If you’re just getting into woodworking, deciding what hand tools to buy first can be a daunting task. Though the first 12 are on us, you will have to fine tune your collection depending on the type of work you plan on doing.
Hand tools are expensive and the prospect of buying everything you need to start building fine furniture can be overwhelming. The good news is that you don’t need every tool you’ve been told you need, and you don’t have to pay as much as you might think. By following this list, and a few guiding principles, you can have all the essential tools on a reasonable budget, and in the end, you’ll be a better woodworker.
When I decided to build fine furniture, I owned a framing hammer, a tape measure and some miscellaneous tools from the two summers I spent building homes. Having just graduated from university, finances were tight. I knew I had to nickel-and-dime my way to an adequate tool kit, and now that I’ve done it, I’m happy I did. It ensured that I bought only what I needed and spending more time with fewer tools helped me develop my hand-tool skills. I bought used tools when I could, forcing me to spend a great deal of time restoring, tuning, lapping, and sharpening. The more time I spent with each tool, the more comfortable I become using it, and the better my results were at the bench. I made sure that I only purchased a lower quality tool if, through a little extra effort or some minor adjustments, it could achieve the same results as a higher quality tool. In a few short months I had amassed the hand tools I needed. While my kit has expanded, I still turn to these tools for the majority of my work.
Bevel-up, Low-Angle Jack Plane
As its name suggests, this plane is extremely versatile, so there is no need to rush out and buy a bunch of planes. With a couple of extra blades, it becomes even more versatile. Put in a high-angle blade to flatten and smooth boards with unruly grain. Put in a low-angle blade and pair it with a shooting board to take perfect end-grain shavings.
I suggest buying a less expensive plane and swapping the stock blade for a thicker replacement. The thicker blade will reduce chatter and the higher quality steel will maintain a better edge. A less expensive plane will require more time to flatten the sole, but you’ll have a high performance tool for half the price. I’ve been using a fully adjustable low-angle Stanley block plane with a Hock replacement blade for the last year. The plane’s adjustment mechanism requires a little more TLC than a Veritable or Lie-Nielsen, but it can cut just as well.
A small 7 oz or 8 oz Japanese plane hammer isn’t perfect for every job, but it’s pretty good at common tasks like chopping dovetails, adjusting planes or driving small finishing nails. Once you’ve developed your skills and an understanding of the type of work you like to do, you may be inclined to buy some more specialized hammers. My only other hammer is a turned applewood mallet given to me by a friend.
A full set of bevel-edge chisels is good to have and, if you chop mortises by hand, mortising chisels are definitely the best tool for the job. Practically speaking, most of your mortise and tenons will be cut with machines. When fitting joinery by hand, most tasks can be done with a 1/4″, 1/2″, or 1″ chisel, and you can design your fully hand-cut joinery to use the tools you have. There is no need to make a 5/16″ tenon where a 1/4″ will do. Acquiring chisels is a great opportunity to buy used. Not only will you save some money, but the quality of steel will be far better than that of your average home improvement brand. You may also get lucky like I did one cold Sunday morning at an estate auction when I purchased a set of old Swedish Berg chisels for $7.
Before you set metal to wood you need to be able to sharpen your tools. There is a great debate about what type of sharpening stones are best, but if you aren’t apt at sharpening, getting caught up in that argument will only hinder your progress. A combination 800x/4000x water stone is an effective and affordable option to get your tools up and running.
3″ Engineer’s Square
This is my tool of choice for laying out joinery. A small square is more manageable when marking a small line on a small part. If the square is much bigger than the part you are marking, it can become challenging to hold it in place to mark a clean, accurate line. You want to be confident in the accuracy of your tools, so buy the best you can afford and avoid buying used, as there is a good chance a used square has been dropped.
The pocket square is large enough for the measurements we need most frequently, like checking material thickness and small enough to fit in your pocket so you’re never without it in the shop. It’s also great for setting up machines because you can check for square and depth of cut without changing tools. While it may seem expensive for such a simple piece of metal, it’s cheaper than a small combination square and it is made to the tolerances of an engineer’s square. This tool will save you lots of time, energy and frustration.
12″ Combination Square
In reality, this square can do the job of the engineer square, the pocket square and more. Its flat cast iron head means it can act as a substitute for an engineer square, and the 12″ rule means you can measure and mark work beyond the size of a pocket square. Flip the tool around to accurately find a 45° angle for mitre work, or use the straight edge of the rule to check the flatness of a board. Again, don’t try and save by buying an inexpensive or used square as it will cost you in the long run.
