The Beginner’s List

My beginner’s tool list:

  • Workbench
  • Panel cross-cut saw
  • Two back saws, one rip, one cross-cut
  • Stanley No. 5 Jack plane, or non-Stanley equivalent
  • One 3/4″ chisel
  • One 1/4″ mortise chisel [edit: go with a 3/8″ not 1/4″]
  • A Mallet
  • Two holdfasts
  • Two to four wooden handscrew clamps
  • Two to four 4 foot long bar clamps
  • One pint wood glue
  • Cut nails, 1″ long
  • Cut nails, 1 1/4″ long
  • Flat head screws, 1 1/4″
  • Sandpaper in grits 100, 160, 180, 220
  • Sharpening stones in rough, medium, and fine grits
  • Knock off of an eclipse sharpening jig
  • 12″ Combination Square
  • Marking Gauge
  • Marking Knife
  • 24″ Straightedge
  • Tape measure
  • 16 oz claw hammer
  • Set of screwdrivers
  • Drill with common bits in common sizes

This post got away from me. Here’s what I hope to get out of it: a conversation. Do you think someone could get started with what I’ve listed above? Can something be removed from that list?

I go into more detail and rationales below, but the gist of what I’m hoping for is captured above.


I’m not the least bit an expert. The idea that I can tell people what tools they need to do woodworking is on the one hand absurd. There is however one perspective I do have that the experts don’t: since I am still a beginner I’m very much in touch with what it’s like to attempt to do wood work without a full set of tools, and I’m in touch with the challenge of collecting the tools folks say you do need.

That challenge comes in more than one form, the most obvious being financial. Finding and reading through the lists of what tools people think you need results in some lists that will cost several thousands of dollars (that number is generally closer to ten thousand than it is to one thousand).

The other challenge is actually finding said tools in the first place. Luckily, sorta, there are some excellent tool manufacturers today, and if money is no object you can get most of what you need quickly by being willing to spend a lot.

I don’t know anyone actually like that, though. No one that I’m aware of goes out and purchases all the tools they need before they start woodworking.

Thinking about how I felt getting started, that last statement is a very key point to understand: no matter what else you read out there, you do not have to have all “essential” tools to begin woodworking.

There is an argument to be made that you will need a particular list of tools, eventually, and that is what these lists you find aim to tell you, I think.

The other challenge to these lists is that the type of woodworking you find yourself enjoying will dictate what your final list looks like.

Does near every project you make include dado’s? If so a router plane will be a huge help. If more than half of the projects you do include dovetails, you’ll probably want a dovetail saw. If on the other hand dovetails appear only occasionally in your work, you might get by with the same tenon saw you use for other tasks.

Were I to possess enough arrogance to believe with my lack of experience I could make a list of tools a woodworker needs, I’d try to make more than one list: one for when you’re just starting out, and then additional lists that expand upon what your tools allow you to do, ultimately adding specialized tools depending on the type of woodworking you end up doing.

Come to think of it, I am rather arrogant, hence this blog post.
These would be the tools I think you should get if you want to START woodworking.

This is my attempt at a revision of the list of tools I am trying to own myself, which is what a famous contemporary woodworker wrote that people should aim to have. It’s how I would write his list differently.

That list is here, on my tools page.

Item number one: A bench. You’ve got to have a surface to work on. This surface is more than just a table: it’s a work holding tool.

That said, don’t get paralyzed by thinking you need the very best, perfectly designed bench to get started. You’ll never get started. An old door over two sawhorses *will* be enough to start out with, despite all it’s faults. By all means, do better than this if you can. Just don’t never start this work for lack of a 500 lb Roubo.

Next, three saws: A panel cross-cut saw; might I recommend the $15 Stanley SharpTooth 20″ Crosscut? At this point you don’t know anything about rake, set, and teeth per inch, so just grab this cheap plastic handled thing. It cuts fast, and will get you started.

