The Unasked Question – What Do I need To Become a Woodworker?

Psyching Up

To start woodworking is much simpler than you might think. The tools you need to start with are quite few and actually you may be surprised to find that even longterm users like myself generally rely on no more than say 20 or so hand tools in a given week—even if you are a full time woodworker. 

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Mark Hawkins working on his first woodworking project, a wooden spatula.

The important thing is to start out with tools built fit for purpose and that doesn’t necessarily mean buying new or the most expensive. Fact is that whatever you buy new becomes older quite quickly and the measurement of age in old tools may well mean that it was used while it was semi sharp from the maker, planed off the edge of a door and was then stowed for 40 years in a box somewhere. I bought a brand new Record 5 1/2 plane recently for £30. Of course it’s knowing which tools to buy that causes great problems and then who can advise you becomes another. We will help you with that in this series. As with most things Googled today, all roads lead to sales staff, sales pitches and sales outlets. You can’t escape it. They are the ones with the bigger bucks and their shout clouts the loudest. This relative newcomer to the world of woodworking has replaced the magazines who also were and are greatly influenced by sales and ad space buyers influencing content in different ways. Not a good place for a first stop. Better to consider going there when you know what to want to buy. I find it has definitely become more problematic finding core information even from knowledgeable artisans because their (our) personal views are already pretty much formed on the one hand or influenced by trends on the other, but also in many cases their being sponsored too and that often confuses issues. It was partly for this reason that I decided to write Essential Woodworking Hand Tools. It became for me the book that was never written and it was intended to bridge the gap between the dearth of the crafting artisans I grew up with and the generation that will never apprentice in the fortunate way I was privileged with.

Essential Woodworking Hand Tools
I so loved writing this book knowing it would be reaching into the future lives of yet-to-be-born woodworkers.

Dismantling the sources of misinformation has become standard for me. Magazines and tool reviews usually have no critical depth because they are usually side by side comparisons and you have no idea of the experience of the users. They also test tools in a test tube circumstance of isolation rather than long term on the job day in day put. More information comes via forums which I tend to trust more because most of the contributors are answering from their encounter whatever the level they are at and that can be quite valuable. So it’s not to diss other sources so much as to supply information that will cut to the chase and get you out into the workshop that I have chosen to follow up with this; starting out with what I see as a solid foundational course. With the right hand tools and some good information you will discover that woodworking is relatively simple and quick to learn. The woodworking hand tools you need are relatively inexpensive if you follow the right guidelines and you are willing to put in some of your own sweat-equity. What you need to get started in woodworking is a quality of tools equal to the task, a knowledge of what tools and equipment to start out with, a knowledge of sharpening tools and an understanding of how the tools work in the wood.

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So many saws, so little time, Which saw to choose?

Along the way you will feel the differences between the woods you try out in the making of some projects. Make a spatula from six different woods and you gain understanding through six often quite different experiences. You learn about the character and nature of those woods and you will also learn that the tools do respond differently to them too. With some woods the coping saw will work more effectively than say a plane, a spokeshave or a rasp. What tools you need depends very much on what you hope or expect to make. Foundational projects are usually projects designed to develop certain skills and techniques using particular tools. This knowledge can only be attained in the working of the different woods. This is what we call relational knowledge; knowledge that can only be gained from relational working and, in this case, with that particular wood and then the particular tools you work it with.

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A mixture of different woods will quickly give a better understanding of the character they each have. Soon you begin picking your wood according to your own knowledge and experience.

This is very different than reading about the wood and the tools or even watching a video on them. This is purely experiential. By experiencing the interaction of the tools and the wood first hand we begin to amass experiential knowledge in relational ways.

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My racks of different stock woods have grown through the years and offcuts are a good resource for smaller projects.

Our minds then are perfectly capable of storing such information in an archival way—so as to draw on the information as we progress into establish woodworking as our chosen craft. This kind of knowledge cannot be archived for others to use. It is personally derived, experienced, stored, and then retrieved according to appropriateness.

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These are not all the tools you will need longterm but you will be surprised how much you can make with only these tool types. Beds, all types of tables, boxes of every shape and size to name just a few.

So asking what you need to get started in woodworking is both simple and complex. What makes it especially simple though is if you choose to make things primarily by hand. Hand tool woodworking minimises the footprint we need to work our material. With using hand tools we need only a few square feet to create even large pieces of work. To start out though it is unlikely that a large piece of work will be the best course to take. A spatula on the other hand needs only 6 hand tools, a workbench and vise and a short section of wood. That makes sense, but you will be surprised to see that making something like a chair too needs mostly the same things. It is only when you come to assembly that the need for more space becomes a consideration. That said, even a rocking chair needs no more than the surface area of the workbench you’ve already been using and the space you’ve been standing in around the vise area. It may be hard to imagine but the tools it takes to make a spatula are also some of the same tools you would likely use to make the rocking chair. The spatula takes 7 hand tools and the rocking chair shown takes 15. As you progress into starting out, additional tools can be accumulated and the pit is usually buying unnecessary tools in our (or another’s) enthusiasm to progress our endeavour. I think that the spirit of the original question is important and the word ‘need’ in particular.

