Woodworking is a gratifying and accessible pastime. Using your mind and body, a woodworker can take modest pieces of lumber and transform them into something that is functional, fulfilling and worthy of pride.
Many are intrigued by the promise of the hobby, but might not know where to start. Typically, it begins with an idea—”I’d love to make this.” Which then flows into concepts of construction techniques and engineering requirements. But then what? Early in the process things quickly turn from “all I have to do is cut this part to this exact size” to “how exactly am I going to cut this part to this exact size?”
The challenge of tooling up to accomplish the tasks required for a project can feel colossal for a budding woodworker. So many things to buy. So vast a range in pricing. Many don’t even know where to begin.
If we were just starting out and putting together a wishlist, it would probably look something like the one below. Not that it’s feasible for the average person to just run out and throw a lot of money on the counter, purchasing everything at once. But, acquiring these tools a little at a time could tool-up a beginner’s workshop quickly.
Our recommendation is to look at each project, mentally build them and reference this list to determine what should be the highest priority for procurement. Soon enough, you’ll likely be using them to build things to organize your ever-expanding collection. But, that’s a discussion for another day.
It starts with a place to work and a way to keep things organized. For woodworkers, workbenches and tool storage are an obsession in their own right. Many of us build a variety of these of these items throughout the course of our lives—accommodating our own specific methods of work, areas of focus and preferred tools. But to begin, you simply need a surface upon which to work and a means of keeping your tools from being misplaced or abused.
Any solid, relatively flat workspace will do. Many beginning woodworkers settle for sawhorses (sometimes spanned with a discarded door to create a large area), old cabinets or tables that by age and design are suitable to taking some abuse. All of these are acceptable and even recommended. However, a nicer workbench offers some things that can help a craftsman at work—serving almost as an extra set of hands.
A robust shop-built workbench can be built in a weekend, giving the woodworker a surface that fits their available space and providing a solid surface to which parts can be clamped in place to aid in milling and shaping. Alternatively, a simple Black & Decker workmate has adjustable tables that can be used to hold parts securely for layout, cutting and routing.
A pine, DIY workbench can be built for less than $100. Workmates come in a variety of sizes and styles and can be had for anywhere from $75-150.
Get in the habit of putting your tools away. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” is a rule that will save you countless hours of searching when you want to be building. For beginners, a simple plastic toolbox can be had for as little as $20. Or you can make a wooden tote in an evening for less than $10.
In woodworking, off by 1/16” might as well be off by an inch. Those “little” gaps add up quickly and result in parts that don’t mate or unsightly imperfections that leave the craftsman disappointed in the outcome of his efforts. Accuracy starts with the layout and quality measuring tools are a must.
One of the most-used tools will be your tape measure. We recommend a 12’ tape. That’s long enough to measure nearly every project a typical woodworking undertakes, but still compact enough that you aren’t banging it off of everything in your shop as it hangs clipped to a belt or pocket. You don’t have to break the bank, but since this will be used on nearly every part you make, don’t go ridiculously cheap, either. Plan to invest about $10.
Most woodworkers typically have a collection of squares, each a little better for certain situations. To begin, though, a combination square provides the most flexibility and can be used almost universally. They mark straight lines, 90° and 45° angels and can often have a built-in bubble level.
In addition, there are lots of like tricks—such as setting the depth to a specific measurement and using it to guide a pencil along an edge to mark a long, parallel line—that can make layout work faster and easier.
A decent 12” combination square can be purchased for around $15.
Your combination square will likely have a removable rule, but that adds another step to the task. We recommend having another standalone steel rule for layout work. We have several and they are put to work all the time.
Like most tools, you can certainly spend a lot on one of these if you want (our favorites have little ticks machined right into them for ease of making precise marks with a 5mm mechanical pencil), but all you really need is something flat and straight with clear, easy-to-read measurement designations. Another detail we consider a must is having a rule that begins measuring from the end.
You’ll be surprised how frequently you want to butt the edge of the rule against a surface so you can measure out from there.
We recommend having an 18” or 24” metal ruler that meets these requirements. They can be had for $10-$20, on the low end of the scale.
Cutting by hand
It takes a lot longer and more effort to cut accurately with a handsaw. But for a beginner, this might be the most economical option. Beyond that, most experienced woodworkers use handsaws for a variety of tasks—sometimes the old-fashioned approach is still the best course of action.
Again, handsaws can be a place of investment for the avid woodworker or tool collector. It’s not uncommon to find precision saws that cost upwards of $200 each. But for common tasks, many lower cost saws will get the job done.
A simple backsaw can be acquired for $20 from nearly any hardware store. Just know, you’ll likely be expanding on your personal collection as your skills progress.
Cutting straight and to the line is the key with all machining efforts. Guides are the secret and the most common one is the humble miterbox. These are typically designed with pre-cut slots for 90° and 45° crosscuts and 45° bevels. The standard models have an extended lip on one end of the base, making it convenient to clamp them into a vise or to a workbench. Cheap versions run about $10-$15.
It’s almost a running joke, but no woodworker ever has enough clamps. In our shop, rows of them line the walls, hang from pegboards and are even stretched out along the ceiling. For as simple as they are, they are equally as crucial to woodworking. The problem is, they can quickly run up an exorbitant tab. Plan on getting by with the bare minimum—but, also plan on buying more and more in the years to come.
Most assembly tasks will require two-to-four clamps employed at any given time. Again, look at your immediate project requirements and consider your purchase from there. In our experience (we like to make a lot of furniture), our 50” inch bar clamps are most frequently pulled from their racks. But, too long can be a detriment (particularly in small shops or complicated glue-ups), so shorter is often better.
