How do I start powerless woodworking?
April 26, 2014 10:09 AM   Subscribe

What tools do I need to start powerless woodworking? If I go to Home Depot, what are the 5 or 6 most essential tools to pick up?

I have never done any woodworking besides failing to make a bookshelf in high school shop class. I have basically nothing besides a hammer and a couple clamps. I like the idea of going all powerless (no power tools at all). So what tools do I need to get started?

What kind of hammer? What kind of chisel? What kind of planer? Etc.

I'm not planning any huge projects to start, obviously. I might not even like it. So for small, simple projects.
posted by BradNelson to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should turn this around.

What do you want to make? Then you go get the necessary materials and tools.
posted by notyou at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

The best tool to have is the one that does what you need done. As notyou says, plan your toolbox backwards.
posted by Etrigan at 10:21 AM on April 26, 2014

What kind of hammer? What kind of chisel? What kind of planer?

Pick the cheapest available crappy Chinese tool in all categories, essentially at random.

If you don't get serious about woodworking, you're not going to be using your tools often enough to wear them out; and if you do, you'll rapidly run into the limitations of your cheap tools and know which ones to replace with tools of higher quality without having spent a fortune on nice tools you'll never actually use.
posted by flabdablet at 10:24 AM on April 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

I know you said no power tools, but I suggest you strongly consider a simple power drill of some sort. I'm also a big hand tool fan but a drill is something I couldn't live without. Keep in mind that it is far more challenging to build something right without power tools than with. If you are new to woodworking, this may be something to consider.

That said, the hand tools I'd blindly suggest with no guidance on possible use:

Tape Measure
Screwdriver set
posted by _DB_ at 10:25 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, so let's say I want to make a small chest or a step stool. I've looked at a couple woodworking plans and some mention specific tools to use, but others do not.

I get that power tools exist for a reason, but I like the idea of powerless woodworking as almost more therapeutic than anything else. It's not that I want to make stuff, but that I want to do the process. If that makes any sense. Even if it takes me 2-3x longer to make something.
posted by BradNelson at 10:28 AM on April 26, 2014

I agree with the general sense of flapdablet's advice, but I advise against starting with the cheapest tools. They may not function at all, and will make everything harder. I'd strict to a standard home handyman quality by picking A brand like Stanley, Craftsman, Master Mechanic, or the like.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:37 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Clamps! Hand sawing, planing, etc. is miserable without good clamps to hold down your workpiece. I really like speed clamps for general work. One thing worth mentioning is that a lot of hand drills, bit braces and such are hard to find in good quality. You'll probably have to pay a good bit for these tools in any quality, since it's pretty much only retired rich dudes and serious craftspeople who are using these kinds of things. If there is a local hardware store around, go there with your plans and tell them what you're after, and they should be able to help.
posted by Makwa at 10:37 AM on April 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

Hit ebay for bit braces. Very competitive prices, some for vintage and not so-vintage equipment.
Everyone should have a bit brace anyway.
It allows you to remove screws from things that you never thought would be parted again.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:01 AM on April 26, 2014

Best answer: Okay, so let's say I want to make a small chest or a step stool.

For that, as well as the hammer and clamps you already have, you'll need

1. Retractable steel tape measure and/or folding rule.

2. Carpenter's pencil.

3. Square. Don't buy one that isn't actually square: take a bit of wood and a pencil with you, and make sure a line that's drawn square to one edge also lines up when you flip the square over.

Measure twice, cut once.

4. Handsaw. There are some wickedly effective cheap Chinese handsaws available that I actually prefer to a nice saw, because they've got lovely case-hardened teeth and they're cheaper to replace than a nice one is to resharpen.

5. Plane. Some of the cheap Chinese ones are surprisingly well made, but if the ones available to you look dubious just get a little Stanley.

6. A hand drill, if you must, but honestly a little battery one will save you grief and cost you very little purism. Try out any hand drill before buying it; shitty ones will feel shitty from the very first turn of the crank.

