7 Projects for Hand Tool Beginners

The Not-so-typical Guide for Going Old School

In the overwhelming world of the woodworking web, it can be difficult for a hand tool beginner to find their way. Perhaps you’re a seasoned power tool user who has decided to go old school. Or maybe you’re a total newcomer to woodworking who has chosen to use hand tools for their unparalleled craftsmanship and vintage charm. Not to mention they are quieter, safer, easier to store, and better for the environment than power tools. I digress.

Easy/Hard?

However you have arrived here, you’re looking for the right projects to begin woodworking with hand tools. I’ve scoured the web to curate this list just for you, and I’ll say from the start that it isn’t your typical beginner’s list. Some of the projects I’ve chosen appear to be pretty easy, but on closer inspection, you will find that they actually require careful planning and precision. Other projects may seem difficult, but in practice, they actually leave a lot of wiggle room for mistakes and rough-around-the-edges execution.

So don’t just scroll through the list and decide what looks easy or challenging. Take the time to open each plan, watch a little of each video, and decide which projects are right for you. I hope they’re all right for you. That being said, I do believe that every beginner looking at this guide will choose to do them in a different order­—and that’s a good thing.

What’s First?

Everyone’s very first project should be different. There is no right way to begin learning with hand tools because every woodworker is different. You should choose your first project (or the first project of whoever you are teaching), based on a few criteria: situation, intention, and experience. Let’s break that down.

Situation

How much space and time do you have to dedicate to a project? Do you have a whole garage, or a small back room? Do you have every weekend off, or maybe just one day here and there? How many tools do you own? Be realistic with what you can do right now and work up from there. It’ll keep woodworking a pleasure and keep it from feeling like a pressure or just more work.

Intention

Why do you want to woodwork? What do you want to make? Are you mostly making gifts for friends and family? Do you want to make furniture and upgrades for your home? Perhaps you’re a craftsperson who intends to sell what they make? A hybrid? Think about what your goals are, and start from there.

Experience

Have you done woodworking before, but mostly with power tools? Are you a maker already, but new to woodworking? Maybe this is all completely new to you? Think about your comfort level when it comes to things like following plans, measuring, and building. Different experiences make for different difficulty levels. For some, a workbench seems like a solid starting point. For others, the toolbox or chisel rack will seem more straightforward.

SIE [s-ee] your goals, and you won’t be disappointed. Pardon the corny play on words–I promise it’ll be helpful! I’ll refer to these 3 things for each project.

A Little Legwork

You will notice that not all of these plans and instructions are only for hand tools, and that is intentional. As a hand tool user you are going to encounter many plans and instructional videos that are for power tool users. Do not let that discourage or dissuade you. If there’s a plan, you can do it with hand tools—we promise.

For the plans and instructions with power tools I’ve suggested substitutions, but I encourage you to think of your own based on your situation. The extra leg (hand?) work is part of the fun, and a good learning experience.

Let’s Get To It!

The Workbench

Let’s start this list off strong. It’s considered sort of a rite of passage to build your own workbench. Technically speaking you don’t need a workbench to work wood. But if you’re putting together a shop and you have the space–go for it! There’s a lot to be said about it, so here we go:

Now, there’s two ways to look at this as a “beginner” project:

  1. Test The Waters

    Taking on such a big project early on may get frustrating. The goals are to learn and progress—period. Not how much or how big you can go in a short period of time. It’s not a competition! So maybe save this for project 5 and up. When you feel ready.

  2. Dive In

    Some say the best way to learn to swim is by diving into the deep end. This personally didn’t work out for me, and I stayed in the YMCA guppy pool for the entire summer. But for some, it’s exactly the push they need to get going. If you know that you’re an all-or-nothing kind of learner, then press forth! Onward to victory or ruin!

Situation

You don’t have a ton of tools yet, but you have enough and a space to set up your shop.

Intention

You want to have a shop: a classic woodworking shop with a workbench. In time you hope to add details and customizations.

Experience

You’re comfortable taking on a workbench, and you don’t feel like you have to do this first. You don’t. Maybe you’re already a power tool user or a maker/builder of some kind. Maybe this is your first project and it just feels right for you. Most likely you’re a few projects down the line, and the time has come.

 Skills

  • Learning and practicing classic joints with a chisel
    • Mortise and tenon joinery
  • Measuring
  • Planing
  • Precise sawing
  • Construction + design
  • Customization
    • Add a vise
    • Storage facilities
    • Planing stop
    • Slide-up stop

Things to Consider

  • How tall are you? Make sure that your workbench is the right size for you or it can be difficult to work on and cause back pain. Stand up straight and let your hands hang at your sides. The top of your workbench should hit at about your knuckles. Make sure you’re going to be comfortable working with the height you choose
  • Fit your workbench to your space, and make sure it’s big enough to work on and small enough to let you work and move in your shop.

