Hand Tool Woodworking for Beginners and Mere Mortals

Most people who love beautiful furniture, decorative molding, and carved artwork also admire the craftsmanship that goes into creating them. Every would-be cabinetmaker dreams of becoming the next Duncan Phyfe, creating miraculously detailed furniture, but woodworking with hand tools can be much less intricate and still provide this satisfaction.

This article will cover how to get started with hand tools as well as a number of beginner projects that can be used to gain confidence and build a shop. I chose projects that you should be able to find easy plans for anywhere on the internet, and I tried to keep information pretty general to cover most of them. These are:

  • Workbench
  • Tool Cabinet
  • Decorative Clock

The joy of working with your hands is significant. Artists of every kind say that the preparation and process is as satisfying as the end result. As experience builds, learning more techniques adds to the pride of each finished project. Between the stress relief of getting away from a screen and focusing on something tangible, everyone should spend some hours learning to work with wood.

Woodworking by Hand

Hand tools for woodworking have remained basically the same for many years. There are more choices today than a hundred years ago, but the design and function are pretty much identical. Brands and styles will vary largely due to the quality and type of materials used. For example, plastics have now replaced many wood and leather handles. That being said woodworkers can buy a tool for $8, $80, or even $800 and they will serve basically the same function.

Woodworking is a wonderful blend of art and science. Exact dimensions that fit perfectly together are combined with eye-catching color and texture. A piece of fine furniture can be described as a painting in three dimensions.

To contrast this, most new woodwork for sale commercially is machine-made. A lot of it has beauty but it doesn’t represent the artistry and satisfying creativity that ones own handiwork represents.

What you need vs. what you want

One of the most important ideas for the mere mortal woodworker is to “keep it simple.” Seasoned veterans have learned its best to start with the basics. Only buy a tool when it’s needed. This will keep you from spending money unnecessarily and cluttering up your shop.

Now lets start a project. We will list out a few of these. With each , we will add tools. Your stockpile will build over time until you have a nice shop setup.

The Tools

Here is a quick list of the basic tools we will be covering in the following projects. These will get you started in woodworking.

  • Pipe Clamps
  • Hand Saw
  • Square
  • Level
  • Quick-Grip Clamps
  • Hammer
  • Glue
  • Drill
  • Drill Bits
  • Level
  • Chisels
  • Wooden Mallet
  • Miter Saw
  • Depth Gauge
  • Planes
  • Curved Chisels
  • Scrapers
  • Gouges
  • Wood Burning Set
  • Wood Vise
  • Metal Vise

The Workbench

The first project many people begin with is the workbench. This may or may not include tool storage, but it should always include a flat top and parallel sides. From this point on you can stop using your kitchen counter…or is that just me? The bench will be an area to work on future projects and since it is mostly for you, it wont be a catastrophe if some things are off.

Quick tip: Practice with scrap before drill or cutting on your dimensioned lumber. This way you don’t ruin the wood you want to use in your project by cutting it short or splitting it with a nail.

Why a Workbench

Every shop needs a work surface; most need several. A project-in-the-making is often divided up, with some parts glued and resting in a clamp, some parts being cut and some raw, ready to be used, lying over behind that pile of boxes.

Skills

  • Measuring
  • Cutting square
  • Gluing
  • Checking Level
  • Pilot Holes
  • Clamping
  • Screwing

What you’ll need

Tools:
  • Pipe Clamps
  • Hand Saw
  • Square
  • Level
  • Quick-Grip Clamps
  • Hammer
  • Glue
  • Drill
  • Drill Bits
  • Level
General Direction:

A basic workbench should be boards clamped and glued either horizontally, like a table top, or vertically like a cutting board. Although many types of woods can be used here, a intro worktable should be pine 2×4’s available at any lumber store. Buying dimensioned uncut lumber will allow you to use the first two tools: pipe clamps and a hand saw (rip saw).

Let’s use the dimensions of a bench as follows: 72” wide, 36” tall and 30” deep. (In woodworking, or cabinetmaking, the depth of a project is its dimension measured as if it was against a wall.) These dimensions are easy to work with in most spaces and divide easily with standard dimensions.

The boards for the top will be clamped with two pipe clamps. This holds glued pieces together while they dry. Pipe clamps are a good investment because you can purchase varying length pipes and quickly swap out for whatever is needed. Boards for the base and feet will also be clamped this way. Pipe clamps should be the first tool you buy for your kit. While you’re at the store grab a square, level and smaller clamps.

Make sure to glue, clamp, then screw the lumber together.

Notes:

Wood glue, nails, and a hammer are basic tools essential for most every project. Glue is best applied to both surfaces you are trying to adhere. Make sure to use plenty and then squeeze out the excess with the clamps. Jigs can help you cut and clamp more intricate pieces at complicated angles. As a side note, woodworker’s jigs will become a vital part of your wood shop but they can be sophisticated and are best discussed as a separate subject. There are as many jigs for carpenters as there are carpenters for jigs!

There are many price and quality levels for every hand tool you can buy. In general, buy the best quality tool you can afford. Best quality doesn’t mean most expensive. Hit up amazon to read reviews of any tool you are looking at. Always compare pros and cons for each piece before purchasing anything.

Planning is everything. As a carpenter, you measure twice cut once, as the saying goes, so measuring and squaring tools are important. Cabinetmakers are so concerned with this exactness that they buy tools to check the square of their own squares!

Cutting wood, not corners

Cutting tools are an integral part of woodworking. They are the items that change rough wood into fine art. When looking at saws keep a few things in mind. Hand saws are designed with straight or alternating teeth, depending on the desired cuts. Choose a hand saw that is comfortable to use and can be controlled easily; too large a saw tends to wander and tire the arm. A hand saw is essential for the main cuts on your bench (you will purchase a miter saw and coping saw later).