7. Screws. Screws crap upon nails from a great height on every conceivable measure except cost. Rule of thumb with screws, and fasteners in general, is that if you're fixing a piece of thickness T to something else, you want about 1.5T - 2T of penetration into the substrate. Screws are stronger than they look, so if you're trying to decide whether to get the thick ones or the thin ones, get the thin ones. Use Phillips head screws - don't mess about with slotted ones.

8. Phillips head screwdriver that fits your screws. Get the right size. When I was young I hated Phillips head screws because they always seemed to chew out; that was because I was using my Dad's tools, and all his screwdrivers were either the wrong size for the screws I had, or worn out, or Pozidriv instead of Phillips.

9. Drill bit thick enough to make a hole that your screw threads will bite into.

10. Another drill bit just thick enough to make a hole that your screws will push all the way through, for use on the pieces you'll be screwing down.

11. Countersinking tool so your screw heads don't end up standing proud of their surfaces.

12. Cake of cheap soap, screws for the lubrication of.

13. If any of the joints you want to make are more complicated than simple butt joints held with screws, you'll want a chisel. Get a narrow one (half inch) and a wide one (inch and a quarter).

14. Sanding block and assorted grades of sandpaper (80, 150 and 320 is probably enough).

15. Boiled linseed oil. Can't beat it for a simple, durable, nice smelling finish with a real handmade feel.

16. Cloths for applying the linseed oil. When you're done with them, squeeze them out thoroughly and hang them spread out to dry, preferably on an outside line; leave linseed oil soaked rags wadded up and they can spontaneously combust.
posted by flabdablet at 11:02 AM on April 26, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not an expert, but I'm a slow approacher to this as an apartment dweller with similar desires. To me, "powerless woodworking" means joinery. In joinery, you are going to want to start with hand saws, a plane, and some kind of t-square and marking gauge. Chisels if you want to do mortise & tenon. There's a lot to talk about here, but what you're getting into is basically the history of furniture before about 1-200 years ago.

All of these tools have cheap versions and quality ones.
posted by rhizome at 11:06 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing to keep in mind is that the things that are easiest to do with machines - cut straight lines, for instance - are actually fairly hard to do with hand tools, and require practice. If you're mostly interested in getting the experience of working with hand tools, and have no particular project in mind, you might pick up a copy of Make a Chair From a Tree. Admittedly, this is a rather idiosyncratic approach as working green wood is very different from working conventionally with dry wood, but it requires only a few tools (a bit and brace, a drawknife, maybe a spokeshave, an axe and a saw) and it would give you a great feeling for what the material really behaves like. Of course you'd need a source of green wood.
posted by mr vino at 11:11 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

About tools: look around ebay, also at rural flea markets & antique stores. If they're sound (not too rusty, chipped, or bent, and with their wooden parts mostly intact), they'll clean up well and almost certainly perform better than anything you could buy at your Ace hardware or Home Depot.

If you are buying any planes, chisels, drawknives, or other edge tools (besides saws), invest in a good sharpening stone, and learn how to use it. (It will do wonders for your kitchen knives as well). Something like a 1000/4000 water stone would be a good starter.
posted by mr vino at 11:16 AM on April 26, 2014

Best answer: • set of wood chisels, Narex are good value
• jack plane, like a Stanley No. 5, cheap at any flea market
• jointer plane, Stanley No. 7 – try to find at a flea market, most of $200 new
• plane blades
• sharpening rig, lots of approaches to this, cheapest is fine diamond paper spray-glued to a piece of ¼" glass
• hand saw
• back saw
• clamps

With that and some Elmer's wood glue, you can make furniture.
posted by nicwolff at 11:16 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Power tools are great and let you do a project much faster and as you get more skilled will work with you to increase your skill and fit and finish. Early on though they mostly just let you screw up faster and ruin more lumber as you learn how to measure and cut and fit.

