Getting Started in Woodworking

Introduction

If you watch woodworking television shows like “The New Yankee Workshop” or look through various woodworking magazines like Luxury Home Stuff, you’ll probably get the impression that woodworking requires several thousand dollars worth of noisy machines, air filtration systems, and enough protective gear to survive an EPA Superfund site.

Many of us who are starting out in woodworking have serious constraints on our money and/or available space.  In this article, I intend to suggest ways to put together a basic woodworker’s toolkit for a reasonable sum.  In doing this, I’m making the assumption that you are going to start with things like chests and benches and not fine furniture.  I’m also assuming that you’re doing most of your work with dimensional lumber from the local home center.  This article is written from a North American perspective, but most of what’s in here should apply in the rest of the world, with the notable exception of local species of wood.

Tool belt close-up on wood

Safety Note: Even with hand tools, woodworking can still be hazardous.   You should follow all safety precautions and exercise a healthy amount of common sense.  If something feels unsafe, stop and go find someone who knows what they’re doing.

Tools

The first thing you’re going to need are some tools.  We can divide them into the following categories:

Tools for Cutting

Saws – There are two basic kinds of saws – rip saws, for cutting with the grain and crosscut saws for cutting across the grain.  You’ll need one of each.  If you’re planning on doing any fine work you will also need a backsaw.

Chisels – Good chisels are hard to find these days.  The Stanley yellow-handled chisels will do in a pinch, but don’t expect them to last or hold much of an edge.  Marples makes a set of blue-handled chisels that are a good value.

Knife – You’ll need a knife, usually at the oddest moments.  Any small sheath or pocket knife that will hold an edge will do.

Marking

Pencils – Pencils aren’t precise enough for most marking, but a package of cheap mechanical pencils is handy to have around (and don’t have to be sharpened).

Knife – The best marking tool is a knife.  You’ll need something with a fine enough blade that it can follow a straightedge.  In a pinch an X-acto type knife will work.

Measuring & Layout

Ruler – A good metal ruler is handy for measuring and as a straightedge.

Tape Measure – You’ll need a tape measure for measuring.

Square – A combination square will help you mark right angles (and usually includes a ruler to boot).

Marking Gage – A marking gage is used to mark at a set distance from an edge.

Safety Equipment

Goggles – Anything that involves striking should also involve protective goggles.  They’re a lot cheaper than a trip to the eye doctor.

Hearing Protection – You should wear hearing protection when hammering nails, chopping mortises, and other noisy operations.  You *will* damage your hearing otherwise.

First-Aid Kit – You’re going to cut yourself, so it’s a good idea to keep some bandages and antiseptic handy.  A pair of tweezers is handy for those occasional splinters.

Adequate Ventilation – Those warnings on the chemical bottles are meant to be taken seriously.  Make sure you have sufficient ventilation when painting, varnishing, or doing anything else with chemicals.

Dust Mask – Wood dust is not something you want in your lungs.  Fortunately, most hand tool woodworking doesn’t produce fine sawdust in significant amounts.  Even so, you’ll want to get a dusk mask rated for “hazardous dust” if you plan on doing a lot of sanding.

Smoothing & Shaping

Planes – Ideally you should have two planes: a block plane for trimming end grain and small items and a jack plane for general purpose work.  If you have to choose, pick the block plane.

Sandpaper – Pick up a combination package (coarse, medium, and fine) of sandpaper for surface preparation.

Rasp – A half-round rasp is useful for shaping and smoothing.

Other

Hammer – You’ll need a hammer for driving nails.

Clamps – You can never have enough clamps.  To start get four 4″ C clamps and four 24″ bar clamps, this will be enough to handle most small projects.

Drill – For making holes.

Safety Note: Every so often, stop and ask yourself, “If this tool slips, where will it go?” If the answer involves part of your body, change what you’re doing.

Space

A Bench

Woodworking isn’t something you can do in your lap. Your bench can be any sort of table that is flat, can take being pounded on, and is at a comfortable height. One of the other articles in this series will cover building a basic workbench. In a pinch you can use the floor, but it’s much easier to do decent work with a bench.

