Every trade has its tools, and woodworking is no different. Any craftsman knows that the right tool for the project is critical in manufacturing a quality end product in a timely manner. Here is a tally of the top 20 tools every woodworker should think about owning:
Hand Tools You Must Have
Hand tools get their power from your muscles. They’re power tools, but not electrical power. Here is a pretty comprehensive list of hand tools that every woodworker or cabinet maker should think about having in his shop:
The Claw Hammer
Let’s start with perhaps the most basic tool in every household – the claw hammer. The claw on one side of the head should be well counterbalanced by the finished head, which should be somewhat rounded. The other kind of head is the waffle-head. Most commonly used in construction, it leaves a distinctive waffle mark on the wood when you drive the nail. This, of course, is not the proper nail for woodworking.
A poorly-balanced claw hammer will twist in your hand, making it difficult to drive nails properly. You normally grip a claw hammer with your hand at the back of the grip, letting the weight of the head do most of the work. All you have to do is direct the driving surface toward the right nail, sparing the ones on your hand.
The most commonly purchased claw hammer is the 20 oz. size. It’s heavy enough to easily drive nails but easily manipulated when pulling nails. While wooden handles are picturesque, they may not stand up to the strain if you have to pull a lot of nails. Hammers with a steel handle, or even fiberglass, will be stronger. However, these won’t absorb the vibrations from driving nails the way a hickory handle will. You’ll also need to make sure the fiberglass and metal handles have a rubberized grip for control and comfort. If you’re going to be driving a lot of nails, the wooden handled hammer will be better for reducing stress on your hand, and wrist, too.
The Tape Measure
The next important hand tool for the woodworker is an accurate tape measure. Get a retractable one that is at least 25 feet long. Any longer than that, and you start having problems getting it to roll back up. Since measurements on large scale projects can be very susceptible to even the most minute measurement variations, you’ll want to make sure the “hook” or tab at the end of the is firmly attached, with no give. When they get loose, you’ll have as much as 1/8” variation in your measurements. This can add up to some severe accuracy problems in the long run.
The Utility Knife
A good utility knife is another asset for the woodworker. There are many different kinds, but the kind that uses disposable blades is the most common. The blade retracts into the grip for safety. The woodworker will use the utility knife when cleaning out mortise joints or to scribe wood, as well as many other uses.
The Moisture Meter
A quality wood moisture meter is vital to the long-term success of any woodworking project you put together. Lumber mills try to dry their batches of lumber according to the intended end product destination. That is, if the wood is harvested in the wet Northeast, but is going to be shipped to the arid Southwest, it will be dried more than wood kept in the Northeast for use by woodworkers. The success of your woodworking project, from wood flooring to kitchen cabinets to fine furniture, depends on the correct moisture content levels of the woods you use for your area of the country.
Some moisture meters have pins that penetrate the surface of the wood. This can leave tiny holes that mar the surface and require filling. Others are pin-less. They have sensing plates that scan the wood beneath. However, not all pinless moisture meters are the same – look for one that uses technology that is not affected by the surface moisture in the wood, such as Wagner Meters IntelliSense™ Technology Moisture Meters.
Your moisture meter should have settings on it that will account for different species of wood. For instance, oak is a hardwood, but ebony is an even harder density wood. If you are planning an inlay job using both types of wood, you will need to know the moisture content levels of each of the two species so that your inlay glue joints will stay intact. These different wood species have different specific gravities, which must be used or programmed into the moisture meter.
Click here to learn about Wagner Wood Moisture Meters
Therefore, you must measure each species of wood you are using in your woodworking project to verify that they are at the correct moisture content before you manufacture it into your end product.
An assortment of chisels should be part of every workbench. Chisels are not just for wood carvers. Any woodworker will need chisels to clean out joints and saw cuts. Look for chisels made of high-alloy carbon steel or chromium-vanadium alloyed steel. Hardwood grips are best, especially if they have metal caps on them. This will keep the end of the handle from becoming malformed when you hammer on it.
You’ll need a variety of sizes in ¼” increments from ¼” to at least 1½”. The smallest chisels are best for mortise work. The ¾” and 1” will be best for door hinges, and the 1½” works well for chipping out. You can even get a corner chisel that cuts a notch out of the wood with the blow of a hammer, much like a hole punch.