Get a cordless drill, about 12v should do (a corded one is also going to work just fine if your workspace has convenient plugs and a corded drill is going to be cheaper and probably work better than a cordless one). I recommend the Bosch ones, but they aren't cheap. However a drill has LOTS of uses besides woodworking and good one will last years and years of casual use assembling ikea furniture and such.

you don't want a big hammer and honestly you won't use it much. get a 10 oz ball been. The claw hammers are best for framing and using the claw to extract a bad nail will just mar your work. For most project you will want to use screws or complex joinery. The hammer will be used to lightly pound together tight joints or take them apart for more test fittings and fine tunings. A mallet is actually better for this, but not nearly as readily available and cheap.

Don't buy the cheapest crap at harbor freight but just regular stanley construction grade stuff isn't really expensive and will work fine.

get two saws-a back saw and a regular saw
get several good screw clamps-this one you can buy at harbor freight to start with, but again just a little bit more in expense will last you a lifetime. They hold better than quick clamps.
Get good quality screwdrivers-a blade and #2 philipps. Spend the money on good ones here-top of the line craftsmen or such. cheap ones are soft and may not be square and that will round off screws and be harder to twist.

I would skips planes for your first project. If you have to get a some old stanley ones off ebay or a local flea market or gun show (seriously-i see the best old tools at gunshows usually cheap). Instead buy good quality clear pine for your projects. It is sanded and squared much better than framing lumber and doesn't usually need the planing.

get a speed square to start with. Easier to use than a carpenters square and you don't need the carpenters square stuff at first and the speed square will be super useful when you start using power tools. The speed square can be clamped to the work and used as guide for both hand and power saws ensuring a clean, straight cut-which is the hardest thing to do at first.

I have used stanley chisels from the beginning. Keep them sharp and you will be fine.

and for fasteners-buy the high quality stuff. I use decking screws. Cheap ones will snap off and round out and they just suck. The cost is much different.

for the most part I agree with fladbablet, except for the Chinese saws. Buy the decent Stanley stuff-my experience is that cheaper saws dull and lose their set and become hard to cut with.

And the first thing you will need to buy as power tool is a good circular saw. When you are ready to start buying power tools pick up tauntons (DIY construction book publisher that professionals buy) tool guide and start a subscription to their fine woodwoorking magazine. and buy their books for projects. I have found they are the only ones I keep returning too for how-tos and new projects.

I started in the downstairs of my apartment about 10 years ago with very limited tools (lots of automotive tools-no carpentry tools and they aren't really dual purpose) and no space. It can be done, slowly and carefully and you will screw up a LOT at first. Hence the suggestion to start with cheap pine wood. It is really cool to hand some friends a fancy wood cradle for the first child though when you start being able to build actual useful furniture.

(and yes, Stanley stuff isn't the best anymore but it usually good enough and when you are ready for better tools you will know what you want and the stanley stuff can be used for DIY house projects)
posted by bartonlong at 11:23 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want to use screws, skip Phillips-head too and go right to square-drive. Get a Yankee or crank drill for pilot holes, and a hand brace with a driver bit – Lee Valley makes one. Get that $15 Lutz ratcheting screwdriver that's at the checkout counter at the hardware store too.
posted by nicwolff at 11:35 AM on April 26, 2014

Best answer: There's a whole book (The Anarchist's Tool Chest that explains the thought process behind putting together a basic tool chest of hand tools, plus making the chest to put them. I recommend it to anyone interested in traditional woodworking.

This is a tool list from the author of that book.

If you want to get started using hand tools you can buy from a home center, I recommend this guide to building a folding workbench using only such tools. Some kind of workbench is going to be essential. If you don't have (or make) a dedicated woodworking bench then you'll need to add a lot of clamps or vices to some other kind of bench. Woodworking is pretty much equal parts workholding, tool selection, and technique, so having all the right tools and know-how won't get you very far if you don't have a good way to hold the material you're working with.

