My Essential Tools
This is the first video I ever made for YouTube. It’s been almost a year, but it’s interesting to look back and see how little has changed in my list of essential tools.
I mostly work for myself, but I spent a couple of years working in other people’s shops and I still do an occasional day for someone else. Most production shops are very power-tool focused, which makes complete sense. But I find that those shops are SO power-tool focused that they might not have any hand tools. And since I mostly taught myself woodworking and I do a lot of operations by hand, working by machines only leaves me feeling like I’ve got one hand tied behind my back. I love woodworking machines, but I find most of them are only good at speeding up labor-intensive operations. I don’t find them very useful for delicate work, details, or anything specialized. Particularly if you’re doing one-off pieces, it often doesn’t make sense to set up a machine to do an operation. By the time you’ve made a router jig to do that joint or cavity, you could have just grabbed a chisel and skipped straight to getting the work done.
My tool box is designed to fill in the gaps that are left by machines. With a shop full of standard machines and this modest collection of tools, I can do pretty much anything. Let’s do a fast rundown of which tools I bring with me and why I think they’re essential for the job.
I can get by with just a Stanley No. 4 smoothing plane. The medium size body and mechanical adjuster on this plane makes a good enough to handle almost anything. It kind of sucks is a jointer, but you learn to make it work with practice. It’s not great for heavy stock removal, but that means the work just goes a little more slowly. For pretty much everything else, the No. 4 is perfect, and having just one well-tuned plane makes my day go a lot more smoothly.
In a perfect world, I’d also have a jack plane set up with a cambered iron. This might seem like a weird choice for power-tool shop, but you often get boards that won’t go across the jointer and still need to be straightened out. I work in one small-ish shop that has a big drum sander but only a small jointer and planer. If I’m working on a slab that’s got twist or bow, I flatten one side with the jack and then run it through the drum sander. In a situation like this, I honestly don’t know what I’d do without a hand plane.
I like having a block plane handy, especially a small, low angle model. But I can also get by without it. The No. 4 is fine for end grain and it’s small enough to do delicate work.
Marking and Measuring
Here’s another area where I find power-tool shops are often poorly equipped. Everybody’s got a tape measure, and I keep one on my belt, but I like having a handful of squares and rulers, too. You can’t beat the 12-inch combination square, especially with a center finder and a protractor head. I also keep a sliding bevel gauge for transferring angles and doing layout work. I really like having a tiny square that I can just drop in my pocket. I use the little one for most of my marking and measuring, and I also use it to set up machines and check the edges of work. In a pinch, just a 12 inch combination square will do pretty much anything you need.
I like a good, sharp pencil as much as the next person, but I just buy cheap mechanical pencils in bulk so I can skip sharpening and just have a fine point all the time. I try to buy them in the ugliest colors I can find. That way, I never have to spend very much time looking around for my hot-pink pencil. It really jumps out at me even in the middle of a cluttered bench.
Along with a pencil, I always have a marking knife. The precision of a knife-line and its ability to guide a chisel or saw make it better for lots of marking applications. Combine a marking knife with a combination square and you can lay out wood with a level of accuracy that even an engineer would like.
Most of the shops I’ve worked in do not keep any hand saws around. Some places don’t even have a flush-cut saw. It drives me crazy. Without a hand-saw, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be using power tools in unsafe ways. You’ll cut even the smallest pieces on the table saw or band saw and endanger your fingers for no good reason. There are also lots of times where you’ve got a dowel (or something) sticking out of the side of a big piece. At times like this, it’s much better to bring the tool to the work than to try and get the work up on a tool. An inexpensive gentleman’s-style dovetail saw will do details, notches, decent flush-cutting, and oh yeah, even dovetails. It’s the one saw I just can’t live without.
I can get by with four chisels in the standard sizes, but I also really like a 1/8 inch chisel for delicate work, a big carpenter’s chisel to beat on, and a gouge for scooping out waste and doing the occasional internal curve. If you already have a chisel roll, you might as well throw in a couple extra tools and make your kit that much more flexible.
Most shops have a few rasps or files sitting around, but I bring my own anyway. I like the generic four-in-hand rasp you can buy at the home-center. They’re cheap and versatile because they have two different size teeth on flat and curved surfaces. I also bring a high quality bastard file. I really like the Nicholson “handy file.” It’s a good size, and is made with an integrated handle that can’t fall off. The file is good for both wood and metal work. A rat tail file and a round rasp are nice, too, but I don’t absolutely need them.
I love a good spoke shave and it baffles me how any woodworker doesn’t own one. I prefer the Stanley 151, but I’ll take any old piece of junk as long as it’s sharp. The spoke shave’s ability to shape curves, soften corners, and make square stock round is amazing. I especially like them for smoothing and shaping the bark-side of live-edge wood work. In places where a sander would just make a mess, the spoke shave does delicate and precise work.
I bring a card-scraper and use it often. Many times, I don’t bother erasing pencil marks or layout lines on work. I just scrape them off. It’s faster and it doesn’t stain the wood.
I bring a mallet to hit my chisels with, a set of sharpening stones, a bottle of 3-in-1 oil, and a few rags. I’ve also got safety glasses, a respirator, and hearing protection. Since I first made this video, I stopped using a dust mask. I just use the respirator for everything and it seems to work better.
When I first started out, I thought I would eventually stop using some of my hand tools. I’ve even had bosses pressure me to leave them at home or to do more things on power tools. I always try to compromise and keep the peace, but there’s some things just don’t know how to do or don’t feel comfortable doing on a machine tool. And there are a lot of things that hand tools are just better at. So I bring them.