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Welcome to working wood with hand tools!

Hand tool woodworking is enjoying a renaissance. Many people are rediscovering the simple joy of making things from wood with tools whose power comes from us. Quality tools are easy to find again, along with books, magazines, videos, and classes explaining how to use them.

Getting started, however, remains difficult. Classes offer a wonderful combination of hands-on instruction and toolchests filled to the brim with everything you need. For those getting started at home, however, there is rarely a full toolchest. There may not even be a good place to work. Learning paths that work well in fully-equipped shops won’t help much at a kitchen table with a minimal toolbox.

This book eases those challenges by braiding together two key paths:

The early projects will help you learn with a minimal set of tools. Later projects will build on those skills and that toolset. It’s easy to get lost in the endless possibilities catalogs and stores offer. To minimize that, tool discussions will include specific options at a variety of prices.

By the time you’re done with this book, you’ll have acquired the skills and tools you need to create basic projects in wood. More important, you’ll have enough experience and tools to move forward into the other books, videos, and classes.

What You Need to Use This Book

This book starts basically at zero. It assumes that you have no tools or experience using them. You will, of course, need:

Over time you will need a budget for tools and materials, though you won’t need to start out spending a lot. (If you’re lucky enough to be working in a well-stocked workshop, you may have already taken care of it.)

You are, of course, welcome to read this even if you’re an expert. However, the more you know, the less this is likely to help you. Hopefully it will still be fun, or fill in gaps.

Why Hand Tools?

Every hand tool woodworker has their own reasons. I know many (like me) who sought an escape from their work in technology or industrial processes. It’s not just an escape, though: there are also many practical reasons.

Close to the wood

Hand tool woodworkers have much more regular contact with the wood. They quickly develop an understanding of grain and a set of techniques for dealing with challenging wood.


Unless you’re banging away madly with a mallet or hammer, you don’t usually have to worry about your hearing. If you’re working late nights or early mornings, especially in a small place, your neighbors will appreciate the quiet. (Please be considerate with the mallets and hammers.)

Compatible with other uses of space

It’s not difficult to create a shop in which the tools live in an unobtrusive box or a cabinet. Workbenches can used for other purposes, or other furniture can serve as a workbench. The tools can come out when it’s time to play!

Focus on parts, not measurements

Stationary power tools encourage you to arrange your work around their capabilities, cutting multiple pieces of the same size at the same time. It may be faster, but it changes the way you work. Hand tools make it easier to create pieces that fit each other rather than abstract dimensions.

Minimal dust

Hand tools create sawdust and shavings, but little of it gets in the air. You shouldn’t need expensive equipment to keep your work area neat and your air breathable.

Control rather than setup

Power tools generally do the actual work of cutting or shaping much faster than their hand equivalents, but they often require complex setup and test cuts. Hand tools (with a few exceptions) take less time to set up and more time to cut.

A different kind of maintenance

Using power tools, especially stationary power tools, requires you to learn a fair amount about machines as well as about using them. With hand tools, you can go a long way before needing to do more than sharpening. While there are tools for which it’s easier to do your own sharpening, it’s easy to hand off at least some sharpening to other people if you prefer.

You are, of course, welcome to use hand tools in combination with power tools. That’s up to you!


If efficiency is your primary goal, or if you’re really looking for a book on how to use hand tools together with power tools, Marc Spagnuolo’s Hybrid Woodworking is a much better choice. This book assumes that hand tools will be your primary and likely only set of tools, and teaches them as a system. Hybrid Woodworking assumes that you’ll be using power tools for much of the work, with hand tools to fill gaps.

Who am I to Teach You?

If you’re looking for an expert who knows everything, you’re in the wrong book.

If, however, you’re looking for someone who spends lots of time figuring out how best to teach things, what order to present them in, and how to give readers the freedom to learn on their own, you might be in the right place.

I’ve spent the last fifteen years writing and editing technical books, mostly about various technologies for building software and web sites. I can’t say everything I’ve created has been perfect, but I hope I’ve learned from that work in ways that can help you learn a very different set of skills.

