by John T. Kramer
copyright 1990 John Kramer

One of the questions often asked and discussed at shows and seminars is what basic tools are needed to get started in woodworking, or basic repair of antiques; or to add the hand touches to machine work so that the finer look of old work is achieved.

Those just considering taking up the working of wood find a bewildering array of tools; some highly specialized some of multiple purposes. When first starting out the broad selection is confusing. Also when first beginning one seldom knows exactly what type of work they are going to find most appealing. It is easy to invest large sums of money in a selection of power tools of limited use or unsuited to the work finally settled upon.

The selection I am proposing is primarily comprised of hand tools, the selection is broad enough that nearly any type of general wood working may be efficiently completed. Once the worker has focused in on the specific types of work of greatest interest then they will be more aware of the specialized power tools needed to speed and ease the work.

Even in a well equipped power shop it will be found that if only one item is to be built the hand tools will often do the work as quickly as taking the time to set up the power tools; for repetitive functions in large projects or when making many of the same item the set up time is amortized.

Whenever there is a choice always chose wood handle tools, they feel better in the hand and if they are properly tuned before use blistering will be less of a problem. Scrape or sand any factory finish off the handle and then sand in the direction of the grain until very smooth. Apply several coats of a natural hand rubbed oil finish like the finish feeder recipe in a previous article or my "Antique Improver" with 4/0 steel wool. Allow at least a day between coats. Periodically wipe tools down with finish for best appearance.

Lubricate and protect surfaces of steel or iron tools with sweet oil or "Antique Improver". Lubricate moving parts with sweet oil only. Lubricate cutting edges and metals contacting wood with beeswax.

The best tools available are none too good. It is better to buy the best tool available once, it will work better than the cheaper tools and in most cases will never need replacement. All of the tools listed are available new from the specialty suppliers like Woodcraft Supply, Constantine's, Garret Wade and others. If you can find old tools in good condition they will usually be better than the new tools, one reason is that tools that have been "run in" (used for a while) work better than brand new. The differences are subtle and not noticed by the novice, the new tools are excellent and the old tools are not only difficult to find but generally more expensive.


Claw Hammer - Choose one of about 16 ounces with a wood handle. Heavier hammers are best used for framing of buildings, handles of other materials will transmit more shock to the wrist and elbow and are more tiring.

Warrington Pattern Hammer - Choose one of about 8 ounces. A French or German joiners hammer would be a good substitute. Used for cabinet work and starting small brads without smashing thumbs and fingers.

Raw Hide Mallet - Choose the largest one you can find. Used whenever it is necessary to strike the wood without marring and denting; disassembly of finished work, assembly of tight parts, setting plane irons, &c.


Hand Saws - Choose two; one of 6 or 8 point and one of 10 or 12 point. Used for cutting to length and ripping to width. Buy the best you can find.

Backed Saw and Miter Box - At least one no more than 16 inches long with teeth cut no less than 15 to the inch. Used for precise trimming like cutting dovetails and tenons as well as cutting miters.

Reversible Offset Saw - Used for trimming flush to a surface in through mortise and tenon & dowel joinery.

Coping Saw - Used for small tight decorative cutting.

Turning Saw - A bow or framed saw with a rotating thin blade. Used for making curved cuts. Similar to a coping saw but for larger work


Folding Rule - Used for measuring and layout. A modern retractable metal tape may be used choose one with a blade at least 3/4" wide. Use the same rule throughout the work to insure consistent measurement.

Tri-Square - Buy the best quality you can find. If large work is contemplated a two foot framing square would also be needed. Used for squaring the ends of work and marking true cut offs.

Scribe & Striking Knife - Used for marking out the work.

Wing Dividers - Used for stepping off distances, drawing mortise and tenons, drawing arcs and circles. A mortising gauge is a good addition if much mortise and tenon work is contemplated.

Calipers - Used for measuring thickness.


Scrub Plane - Used for dimensioning (thinning) stock and removing any excess material quickly.

Smoothing Plane - Used to remove marks left by the scrub plane and for final leveling cuts before scraping.

Joining Plane - Used to bring edges and surfaces perfectly flat or true, also called a try plane, truing plane or jointer.

Toothing Plane - Used to prepare surfaces for glue, also called a keying plane.

The above planes are basic to all work. There are hundreds of other more specialized planes available i.e., rabbiting, tongue & groove, moulding, dovetail, bullnose, etc. A jack plane is of limited use unless combined with a miter jack.


A 3/8" modern hand drill is basic to every shop choose the best cord or cordless model you can afford. Purchase a selection of brad point bits as well as twist bits and speed bore bits. As the work progresses a brace and bits, geared hand drills, yankee drills and larger capacity electric hand drills will be found useful. For precision work nothing beats a drill press and Forstner style bits. Specialized bits for drilling tapered holes and even square corner holes are available. A drill press would be one of the first large power tools purchased for any shop.