Wood

A workbench in its simplest form only has to be heavy enough to not shift as you work, and durable enough to handle what you put it through. You want something simple and hardy that you can be proud of. Something that might last you a while.

Choose a wood based on your budget and availability in your area.

Pine

  • Sometimes considered cheap or low-grade, but more than capable to holding up to everyday work and a decent choice for a workbench
  • A great choice for a workbench made with hand tools only
  • Easy to work for beginner hand tool users
  • Generally inexpensive
  • Commonly used in everyday workbenches
  • Strong, absorbent, resilient
  • Construction-grade Southern Yellow Pine is a common choice

Hard Maple

  • Probably not the best choice if you’ve chosen the workbench as your first project. It’ll fight you all the way and make it difficult to learn.
  • Moderate to expensive, more expensive than soft maple
  • It is generally best to stick with a hard maple as opposed to a soft maple when it comes to building a workbench.
    • Roughly twice as hard as soft maple
  • USA native
  • This is a very dense wood, and it is going to be a challenge to work with hand tools. It may fight you a bit, and things will take twice as long as they wood with other woods.
    • It’ll be tedious, but not unforgiving work. Your hard maple work bench will be strong, durable, and long lasting.

Beech almost made #3 on this list. After some consideration I decided that it would be difficult and expensive for American woodworkers as well as (debatably) hard to work using hand tools. So, look into it if you like, but pine is a more accessible and doable choice. Hard maple is a bit of a challenge option if it’s within your budget and you feel up to a challenge.

Tools:

Minimum for what you can use to make a basic workbench

  1. Jackplane
  2. Saw
  3. Rip saw cuts down the length of the fibers of the wood
  4. Quick clamps
  5. Chisel
  6. 1-inch auger bit
  7. Brace
  8. ¾ inch auger bit
  9. Combo square
  10. Diamond Stone
  11. Leather strop

Links to Plans + Instructions

It’s difficult to find a full plan for free for a hand tool workbench, but here are the best links that I found:

Not full plans, but very helpful video

http://www.renaissancewoodworker.com/beginner-workbench/

Fine Woodworking

Part 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_7Jwja0uQg

Part 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6Q6x9qjbTo

Helpful full project write-up with pictures

http://lumberjocks.com/projects/250490

Helpful full project write-up with pictures

https://www.instructables.com/id/Hand-tools-only-Workbench-out-of-Reclaimed-Wood/

Helpful full project write-up with pictures

https://mikeofallthings.com/2014/11/16/a-hand-tool-workbench-based-off-of-paul-sellers-plans/

The Shaker Stool/Bench

A classic undertaking! The shakers were an unusual 18th century society of English Christians who settled colonial America. They lived communally, gave women equal leadership roles, and were known for their simple, old fashioned (yes, even then) ways. Interestingly they were also celibate, which is probably why few of them remain today. In any case they made some lovely simple furniture that made its mark on traditional American woodworking. The stool is sort of the cornerstone project for shaker furniture, and a good place to start.

Situation

This is a fairly straightforward project. It requires some design and planning. You don’t need too much space or time for this. It can be made in different sizes depending on how much space you have.

Intention

Shaker stools make a perfect gift for friends and family. It can also be used in your shop or home, and it looks charming in children’s rooms or play areas. Has a classic American feel. You want a simple project with a satisfying result.

Experience

Shaker stools are a great beginning project. They have only a few elements and look even more charming when they’re a little rough around the edges. This could be project two or even a first project.

Skills

  • Mortise and tenon joinery
  • Cutting dovetails
  • Planing
  • Chiseling
  • Decorative cuts

Tools

  • Compass
  • Coping saw
  • File
  • Sandpaper
  • Metal square
  • Dovetail saw
  • Wide chisel
  • Router plane
  • Mallot
  • Hammer
  • Wood glue

Wood

White pine

  • Great choice for hand tool users
  • Moderate to cheap pricing
  • Many prefer it kiln dried, this can make it harder to work, but it remains a good choice for hand tools
  • Stable
  • Workable
  • Uniform texture
  • USA native
  • Pale color that darkens over time

Cherry

  • Soft and workable for hand tool users
  • Less expensive than woods like walnut
  • USA native
  • Lovely reddish color
  • Durable
  • Predictable movements
  • Commonly used for interior work and furniture making

Walnut

  • Good choice for hand tool users
  • USA native
  • Expensive
  • Often used in fine furniture making and musical instruments
  • Fine texture
  • Attractive dark color

Link to Plan + Instructions

http://woodarchivist.com/shaker-stool-plans/ 

A Frame

By Pebbleartbyjodi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62274044Situation

A simple project with a lot to offer for a learning hand tool woodworker. A frame is basic in construction, but demands exact measurements and perfect executions in order to fit together and look high quality.