I started out buying power tools, first for model railroading benchwork and then for more general furniture, home repair, and outdoor construction. Somewhere along the way it all started to feel strange. I’ve been shifting more and more toward hand tools ever since.

Hopefully my combination of experiences will help you get started.

How to Use This Book

This book walks you through a sequence of projects and a sequence of tools.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably read the whole book through first and then come back to work on the projects. You don’t have to do that, but it will give you a sense of how it all fits together.

Ideally, you should march through the book doing every project. Practice is a key aspect of developing woodworking skills, and the materials costs for these projects are deliberately low. Repeating projects, at least the projects that seem interesting to you, can also help. The first time through, everything will be new. The second (or later) pass will give you an opportunity to see it with more experience.

Depending on your circumstances, it may make sense for you to change the order of projects or the order of tools. If you already have some experience and tools, it may make sense to skip some projects, or skip around among projects. Later projects assume that you have and are familiar with the tools that came earlier.


Woodworking doesn’t have a hierarchy of tools. You can do great things with a knife or with a handplane. I chose the sequence in this book for being easy to teach, a gradual path for building skills. That doesn’t mean the joinery later in the book is better than the carving near the beginning.

A Few Things This Book Doesn’t Cover

As you may have guessed from the title, this book doesn’t cover advanced techniques or power tools (at least not much). There are also a few smaller (though wonderful) subjects it doesn’t cover.

Professional techniques

Maximum efficiency is a critical aspect of craft for professional woodworkers. However, leaping to techniques that work well for pros is not necessarily the best way to get started. If you know better faster ways to work, by all means, use them. I’ve tried hard to bias this book toward techniques that will work for solitary beginners, with time a secondary consideration.

Japanese tools

Japanese hand tools and practices are different from their Western counterparts. It’s not just that Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke instead of the push stroke. Japanese tools come in the same categories - saws, chisels, mallets, etc. - but the designs and use of the tools are very different. I would love to see someone write a book using Japanese tools that parallels this one, but it’s too much to put into a single book. (You’ll find coverage of Japanese pull saws here, though.)


Matching the right finish to your work is a complex matter of style and technique. This book only covers very simple finishes and techniques in Five Simple Finishes.


You’ll want to create your own projects soon enough, and can certainly modify the ones here to meet your taste. I strongly encourage you, though, to learn the fundamentals of how wood works before diving into design. Compass, Dividers, and Straightedge may give you some ideas and places to look, though.


Working on a lathe is a wonderful combination of hand-held tools and spinning wood. Even if it’s hand- or foot-powered, though, and some of the tools are the same, turning is its own enormous craft.

Working with logs and timber

Wood that hasn’t been sliced into boards opens all kinds of new horizons. It also requires a different set of tools and often more space than the projects here. If you like your wood green or large, definitely explore Roy Underhill’s many "Woodwright" books and videos, or leap into Build a Joint Stool From a Tree.

Bending wood

You can do incredible things with steam (or lamination), but again, it takes additional tools and skills to make this work.

Industrial materials

You can work some industrial wood products - plywood, particle board , and MDF - with hand tools, but it’s rarely much fun. Using a chisel on plywood makes rough holes and dulls the chisel. Sawing it works better, though. These materials generally require different joinery and tools. While you’re getting started, stick with real wood. It has more than enough variation to stay interesting.

Veneering and Marquetry

These can be done with hand tools and simple materials, but are specialties of there own. A few asides point in those directions, but again it needs its own book.


Building comfortable chairs that last is a serious challenge. You’ll build a bench here, and be ready to contemplate chairs by the end of the book, but chairmaking is an advanced discipline.


Adding fabric, cane, leather, or similar materials to your projects can make them more attractive and comfortable. It requires extra skills and additional tools, however.

Repairing furniture

You’ll learn basic skills that are useful in repairing furniture. Repairs, though, require taking furniture apart and reading how the often industrial joints work.

Buying used tools

Most of the time this book directs you to new tools. Buying used tools requires more understanding of how to evaluate and fix tools. Occasionally, though, I point to categories of tools where used is probably a better option.

Tool maintenance

If you want to keep enjoying your tools, you have to maintain them. While this book will cover the basics, sharpening is a complex subject, as is tinkering with planes. Sharpening and Maintenance Basics provides a basic introduction to techniques for sharpening tools.