Most chisels are beveled on the 2 sides and on the cutting edge, but specialty chisels may only be beveled at the cutting edge. This bevel will be at 20 to 25 degrees down the length of the blade on one side, and flat on the backside. The blade will be between 4” and 7” long. Make sure you get chisels with a grip that fits your hand. If the grip is too small, you won’t be able to hold the chisel steady as you work. Be sure to use a mallet or wood hammer when you work, so that you don’t destroy the head on your chisel. Keep track of the edge caps, keep them sharp, and oil the metal now and then after you’ve used them, and they should be good for years. If you don’t have the edge caps, get a roll to keep them in. This will prevent them from bouncing around in your tool box drawers and getting damaged.
Using your chisels involves both hands. This allows for power and control of the chisel as it pares away the wood. If you need a little “oomph” behind the chisel, bump it with the heel of the off hand, or strike it with a mallet. A claw hammer will damage the butt end of your chisel, eventually splitting it if you abuse it too often.
When you sharpen your chisel, you may want to use stones rather than a grinder. You need a set of stones of increasingly fine grit to hone the blades properly. Start with the coarser grade, and end with the finest grade. You may have to moisten the stone with oil for best results. Also, remember to hone the blades away from your body.
Every woodworker needs a couple of levels. You probably won’t need one of the 6-foot levels used in construction, but 48” is a good length for many of the woodworking projects you’ll do. Usually, you’ll also need an 8” level too, usually known as a torpedo level. You’ll check the level and plum of your construction. Level means horizontal, and plumb is vertical.
Most quality levels are made of either brass-edged wood or of metal. There will be a bubble reading for level, and another one for plumb. When the bubble is exactly between the lines, you have a level or plumb surface. You can also get string levels and laser levels, but the woodworker will use these types of levels the most often.
Screwdrivers are another must-have in the woodworker’s set of hand tools. Not only will you need Phillips and slot, or flathead screwdrivers, you’ll need star drivers and Torx drivers, too. A quality construction is vital to a good set of screwdrivers. So many of them are made out of soft metal, and the first time you put any “oomph” behind them, they strip out, becoming absolutely useless.
You’ll need a long screwdriver with a square blade that is very heavy duty. This gives you a lot of torque. You’ll also need a small and medium slot screwdriver. For working on cabinets or tight places in woodworking, you’ll need a screwdriver with a thin shank so that you can reach screws that are inside of deep holes. This is accomplished with a cabinet screwdriver. Get a couple of medium Phillips head screwdrivers, and a stubby one too, for those tight places. You may also want a ratcheting screwdriver.
If your slot screwdrivers are high-quality material, you’ll be able to grind them flat when they get worn. Beware, though, that too much heat will change the temper of the metal, weakening it so that it won’t drive or draw screws. By the way, some of Dad’s tips for getting the most out of his screwdrivers:
- Use the right size blade for the screw.
- For stubborn screws, fit the driver into the screw, put as much downward pressure as you can on the screwdriver, and strike the end with a hammer. This more often than not will pop the screw loose. It also helps with screws that have stripped out.
- Put beeswax on the threads of screws before you drive screws into hardwood. If you don’t have beeswax, use soap. It makes the screws drive more easily.
- You’ll get more driving force with a shorter shank.
- Use a crescent wrench on the blade to get more torque.
- Some people can magnetize a screwdriver by holding it up and striking it with a metal bar. It realigns the molecules, making it magnetic. You can also break your screwdrivers doing this, so be careful!
- Get a pry bar. Keep it with your screwdrivers, and every time you need a pry bar, leave your screwdrivers alone!
The Nail Set
The next hand tool every woodworker should have is a nail set. In fact, you should have several sizes. They look like awls, and you use them to drive nail heads into the wood so they are flush or right below the surface. This allows you to fill the holes and prepare for staining or painting. The nail setter will usually have either a convex or concave surface to grip the nail better and keep it from sliding off and marring the wood.
The Sliding Bevel
If you’re going to be measuring a bunch of angles, a sliding bevel, or T-Bevel, will be a handy tool. This is adjustable, and you can lock it at the angle you want to mark, making it much more time-savvy to mark multiple angles.
