In this foundational article, the author of many of MOTHER's woodcraft projects guides you through the most important tools for woodworkers to have, including the qualities of a good tool and the functions they perform.
You rip open the woodworking plans to build your new swing set or trestle table and begin reading: "Reduce stock to 57/64ths on the planer-joiner, cut curves on the bandsaw, scarf dovetail tenons with the plunge router, then chamfer the blind rabbet with your radial saw's dado blade…"
Fine and dandy if you know a rabbet from a cottontail and have a workshop full of elegant power tools. Some years back, a suburbanite woodcraft-hobbyist displayed his mahogany Chippendale reproductions to me. "What era of period furniture do you prefer to build?" he asked. "Early Poland-China," I replied. I was used to cobbling up pig troughs out of old barn boards.
In MOTHER'S woodcraft articles, you'll find no fancy equipment or cabinetmaker's jargon. Straightforward woodworking projects with reasonably priced carpentry tools will be described in plain English so you can build sturdy, country-practical projects such as decks, a kid's tree swing, and mailbox posts. In future articles, you'll find instructions for building a U.S. Park Service-quality picnic table; an indoor/outdoor planting bench with a wet sink; a pioneer infant (or doll) cradle; a kid's tree fort with a secret trap door and rope ladder; a hobby horse with a real tail and mane, etc. Each project will detail an easy lesson or two in practical woodcraft. Even if you don't build the projects, just reading the articles ought to make a practical woodworker out of you.
First, some advice on equipping a country homeowner's basic woodcraft/general-purpose tool crib. Had I bought one 40 years ago, I would have saved a great deal of money that I've wasted on over-priced, over-promoted, or over-powered equipment. This tool kit should cost you about $600, plus another $100 to stock up on nails, screws, and other hardware. Don't buy it all at once, though; get what you need as you need it. Also, save money by shopping store sales, country auctions, flea markets, and yard sales.
The best tool is one that does the job well with little effort on your part. In glossy catalogs, woodworking tools aren't sold for utility but for design and looks. Trust me, your electric saw won't cut any straighter if its housing has won a design award. Another marketing tactic is tacking added functions onto a tool that's been honed to perfection. Such is the case of the hand ax, whose design and function has not changed much since the Stone Age. Trying to add a nail-puller, sawblade, and screwdriver to an ax head will only reduce its effectiveness.
I plan to discuss plain and effective carpentry tools under these basic woodworking functions:
But first permit me to cite the tool I use most for woodworking and every other aspect of country life: a little folding pocket knife. I pull it out a dozen times a day for everything from marking precision-saw cut-lines to scoring sheets of gypsum drywall to whittling maple sap spiles. A knife can be any size or shape that fits the job, but to perform safely, it must be sharp enough to cut without the undue effort that can cause the blade to slip and hurt you. Swiss Army knives, Bowie-style clasp knives, and other fancy pocket knives are expensive and heavy to carry. Worse, these blades are high-chromium stainless steel. These blades are so hard—thus, difficult to re sharpen—they can't be considered serious tools for daily use.
I like a small, cheap, lightweight knife that fits in my pocket. It must also have a single, paring-knife shaped blade of nonstainless carbon tool steel. Such a blade stains and is relatively soft so it will get dull; but it will stay scalpel-sharp given a few licks on a honing steel every day. For 20 years, my favorite knife has been the Opinel #8. This knife is made in France and has been used by European hikers for decades. I have a solid pear-wood handle, and the 3 1/2" blade locks in place with a simple revolving split ring—there are no brass bolsters to weight it down or springs to rust. Any time the blade gets loose enough to open in my pocket, I dunk it in water to swell the wood.
Better to open the blade one-handed. I filed a notch toward the back of the slit side of the wood handle. I can put my hand in my pocket, crack the blade open with thumb and middle finger, then pull the handle from my pocket, snagging the blade tip on the pocket's edge. As it comes out, the blade opens with a satisfying click and I can turn the locking ring with my thumb. I consider my little Opinel an indispensable companion rather than a low-tech switchblade. The #8 Opinel only costs about five dollars at sporting goods stores, and although I have nicked a few blades, I've never had one break.
The most common mistake of amateur woodworkers is failing to obtain the proper tools and taking the time to judge, measure, and mark precisely with them. This results in wasted wood and sloppy results. Don't use a fabric measuring-tape or school ruler to build an Adirondack chair or table set. Use rigid and flexible carpenter's measuring tools.
My second favorite tool is my great-grandfather's old try square. A 1 1/2" × 6" blade of 1/8"-thick spring steel is sandwiched at a right angle into an 1 1/2"-thick rosewood handle with brass fasteners and end pieces. After more than a century of use, the angle remains a precise 90°, and the wood of the handle has a patina to make an antique-buff's eyes pop. I run the try square down any board I might consider buying. It allows me to evaluate trueness of saw cuts, squareness of joints, and fair surfaces of planing work. I also use it to set electric circular saw blades at a true 90° angle, and to define right angles where needed.
