Friday, December 4, 2009


With a resurrection of hand tool usage in the last few years, it should come as no surprise that the number of hand tool manufacturers is also on the rise. The obvious upside to this is that all of a sudden there multiple options and price points to choose from. The tragedy in this is having to weed through the seemingly endless array of poor quality tools. So I would like to help those needing some clarity by giving you my opinion on some different tools and price points.

First lets get into one of the most important tools you can never have too many of, chisels.
Low price may not necessarily mean low quality when it comes to chisels, in fact there are several brands that are more than acceptable even though the may seem cheap. Irwin/Marples chisels have done me right for years (although I hate the plastic handles). If you need wood handles Narex and Footprint chisels will truly get the job done. There are also many low priced Japanese style chisels that I find very nice. I recommend these brands for beginners that do not want to spend a fortune getting started.

In the over twenty dollar range I really like the Two Cherries chisels. They make every size and shape of chisel for any and all tasks. I especially like their mortising chisels ( a bargain at $60)
Ashley Isles is another fine moderately priced tool, and you can hardly go wrong with any Crown chisel (although I think footprint is making thier stuff now). These tools are good for the more serious wood worker.

Now the big boy chisels in the above forty squid category. Boutique tool makers are coming out of the wood work at a frantic pace, with an outrageous price tag to boot. As far as i am concerned there are only two options at this price level, the first is Lie Nielson, an American tool works making outstanding tools well worth the price for the serious wood enthusiast. My personal favorite although is Robert Sorby. There is just something magical about well produced Sheffield steel and theirs is remarkable. Holding one of their chisels you can immediately feel how substantial they are, and seem to sharpen up quicker and hold an edge longer than any of my other chisels. Either of these two brands are money well spent, and an investment in an heirloom quality tool.

Now hand saws on the other hand are different all together. Any good hand saw is going to automatically set you back $60 minimum. Many Japanese saws in this area of price and up are good purchases, but they cannot be successfully resharpened. I prefer western saws because they can be sharpened for ripping or cross cutting. Veritas makes a strangely beautiful hand saw for dovetailing or tenon work that is very high quality and at $65 each the obvious choice for beginners as well as serious wood workers.

But..... for my money no one even comes close to Lie Nielson in this category. I have a dovetail and a carcass saw from them and are phenomenal performers. If you think $140 a piece may be steep for any tool, until you have used one , then there is no debating or justifying the price tag.(they are that good)

I can sum up hand planes pretty quick.
Anant's premium planes are good for beginning to moderate woodworkers for a reasonable price.
Old Stanley planes are better for the same money.
Veritas planes are excellent premium planes with an attractive price tag.
Clifton and Lie Nielson planes are a bit pricey but worth the money if you have it.

Now.... despite any reviews of the new Stanley sweet heart planes you may have read take it from me. My new No.4 Stanley was well machined with a dead flat sole! It required no honing or tuning up straight out of the box. It is a heavy beast , which is what I want in a hand plane. The Asheville Woodworking school where I teach is outfitted with LN planes, a high quality plane for sure, but at a third of the price I could not tell much difference in the two. In fact I actually much preferred the new Stanley due to it's weight and the Norris style adjuster which allows very fine micro adjustments to the blade depth. It is a whole lot of tool for $180 (LN planes from $240 and up!)

I hope this post will be helpful to everyone and please feel free to let me know of any names that I did not drop here or of any I should pick back up!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Hold It Now.............Hit It"

Recently there has been a surge of information and articles on the simplest ( and often forgotten) of all tools, the workbench. So much in fact that every issue of every magazine I have gotten in the past few months has some sort of plan, or re-vamped design, or some lost workbench configuration from the Jurassic period.

Article after article,and blog after blog after blog about workbench this, or workbench that. It is enough to make one try to mortise and tenon their left leg to the right one in hopes that the excruciating pain would be enough of a distraction from workbench overload AAAARRRGGGHH!

All of the "experts" are soapbox happy these days telling us that if you don't have one you can't perform this operation, or that joint, in an effort to convince us that it is "The most important tool in your shop" And all I can say to that is..............They're right!!!

It took an overload of workbench mania for me to discover that what I called a"workbench" was nothing more than a closet door on saw horses. There are so many things wrong with that statement that i don't even know where to start. So let's start with this.