I’m sure you’ll find other things you want to learn about, and I’ll try to include pointers to more information when I mention something I can’t cover in depth.

Buying Tools

It’s very easy to buy "tool shaped objects", as Christopher Schwarz calls them. Many "tools" don’t work. At least they don’t work without the user making some major modifications. Also, some manufacturers sometimes seem to think they’re selling kits, not finished tools.

Every tool discussion will have a purchasing section, listing options in different price ranges. I haven’t been able to test every tool, but hopefully I will have enough suggestions to fit your hopes and your budget.


A number of pictures in this book show a variety of similar tools. They’re just showing options. You absolutely don’t need one of everything in the picture! It’s crazy enough that I have them or borrowed them. I will be reducing my inventory as soon as the book is complete, promise.

These are a few tools I won’t cover in depth, but which you may want to pick up along the way if you don’t already have them:


A classic #2 pencil will work fine, as will a mechanical pencil, a carpenter’s pencil, or a lead holder for drafting. It needs to feel comfortable, leave a clearly visible line, sharpen easily, and erase cleanly. An eraser helps too.

Ruler and measuring tape

Much of this book, especially Compass, Dividers, and Straightedge, (and bevel, and storystick/measuring guide) will encourage you to minimize numeric measurements. However, it’s still very useful to be able to transfer measurements, figure out what sizes of projects will fit in a space, and create projects that actually do fit. (For some reason chip carving works best with 2mm and 4mm measurements, so you will want to make sure you have a ruler with metric markings when you get there. Their rough equivalents, 1/12 and 1/6 of an inch, are not on most rulers.)


You shouldn’t work in gloves, as they reduce your ability to feel the interaction between tools and wood. However, if you’re moving rough wood from a store to your place, they’re extremely convenient splinter protection.


Please don’t use pliers on wood, but they’re handy for things like removing strangely bent nails. A small prybar can also be useful.

Rubber Mallet

Rubber mallets help knock joints together or apart. A deadblow mallet, which often costs about the same as a rubber mallet, is more useful and bounces less. (Maybe give rubber mallets a short chapter in the joinery section?)

"A poor workman blames his tools"

When you are first starting out, it’s hard to know whether your tools are any good. With experience, you’ll get a much better sense of whether a given tool is hurting or helping you, but early experiments often go wrong.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell whether a tool is working or not. Squares can be visibly out of square, and gauges can lose their settings when pushed a bit. Some tools are dull enough that they barely have an edge.

Other times, it’s trickier. A handle may not feel right to your hand, and rub it sore quickly. A blade may seem sharp to your fingers, but not to the wood. A blade that was sharp enough to work with softwoods fails when pushed against harder materials. You may need to resharpen a chisel made with cheap steel after just a few minutes work.

Eventually you will have a better understanding of what makes a good tool and how tools should respond. Getting there can be tricky. If you have a chance, an excellent way to learn about the feel of good tools is to take a class or visit someone else’s shop, and learn these basics from others’ experience.


Many stores focused on woodworking have places where you can try out their equipment, and some places will even send you tools to try. Return policies are often generous. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Where to buy tools

Many places sell tools. As power tools have taken over carpentry and woodworking, though, only a few places sell good hand tools and have more than a simple selection.

Hardware stores

Hardware stores typically aim at carpenters, whether professional or amateur. Most of the tools they sell will get you started - saws, chisels, rasps, clamps, and sandpaper. Typically there isn’t a lot of selection, though every now and then I find a great one. For simple tools and quick replacements of things like drill bits, hardware stores are great.

Big box stores

Generalist discount stores like Walmart and Target have some tools, but not very many and not likely great. Stores more focused on tools, like Sears, Lowes, and Home Depot, will offer more selection, but the quality will be mixed at best, comparable to (and sometimes the same as) the hardware store options.

Garage sales, antique stores, and flea markets

If you can find used tools, they may be great or they may be suitable only for decoration. It’s probably better to be cautious until you know how to evaluate tools. Once you do, though, and especially if you learn to fix up tools, old tools can be wonderful.

