It’s a question that we’re asked weekly, and whilst I’m often babbling on about specific tools, I wanted to use this post to bring together a list of the essential stuff that will get a beginner going.
You probably know that I like to use minimal tools throughout my woodworking.
It’s an approach that I’ve always taken, so for anyone looking to get started with hand tools, I want to make something clear, a basic kit can be a preference not just a budget restraint.
For most projects these days, I’ll go start to finish with just a handful of tools, but I have many others that are simply sat unused.
There was a time when I’d surround myself like a collector, with saws hanging by the bench and moulding planes holding one another up along shelves, like books.
It was a humble collection of tattered hand me downs, but there was a tool for every job and most worked a treat.
Moving workshop can teach you a lot about how much sawdust you produce, even when you only use hand tools. It was mounded up on the tools, showing they’d been doing a great job at looking pretty and nowt more.
With only space for the essentials while the new workshop got set up, the rest went in to storage.
Several years on and it seems those essentials really are all you need.
I’ve built workbenches, beds, tables, big things and small. All at pace, and all with a pretty meagre set of hand tools.
I like a minimal kit because it’s simple.
There’s less to be familiar with, look after and store.
But I also believe that using less tools is a great way to learn.
When building a project for a video I’ve always been mindful to use only dead basic stuff.
I think it’s important for beginners to see that woodworking well by hand has nothing to do with having the best set up.
Watching stuff get built in this way should help a complete beginner get the gist of what they need pretty quickly. Or at least that’s the idea.
Buying stuff is a headache at the best of times, and then you try asking the good old internet for some help and it gets more confusing, more costly and best put off for another day.
Last week I tried to buy a microphone. I don’t know what’s good or care how they work, I just wanted to get something that would arrive, plug in and get on with the job.
I gave up before making a decision.
What I need was for someone to understand my needs, and tell me what to get.
So that’s what I plan to do here, but with hand tools (not any of that techno shite).
The Essential ‘Getting Started’ Hand Tools
I’m keeping the list brief and prescriptive, because I feel that’s the clearest way to advise.
It’s a cost effect kit, that will get you building start to finish all by hand.
Your Bench Plane
A No.5 Jack with a couple of irons (one iron’s for coarse shavings, and the other for smooth).
By Jack plane I’m referring to standard bench plane with a length around 12″ – 15″.
Personally I love the old Stanley No.5, but you can also get them new from several brands, and there’s also the option of going wooden with the ECE Jack which is very cost effective.
It’s easy to dump a lot of money setting up with hand planes. Different sizes, different uses etc.
My suggestion is to get to know this one plane. It will teach you so much, and you may never need anything more
Your Set of Chisels
I’d say get a set of three chisels. One up to 1/4″ wide (6mm), something around 3/8″ up to 1/2″ (9 – 12mm) and one around 3/4″ (19mm) or a little over.
These are the sizes that will get you going, and you can add to that as you need to.
Go for bevel edge and fairly stout, then they’ll do ought.
Measuring & Marking Tools
- You need a combi square.
- A little 6″ rule. (These are too cheap and handy not to buy, particularly for when you’re laying out joints and stuff like that.)
- Marking knife (Japanese knives are excellent),
- Tape measure,
- Marking gauge.
Your Joinery Saw
Saws are a funny one.
If you’re planning anything with lovely exposed joinery then you will have to spend on something decent.
For your first joinery saw, if you’re not sure which way to go, I’d look at a Japanese back saw. They’re quite cost effective, and disposable (so you won’t need to sharpen it). Don’t worry, they last ages.
If you’ve got a bit more money then consider something like a Veritas tenon saw.
Always go rip cut.
Your Panel Saw
You’ll want a cheap plastic handled hardpoint saw that’s got rip capability.
These are remarkably useful and can even tackle your joinery on cuts that either won’t be seen, or will be cleaned up with your plane.
You might need to try a few of these saws to find one that you like, but at least you won’t need to learn to sharpen a great big Diston.
A current favourite of mine is the orange handled Irwin, that you’ll find pretty much anywhere in the UK.
You’ll learn to sharpen those lovely Distons one day, but you don’t need to know how to sharpen a saw to get in to woodworking.
That’s the point here, it’s about learning the vital skills, with the vital tools, and the rest will come when needed.
For Hitting Stuff.
A Thor mallet (or alternative). I’ve written about my choice of mallet here.
You’ll need some means to drill some holes, so that’ll be an eggbeater, or my favourite – a small cordless.
Despite the mystery, sharpening edge tools (that’s your plane irons and chisels) is easy, and doesn’t need much of a set up.
A double sided Norton oil stone would be my pick here.
That’s Your Basic Kit Sorted.
On top of that there may be a flat screwdriver to adjust tools, and a 16oz – 18oz claw hammer will be useful if you plan on nailing, but these things can be had dead cheap and found locally.
With this tool kit you can build the vast majority of things, but don’t forget you’ll still need something to work off.
All of these tools can only be used if you’ve got a good workbench. A sturdy bench is essential for woodworking by hand.
This doesn’t have to be expensive. Don’t follow the trend of building a glamourous workbench, It’s a trend that will set you back six months to a year while you build it.
And then you’ll be working on your Workmate anyway, because you daren’t use your beautiful bench.
To use your workbench you’ll need a vice, and I’d complete it with a holdfast or some pinch dogs (or a cut nail or a bench knife). These are in the workholding category of tool and will be extremely useful.
I’m not sure if these are a tool, but they’re very handy for fuss free glue ups.
A couple of G-clamps mid sized, maybe three to four F-clamps, between 2′ – 3′ long will get you going.
Clamps are a strange one, you’ll build them up gradually as you need them, then gradually stop using them as you learn how to not need them. Sounds odd but you’ll know what I mean one day.
I’ve got about nine hundred clamps all in storage (not exaggerating), and there’s about two and a half in the workshop at the minute.
The Extras That Are Nice To Have
A bevel – because you need to find some angles. These are cost effective, you’ve just got to find a decent one.
Router plane – This is a specialist plane, but one that’s extremely handy to have around. It’s the first of the luxury tools that I’d buy.
A coping saw – This will come in if you’re doing any curved work, although a chisel can often replace this.
What About Other Specialist Planes?
I wouldn’t look at anything other than the router plane.
Anything can be done with a chisel and you’ll get good very quickly by taking this approach.
Chopping a groove for a drawer base for example; a plow plane’s beautiful to have, but if you don’t have one you can chisel it, and it doesn’t take as long as you think.
A block plane? Yea they’re handy, but I haven’t touched one in three years.
And if someone says you need a No. 8, shove it up their arse.
Are These The Right Hand Tools For Your Project?
Of course it’s very hard to recommend the perfect starter set because your requirements alter depending on the projects you have in mind, but the above tools will allow you to build everything we’ve made so far in our various Video Series.
By the time you’ve got to grips with this basic set of hand tools, you’ll have learnt so much that you’ll know exactly what you need to buy next. If anything at all.
You’ll see a lot of these types of posts and videos on YouTube etc, so why should you be listening to this one?
I’ve made my living with these tools, nothing’s there for the sake of it, and nothing’s missing. If you don’t believe me, you only have to look at my bench top.