In the beginning... #1: So you wanna start woodworking?

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Blog entry by olivine posted 02-24-2013 01:35 PM 1991 reads 1 time favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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The other day (actually several months ago), I was woodworking in my shop one weekend when someone stopped in and asked what tools one needs to start woodworking. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked and I gave the same advice I’ve given before, as I’m sure many of us have, rattling off a list of tools that adds up to a tidy sum.

“Well, most shops are built around the table saw, but you’ll also need a router table—-a must. Bandsaws are nice for curves and small pieces. A chop/mitre saw comes in handy. If you want to save money on wood you’ll also want a surface planer and of course a joiner is nice for squaring up pieces. And then there are the hand tools…”

But this time, while telling him, in the back of my mind there was this nagging feeling that I was giving really terrible advice (you know the kind that makes the screeching record sound on TV). And I’ve done a lot of reading some articles that touch on this subject lately and I’ve realized there is a much better answers and they make a lot more sense. There are a couple different ways I think one could approach the subject better. The first is by answering their question by asking several of them (and I’ll get to those in a bit). The second is to start simple. Robert Lang makes this point in his recent blog. His advice can be summed up in one sentence “one sharp tool and a hunk of wood will take you farther, faster.”

I’ve been woodworking now for about 10 years and I had the benefit of having my future Father-in-law help me get started in a shop where he owned a great many tools (mostly power). While I worked in that shop for a few years before setting up my own in a storage unit and soon after a one-car garage. I really didn’t start with much. In fact, I still don’t have a table saw (one of the central pillars of a modern shop, remember). Not that I haven’t needed one, but much like Chris Schwartz has said, “there are five ways to do everything in woodworking.” When I started in my own shop, I used a jigsaw to rough cut shapes and then used a router with a straight bit running along a carpenter’s level to make nice clean edges and ends.

The moral of the story, find out what tools they already have. Maybe they can get started today… it’s probably won’t be a Federal style highboy, but they can cut their teeth on some simple things first like a bird house, a step stool, or a spoon. These projects are great too since they don’t require much wood (which can be cheap and/or made from scratch) and are everyday items. It is nice to be inspired by a completed project that you see frequently to remind you to get back out in the shop.

Now for the questions. Course I already gave you #1.

1) What tools to you already own?

See above discussion.

2) What would you like to see yourself make?

This helps guide the best choice for the fewest number of tools to get started. Do you want to make furniture, turning, carving, etc.?

Want to turn? Get a small lathe and 3/4” skew and a gouge or two and you’re in business. Don’t forget a sharpening stone or grinder.

Want to carve? A small set of carving tools. And by set I don’t mean a pre-packaged set—they’re a waste of money since you’re unlikely to use half the tools in a set. I’d suggest four gauges, two with a gentle sweep one smallish and one largish, and two with a narrow sweep again one smallish and one largish. Add a knife or a skew chisel to the mix and you’ll have a decent beginners set. Go with the sharpening stone here (they’re delicate).

Want to build furniture? Again start small. A saw (chop, circular, jig, band, table, hand… whatever, choose one or two), a square and some sandpaper. Go ahead, use nails or screws. Work on learning fancy joints if you like it later. Just remember the more accurate you are the better it looks and holds together. If you like it come back later and I’ll give you a list as long as my… arm.

3) How much do you want to spend? (No limit! Oh please, everyone’s got limits and who knows if you’ll really like it.)

Either way, start by looking for used tools. Craigslist, gumtree, ebay, a used tool sale, flea market, and estate sales are great places to start looking. You’re unlikely to find anything at garage sales… Most garage sales that advertise tools have wrenches, rusty hammers and worn out screwdrivers. Just remember used tools often need a lot of work. You’ll save a bundle but spend a bunch of time tuning them (there are lots of good resources for learning how to do this and how to choose a good prospect). Don’t want to spend the time? I don’t and never have; I like to work on wood not tools. Just expect to pay more and don’t buy crap—you’ll regret it. A good tool holds its value well and you can get most of your money back if you don’t like woodworking.