This is another basic starting hand tool list.
posted by jedicus at 12:09 PM on April 26, 2014 [15 favorites]

I also popped in to recommend the lovely book The Anarchist's Tool Chest. Bonus Mefite connection: Schwarz is jessamyn's cousin.
posted by zamboni at 3:31 PM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Was coming here to suggest that book :) Chris's publishing company has a blog that he's pretty involved in that is worth reading along with. He tells good stories and you can get to know the community of hand-tool carpenters. They're pretty interesting. I would consider looking around you to see if there are night classes or makerspace "Make a basic bench" classes that might be a good getting-started point just to get the idea of putting things together with wood.
posted by jessamyn at 6:34 PM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: People have covered a lot of what you need, but I have one or two possible additions.

You'll want a white rubber mallet or a wooden mallet for banging on wood and tools without leaving marks. Black rubber ones leave scuff marks, and a steel hammer will cause denting and damage. You can also use a steel hammer with a block of wood in between, but if you rely on that then you're going to end up in a lot of "three hand" situations where you're trying to hold a chisel in one hand, a wooden block in your other hand, and a hammer in your third hand. A mallet is a very useful, inexpensive, and surprisingly versatile tool.

If you're going to settle down with one type of screw, I'd recommend Robertson-drive screws because they just make life so much easier than either slotted or phillips screws. Robertsons don't strip and they don't fall off the bit, and they are readily available at any hardware store along with the relevant bits and screwdrivers. You'll still need phillips and slotted drivers for taking things apart for repair, but if I'm starting my own project I go Robertson every time.

You're going to want some kind of knife, because you just are. A regular ol' retractable utility knife will generally be fine, but might I make a suggestion as to something that you might find a little more pleasant to work with? Opinels are inexpensive, beautiful in their simplicity, and extremely high quality. Some of the woodworkers I used to know back at the boatyard had them; I have one now, and it's lovely. Much better for woodworking than a utility knife.

A rasp is also a basic part of the traditional woodworker's toolkit. They're used for shaping wood freehand and for removing smallish amounts of wood from awkward spots, and often come in handy when you have two pieces of wood that you are trying to join together and they don't quite fit right for whatever reason.

I would also get a set of cargo straps, like you would use to tie luggage or perhaps a canoe to the roof rack of a car. They are inexpensive as well and make dandy strap clamps for when you need to wrap some pressure around a piece of furniture like a chair or a bureau and a regular clamp won't do the job. Oftentimes you can get away with using one or two of these instead of a whole bunch of giant bar clamps, which get expensive quickly and which probably won't see very much use.

And a power drill. Seriously. I know you want to get all therapeutic and meditative, but using a bit brace is just no fun. Take it from me; as a former wooden shipbuilding apprentice, I have probably spent more time getting intimate with a bit brace than most people you'll meet. They are an absolute bear and you will hate using them. Driving screws by hand into wood is no fun either, especially if it's hard wood and you first have to drill a pilot hole with a bit brace. There's a reason why power drills were the first powered hand tools to see widespread use: they just make life a lot nicer, by severely reducing two of the most frustrating and time-consuming tasks in woodworking.

I suggest this basic Bosch model. It's corded, which is good because that means it's lighter in the hand, cheaper, and more powerful than even a very high-end cordless model plus you never have to worry about keeping batteries charged which trust me can be a real distraction. Bosch tools are lightweight and simple and very well-made. My housemate has had that same model (a previous iteration of it, anyway) for ten years, used it on a professional basis (i.e. every day, lots of use), and it is still in spectacular condition. Best power drill I've ever used, hands down.
posted by Scientist at 8:19 PM on April 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Embrace the mantra, "Build one to throw away." If you have never made a particular $THING or used a particular technique before -- say, fitting a 90-angle joint, or gluing up a biscuit joint -- then grab two pieces of scrap and do a throw-away trial piece before you actually try it for reals with your good materials.

OK, so jessamyn is like the NEXUS of MeFi posts and famous people. I learned last week that her uncle is Peter Coyote, and here I find out that her cousin is the Anarchist's Tool Chest guy. WTH, Vermont?!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:30 PM on April 28, 2014

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