The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Spring cleaning, and an apology.

Yesterday we finally had a bit of decent weather; not that it was warm, it snowed the night before, but at the least it wasn’t freezing. I took the nicer weather as a sign that spring is finally springing, so I decided to not only clean out my garage, but the yard as well. It was an all day job, starting at 9 am and not ending until nearly 5 pm. But I managed to get a lot done, most importantly I managed to make my workbench area a lot less cluttered. Much scrap wood, old cans, broken items, and stuff I generally had forgotten existed was either thrown away or donated to goodwill. I’m not finished yet, but I came a long, long way, and my garage should be much more suitable to woodworking when I begin my next project.

As far as woodworking is concerned, my cleanup and reorganization accomplished two things that I had been wanting to finish for more than a year: I was able to move my stain cabinet to the workbench area, and I was able to get my woodworking hardware (nails, screws, handles, knobs, brackets, etc.) organized and into one location that is easily accessible right from my workbench. I even managed to squeeze in a little woodworking during my clean-up. Firstly, I finished the small screw driver rack that I started, and secondly, I got the material for my next hand plane cut roughly to size..

Stain cabinet in place. Right side of the workbench de-cluttered and organized.

Stain cabinet in place. Right side of the workbench de-cluttered and organized.

An apology…

I started making a screw-driver rack a few weeks back from some scrap Walnut I had laying around. It was a good excuse to mess around with my hand-tools, and when my new ECE rabbet plane arrived it was a good excuse to put it to use. Before I go on let me say that my little screw driver rack is barely worth noting but for two reasons. The first reason is that I used my drill press to drill out the holes. Yes, I have a drill press. The tool was given to me twelve years ago and I barely use it. I have nothing against using a drill press, but this one is just not accurate enough to use in making furniture. It’s okay for drilling out a line of holes, or some light sanding, but the table is too wobbly and the depth stop not reliable enough for intricate work. The other reason is my smoothing plane.

Walnut board cleaned up.

Walnut board cleaned up.

First in War, First in Peace, and First in laying out a corner radius.

First in War, First in Peace, and First in laying out a corner radius.

Holes drilled out.

Holes drilled out.

My drill press

My drill press

A coat or two of linseed oil.

A coat or two of linseed oil.

I have one of the new Stanley Sweetheart #4 smooth planes. I picked it up on Amazon roughly three years ago for the ridiculously low price of $91. It is a good tool that is well made and attractive. My only problem with it is the same problem I have with other smooth planes, and that is the fact that I think smooth planes are overrated. I’ve written about this topic before so I won’t get into it again at the moment. At the same time, just because I felt that way it didn’t necessarily mean that I dislike the tool. Whenever I sharpen, I always give the #4 iron a few passes over the stone just to keep it razor sharp, and I usually take it apart once a month or so, as I do with my other bench planes, just to oil and clean it. Yesterday I used the #4 to clean up the screw driver rack boards both before and after assembly, and I also used it to prep the maple and bubinga I am using to make my next handplane. It was the first time since I’ve owned the tool that I used it for more than a few minutes and I have to admit that it was a joy to use. I was able to take fine and full-width shavings with little effort. Of course the sharp iron helped big time. Nevertheless, it was a joy to use a well-made tool exactly the way it was meant to be used. While I still don’t worship at the altar of the smooth plane, I’m at least at the door of the church. So I have to be forthright and admit that my bashing of the #4 was off-base, and I apologize to those who may have disagreed with my original assessment.

Fine maple and bubinga shavings

Fine maple and bubinga shavings

This could be a hand plane in a few weeks.

This could be a hand plane in a few weeks.

Where to begin

As I’ve re-entered the world of hand-tool forums, I’ve noticed lots of questions from beginning woodworkers about which tools to purchase, when to purchase new or used, etc. In general, I would stay away from offering advice on a woodworking forum, firstly because I do it all day in the electrical sense, but mostly because I can hardly consider myself a woodworking expert. What I have noticed about my knowledge is at the least it usually falls within the “agreed upon opinions” of most of the so-called experts out there. More importantly, I’m not full of shit, which I like to think adds a little bit more weight to my opinion. So I would like to present my take of a few of the most frequently asked questions.

Which hand plane(s) should I purchase first?

This question is probably the most asked, and conversely has the broadest range of answers. First off, I think the most important part of this question isn’t which plane to purchase, but should you buy old or new. Most experts lean towards purchasing old planes, the general consensus being that you can get a good quality plane without breaking the bank. I think old tools are certainly well worth a look, but if this is a new woodworker’s first plane, then they might not necessarily be the way to go.

For the most part, old tools need to be tuned up, possibly even repaired. For a person who has never owned or used a hand plane, this can be a tough lesson. If you’ve never owned a new plane that is highly tuned and sharp, how would you know what to look for in a used plane that needs work? Owning a new, top-of-the-line plane is a great lesson in and of itself, because it immediately shows you how a hand plane should work and feel. You can’t tune up an old plane until you know what to tune it to, and for that reason I highly recommend purchasing at least one new, high-quality bench plane first. Which leads me into the heart of the question:

Which plane would you pick?

This one is a touchy subject. Most of the experts will tell you to purchase a #4 smoothing plane as your first bench plane, though I could never quite figure out what the logic of this is, however. Maybe it could be the cost; new or used a smoothing plane is generally the least expensive of the bench planes. To me, it is also the most useless. Even if you do plan on prepping stock completely by hand, etc. The smoothing plane is usually the last plane to touch a project. There are some people that will tell you that a #4 can do everything. I disagree, the #5 Jack plane is by far the most versatile bench plane. It can be used for jointing, flattening, and smoothing to an extent. It can also be used to prepare rough lumber. It’s size, which falls between a smoother and a trying plane, is the key to its versatility. Many times, a tool which is made to do several different jobs rather than one task ends up being a compromise, with the tool being just “okay” at a bunch of different jobs, but not great at any; this isn’t true with the Jack Plane.

