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Ten simple hand tools for building almost anything

Written by Len Cullum


LEN CULLUM is a woodworker living in Seattle, where he specializes in building Japanese-style garden structures and architectural elements. When not woodworking, he teaches at Pratt Fine Arts Center, writes, and dreams of a robot that would sharpen his chisels.

Im going to focus on what I consider the six basic hand tools for working with wood, plus my four go-to tools for measuring. These are the fundamentals that will allow you to build most anything. Keep in mind that no one tool is right for everyone. The hammer that I love might be the one that makes your wrist sore, or my favorite saw might feel backward. Don’t be afraid to try different tools and techniques until you find the ones that feel right and make the most sense to you.


A tip for claw hammer users: When doing lighter chopping, try using the side of the hammer head to drive the chisel instead of the face. It gives you more control and a larger striking area.


Nothing says blunt force like a hunk of metal on the end of a stick.

It’s probably the oldest tool in the book. When I first started woodworking, I remember seeing a picture of a guy with his hammer collection, it was a whole room filled with hundreds of different hammers. At the time, I couldn’t imagine needing more than one, but I feel much differently now.

Within eyeshot as I type this, I can see nine hammers. Each is different and each sees (fairly) regular use. The one pictured below is easily my favorite. It’s a 375g Japanese carpenter’s hammer. One face is flat, for driving nails, the other is slightly convex for driving the nail below the surface. I use it for everything from driving chisels and adjusting planes to knocking joints together and closing cans. It’s my go-to hammer. The weight is right, and I like its balance.

If your work will require a lot of nailing, a claw hammer might be a better choice. Personally, I would just add a small pry bar to my collection.


Len Cullum


Chisels can be used for anything from heavy chopping to light paring or fine carving. While also known to open paint cans, turn screws, and act as a pry bar, these are not recommended uses. Seriously, use a screwdriver. A screwdriver will appreciate the attention. While there are hundreds of chisel sizes and styles, most people can get by with four: ¼", ½", ¾", and 1" standard bench chisels.

There are virtually no chisels that are ready to use right off the shelf; they all need some sharpening to get them to sing. Once you experience a truly sharp chisel, you will understand the difference, not only by what you’re able to achieve, but the ease with which you can do it. Below is a heavy patterned chisel called atsu-nomi (thick chisel) that’s used for cutting joints in large timbers. It’s part of a set made for me by master blacksmith Iyoroi, and it’s one of my favorites.


Historically, hand planes were used mostly (but not exclusively) for smoothing and adjusting the thickness of rough board (called “thicknessing”). These days most stock dimensioning is done by machines, but this doesn’t mean the hand plane is obsolete. It remains an incredibly useful tool that no woodworker should be without.

A well-tuned plane can do in minutes what can take a sander an hour, and produce an arguably better surface in the process — allowing you to work while standing in a pile of shavings instead of a cloud of dust. If I had to choose only one, it would be a low-angle block plane, pictured below. It can be used for everything from trimming and shaping stock to finish-planing surfaces. Like chisels, they’re rarely ready to use out of the box and need to be sharpened before use.


As with the hand plane, much of the work a handsaw performs has been picked up by the powered version. Even so, the handsaw remains a useful and necessary part of a woodworker’s collection. For cutting wood, there are two basic types: rip saws and crosscut saws.

Rip saws are meant to cut in the direction of the grain and typically have fewer, bigger teeth. Crosscut saws are, as the name implies, for cutting across the grain. They typically have more and finer teeth in order to shear the grain and leave a cleaner cut.

While general-purpose and combination saws exist, they tend to be a little too aggressive for careful work. My choice of handsaw is a Japanese ryoba nokogiri (double blade saw), shown above. It has rip teeth on one side, crosscut teeth on the other, and unlike Western saws, it cuts on the pull stroke. While they used to be difficult to find, you can now usually get them at home stores.


Without clamps, nearly every operation with the preceding tools becomes more difficult. Not only are they good for holding together the final assembly, their ability to keep things here you want them while you work is invaluable. There is little that is more frustrating than trying to work a piece of wood that keeps sliding around. A couple of clamps, are essential and most woodworkers, at least once in their life, have repeated the mantra “you can never have enough clamps.” Two 24" bar clamps, like the one shown below, are good. Four are better. Eight are better still …


Accurate layout work is the critical first step to a successful project. Without precise, repeatable marks, it is very difficult to get everything to come together at the end. So now I’ll go over some of the basic tools for measuring, marking, and transferring lines. My big three (actually four) tools for almost all of the work I do are the tape measure, a high-quality 12" combination square, a .005 drafting pen, and a 4" combination square for smaller work.


