A BASIC CHEST OF
by John T. Kramer
copyright 1990 John Kramer
One of the questions often asked and discussed at shows
and seminars is what basic tools are needed to get started in
woodworking, or basic repair of antiques; or to add the hand
touches to machine work so that the finer look of old work is
Those just considering taking up the working of wood find
a bewildering array of tools; some highly specialized some of
multiple purposes. When first starting out the broad selection is
confusing. Also when first beginning one seldom knows exactly
what type of work they are going to find most appealing. It is
easy to invest large sums of money in a selection of power tools
of limited use or unsuited to the work finally settled upon.
The selection I am proposing is primarily comprised of
hand tools, the selection is broad enough that nearly any type of
general wood working may be efficiently completed. Once the
worker has focused in on the specific types of work of greatest
interest then they will be more aware of the specialized power
tools needed to speed and ease the work.
Even in a well equipped power shop it will be found that
if only one item is to be built the hand tools will often do the
work as quickly as taking the time to set up the power tools; for
repetitive functions in large projects or when making many of the
same item the set up time is amortized.
Whenever there is a choice always chose wood handle tools,
they feel better in the hand and if they are properly tuned
before use blistering will be less of a problem. Scrape or sand
any factory finish off the handle and then sand in the direction
of the grain until very smooth. Apply several coats of a natural
hand rubbed oil finish like the finish feeder recipe in a
previous article or my "Antique Improver" with 4/0
steel wool. Allow at least a day between coats. Periodically wipe
tools down with finish for best appearance.
Lubricate and protect surfaces of steel or iron tools with
sweet oil or "Antique Improver". Lubricate moving parts
with sweet oil only. Lubricate cutting edges and metals
contacting wood with beeswax.
The best tools available are none too good. It is better
to buy the best tool available once, it will work better than the
cheaper tools and in most cases will never need replacement. All
of the tools listed are available new from the specialty
suppliers like Woodcraft Supply, Constantine's, Garret Wade and
others. If you can find old tools in good condition they will
usually be better than the new tools, one reason is that tools
that have been "run in" (used for a while) work better
than brand new. The differences are subtle and not noticed by the
novice, the new tools are excellent and the old tools are not
only difficult to find but generally more expensive.
Claw Hammer - Choose one of about 16 ounces with a wood
handle. Heavier hammers are best used for framing of buildings,
handles of other materials will transmit more shock to the wrist
and elbow and are more tiring.
Warrington Pattern Hammer - Choose one of about 8 ounces.
A French or German joiners hammer would be a good substitute.
Used for cabinet work and starting small brads without smashing
thumbs and fingers.
Raw Hide Mallet - Choose the largest one you can find.
Used whenever it is necessary to strike the wood without marring
and denting; disassembly of finished work, assembly of tight
parts, setting plane irons, &c.
Hand Saws - Choose two; one of 6 or 8 point and one of 10
or 12 point. Used for cutting to length and ripping to width. Buy
the best you can find.
Backed Saw and Miter Box - At least one no more than 16
inches long with teeth cut no less than 15 to the inch. Used for
precise trimming like cutting dovetails and tenons as well as
Reversible Offset Saw - Used for trimming flush to a
surface in through mortise and tenon & dowel joinery.
Coping Saw - Used for small tight decorative cutting.
Turning Saw - A bow or framed saw with a rotating thin
blade. Used for making curved cuts. Similar to a coping saw but
for larger work
MEASURING & MARKING
Folding Rule - Used for measuring and layout. A modern
retractable metal tape may be used choose one with a blade at
least 3/4" wide. Use the same rule throughout the work to
insure consistent measurement.
Tri-Square - Buy the best quality you can find. If large
work is contemplated a two foot framing square would also be
needed. Used for squaring the ends of work and marking true cut
Scribe & Striking Knife - Used for marking out the
Wing Dividers - Used for stepping off distances, drawing
mortise and tenons, drawing arcs and circles. A mortising gauge
is a good addition if much mortise and tenon work is
Calipers - Used for measuring thickness.
Scrub Plane - Used for dimensioning (thinning) stock and
removing any excess material quickly.
Smoothing Plane - Used to remove marks left by the scrub
plane and for final leveling cuts before scraping.
Joining Plane - Used to bring edges and surfaces perfectly
flat or true, also called a try plane, truing plane or jointer.
Toothing Plane - Used to prepare surfaces for glue, also
called a keying plane.
The above planes are basic to all work. There are hundreds
of other more specialized planes available i.e., rabbiting,
tongue & groove, moulding, dovetail, bullnose, etc. A jack
plane is of limited use unless combined with a miter jack.
A 3/8" modern hand drill is basic to every shop
choose the best cord or cordless model you can afford. Purchase a
selection of brad point bits as well as twist bits and speed bore
bits. As the work progresses a brace and bits, geared hand
drills, yankee drills and larger capacity electric hand drills
will be found useful. For precision work nothing beats a drill
press and Forstner style bits. Specialized bits for drilling
tapered holes and even square corner holes are available. A drill
press would be one of the first large power tools purchased for
Some of the first tools invented were drills. Those who
wish to begin making some of their own tools would be well
advised to begin with drills to gain an appreciation of how work
used to be done. Hand drills, pump drills and bow drills with
bifurcated bits were among the first, as were burn augers. Those
with blacksmithing skills can spend many enjoyable hours making
pod augers, spoon augers, twist bits, tapered bits and more.
