If you’ve been following Wood Talk Online for a while, you’ll know I am a big hand tool guy. Not because I relish the thought of sweating in my shop (that’s a given during the long Florida summers) or I want to do things the ‘hard way’ (my dad would argue otherwise…).
With hand tools, I feel more connected to the craft, get to understand the wood better and get myself into less trouble should something go amiss (have you ever had a router bit slip out of the collet and ruin a project? If so, you’ll know what I mean!).
When people think of hand tools, their thoughts first turn to hand planes, hand saws and chisels. As well they should. Even in the most electrified shop, competent woodworkers should have at least a good set of chisels, a block plane and maybe a backsaw to handle some basic tasks that would take forever to jig up on a power tool. I have those in my shop, and I find myself reaching for them frequently.
I also have a few others that I find myself reaching for time and again. Many of them may not be found in your shop, but each of them really makes a difference in how I work. Fortunately, many of them are also dirt cheap and take only a limited amount of time to learn how to use. Ready?
Marking gauge. This has become a mainstay in my shop, and you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. There is no better way to mark out a mortise or how wide you want a rabbet on a work piece. Sure, you could do the pencil-on-the-side-of-the-combination-square trick, but, come on, how accurate could that really be? I have one of the gauges made by Veritas that uses a circular blade to score a clean line on the wood. Older gauges use a sharp pin that will tear the wood fibers when you drag them across, so always look for one that slices. You will be very happy.
Striking knife. Pencils are nice for marking cuts, and I have a slew of them in a mug up on my work bench. But, when I really need to be precise, I reach for the striking knife. It has a flat side and a beveled side, and when I run that flat side against a steel rule, I get the exact mark that I need. Very handy, and I keep it with me at all times when doing joinery.
Spokeshaves. Just like the name implies, spoke shaves used to shave spokes on wheels. You can get a really comfortable grip on the twin side handles, and you usually pull the tool toward you. They act sort of like miniature planes, able to fair bandsawn curves with ease. Some have flat soles; others have curved ones, so look to get a set. Some of the new ones are very sweet, but Stanley made these things by the bushel, so you are bound to find a nice model at a garage sale or flea market. The only difficult thing about these are the blades are very small compared with plane blades, so you have to really concentrate when you sharpen them.
Scrapers. Card scrapers are so simple, you have to wonder how they qualify as tools. It’s a rectangular (or shaped) piece of steel. That’s it. But, when you burnish them just right, these things are magic. I was working on a piece of very curly maple. I knew if I put that piece through the thickness planer, it would come out looking like the surface of the moon. And, if I tackled it with sandpaper, it was going to take a long time to get right. I locked the piece into my vise and started scraping it. The wood was incredible! All of the rough surface came off, and the wood was smooth as glass. Look for more information on tuning a scraper in later articles, or check out Wood Whisperer Episode 14 – Barely Scraping By.
Rasps. They look like rabid files, don’t they? And, yes, they can splinter wood if used the wrong way. But, if you need to shape something, I’d be hard pressed to find a nicer tool for the purpose. The key is to use a light touch and remove small amounts at a time. I was working on a small box with a lot of curves in it, and the plans in the magazine called for three very intricate jigs to be built to achieve the results. Since the beginning of the plans mentioned that the woodworker had done most of the shaping by hand, I figured it had to be easier that building the jigs. Sure enough, the raps grated away the right amount of wood, and the final piece needed some very light sanding and scraping to perfect the finish. It sure beat listening to power tools running!
You might be reluctant to give hand tools a try because you think they are old fashioned or slow. However, I think you might be surprised just how much faster, better and more enjoyable they can make your woodworking. I’m glad I started down that slippery slope!