1. Build or Purchase a Solid Workbench
A workbench has always been the center of a traditional woodworker’s workshop. If you’re really on a tight budget you can get away with almost anything that allows you to secure your wood in place for planing and sawing, and use clamps to secure your workpiece.
However, I would recommend that you either build a workbench, or purchase one if you feel a workbench build is too advanced for you right now. However, I created the DVD “Building the Portable Moravian Workbench with Will Myers” so that even beginners can build a solid, portable, and very affordable workbench that will fit almost anywhere, using mostly or only hand tools. You can buy it in my store here. Whichever path you choose, make sure you choose to either build or buy a heavy & sturdy workbench, with at least a 3″ solid top, strong supportive base legs, and two strong vises.
2. Buy a Jack Plane
A Jack Plane is a middle size “bench plane” (i.e. planes that are used so often that they are usually on your workbench). If you’re on a budget a jack plane can temporarily be used in place of other planes that perform specialized functions: (1) rough stock removal (if you buy a second iron/blade and shape it with a curved “camber”), (2) jointing board edges (as long as they aren’t too long), and (3) smoothing the boards.
You’ll eventually want to purchase a dedicated smoothing plane (No. 4) and jointer plane (No. 7), but a Jack Plane will let you get started working! A new and sharp low angle Jack Plane would be ideal for beginners and professionals who aren’t up for rehabbing a handplane.
3. Buy a Block Plane
Block planes have become one of the most oft-used tools in a woodworker’s workshop. Some traditional woodworkers even keep them in their aprons! These little planes can be used to trim your joints, put chamfers on board edges, trim end grain, etc. I would recommend finding a low angle block plane, because the low angle lets you cut difficult grain more easily.
I personally prefer a low angle rabbet block plane because it allows me to trim right up against a tenon cheek or other joints, but this isn’t required. My handplane buying guide goes into more detail about the features and brands that you should look for when purchasing a good quality block plane.
4. Buy Two Hand Saws (Panel Saws): Rip and Cross Cut
Handsaws (often called “panel saws”) are long, thin saws with a comfortable wooden handle. They are used for rough dimensioning of your lumber. Although a “panel saw” is technically a smaller handsaw that fits into the panel of a tool chest, I’ll hereafter refer to this type of saw as a “Panel Saw” to differentiate them from the broad category referred to as “hand saws”. Panel saws come in two tooth configurations: “Rip” (cuts along the grain…like a chisel) and “Cross Cut” (cuts across the grain…like a knife). You will need both.
Panel saws can be quite affordable (often as little as $5 a piece), but you need to know what you’re looking for and be willing to spend some time learning to refurbish and sharpen. My handsaw buying guide will help you know which brands & models to look out for at your local flea markets or on eBay.
5: Buy Three Back Saws: Dovetail Saw, Carcass Saw, & Tenon Saw
Unlike panel saws, “back saws” are used for fine accurate work when making wooden joints (like dovetail joints). The thin metal saw plates are made stiff with steel or brass “backs” that run along the top of the saw plate.
Your first backsaws should be (1) a dovetail saw, with fine rip teeth, used for cutting joinery along the grain (like dovetails), (2) a “carcass saw” used for cutting across the grain (fine cross cut teeth), and (3) a larger tenon saw used for cutting deeper cuts, like tenon cheeks, along the grain (rip teeth). All three saws are used very, very often in my workshop. You could certainly get by with just a larger dovetail saw and a carcass saw at first, if you don’t plan on immediately cutting large tenons. Buying backsaws can be very confusing because there is no standardized naming system, and a dovetail saw can be turned into a carcass saw (and vice-a-versa) by sharpening it differently. And practically everybody that’s selling antique saws mixes the names up. My buyer’s guide really clears this confusion up and will help you know what to look for.
6. Buy a Miter Box and Miter Saw
A good miter box & miter saw (a very large backsaw) will enable you to cut your wood to very accurate lengths, at accurate angles. This will especially save you a lot of time in trying to square your board ends when building boxes/tool chests. The long miter saw glides back and forth through a rigid saw frame.
The frame’s angles can be changed to enable you to cut perfect miter joints (the joint used for picture frames) and many other joints. I use my miter saw quite often. I’ve bought them used for as little as $15, but expect to pay more than that.
7. Buy a Coping Saw
The very affordable coping saw (often around $20) is regularly used for rough cutting shapes in the board, but especially for removing waste from dovetail joints (one of the most common wood joints). An affordable coping saw will work just fine as long as you have plenty of replacement blades on hand (also very affordable). Read my hand saw buying guide for more detail on brands & features to look for when purchasing a coping saw.
8. Buy a Bench Chisel Set
I use chisels perhaps more than any other tool in my workshop, so it’s a good idea to not cheap out here. A high quality set of bevel edge bench chisels (new or vintage) will last you many years (likely your entire life) and will be used on nearly every project. I’ve used some decent affordable plastic handle bench chisels, but highly prefer lighter wooden handle chisels with excellent steel.
A good set of 5-7 bench chisels (they don’t have to match) will get you going right away. Down the road you’ll eventually add some specialty chisels (like paring chisels, fishtail chisels, etc) but bench chisels will work for just about everything. Read the warnings in my chisel buying guide.
9. Buy a Mortise Chisel
To start off you only need either a 1/4″ or 3/8″ mortise chisel (or some size close to those). You don’t need a whole set of mortise chisels. Mortise chisels (also spelled “mortice”) are used for chopping mortises (rectangular holes) into the side of your board for insertion of a tenon. “Mortise and Tenon” is a very common and very strong joint that most people have heard of.
I prefer the English style “pig sticker” mortise chisels because of their strength, weight, and the feel of the oval handle. My chisel buying guide shows where to find these chisels and what to look for when buying them.