The Best Hand Tools for Woodworking Projects

Best Hand Tools

One of the great joys of woodworking is gaining an intrinsic understanding of how a certain piece of wood will behave. This understanding comes about after spending time getting close and personal with your workpieces. And the best way to do that is to use hand tools as much as possible.

There’s no better way to really feel how wood responds to your manipulations and even your mistakes. Planing against the grain, for example, just feels wrong when you do it by hand, especially if you’ve been doing it right previously.

While power tools and machines are great for saving time, mastering hand tools can take your woodworking endeavors to the next level. Indeed, many of the finishing touches and refinements can only be properly achieved by hand, so it’s an important skill to learn.

In this chapter, you’ll learn about all the basic hand tools you’ll want to familiarize yourself with to make the most of your woodworking projects.

Best Measuring and Planning Hand Tools

Learn about the best hand tools for woodworking

The first stage of any woodworking project will involve planning or – at the very least – a small amount of measuring.

Combination Square

This is one of those tools that will come in handy in your workshop for a range of tasks. They feature a metal rule which slides across a sturdy metal body. Perfectly square, it’s essential for accurate marking, and most can also do 45º angles. Many models feature a small spirit level, which can be useful for making sure your surfaces are properly level.

You’ll need a combination square for tasks such as measuring the depth of mortises and angles (90º and 45º), which you can do much more accurately than with a tape measure. A 6-inch square is one of the most commonly used and is perfect for the needs of the majority of beginners.

Combination squares need to be completely accurate in order to be at all worthwhile, so take care when looking at more affordable options. This is one tool that’s really worth choosing carefully.

Try Square

For projects that require precise-fitting joints, try squares are perhaps the best hand tool for squaring up. The ideal try square will be somewhere between 9 and 12 inches long.

As one of the most basic tools, you can even make your own, though they’re easily bought in any decent hardware store.

A try square is used to mark lines for saw cuts and other lines around the faces and edges of your boards. It needs to have an angle of exactly 90º, and try squares that are slightly off-square will need to be filed before they can be of use.

You can also use the handles of most hand saws as a try square, ideal for measuring and cutting on the go.

Sliding Bevel Square

Lovers of fine woodworking hand tools will appreciate the importance of a high-quality bevel gauge or sliding bevel square. These tools are used to mark angles on a workpiece, allowing users to repeat the same angle multiple times to create the perfect dovetails and joints.

When you source your bevel gauge, make sure it’s able to hold its angle without slipping or becoming loose.

For more on measurements, see Chapter Six: A guide to project planning.

Basic Hand Tools for Sawing

Once you’ve planned your project and measured your pieces, it’s time to get cracking with the hand saw.

Hand Saw

Hand saws describe a variety of different saws that are used to roughly dimension your lumber and boards. They will have one of two tooth configurations – “Cross Cut” saws are designed to cut across the grain, while “Rip” saws are for cutting along the grain.

These take the place of an electric table saw and are the best choice for those beginners looking to improve their hand sawing technique. It’s also useful if you have limited space or plan to have the majority of your lumber cut to size at the store.

Because the two hand saw types have such different purposes, a good workshop will need at least one of each. This is a very affordable tool and will come in handy all the time. There’s also the panel saw, a slightly smaller version of the crosscut saw that is designed to cut manmade panels as well as lumber.

Back Saw

Back saws are hand tools for woodworking that require a little more intricacy, such as when you create a neat joint or dovetail. Their saw plate is topped with a brass or steel “back” designed to make the thin metal saw completely stiff.

A cheaper dovetail or tenon saw will work well at first. But woodworkers with a little more freedom to invest or who are looking to advance their projects would benefit from buying three separate backsaws – a larger tenon saw, a dovetail saw, and a smaller carcass or bead saw.


Miter Box and Manual Miter Saws

At its most basic level, a miter box is a wooden or plastic box that has slots cut into the sides. Making a perfect 45º angle, the slots guide your backsaw, ensuring you cut a perfect miter each time. Most boxes will also have straight, 90º slots for square cuts as well. The angles allowed by the miter box make it perfect for picture frames (miter joints) among other joint types.

A larger manual miter saw keeps the saw fixed to a frame that can pivot on a sturdy metal base. The base is marked with different angles, and the saw can be locked in place to cut the same angle completely accurately again and again.

Most woodworkers today choose to make their angled cuts using a power miter saw, which serves the same purpose at a higher speed. However, if you’re a purist who wants to use hand tools as much as possible a hand miter saw and miter box will serve you just as well.

Miter box with saw

See chapter 7 for everything you need to know about hand saws and chapter 8 for tips and tricks for sawing by hand.

Best Planing Hand Tools for Woodworking

Woodworking with hand tools can be a deeply relaxing process, and there are few tools more satisfying to use than a good hand plane. The following planes are a vital part of any toolbox.

Jack Plane

Some planes will find a permanent home on your workbench because they’re used so often that there’s no point in storing them anywhere else in your woodworking shop. One of these is the Jack plane, a medium-sized plane that can be used for smoothing boards, rough stock removal and jointing board edges.

A Jack Plane is perfect to get your projects started, even if you do eventually invest in a dedicated jointer. What you’re looking for is a new, sharp, low-angle Jack Plane. Models with adjustable blades are favorable as they’re suitable for a huge range of tasks.