The Layout Square
A layout square, or combination square, comes in 6” and 12” sizes. Most woodworkers use the 6” model, simply because it’s easiest to carry around. Also, most of the stock you’ll use will be no bigger than 6” wide, so 12” is overkill. The layout square is a triangle that you can use to mark square cuts on stock. Once you measure the length of the cut, you line up the layout square with the edge of the board. The short side will give you a straight, square cut across the end grain. You can also measure off angles with the layout square. This helps when you’re trying to measure for a bevel on a table saw, or marking a cut for a miter saw. You can even use your layout square to determine an existing angle. Just be sure to buy one made of metal. The plastic ones are not only fragile, but they also can warp, making them pretty useless.
The Block Plane
A block plane is a key to versatility in your woodwork. You can flatten a piece of wood, add a curve to it, or square your work. Shape or chamfer your stock using a block plane. Once you have a piece dovetailed, you can smooth the joint with your block plane, rather than spend endless time sanding. Your plane can ease the edges of a piece, taking the sharpness out of it.
It is most important to make sure the blade of the block plane is sharp. Use a little bit of oil on the sharpening stone and hold the bevel flat against the stone. Raise the heel a little, and hone it. It will form a burr, but that’s OK. Just turn the blade over and rub it on the stone on the flat side. It will remove the burr. A cap screw holds the blade in place, and this is where you adjust the depth of plane you want to cut.
If you’re performing fine work, you’ll measure the blade at about 1/64”. For more general work, you’ll go with as much as 1/16”. Roll the pressure from the back of the plane to the front as you complete the cut so that you don’t end up with arching. If you’re going to plane end grain, plain both ends toward the middle to keep from tearing up the outside edge.
A set of calipers is a must for fine-tuning your woodworking projects. You can even get digital calipers now that leave no guesswork as to whether you were inside or outside the line. Of course, the metal ones are always recommended over those made of plastic, even though the plastic ones are cheaper.
Calipers have a double “F” appearance. To one side is a large “F”, used to measure the outside of an object. To the other side will be a smaller “f”, used to measure the inside of openings. You loosen the screw to move the lower “lip” of the caliper, then tighten the screw into place when you have the caliper placed correctly.
You’ll use the inside calipers to measure slot diameters, hole diameters, and dado widths, among other things. There is also a depth gauge in the end of calipers that will allow you to measure the depth of slots and holes. You just rest the end of the caliper on the edge of the hole and twist the thumbscrew until the probe reaches the bottom of the hole. Then, you can take your reading. If you need to measure the exact thickness of something attached to a flat surface, you can use the calipers to determine the thickness by placing the butt of the caliper end against the flat surface, and use the inside caliper lip that’s closest to your hand to record the surface of the item you’re measuring. The distance from the backside of that caliper lip to the end of the caliper is the thickness of the piece you’re measuring.
While calipers will measure up to 1/1000ths of an inch, you won’t need that kind of tight tolerance. Remember that wood is an organic material, it expands and contracts with the relative humidity and with temperature fluctuations. Trimming everything to 1/1000ths tolerance will not leave the piece enough room to breathe.
Clamps are vital to the success of any woodworking project. Most woodworkers agree that you can’t have too many clamps. While they can get expensive, you don’t want to skimp in this area. You’ll need clamps for 45 and 90-degree joints, and pipe clamps to reach for long stretches. You usually purchase the pipe clamp fixtures and insert your own pipe into the fixtures to make a really strong clamp to the size you need. C-clamps and F clamps are standard, but now you can get K camps, too. The great thing about these is that they can reach a long way into your work area and clamp things in the middle of your workspace. Deep-throated bar clamps and C clamps will help with this.
You can’t get by without a selection of quick grip clamps in various sizes. These are available with spreaders of 12” or more, all the way down to micro-mini clamps for toy construction. An edge clamp will hold laminate trim onto the edge of a counter or table top. A strap clamp will wrap around any shape, and pull the joints together. Spring clamps are handy for holding a piece steady. The main difference between quick clamps and spring clamps is that the quick clamps slide into position with one hand. When you release them, they lock into place. Spring clamps are like big clothespins.
Hand Screw Clamps are the classic-looking wooden clamps with the awl screws that you turn from both sides to get equal pressure. These are great for applying a lot of pressure on tapered or sloped pieces. Assembly square clamps do just what the name implies – they help you assemble squares. You can also get bench clamps and “dogs,” as well as other clamps and vises that attach to your workbench.
