12 Woodworking Hand Tools You Definitely Need in Your Shop
Woodworking requires many tools without any cords or batteries. Here are the essential hand tools for successful woodworking projects.
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There’s no question that power tools have made things easier in the shop. But the craft of woodworking has been around a lot longer than electric tools, and there are still some hand tools that are essentials for woodworkers at any level.
Hand tools allow you to put a fine point on the details of a project. You’ll find that they’re indispensable for everything from taking precise measurements to making perfectly fitting joints. The list below is by no means comprehensive, but these are the woodworking tools you’ll find yourself relying on for all of your woodworking projects.
While not technically a tool, a sturdy workbench with flat work surface is key to woodworking. One with two vises, like the 58-inch Nordic Plus workbench from Northern Tool, is even better!
Planks can be clamped to the top for cutting mortises, tenons and other wood joinery, so a hardwood top is ideal for withstanding this heavy work. The flat top is a reference surface for gluing, and stout legs hold everything at a comfortable height. You can also build a workbench in just two hours!
Cabinets, table legs and doors all need joints to be ‘square,’ hence the name for this important measuring tool. Available in many variations, most seasoned woodworkers have variously sized squares for different tasks.
The combination square, Japanese square and metal-edged try square are all excellent choices. A carpenter’s square, AKA a framing square, will work in a pinch.
Ruler or Tape Measure
Whether you live in the U.S. and use inches and feet, or pretty much every other place on the planet and use metric units, you need something to measure things with.
I’ve always preferred a small tape measure, either 12 or 16 feet long. These are lighter and more suitable for woodworking than a 25-foot tape for framing houses.
If you don’t have a square with measurements marked out, a six-inch metal rule or wooden folding ruler are great to tuck into your pocket or apron. I love the Vinca Stainless Steel Ruler because it offers imperial and metric measurements!
Nothing is more important than clean, accurate layout lines. Pencil lines may be fine for carpentry, but not for marking woodworking joints, like dovetails. Graphite from a pencil remains on the surface, whereas a knife blade leaves a physical mark.
In a pinch I’ve gone with a utility or X-Acto knife, but a dedicated marking knife is best for serious precision. Some DIYers like left and right knives, but I’ve found a single marking knife with a double-bevel blade sufficient.
A sibling to the square, the sliding bevel (AKA bevel gauge) marks angles on your workpiece. Comprised of a metal edge with a long slot that locks into a wood or metal handle, a sliding bevel is perfect for laying out dovetails or table legs gently splayed (turned outward). The edge locks to the handle with a wing nut or a lower-profile knurled thumb screw, which I prefer.
The sliding bevel can also help find unknown angles. Slide the adjustable metal edge into the corner in question, lock in place with the thumb screw, then bring it to a protractor to ascertain the exact angle.
Measuring and marking the same dimension is a challenge. A marking gauge, comprised of a ruler, locking stop and marking edge, simplifies this essential task.
There are many variations, but I prefer one with a wheel, like this Mr. Pen Marking Gauge, rather than a knife for the marking edge. Set the ruler to the correct dimension and lock the stop in place with a knurled thumbscrew. The wheel rolls as it slices a clean mark, and tends not to catch on the wood grain.
When the wheel inevitably gets dull, you don’t have to sharpen it. It’s a replaceable part.
American style handsaws cut on the push stroke, and there are many variations. Panel saws, available in rip (cuts with the grain) and cross cut (across the grain), are used for cutting wood down to rough size. For finer woodwork, like cutting joinery and miters, back saws, like the one pictured here, with a rib on the top of the blade for stiffness, are best.
Japanese handsaws are popular because they’re simple to use. Available in a host of lengths and configurations, Japanese saw blades are thinner than those on American-style saws, and they cut on the pull stroke.
For flattening or straightening a board, nothing beats a hand plane. Planes come in various widths and lengths for different purposes. The U.S. standard is Stanley style, with sizes from the tiny #2 at seven inches long all the way up to the #8 at 24 inches long.
Larger, heavier planes are used for flattening large boards. Smaller ones like this #5 Jack Plane are less tiring to operate and good for flattening smaller boards.
Adjustable Stanley-style bench planes feature a wood handle, metal plane body with flat bottom, chip breaker and blade. Block planes are better for small tasks like chamfering (rounding over the edges of a board). European planes with wooden bodies and Japanese planes with low profile hardwood bodies are pulled over the wood.
Chisels are essentially blades with handles, but they come in lots of styles. No matter how expensive they are, chisels must be sharp to cut cleanly and safely. Used as the final step after sawing for joinery, chisels slice, or ‘pare’ (like an apple) to the precise line.
Bench chisels are the archetypal general purpose tool. The beveled edges fit into tight spaces. They’re as narrow as 1/4-in. and as wide as two inches.
Heavy-duty mortise chisels feature thick blades with square edges that take a beating while chopping mortises. Last are the lightweight, thin, practically flexible paring chisels, sharpened to a steep angle for paring difficult, dense end grain.
Nothing strikes a chisel better than a wooden mallet. While you may be tempted to choose a metal framing hammer for this task, a metal hammer can split or damage woodworking chisels.
A good mallet is made of beech or other tight-grained hardwood to resist splitting. It also has angled striking surfaces and a tapered handle for a comfortable grip.
This Big Horn Beech Mallet is a good example. Another mallet option is cylindrical, like the Narex Turned Beech Mallet, based on a traditional mallet made from a log. Either style is easy to make and a great starting project for a novice woodworker.
Before sandpaper existed, there was the card scraper. It’s a thin, small (2-1/2-in. x 5-in.) piece of steel that can be bent with light pressure and pulled or pushed across the surface of wood to smooth it. The smoothing magic happens with a tiny burnished hook of bent metal on the edge of the scraper that slowly wears away and must be re-bent.
To create the hook, the scraper is clamped in a vise. Then a burnisher (a rod of metal harder than the steel of the scraper) pushes or bends the metal into a hook perfect for smoothing wood.
Smoothing wood can be done with planes or a card scraper, but each requires patience to learn the proper technique. Then there’s sandpaper, which works best when wrapped around a rigid but forgiving block. A sanding block can be shop-made or purchased in many varieties from retailers.
The Preppin’ Weapon is a comfortable, contoured-plastic sanding block with a soft pad and metal clips to hold one-quarter sheet of conventional sandpaper. If you use five-inch hook-and-loop sandpaper in your shop, the M-Jump Five-Inch Mouse Hand Sanding Pad is perfect.