An old-style, wood-handled try square may be the one tool in this article that you can't find at a good hardware store (although you can find stamped metal versions for under $5). You may have to look in woodworking magazines for addresses of fine tool catalogs and pay $25 or more for a good one. That's expensive, but I bet you'll find the heft of a properly-balanced tool and the feel of the silky wood handle a worthwhile investment.
I also use my rafter angle quite a bit. A simple right angle with two-inch wide, two-foot long legs of 1/8" aluminum alloy, it is cored with rule marks along all four edges. With its two-foot lengths, it can be used to set long boards square to one another, no matter their orientation to level. It is also a great aid in measuring and marking off under-two-foot lengths. The cost is about $12 for a homeowner's model; professional versions, which have guidelines for cutting rafters that I've never been able to make sense of, cost up to $50.
A four-foot straight-edge of plastic or better steel, or aluminum is the last essential rigid measuring device. It will span the width of a standard 4' × 8' sheet of plywood or drywall, and provide you a long enough straight edge to measure and mark most any cut or attachment line. Buy a pair of four-inch metal "C" clamps or two plastic pistol-grip, one-hand clamps so you can fasten the straight-edge on a work surface to guide a cutting tool. Cost of a metal rule is about $15. Clamps only cost a few bucks.
Collapsible rules of yellow-painted, six-feet-long wood sticks jointed in the flat will help you carry six feet of measuring capacity in your pocket. Rigid when unfolded, they are the only way a single worker can measure true distance overhead. Because of their thickness, it is tough to transfer a precise measurement off of them. They are also bulky and fragile. Many fine carpenters won't work without one.
Steel tapes are my favorite rough-carpentry measuring tool. An eight- to 20-foot roll of semi-flexible steel tape (with metric and/or foot-and-inch measurements painted on it) is spring-wound inside a handy canister. A small hook on the end will snag over a board's edge so you can pull the tape out to any length and measure accurately. I also use a digital-electronic steel tape which reads out in increments of 1/16ths of an inch. It's great for measuring and recording dimensions of, say, a deck or chair I want to copy, but is bulky for on-the-job use. Fabric tapes are sold in 100'+ reels for room and property measurement, but are too stretchy for precise carpentry. Other measuring devices you can buy are a compass (or string and a nail) to mark circles, protractors to define angles, and chalk and cord for snaplines to define long lines.
Marking should be done with pencils or metal scribes. Pen ink soaks so far into wood that it can't be sanded off, and it also bleeds on wall surfaces and through water-based paints. Fat red-with-black striped carpenter's pencils are good if the lead is whittled into a sharp-edged wedge. They make a mark broad enough to see, but have a knife-edge to cut by. Ordinary #2 school-type pencils are also okay if the lead is whittled into a sharp wedge. Metal scribes mark most precisely (I use a pocket knife) by making a shallow, hair-thin groove in the wood. Your best bet is drawing a broad line with the carpenter's pencil, and then scribing the precise cutline within the lead mark with a metal scribe. Measuring again (and again) takes no special tools beyond mere patience. This is not easy to keep at the end of a hot Sunday afternoon. Just bear this adage in mind: "There is no such thing as a board-stretcher in any carpenter's tool box."
Saws are fun, and I have a huge collection of all kinds. But all you really need to start are two hand saws and two power saws. Buy yourself a pair of good-quality carpenters' hand saws of standard 26" length and gauge of 8-teeth-to-the-inch. One should be a crosscut saw with teeth angling off to alternate sides to slice effectively through wood fibers. Get a good-quality rip saw of the same size and gauge, but with teeth straight up and down to cut smoothly along the grain of a board. Don't compromise on a single multiple-use hand saw. While it may rough cut well, it will neither rip nor cross-cut as well as the proper tools. A $10 bill and change will get you a good-quality saw that will stay sharp through years of hobby carpentry or a house-frame supply of 2 × 4s. Don't spend more unless you know where to find that rare bird: a local saw and drill sharpener.
Power saws are essential for speedy woodworking. Your first should be an electric hand-held circular saw. "Skilsaw" is both a generic term and one popular brand name for these little saws. For $50 to $60, you can buy a 2 to 2 1/2 hp general-purpose model, running a 7 1/4" diameter blade. This industry-standard tool differs from "professional" models only in price. (House carpenters use Skilsaws, leaving the high-priced versions for hobbyists with more money than experience.)