You don’t have to measure every single cut and joint if you have jigs. Most woodworkers make their own jigs. You usually use a jig with a power tool, to guide the piece through the saw. You can make a jig that your can use to cut a perfect circle. Maybe you need to make furniture with tapered legs. A jig will accomplish this, without the hassle of re-marking the angles on each leg. A dovetail jig does just that – it guides your wood as you make dovetail joints.
The Hand Saw
A high-quality hand saw should not be overlooked. In fact, a select collection of hand saws may be one of the most valuable additions to your woodworking shop. You don’t have to use a power saw on everything – in fact, you probably won’t want to. You need to be able to feel the wood’s response under the saw blade, and the saw blade’s response to the wood. Besides a coping and a tenon saw, you may want a dovetail saw and a hand miter saw, too. In fact, for many woodworkers, a fine collection of Japanese saws is the backbone of their craft.
For general use, start out with a fretsaw for woodworkers – it’s like a coping saw for wood. You need a mini saw, too, for areas in which a chisel just won’t work. Then, a good tenon saw should follow, along with a miter box that you can use with the tenon saw. Other saws, with their variety of cutting surfaces and angles, will come as the need arises.
The Feather Board
Feather boards are important for achieving smooth, quality cuts. You’ll use a feather board with all kinds of saws and other cutting surfaces to push the material past the cutting edge. You can make your own feather boards, or purchase them instead. Most woodworkers find it easier to just make them so that they suit their own needs.
The Metal Detector
No, you’re not looking for buried treasure with your metal detector. You’re looking for something that could ruin your treasures – namely, your woodworking tools. It is of vital importance to keep metal out of your cutting surfaces, or you’ll ruin blades, bits, and knives on your tools. A quick scan with a metal detector will let you know if there is a piece of screw or nail still lodged in your stock. You’ll find out anyway, it’s just nice to find out before you ruin your tools.
Furniture and Storage
Organization is important in the shop if you want to be able to find all the fabulous tools you are accumulating. This is where you get to build-to-suit your own furniture and work surfaces.
The Saw Horse
Saw horses, of course, are natural in any woodworking shop or construction site. There are actually patterns available that you can use to build your own stacking sawhorses. If you build your sawhorses properly, they’ll hold up to 500 lbs. apiece. They’re even fairly cheap to build. Your saw horses will serve countless uses around your shop, from providing backup as you saw and drill, to extending your work surface while using power saws.
The Work Bench
You’ll need a workbench, or work table, in your shop. Don’t try to be noble and make do with the table for your table saw. It won’t be big enough or stable enough, and your saw will get in the way. You can get patterns for work benches too, just like with saw horses.
Your work bench can be portable, on retracting or locking casters, or it can be fixed. It can be however you want it. There aren’t even any rules about measurements since work benches are usually based on the amount of room you may have.
If you have the room, a double-sided workbench is nice, where you can work on both sides of the table from the center of the room, or have a partner working with you. If it’s up against the wall, make sure that it doesn’t get so deep that you can’t reach stuff that gets pushed toward the wall. Then it just ends up being a piled up mess, and you can’t work on your work table. It’s up to you as to whether you have storage under your work bench or not. Just remember that you’ve got to reach everything you store under the bench.
The Tool Storage System
Tool storage is totally up to your own personal style. Some people are just messy, and leave things piled around. They simply remember that they left the moisture meter on the router table. However, think about your organizational system. You may want to build locking cabinets or open shelves. Many woodworkers display fasteners in Mason jars that they twist into lids that have been nailed to an overhead board. Others have spent too many hours picking fasteners out of the shattered remains of Mason jars and don’t like that method.
If you use a peg board for hand tools over your workbench, remember to build the workbench narrow enough for you to reach the peg board. A rolling mechanic’s tool box may be the solution to your hand tool storage, and a tackle box for fasteners. Others have hardware store-style bins for the many pieces that accompany woodworking. However, you choose to organize your tools and accessories, remember that your time on task is aided when you can find all of your tools. It’s also easier to take care of expensive equipment when you have easy access to it. And keeping your fasteners sorted and easily accessible may save you a trip to the hardware store.