So what makes me an expert to give this advice you ask? Ha! I’m no expert, but I’m not too old to remember what it was like when I started. I’m probably just moving out of the beginner stage, although with many things I’m still there. I didn’t grow up making things; when I started woodworking I couldn’t drive a nail straight if my life depended upon it. I just looked at the price of decent furniture before I got married and thought “no way I can’t afford that and I can probably learn to do it myself for less than the cost of the cheap junk.” So for those of you looking to start… there may be hope for you yet and it doesn’t have to cost a bundle.

8 comments so far

View JesseTutt's profile


854 posts in 2139 days

#1 posted 02-24-2013 02:06 PM

Thanks for the thought provoking ideas.

-- Jesse, Saint Louis, Missouri

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15369 posts in 2647 days

#2 posted 02-24-2013 02:16 PM

Guess I’m not old enough to have anyone ask me what it takes to get started in this hobby. That, or they look at my stuff and don’t consider me to be a good example of a woodworker. :-) Oh, well.

Good stuff in this blog. There are lots of ways (five? maybe!) to answer the question, but #1 always should be ‘you can start with anything!’ Because that’s what I started with. If the motivation is there, a pocket knife will do for carving, and an old Craftsman table saw will perform miracles.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3363 days

#3 posted 02-24-2013 02:54 PM

So true. It could even be a great to start with some reasonably good hand tools instead of machines if someone could show how to sharpen the edge tools and use them properly. I think a lot of folks think that they must have machines to become a woodworker, but look at all the stuff made over the last few thousand years without them.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Grumpymike's profile


2263 posts in 2344 days

#4 posted 02-24-2013 03:58 PM

To amplify Mike (Stefang):
I was approached not to long ago with the same question, “How do I get started and what do I need”.
Well My answer was a loaded question/answer. “What do you want to make”?
Well, the answer is usually an entertainment center, or a bedroom set, and the answer to that is “Whoa there, thoes are some pretty serious projects. Let’s start with something a bit smaller”.
So, I thought that the band saw is not as intimidating as some of the other equipment, and coached him through a bandsaw box, paying attention to grain, and keeping fingers away from the blade, and sanding.
Fast forward three weeks: A new Laguna 14” band saw is delivered to his garage …
Ya just never know.

-- Grumpy old guy, and lookin' good Doin' it. ... Surprise Az.

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3363 days

#5 posted 02-24-2013 08:15 PM

So true Mike. I’m sure you took the right approach. Most folks begin fixated on machines and I’m one of them. Unfortunately there were no woodworking sites when I began. The internet was still in it’s infancy with nowhere to get advice from or to become aware of different options. Few people are motivated with the prospect of working with hand tools. My interest in hand tools developed over time and of course I still use my machines for most of my work, but I find myself more and more often choosing a hand tool for a task because it is the quickest route and a lot more satisfying.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View olivine's profile


20 posts in 2716 days

#6 posted 02-24-2013 11:20 PM

Thanks for the replies guys. I completely agree… It doesn’t matter if you use hand tools or power tools as long as you have fun. And like stefang says, sharp tools are the key. It makes the wood easier to work and more forgiving and is also much safer.


View woody57's profile


650 posts in 3456 days

#7 posted 02-25-2013 02:42 AM

I started out with a drill and a jigsaw. If a person really wants to learn they will.

-- Emmett, from Georgia

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3363 days

#8 posted 02-25-2013 10:22 AM

I have to agree with you Woody. First comes the desire. My motivation was a bowl turned by my older brother in high school. It was a segmented turning made from walnut with a really nice finish. That was my motivation to buy a lathe and get started. I didn’t make a conscious decision to take up woodworking as such. But one thing leads to another and I wound up being a general woodworker. I’m sure something similar happens to most others.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

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