Forty-four mortise and tenon joints and two housing dadoes, ten hand tools to make it.

Now that I have caught everyone up on the essentiality of sharpness, that non-sharpness is never an option, and that sharpening needs to become the rhythmic heartbeat pulsing into and punctuating the work in hand, I want us all to focus on keeping well. The sanity of joinery rests in this one reality: joinery is mostly a simple thing that puts all of the steps in a specific order. Follow the steps and the joints fit and fit well. Add this reality too. With just three joint types made with no more than ten basic and readily available hand tools, you can make almost everything you know of that’s made from wood.

A simple guitar like this needs no machine work and no more than ten hand tools. I can make it in six days.

Some things, a kayak perhaps, a guitar, a cello or such, need but one or two special, less common joints if any at all. Simplistic? No, it’s not. To cut a mortise and tenon joint you need only a wide chisel, a mallet or chisel hammer (your preference), a combination gauge, a square, a measuring tape, and a knife. You can add a tenon saw, but it is not essential for cutting tenons really. Everything you need to make a tenon and a mortise can be done perfectly well with these few tools alone. Then, to cut a dovetail joint, any type, you need the same tools plus a small-toothed saw like a gent’s saw or a dovetail saw, and a sliding bevel. With two joint types done, and then a half dozen variations on the two themes, all you have left is the housing dado, and again two or three variations on the theme there too. To cut a housing dado, the last of the three joints, you need no additional tools except perhaps narrower chisels to suit the width need of the housing dado. So here we have the reality, friends; joinery just got cheap and simple yet your joints can be of the finest quality.

A small wall clock and a big wall clock come from the cutting edges of half a dozen edge tools and some layout tools.

More tools might make it occasionally simpler but not much because it’s not complicated anyway. If you want to add in a router plane then go ahead. Nowhere else is it written before my time that the router refines tenons the way I have taught over the past four decades. Before I taught on this secondhand router planes could be had from eBay for £10. Today they go upwards from £80 and often for £120 and more. For me, the hand router is still a semi-luxury tool that can perfect the human propensity for error and inaccuracy. Does this not all amaze you? It still amazes me after half a century. With just seven to ten good, inexpensive hand tools and you are on your way. I’ll bet lots of would-be woodworkers already have half of them somewhere. As long as they don’t listen to gurus they’ll just get on with what they have and what they can find. No need to be encumbered by high-end or heavyweight tools. Alright, I will throw in a router plane for good measure.

Still only ten hand tools, everyone. No more!

So the cost without the router plane? £20 for a secondhand #4 bench plane like a Stanley or a Record pre-1965, £10 for a combo gauge, £10 for a square, £6 the knife, £10 for the chisels, £15 the chisel hammer, £3 a tape measure, £20 a gent’s saw, sliding bevel, under £10. Around £100 gets you started.

Now buy in the wood and follow our commonwoodworking.com. There are several courses, exercises, and projects to plug into, and thousands have trained with me this way.

20 Comments

  1. Robert Sullivan on 4 February 2020 at 12:07 pm

    Hi Paul, I agree with all that you say, 10 to 12 tools will make most of operations of woodworking,but you forgot to list the tools to keep the edges sharp.

  2. steve on 4 February 2020 at 12:12 pm

    Even router planes turn up for very little. I think there are still a few around here and junk shops don’t recognise what they are, particularly if they’re rusty and neglected.
    Example: Record 71 in a bucket of assorted bits and pieces – £3. It needed a big clean-up and handle refurbishment but looks and works fine now. I’ve used it on a number of projects.
    The bloke in the shop said they had never seen anything like it – they thought it might have been a coat hanger…

  3. PATRICK MURPHY on 4 February 2020 at 12:28 pm

    I expect a horde of angry Luthiers will be screaming for your blood when they read about how “simple” guitars are to make. Personally, I found it very encouraging to think I could make my own guitar. Keep up the good work.

    • Steve P on 4 February 2020 at 3:51 pm

      I recently bought a ukelele “kit” for my 16 year old daughter. She previously had no woodworking experience at all. I made a few of the clamps Paul makes on youtube for her to use, plus about 50 clothes pins with rubber bands as additional clamps. And let her do 99% of the work. Mostly an old record 151 spokeshave and an old 60 1/2 block plane i showed her how to use. I helped trim some of the critical pieces she was nervous to mess up. But other than that she did all of the work. I only helped when she asked me. Showed her how to apply shellac and she gave it several coats of shellac and it looks absolutely beautiful! Tbh, even I was intimidated at luthier work but after watching her build this I am not nearly as intimidated. Well maybe by violins…

  4. Steve P on 4 February 2020 at 12:46 pm

    I was on a forum where a guy asked what he needed to start basic hobby woodworking. The forum regulars were telling him that he MUST get a table saw, a festool domino, a bandsaw, a machine jointer, a thickness planer, a router table and router and dovetail jigs etc, a drill press , etc. I told him that if he went to an antique store and looked at any of the 100 or 200 year old furniture there, they were built with simple hand tools and pointed him to Common Woodworking. And people thought I was insane. I think the guy was persuaded that he needed $15k in machines to get started, ignoring logic.

