Have you ever gotten the feeling that if only you’d known more at the start of something, you’d have saved yourself a whole lot of time, effort, and money? Maybe it’s just the learning process, but there are a few things I wish I’d known ahead of time before I began buying hand tools for woodworking. In my attempt to document my own progress with the craft, hopefully I’ll provide a little insight into how I managed to assemble a working set of tools. Admittedly, I’m still gathering those tools, so in some cases it’s still a work in progress, but I hope I’ve managed to learn a few things on the way.
Whether buying old tools or new tools, there are several key points to keep in mind. One thing I have noticed more than anything else is, there are differring degrees of success when rehabilitating old tools, as well as just buying a new tool off the shelf. Not only that, which tools should you get? There’s only a thousand catalogs (it seems) with a thousand tools for sale in each. Everything looks attractive and useful. Some of it is, some of it won’t get used twice.
Another thing to consider is, do you like fixing up old tools or would you rather simply buy the tool ready to go? There’s usually some setup that should be performed, even with a good quality new tool, but the difference between getting good results from that old Stanley No.4 plane versus a new Lie-Nielson Smoother might be measured in days, or weeks, or longer. The Stanley might need a new blade and chip breaker (or at least be better off with a new one). Or it might need the sole plate flattened and polished or even a new tote or knob. So those are other items to include in your overall costs, not to mention the time and trouble. In a nutshell, you’ll need to decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth it to rehab or just buy new. Whether we admit it or not, our time is worth something and if you’re spending time rehabbing when you’d rather be woodworking, then you’re losing out.
Thanks to the Internet and to the fact that hand tools are experiencing a revival of sorts, there are more than a few good places to find used hand tools in good condition. There is also no shortage of articles and tutorials on the Internet and in books or magazines that will show you how to clean, tune, and use these tools. If having a new tool is more desirable to you, you’re in luck. There are more than a couple new tool makers of classic hand tools than there was a few decades ago. Some of the new offerings have even been improved over their century old cousins with updated designs, higher tolerances, and better materials. Rather make your own? You can find information and kits from a number of sources to show you how to make everything from your own saws, planes, or even forging your own chisels. If you have an Internet connection and know how to use a search engine, you will have no shortage of reading material.
Of course, all this information can be a bit overwhelming. Deciding what to buy, how much to spend, and whether or not you should buy new, used, or roll your own, can be pretty confusing, not to mention time consuming. What follows is some of my own advice I’ve come up with in respects to certain kinds of tools and why I chose to buy new or not.
Depending on where you are geographically, there can be old chisels at every flea market, antique mall, or garage sale. Around here, they usually show up from time to time, although I have yet to see a good set complete with the four or five common sizes. Even so, they seem to be rust free with decent handles. What you don’t know is how much work you’ll have to put into those old chisels to make them usable. Flattening the back of a chisel so that you can properly sharpen the bevel on the opposite side is the first step in getting any old chisel to work well. Some of those old chisels are bent or beaten within an inch of their lives. Still others might have pitting or other defects very near the edge hidden under a layer of gunk or rust. And still others might have questionable hardness or temper. If you’re determined to buy old chisels, look closely and carry around a small engineers square to check for flatness. One of the first firming chisels I bought was a flea market bargain. That is, until I started to flatten the back. Two days later, I had almost gotten the back flat enough. By the third day, my wrists, elbows and fingers were so sore I vowed never again to repeat that madness. The handle was in great shape, the steel was good, and it held a nice sharp edge faithfully (once the flattening was finished), but I should’ve saved myself the trouble. Three days worth of fettling resulted in one sharp chisel, which in my book, is not a bargain.
Handles are another matter. An old chisel handle may be as strong as the day it was made, or it may crack into 3 pieces the first time you go to use it. Many people tend to re-handle their old chisels after awhile either because they have a favorite style in mind, or they appreciate a custom fit handle. Depending on the style of chisel (socket versus tang) a new handle might be a bit of a challenge, but there’s more than a few good tutorials on the Internet. Aside from that, flattening the back, sharpening up the bevel, and re-handling an old chisel won’t matter much if the steel is not properly annealed or tempered. The ability to hold an edge (or to take an edge!) can make or break that $2 flea market find. Once again, there are more than a few resources on the Internet and in magazine articles that will step you through the process of heat treating a chisel or plane blade, although in my opinion, that’s not a trivial matter for a beginner and lends itself much more to metalworking than woodworking.