Two back saws. I’m not even going to distinguish between carcass, tenon, or sash saws at this point. What I got, and they’ve served me quite well, are this pair from Lee Valley:
http://www.leevalley.com/US/Wood/page.aspx?p=66066&cat=1,42884,68511&ap=1

One plane. A Stanley No. 5 Jack plane, or non-Stanley equivalent.

There are hundreds of thousands of these on the used tool market. There’s a good and interesting case to be made that, if you have the money, you purchase this plane brand new from either Lie-Nielsen or Lee Valley. This will cost you around $325. The argument goes that this plane will be in perfect shape, and so you’ll learn what a well made, finely tuned plane is supposed to be like. Still, that’s a lot of cash! I think most people start with an old used Stanley. Some of those folks go on to be master woodworkers.

There’s a fair argument that a No. 4 would be a better choice. With dimensional lumber available the need for rough work can be avoided. I think the extra length of a No. 5 is helpful when beginning. I also think a No. 5 is very versatile, and can be put into service as a smoother. They call it a Jack for a reason.

One 3/4″ chisel. Since you’re being saved from a common error and not buying a “full set” of chisels containing sizes you don’t need, you might as well make it a good one. I haven’t tried many, but I like Lie-Nielsen’s bevel edge chisels. One ¾” costs $55.

One 1/4″ mortise chisel. Since you’re starting out and don’t know much yet, trust the brands. I’d recommend going for a Lie-Nielsen or one from Tools For Working Wood. There are predominantly two styles of mortise chisels out there. Either will work. If you’re buying new and spending less than $40, be careful, it might be a piece of junk.

A wooden mallet to strike your chisels with.

Two to four wooden handscrew clamps
Two to four 4 foot long bar clamps
Two holdfasts
One pint wood glue
A box/bag of cut nails, either 6d or 4d, or better yet both.
A box/bag of 1 1/4″ long flat head screws that aren’t ugly.
A selection of sandpaper in grits 100, 160, 180, 220.

A fair quality sharpening stone selection; either water, oil, or diamond stone. I won’t get into grits, but you need something coarse, something fine, and something in between. If you’re just starting out don’t worry about buying top-of-the-line (that can cost over $100 per stone). Your sharpening philosophy will evolve (in other words, change) over time.

A knock off of an eclipse sharpening jig.

Marking & Measuring stuff:
A 12″ combination square.
A marking gauge. Don’t break the bank here. There’s really nice ones, but you can start with anything.
A marking knife. This doesn’t have to be expensive either. Some people use their chisel.

A straight edge; something at least 24″ is nice. Personally, I think it’s worth owning a Carpenter’s Square. Even though you aren’t building houses this thing will still come in handy, and double as a straightedge.

Other stuff you probably already have, and if not should get regardless:
a 16 oz claw hammer
a set of screwdrivers
a drill
a tape measure; for woodworking it doesn’t need to be any longer than 12 feet.

These are the first things I’d buy or find in order to get started. I think you can make a lot of things with just these tools. Those things can be made better, and more easily, with additional tools. Add some others and you can do more complex things.

This though is an effort to create a list to start with. Work with these tools for a while, and a you’ll know what you need next, and not have to rely on what someone else wrote down.

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15 Responses to The Beginner’s List

  1. Wesley Beal says:

    Oops. Obviously I left of measuring & marking stuff. Need a combination square, a marking gauge, a marking knife, a straight edge, and a short tape measure. Going to edit the post now and add those.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TIWilson says:

    I’m with you in the no. 5. I got mine in decent shape for about $50 and it’s my go-to. I spent a lot of time tuning it, and now I can 4square and (nearly) finish a board using just that. While everyone will have different ideas about what is necessary to start with, your list is pretty solid.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wesley Beal says:

      I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from the value of having a No. 4, and block plane, and a jointer. For the first tools in a person’s toolbox, I think a person can get started without them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. spokeshave27 says:

    This is a great list and I would add just a few:
    I assume no rip saw because you purchased a circular saw.
    I would add a 3/8″ mortise chisel (get a ‘pig sticker’ English style) Reason being most tenons are going to be in 3/4 stock – The rule of thumb for mortises is less than a 1/2 but more than a 1/3, the thickness of the wood – so in a 3/4″ piece it would need to be more then 1/4 but less than 3/8. Personally 1/4 mortises are pretty thin.
    a block plane.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Wesley Beal says:

      So go with a wider mortise chisel. Sounds good to me (I’d replace the 1/4 with the 3/8); I’ve been using a 1/4.

