A Primer On Hand Tools

in Hand
Every workshop needs a few good hand tools. One trip to the home improvement or hardware store and you'll see that there are plenty from which to choose. So, how do you wade through all the options and end up with what you need? We need to start with the basics. These are the tools you probably saw in your dad's carefully guarded workshop when you were growing up. No doubt, you also likely lost a few of them which is why the workshop became so carefully guarded. Now, it's your turn to own and guard the tools. So, let's start with the essentials.

oScrewdrivers: Face it; you're going to have to drive a screw by hand sooner or later. You need several sizes of Phillips, flat and square head screw drivers. Get a decent set, something like Stanley or Craftsman. You don't need to spend a fortune but you don't want something that will snap if you twist it too hard. Check the head of your screw drivers from time to time. They can lose their edge from repeated use and misuse (Like opening paint cans.) Clean the tips off and use a file to clean and sharpen the edges.

oWrenches: Yep, you're going to have to tighten some nuts and bolts to put your gear together. Go to Sears; buy a mechanics set with the laser engraved numbers on the sockets. You should be able to get a decent section with American and metric sizes and some open end wrenches. The Craftsman stuff has a lifetime warranty and they always have something on sale. You don't need the 700 piece set. While you're at it, get some Allen wrenches too and maybe an adjustable wrench. I often wish I knew where mine ended up.

oPliers: Needle nose, for pulling errant nails out of your bookcase. Standard for putting stuff together, Channel lock because you'll need a wider grip when you least expect it and vise grip. You'll be surprised how often those come in handy. And, since you're in the pliers section find yourself a shiny brad nipper. It looks kind of like pliers but it has two, sharp opposing faces that can nip a brad off close to the surface. Splurge and get cushioned or plastic dipped handles.

oRasps: There is a whole big, wide world of rasps, also known as files, to be had. Don't buy them all at once. I most commonly use a patterns makers rasp for smoothing and contouring a pattern (go figure,)or for cleaning up a curve. I also like the Stanley Surform tools. They come in several sizes, are cheap and let you shape wood very quickly. You can use them on fiberglass and foam too, in case you're making a surfboard.

oChisels: Chisels will end up in your hands every day, on every project. In chisels you pretty much get what you pay for, go for the gusto, and purchase a good set. Highland Woodworking has the best selection of quality chisels. Get cabinet makers chisels; you don't want the big framing chisels. They are much heavier, with a longer handle making them awkward in tight sports and a bit much for delicate work. Commonly used sizes would be 1/4", 3/8", 1/2" & 3/4." Get a cheaper one for scraping glue.

oUtility knife: Get a few; they go missing right when you need them the most. Also, get a big box of spare blades to have on hand.

oMeasuring and layout tools: Your project really is only as good as the plan you actually followed. If the plan you had out called for a piece to be 35 1/8" but you cut it 35 3/16" because you measured wrong, well it's just not going to work out right. That means that the plan you followed was not the same as the plan you meant to follow. Point is, you need to have good measuring and layout tools to improve the odds that you'll end up with the project you had in mind.

oPencil Sharpener: What? Yes, a pencil sharpener. A dull pencil leaves a very thick mark and that can throw your measurements off by an 1/8" or more. Get a lot of pencils and keep them sharp.

oPlanes: Hand planes are a beautiful thing. When you have the time and opportunity to use one it will bring you close to your work in a really special way. It is far better to have only one or two well built, comfortable planes that you enjoy using, than to have a bunch of non-contenders in a drawer collecting rust. I'll discuss planes more in another article because there is a lot to know about setting up and using a plane. In the meantime, save a little money for something nice. (A plane, not a prom dress. That comes out of your clothes budget. The tool budget must never, ever be compromised!)

oClamps: You can never have too many clamps! Big clamps, little clamps, spring clamps, pipe clamps. If you see one lying unappreciated in your brother's garage, by all means take it and put it to good use. This is not stealing, this rescuing. More on clamps, and rescuing later.

o Hammers and mallets: You need a hammer, doesn't have to be a brut, don't get a framing hammer, just a nice simple hammer. Hammers are for hitting nails not for hitting wood. For hitting wood you need a mallet. This is for the gentle art of "persuading" two pieces to go together as was intended. A dead blow mallet is the way to go. Dead blow mallets don't bounce back when you strike something with them so you get a nice sure, solid hit.

oSaws: There is enough variety in hand saws to cover separately. Unless you are foregoing power tools altogether you can get by with a Japanese Dozuki for the time being. They are sharp, light and easy to use accurately.

Alright, that's the basic overall list. Some items I will go into more detail on separately. Don't let it scare you off. You probably have a lot of this stuff floating around in your garage or basement anyhow. If not, it's probably in your dad's garage or basement. If you enjoy a project you can also find quality tools at antique and second hand dealers that might require just a bit of refurbishing. I've picked up some nice tri-squares, planes, hand drills and other things for hardly any money at all. It's best to be able to look at the tool, hold it in your hand and check its condition before you buy. It is buyer beware when it comes to used tools. Beware, but don't be scared off!
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Lucy LaForest has 1 articles online


Lucy LaForest is a self-taught woodworker and tool aficionado. She has been working in her home shop for over twenty five years and enjoys building furniture, decorative boxes, and toys. Lucy is especially interested in attracting more women to woodworking as a hobby, or as a profession. Lucy has lots more information for you at Woodworking With Lucy

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A Primer On Hand Tools

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This article was published on 2010/10/22