Buy the best set of mortising or firmer chisels available;
sizes should range from 1/4" to 1". Buy a good set of
coarse, medium, fine and extra fine bench stones for sharpening.
Buy a matching set, in the same range of sizes, of gouges.
Buy a set of slips for deburring the inside curve of the tools.
Many more specialized chisels are available for specific
purpose buy them as they are needed.
RASPS & FILES
Purchase a set of flat, half round, and round rasps and
files in as many sizes and grades of cut as can be found. The
rasps are used exclusively on wood for shaping and removing
excess stock. Files can be used for sharpening and shaping tools
as well as on the wood and auxiliary hardware.
Treat these tools with great care and they will serve you
for many years, never allow one to touch the other make racks and
always return them to their individual place of storage. NEVER
just throw them all in a box or drawer. Cheap files and rasps are
of no use.
Cabinet scrapers can be bought or made from old saw
blades, they are used for final smoothing of surfaces. Many
different shapes will be found useful depending upon the
individual work. They are sharpened with files and then the edge
turned with a burnisher. The new tools for automatically
sharpening and burring scrapers will be found very useful by most
people new to the use of scrapers.
Glue scrapers are handle mounted scrapers for removing
excess glue from edge joints.
When other than square or flat shapes are required a
variety of tools come into use. Moulding planes are used to cut
patterns over a long run of work. Scorps and inshaves are used
for hollowing work as in seat bottoms. Draw knives are used for
rough rounding of work. Spoke shaves are used for fine rounding
of work; they should be available in flat, round and concave
bottom designs. Many other shaping tools are available and will
be found useful.
These are used when working with wood which has not been
sawn to dimension (logs). Included would be cant hooks, log dogs,
peaveys, felling axes, broad axes, crosscut saws, froes, adzes,
splitting wedges, gluts, beetles or commanders, mauls, bark
spuds, slicks, pit saws, and etc.
Little useful work can be done without some support on
which to do the work. A great many devices have been developed
over the centuries for specific types of work, particularly when
working wood in the rough. For most of the work we do a work
bench is in order. At the least a couple of broad top saw horses
or saw tables should be made. One of the modern folding work
benches is a little better than none. A solid core door on sturdy
legs can be a good work surface. The best is a full size solid
wood cabinetmakers bench with integral vises. Many designs are
commercially available and books are in print showing a good
selection of work benches you can make yourself. This is no place
to scrimp select the largest size which fits into your work area.
The best vise you can afford will make all of the other
tools more useful. Mounted on a sturdy work bench everything else
is eased. A 12" cabinetmakers vise with quick release is
nearly minimum. The integral vises on top quality commercial work
benches are a joy. The multi purpose imported vises that turn
nearly any surface into a work bench are good for the small shop
or for carrying to a job site. By studying old work benches a
nearly unlimited variety of clever devices for holding the work
by friction and wedges can be duplicated.
THe worth of a cabinetmaker is known by the number of his
clamps; is an old saw very close to the truth. You will never own
too many in too broad a variety. A minimum selection would
include a couple of each size parallel jaw wood clamps, four
3/4" pipe clamps, and a few spring jaw clamps in various
sizes. Other clamping can be done effectively with makeshift
tools: Rope and sticks can be used to clamp odd shapes, go bars
can provide down pressure for large flat surfaces, clothes pins,
rubber bands, string and much more can provide much of the
clamping necessary to good work.
Holdfasts, dogs, wedges, cleats, claves, cauls, joiners
dogs, screw clamps, jigs, pegs, and many other clamping devices
have been invented over the centuries all are useful and worth
study. Clamps are another good point for beginning tool makers to
The variety of modern power tools is nearly limitless.
Again quality is paramount a cheap tool is seldom of minimal use.
Be certain the tool is truly needed else a large investment may
gather dust. Combination tools can benefit a small shop but, are
never as satisfactory as dedicated tools.
One of the first to consider is a table saw, a radial arm
saw is not a substitute and is actually a tool of limited
A band saw is another early purchase and is a versatile
Turning is a very satisfying form of work which can easily
decorate even the simplest work. Many different lathes can be
purchased yet the lathe is a tool readily built in the shop. A
treadle power lathe made entirely of wood can do anything a
commercial lathe can do except hurt you real bad. There is a
great deal of satisfaction doing work on a tool you built rather
than one you just bought.
Consider carefully and study the tools available before
investing money in something you will be using extensively or
working around for many years to come. Some tools are not worth
carrying home even if they are free.
There are many good books available for additional study
of tools. Eric Sloane's "A Museum of Early American
Tools" is good for a beginning. Roy Underhill's companion
books to his PBS series "The Woodwright's Shop" are
excellent. Several books on the use of contemporary tools are