In addition to several old chisels, I have 3 different sets of cheap chisels. The first set I bought a long time ago not knowing any better, and the other two I bought hoping I’d get better ones. They all required a decent amount of work to flatten, although it was measured in minutes and hours, not days. All the bevels received a hollow grind, and then honing on my oil stones. All sharpened up fine, but not all tend to hold their edge very well with use. I’m no metalugical expert and I have no capability to analyze the differences (nor do I want to), but I’m smart enough to realize that a chisel should hold an edge for more than a couple minutes of use with domestic hardwoods. With that said, I’ve saved my money for a decent set in the normal useful sizes of 1/8, 1/4, 3/8. 1/2 and 3/4 inches. The hours I’ve spent buying and sharpening cheap chisels, as well as fettling old chisels would’ve been better utilized sharpening up a good set and actually practising with them. There are also more than one type of chisel you might want to consider. Bevel-edged chisels, firmer chisels, and morticing chisels are a few of the more common types. You’ll have to decide what type of work you want to do before choosing the kind of chisels you should buy, although the most commonly used are Bevel-edged chisels. If you were to buy a new set today, I’d visit Tools for Working Wood (www.toolsforworkingwood.com), Lie-Nielson (www.lie-nielsen.com), or Blue Spruce Toolworks (www.bluesprucetoolworks.com) amd select from their inventory. Lee Valley (www.leevalley.com) carries a few less expensive brands that are usually rated satisfactory, as well. One thing to note is, you will want keep a set of cheap chisels around for rough use. There’s some quick and dirty projects I’d use the beaters on instead of a nice expensive set.
You’ll need several good saws for a number of different types of cuts. A dovetail saw, a back saw, sometimes called a tenon saw (filed for rip cutting), and maybe two panel saws, one filed rip, and one filed crosscut. A fret saw, or a coping saw is good to have around, so pick one of those up as well. It’s also quite handy to have a back saw filed crosscut as well to use with a miter box, bench hook, or similar appliance, although you can get by with the rip filed back saw. There are several other saws you might find uses for, a frame saw, a bow saw, and maybe a keyhole saw. For the most part, I’ve gotten by without needing those for much, but they are on my list for future purchase.
First off, if you buy an old saw, you’ll probably need to clean it up and sharpen it. Cleaning is a relatively cheap affair, using a razor blade for scraping and steel wool and/or the finer (320 or higher) grits of automotive sandpaper, along with some odorless Mineral Spirits. Take the handle off, pour on the Mineral Spirits and scrape with the razor blade down the blade, follow that up with a polishing using steel wool or sandpaper. Take it easy if you’re trying to save the etch. Don’t dig in with the corners of the razor. All in all, not too difficult, but it can be messy.
Next, you’ll have to learn how to sharpen a saw. It’s not terribly hard, but it’s time consuming and does require a little bit of research and patience. Vintage Saws (www.vintagesaws.com) has a good primer for saw sharpening (and cleaning), and the Disstonian Institute (www.disstonianinstitute.com) has a wealth of information on Disston saws in general. I’ve sharpened several of my own, including a crosscut back saw, a rip cut back saw, and a couple of my panel saws. First time through, they didn’t improve much. After re-reading the tutorials and trying again, I’d made progress. Better cutting action, a little faster, and cleaner, so I must’ve done something right. I’m still no expert, and I suspect that it could take more than a few sharpening sessions before I could become one.
If this is a challenge you’re willing to take, you’ll need some files, and a saw vise. You can make your own saw vise using a some scrap wood and your bench vise, (anything that holds the saw tightly, teeth up, is fine) so there’s little cost or effort there, but the files are another matter. You won’t find the proper sizes or types one the shelf of the local big box store. Mike Wenzloff of Wenzloff & Sons (www.wenzloffandsons.com) sells files as well as Tools For Working Wood (www.toolsforworkingwood.com) and I’ve been pleased with both vendors. One thing though, buy the file handles they offer as a seperate purchase, they’re worth it.
There’s other facets to saw restoration I’m not going to go into in detail here, but it involves jointing the teeth, setting up the rake and/or fleam for the teeth, and even cutting brand new teeth on the saw plate. Also, there’s the little matter of how much “set” to apply to the teeth. Rip saws don’t have a whole lot, but crosscuts do. You’ll need a sawset for that operation. It depends on what condition your saw is in as to how much effort it will take to get it cutting correctly. There are quite a few articles, web pages, and opinions on all those topics. If you really must have that old saw, but cringe at the thought of trying to make it like new, you should try and find a saw that requires a minor cleaning and light sharpening. The good news is, if you don’t mind spending a few more dollars, you can send it off to Mark Harrell at Bad Axe Toolworks (www.badaxetoolworks.com). Highly recommended and well-reviewed, Mark Harrell apparently does wonders for an old saw.
