You Don’t Need All That

February 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

I am usually not presumptuous enough (that’s a euphemism for arrogant) to suggest a list of tools someone else needs to have. It’s a natural question for a beginning woodworker. You see it from aspiring woodworkers in classes, workshops, and especially on woodworking forums on the web. The answer most often given is, “well, it depends on the work you are going to do”. If you are the one asking the question, you hate hearing that. But it’s a responsible answer to a tough question. And what they are really saying is, “there is no single set of tools that works for everyone, and I would hate for you to run out and spend a lot of money on things you won’t need”.

With this being Get Woodworking Week, there will likely be a lot of bloggers out there with tool recommendations. I’ll take a different tack here, and instead (arrogantly) suggest what you don’t need. Or more specifically, recommend the tools you don’t initially need. The internet answers to “what tools do I need to start woodworking” are hilarious. You see answers like this, “you will need a table saw, bandsaw, routers (at least three), planer, jointer, drill press, hollow chisel mortiser, lathe, sanders (at least three different kinds), pocket hole jig…”. On the hand tool side, you will see, “you will need a block plane, smoother, jack plane, joiner plane, set of chisels, tenon saw, dovetail saw, carcase saw, hand saw, marking gauge …”. And more than a few people read that and say, “sheesh, and all I wanted to do was build a bird house with my kid and make a jewelry box for my spouse.” Maybe at some point you will need all that, but not right away. Will some of those tools increase your efficiency? Sure, but are you opening up a commercial cabinet shop or starting a hobby? You can do a lot of woodworking with a very small set of hand tools and some semblance of a workbench or work table. A few handsaws, a few chisels, a few planes or sanders, and some layout tools will get you started right away. Go to your garage or basement and see what you already have. While you may not have hand planes, you might already have a few hand saws, a circular saw, a few chisels, and a sanding block. Even if they are not the prettiest and most expensive – use them for a while.

A small set of tools like this can build a lot of things.

Your workbench doesn’t need to be the one of those super expensive Swedish ones you see in magazines. Nor does it have to be a huge Roubo you see everyone building on web sites. A simple heavy solid core door on a couple of sawhorses will work initially. Or you could fasten something together quickly from 2x material or plywood. I built the work table from the New Yankee Workshop plans. It is far from a traditional woodworking bench, but it is straightforward to build and is very stiff and strong. (And no, you don’t need a table saw to build it. I used a circular saw to make all the plywood cuts). At some point you should build a nice, heavy workbench, but you don’t need one right away.

A sturdy bench or table will save a lot of initial frustrations.

If you have the means to outfit an entire woodshop instantly, go for it. But most have either monetary or space limitations, and need to take a more incremental approach. Start with a small set of tools and then make a wish list. Put everything on that list you can imagine – big power tools and all. Do as much research on the web as you wish, and be reasonable about your budgetary constraints but still include as many high quality items as you can. (Another way of saying that is – don’t buy cheap tools. Buying a high quality, expensive tool will only hurt once). And then put that list in a safe place for at least a year. In the meantime use what you have and start making things. The deficiencies will become apparent when you start using your tools. After about a year, take a look again at your list. Some things on that list will jump out as absolutely necessary. But I’m willing to bet there will be more than a few things on that list you realize that you don’t need at all, or at least anytime soon.

Ok, if my suggestion is too boring for you, a good list of tools is included in Chris Schwarz’ latest book The Anarchists Tool Chest. And yes, there are some power tool recommendations in there as well.

For the hand tool enthusiast, Adam Cherubini suggests what tools you don’t need here in his typical humorous way.


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