A great place to start is with four 24” inch bar clamps. While you’ll love the convenience of built-in cams on higher-end models, a simple set will suffice for starting out. Avoid the “quick-grip” style versions if you only have a limited number of clamps, as they have a few drawbacks. Instead, opt for something with a standard screw mechanism for applying pressure. You can get these for as little as $20 each. You could also consider pipe clamps, which use standard black pipe available at most hardware stores, fitted with ends that can be purchased for around $10 each.
These parallel-jawed, wooden clamps are work horses. You can use them for assembly, laminating stock, securing wood while you work and so much more. We recommend getting four 10” handscrews, but you’ll likely purchase more in several sizes. A 10” handscrew runs around $15-$20.
Hand-held power tools
Let’s face it—handtools are great and all, but there’s a reason for the popularity of the plugged-in device. They are fast, accurate and sometimes the only feasible way to handle a particular challenge. Most shops have multiple stationary tools—tablesaw, drillpress, jointer, planer and more. And, yes, these are the workhorses.
But for the fledgling woodworker, dropping hundreds and hundreds of dollars on these tools can quickly take the hobby out of reach. For them, these handheld tools provide much more economical options for increasing the speed of production.
Primarily thought of as a construction tool, circular saws have plenty of uses for the average woodworker. Nothing is more well-suited for cutting sheet goods or busting down lumber to manageable sizes. For a woodworker with limited tools, this saw can be used to make all of the necessary cuts to form parts for all sizes of projects.
A decent 7-1/2″ circular saw can be had for as little as $60.
Also known as a jigsaw, a sabresaw works similar to a bandsaw, allowing you to make curved or pocket cuts at a fraction of the cost. Blades are inexpensive. The tool is easy to use. A beginner model can be purchased for $40 and will manage a ton of tasks.
Straight, perfect holes are a requisite of woodworking. Whether for creating mechanical joinery or simply drilling pilot holes for screws, you need to be able to bore holes at precise locations and depths for a majority of woodworking projects.
A handheld variable-speed drill outfitted with the proper bit will address most woodworking tasks. You can get them cordless or a plug-in model, depending upon your preference, and prices start at around $30.
For bits you should have a few sets. Our recommendations include a standard set of workhorse bits—exactly the common style most think of when considering drill bits, brad point bits—which result in relatively flat-bottomed holes and countersinking bits—for use with typical flathead screws, milling a small indentation that allows for the screwhead to be flush with the milled surface.
Drill bit sets are readily available and range from $10-$30, depending upon style and variety of included sizes.
A router can elevate the level of a woodworkers output. They are typically used for adding decorative edges to wooden components, but can also be used in joinery—from milling rabbets and dadoes to roughing in mortises.
Routers can also be mounted to shop-built tables, extending their usability.
For beginners we recommend a simply fixed-based, handheld router. However, if budget allows, consider options such as variable speed or a plunge router. Most woodworkers eventually have two, three or more routers, each best-suited for particular situations. However, even a modest one will see plenty of duty throughout a woodworker’s tenure.
A basic set of bits should include 1/8″ roundover, 1/4″ roundover, 1/4″ straight and 1/2″ straight. These four bits can manage enough tasks that even a beginner will not be limited in options.
A decent router can be acquired for $100. We prefer carbide bits to high-speed steel, if you can swing it. They cut better and last longer. You can pick up a set with a variety of sizes and styles for less than $30.
Sanding is the bane of the woodworker. It’s also the difference between a good and great finished product. Whenever we can make sanding easier, we do. A power sander outfitted with multiple-grit papers can make this chore a lot more sufferable. Our favorites include a random orbit sander and an in-line palm sander. Each runs about $30 on the entry-level scale.
But, powered sanders can never be used for every inch of a project. You’ll have to do some of the work with your shoulder. That said, a sanding block makes the work a lot more accurate and easy.
You can make one with scrap wood or purchase a nice little rubber-composite one for $5.
Rounding it all out
There are a few other items that perhaps aren’t “must-haves” for the beginning woodworker, but they surely do help. If these don’t make your immediate shopping list, they are at least worthy of mentioning to friends and family that are looking for gift ideas.
A sharp chisel will make a lot of tasks easier. Whether you are hand-cutting intricate joinery or simply cleaning up an inside corner, getting a decent set of chisels and learning to use them will pay dividends in your workmanship. Some sets are available for as little at $40.
Most intermediate woodworks have a handful of go-to planes they use for tasks throughout a project. Planes, too, can quickly become expensive, plus they require a bit of a learning curve to use.
For beginners, we recommend at least acquiring a block plane. This can be used for lots of little fitting type tasks. Even a block plane from the hardware store can be used and those only cost about $15.
Books upon books have been written on this subject alone. That’s because nothing makes your woodworking life easier than sharp tools. We like waterstones and diamond stones and have our own system for keeping our edges razor-sharp, but a little research will show you what best suits your budget and style. Again, this can get expensive. But cheaper stone can be found for as little as $20.
Whether for marking lines or precisely locating the center of a hole, this simple tool will see a lot of use. Awls are readily found for $5.
While we certainly don’t agree with the mindset that says, “If it doesn’t fit, get a bigger hammer,” we understand that a little persuasion can be helpful in getting things to work right. Wooden mallets can be used for tapping chisels or wooden project parts without marring the surface. They can be bought for around $10.