Shop space

Garages and basements are traditional places for woodworking but any place can be used as long as you’re willing to deal with the noise and mess.

Lumber

The basic lumber for the beginning woodworker is pine* from your local home center or lumberyard.  I can’t say enough about utility grade pine – most of it bad.  On the plus side, it’s easy to work and cheap (so you won’t feel too bad about your mistakes).  Pine is usually sold surfaced on all four sided (S4S) in nominal dimensions (2×4, 1×12).  These are the dimensions *before* the rough wood went through the planer –  in practice a 2×4 is 1½ inches thick and 3½ inches wide and a 1×12 is 13/16 inches thick and 10½ inches wide.   Choose pine that is straight and free from loose knots, splits, and cracks.  You’ll probably have to pick through a fair amount of wood to find pieces you can use.  Don’t take boards that feel significantly heavier than the others since they are probably still a little wet and are likely to warp when they dry.  Take the wood home and let it sit in your shop for at least a couple of days before you start working it.  This will give it time to adjust to the humidity in your shop.

There is a better grade of pine sold as “D-Select” this is furniture grade wood and costs about as much as oak (at least where I live).

Hardwoods are usually sold rough, although you can find them surfaced on two sides (S2S) or surfaced with one edge ripped straight (S2SR1).  Hardwoods are sold by the board foot, which is a theoretical piece of wood a foot square and an inch thick before surfacing or ripping.  Hardwood thickness is measured in quarter-inches (i.e.; an 8/4 plank is two inches thick).  Hardwood thickness is spoken as “four quarter”, “eight quarter”, etc.)

*What you’ll find as the local utility wood varies by location.  For most of the East Coast it’s Eastern White Pine with Douglas Fir or Sitka Spruce on the West Coast.  Hemlock, Southern Yellow Pine, and various Spruces can be found in other parts of the country.

Types of Lumber

Pine

Eastern White Pine is the local cheap construction lumber in the northeastern US. White pine’s main advantages are that it’s cheap and easy to work. On the down side, it warps easily and is so soft that it tends to get dinged up while you’re working with it. Since it is sold as cheap lumber, you’ll need to pick through the bins carefully to find the good pieces.

Southern Yellow Pine is a very different wood; it is significantly harder and heavier than Eastern White Pine and is (surprise!) much yellower in color.

Fir

Douglas Fir is one of the more common construction woods and is the cheap wood on the West Coast. On the East Coast hemlock is sometimes available as a better quality construction lumber. The firs are a little harder and heavier than white pine, but still easy to work.

Oak

Oak was by far the most common wood used for furniture in the Middle Ages. It is hard, heavy, and fairly resistant to rot. There are two species of oak commonly available red and white. From our perspective, there isn’t much difference between them, although white is closer in appearance to European oaks. Oak can be a pain to work with hand tools.

Poplar (Yellow Poplar)

I think poplar is under rated as a wood – particularly for beginners. Poplar is fairly soft and easy to work, but doesn’t show every little ding like white pine. It’s also one of the cheapest hardwoods. Poplar can have an ugly green tinge to the wood, but that can be dealt with by leaving the piece in the sun for a few hours.

Resources

Basic Tool Kit

Rip saw
Cross-cut saw
Backsaw (optional)
Set of Chisels
Knife
Package of cheap mechanical pencils
Marking Knife
Metal Ruler
Tape Measure
Combination Square
Marking Gage
Goggles
Hearing Protection
First-Aid
Dust Mask
Block plane
Jack Plane (optional)
Package of Sandpaper (coarse, medium, and fine)
Half-round rasp
Hammer
Clamps
Drill and bits

Tools

Most tools made in the last 30 years or so are, to be polite, junk.  The exceptions are those made for tradesmen and serious amateur woodworkers.  The tools at your local home center have the advantage of being inexpensive, but they won’t hold an edge or stand up to serious use.  The following are some suppliers that cater to woodworkers and generally have a decent selection of hand tools. They also carry books, plans, hardware, finishing supplies, etc.  Rockler and Woodcraft also have retail outlets around the US.  There are a number of other large suppliers.