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Again, no more than 15 tools and you have a complex rocking chair as a family heirloom. This is a project we are currently filming for woodworkingmasterlasses.com . Out in just a few weeks time.

The tools needed to build just about anything will actually be no more than say 30, probably. Whereas I have enjoyed building my collection of user tools to number in the thousands, in the day to day of life I still use no more than ten in any given day. Specialist tools have their place of course they do, but these are accumulated based on your experience as you grow in creating particular pieces on a regular basis. the tools you eventually buy may well be quite different to mine.

Chicken or Egg

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My most basic workbench here is very comprehensive, easy to build, totally functional and will suit the demands of the most demanding woodworker and furniture maker. Even beginners can tackle this.

Workbenches are the central hub around which our work centres. It’s where we stow tools not in use and the tools in use too. If the workbench is the central hub then the vise becomes our anchor. Rarely will we stray two feet from this pivotal point, so again, the question stirs within us, “What do I need to get started in woodworking?” So we see here that for us, the tools we use and the materials we work, though optimally important, are rendered near to useless without the workbench and the vise.

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One great vise and having recently worked using a wide range of benches with an equally diverse range of vises I have grown to appreciate why these vises knocked out all of the others. Don’t be fooled, these QR vises are the best, the simplest and the quickest of all.

You can’t work at the bench without tools and you cannot make the workbench without them. You must develop skills before you make the workbench, so, what a dilemma! Let’s first discuss the initial steps in the excitement of beginning woodworking. Let’s buy the basic tools first. A temporary workbench can always get us started and one time I held a hands-on workshop for 30 kids gathered around a dozen workbenches in the Texas Hill Country in the USA.  P1250807A good and solid picnic table like this will help you begin, and a vise can readily be attached to one. Just about any mass of wood configured with bracing works.P1250808 You can also use a few clamps to anchor things too as well. Of course before too long you will want a dedicated workbench. We can talk about that in the mix of getting started soon.

We are now ready to start the series, in answering the specific question we began with. If you know someone that will benefit from this series, please pass on the info to them.

17 comments on “The Unasked Question – What Do I need To Become a Woodworker?

  1. > A spatula on the other hand needs only 6 hand tools…..The spatula takes 7 hand tools and the rocking chair shown takes 15.

    The spatula added a tool in the course of a paragraph!

    I’m very much looking forward to this series. I’ve been a hobby woodworker for a while, with a mix of hand tools and power tools, and with a mix of home repair, furniture making and spoons and bowls.

    Some of what I learned came from high school shop class, but most of it has been from forums and trial and error.

    I’m at the point now where I kind of know what I don’t know, and I realize that I need to go back and build a better foundation under all the stuff I’ve already been trying to do.

    • A big smiley sticker to Michael for catching a meaningless mistake! Keep working on those bowls and I’ll bet a clever lad like you will learn to use all seven tools in no time!

  2. Paul,
    This is a bit off topic and I apologize, but will you be doing a video series on how to build that picnic table you have show in your latest 2 blog postings? It looks fantastic and seems like a fun build.

    Thanks for all the on-line content.

    Brett

  3. Thanks Paul. I think the photos are really helpful. A year ago I started hand wood working. As you pointed out, it didn’t really take much to get started. Toss in a birthday, Christmas, and maybe $150 a month, I now have a solid set of tools with little need for anything else at the moment. Somewhere between 5 and eight feet against a wall and a piece of peg board in front of me is all I need. I can even work quite comfortably with car in the garage. Your projects have been quite helpful to give me work to do. There is lefty of room for improvement in what I’m making but still I am quite proud of the finished product.

    • Micheal-
      While I can’t say from a professional stand point, as an amateur woodworker I have to say it works quite well. I have gone from not knowing what many of these tools were to using them quite effectively. And between Paul’s blog and the WWMC videos he does a very good job of generating very real expectations about work, time, and viability as a career.

  4. Over the past couple of years I have read a whole bunch of these blogs. With this one you have, or will have, hit a home run. And with all the new people that will probably be tuned in it will be with bases loaded.
    In this blog I counted 16 hand tools. Then I went back. The tools are sitting on a workbench and in the forground is a Eclipse quick release vice like the one I have. I’m getting old.
    In a earlier making a woodworking bench series Paul most of the time you used saw horses. Even a person has to buy a pair of horses, you never have too many. Well may be 100 would be too many but 99 would be OK.
    Looking forward to the series,
    Thanks Paul

  5. Paul, thank you, I look forward to this series. Your Essential Woodwoking Handtools book is excellent, as I’m sure this blog series will be as well.

