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Choosing Hand Tools

One problem an aspiring hand tool galoot is faced with is which tools to buy.

If you ask around in woodworking forums, the answer usually is: "Buy the best tools you can afford." The reasons are manyfold: many cheap tools are not even close to actually being usable; inexpensive tools may require a considerable amount of fettling, and a beginning woodworker will not know how to get them into a usable condition; bad tools might put you off woodworking for good; if you buy a cheap tool, you will soon discard it and buy a higher-quality tool anyway; and finally, somewhat arrogantly, "my time is too valuable for bad tools."

All of these are valid reasons, and I sympathize with most of them. I also agree that many of the hand tools on the market, particularly those in the big box stores, are junk. But I still think that going for "the best tool I can afford" is unrealistic. Someone who wants to start woodworking may actually be able to afford a $400 Lie Nielsen plane, a $230 Colen Clenton marking gauge, a $350 damascus steel chisel forged by a Japanese master, a $300 handmade Japanese saw, and a $200 Starrett combination square (I'm not making this up, these prices are real). I doubt, though, that it would make any sense for a beginning woodworker to buy any one of these tools.

In the following, I will show some of the hand tools that have worked well for me and that are, on average, one-tenth of the price of the aforementioned high-end options.

These are the tools I would consider the bare minimum if you want to make hardwood lap joints with hand tools. Starting clockwise from the top left, we have:

  • hand plane. This is the excellent high-angle smoother from Mujingfang. In my, albeit limited, experience, this plane is the best value for the money to be had on the plane market. It is about 44 €, and it is well-known for its good overall finish and very durable HSS blade. Other than most inexpensive planes I have used (an Anant No. 4, a Stanley 9 1/2 block plane, stuff like that), this plane is in an almost ready-to-use condition out of the box. There was very little effort required to flatten the back of the blade to a mirror shine and hone a micro bevel.

  • A marking gauge. This is an old Ulmia marking gauge I got from the flea market for a couple of Euros. A nicer marking gauge such as the Veritas with its cutting wheel and micro adjustment helps, but is not strictly necessary if you're on a budget.

  • A chisel. This is a 42 mm (1 5/8") Japanese chisel from a discontinued line that Dick once sold. If I recall correctly, it was somewhat less than 30 €. While that may seem a tad pricey, I think it is well worth the money as it is easy to keep flat because of its hollow back side, and easy to sharpen thanks to its wide bevel. Furthermore, western style chisels this wide (e. g. Two Cherries) are just as expensive.

  • A combination square. This square sells for around 20 € at Dick. I like it very much because of its size - just right for this size of project - and because of its flexibility.  

  • A Japanese ryoba saw. Although, technically speaking, the ryoba is not the correct saw to use for what I intend to do - it is not well-suited for deep rip cuts due to the teeth on the back side of the blade - this Gyokucho Ryoba Komane 240 is still my favorite saw for the job. I've tried other saws - rip-cut katabas, bow saws, a frame saw with a Japanese blade - but I still feel most confident with this saw. It's about 29 €.

As it happens, I bought all of these tools (except the marking gauge) from Dick, although other vendors such as Fine Tools or Magma have similar offers. 

These are some tools that, while not strictly necessary, I consider very useful for making lapjoint boomerangs. More or less from top to bottom, these are:

  • Small spokeshaves. These are a really quick way to shape the airfoil of a hardwood boomerang. Unfortunately, standard spokeshaves modeled after the Stanley 151 are way too large for our purposes. Shown here are a small bronze spokeshave made by a company called "Aldon Products" and sold by Lee Valley Tools and Amazon (about $25 for a pack of three (!)), as well as a Mujingfang spokeshave as sold by Lee Valley and Dick for about 12 €. The only alternative to these two that I know might be the beautiful, yet pricey Small Bronze Spokeshave made by Lie Nielsen.

  • A small Japanese backsaw. This small, but very useful saw is sold by Dick for about 16 €. I normally use it to cut the shoulder of the lap joint.

  • A card scraper. This is a rather thin card scraper (0.4 or 0.5 mm, I guess), which is suitable for fine work. I don't remember where I got it from; it might even be a reclaimed piece of a worn-out Japanese saw blade. 

  • A Japanese carving knife. These knives are very inexpensive and razor sharp. I got this one for around 12 € from Dick.

  • A Stanley 271 router plane I got via Ebay. Now this is really optional; actually, I haven't ever used it on a boomerang project, but I suspect it could be a nice way of cleaning the cheek of the joint. I'll try that some time.

  • Some clamping devices, namely, the Veritas Bench Pup and a Wonder Pup. I got these (a pair of bench pups and one wonder pup) for about 45 € from Fine Tools. These things are incredibly useful. Just drill some 3/4" holes into a scrap piece of multi-ply birch or beech, and you've got a workbench.

As lap joint boomerangs consist mainly of two thin strips of hardwood, I need a way of fixing those small pieces to the bench while planing. Unfortunately, clamping does not really work because all clamping mechanisms I know are way too bulky to get out of the way on such small-scale work.

The solution I use is a simple piece of multi-ply birch scrap that can be fixed to the bench on one side, and has some sand paper spray-glued to the other side. The sandpaper produces enough friction to keep the wood in place while planing.

On the bottom of the planing aid, I have drilled two holes that slide over two bench pups. This way, I can quickly pop the planing board in place without fiddling around with clamps. Furthermore, no clamp gets in the way of the plane.

Sharpening

Anyone who wants to use edge tools such as chisels or hand planes needs to know how to sharpen them. While sharpening as such would go beyond the scope of this article, I'd like to point out two alternatives to get started. One method that can be done with household items is the Scary Sharp system, which uses sandpaper on a flat surface (such as a sheet of glass) as an abrasive to sharpen and hone cutting edges.

While Scary Sharp worked well for me at the beginning, I now prefer to use Japanese waterstones. An inexpensive combination stone for sharpening and honing can be obtained for as little as 17 €. I recommend getting separate stones, though. Currently I mainly use an 800 grit King for sharpening and a 10000 grit Naniwa for honing.

For sharpening western style chisels and plane irons, I recommend getting a honing guide. Japanese chisels are rather easy to hone freehand due to their wide bevel and hollowed back.

Hand Tools and Work Safety

Even though the dangers of working with hand tools are minuscule compared to what you can do to yourself with a table saw or a router table, you still need to keep your wits about you. Never work any edge tool towards any part of your body; always think about where the tool would end if it slipped. This also extends to other tools, by the way - you can chop nasty chunks out of, say, a hand plane that is lying around in the path of your chisel.

When working close to your eyes, wear some sort of eye protection. I wear safety glasses when I fret-saw the shape of the boomerang, because I tend to break fret saw blades and there might be pieces of blade flying around. If what you're doing involves dust or toxic fumes, wear appropriate breathing protection. I use a dust mask, for example, when I am hand sanding.

That said, I think that one of the best reasons for working with hand tools is that they are relatively safe to work with and generate much less noise, dust, and other safety hazards than power tools.

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