Block Plane

A woodworker’s workshop can’t be said to have its full complement of tools without a block plane. This tool is used to trim end grain, clean up components and put chamfers on board edges. With such work, it’s essential to have the right tools for the job, and the block plane won’t let you done.

A low angle makes it easier to cut difficult grain, so once again you’ll be looking for a block plane with a low-angle, adjustable blade.

Rabbet Plane

A rabbet plane should be toward the top of your list of woodworking tools to buy, as rabbet joints are incredibly common in furniture and frame making. Moving fillister planes, wooden and metal rabbet planes, and shoulder planes can all be used to cut rabbets.

However, a wooden or metal moving fillister plane is likely the most useful option. Be sure to avoid mistaking this for a router plane, they’re designed for different tasks altogether.

Rabbet plane

Best Gluing and Clamping Tools for Woodworking

Most of the tools for working wood are designed to cut, smooth, or shape the wood in some way, but your woodworking project will most likely involve multiple pieces of wood that you’ll need to not only shape but join together in some way.

There are many different ways to join pieces of wood together, but sometimes you just can’t beat good old-fashioned glue. And while you’re waiting for that glue to harden, you’ll need woodworking clamps to keep the piece still.

Beginner woodworkers are advised to invest in a handful of parallel or bar-type clamps as well as at least two quality 10-12 inch hand screw clamps. To avoid running into difficulty, make sure you have all the clamps you need before applying the glue.

Ratchet Bar Clamps

Ratchet bar clamps are a popular choice for woodworkers as they can easily be placed and removed by hand, and offer a sturdy hold on your working piece.

Ratchet bar clamp

Other Essential Carpenter Tools

The ten tools listed above are enough to get you started on your basic projects like picture frames, bird boxes, and even simple furniture. Once you’ve mastered them, you may want to expand your arsenal for more complex projects.

Here are some woodworking hand tools that might come in handy later on.

  • Coping Saw: These are useful for removing waste from dovetail joints (one of the more common wood joints) and are also good for cutting rough shapes in manmade boards.

Coping Saw

  • Bench Chisel Set: Once you start using chisels, you’ll likely find a way to use them in every project.
  • Mortise Chisel: These are used to chop rectangular holes (mortises) into the side of a board so a tenon can be inserted.

Chisel set

  • Marking Gauge: This is used to take a measurement and repeat it multiple times. A sharp pin is used to scribe lines for cutting joints and rebates, while the stock allows you to keep everything dead straight.
  • Mortise Gauge: Similar to a marking gauge, this tool is specifically designed to mark mortise and tenon joints. Adjustable pins and stock ensure your mortises and tenons will be exactly the same size, in exactly the same position on your workpiece.
  • Folding Rule: This is simply used to take measurements. It is slightly pricier than a tape measure, but a little handier and nicer to use.
  • Marking Knife: A small blade used to mark points on your wood where you will be using a chisel or saw.
  • Sharpening Supplies: Even the best joiner tool will go blunt eventually so you’ll need sharpening stones and files for your favorite plane, chisel, and hand saw.
  • Wooden Joiner’s Mallet: These are used to hit chisels when cutting joints – metal hammers should never be used for this purpose. Rubber mallets are also a good choice and can be used on tighter joints and dowels.

Wooden joiner's mallet

  • Pin Hammer: A small pin hammer is ideal for driving small nails and pins into your work until the glue sets.
  • Sanding Block: often made from cork, this simple block will make hand sanding much easier-going. You can easily make your own using a wooden off-cut as well.

These DIY tools form the second part of your basic tool kit and will allow you to take a good crack at any project you fancy. It’s also worth investing in a flat screwdriver for adjusting tools and a regular claw hammer for driving in larger nails – both of which are easy to come by and highly affordable.

Holding Your Work

Workholding instruments are one of the most overlooked types of woodworking tools, but nobody can work without them for long. Your bench vice is the focal point of your workbench, holding your piece still so you can work on it safely and accurately.

This will be essential for tasks like cutting curves in thin sheets with a coping saw or working on intricate joints.

Other Popular Woodworking Hand Tools

The following tools aren’t as essential as those listed above, but will still come in handy for certain projects. You can buy most of them anywhere you find woodworking tools for sale.

  • Utility Knife: This tool is perfect for scribing wood or cleaning out joints, and can cut a lot of lighter materials.
  • Moisture Meter: Use this gadget to measure the moisture content levels of your wood. It comes in really handy when you’re selecting lumber (Chapter 5).
  • Bubble Level: A spirit level is used to check if something is perfectly horizontal or vertical. You’ll need one of these if you want to put up any shelves.

Bubble level

  • Nail Set: These are used to make a tiny dent in your lumber so that your nails won’t slip as you hammer them in.
  • Caliper: The caliper is another measurement tool that can be used to measure the outside of an object, the inside of an opening, or the diameter of a hole or tube.

Caliper used on wooden strip

  • Metal Detector: This isn’t so much a hand tool as a way of protecting hand tools. For projects involving reclaimed or repurposed wood, nails, screws, and other metal fragments hidden in your lumber can cause real damage. They might harm the working edges of your equipment and could even cause an injury, especially when using a table saw or other power tool. A metal detector can tell you in advance whether this will be an issue with your boards.

Once you’ve gathered all of your beginner woodworking tools, you’re probably eager to go. Before we get started, however, it’s worth taking a look at some useful power tools and machines that are ideal for beginners.

Find out more in chapter 4: The Best Power Tools for Woodworking Projects.

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