Specialty stores

If you’re lucky enough to have a Woodcraft or Rockler (in the US), a Lee Valley Tools (in Canada), Tools for Working Wood (in Brooklyn, NY), or Highland Woodworking (in Atlanta, GA) around, your tool shopping can be much much easier. Stores that focus on woodworking have a much broader selection of tools and generally carry much higher-quality equipment. You should still look carefully for tools beyond "what’s on the shelf here," but these stores have many more options, staff that usually knows something about the tools, and opportunities to try things.


If, like me, you find the specialty stores to be an occasional visit on a road trip far away, your best option may be ordering tools. Catalogs and web sites bring both the specialty stores and online-only stores to you, and let you choose from a wide selection of options. It’s harder to try out tools by mail-order, and you may need to call to get advice, but mail-order opens many many more options. All of the specialty stores listed above have catalogs and web sites. Three more good online-only options are Traditional Woodworker, Garrett Wade, and Craftsman Studio.


Thirty years into a renaissance of tool-making, many great tools are available. Many of the makers are small companies, often personal or family businesses. Many don’t have wide distribution, but most have web sites.


The best place to buy tools, though sadly the rarest, is at a show. You can try the tools, talk with their makers, and get a real feel for how the tools should work. You get to meet other woodworkers, and see techniques in person. Often there’s a mix of hand and power, new and used. Be aware that demonstrators frequently use a few tricks, like hardwood fronts and softwood sides for dovetails demos where everything fits together easily.


If you want to explore an old listing of tools, not a modern catalog, explore The Explanation, or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield (often called The Smith’s Key) at

Buying Wood

When you’re starting out, you don’t need to buy fine wood. None of the projects in this book demand exquisite wood. Pine and poplar with a bit of basswood or butternut for carving will do well. All of the projects here can be built with wood purchased from your local home center, craft store, or lumber yard.

Poplar and basswood are pretty consistent, but pine can vary pretty widely because different species are available in different areas. Eastern white pine is soft and easy to work. Southern yellow pine will give you a lot more trouble but last a long time. Douglas fir, common on the west coast, is also difficult to work. Your best bet for getting workable pine, apart from asking for eastern white pine, is buying the smaller pieces often available in craft stores and home centers. However, I’m not sure what the pine marked "Made in New Zealand" is exactly. You may also find that boards sold for use as house trim are easier to work.

You certainly can build the projects here in finer wood. It’s probably wise, though, to build them first in cheaper wood, see how that goes, and then move forward.


This book skips the usual extended discussion of wood species and details. You’ll learn about this amazing material and its many properties as you work with it, especially in the beginning parts of the tool sequence.


While hand tools are slower and generally less likely to surprise you than power tools, they are still sharp. You can hurt yourself if you aren’t paying attention. When working with tools:

Woodworking is much more fun if you come out of it in one piece.

Beyond This Book

This book just gets you started. I hope you’ll explore far beyond it.


Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking and the annual issue of Woodwork all offer detailed information on handwork as well as other forms of inspiration. (In many ways, Fine Woodworking drove the current renaissance, reopening conversations that had gone quiet.)


There are many books on hand tool woodworking. I strongly recommend The Joiner and Cabinetmaker about an apprenticeship, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest about collecting and using a sane core set of tools, and The Essential Woodworker, a more advanced book though aimed at those without formal training. When you’re done with this book, you should be able to tackle the projects in Traditional Woodworking Techniques, The New Traditional Woodworker, Made By Hand, and The Unplugged Workshop. For much more, see Woodworking Books and Videos.


Seeing is often better than reading. It may not be as good as being there, but you’ll see things in a video that the creator doesn’t even notice they are doing. Watching videos will help you get started. Try to find ones that fit what you’d like to do next. (SHOULD I make videos for the book?)


One of the best things I’ve done was take the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class from Christopher Schwarz at Roy Underhill's Woodwright’s School. When I was getting started using a lathe, a few hours instruction from Bill Grumbine made a tremendous difference. In-person training with a sympathetic instructor is a great way to jumpstart your learning.

Web Sites

There are many many many woodworking web sites and forums, many of them with an area dedicated to hand tool (or neanderthal woodworking). Woodworking on the Web lists a few places to explore.