Highland Hardware
1045 N. Highland Ave., NE
Atlanta, GA 30306
+1 800-241-6748
www.highlandhardware.com

Rockler Woodworking and Hardware
4365 Willow Dr.
Medina, MN 55340
+1 800-279-4441
www.rockler.com

Woodcraft
560 Airport Industrial Park
Parkersburg, WV 26102-1686
+1 800-225-1153
www.woodcraft.com
Garrett Wade
161 Avenue of the Americas
New York NY 10013
+1 800-221-2942
www.garrettwade.com

Lee Valley
P.O. Box 1780
Ogdensburg, NY 13669-6780
+1 800-267-8735
www.leevalley.com

Magazines

Popular Woodworking – Popular Woodworking is aimed at the beginning to intermediate woodworker and concentrates heavily on projects. You won’t find high-end projects here, but there are a lot of small pieces of furniture, cabinets, and such suitable for the weekend woodwhacker. I’ve never seen anything even vaguely Medieval in here, but enough of the projects are useful enough that I keep buying the magazine.

Popular Woodworking
PO Box 5369
Harlan, IA 51593
www.popwood.com

Woodwork – Woodwork is aimed at more advanced woodworkers, but has a fair number of handtool articles as well as occasional pieces on basic woodworking skills. The ads are a good place to look for handtool and lumber suppliers.

Woodwork
PO Box 1529
Ross, CA 94957

Books

There are loads of “how to” books on woodworking, these are a few that I’ve found particularly oriented towards hand tool techniques.

The Woodwright’s Apprentice: 20 Favorite Projects from the Woodwright’s Shop., 1996. ISBN: 0807846120
The Woodwright’s Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft., 1991.  ISBN: 0807840955
The Woodwright’s Eclectic Workshop., 1991. ISBN: 0807843474
The Woodwright’s Shop : a practical guide to traditional woodcraft., 1981. ISBN: 0807814849
The Woodwright’s Work Book: Further Explorations in Traditional Woodcraft., 1986. ISBN: 0807841579

Roy Underhill is host of PBS’ long-running series “The Woodwright’s Shop” and a frequent lecturer on traditional woodworking. You’ll probably want to look through these at the book store and pick out the ones that interest you.  In my opinion, The Woodwright’s Apprentice is probably the most useful for the beginner since each of the projects builds on the skills developed in previous projects. 

Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings – Aldren Watson, Norton, 1982 ISBN: 0393016544

Recently reprinted.  Covers the most common kinds of hand tools, their parts, how to maintain them, and how to use them.  These are the sort of tricks you usually pick up either through a lot of experience or by hanging out with old hands.  The next best thing to an actual teacher.

Restoring, Tuning, & Using, Classic Woodworking Tools – Mike Dunbar, Sterling, 1989 ISBN: 080696670X

This is the book that most people in the Old Tools community recommend to newcomers.  Dunbar covers selecting and buying tools (although some of his comments on availability and price are far too optimistic these days) and restoring them to usable condition.  There is a fair amount of information on using the tools, although you’ll probably do better with Watson or Blackburn for usage.

Traditional Woodworking Handtools: A Manual for the Woodworker – Graham Blackburn, Blackburn, 1998 ISBN: 1892585006

A copiously illustrated guide to using traditional hand tools.  When Blackburn says “traditional” he means it, there probably isn’t a tool illustrated that’s less than 50 years old.  If you want to get started with using old tools, this is the place to look.

The Compleat Woodworker – Bernard Jones, Ten Speed Press, 1998 ISBN: 1580080154.

A reprint of a “how to” book from circa 1912.  Lots of advice on using hand tools, although some of the side comments are a little dated.  There is an earlier printing that is commonly available in used book stores.