The other day, I kvetched a little about when I was getting started, about how I felt like I couldn’t really because of the supposedly required tooling.
In truth, I don’t know that my complaints were legitimate. Not completely.
However, on the same token, I do feel like there’s a certain barrier to entry that exists in the craft, a certain elitism, for want of a better word.
You see, no matter where you look, there’s pressure to buy “the best” tools, and there’s a logic to it. Buy once, cry once and all that, plus let’s be honest. A lot of the premium tools really are better and not just expensive.
Vintage tools are awesome too, but they’re kind of intimidating to some people. They’re worried about trying to rehab a whole pile of tools before building anything. I get that. I enjoy it, but not everyone does. In truth, though, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have to.
So, if I were to decide for the very first time that I wanted to build furniture, here’s what I would probably do.
Step 1: Build Stuff With What I had
I came into this with a lot of home improvement stuff. A compound miter saw, a circular saw, a cordless drill, things like that. If I’d been smart, I’d have looked for plans that used what tools I already had, maybe supplemented with things like a random orbit sander and a pocket screw jig, even a basic one.
Ana White’s site is actually chock full of plans for building stuff with these basic tools. It doesn’t look half bad, either.
In fact, if you never progressed beyond this point, you could probably still outfit your whole home with attractive furniture that you could say, “I made all of this.”
The trick, however, is to want to expand your skills. Yes, you can build plenty with pocket screws, but you shouldn’t be content with just those skills. An easy expansion is based on this posted excerpt from a Christopher Schwarz article regarding using nails. That’s right, nails. But using them in the right way, which is a new skill, and one you find on a fair amount of antique furniture.
Adam Cherubini did a talk on 18th century nailed furniture a while back, and I desperately hope he can expand that subject into a book. Sounds like a hell of a project for Lost Art Press if you ask me, but no one did.
Either way, the point is that nailing furniture can yield heirloom pieces that your kids can fight over after you’re dead.
Ah, living the dream.
Still, at some point, you’ve got to expand your horizons, right?
Step 2a: Buy Quality, But Only What You Need
Step two has two options, but their variations on a theme. The premise is that you would buy tools as you need them.
This one has you buying premium tools when the need arises. This is what I would actually recommend. For what it’s worth, though, I consider quality vintage tools to fall into this category, but their premium cost is the time it takes in getting them up to fighting trim once again.
Either way, you get a lifetime tool for a single purchase. This is a smart way to do it, but not everyone can afford to do this. That’s where Step 2B will come in.
But if you can, then you buy precisely the tool you need and spend the money. This is easier to do with some tools than others.
For example, a Lie-Nielson 1/4″ chisel is $55. That’s a lot of money, but it’s better than buying a whole set which will have some chisels you might not even use all that much. It’s also a bit cheaper than Lee Valley’s bench chisel, which is $72 per chisel.
Conversely, you can buy something like the Narex chisels at Lee Valley, which are decent enough chisels but a fraction of the cost. (Those are what I have, actually.) They’re not premium, but close. I understand that Stanley’s Sweetheart chisels are in the same camp, if not a bit better.
It’s more difficult, however, with planes or saws. Lee Valley’s modern-looking molded backsaws are pretty inexpensive, compared to most “premium” saws, and Lie-Neilsen’s $125 dovetail saw is actually ridiculously reasonable for what you get. Planes, on the other hand, well…you don’t get cheap and quality at the same time, by and large.
I understand Stanley’s Sweetheart line makes a good low-angle jack plane, but the rest aren’t that good. I’ll have to research it myself to say for certain, though.
Step 2B: Same As Above, But Buy What You Can Afford
Hand tool experts will tell you all the time that you want a premium tool, and they’re probably right. They can expound on why until they’re blue in the face.
It doesn’t change your bank account.
If I didn’t have the money but had the more free-thinking nature I do now, I’d probably say screw it and just buy what I can afford to buy.
You see, I’m of the belief that many of the tool snobbishness you see among the experts is sincere, but it comes about because you know how a tool should work. When it comes to non-premium tools, ignorance really is bliss.
I’d probably buy the $20 Stanley smoothing plane with the Norris-style adjuster and maybe buy the big-box Buck Brother’s chisels (which I hear are actually decent chisels if a bit too heavy). I’d buy the $31 gent’s saw from Lee Valley for dovetails, and probably use it for tenons too and keep them small (assuming I didn’t have a router or table saw to do that).
I’d pick up the odd tool I needed here or there, buying the best I could afford but not losing sleep that it wasn’t something better. Not yet, anyway.
Then, I’d move on, constantly expanding my skills and my tool collection.
Step 3: Upgrade Where Needed
Sometimes, what you can afford actually sucks. It may work, but it’s not a pleasure to use and that kind of matters. This is supposed to be fun, after all. If it’s not, you’re not going to get anything done except waste money.
So what would I do?
I’d upgrade where needed. If my smoothing plane chatters no matter what you do, now is the time to save up for a Veritas or Lie-Nielson. Can’t keep my chisels sharp to save my life? Now is the time to upgrade to something better there too.
I’d start with where I need to upgrade. I wouldn’t just buy a jointer plane because I supposedly need one. If I’m able to make do with a jack plane, and it’s working great, then I won’t sweat it. Especially if I’m still buying lumber from the big-box retailer. Their stuff may not need dimensioning, especially if I pick my boards carefully.
Instead, I’d get what I need to get and nothing else. Maybe sell a piece or two in order to fund tool acquisitions.
Step 4: Upgrade Everything else
I’m not even sure I’d take this step, to be honest. If a $20 smoothing plane is working fine for me, why bother buying a $300 smoothing plane?
But if I still want the best quality stuff, items that can last a lifetime and then go on to my kids or grandkids, then I might decide to make this upgrade.
Unless, of course, I’m convinced that the stuff I have will last as well.
Now, those are the steps I’d take this time around, but it’s not just idle thinking here. My son will be heading off to college after the school year finishes up. While I doubt he’ll be going all that far away (all of his school choices are in-state), he’s still likely to move away afterward. My hope is that he and I can share this passion, and that means he’ll likely want his own tools to take with him.
This is at the same time as I’m trying to fill out my tool chest as well, that means the tool-buying money is slim.
But, if I can find a way to provide quality tools at an affordable price, well, that’s just all kinds of win.
The upside of this approach, in my opinion, is that after someone is content that they can handle a certain type of project, they can step up and grow in their knowledge of the craft. They start out with home improvement tools and pocket screws and end with…well, whatever they want to end with. Intarsia and marquetry, maybe. Who knows?
Yet it provides a much lower barrier to entry into the craft and allows people to grow their tool collections as they grow their skills, unlike what I did which was buy tools left and right without any plan on using them at that moment.
But, we live and learn. This is the result of my learning.