Woodworking with hand tools

Woodworkers often disagree on the place of hand-tools in the workshop. Some believe that hand-tools should be a woodworker’s primary equipment, while others use hand-tools only to do the jobs power-tools are incapable of handling. Some woodworkers even forgo power-tools entirely, preferring to follow an entirely traditional carpentry route.

Any woodworker will agree on two things; that quality hand-tools are much cheaper than quality power-tools and that a quality hand-tool is more durable than the average power-tool. More importantly, the patience and skill required to craft wood with hand-tools is the most valuable tool possible. Both qualities are equally useful when working with power-tools like wood routers, but hand-tools cultivate them best.

The Woodworker’s Superweapon

Of all the tools in the carpenter’s shop, the saw is best described as indispensable. This may seem odd, at first, since the only thing a saw does is cut.

However, a simple cut has more uses than can possibly be imagined. Unlike most woodworking tools, a saw can be used to build an entire piece from start to finish.

An excellent example for a beginner to try is the dovetail jointed box . The dovetail is a joint used when you need to attach boards at an angle. It only works if the joint is running across the grain, but when it’s properly done the dovetail joint is incredibly strong. Usually, a joint like this is glued together, but it is possible to rely on friction alone. You’ll need to make the joints a very tight fit for this to work, but once the piece is assembled, it will be quite sturdy. However, gluing the dovetails will result in a joint that will last practically indefinitely.

​Here is video of John Bullar using nothing more than a chisel and saw to make a dovetail joint in less than 4 minutes. Quite impressive!

If you want to learn more on how to make a proper joint, be sure to check out John's book at Amazon.

Saw Types

Saw Types

The number and type of saws available is staggering. It’s far too large a subject to deal with here in depth, but the basics are simple.

Cross-cut saw – the cross-cut saw is used for cutting across the grain, which is where it gets the name. The teeth are designed to widen the cut, which prevents the blade from getting ‘pinched’ as the wood adjusts to the cut. They are also designed so that they slice the wood efficiently. When cutting with these saws, concentrate on a firm push rather than a strong pull, since the cutting action is usually performed on the downstroke.

Rip saw – rip saws are designed to cut parallel to the grain. The teeth are designed so that they act like tiny chisels, chipping away at the wood rather than actually slicing it. This prevents them from following wayward grain and making a crooked cut. When ‘ripping’ a board, keeping the saw level and straight with your cut is the most important thing. If the blade goes crooked, it will start to wander, resulting in an equally crooked cut.

Other saws – there are hundreds of other types of saws, from keyhole saws, Japanese double edged flush-cut saws, dove-tail saws, and even wire saws

Brace And Bit

If you plan to use dowels or screws, you’ll need a way to drill holes for them. While this is a case where the power tool has an advantage, the old-fashioned brace and bit competes very well. It’s one of those tools that works far better than you’d expect and even outperforms power drills in certain areas.

Brace and Bit

The hardest part of using the brace and bit is relearning habits developed by using power drills. A brace is capable of applying drastically more force than the average power drill. In essence, it lets the woodworker exert his full strength on a lever, rather than relying on a weak electric motor and gearbox. If you examine a bit designed for use with a brace, you’ll notice that it has screw threads at the end. These are designed to pull the bit into the wood, allowing the slow, powerful brace to cut away the wood.

The screw and cutter design of the bit has one drawback: if you drive a through-hole from only one side, the powerful torque will cause the cutter to splinter the wood as it comes out the other side. You can avoid this by drilling only until the very tip of the screw pokes out. Then, pull out and begin drilling from the other side, using the hole the screw made as your guide hole. The nifty thing about this trick is that it actually works with power drill bits, too!

Going slow and powerfully is the key to handling the brace and bit. With a little practice and sharp bits, you can drive a hole with a brace almost as fast as you could do it with a power drill. More importantly, due to the increased torque, a brace and bit can handle much larger and deeper holes  than the average power drill.

Planes and Scrapers

Smoothing tools are the most unique equipment in the arena of hand tools. There are many different types of planes, ranging from large jack planes to tiny thumb planes. Scrapers come in different varieties, but they all perform essentially the same function.


plane diagram

The plane is a rigid frame that holds a blade at an angle, allowing a carpenter to slide the tool across the wood and remove thin layers. The depth of the cut depends on what you’re trying to do, but it’s usually a few millimeters at a time. Taking off larger amounts is done by making multiple passes over the wood.

Jointer planes and jack planes are used primarily for flattening boards, since their long frames allow the blade to skip over low points and cut away high points. If you have a bowed piece of lumber that you want reduced in thickness and made straight, you can cut it to flat with one of these planes. Of the two, jack planes are the more flexible tool, since they can also be used with a slightly curved blade for smoothing.

smoothing plane

The smallest planes are used for smoothing out the work, much like modern sandpaper is used. However, there are many planes with special purposes, such as router planes and moulding planes.

Using the plane is the same for all, regardless of the type. They are remarkably intuitive to use, with the super stiff frame doing most of the work for you. As long as you have a properly sharpened blade, the only thing to remember is to use easy, shallow strokes. Using a plane is a lot like shaving: it should go smoothly and efficiently, with the barest hint of a catch as the blade takes off material.


While scrapers can create a surface smoother than any sandpaper can, they require constant attention to maintain their burr edge that does the work. Unless you have some experience in sharpening tools, it’s might be best to stick to sandpaper until you’re willing to spend some time experimenting with sharpening a scraper you can afford to waste.


mortise chisels

After the plane, the chisel is the next hand tool that really doesn’t have a power tool equivalent. The sharp blade of a good wood chisel can be used in practically every step of the wood working process. Properly honed, a chisel blade is sharp enough to shave away wood free-hand, allowing you to smooth wood in areas a plane or scraper can’t reach.

Chisels work exceptionally well at removing wood quickly and neatly, in the classic tap and cut manner. Use a wooden mallet instead of a regular hammer, if possible. The blow is somewhat softer and more manageable. Just like planes, the blade of a chisel must be kept sharp in order to work efficiently. A dull blade is a recipe for frustration and possible injury to either the woodworker or the project.

Measuring tools

Combination squares and bevel gauges are indispensable, if you’re planning to make accurate, straight woodwork.

The one is used to measure length and depth as well as right angles and 45 degree angles, while the other is used for duplicating angles. At some point, you’re sure to find a line-gauge useful as well. Cutting straight lines along lengthy boards is difficult enough without crooked markings and the line gauge will help keep your cuts parallel to the board edge.

Cheap squares have a tendency to be out of square and inaccurate, so make sure you buy a quality tool. A carpenter’s angle square is usually perfectly square and won’t warp, but the sliding measuring stick of a combination square is practically mandatory for a carpenter.

Bevel gauges, by nature, rely on the woodworker to be precise. However, when you buy one, make sure the blade isn’t warped and that the wood isn’t, either. A perfect angle requires straight parts. For a beginning woodworker, a steel blade and plastic stock are probably best; brass and wood gauges are slightly more delicate.

Marking tool

marking knife

A standard pencil or a marking knife is the one tool in your shop that will get used regardless of what you’re working on. Marking, remarking, and then checking the mark’s accuracy is the best way to be a good woodcrafter. One good cut is worth a hundred bad cuts, in terms of time, money, and temper.

Do not use a pen, marker, or anything that will actually stain the wood. Ink soaks into the wood, which is fine for basic framing or slapped-together projects, but it will ruin any kind of fine woodworking. You’ll even have a hard time obscuring the ink with paint. Pencil graphite can be easily buffed off, or sanded, if necessary.