Some of the first tools invented were drills. Those who wish to begin making some of their own tools would be well advised to begin with drills to gain an appreciation of how work used to be done. Hand drills, pump drills and bow drills with bifurcated bits were among the first, as were burn augers. Those with blacksmithing skills can spend many enjoyable hours making pod augers, spoon augers, twist bits, tapered bits and more.


Buy the best set of mortising or firmer chisels available; sizes should range from 1/4" to 1". Buy a good set of coarse, medium, fine and extra fine bench stones for sharpening.

Buy a matching set, in the same range of sizes, of gouges. Buy a set of slips for deburring the inside curve of the tools.

Many more specialized chisels are available for specific purpose buy them as they are needed.


Purchase a set of flat, half round, and round rasps and files in as many sizes and grades of cut as can be found. The rasps are used exclusively on wood for shaping and removing excess stock. Files can be used for sharpening and shaping tools as well as on the wood and auxiliary hardware.

Treat these tools with great care and they will serve you for many years, never allow one to touch the other make racks and always return them to their individual place of storage. NEVER just throw them all in a box or drawer. Cheap files and rasps are of no use.


Cabinet scrapers can be bought or made from old saw blades, they are used for final smoothing of surfaces. Many different shapes will be found useful depending upon the individual work. They are sharpened with files and then the edge turned with a burnisher. The new tools for automatically sharpening and burring scrapers will be found very useful by most people new to the use of scrapers.

Glue scrapers are handle mounted scrapers for removing excess glue from edge joints.


When other than square or flat shapes are required a variety of tools come into use. Moulding planes are used to cut patterns over a long run of work. Scorps and inshaves are used for hollowing work as in seat bottoms. Draw knives are used for rough rounding of work. Spoke shaves are used for fine rounding of work; they should be available in flat, round and concave bottom designs. Many other shaping tools are available and will be found useful.


These are used when working with wood which has not been sawn to dimension (logs). Included would be cant hooks, log dogs, peaveys, felling axes, broad axes, crosscut saws, froes, adzes, splitting wedges, gluts, beetles or commanders, mauls, bark spuds, slicks, pit saws, and etc.


Little useful work can be done without some support on which to do the work. A great many devices have been developed over the centuries for specific types of work, particularly when working wood in the rough. For most of the work we do a work bench is in order. At the least a couple of broad top saw horses or saw tables should be made. One of the modern folding work benches is a little better than none. A solid core door on sturdy legs can be a good work surface. The best is a full size solid wood cabinetmakers bench with integral vises. Many designs are commercially available and books are in print showing a good selection of work benches you can make yourself. This is no place to scrimp select the largest size which fits into your work area.


The best vise you can afford will make all of the other tools more useful. Mounted on a sturdy work bench everything else is eased. A 12" cabinetmakers vise with quick release is nearly minimum. The integral vises on top quality commercial work benches are a joy. The multi purpose imported vises that turn nearly any surface into a work bench are good for the small shop or for carrying to a job site. By studying old work benches a nearly unlimited variety of clever devices for holding the work by friction and wedges can be duplicated.


THe worth of a cabinetmaker is known by the number of his clamps; is an old saw very close to the truth. You will never own too many in too broad a variety. A minimum selection would include a couple of each size parallel jaw wood clamps, four 3/4" pipe clamps, and a few spring jaw clamps in various sizes. Other clamping can be done effectively with makeshift tools: Rope and sticks can be used to clamp odd shapes, go bars can provide down pressure for large flat surfaces, clothes pins, rubber bands, string and much more can provide much of the clamping necessary to good work.

Holdfasts, dogs, wedges, cleats, claves, cauls, joiners dogs, screw clamps, jigs, pegs, and many other clamping devices have been invented over the centuries all are useful and worth study. Clamps are another good point for beginning tool makers to start.


The variety of modern power tools is nearly limitless. Again quality is paramount a cheap tool is seldom of minimal use. Be certain the tool is truly needed else a large investment may gather dust. Combination tools can benefit a small shop but, are never as satisfactory as dedicated tools.

One of the first to consider is a table saw, a radial arm saw is not a substitute and is actually a tool of limited utility.

A band saw is another early purchase and is a versatile tool.

Turning is a very satisfying form of work which can easily decorate even the simplest work. Many different lathes can be purchased yet the lathe is a tool readily built in the shop. A treadle power lathe made entirely of wood can do anything a commercial lathe can do except hurt you real bad. There is a great deal of satisfaction doing work on a tool you built rather than one you just bought.

Consider carefully and study the tools available before investing money in something you will be using extensively or working around for many years to come. Some tools are not worth carrying home even if they are free.


There are many good books available for additional study of tools. Eric Sloane's "A Museum of Early American Tools" is good for a beginning. Roy Underhill's companion books to his PBS series "The Woodwright's Shop" are excellent. Several books on the use of contemporary tools are available.