As essential as it is, the tablesaw and power drill are useless without the lowly tape measure. The list of tools presented here is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every conceivable hand tool, but it is meant to be a general guide.
Claw Hammer (Finish Head)
Everyone has used a hammer at some point in his or her life. While there are many types, the most versatile is the claw hammer with a smooth, slightly rounded finish head. Models with a coarse, anti-slip pattern on the striking surface are designed to reduce the chance of the hammer glancing off the nail head, however these coarse striking surfaces also lead to your finished project showing hammer dents. Choose one that is not too heavy, but feels good in your hand. I prefer a 20 oz. model.
The claw feature of the hammer is designed to help in extracting nails. Resist the urge to simply claw the nail and lever the hammer against your work piece! This will often lead to compression marks on your project that are difficult to remove. Instead, place a thin sacrificial piece of wood under the hammer’s head, so the sacrificial wood will get the hammer marks, and the good piece of wood is protected.
6″ Speed Square
A Speed Square is an invaluable woodworking tool. Not only is it probably the quickest and easiest tool for marking a square line for an end cut, but can be used to quickly mark any angle up to 45-degrees or measure up to six inches. I keep one in my back pocket or nail pouch whenever I’m in the shop.
Retractable Tape Measure
A Retractable Tape Measure is another tool that is an absolute must for any woodworker. A quality tape measure should have both Standard and Metric markings, a locking mechanism and a slightly loose hook on the end of the tape. The hook is loose on its rivets by design so the user will get accurate results whether the tape is used to take internal or external measurements.
To keep your tape measure in top working condition, to ensure that the 2” mark will remain the same from the start of the project until the end, you must avoid damaging your tape measure. Most of your other tools are relatively solid, constructed of wood or metal. The tape measure is made of metal, however it is rather delicate.
Some of the many causes of inaccurate tape measures are caused by allowing the blade to retract at high speed, cutting it with a power tool, allowing your blade to rust, dropping it, stepping on the hook at the end of the tape or damaging the rivets.
A Utility Knife with a locking mechanism that uses disposable razor blades is another requirement for the woodworker. This versatile cutting device can be used for scribing a mark in a piece of stock, cleaning up a hinge mortise or any of a hundred other times when a knife is needed.
Replacement blades are cheap. If you are concerned about the cost of replacement blades, most dollar stores have packages of 10 or 20 for $1.00. If only the first or second blade section is broken, you can break off the damaged sections to reveal a fresh tip. If too many sections have been damaged, simply replace the entire blade.
The best tip to keeping your blade in good condition (and to keep your fingers attached to your hand) is to retract the blade before you set the knife down! Remember: There’s no such thing as an accident. It all amounts to carelessness.
The Chisel is another essential woodworking tool. A finely sharpened chisel is perfect for cleaning out waste from joints and mortises. I like to keep one each of 1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″ and 1″ width bevel-edged chisels within easy reach.
Like most blades, chisels should be kept as sharp as possible. With few exceptions, the flat side of the chisel should never be touched. The beveled edge is the face that should be placed against your sharpening stone. This is because repeated sharpening of the flat face will cause the width of the chisel to change slightly. Sharpening the beveled face only will leave a chisel that is a consistent width from tip to handle.
When you need to know if a piece of stock is perfectly horizontal (level) or vertical (plumb), you need a level. I like to keep two levels available: one a relatively long level (I use a 28″ or 36″) and a short, 6″ Torpedo Level.
One important factor to remember when using a level is the surface that your workpiece is resting on. It makes little sense to make the tabletop perfectly level when the table is standing on the garage floor that has a 5-degree tilt towards the door. When you move that table into your kitchen that (hopefully) has a level floor, your table will no longer be level!
Like the claw hammer, everybody has used a screwdriver at least once or twice in his or her lives. I keep a few versions in my shop: #1, 2 and 3 sizes of Phillips (cross-shaped), Robertson (square) and Flathead varieties. Torx screwdrivers are not often required in the realm of woodwork.
Use the right tool
Here is a great tip: Only use screwdrivers to screw screws in or to remove screws. Sounds like a “Duh!” statement, however screwdrivers are often used as pry-bars, package openers, chisels, or wedges. If you insist on using a screwdriver for these things, reserve your “old set” for these activities, and keep your “new set” pristine. It’s not just a matter of puritanism. It’s for the accuracy of your project. Remember that the next time your screwdriver slips from the screw head and gouges through the finish on your project that you just invested 30 hours.
If the tip of your flathead screwdriver has seen a little too much abuse, you can start up your grinding stone and grind the tip slightly to flatten it. You can also re-shape the flat sides. Just be absolutely certain that the two sides are paralell, and you don’t introduce any bevel next to the tip. Any such bevel will lead to your screwdriver jumping out of the slot of the screw and right into your workpiece or into your hand.
A Sliding Bevel is very similar to a square, except that it can be adjusted to any angle and locked in place using a locking mechanism. This is very handy when an angle needs to be duplicated.
Nail / Punch Sets
A nail set looks somewhat like a small, round chisel, but is used to sink nail heads flush or just beneath the wood’s surface. I keep three different sizes in my pouch.
The last absolute necessity every woodworker should have is a small block plane. This device is used for shaving thin amounts of wood away from the stock, and is invaluable for cleaning up edges during assembly.
Though not a tool by the strictest definition, the gluing stage of a project is the anathema of many a woodworker.