Look, I get it. Hand Tools are scary. You’re used to your Power Tools because they’re not only convenient, but you usually just pull the trigger and they go. The thought of maintaining and sharpening a Hand Tool is intimidating, but at some point, you’re going to hit a wall. There’s a price threshold where Power Tools have their limits before the task you need is going to cost more than your hobby can afford. Now what? Time to go back to basics!
Let’s have an honest conversation first. Most Power Tool users bargain buy their Hand Tools. If you buy the cheapest Table Saw, you’re going to get inferior results. If you buy the cheap set of chisels then you shouldn’t expect any different of an outcome. Just remember this… Spending several hundred dollars on a thickness planer gets you several years of good use on projects 13″ and smaller. That same money on a Bench-Plane can be passed on to your grandchildren and still give a smoother finish.
The gateway drug into Hand Tools are saws, mainly because you can actually get quality tools at an affordable price. Also, vintage saws are so common (and are still sharp!) that you can make a low risk purchase off of eBay for less than what my wife pays at Target each visit. But what kind of saw do you get?
It’s the generic saw shape you think of (and even the one in my logo) that you know and love. They have a flexible blade and larger teeth for rough cuts and breaking down material. Sure you can buy a brand new saw for under $30 at your big box store… But did you know you can buy a superior model made in the early 1900’s for the same price? Look at all the listings for Disston saws on eBay! Just be sure to buy a saw manufactured before 1940 if you’re going vintage (because of war effort metal).
One of the best resources I’ve found for buying a vintage saw is from Joshua Farnsworth from Wood and Shop. He’s even got sale links and ratings for most of the known vintage brands. Just remember, single digit TPI (teeth per inch) mean a rougher cut while 10 TPI and up leave a smoother finish. Also there’s a difference between a cross-cut saw and a rip cut, but a rip cut is more universal.
Want a complete change of pace? Japanese saws use a pulling motion to make cuts. Traditional Western Saws make their cuts on the push stroke forward. Instead of a pistol grip you get a handle and a thin kerf blade that’s extremely flexible and perfect for flush cuts. Even better, you can buy them online with a Dozuki (for dovetails) or Ryoba (double sided) for cheap.
One word of caution, because of the larger teeth and flexibility, pull saws have durability issues, especially on hardwoods. They are great for precision cutting and offer a different way to tackle projects so I enjoy mixing them into my work.
Back Saw – Tenon Saw – Dovetail Saw
Made for precision cuts, these saws are smaller and have more teeth for a cleaner finish. There will be a metal back across the top of the saw blade to keep it rigid for straighter cuts. They aren’t cheap though. You’re looking at around $100 for a quality entry level saw. If you’re dipping your toes into fine woodworking and cutting any tenons or dovetails you need to add these to your inventory.
So what’s the difference? Dovetail saws are much smaller at about 8″ and are meant for wait for it… dovetail cuts on end grain. Meanwhile, a Tenon saw is usually around 12″ and is perfect for cross grain cuts when making… wait for it again… tenons.
Out of all Hand Tools you can purchase, planes stress me out the most, but they’re also the most fun to use. The results are beautiful and honestly you feel like a real woodworker. The problem is… they’re expensive (Lie Nielsen) and maintaining them is a must. It’s a tool you invest in and it will never let you down.
This is a case where buying a cheaper mid-tier version is going to come back on you. What you saved in initial cost, you’re going to pay for with initial sharpening because you’re not going to be able to use them out of the box. Want to save money… buy a vintage plane! Wait… what do all of those numbers mean and where do you start?
#5 Jack Plane
It’s a “Jack of All Trades” and exactly why it’s named that. It’s the best all around use plane and perfect for beginners. You can use it for smoothing, leveling, jointing and bulk removal, just know it’s good at tasks but not blown away great. A low angle #62 is also a great option.
#7 Jointer Plane
It’s the longest bench plane and for good reason. With a longer sole it allows you to flatten dips on the surface and more importantly shoot the distance on the edge of your boards for accurate joinery.
#4 Smoothing Plane
Want to get a finish that’s smoother than anything sandpaper can give you? A smoothing plane is smaller and wider than normal bench planes. Your cuts leave paper thin shavings and a surface as smooth as glass.
Card Scraper – Cabinet Scraper
What if I told you that you can buy a Hand Tool for under $10 that bulk removes material and leaves a surface as smooth as a hand plane? Think I’m lying? Take a look at a Cabinet Scraper! It’s a piece of steel you pull across your work surface with sharp burr that removes material. They are super simple to maintain and a great entry hand tool to learn sharpening.
Like hand planes, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds here and be overwhelmed by the amount of maintenance you’ll need for upkeep. Just remember there are Bench Chisels, Mortise Chisels and Paring Chisels. Honestly… if you’re reading this then you want to stick with Bench Chisels as they are the most versatile and best for beginners.
You want to look for wood handles and a beveled edge. You aren’t banging these with a hammer like the plastic handled store bought version, so you’ll also want to pick up a wooden mallet for strikes. I recently purchased this kit from Narex and love them, but the Stanley Sweetheart Series is also well respected and affordable. There’s a lot of variance in price online for the same set of chisels so make sure you price shop for the best deal. Just expect to spend a minimum of $100 for a starter kit.
Did that make it better or worse? Just know that while the prices are intimidating, you also didn’t buy all your Power Tools in one sitting. Really take a look at vintage models especially if you’re just starting out. Plus, vintage tools add instant street cred (I think).
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