a previous coat of finish for the next coat of stain, shellac or varnish

Pick your Grit Material

Grit material will greatly affect your finished product. Each has its own positives and negatives and we lay out the most common below.

Garnet

Commonly used in wood working, Garnet sandpaper is considered a good replacement for silica. Used from everything from sanding, to sand blasting, to water jet cutting, garnet is a good choice when sanding bare material.

Emery

Commonly used to polish metal, but can also be used as a fine sand paper.

Aluminum Oxide:

The most common form of modern sand paper. It is the much cheaper cousin of industrial diamond and can be found from everything cut-off tools and sandpaper all the way to toothpaste.  Aluminum oxide can be found in many grits and is a great way to sand and finish wood and metal.

Silicon Carbide:

Most common in wet sanding applications, silicon carbide is a popular abrasive due to its low cost and high durability. Works well as a sanding paper. And  is suitable for wood, metal, plastics, and ceramics. Skateboard grip tape is made of silicon carbide.

Sandpaper tools:

While you may feel like it is easiest to just use fresh sheets of sand paper, folded around your hand, there are actually a few tools which will help you get the most out of your tool.

Sanding Block

The go-to and a must have for sanding large projects. This tool will hold your sand paper against a flat surface and give you a good grip to use for the smooth strokes. It can be as simple as a small section of 2×4 that you hold sand paper against. There are many different shapes for sanding blocks to look for one that will fit your project. These can be built up over time. The basic sanding block is also a good starter project. I build more exotic shaped sanding blocks by hand.

Sanding File

This one I hadn’t even heard of until researching this article. A small amount of sand paper is glued to a wooden, plastic, or metal bar. It looks like you could get these in build and just toss them when they lose their grit.

Sanding Sponge

Another type of toss-able sanding block. Usually used for wet sanding, you can by them by the pack and give these a try. I’ve never had the occasion to use one but may try and get one for the next nice table I build.

Method #2: The Spokeshave

The Spokeshave is a specialty woodworking tool designed for creating curved surfaces. Classically this can be seen in items like chair legs, wheel spokes, and even arrows. Similarly to a plane, a sharp blade is held at an exact level below a steel surface. In spokeshaves this surface is called a heel. The depth of cut can be adjusted by revealing more or less of the blade. Spokeshave’s have two handles for controlling the cut and can be pushed or pulled. Note that it is always easier to shave with the grain as opposed to against it.

 

Choosing the right Spokeshave:

Below we will cover a couple of the most popular types of spokeshaves and why you would use each.

Flat Bottom Spokeshave:

The most common spokeshave is a flat bottom. Capable at general curves as well as most arches. From my experience, this is a good first spokeshave to start with and will fulfill most of your curving needs.

Round Bottom Spokeshave:

A specialty spokeshave, the round bottom is most useful for arches or curves with a small radius. Less than 6″ in my experience. On those tighter curves the flat bottom will ride too high and make it difficult to remove material.

Concave Spokeshave:

This spokeshave is most useful for creating round corners. Handy for chair legs, posts, and even guitar necks. While the flat bottom spokeshave will also work for this purpose, the rounded ground blade will help create a smoother surface. One thing to note, however, if the curve you are trying to obtain is gradual, a flat bottom spokeshave will likely be a better choice.

Convex Spokeshave

A convex spokeshave is used to hollow out material. This is due to it’s spade blade(outwards facing). Think the seat of a chair or channel in a surface.

Conclusion:

Overall spokeshaves are wonderful tools. The are more specialized than sandpaper or wood planes, however, they do a better job at it. I would consider spokeshaves to be lower on your hand tool list. A tool I would wait to purchase until the need arose.

Method  #3: The Wood Chisel

I would put wood chisels right after sandpaper in terms of usefulness. Unlike spokeshaves, they are a more versatile tool. In the hands of a knowledgeable woodworker, a chisel can quickly remove wood. Things such as recessed hinges, joinery, even surface shaping are possible. While they may not be as good at flattening a surface or creating a rounded edge, a chisel can be used in many more situations. The main note is on skill. While a chisel may be more versatile, to use it in all situations requires practice. I would suggest spending some time on YouTube with scrap wood learning how to do the job before beginning work on you final piece.

Method #4: The Plane

The woodworking plane is a tool that removes high-spots from a flat surface. Similarly to a spokeshave, a sharp blade is held at an exact level below a steel block. That block is then pushed over the top of a work surface. Each pass will shave away a layer of material. The highest spots will be hit first. With many passes a surface will become level. The flat bottom of the plane is called the sole. A long sole will give you greater stability and result in a smoother, more uniform, finished product. Most planes are pushed away from oneself. Japanese planes, in contrast, are pulled towards oneself.

#1. Scrub Plane:

Used when starting a project that is well out of tolerance, a scrub plane is good at removing large amounts of wood. This plane swiftly shapes lumber with defects. Given its deep cuts, over sized lumber can be swiftly into compliance quicker than with less aggressive planes.

#2. Jack Plane:

Jack planes are the go-to general purpose planing tool. Used to create flat surfaces for joinery, they are good general all-around planes. They can also shape lumber easily with more finesse than with a scrub plane.

#3. Jointer Plane

Used primarily for joinery, as the name suggests, this plane is good for flattening surfaces. It has a long sole which gives it the edge *wink wink* when two faces of wood meet.

#4 Smooth Plane:

On a project one of the final planes used is the smooth planes. You typically bust out this plane when all your other planes have finished their tasks because it creates astonishing finishes.  Some say better than sand paper. If you are looking to use this plane make sure to look up a good how-to.

#5  Polishing Plane:

The polishing plane is a Japanese addition to the plane world. The Japanese polishing plane is designed to be pulled towards you. It takes incredibly small cuts. This results in glass like surfaces. Using this plane requires skill and practice. Most projects this plane will not needed. However when utilized correctly it brings your work to life.

Conclusion:

There are lots of ways to shape wood. We only covered a few above and only at a high level. Humanity is quiet clever when it comes to building and wood is a beautiful medium. My suggestion is to pick one of those unfinished projects we called out above. Put some time in on it. Focus on one aspect of it. Could be the joinery, could be planing the surfaces. Pick something and try to make that project the best ‘fill-in-the-blank’ you’ve ever done. AND FINISH IT!

Then move on. On the next project focus on a new aspect of the work. Rounded edges or curved legs. Do the best that you can on it. Each time you do this you will learn something new. You will become a better woodworker. You will begin to see all that work add up as each new project is better than the last.

Thanks for reading.

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