    • Paul Sellers on 4 February 2020 at 2:34 pm

      I noticed that too, how the ones insane always think you are the one that’s insane because you didn’t do what they did. How weird is that?

      • Steve P on 4 February 2020 at 3:09 pm

        I read a quote once that reminds me of this something like, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

    • nemo on 4 February 2020 at 3:25 pm

      Odd, but having grown up with a father who did much of his woodworking by hand, never having been really exposed to the present norm of machine woodworking (either in real life or on the internet), and now the influence of mr. Sellers, I tend to forget that this kind of hand woodworking is the exception rather than the rule. But occasionally you get reminded that it is not so. Watched a video about making a table recently that was once broadcast on German television. As I was watching I got more and more amazed. So much specialized machinery, most of it not being used 99.99% of the time. The program started out nicely with a handplane… but then came the chainsaw, numerical tablesaw, planer, thickness planer, beltsanding machine, hydraulic press, electrical router and some more machines. The legs were joined using aluminium dowels. Only genuine woodworking joint was a sliding dovetail. I was left flabbergasted at the end of the video. Beautiful table, nonetheless. But I suppose that’s the kind of information that the general public receives w.r.t. of woodworking. Couldn’t help pondering how I would make it, or how mr. Sellers would do particular tasks. Only thing I couldn’t solve was the sliding dovetail.

      (video was ‘Handwerkskunst! Wie man einen Tisch baut | SWR Fernsehen’, lit. “manual craftsmanship! How one builds a table | SWR television” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpZRuOjNKGs )

      (now that I come to think of it, I find the title for that video, ‘Handwerkskunst’, ironical. Should one call such a table ‘handmade’?)

  5. Peter on 4 February 2020 at 2:11 pm

    With the purchase of your first bevel edge tool you will need sharpening equipement as well. In order not to buy twice (1st crap, 2nd quality) allow some more money…

    • Paul Sellers on 4 February 2020 at 2:35 pm

      Not really. Abrasive paper works fine for a few weeks.

  6. P on 4 February 2020 at 3:52 pm

    I wish Paul and his philosophy of woodworking was around about 12 years ago when I was getting started. A few decades of watching TV woodworking had convinced me that I needed a full assortment of woodworking machines which put me off from pursuing this passion. Then I was like now or never and acquired a table saw, planer, jointer and plate joiner, couple of routers and whole bunch of other tools. Then I found Paul sellers and watched him chop a mortise with plain bench chisels and my eyes were opened.

    The funny thing is, I grew up in a small village and watched a neighbor do everything – woodwork, blacksmith, fit rims on cart wheels and even fix iron hoofs on ox. He did this all with the barest of tools. I also watched my cousin chop mortise and tenon joints and make doors and windows. But TV and internet led me to believe that I needed all these fancy tools to make anything.

    Anyway, now I have become aware of what roles tools play in this hobby. I have never met Paul but he is my teacher when it comes to woodworking.

    As to the thinking that you need a few thousand dollars budget for your tools, nothing could be further from the truth. There are all kinds of ways to justify buying premium tools but you can get decent tools as explained above and go about making things. The most money I spent on is a Stanley shoulder plane. You also don’t need diamond plates! I sharpen my tools on a cheap India stone and they are plenty sharp.

    As I said in the beginning of this comment, my only regret is that I waited for too long and them wasted a lot of time chasing tool deals and building jigs.

    Cheers.

    • Steve P on 4 February 2020 at 4:52 pm

      Yeah i was kind of surprised to see that Richard Maguire uses a $20 norton india oil stone for his sharpening. A guy that had a waiting list to buy one of his $6000 benches using a $20 stone. I also saw a guy in a rainforest making shoes out of car tires. His knife looked like a hand forged “blade” hammered from a car leaf spring wrapped in duct tape as a handle. He used an old dished out oil stone every couple minutes, but this funny looking “knife” was cutting through car tires like they were warm butter.

  7. Clejr on 4 February 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Finally, Someone speaks the true about what it takes to begin woodworking without the glamour of big machines!!! I am just beginning wood crafting and was amazed at how expensive these machines cost. I am so glad I found this blog. Thanks Paul for setting the record straight!!!

  8. Joe on 4 February 2020 at 5:33 pm

    Hi Paul,
    Showing your rocker and in the caption stating it can be made with 10 hand tools is a very powerful image. In fact, it might be one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen you show (and you have lots of them). It might be worth taking one photo of the rocker with the hand tools in the foreground to drive home the point. I don’t know why this one image resonates so much for me but it really does.
    Sincerely,
    Joe

  9. Sylvain on 4 February 2020 at 8:52 pm

    Diamond stones was the first costly equipment I did bought early on. I don’t regret it.
    Next costly equipment were (my workbench was made of free up-cycled wood)
    quick release vise;
    router plane;
    plough plane.
    I did get plane, saw, chisel-hammer, chisels and spoke-shave for not much money.
    Add to this cheap aluminium sash clamps and spoke-shave.
    And then if you can use a 5 m² space there is not much you need except skill wood.
    Without Paul I would still be contemplating buying machinery.