If none of that sounds appealing to you, buying a saw new may be the way to go. You’ll definitely pay more for new but there’s (usually) no setup or tuning that needs to be done. I couldn’t find a decent old doevetail saw anywhere, except a few I’ve seen on-line, and I don’t like to buy saws sight unseen, especially since bent saw plates, loose handles, and chipped teeth are hard to notice in auction photographs. So I opted to go with the new carbon fiber backed Veritas dovetail saw. I was able to try them out at a local woodworking show and all the reviews I’d seen were fairly positive, so I took a chance. It’s a nice saw that cuts well and I’m glad I don’t have to sharpen those very small teeth. At least not for a while, anyway. You’ll find these new saws at Lee Valley. Another option from Lee Valley is Wenzloff & Sons saws. These saws are always highly rated and very well made. Tools for Working Wood is another place to find good quality saws. Among other brands, they have their own line called Gramercy that are generally rated well. You’ll find other offerings from other manufacturers, like Lie-Nielson so the choices aren’t limited to one or two brands. I’d recommend researching past reviews on handsaws to find out which one might be right for you.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Japanese saws. These saws offer an alternative over the more expensive Western versions. The main difference being that they cut on the pull stroke instead of the push stroke like Western style saws. They are generally made with impulse hardened teeth which are sharp and ready to go out of the box. The downside is, impulse hardened teeth cannot be sharpened or reshaped once they’re dull or broken. Your options are to either replace the blade or buy a whole new saw. The upside is, since they don’t cost as much, you could afford to replace them more frequently. There are slightly more expensive ones that allow you to replace only the blade, if need be. These saws have several different styles for different types of work, which means you’ll have to do some research to identify the ones that are right for you. As with everything tool related, some people love them, others not so much. They can be found at The Japan Woodworker (www.japanwoodworker.com), The Best Things (www.thebestthings.com), or most any woodworking supply store, like WoodCraft (www.woodcraft.com).
Planes and scrapers
Once again, the recurring theme of this article comes back around. The effort required to bring a vintage handplane back to life might be more than some of us are willing to put forth. I’ve purchased several decent vintage Stanley handplanes that didn’t require too much work before they were taking nice shavings. I’ve also purchased a couple that needed some pixie dust and black magic to function correctly, neither of which I had in supply. In either case, these planes didn’t cost very much, and although I can imagine that the price might vary according to your area or availablity, it’s quite possible to get a relative bargain. Several key areas of a used handplane are crucial to it’s performance. The flatness of the sole, if it’s pitted, cracked, or chipped. The condition of the mouth, and whether or not it’s been filed further open, repaired at any point, or if it’s cracked or chipped. The condition of the frog and it’s components, such as the lateral adjuster (if it has one), the lever cap, chip breaker, and the blade itself. All of these factors play into the usability of the plane. There are tomes of information written about restoring and using metal and wood handplanes. Several recent books (and a few vintage ones as well) exist to fill in the details, and delve deeper into the subject. All in all, you should be prepared to take that flea market bargain apart, piece by piece, and spend some time determining it’s condition. My journey with restoring handplanes came about in two distinct experiences. The first experience was all about flattening the sole, tuning up the chip breaker, and sharpening the blade. I had leaned to hollow-grind by that time, so I was able to put a working edge on the blades as well. The trouble was, I really didn’t know how well a plane could (or should) perform. I was able to take shavings without much trouble in relatively soft wood, but had no end of trouble with hardwoods and recalcetrant grain. Nearly a year later, I would sit back down with my stash of plane restoring articles to re-read what I might’ve missed. Flattening the frog, filing a few of the metal to metal mating surfaces, as well as cleaning up the the mouth a little with a file improved the performance even further. In addition, flattening the plane blade face again, and giving it a new edge after more experience sharpening made an even more dramatic difference. After going over each of the planes in my possession and applying those same techniques, I now have a good stable of useful planes.
Aside from metal bench planes you’ll find transitional planes (metal adjusters married to wooden soles), wooden bench planes, moulding planes, specialty planes, and some that defy categorization. Needless to say, they all require their own type of cleaning and tuning up, so your mileage may vary wildly depending on your attention to detail and the state you find the plane in at the time. I’m fortunate to have a few different kinds that I’ve acquired, and I’ve had varying degrees of success. In some cases, I’ve been fortunate enough to find decent workable planes, in other cases, I’ve found none in satisfactory condition and simply bought their new counterparts. In particular, shoulder planes and cabinet scraper planes are difficult for me to come by locally, and when I did find them, they very expensive and missing parts. So both of these items I purchased new. The router plane that I’ve been toiling with was a used Stanley 71 that seems to stain up everything the sole touches. I’ve sanded down the sole, worked through various grits over and over again, and still there’s some small pitting (which is the reason for the stains). Besides the fact that the adjustment mechanism is so full of slop hungry pigs keep wandering into my shop, I have decided that the prudent thing to do will be to purchase one of these things new from either Lie-Nielson or Lee Valley . I’m sure there’s a good example of a used router sitting around somewhere, I just haven’t been lucky enough to find it.