The secret to a good cut is the blade's sharpness and configuration, so purchase several in addition to the one it comes with. Get a package of throw-away, coarse-toothed cutoff blades for rough work—especially house remodeling, where you will hit blade-ruining nails. Then, for $10 per, get a fine-toothed plywood blade for cutting sheet goods cleanly, plus a top-quality hollow-ground planer blade which will make knife-sharp cuts for precise work. It's easier to find a shop with equipment to sharpen power saw blades than handsaws, so you needn't spent megabucks for super-hard carbide-tipped blades. When you buy any high-powered saw, also get a set of safety goggles. Read and follow the instructions that come with the saw. And be sure to find a secure place for the stamped-steel wrench that comes with many circular saws. You'll need it to change blades.
For carving cuts, holes, and small sawing in general, buy a little 1/4"-shank electric jigsaw/sabersaw. While the circular saw's round blade whirrs around at 4600 rpm, the jigsaw's straight blade buzzes at speeds that vary depending on nature and thickness of the material being cut. To cut plastic, metal, and composition board as well as wood, get a variable speed model for about $35. You'll need hardened hacksaw-type fine-toothed blades to cut through nails, and thin sheet steel and specialty blades for plastic glazing thin plywood and for specialty wood cutting. You may as well buy a package containing an assortment of six to 10 different style blades. For most ordinary woodworking, a standard 14-tooth scroll-saw blades works just fine. They are narrow and break easily if bent, so I buy several at a time. They will cut tight curves in one-inch-thick wood, and will split a 2 × 4 if you have the patience.
Not every country woodcrafter needs a reciprocating (super)saw—a heavy, awkward, industrial-strength device that runs a horizontal blade back and forth at slow speeds but with unstoppable torque. It is hard to make perfect cuts with it, but with the right blades, it will chew its way through nails, old copper pipe, plaster, and rock-hard oak framing. You can cut a house in half with a super saw. Although they cost $150 and up, they're worth it. I use mine more than any saw but the circular saw. It even served to cut up sawmill-slab firewood for a while one winter when my chainsaws were on the fritz.
Tools to final-fit and place wood pieces come into play midway between cutting raw wood stock to length and shape and fastening it together. Your right angles help determine the 90° angles that set boards square and plumb with one another. A carpenter's level sets boards square with the force of gravity. Two-to-six-foot metal or wood beams with a trio of bubble-vials in them, levels are laid alongside boards to indicate when they're horizontal, vertical, or at a perfect 45°. A single two-foot metal level will do while you're starting out. Get a good one for $15 or more.
You will need a plane to shave off small amounts of wood. Catalogs list dozens of wood planes harking to the pre-industrial age, but I find a hardware store, all-metal block plane works fine. I do little handplaning since I have a planing blade on my circular saw. Also, get a set of wood chisels in 1/16" to 1 1/2" or 2" widths for removing wood and squaring the edges of boards where a plane won't fit. They will also help cut holes, grooves, and notches, and inset hinges and other hardware. A honing stone will keep them sharp; get a two-grit oil stone with a coarse and a fine side. You'll need an electric drill and wood-drilling bits to make holes to fasten many projects. A small, high-rpm 3/8" to an inch or inch and a half will cost about $50. If you want to indulge yourself, get a set of brad-tip twist-drill bits. They have little spiral cones at the tips for more accurate placement. I haven't used my old brace and bit for years, except to drill deep holes in large timbers with old time spiral bits. You don't need a half-inch drill and high-speed bits either for most woodworking. Slower than the smaller drills, they are for metal working or heavy wood beams.
Assembly was once about pounding nails in building construction, and screw-and-glueing in furniture. But today's woodworkers are relying more and more on self-tapping drywall-type screws put in by high-torque electric power drivers. Not long ago, drywall (sheetrock)—4' × 8' sheets of gypsum wallboard—was installed with sharp, little blue-metal nails. But too often, hammering the nails through the edges of brittle drywall panels, into springy wood framing, ruptured the sheetrock. Then, some genius realized that putting a screw with a coarse (but sharp-edged) thread through the drywall and into the framing would draw the two together with no bounce-back. Hardened steel self-tapping "drywall" screws were born. They have Phillips-type screw heads—grooved in a good-holding "+" shape, rather than the traditional single slot that is prone to break or bruise under force. Sold in medium screw sizes six and eight, in varying lengths, and for interior and exterior use, drywall screws can be used to fasten all but the thinnest or most brittle materials without splitting or rupturing. And you won't have to drill pilot holes.
After my pocket knife, the tool I use most is the electric driver. With a variety of slot-head, Phillips and auto-type wrench-socket bits, it is used to fasten everything from rough barn framing to fine furniture. Plus, hard-steel drywall screws can be removed as easily as they go in. No more prying picture-hanging nails out of plaster or trying to chisel a new screwdriver slot into a bruised screw head.