Intention

You can never have too many frames around the house and they make great gifts. If you’re an artist, making your own frames is a great skill to have. A frame makes for a very good beginning project. Honing one’s craft on a simple project is a very good way to learn. Perfect your technique and grip

Experience

Very little required. Just patience, careful measuring, and planning. You’re a careful worker who wants to take things slow and perfect your technique. Don’t get frustrated it if isn’t perfect the first time, just try again. Start small and you won’t have to use much wood.

Skills

  • Measuring + planning
  • Precise cuts
  • Mitered corners
  • Rabbet cuts

Things to Consider

  • Mitered corners must fit perfectly to avoid misalignments and uneven edges
  • It is a challenge to design and build something for a specific piece of art or photograph. Building a frame teaches you to follow your plan and think on your toes when you make a mistake.
  • Make a few frames even, learn to make the perfect frame and your following projects will go smoothly. Think of it as a training exercise.
  • Choose a wood you like, it doesn’t really matter. Just make sure it’s soft enough to work.

Wood

  • Pine
  • Maple
  • Cherry
  • All explained earlier

Tools 

There are many ways to make a frame with many different tools. Some woodworkers complete the job only with different hand planes. So, pick and choose what works best for you based on what you have.

  • Rabbiting plane or Combination plane
    • Or just a saw + chisel
  • Hand plane
  • Bench hook
  • Hand saw
  • Clamps
  • Miter Box
  • Hammer
  • Sand paper
  • Drafting triangle
  • Glue

Links to Plan + Instructions

It’s surprisingly difficult to find plans for a picture frame using only hand tools. These are some of the helpful videos and project write-ups that I found.  

Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk-IMskuc6U

Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPRkdzRdtS4

  • Tool list inspired by this build
  • Filmed live and a little long, but very helpful to watch and gives a full build
  • Skip around to find what you’re looking for

 Full build + write-up using several types of hand planes

https://sheworkswood.com/2012/09/22/making-a-picture-frame-with-hand-planes/

Full plan (power tools)

https://www.finewoodworking.com/2011/09/16/free-plan-build-a-picture-frame

This account has many specific videos about making a picture frame. A little technical, but helpful to watch

https://www.youtube.com/user/woodmasterclass/search?query=frame

Viking/Stargazer Chair

Situation

This project is cheap, easy, and fun. It requires a decent amount of space to make. Maybe make it outside! Small budget, weekend project.

Intention

This project looks like a lot of fun. It’s unique, and even though it’s supposedly a “Viking” chair, it looks very modern. I think it would make a cool addition to any indoor space, but it makes a great outdoor chair as well. You’re looking for a simple project that will look impressive. This would make an amazing gift, but I doubt you’ll want to give them away!

Experience

This project doesn’t require a whole lot of experience. For someone who’s made a thing or two it will be a walk in the park. If it’s your first or second project–it’ll still be pretty easy. It will still look great if it’s rough around the edges. The two guys in the linked video do a very quick sticks job, and it looks like a lot of fun! Maybe find a friend to work with.

Skills

  • Measuring and sawing large pieces of wood
  • Using a sawhorse
  • Cutting mortise slot joints
  • Using a brace + bit
  • Splitting/riving wood with an ax (you can also just cut it, but the “Vikings” in the video sure make this look like fun, but be careful)

Tools

  • Hand saw
  • Mortise chisel
  • Hatchet
  • Brace
  • Large auger bit
  • Rubber mallet
  • Hammer
  • Lawn mower blade or something to split wood with
  • Tape measure
  • Saw horse

Wood

Pine (explained earlier)

  • Pressure-treated pine is reliably rot and insect resistant
    • Readily available
    • Also a great choice hand tool made outdoor furniture

Teak

  • Easily worked with hand tools
  • Expensive, but worth it for outdoor furniture
  • Works great for outdoor use, naturally weathers well
  • Top-tier rot and decay resistance
  • A lovely dark golden color
  • Naturally durable

Bald Cypress

  • A light yellowish color-can be almost white
  • Very durable
  • Tends to be on the pricey side
  • Very resistant to rot and decay
  • Great for outdoor use
  • Technically a soft wood, but can be tough
  • USA native
    • A common sight in southern swamps

Northern White Cedar

  • USA native
  • Soft and good for working with hand tools
  • Not terribly strong, but good enough
  • Very rot and decay resistant and good for outdoor use

 

Link to Plan, Video + Instructions

http://jeffsdiy.com/how-to-make-a-viking-chair-with-hand-tools/

Tiny Shelf

Situation

A simple shelf, perfect for practicing your hand tool skills. You may not have too many tools or too much space, but for this project that’s okay. Should take under an hour.