Again, saws are available in all price ranges; buy the best you can afford. Its always good to checking products in person if possible. You may find that a highly reviewed tool doesn’t fit your hand or isn’t right for you. It’s much better to discover this before you’re put your money down.

The final tools you will need for your workbench is a set of drill bits and a level, which we will use to make sure things don’t roll off your table. A basic drill (auger bit) set has six or eight bits in ⅛-inch increments.

Planning:

Build your workbench using plans and a detailed materials list. This is vital whether you are building a skyscraper or birdhouse. It sets material and tool costs, and availability, shows the space you need to complete the project and makes sure you will not leave anything out. As a cabinetmaker, one benefit as you acquire and maintain your tools is a reduction in trips to the hardware store for something you forgot.

The next project adds fine woodworking techniques and tools to your repertoire. Remember that this basic list is flexible and you can certainly change it to your needs.

Tool Cabinet

Why a Tool Cabinet

Building a cabinet should be your next project. This cabinet will be basic and is intended to hold your new tools as you get them. That being said you can find some amazing examples of workmanship if you search for woodworking tool cabinet. Honestly you can make this as complicated as you’d like. If you’re still new, I would suggest keeping it simple. But take a few chances. If you’re not growing then why are you doing it?

Skills

  • Bevel Cuts basic
  • Groove Cuts
  • Basic routing
  • Basic Joinery
  • Squaring adjoining wood

What you’ll need

Tools:
  • Chisels
  • Wooden Mallet
  • Miter Saw
  • Depth Gauge
  • Planes
General Direction:

Go online and find a basic three-drawer chest plan. The size is not important; choose one that will comfortably fit in your work space, garage, or shop.

Your next tool purchases will be chisels, a wooden mallet, a miter saw and a depth gauge. You can make a wooden mallet, if you choose, as well as a wooden depth gauge. These are not bad projects in and of themselves.

A straight chisel set of ¼, ½ and 1-inch steel sizes is best. You will add curved, or carving, chisels and a larger straight chisel as your project calls for them.

The important lessons in this project are mitering corners for boxes, cutting precise grooves for slides and joining edges. Read about these, watch videos and practice on scrap wood. Practice, practice, practice!

If the lumber you purchased is uneven you may need to purchase one or two planes. Wood planes have one of the widest ranges in size, quality and price. A typical cabinetmaker’s plane set consists of a #4 block plane, #6 block plane and a rough (scrub) plane that removes a lot of stock with each pass. Those should be sufficient for most introductory projects.

Box making uses your square, measuring tools and clamps. Wood glue and brad nails come into use again, as do smaller clamps. In time, your furniture making will include scroll work, veneer and wood turning but that won’t be necessary for this project.

Decorative clock cabinet

Why a Clock Cabinet

The last project will focus on carving. Chisel work has a steep learning curve and you will need to practice.  More so than other tools chisel work can be broken into two areas. Functional and decorative. Straight chisels are used for slotting and cleanup of edges, but curved chisels can be used to carve decoration into items like cuckoo clocks. This project will help you to practice both.

Skills

  • Wood carving
  • Chisel cutting/slotting
  • Box making

What you’ll need

Tools:
  • Curved Chisels
  • Scrapers
  • Gouges
  • Wood Burning Set
  • Wood Vise
General Direction:

Utilizing the same skills and a similar plan to your tool cabinet, draw up or buy plans for a wood clock. Don’t worry about the clock mechanism at this point. Grab some scrap pine boards. Carving in pine is easy to learn and forgiving. Once you are comfortable working in pine you can graduate to the more expensive oaks, ceders, and maples.

These projects offer intricately drawn templates for fancy scroll work. Try some or all of a design in scrap pine, then decide if you want to use the entire template. Many people work in a particular part of a clock face design and get comfortable reproducing it. They then put this design on all four corners of the frontispiece! This trick can help to make your clock front look professional while reducing the learning curve.

Tools to buy now include carving chisel sets, scrapers, gouges, wood vise and perhaps a wood burning tool.

Cleaning and Sharpening

From the very beginning of your woodworking career, you should become an expert at taking care of your tools. Cleaning and storing a hammer is simple; cleaning, sharpening and storing your planes is not. Every cutting tool gets dirty and dull. Saws, awls, scrapers, drills, planes and chisels need specialized care.

Sharpening tools is best done with fixtures and jigs made for this purpose. We mentioned that woodworking jigs are obtained (or built by hand) slowly over time as your projects demand them. This is not true for sharpening jigs, which hold cutting tools at the correct distance and angle from a sharpener, so they can be sharpened correctly.

When you buy your plane set, ask about the appropriate sharpener. These are available in several sizes and prices. Ask the same for chisels, saws and any tool that will become dull over time. Each tool has a specific grinding angle and relief, and secondary sharpened angle.

At this point you should already have a quality bench top vise but if not sharpening will likely require it.

Grinders and sanders, powered by hand or electric motors, are usually used for this task. However, cutting tools can be sharpened by hand with few exceptions. This is also a learned skill that becomes an art. You will begin to know when your tool is sharp, and then very sharp, just by the look and feel while using it.

Finishing

In this discussion woodworking through projects, we are not discussing liquid wood finishes like paint and varnish. This is another subject so large it needs its own series. If you are interested in this topic please take a look around the site or do a quick google search.

Conclusion

Make woodworking fun and satisfying. If you have trouble with a project, put it aside for a while and try something else, but don’t get discouraged. If it were easy everybody would do it. One of my favorite quotes of all time is…

Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back

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