A customer who described herself as new to woodworking recently came to our showroom. She said that she was especially interested in learning how to build furniture, and she was looking to buy the tools that would help get her on her way.
We get variations of this question all the time. Sometimes the new woodworker wants to get started carving figures or spoons; sometimes they’re tempted by many different aspects of woodworking. Some folks are professionals looking to add an adjacent skill and others are just looking for a fulfilling hobby. A lot of folks are somewhere in between.
Unlike certain hobbies - let's take juggling, for example - woodworking demands more than three small bean bags and a video to get started, and this can be a big challenge. There is some sort of initial investment that's needed, but if it's too high people will be turned off. If it's too low, people won't be able to accomplish their goals and will probably abandon woodworking.
A lot of this depends on the type of woodworking you want to do. One real advantage of starting out with spoon making, or even stick chair-making, is that the actual number of tools you need to produce credible work is pretty small. The other question is, if you want to build furniture, what kind of furniture? If you like modern Danish style furniture, your best bet might be a pair of sawhorses and a good panel saw. If you want to make a colonial high boy, you actually need a lot of hand tools.
Many people get turned off woodworking and other crafts after buying a pile of tools on Amazon that mainly appealed because of the price. Then they discover that they can’t make the tools work. It's discouraging. I think there's a delicate balance in staying within budget but actually getting tools that work. Personally, I hate fighting my equipment. I'm not the guy who buys a pack of ballpoint pens for a buck, I'm the guy who has one fountain pen that I’ve been using for decades. (Actually now I have about five.) But then again, as my woodworking mentor pointed out to me, if you belong to a club or a class and you need a specific specialty tool you can probably borrow it. Otherwise you end up having to have a hardware store size tool collection (which I actually do because I collect tools). This also applies to used and antique tools. If you inherit or buy well maintained old tools, you won't do better for price and performance. But if you impulse-buy a pile of junk at a flea market, your new hobby will be renovating tools rather than woodworking, so be sure this new hobby interests you. And depending on the condition of the old tools, you might have gotten gold or garbage.
Let's get back to the customer in the store. For me, the most important skills to learn for doing casework are measuring accurately and sawing straight. These are skills that entail training your hands. Once you know that, the next skills are probably chiseling accurately and sharpening your tools. If you are interested in carving or making spoons, you will need to learn to sharpen your tools.
There are a million ways to learn the skills you’ll need. Some people learn by video; some people learn by hands-on trial and error; some people learn from books. The trick of course is finding information that speaks to you. The reason I impress on people the need for the basic skills of measuring accurately and sawing straight is simply because almost all projects rely on that.
The sweet spot for the development of woodworking skills is finding a motivating project that will maintain your interest and broaden your horizon yet not be so far beyond your skill level that you get discouraged. Same with capital investment: I want you to buy good tools that'll get the job done without feeling that the hobby is priced out of your reach.
Taking a class or joining a woodworking club can open your doors - even before getting any tools. Not only can you learn from others, but the access to good equipment can be very helpful to developing your craft. Having a class or club point you in a consistent direction can be really helpful.
But sometimes you are on your own. And - getting back to our original story - in this particular case, the customer wanted to start on her own way right away.
My recommendation began with a copy of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, one of my favorite woodworking books (as I mentioned in this recent blog post). It’s a great and engaging read, but it also has three projects that are very helpful in craft development. The first project is basically cutting up some boards and nailing them together. If you like that project, you'll then be ready to try something that's actually a little challenging, the school box. In this project, you're cutting up some boards but now also dovetailing them together. Very few people build the final project in the book, a dresser. And quite frankly, if you can complete the dresser by hand, or even by assistance with machines (although that requires having access to a shop), you'll have more skill than most amateur woodworkers in the United States.
To build that first project of a box, all you need is wood, which you can get from a lumber yard; a square (we stock the fantastic but “lifetime purchase” Starrett squares); and a saw (for which you can opt for either Western or Japanese, your choice). You can even make this project in an apartment if you have a couple of chairs to use as a saw rest. My customer fell in love with the BT&C Hardware store saw, which not only is a wonderful saw but incorporates a square and ruler in its design features. But it's also a lifetime purchase, so she will use it for years. More importantly, even if you are getting just a few tools, you want tools that you like. I also described how a bench stop works. She completed her purchase with some nails. Hopefully this will be the start of a wonderful hobby that is productive and satisfying.
Your route doesn't have to be the same path - everybody's different. But you should figure out what you want to do, what you want to make, what gives you excitement. There are people who just want to make stuff that works, and they want to use whatever materials they can easily obtain. Other people want to learn classic approaches to furniture and use classic materials as well. Still others are mostly motivated by the fact that they can’t afford to pay someone else for the kinds of stuff they want to own so they know they’ll have to make it themselves. All of these motivators are valid. But for those of us who sell tools, it's essential to understand what you want to do so we can point you in the right direction. If your goal is to carve some nice spoons, for example, we would recommend this straightforward book on spoon making or this one which is more philosophical, a couple of knives, and if you’re local, a visit to the next meeting of the NYC Spoon Club. For stick chairs, we would steer you to Lost Art Press’s stick book selections. But for traditional casework, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is a great place to start.
As for tools, buy what you need as you need them. The more you do, the more you'll understand what you actually need. If you like me and just want to buy tools, face it: you are a tool collector, so justify your cool purchases on that basis. And of course some of the tools that are part of your total collection you'll actually use for woodworking! It's all good.
By the way, the best part about doing woodworking as a tool collector is this: if, for example, I need to cut a sliding dovetail, I not only get the satisfaction of making something, I get a chance to pull out my trusty Stanley 444 dovetail plane and play with it.
jointer and cabinet maker is gold. the best part being all the historical and practical commentary. a strong follow-up i wish I'd had earlier is the anarchist's tool chest--purely as a timeless guide to selecting quality tools. i was fortunate to have a good relationship with my luthier who helped me select good machines.
12/08/2022 Brian - Dublin, OH
Joel, I hope you forewarned your customer seeking your advice, that this can become a very addictive pastime... as dangerous as "crack." It starts with tool purchases from big box stores... so you can do stuff. And then you buy more tools so you can do stuff better. Next, you pick up an old hand plane at a flea market or inherit some old chisels. This is becoming more fun. You talk with some co-workers or friends with similar interests. They tell you about this guy in Maine making wonderful tools or this dude in Brooklyn selling high quality necessities. Now you're hooked. These new tools are amazing and you start reading books written by masters in the 1700's, 1800's, and early 1900's when hand tools ruled... and unless you had beans for dinner, no greenhouse gasses using hand tools. So bring on the planes, the chisels, the shaves and scrapers... the saws, the awls, the bits and the braces. And as you're admiring your collection of weapons of wood destruction, you take some classes from a shipwright in North Carolina and you find you need more tools to do stuff better! And the cycle continues... you're addicted!