The three most common measuring devices you’re likely to find in a wood shop are the tape measure, folding rule, and steel rule. All three have their good and bad points. But as with all tools, find the one(s) that fit your style and make the most sense to you and the way you work.

The familiar tape measure with its spring-steel blade rolled up into a small box is fast and can measure distances that would require a massive folding rule. On the down side, the little hook at the end of the tape can introduce inaccuracy. When new, the hook slides on rivets just enough to adjust for the thickness of the hook’s metal. When measuring to the inside of something, the hook is pressed in; when on the outside, the hook is pulled out, keeping the measurements accurate. This works great for a while, but over time, the holes and rivets can wear and get bigger, or the hook can be bent when the tape measure is dropped. To remedy this, most woodworkers “burn an inch.” This is where you ignore the hook and start all of your measurements from the 1" mark. This works well and gives accurate results, as long as you remember to subtract 1" from your result. Trust me, no one who uses this method hasn’t had a moment of dread after discovering something (or worse, multiple things) didn’t fit to the tune of one extra inch. So stay awake out there. When choosing a tape measure, consider the type of work you are doing. If you primarily work with material shorter than 12 feet, don’t buy a 25-foot tape. Those last 13 feet will never see daylight and the extra mass is heavy and cumbersome.

The folding rule (above) overcomes the hook problem by having a fixed metal cap at the end of its wooden rule. This makes for worry-free use, especially when measuring against something. It also has a nifty little sliding rule built into the end to measure depths and interior distances. On the downside, the thickness of the wooden blade means it must be laid on its edge to get accurate results and the way it folds creates a stair step shape that can make it awkward to use over distances.

The steel rule (at left) is a nice balance between the folders consistency and the tape measure’s small size, but its limitations are obvious. It’s great for smaller work, but once you get beyond the 6" mark, one of the above will have to take over.

Honorable mention goes to the story pole or story stick. This is usually a long piece of wood that one puts their own marks on for transferring measurements. This can be more reliable because it gets rid of those numbers, and every distance is as marked. Story poles are very useful when you’re measuring larger projects with multiple components (like a kitchen or library) or when you need to transfer the same dimension over many parts. It helps eliminate measuring mistakes.


For layout work, a square’s primary function is to draw lines 90º perpendicular to a side. As always, there are a few types available but what sets them apart is what else they do. For me, a combination square (at right) is the most useful. Not only does it give me 90° and the occasional 45°, it also transfers measurements from one piece to another, finds the true center of a board, and checks depths and helps set up tools. It’s hard to imagine woodworking without it. Definitely spend up when buying one. Get the best one you can afford. A loose, out of square or hard to move blade creates more frustration than it’s worth.

The speed square is handy as well, but it is more suited to carpentry. I find the deeply stamped numbers to make for jaggy lines, so I use it mostly for rough layout and marking.

The sashigane is the standard square for Japanese joinery. It looks like a Western framing square but has a much thinner, flexible blade. And also like the framing square, it is covered in mysterious, oddly spaced numbers and strange markings that when in the right hands can be used to figure and lay out some pretty complicated joints. Since I have yet to decipher one, those hands are not mine. Image





Use a simple mortise-and-tenon joint to make these fine-looking shop horses that’ll last a lifetime.



So much more elegant than the usual cardboard shakers in your picnic basket.



With its clever lift-out lid, this strong wood box carries my tools to nearly every big job.




» Table saw, chop saw with 12" cut capacity, and handsaw

» Drill

» Drill bits, 7/64 or 3/32, and countersink, or #6 counterbore I used a Makita #784815.

» Acid brush

» Tape measure

» Adjustable square

» Small clamps, 2 or more I used two 6" and four 12".

» Low horses optional but helpful

» Wood, pine or cedar: 1×12 (4') and 1×8 (8')

» Screws or nail equivalent: 15/8" trim-head (36), 1¼" (16) I used drywall screws.

» Wood glue


As with all woodworking projects, there are many ways to accomplish the same task. The tools and techniques I show here should be viewed as one option, not the only way. Use whatever tools, methods, and materials make sense to you.

You can avoid a lot of frustration by selecting the best boards you can find. Look for pieces that are straight, flat, and free of twist. Sometimes that means going through every board they have; sometimes that means getting 2 boards so you can cut around flaws.

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