Woodworking broken down to it's most basic form requires one action first and foremost "The ability to securely hold your workpiece". The "only"and I mean "only" way to do this is with a workbench. About a year ago I decided that it was time to get a serious surface to do my projects on. So I researched all sorts of designs from every woodworking era I could and found that it was all in the vises. Front vises, and tail vises; leg vises; face vises and some really crazy vises.

Truth is you should decide on what type of bench you need based on the type of work you do, and which vise or vises setup will work the best for you! I do a lot of cabinetry personally, so I settled on a French - German hybrid Holzapfel workbench (May the Schwarz be with you!) which is centered around what the vises can do for you and not what the work surface itself is capable of .

So do a lot of research on this important subject and make your decision based on "your" needs because I will tell you that my work since introducing a workbench to my tool collection is much better and one hundred percent more efficient and productive. And by the way a really good way to practice a wide range of woodworking techniques is to build it yourself. I did, and already looking forward to building another one, because who says you can't have two benches or three....or four.......

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mail Order Madness!

As you get started on your woodworking pilgrimage, it is all too tempting to acquire your tools from on-line or mail order catalogs.Unless you live in a remote region of the country where the Red Cross air drops all of your food and clothing to you, I would recommend against this practice.

I find it to be important to find a local shop in which to buy all or most of your tools. Not only does this stimulate the local economy, you actually get to see and hold the item you are about to purchase. And as an added benefit you get to talk to actual people with product knowledge about your potential tool purchase. It might be possible that a $20 chisel could get the job done just as well as the $50 chisel you are lusting after, and any "good" tool merchant will tell you so.

Finding a local store to shop at is also a good place to network with other woodworkers, to get advice on projects or just to swap stories about woodworking. A lot of hometown woodworking suppliers even offer classes and seminars on woodworking, wood turning, or other wood related topics.

Now I know that not all stores may carry the item you just" have to have" so the occasional internet purchase isn't taboo, but chances are that you could get a similar item just down the street.

So in conclusion " buy local" when possible, and chances are your woodworking aspirations will be a lot more pleasurable when you don't have to wait (please allow 10 to 12 business days for prompt delivery!) to get what you need!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Let's Be Rational!

I have started this blog with one goal in mind. To help those who are suffering from woodworking dimentia. The inability to decide on "What tool should I use" or "Should I use a power tool or hand tool" and the ever popular "Maybe I should just turn a baseball bat on my new eight hundred dollar lathe, and club myself repeatedly, because so far that is all I can make." This blog is aimed more towards the beginning wood enthusiast, but seasoned professionals may occasionally find a morsel to use as well. So let us start with the big controversy.

Hand Tools vs. Power Tools

There seems to be a very defined line separating those who need voltage to get it done and those who like it "unplugged" so to speak. Power tools are convenient, time saving and tend to be easier to do projects with minimal detail, for the most part. With hand tools there is a real satisfaction of actually "handmade" attached to using them, but are tedious and time consuming to master. So what direction should you go in ? I say both! Keep your power tools, but slowly start adding hand tools to your arsenal, a chisel here, a hand saw there, and practice using them, before you know it you won't set up your dovetail jig to do one or two dovetail drawers because by the time you get the jig set you could have already done it by hand. Here is an example. Several years ago I wanted to learn mortise and tenon joinery and decided on a machine to do my mortises (Hollow mortiser) until I saw how much they cost. So I researched hand tool methods to do them, and went that route instead. So one honking mortise chisel and two backsaws later I was off to my so called shop to start chopping. Endless frustration ensued for the first month, and the second, third and so on. Just when I was on the verge of giving up, I decided to compare a joint I had just completed with one of the first ones I did. I was amazed and delighted at the difference in the two. I had actually become fairly proficient at it. So the point is I will use hand tools when I have a small amount of things to do (I still cut all of my mortises by hand) ,but if I have twenty or thirty tenons to make, it's time to fire up the table saw. The truth of the matter is this. You should learn to use as many types of both as possible, if you truly want to do woodworking. There are things one can do that the other cannot. Embrace both freely and try to blur the lines between the two schools of thought, because if I had to choose between my router or my dovetail saw, let's just say i wouldn't.