Wheel Marking Gauge
A standard wheel marking gauge will make clean, accurate reference marks. It’s also great for transferring measurements (like the depth of a mortise). They are not expensive and there’s no need to shell out the extra cash for one with all the bells and whistles.
6″ Sliding Bevel Gauge
If you want to do any work with angles (and you do), then you need a sliding bevel gauge. They help you layout dovetails and let you transfer angles to and from drawings, machines, and parts. A cheap bevel gauge is harder to set accurately and will inevitably loosen up when you need it most, so this is another tool worth spending a little extra on.
Inexpensive and invaluable, this tool is a necessity when working with curved parts, tricky grain, and veneer. It’s important to learn how to put a consistent burr on the scraper, and this can often deter beginners from using it, but once you can, you’ll save hours of sanding and open up a world of new design possibilities. New, used, or homemade, they aren’t going to blow your budget.
Files are extremely useful, helping to shape parts, sharpen scrapers, and round over tenons. You will inevitably collect a variety of files, but the oh-so-average “mill-bastard” is a good place to start. The “mill” refers to its shape and single-cut parallel rows of teeth, while the “bastard” means the cut is between rough and smooth.
Pair of Saws
A well-rounded hand tool kit should include handsaws. Cutting both across and along the grain means that you’ll want two saws – one with the teeth filed crosscut, the other with rip filed teeth. Saws in the 8″–10″ length are a good choice. I strongly recommend that you buy new saws from one of the leading makers, like Veritas or Adria Tools. Expect to pay upwards of $80 per saw, which is still very good value, as, with proper care, the saws will last a lifetime. Less expensive saws are fine for carpentry work, but not for fine woodworking. Once you’re comfortable using the saws, learning how to resharpen the teeth is relatively easy. —Carl Duguay
When I want to move away from flat surfaces, I reach for my spokeshave. This tool is useful for shaping and smoothing curved furniture parts such as legs, panels and spindles. It can be used with one hand, but both hands will provide comfort and control to tackle any size of job. The standard spokeshave is made with a flat sole and works well for most jobs. A curved sole is ideal for a tighter inside radius. And when fitted with a low-angle blade, this tools works beautifully on end grain. —Jason Klager
24″ Steel Rule
The most valuable tool in my shop has been a 24″ flexible steel rule. Finished in non-glare satin, it’s easy to read and its engraved graduations are accurate and consistently deep. With a sharp brad awl or layout knife set within any increment, measurements can be transferred to any work piece easily and precisely. Its flexibility allows me to press and hold the rule motionless in use, plus it flatly conforms to convex and concave shapes. The 24″ length handles almost all component layouts without being bulky or lengthy and, with graduations in 1/8″, 1/16″, 1/32″ and 1/64″, it provides precision yet is coarse enough for quick layout and stock division. For fine work, a rule graduated only in 32nds and 64ths is valuable, but for easy calculations one scaled in 50ths and 100ths is indispensible. —Mark Salusbury
#80 Cabinet Scraper
A good tool that can be found at a reasonable price used is the #80 Stanley Cabinet Scraper. This is different from a card scraper in that it has a cast body and a flat sole. It looks similar to a spokeshave, and is often mistaken for one. It has a thicker blade than a card scraper, so it vibrates less. The blade is ground at 45°, polished with a 1000 grit water stone, and then a hook is applied with a burnisher at about 5 degrees more (50 degrees). The advantage of the #80 over the card scraper is that it is excellent for broad surfaces such as a table top; the sole keeps the tool running flat so that it does not dip into recesses. Advance the blade with the “bowing screw”, a thumbscrew that creates a convex bow in the blade. This is a great tool for the price and it also comes in very handy for removing old finish when refinishing furniture with broad flat surfaces. This is the go-to tool for curly grain and highly figured woods. —Ted Brown
3/4″ Shoulder Plane
Wood joinery is one of the hallmarks of fine woodwork. The shoulder plane allows you to fine tune tenons, rabbets, dadoes and grooves for the perfect fit while maintaining crisp corners. I would suggest starting with a 3/4″ shoulder plane unless you routinely cut narrower dadoes and grooves. A 3/4″ shoulder plane is all that’s needed for rabbets and tenons as wide as 3/4″ wide. For really wide work, such as tusk tenons, I use the shoulder plane for the corner and then finish with a block or smooth plane. —Chris Wong
While it would be a challenge to make furniture solely with the tools on this list, you can accomplish the majority of hand-tool tasks you’ll face. Soon enough, you’ll be proficient with the most important tools of the trade, have some money left in the bank, and as your skills grow, you will have a better understanding of the other tools you need, depending on the type of work you want to do.