    Beyond the tools, I’ve considered my own path as a hobbyist. I started with power tools, as that seemed to be the prevailing order of things in most retail woodworking stores and even the “how to” woodworking books. Transitioning to mostly hand tools over the last 3 years, I’ve come to appreciate the craft beyond a cut and glue process.

    I considered what it took to get into hand tools, and the characteristics necessary. I think it has come down to 3 things for me. The first is a real desire to make something from raw materials. The need to create. The second and third go a bit hand in hand being patience and discipline. Without these core traits, woodworking – or any artisan activity – would be frustrating and fruitless. I wasn’t always the most disciplined nor patient, but it has greatly improved, driven by the desire to create well.

    I do believe without some inherent measure of all of these characteristics, an artisan career is out of the question. Perhaps this instant gratification, computerized solution society has conditioned a declining desire for craft work.

    I applaud your effort to show clearly, that if the desire it there, getting started isn’t overwhelming by any means.

  6. Interesting insight as always. I can very much relate to buying with enthusiasm and a keenness to run before walking, I have built up over the years and now am polishing my collection as much as anything. A couple of beading planes here some carving gouges there and my latest investment of long pairing chisels. All of these I have gotten on fine with for years but this craft is a bit like a drug and it’s very enjoyable to continue building my collection as long as they still see the light of day and don’t rot in a draw or on a shelf somewhere. Thanks gents it’s a real pleasure to be part of this loop keep it coming

  7. I’m just starting out with woodworking and I’ve had this same thought recently. Would I like to have a full workshop of tools like Paul has…. of course… who wouldn’t. The problem for me, and I’m sure a lot of others, would not only be cost but if I go buy that many tools and try and learn so many different things I think it would be too much and I know I’d get discouraged. So far, before every project, I’ve asked myself… What tools do I think I need to do this? Do I have all the tools? Can I do this project without all the tools on my list? Can I make something to do the job? So far I’ve allowed myself to purchase one new tool every time I start a new project. It may take a while to get a full usable set of tools but I think I’ll be able to properly learn the techniques of using these tools and, if I add to my collection slowly, I should still have a marriage at the end of this. 🙂
    I guess the other good thing is I’m not starting this journey totally new. I have always tinkered with things and during school we did have a “tech ed” class where I built a wooden wall clock, which I still have. It’s a sad project but I was pretty proud of it. The teacher we had back then was not too enthused to be there so really didn’t encourage much but I still came out of that class always wanting to take thing apart and seeing how they work.
    I’m just hoping this journey takes me a long time. It’s only been about 6 months since I started watching Paul’s videos but this whole woodworking thing is eye opening. I’ve been saying for years I wanted to try traditional woodworking but just had no idea how to start other than fumbling my way through, which I was doing. Unfortunatly, around here, this way of building is kind of unheard of.
    Now it’s time to start waking up and have a few more buckets of tea. 11 year anniversary today for my wife and me. Maybe I should make something for her…. or I can just not bug her today. that’s probably enough of a gift. 🙂

  8. Thanks Paul for another fascinating post. I think another unasked question is where to get decent wood. I moved to Long Island NY from England and really miss my local English saw mill. All I can find here is house framing stock. Has anyone ordered wood online? I’m slightly afraid to buy wood I haven’t seen and handled first.

    • If you live near the city, you can try either Rosenzweigs or the LeNoble lumber yard. Both have an impressive array of furniture grade, and will let you pick through the piles if your neat and friendly. If you like reclaimed wood, there’s M. Fine Lumber in Queens. Re-Co Brooklyn has a nice selection of local slabs. There are other yards around the city if these don’t have the material you’re looking for.

  9. Paul looking forward to these series as well, and your New Book is a great aiding tool, it is right at the top of the best wood working books out there, and I have many ( to many ). I haven’t bought a magazine in over 2 years because of what you share and offer, no advertisements. You are a tremendous teacher and I have learned a lot.

    I am trying to encourage and introduce my Grandkids to working with wood and build a set of hand tools for them. I have not been able to work in the shop much this year because of illness and surgery’s but am on the mends. The first thing we will build is your tool tote to house the tools I am giving them.

    Steve

    Steve

  10. Having enough hand (and pwr) tools never happens. I have learned to make do with very few, these projects are very interesting and open up great ideas. Woodworking kinda gets in ones veins. I have made a few things out of old pallets and scraps, which didn’t require a lot of tools. Now I would like to make something bigger.
    jw

  11. Hi Paul

    I just wanted to thank you for your book on essential hand tools. It is a great read. It’s refreshing to see someone who sees woodworking the way it should be. I built a wall clock in shop class in highschool and it was good but even then I craved using hand tools to work with. Everything had to be done by machine as it was to be the best.

    That said I have enjoyed the blog posts and the videos. I am looking forward to doing the projects.

    My wife always wonders why I buy old tools. The reason is the older tools run better and last longer and are easy to use. She has started to see that it takes less effort to use them and always work regardless of whether the power is on or off. I can always rely on them.

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