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Our Favorite Woodworkers Tools

Four tools that earn their keep—grinders, sharpeners, calipers and planes.

FH10NOV_FAVETW_01-2Family Handyman

Three professional woodworkers talk about their favorite woodworking tools—a grinder, a sharpener, calipers and a hand plane.

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Overview: The editors of American Woodworker magazine

An offcut’s throw from our shop is the office and shop of American Woodworker magazine. I know the editors there, and believe me, they’ve been around the woodworking block a time or two. Recently, I asked the guys to tell me about their favorite tools. Here’s what they had to say.

A 4-1/2-in. grinder for fine woodworking

4-1/2-in. disc grinder

Randy recently purchased Milwaukee’s new 6130-33 4-1/2-in. disc grinder for $60. Its compact size and light weight make it easy to maneuver.

Close-up of disc grinder

A disc grinder makes sculpting and shaping wood much easier.

My first woodworking projects as a kid involved a lot of carving and chopping with axes, spoke shaves and big chisels. I eventually learned the finer side of precision furniture building, but for the sheer pleasure of working wood, nothing compares to sculpting and shaping wood by eye and feel.

I discovered early on that a 4-1/2-in. disc grinder is perfect for shaping gently curved projects. Equipped with a 24- to 36-grit sanding disc, the grinder is aggressive enough for most of my projects. You can get a grinder for about $40, but spend more if you plan to use it a lot. It’ll last longer and be more comfortable to handle. I do final sculpting with 100- to 120-grit, which also leaves a surface smooth enough to finish-sand with a random orbital sander. This Windsor chair seat took about an hour to carve with the grinder. Randy Johnson

Meet the Pro! Randy Johnson

Randy owned a cabinet/ furniture shop for 20 years before trading his Unisaw for a computer, eventually becoming the chief editor of American Woodworker. His other passions are sailing and making goat cheese with his kids.

Keep chisels sharp for $12

Honing guide in action

This little gem firmly holds chisels up to 1-1/2 in. wide and plane irons up to 2-3/4 in. wide. The guide is adjustable, so you can choose virtually any bevel angle, and it’s precise enough to set micro bevels.

Close-up of honing guide

The honing guide has a small wheel that runs along the sharpening stone.

When I started out in woodworking 30 years ago, sharpening chisels and plane irons used to take forever. I had trouble holding the tool at a consistent angle as I moved it back and forth on the stone. Sharp edges eluded me until an old salt turned me on to a $12 honing guide. Once the tool is locked in the guide, you just move it forward and back on the stone until the edge is razor sharp. You can get honing guides at any woodworking store or online. The No. 60N01.05 shown is at Tim Johnson

Meet the pro! Tim Johnson

Tim has spent 25 years restoring antique furniture and building custom pieces. Harvest tables are a specialty—he’s built more than 50 of them. Tim co-founded the 4th Street Guild, a cooperative woodworking shop.

Caliper for the common man

Slide caliper in action

A slide caliper is Tim’s favorite tool for accurately measuring board thicknesses, inside widths of miters and depths of stopped holes.

Close-up of caliper

This caliper has 1/64-in. increments as well as decimal numbers.

Slide calipers are typically graduated in decimals. That’s perfect for engineering, but my old-school brain is wired for fractions, so converting measurements is always a struggle. That’s why I’ve latched on to a fractional caliper, which reads in fractions instead of decimals.

The dial is clearly marked in 1/64-in. increments, and finer measurements are possible as well. One complete revolution equals 1 in. (Digital fractional calipers are also available.) A thumbscrew operates the mechanism. Separate jaws allow you to measure both inside and outside dimensions. A plunge bar extends from the bottom to measure depths. By the way, this caliper reads in decimals, too, for measuring such things as paper-thin shims and fine veneers.

I bought this Oshlun 6-in. caliper (No. 36575) for $44 from Rockler Woodworking ( Tim Johnson

Premier hand planes

Bench plane in action

My favorite bench plane is my No. 4-1/2 smooth plane from At $325, it’s near the top of the food chain.

Close-up of bench plane

Bench planes shear the wood in fine shavings.

When a top-quality bench plane is in my hands and I hear the shavings shearing away, then feel the ultra-smooth surface left behind, I’m in shop heaven. I’m connected with the wood in a way no power tool could ever deliver.

Of course, I didn’t figure out how to use a plane overnight. It took a long time to learn how to tune the tool, sharpen its blade and push it the right way. Using a plane requires skill earned the hard way, but that’s also part of its appeal. When I pick it up, I feel like a pro baseball player going up to bat. The crowd is cheering, the bases are loaded and I’m swinging for the upper bleachers. Tom Caspar

Meet the pro! Tom Caspar

Tom started making furniture right out of college in a friend’s farm outbuilding, with no electricity. His first love is hand tools. He has a side gig, The Unplugged Workshop, instructing wannabe hand-tool users.