#1: Build or Purchase a Solid Wooden Workbench
A wooden 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 wooden 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. You can find Will’s free workbench plans for the Moravian Workbench here. Whichever path you choose, make sure you choose to either build or buy a heavy & sturdy wooden workbench, with at least a 3″ solid top, strong supportive base legs, and at least one strong vise.
#2: Buy a Jack Plane
A Jack Handplane 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 the board isn’t over 3x the length of your jack plane), and (3) smoothing the boards.
You’ll eventually want to purchase a dedicated smoothing plane and jointer plane, 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. 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 2 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 sharpen hand saws. My hand saw buying guide will help you know which brands & models to look out for at your local flea markets or on eBay.
#5: Buy 1-3 Back Saws
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.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can get by with just a dovetail saw for awhile. But if you have the means, then I’d recommend that you purchase three backsaws: (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. As mentioned above, you could certainly get by with just a dovetail saw at first, since the small rip teeth don’t do too bad of a job at cutting across the grain. Buying backsaws can be very confusing because most sellers don’t know what saw they have, and the tooth configuration can change the job of the saw. Most people that sell antique saws mix the names up, so don’t worry. 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. 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 (usually under $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, along with a pack of affordable replacement blades. 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. I often pay only $10 for high quality vintage chisels, so a compiled set can certainly be affordable, and higher quality than low quality new sets. Read the chisel buying guide to learn what chisels to avoid and which chisels will work great.
#9: Buy a Mortise Chisel
To start off you only need either a 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch mortise chisel (or some size close to those). I prefer 3/8-inch. You don’t need a whole set of mortise chisels. Mortise chisels (also spelled “mortice chisels”) are used for chopping mortises (rectangular holes) into the side of your board to accept the 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.
#10: Buy a 6-inch Combination Square
#11: Buy or Build a Try Square
A try square is used to square up your workpieces for precise-fitting joints. If you’re not confident enough to build your own try square yet, you should purchase a good metal try square (somewhere between 9 and 12 inches). It’ll be used for scribing square lines around the faces and edges of your boards, such as a line for where to cut with your saw.
Most try squares that I’ve found (used or new) are actually not a perfect 90 degrees, or “square”. But you can use a file to bring it back to square. My marking & measuring buying guide explains how to check a square and also how to fix one that is “out of square”.
#12: Buy a Sliding Bevel Square
A sliding bevel square (or “bevel gauge”) is used for scribing angles on your workpiece. Once set, a good sliding bevel square should be able to repeat that angle over and over again, like when you are laying out dovetails on a board face.
Not all sliding bevel squares are good at holding that angle, so make sure you read more in my marking & measuring buying guide before you purchase a bevel gauge.
#13: Buy a Pair of Dividers (Compass)
Dividers (or compass) are used for taking and repeating a measurement over and over again on a work piece. Traditional woodworkers rarely take measurements with a tape measure when doing fine joinery work, but rather take a measurement with dividers then transfer that arbitrary (yet accurate) measurement to another work piece. This removes a degree of inaccuracy.
Dividers are also used for scribing arcs and much more. You should definitely have at least one “pair” of dividers (one compass), somewhere between a 6-inch and 9-inch size. Also having a small pair of dividers (like 3-inches) is helpful, so I can store more than one measurement at a time.
#14: Buy or Build a Marking Gauge
Like dividers, marking gauges are used for transferring a measurement and repeating it over and over again. A locking mechanism keeps the gauge from slipping and loosing that measurement. You cannot successfully build furniture without at least one good sturdy marking gauge.
I really like marking gauges that cut (or slice), especially the more modern wheel cutting marking gauges. Having a mortise gauge (with two cutters or pins) is very convenient, but you can definitely get by laying out mortises with just a single marking gauge.
But beware of the cheaply-made marking gauges that I mention in my buying guide. They will be useless and a waste of your money.
#15: Buy a Folding Rule and/or Tape Measure
A “folding rule” (not “ruler”) is a predecessor to a tape measure, and allows you to take measurements when cutting boards, etc. If you’re on a tight budget, a small tape measure can be used for the same job, usually for rough measurement (think lumber yard). I use both.
A nice vintage 24-inch wooden rule is so handy to have because it slips into your pocket or apron and gives you quick measurements. They are pretty affordable, but you need to know what to look for so you don’t get a dudd.
#16: Buy a Marking Knife
A marking knife is used for marking where you will be cutting with your saws and chisels. For getting into tight spots (like dovetails) and making very accurate lines (which is vital for tight fitting joints) you need just the right marking knife. You would think that any old knife would work, but you would be wrong. Years ago I purchased several that didn’t work well.
Marking knives can get very expensive, but fortunately I found a very affordable knife ($15) that works perfectly. Check my marking & measuring buying guide to see what to look for (and what to avoid) when buying a marking knife.
#17: Buy Sharpening Supplies
Having very sharp tools is one of the most important aspects of proper traditional woodworking with hand tools. Many beginners think that they stink at woodworking, but usually they are just using dull (or improperly sharpened) hand tools. To start off with I recommend buying quality sharpening supplies for sharpening & honing your chisels, hand plane irons, and handsaws. And I’ll help you save money by avoiding systems that don’t work as well.
#18: Build or Buy a Wooden Joiner’s Mallet
A good wooden mallet is vital for traditional woodworking. I prefer the English-style Joiner’s mallets. The lighter carver’s mallets will not be heavy-duty enough for most tasks, especially chopping on a mortise chisel.
Wooden mallets are mostly used for hitting your chisels when cutting joints (like dovetail joints or chopping mortises). You should never hit a chisel with a metal hammer. Build or buy a mallet that is made of fairly hard wood (e.g. maple, oak, beech wood, etc.), that will feel well balanced in your hand, and that gives you enough weight to chop with your chisels.
#19: Buy a Rabbet Plane
Rabbets are one of the most common joints in furniture making, so a handplane that cuts a rabbet should be toward the top of your list of tools to buy. Yes, rabbets can be cut without a handplane, but at greater difficulty. I own a lot of handplanes that cut rabbets, including wooden rabbet planes, metal rabbet planes, shoulder planes, and moving fillister planes. While I use all of them for specialty tasks, I find that a metal or wooden moving fillister plane (pictured above) is the most useful, as it allows me to cut rabbets with the grain, across the grain, and allows me to easily cut panels (as seen above). And the movable fence helps greatly with accuracy. I discuss rabbet planes in great detail in the handplane buyer’s guide.
#20: Buy a few Woodworking Clamps
Woodworking clamps hold your freshly glued up joints together until the glue hardens. To start off with I would recommend buying at least one quality “hand screw clamp” (around 10 or 12 inches) and a few bar-type or parallel clamps.
But before you purchase clamps, build your first project and put it together without glue. Then see how many clamps you think you will need to put enough pressure in all the right spots. Then proceed to purchase that number of clamps. Repeat this process on your next project, and purchase more clamps if needed. This is better than running out and buying a huge collection of woodworking clamps. See my buying guide for different clamp types, uses, and my favorite brands.