The Bare Essentials (Full Version, Part 1)

When I first decided to take up woodworking in May 2012, I lived in a two bedroom apartment in Lower Fairfield County, Connecticut and had exactly zero clue on how to proceed.  So I did what I think anyone would do in that situation: go to the home center, grab a WorkMate portable workbench, some hand saws, chisels, marking tools, clamps and a block plane off the rack and get to work.

Tools in hand (and having not yet discovered Paul Sellers and his Woodworking Masters Classes or Chris Schwarz and his Lost Art Press), I then did what anyone in this internet age would do: browse some basic instructions on the interwebs and do my best.  I took on projects well beyond my skill level (including a seven foot parsons dining table for my parents and a vanity sink for my brother’s remodeled bathroom) which, surprisingly, came out okay.  Today, I cringe at the tool marks and gaps in those early pieces (and I have since reclaimed the wood from most of my other early projects), but I was making things and I was hooked.

[Picture Not Found (Thankfully)]

Fast forward two and a half years and I am back pretty much where I started: in apartment in Lower Fairfield County, Connecticut, working wood in the evenings and weekends with a limited set of hand tools.  What lives on my workbench now (a Milkman’s Workbench clamped to a sturdy dining table I built for such a purpose) is very surprisingly not much different than what lived on and around my workbench then (a WorkMate 425): some hand saws, chisels, marking tools, clamps and hand planes.  My current tools are nicer, sharper, better tuned and of slightly larger quantity, it’s true, but in retrospect I wasn’t THAT far off when I stumbled into the home center a fresh faced newbie.

I have found a setup that works for me and I hope to be a resource for other new woodworkers wandering in the “what tools to buy” wilderness. I made some very bad tool purchases when I didn’t know any better and if I can steer just one person away from the same mistakes, I will be proud. I am intentionally avoiding brand-name-dropping, so if you are looking for hand tool porn, you are probably in the wrong place.  And remember: all of this is just my opinion based on my personal preference, experience and budget.  Figure out what works for you based on your goals and your resources.

So, here we go.  Please, feel free to judge.



Marking knives and small planes, as well.

Nothing special here. A set of six bench chisels from 1/4 inch to 1 inch in 1/8 increments (which took forever to flatten but hold an edge quite nicely), plus two other chisels: a 1/2 inch sash mortiser (which I also use for paring) and a 3/8 inch corner chisel.  I use an 18 oz poly-wrapped chisel mallet that I bought off Amazon. That’s it, and it gets the job done. I would love to add a real paring chisel and maybe a wider bench chisel, but I am not quite sure where to fit them in the chest.

Chris Schwarz recommends that beginning woodworkers start with 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch chisels, and I would add to that a 1/4 inch (for cleaning out waste). At that point, though, a low cost but quality set of bench chisels starts to make sense (it seems they are always on sale, anyway).  Be sure to read up on flattening and honing, though, so you don’t completely ruin your first set like I did.

Hand Saws:


Not pictured: three panel saws.

Pictured are seven joinery saws: an 11 inch crosscut carcass saw, two ripcut tenon saws (12 inches and 16 inches, respectively), two dovetail saws (14TPI and 20TPI), an old Disston coping saw that was my grandfather’s and a box store flush cut dowel pullsaw.  I know that is too many for a beginning woodworker; you really only need three, I think.

In my mind, the essential joinery saw set consists of crosscut carcass, ripcut tenon and dovetail. I know could do without the super fine dovetail saw (at 20tpi, I never use it because I don’t think I can even sharpen it) and the smaller tenon saw (if I had to, though it’s my favorite saw).  Also, there is nothing a flush trim saw can do that a dovetail saw and a chisel can’t in slightly more time.  Furthermore, not everyone hogs out dovetail waste with a coping saw (and mine requires vintage blades). If you use the knifewall marking method (which you absolutely should), you could even skip the crosscut carcass saw, but I have found the decreased resistance when crosscutting shoulders and housing joints helps in developing good sawing technique and habits.

My panel saws include two 26 inch ripcut (4.5 and 8 TPI) and a 22 inch, 10 TPI crosscut, although I got along just fine with only the 8 TPI ripcut panel saw for an extended period.  8 TPI in a ripcut pattern is easy to sharpen and works in a both directions for a variety of woods and thicknesses.

Measuring and Marking:


Yes, that is a folding rule, and I use it all the time.

Now we are starting to cross into the more “miscellaneous” part of woodworking.  Other than a 12 inch combination square (the best you can afford), a decent tape measure, a marking gauge of some sort, a marking knife and some pencils (mechanical, black charcoal and white charcoal), the rest is personal preference.  I use a folding rule every time I woodwork and I couldn’t live without my brass setup gauges (which I use for testing tenon shoulders depth just as often as setting router depth).  The long white box in the front is a set of aluminum winding sticks, which are absolutely essential for hand-preparing rough stock and work well as straight edges.  The other try squares and the aluminum dovetail marker are luxuries I could live without (but would prefer not to).  And, of course, that Pocket Ref (4th Ed.) is just for show.

Two double bevel marking knives (both gifts), a scratch awl and a Shinto rasp live in the middle top drawer with the sash mortiser and corner chisel (see above).



There is never enough space for never enough clamps.

We are officially at essential odds and ends.  Some clamps; Blue Tape (you gotta have Blue Tape); screwdrivers; pliers; crepe blocks (if you don’t have one, get one); painters tools; a deadblow mallet; sharp scissors (essential for sand paper); and who knows what else.  I think those are needle files under the beeswax and a magnet at the front right.

And there you have it.  A place for (almost) everything, and everything in its place.  I am satisfied with the current state of my tool collection, although there are still a few, non-critical gaps I will address in due course.

You may be wondering, “where are the big hand planes?!?”  Well, I will treat them in a bit more depth in a second full post that should go live next week (the alluded-to “Full Version, Part 2”).  For now, here they are in their resting state, mere soldiers in this endless, bitter war against corrosion.


In my defense, my chisel plane, small router plane and shoulder plane were in the “Chisels” picture.

That’s all for this week.  I have to prepare for an early Friday conference call.


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