Top Woodworking Hand Tools that Rule

Fancy technology generates its own hype, and that’s why you don’t hear much about hand tools in the advertising-driven world of home building and renovation. But even though they’re simple, and sometimes homely, hand tools still play a key role in craftsmanship. They always will. Here’s the scoop on four of my favourites.

Japanese Saws

  • In the Orient, handsaws evolved differently than they did in the west, and in the battle for saw supremacy, the west lost.
  • Starting with the premise that handsaws should cut on the pull-stroke, Japanese blades were forged thinner that those from the European push-stroke heritage.
  • A thinner blade chews through less wood than a thicker one, yielding more progress from the effort you put in.
  • In fact, Japanese saws are usually about half as thick as western saws designed to do the same job, though they cut more than twice as fast because of superior tooth design.
  • The Ryoba-style of saw is a good general-purpose model because its flexible, double-sided blade is ideal for trimming wooden parts flush with their neighbours, and for all-around cutting. I also use my Ryoba for pruning trees.

Two Favourite Planes

Hand PlaneIf craftsmanship is about guiding your work towards a perfect ideal, then hand planes help you along the last stage of that journey. They allow wood to be smoothed, and parts to be adjusted with a finesse that stationary jointers, power planers, and belt sanders can’t match. A well-tuned plane is the Stradivarius of hand tools, and like a violin it takes skill to prepare and use.

In the days before electric power tools, every woodworker needed a large collection of hand planes, for everything from dressing rough lumber to making moldings. But now that electricity powers the grunt-work in the trade, many of the old planes don’t make much sense, except as museum pieces. Yet block and smoothing planes are still found in every serious woodworkers toolkit because they continue to serve a useful purpose.

Block Plane

  • Block planes are short — about 6 inches in length — and can be used with one hand or two.
  • The shallow blade angle of the low-angle varieties is best because it slices end grain most smoothly, boosting tool versatility.
  • That’s good because it means better performance while tweaking the mitre joints on trim and molding — one of the best uses for this tool.

Jack Plane

  • A jack plane is a two-handed, multipurpose tool — typically 14 inches long.
  • It’s made for working larger pieces of wood that require smoothen and straightening.
  • You’ll find jack planes useful for tweaking cabinet doors, furniture parts and interior doors.

Bench Chisels

  • Chisels are like planes in that some of the once-popular designs have been squeezed out of prominence by power tools.
  • But a good set of bench chisels– 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1-inch wide — is still something that every serious home handy-person needs.
  • Once again, it’s all about fine work in close quarters.

Keep It Sharp

The main thing that hand planes and chisels need is a surgically-sharp blade. The finest plane in the world is just an expensive paperweight if you can’t impart and maintain a hairsplitting edge on its blade. And the fastest route to this goal is also the least well known: the electric buffing wheel.

  • By installing a hard felt wheel on any bench grinder, then charging the surface of that wheel with a fine abrasive, you’ll get the world’s fastest power hone.
  • It’s capable of taking a coarse, freshly-ground edge straight from a grindstone and bringing it to optimum keenness in just two or three minutes.
  • No sharpening stones required.
  • The only thing to remember is that the cutting edge of the blade must point in the same direction as the rotation of the hard felt buffing wheel.
  • Keep this in mind, give yourself permission to mess up during the learning process, and you’ll master a skill that keeps paying off.

Posted on November 11th, 2010

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