#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.