Help This Book Grow

While I hope that you will enjoy reading this book and learn from it, I also hope that you can contribute to helping other readers learn woodworking. You can help your fellow readers in a number of ways:

I’ll update the book for errata, and try to address issues raised in reviews. Even once the book is "complete," I may still add some extra pieces to it. If you purchased it as an ebook, you’ll receive these updates for free at least up to the point where it’s time for a whole new edition. I don’t expect that new edition to come quickly, however, unless the hand tool woodworking world changes substantially.

Hopefully this book will engage you enough to make you consider sharing.


Two very different kinds of guides initially inspired this project.

Pamela Philpott-Jones and Paul McClure's Woodworking for the Serious Beginner showed that woodworking books could go slowly, address a beginner audience seriously, and provide solid guidance while making clear that some of that guidance was (of course) opinion. They describe setting up a power tool shop and then on using it for basic projects, but it taught me a lot about how to write this.

A number of guides for teaching Sloyd were also critical. Sloyd is a largely forgotten approach to teaching children to think while teaching them how to make. I would hope that Otto Salomon might see that his philosophy inspired this book. In particular, the sequence of projects in Gustaf Larsson's 1906 Elementary Sloyd and Whittling: With Drawings and Working Directions gave me the idea for this book. The path here is very different, though. Sloyd was taught in reasonably-equipped classrooms, and this book doesn’t assume you start with a shop or a teacher.

Christopher Schwarz, first at Popular Woodworking and now at Lost Art Press, woke me up to how much we had lost and how useful it can be. The Jointer and Cabinetmaker forced me to reconsider how I was learning and why. His book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is a good companion to this one. It talks more broadly about tools before moving on to a tool chest project that uses many of them. I’m also delighted that he published Grandpa’s Workshop, which has helped inspire my children’s interest in making things.

When I was a kid, I saw a very few episodes of Roy Underhill's The Woodwright’s Shop. I didn’t run that direction when I first started out in woodworking, but I think those shows poured a foundation in my mind on which I am finally now building.

I was lucky enough to take a class with Christopher Schwarz at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School, building an anarchist tool chest. I thank them for their patience with the slowest student in the class, and for showing me how to handle mistakes. I also moved slowly through a "dovetail blitz" with Chuck Bender, and learned a lot more about the feel of the wood.

Encouraging people to use hand tools has become much easier with the return of quality tools to the market. Thanks to many daring and smart people who recognized that there was enough interest to rebuild an industry.

Most importantly, my wife Angelika somehow has the patience to let me indulge in this madness, and Sungiva and Konrad inspire me to do more.

Status of this Book

The version of Tool by Tool, Skill by Skill: One Hand Tool at a Time that you’re reading is an early release, a preview of what’s to come. It is not close to complete, but writing in public will motivate me to write it faster. Hopefully it will also improve the book with earlier and hopefully broader feedback.

You can get a rough sense of what the outline will look like in Table 1-1. It will have a lot of mostly short chapters, mixing explanations of particular tools with projects using those tools and the tools that came earlier.

Much to my surprise, the early chapters are focused on shaping wood. Joinery and traditional concerns about flatness and squareness only appear later in the book, after you should be pretty familiar with wood. While I have fairly solid plans for the early chapters, plans for the later chapters, especially projects, aren’t yet settled.

Many chapters here have incomplete or placeholder content. I’ll replace most of the photos, for example, when I have a better lighting setup. I haven’t yet worried about making them perfect, but I will in the final version. Some otherwise well-developed chapters have missing content to be filled in later, and I won’t necessarily write the chapters in sequence.

Eventually there will be an index and a glossary, but those too are mostly absent for now.

If you have thoughts or comments, the Facebook page may be helpful.

I don’t know what the final product will look like. Eventually I expect there to be a printed version for sale, but haven’t decided what life the online version will have in the long run. There may be a Kickstarter, or I may go a different route.

Many thanks to my employer, O’Reilly Media, for letting me use their publishing tools to create this preview. They are not responsible for any of its content.

I hope you enjoy this public review, and that you learn something about woodworking along the way.