Since I mentioned wooden moulding planes, I’ll add a little more detail. These planes are a whole other subject by themselves. I can’t begin to catalog the types and kinds, either new or used. Suffice to say, used moulding planes are best found on-line through trusted dealers or, once you’re confortable telling good examples from bad ones, auction sites, like Ebay. Learning how to use these planes is another story in itself. If you’re looking to buy new, try Clark & Williams (planemaker.com), and be prepared to wait. There’s a long list of orders. On the bright side, they have DVD’s of how to use and make these planes, and that can help fill in the time between your initial order and final delivery. Also, their planes are supposedly true to form and top quality. I say supposedly, only because I haven’t used them personally. Many others have including the fine people at Colonial Williamsburg and they heartily approve. In any case, If you’re new to moulding planes and their usage, I highly recommended the videos from Clark And Williams on the subject.
Measuring and Marking
If someone would have told me years ago, spend your money and get good ones, I would’ve skipped all the pain and troubles associated with cheap, poorly made straightedges and measuring devices. The amount of time I’ve spend trimming corners and edges to acheive a straight line or a tight fit between boards would’ve been nearly eliminated if I’d made the right choices early on. First off, assuming that big box store measuring devices and accessories are actually good enough for woodworking is a mistake. While most of these items are ok for general carpentry where a 1/4 inch doesn’t matter, and a 3/8 inch can be fudged, making fine furniture or good tight fitting cabinetry is difficult at best. While there are seasoned pros out there that have enough experience to account for the slop in these tools, most of us would be better off with quality marking and measuring tools. The measuring items I’d consider essential are a retractable tape measure, a 12 inch steel ruler, a combination square, and a 4 and 6 inch engineers’ square. Each of these, except usually the engineers’ squares, should be clearly and accurately marked with their graduations stamped or milled in, rather than painted on. The graduations themselves should be easy to distinguish between themselves (meaning, you should be able to tell a 1/4 mark from a 1/2 mark at a glance). They should also be made with useful graduations, whether Standard or Metric, whichever you prefer. A ruler isn’t much use for woodworking if it only measures inches in 64th’s or 128th’s. Other measuring devices that are good to have around (in no particular order) include, a carpenter’s framing square, a rafter’s angle square, a double square, a try square, a folding cabinetmakers ruler, and a dovetail saddle square (one for hardwoods and one for softwoods). Starrett brand squares and measuring devices are probably the best choice for most of these items. While not hardware store cheap, they are accurate, and can be found at many woodworking stores and online retailers. Just don’t drop them on the concrete floor or leave them out in the rain and they should give you a lifetime of service.
Marking tools come in a wide range of flavors, for good reasons. Personal preference, function, and feel are all factors that influence which ones become indespensible for you. Anything from cheap pencils to finely made marking knives can be had for use. A marking kife is essential for marking out dovetails, rabbets, and a number of other woodworking joints. One with a beveled side and an unbeveled side to the blade is more useful for tight spaces and general marking than just a plain blade. These knives vary greatly depending on the handle and shape of the blade. Blue Spruce Toolworks (www.bluesprucetoolworks.com) makes a very nice knife in several sizes. If these don’t fit your wallet or style, marking knives in general can be found at almost any online woodworking retailer or local dealer. Another useful marking guage is a mortising gauge. These come in traditional or modern designs, and once again, it’s a matter of preference. I have both an antique and a modern style wheel-based gauge (both marking and mortising) and between the two, I’m getting along just fine. I prefer a wheel-based gauge, like the Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge more so than a pin-based gauge, simply because I’ve found it easier to control. Lee Valley carries both in case you have trouble making up your mind. When it comes to marking pencils, you can find nicely made mechanical pencils, or the grade school wooden types. Use both, see which ones you like and buy more than a couple, since you’ll be scratching your head looking for it frequently. A marking crayon in a light color of yellow or white is also handy for dark woods, like walnut where a normal pencil mark doesn’t show up well.
Buying used measuring and marking devices is an art in itself. For some of these tools your success may vary greatly. I’ve come across no shortage of try and framing squares, rulers, tape measures, and everything in between. Trouble is, you have no idea whether or not any of these are still accurate. Next to chisels, I’d say that used marking and measuring tools are probably the most abused items you’ll find, probably because they were used so frequently. Depending on the square, you can estimate it’s accuracy or remedy the damage, but in my opinion, unless you find something in pristine condition or like to collect tools more than work wood, its best to pass these by and get something new. For mortising and marking gauges, finding something used in good shape is a little easier and less of a risk. Noticable wear and tear against the face and body and how much of the pins or knife is left and how tightly they lock down, are pretty decent indicators of how much life is left in these. There’s plenty of information on the Internet concerning restoration of these tools, and you’ll even find good solid information on making your own, so choose your path.
I’ve got a few more categories in mind for a later post, but for now, I’ll let this soak in. Enjoy!