When it comes to power drivers, I recommend a 10-volt variable-speed, variable-torque cordless model for beginners. With a pair of batteries and charger, mine cost $100. A cheaper, lower-powered driver is false economy. A pair of charged 9.5-volt batteries will last through most moderate building sessions and will recharge overnight. For extended use, try a line-powered driver; if you plan to finish many rooms with drywall, get one with an adjustable-depth, auto-clutch chuck that will disengage when the screw is at the proper depth. For most woodworking, a standard chuck will do fine. At an average of a nickel apiece, drywalls aren't cheap. But I keep on hand an $8 box of each size from one-inch to four-inch lengths in conventional black for inside use—and for outside, I have all sizes in triple-galvanized or that new silver corrosion-proof, mystery metal from Japan.
Power drivers have not made nails obsolete. Nails are cheap and come in sizes and styles to perform fastening jobs that drywall screws can't. You will want a set of hammers—not one, but a set—since using too large or small a hammer will get you bent nails. Buy an ample two-pound clawhammer (not a huge ripping hammer) for putting in and taking out house-building size nails, a little claw-topped tackhammer for small nails and brads, and a round-topped ball peen hammer in a size that fits between.
Don't be lured by the shiny, all-metal hammers with cushion handles. Hammers with honest black-iron heads and wood handles are a lot cheaper. More important, they are lighter and better balanced to deliver force where it is aimed. I also like a hammer to stand on its head when I set it down to take a nail. Only an old-fashioned wood-handled, flat-topped clawhammer will do that; the novelty hammers topple right over. Iron heads may be cast in Taiwan, but the handles are honest American white ash, and with an occasional application of boiled linseed oil, they'll last a lifetime.
For nails, do yourself a favor and buy "a pound of each": thin wire brads to 12-penny spikes in galvanized, common, flat head, and finishing styles. Better to have them on hand, I say. With nails costing $1 or less a pound, you'll spend perhaps $20 altogether. In time, you will use them all.
You will want flat-blade and cross-shaped. Phillips-head screwdrivers come in many sizes and lengths. I'd also recommend buying small boxes of an assortment of inexpensive, silver-colored steel wood screws for work that drywall screws can't handle. Concentrate on size four screws—too small to be sold as drywall screws (yet). Brass screws are expensive, and I buy them in size and quantity as needed for individual projects.
You'd also do well to wander through the hardware store, picking out an assortment of flat washers, small tacks and brads, "Mollies" for attaching cabinets and such to thin walls plus both screwhead and hex-head machine bolts and nuts and a few lagscrews, eyehooks, and screweyes—just to have them on hand. Another $10 will equip you nicely.
Clamps are helpful in assembling any woodworking project, but are essential if you want to glue furniture to stay. In time you'll want a complete assortment, but for starters I'd recommend several of the inexpensive type with a pair of cast-metal end brackets that slide along flat steel bars and four of the larger version that affix to lengths of common pipe. Each has one fixed end and an end that makes fine adjustments with a crew-handle. Also get a plastic bottle of Elmer's woodworkers glue. (It's the yellowish, not the white glue.)
Finally, I'd recommend buying a good hand stapler and staples in several lengths for another $25. You'll find staples indispensable in fastening thin materials ranging from fabric to aluminum flashing to plastic sheeting.
Get a good wood rasp: a coarse-toothed wood file that is flat on one side and rounded on the other, to remove stock that the saw, plane and chisels leave behind. In addition, a smaller round file will help to finish curves. Get handles to fit on the sharp tang of each. Then buy sandpaper in an assortment of grits. Sandpaper should be affixed to a flat block or you will sand unevenly and round the edges of your boards. You can staple half- or quarter-sheets to a scrap wood block or buy a sanding block that holds the paper with metal or rubber clamps.
We have too little space to offer many tool-use hints. But, if there is one cardinal rule of woodworking, it is: Let the tool do the work. All you should have to do is guide your saw, drill or hammer with a firm push. If you find that you are exerting more pressure on a properly maintained power saw than necessary your blade is either dull, it's the wrong kind, or you are trying to cut too fast. By pushing a saw, you can ruin a straight cut, pinch the blade enough to stall the saw and blow a circuit breaker, or make the saw kick back on you. If you are having to exert yourself with a hammer, the tool is too light (and you are bound to bend nails) or your are putting too large a nail into wood that needs a pilot hole. If a chisel or plane isn't taking off lovely thin shavings, it is dull or set too deep so you're trying to remove too much at one stroke. If you are having difficulty setting screws by hand or with a power driver, you should be drilling pilot holes.
If they are to do the work for you, be sure to pick good tools at the outset, maintain them well—especially keeping their cutting edges sharp—learn their limitations and use them with respect.
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