  10. Mark Baker on 4 February 2020 at 10:40 pm

    Aloha Paul,
    Are you off your rocker?
    Koa Rockers sold as fast as I could produce them, about 5 per week. I was working for a shop where the owner knew nothing at all about woodworking, only that Koa was King in Hawaiian Woods and anything well made was sold that week if it was made of Koa. This shop I happened upon this shop to set up a jointer for them. As I finished the Jointer, I saw a fellow attempting to make a wide belt sander that they had just delivered to their ‘shop’ by gutting the wiring needed for it to run safely! I yelled to the owner for him to remove the man and give him something useful to do, for he was attempting to ruin a brand new machine! He did and I offered to set it up. It took 4 hours just to rewire it back to operating condition, but then I turned it on and everything ran fine. It that time the owner offered me a job in his shop. My town on the Big Island, Hawi, was one of those small towns where everyone knows or is related to someone, and I knew this owner reputation[more illegal than legal], and I had to find reliable work since my Dad was on a downhill spiral with Alzheimer’s and this ‘shop’ was within walking distance of my parent’s home. It might work out. Well. in no time at all, I had 200 products to sell in the companies galleries. So much so, that the owner hired more people. What was just 3 people sort of keeping busy when I meet them became 9 people in addition to me, running shop. In the next few months, I made up modern examples of Hawaiian Koa pieces of Rockers, Dressers, Tables of different sizes, Bed frames of Koa as well. Things went fairly until my ‘shopman’ got real sick and called me from the hospital he was in over in Honolulu with the trouble he had with his med. insurance and asked me to find out what was wrong find out what was the problem. It turns out this ‘owner’ was deep into drugs and was taking the money of all the workers had paid for Med. Ins. and brought drugs with it! That was it! I took all my plans, all my equipment home to my folk’s place and set up shop at home. For the next 10+ years, I made work for myself and cared for Dad’s needs. Whether it was Koa Furniture or Honeybees, I was able to continue to care for Dad’s needs for the whole sad affair until one Saturday morning things got worse and by the afternoon, my brother and sister drive him the 26 miles to the better med-center/hospital where he quitily pasted that night. 13 years of good care for a man that was a real live life-saver, the Town’s Fire Chief, my Dad.
    As time went by, we cared for Mom as well, but then were needed in Oahu to care for my wife’s mother as well, so on to Honolulu we went. Now at almost 68, I’m no longer able to support my family or be the first responder that I had become 40+ years ago. I continue to learn about what I can’t do anymore and have to adjust myself to the disabled man I’m becoming. I wish I had found you sooner, in my hay-days. I surely would have come there and meet you.
    Aloha for now,
    Mark Baker

  11. chuy on 5 February 2020 at 4:11 am

    Thank you for that motivation since I found you. I was motivated to continue my carpentry dream. I was already a little discouraged by the costs of the tool, but thanks to you and I learned that with a little you can have been very grateful for all your teaching pd sorry for the English is with translator saludos desde mexico

  12. Jon D on 5 February 2020 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks for this – Paul you’ve really got a contagious enthusiasm for woodworking and your videos and guidance mean a lot.

    Toward the end you mentioned buying wood, which has been a sticking point for me. Anything but no. 3 pine in my area is amazingly expensive, so I’ve been pretty happily working with that. I’m sure i’m all the better for it as i’ve encountered some interesting grain patterns so far, and the penalty for mistakes is somewhat less.

    This brings me to my question though – regarding planning, layout, and buying wood. You’ve done much of the hard thinking/planning with your projects, but I’m craving more information on how to actually plan a project, come up with a materials/cut list on my own. What is this process like for you?

    Sometimes i find myself with a few pieces of wood and want to come up with something i can build with what i have. Other times, I might have a space to fill that would dictate the dimensions. Occassionally I’ve tried to make some plans of my own, but when I get to the lumber store i realize there could have been a more cost effective way of planning things. I also admit that i’ve had trips to the store and left empty handed when i realize what the materials would cost.

    Bear in mind i’m about as novice as anyone here so this could all be something that comes with time. Guidance/tips would be great – apologies if it’s been covered already in a video i’ve yet to watch.

  13. Michael rosenbaum on 11 February 2020 at 1:36 am

    Thanks for your expertise and enthusiasm Mr.Sellers. As a semi retired builder I find doing more projects with hand tools (in CA, many of them Japanese) very rewarding- I’d just add that some clamps (, never enough) maybe 3/4 bar and sliding rod, has to be included in the list-thanks.

  14. Jason on 11 February 2020 at 9:12 pm

    Any chance we can get a Masterclass series on making a guitar? I have tried before, but being the novice that I am, didn’t have the knowledge or technique down and ended up frustrated and disheartened.

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