Though I have been pursuing hand tool woodwork very seriously for almost three years now, in many ways, I am still very much a beginner. I didn’t grow up around tools and have found that I pick some things up very quickly and easily, whereas other common sense concepts are still completely foreign to me. Until very recently, I worked at an incredibly slow pace in the woodshop, and not just because I try to skip power tools whenever possible.
To cut down on this time, I sat down and tried to make a list for how I could more efficiently practice woodworking. Here are five hand tool tips and tricks I discovered:
1. Use the right tool for the job
If you read any of my other articles, forgive me for repeating myself, but this is a very important concept, especially when it comes to hand tool woodwork. Yes, at any woodworking store, there is a specific tool, jig or fixture that promises to do every task imaginable, and you could spend a fortune buying them all, but you don’t need 99.99 percent of them. What you do need is an understanding of the necessary tools to furnish your toolkit and an understanding of what each of them does. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz at Lost Art Press. You won’t be disappointed.
When it comes to buying tools, buy the best you can afford. If you are just getting into hand tool woodwork, I have some great news for you. You can save cash and floorspace in your shop by avoiding all big, heavy machinery and instead investing in some heirloom-quality hand tools. Quality hand tools do have a much higher price tag, but take it from me — if you buy well the first time, you will save a lot of money, trouble and frustration in the long run.
When I was first getting started, my husband used to ask questions like “Why do you need to spend $100 on that handsaw when they have one at the home center that is only $10?” He has since learned to keep those things to himself, after watching me fuss with and agonize over bargain tools that never worked to begin with, only to go and spend more money the second time to get a tool that actually works.
Once you own a few quality tools, there are all kinds of tips and tricks to use them efficiently and successfully. For example, you don’t need to have every single size of chisel ever made. If you have three or four sizes, you can design your joinery around the tools you have. As you lay out your dovetails, make it so the bottom of your pins is the same width as your smallest chisel so you can save time while chopping out the waste. If the bottom of your pins is the same size as your chisel, you can remove all your waste in one quick pare with that chisel. That tip alone cut my dovetailing time in half.
2. Take care of your tools
If you take proper care of your tools, they will always be ready when you need them. There are two very important pieces to this puzzle: keeping your tools sharp and storing them properly.
Using a sharp tool is crucial to success in hand tool woodwork. If your tool is tuned properly, many hand tool woodworking tasks are just as quick, if not quicker than their power tool counterparts. There are all kinds of videos on Youtube about sharpening whatever specific tool you are using. Do note, however, that for every woodworker, there are ten different methods of sharpening. Do a bit of research, pick one, learn it and stick with it. Though many woodworkers have strong opinions in the matter, I believe there isn’t one superior method. The method that you find most enjoyable and easy to learn is the best one for you, because at the end of the day, as long as your tool is sharp, I couldn’t care less how it got that way.
Take notice of how your tool works when properly sharpened and get into a routine that works for you to keep them sharp. A quick hone every now and then is better than an hour-long sharpening session if you wait too long. I try to keep my tools sharp all the time, but every so often I go through all my tools and give them a good sharpening just in case.
Woodworkers also seem to be very opinionated in the area of hand tool storage, but again, pick a method that works from you. Most tools are made of metal, and are prone to rust. The oils in your hands tend to corrode metals over time, and sawdust and shavings trap moisture on your tools. When I’m done using my tools at the end of the day, I like to shoot the dust and shavings off each of the tools I used that day with my air gun attached to my compressor.
Once clear of dust, I wipe each tool I used with a microfiber dust rag soaked in Jojoba oil and put the tool away in my tool chest. This wipedown removes the harmful oils from your hands and replaces it with a protective coating that will keep it safe until it’s next use. There are many oils that will work for this, Jojoba and mineral oils being the most popular among woodworkers. I prefer Jojoba oil because it seems to be better at repelling rather than attracting dust.
If I’ve just restored a tool or know it’s going to be a long time until its next use, I like to wipe down all the components with paste wax or T-9 Boeshield. Every once in a while, I like to take my tools I use less frequently out of the chest and take them apart to make sure there is no secret rust building. Because we have a lot of humidity and some salt our Seattle air, this saves me from some unpleasant discoveries after a long period of disuse.
3. Don’t take shortcuts
This is a lesson I am constantly re-learning. I am very much a product of this “instant” generation. I love living in Seattle because most of my Amazon.com purchases arrive within a day of the time I order them. And then I get frustrated when I order tools and it takes them several weeks to arrive. I’m impatient and I have no problem admitting that. Hand tool woodwork has taught me to grow so much in this area, and I am continually challenged to be more careful, more thorough, and more patient.
Hand tool woodwork is all about preparation. Your success or failure depends on your thoroughness in planning and proper stock preparation. Materials need to be perfectly square for joinery to work and for finished pieces to come out of the shop as designed. Take those extra few minutes to make a few more strokes with the plane or to clean that last superfluous whisker of material out of your mortise, and you will find that, in the end, you’ve saved yourself all kinds of time because you don’t have to go back and remake the part you were too lazy to get right the first time.
4. Keep your shop clean and organized
I know a few woodworkers who would disagree with me about this, and a few of them tease me about spending more time cleaning my shop and caring for my tools than I spend doing actual woodwork. Sometimes they are right, but I have the advantage of walking into every project with confidence, knowing that each one of my tools is right where it belongs and it is ready for me to pick it up. If you allow your shop to become cluttered, you’ll likely waste time looking for the tool you need, often leading to taking shortcuts and settling for using the wrong tool for the job. If you get in the habit of putting tools away while you work, you’ll also save a lot of time in cleanup at the end of the day.
There is another reason I keep my shop as immaculate as possible: sawdust and shavings left on the floor for weeks and months at a time put your shop at risk for pest infestations and fire. This last year I lost several thousand dollars worth of stock to an infestation by the powderpost beetle. Because my shop is so clean, I noticed tiny sawdust piles under pieces of wood right away and was able to deal with the problem before it became worse. Mice also love to make themselves comfy in wooden bedding. I also love using candles in my shop, and one misplaced match or electrical spark in a pile of shavings could set my whole shop (which is attached to my house) on fire.
5. Measure twice, cut once
As I mentioned before, quality hand tool woodwork is all about preparation. Lack of care when measuring has not been a victimless crime in my shop. The coffee table in my living room is two inches shorter than I planned because I forgot to factor in tenon length when I cut the legs. I made a beautiful top for my teak writing desk, only to realize when I went to mount it on the base that it was six inches too short. The drawers in that desk could have more storage space, but I accidentally made them square instead of rectangular. The serving ladle I was carving for my mom turned into a salt spoon because I forgot to leave extra material to hold the workpiece as I was carving it. I could go on, but this is getting embarrassing.
Math is clearly not one of my strengths, so I’ve found that using a story pole and a series of sliding rulers and gauges set to project-specific lengths and depths works much better for me. Depending on how your mind works, find a system that helps you to be successful and practice it. Don’t forget to double and triple check everything.