Intention

You’re just trying to learn. Maybe make a few things for your house. I’m constantly adding shelves here and there in my house. I collect all sorts of things, and sometimes it’s nice to have a shelf just to display one treasured object or book.

Experience

None required. You’re just trying to hone your craft and practice some basic techniques. This is a great first or second project.

Skills

  • Rip cut
  • Coping saw
  • Using wood screws

Tools

  • Vise or clamps
  • Panel saw
  • Bench hook
  • Jointer hand plane
  • Coping saw
  • Sanding block
  • Hand drill
  • Brad point bit
  • Countersink
  • 3-Jaw chuck brace
  • #2 Phillips head screw driver
  • ½” Forester bit
  • Combo Square
  • Panel gauge or mortise gauge

Wood

Pine

  • (explained earlier)
  • The plan suggests pine, but it isn’t required

Cherry

  • (explained earlier)
  • A very pretty color
    • would make a nice-looking shelf 

Walnut

  • (explained earlier)
  • For a high-quality tiny shelf

 

Link to Plan + Instructions

https://woodshopcowboy.com/2016/11/09/home-makerspace-a-small-bookshelf-using-only-hand-tools/

Chisel Rack

Situation

Only a few tools needed. You’re putting together your shop. You clearly own a few chisels—and you need a place to store them! You don’t have to have a huge shop or a ton of tools to undertake this project.

Intention

Build yourself a present for your shop! You want to make something that’s easy, that will still challenge you and give you a chance to hone your skills. You’re putting together your shop, and it’s much more fun to make it all yourself than go buying it. If you already bought some chisel racks, then make it for a woodworker friend. As I said, it’s good practice.

Experience

Maybe you have experience and maybe you don’t. Either way, this is a good project for you! Probably not a first project since you seem, to have a few chisels laying around that need storing, but maybe project three or four. It’s good practice for you either way.

 

Skills

  • Measuring and customizing
  • Sawing
  • Planing

Tools

  • Miter box
  • Saw
  • Jack plane
  • Glue
  • Clamps

 

Wood

Pine

  • (Explained earlier)
  • A good inexpensive choice for a little project like this
  • Easy to work

Cherry

  • (Explained earlier)
  • A slightly more expensive choice, but if you’re confident it’s a pretty choice
  • It’s part of your shop, but you’ll be moving it around to where you’re working, so maybe you want it to look nice!
  • May get banged around a bit

 

Link to Plan + Instructions

Video and full build write-up

http://www.onewood.com.au/beginners-woodworking-project-diy-chisel-rack/

  • This plan uses a powered table saw, but just use your own saw instead. You’ll find that plans often include a power tool or two, it’s hard to avoid. Just figure out what you have that will serve as a good replacement.

Dovetail Tool Box

Situation

You’re putting together your shop. You have a decent amount of space to work with and a little collection of tools—and you need a place to put them!

Intention

You have some time to dedicate to learning dovetail joinery. Maybe this is a gift, it can be used to hold garden tools or toys. Maybe it’s for you to use in your shop. Either way, this is a good simple project to undertake. It could be your first project, but maybe it makes more sense as two or three. Dovetail joints can be tricky, though this is definitely a simple beginner’s project.

Experience

You’re a beginner and maybe you’ve made a thing or two. Not a requirement though.

Skills

  • Master dovetail joinery
  • Planing

Tools

Don’t be intimidated by the long tool list! You probably don’t need them all. This plan calls for a lot of different tools, but fret not. Just use what you have. Part of being a hand tool user is figuring things out as you go along and working through plans and instructions that might not fit what you’ve got.

  • Clamp
  • Rabbet block plane
  • Jack plane
  • Smoothing plane
  • Jointer plane
  • Combination plane (optional)
  • Dovetail saw
  • Tenon rip saw
  • Cross cut back saw
  • Coping saw
  • Cross cut panel saw
  • Rip panel saw
  • Miter box
  • Miter saw

Wood

Poplar

  • This plan uses tulip poplar wood-you can use other types of wood
  • USA native
  • It’s reasonably easy to find
  • Inexpensive
  • Very workable for hand tool users
  • A light cream color
  • Moderately rot resistant

Pine

  • (explained earlier)
  • Pine is a suitable choice
  • Pressured pine is rot resistant if you think you may need to bring your toolbox outside

Link to Plan + Instructions

Plans

https://woodandshop.com/make-a-dovetail-tool-box/

Dovetail Tutorial

https://woodandshop.com/hand-cut-dovetails-part-1/

 

Here is a couple of pictures of other fun projects that I have worked on:

Chalkboard

Pullup and Dip Frame

Parts stacking shelf

Pipe Clamp Holder

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