A new, high-end Jack Plane isn’t inexpensive, but it is, in my opinion, well worth the money. But I don’t think a bench plane should be the first plane that is purchased.

If not a bench plane, what should be the first hand plane purchased?

Think about what a bench plane does. The main functions of bench planes are: flattening boards, jointing boards, and preparing boards for finish. Think about how furniture is made. Furniture is made by assembling boards with joinery. Not all boards need to be flattened or jointed, and there are many ways to prepare a board for finish. But to assemble boards into furniture you need joinery planes. For me, the most important joinery plane is the moving fillister, with which you can make accurate rabbets on the ends and sides of any length board, which is a basic but very important component of case construction. The router plane, while seemingly more of a luxury than a necessity, is invaluable for making accurate and consistent tenons, half laps, and rabbets, once again key joints in case construction. Purchasing pre-surfaced lumber is pretty easy, but I’ve yet to see lumber sold that includes the joinery needed to build furniture.

What should be the first woodworking tool purchased?

I’ve also seen this question asked many times, and there is no correct answer, because you cannot build furniture with just one tool. However, I can answer the question: What should be the first woodworking tools purchased? My answer to that is saws.

If you want to work by hand you will need to saw wood. You will make joinery with saws. You will cut wood to length and width with saws. I would start out with the big three: Dovetail, Carcass, Tenon. From Lee Valley you can purchase all three saws for approximately $250, and you will be getting quality tools. You can do a lot of woodworking with those saws, and learning to saw should be one of the first skills a hand tool woodworker develops.
While you are purchasing your saws your should also be purchasing a set of chisels and a mallet. I like the basic set: ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 inch. With those chisels, as well as your saws, you can actually begin to build furniture. In fact, many rustic pieces of furniture were built with those very tools. Add a moving fillister plane, a router plane, and a jack plane-as well as a sharpening medium, and suddenly you can begin to make more refined furniture.

In which order should I purchase hand planes?

For me this one is easy: Moving Fillister, Router, #5 (Jack), Block, #7 (Jointer), #3 or #4 (smoother). I could make a case for a plough plane, but I’ve worked without one for years, though it would come in handy at times. Somebody will make a case for a shoulder plane, but I find them over-priced and fussy.

I have a budget of $500, which tools should I buy?

I hate to disappoint anybody, but $500 just isn’t enough money to get started in woodworking. In my experience, if you want to work with hand tools only, you will need at least $1500 to get started. Of course there are swap meets, and ebay, as well as some very good used tool web sites, but in general you will need to purchase at least a few new tools, as well as buy or build a workbench. Though I don’t care for lists all that much, here is my list of must haves with averaged (and rounded) costs based on personal observations and experiences:

                                      USED                     NEW

Moving Fillister               $110.00                   $220.00
Router Plane                  $120.00                   $140.00
Jack Plane                        $90.00                   $240.00
Joinery Saws                  $135.00                   $250.00
Set of 4 Chisels                 $50.00                    $95.00
Mallet                                                                $25.00
Block Plane                        $45.00                     $90.00
Sharpening set-up                                           $150.00
Marking Gauge                                                  $45.00
Combination Square            40.00                     $75.00
¼ inch Mortise Chisel        $20.00                      $40.00
Marking Knife                     $15.00                     $45.00
Rasp(s)                                                               $50.00 ea
Workbench w/vise            $350.00(made)      $1100.00 (purchased)

Totals:                                $1245.00                $2565.00

You can see that for a few of the tools on the list I only included new pricing, because it is my feeling that those items are only worth purchasing new. Of course for both lists you could find tools that cost more, or less, than the prices I gave. I’m only averaging out the numbers I’ve come across since I’ve been woodworking.   You could also make a case to remove or add certain tools, once again I’m using my own hand tools as a reference, as I use most of these tools when I woodwork.
Averaged out between used and new, you’re still looking at a $1900.00 investment. I’ve spent years trying to balance out the equation, and I still can’t figure out a way to do it for less than I’ve shown here. I’m open to the fact that there may be a practical way to do it, but I’ve yet to see it. What I have seen is many claims that you can purchase certain tools for a song, but once again I have yet to actually see it. You may get lucky, but you aren’t going to build a whole tool set on luck alone.

I also didn’t include items like clamps, fasteners, and screwdrivers. I’m not saying those items aren’t important, I’m just trying to give a basic idea of what a real woodworking tool set costs. Before I finish, I’m also not trying to say that $2000 is a lot of money, nor am I trying to say that it is just a pittance. Woodworking requires a certain amount of dedication, both in practice and in cost. Don’t let anybody fool you. I’ve read too many articles in blogs, forums, and magazines that have tried to minimalize what the costs of woodworking are, both monetarily, and in the time dedicated to becoming a good woodworker. Most of those posts and articles are so far off base that they border on lies.

I’m not sure why people feel the need to lie or make outrageous boasts when it comes to woodworking. At first it would do little more than piss me off, now I find it laughable. That all being said, this post is not anything more than the opinion of one man. I’m basing that opinion not on the attempt to sell a magazine or a tool, but just my experiences. This I do know for sure, I have as small a hand tool kit as you will find, and it still cost me near $3000. That is a fact. The kit contains new tools, used tools, and tools I’ve made. If there were a better way to go about it I would likely have found it, because I research just about everything, and I say in all humbleness that I’m a pretty smart dude. So once again, I’m not trying to sway anybody one way or the other. I’m just trying to present a helpful and honest opinion. Do with it what you will.

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