      Hmm… Perhaps this is the excuse I need to get that nice Mortise chisel from Tools For Working Wood next month…..

      I skipped the panel sized rip saw because I think you can get by without it, at first anyway. Doing this may lead you to, as it did for me, purchase a small table saw (I still don’t own a panel rip saw).

      I skipped the block plane because, while nice, I don’t think it is essential to have in the beginning. I think you can adjust your No. 5 and manage – you’ve just got to be extra careful working on end grain. This approach first saves you some money so you can get started, and second teaches you more about how the plane works.

      Like

  4. Siavosh says:

    When I was looking at beginner lists, sometimes the length definitely intimidated me. But I think you can actually start out with much less. Obviously it depends on what you want to build, and I’m in the school of buying tools for your next project, not in anticipation of possible projects. Also when I first started out, I knew very little about maintaining my tools, or basic skills of joinery and dimensioning stock. Starting out with a minimal set let me learn things at a good pace.

    Here’s my tool list for my first year which allowed me to learn a lot and build boxes, saw horses, bookshelves etc

    – One Ryobo saw which has rip and cross-cut teeth
    – A couple chisels
    – A square (small or medium size)
    – No. 5 Jackplane
    – Combination waterstone (1000x and 4000x)
    – Hammer of any type
    – Dining room table
    – A couple clamps

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wesley Beal says:

      Nice list!

      Faced with the challenge of not knowing what I should do, I was very attracted to the list of tools a person ought to have as outlined in one case by Christopher Schwarz in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. I’ve been working my way through gathering those tools together (see my “Tools” page in the menu above).

      I just purchased a very nice shoulder plane from Lie-Nielsen (see previous blog post). I’m very happy with it. That said, it was an expensive tool, and a specialized tool. So why is it on a list of “Essential Tools”?

      I think these lists cater to setting someone up to being able to do professional level woodworking; setting someone up to make a living as a furniture maker.

      That high an investment makes sense for someone who’s going to pay their rent by using the tools they own.

      I have a day job. This is a hobby for me. In my situation the price tag, and the notion that “You need to own these tools if you’re going to do woodworking” can be really demoralizing.

      I’d like to see popularized a more rudimentary list that will let someone get started. That list will need to allow someone to do a fair number of things. At the same time, ideally, the reliance on these tools will develop a persons skills and prepare them to take on more complicated things.

      A thought I didn’t get into in this post is that I think chisels are really important. When I’m using a chisel I feel the most in tune with how the wood behaves. Planes are next up in terms of feedback – learning how wood reacts to our attempts to manipulate it. I think understanding wood is maybe the key to understanding what tools you need.

      I’m still very much a beginner, so maybe I’m wrong. But understanding that end grain will want to break off if you aren’t careful with your Jack plane, seeing how it will follow the grain and try to split when chopping with a chisel, feeling how a crosscut saw behaves differently than a rip saw: these lessons I think can teach a person what they need that next tool they purchase to do.

      Like

  5. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    A good post by Wesley from Wesleyworkswithwood. I like lists. I enjoy seeing tool lists that people think of as essential. I used to like the packing lists for backpacking that the Boy Scouts printed. I like the lists that traveling Buddhist monks put out as part of their order. Lists pare us down to the bare bones and make us think about what we have, what we need, and what we want. Head over to Wesley’s and get in on the discussion. It should be a grand old time.

    Liked by 2 people

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