A Beginner’s Guide to Hand Tools for Woodworking

wood carver with a wooden heart

Many seasoned professionals have a special place in their hearts for hand tools.

As you get into woodworking, it’s natural to want to stay on the cutting edge with all the latest power tools.

But despite the benefits of modern technology for woodworking, many seasoned professionals have a special place in their hearts for hand tools.


It’s not because those pros are old-school and unwilling to change. Rather, using hand tools with skill is a fundamental part of this craft. Mastering them is the key to a solid foundation in woodworking and a deeper appreciation of the skill and art of creating a beautiful piece.

This guide will introduce you to the essential hand tools—hand saws, chisels, planes, and more—while giving you tips and techniques to use them. You can expect to learn:

  • Why hand tools are important
  • Essential hand tools for woodworking
  • How to sharpen and maintain hand tools
  • Hand tool safety

Still a bit skeptical about whether hand tools are necessary? Let’s consider some reasons to use them.

Importance of Hand Tools in Woodworking

Hand tools play a crucial role in woodworking, and there are many reasons why professionals and beginners alike turn to them. Here are five of those reasons:

1. Precision and Control

Hand tools provide unparalleled precision and control in woodworking tasks, allowing woodworkers to achieve clean, accurate cuts and joinery. This level of precision is especially important when working on intricate or custom projects that require delicate, detailed work—something that may not be possible with power tools.

2. Skill Development

Mastering hand tools is beneficial to a strong foundation in woodworking. As beginners learn to use these tools, they gain skills such as hand-eye coordination, patience, and a keen understanding of wood grain and behavior.

3. Versatility

Hand tools often serve multiple purposes in a woodworking project. Their adaptability allows woodworkers to tackle a wide range of tasks without the need for specialized, expensive equipment.

4. Tradition and Craftsmanship

Hand tools take us back to the historical roots of woodworking, connecting us to the techniques and knowledge passed down through generations.

You may have pulled out a box of hand tools used by your grandfather or great-grandfather. Doesn’t it give you a sense of pride to think that you can build something with those tools and continue a family legacy?

5. Portability and Accessibility

Hand tools are often more portable and accessible than their power tool counterparts. This makes them ideal if you have limited space and have to move your tools around when you want to use them.

Now that we’ve looked at the reasons for using hand tools, we’ll jump into what you’re here for—to learn about the different kinds of hand tools.

Essential Hand Tools for Woodworking

Essential hand tools for beginners include hand saws, chisels, planes, measuring and marking tools, hand drills, and braces. Though we could no doubt cover others, the goal is to get you acquainted with the basics. And that includes guidance on how to use the tools and get the best possible results.

Hand Saws

Hand saws are traditional woodworking tools used for cutting wood.

They come in various types and sizes, each with a specific purpose and cutting style. Some common ones are:

  • Rip saw: Designed for cutting wood along the grain, rip saws have fewer, larger teeth and a more aggressive cutting angle to efficiently remove wood material.
  • Crosscut saw: Intended for cutting wood across the grain, crosscut saws feature smaller, more closely spaced teeth, allowing for a cleaner and smoother cut.
  • Backsaw: With a stiffened spine along the back of the blade, backsaws provide increased stability and precision during cutting. They are commonly used for joinery tasks, such as cutting dovetails or tenons.
  • Coping saw: Equipped with a thin, narrow blade, coping saws are ideal for cutting intricate shapes or curves in wood, often used for trimming and fitting joinery or decorative elements.
  • Japanese pull saw: Also known as a “dozuki” or “ryoba,” Japanese pull saws have a unique cutting action in which the cutting occurs on the pull stroke, resulting in a finer, more precise cut.

To get precise and clean cuts—and keep your hand saw in good shape—it’s important to have the right techniques. You’ll want to:

  1. Choose the right saw for the job: Different saws are designed for different types of cuts and wood materials. Use a saw appropriate to your task.
  2. Position your body and saw correctly: Stand in a stable position with your feet shoulder-width apart and position the saw so that it’s perpendicular to the wood surface. Apply firm but controlled pressure to initiate the cut, and let the saw do the work. If you’re using excessive force or twisting, you’re probably doing something wrong.
  3. Protect adjacent surfaces: If you’re cutting up against a surface – say, cutting a dowel flush against a surface – use painter’s tape on that surface to prevent marring it with the saw teeth, then finish up the action with a sharp chisel.
  4. Keep the saw blade clean: Sawdust and debris can clog the saw teeth, reducing their cutting efficiency. Use a saw cleaning brush or compressed air to remove sawdust from the blade and teeth regularly.
  5. Sharpen the saw blade regularly: A dull saw blade will require more force, leading to imprecise and rough cuts. Regularly sharpening the saw blade, either with a saw file or sharpening stone, will ensure optimal performance.
  6. Store saws properly: Protect saw blades from moisture, dust, and damage by storing them in a dry and clean area. Use blade guards or blade sleeves to cover the teeth and protect the blade when not in use.


Luthier with chisel

Chisels are a useful hand tool for cutting and shaping wood and creating intricate designs.

Chisels consist of a blade with a sharp edge and a handle, used for cutting and shaping wood, creating intricate designs, and joining pieces together. They come in various sizes and shapes, each designed for specific tasks, such as carving or chopping out mortises. They are typically used together with mallets or hammers.

Here are some of the different types:

  • Bevel-edge chisels: These chisels have a beveled—sloping—edge, which allows for a variety of angled cuts and shaping. They are commonly used for fine woodworking and general woodworking tasks.
  • Mortise chisels: Mortise chisels are heavier and stronger than other chisels. They have a thick and sturdy blade designed for chopping out mortises, which are square or rectangular holes used for joinery.
  • Paring chisels: Paring chisels have a longer and thinner blade than other chisels, so they’re ideal for making precise cuts and shaping intricate areas.

Here are some tips for effective chiseling:

  1. Use the right chisel for the job: Different types of chisels are designed for specific woodworking tasks.
  2. Position your body correctly: Stand in a stable position with your feet shoulder-width apart and maintain a comfortable distance from the workpiece. Hold the chisel with a comfortable and secure grip.
  3. Start with shallow cuts: You can gradually deepen them as needed, applying controlled and consistent force to the chisel with your hand or a mallet.
  4. Maintain a consistent angle: Keep the chisel at a consistent angle throughout the cut, ensuring a smooth and even cut.
  5. Keep the blade sharp: Use a sharpening stone or honing guide to maintain the correct angle and remove any nicks or burrs from the blade.
  6. Avoid hitting hard materials: Chisels are designed for cutting soft materials, such as wood. Avoid hitting metal or concrete, as they can damage the blade or make it dull.
  7. Clean and store chisels properly: After use, clean the blade of any debris or sawdust and store the chisel in a dry, clean area, preferably with a blade guard or cover.


Planes are hand tools used for shaping, smoothing, and flattening wood surfaces. They consist of a flat sole and a blade that extends from the sole and slices off wood fibers. Usually, you can adjust the depth of the cut by altering the position of the blade.

There are several types of planes, including:

  • Bench planes: Bench planes are large and heavy planes used for flattening and smoothing large surfaces of wood. They come in different sizes, with the longest being a No. 8 and the shortest being a No. 1.
  • Block planes: Block planes are smaller and lighter than bench planes and are used for trimming, smoothing, and shaping smaller pieces of wood. They are also used for chamfering, a term for creating angled edges on the wood.
  • Specialty planes: There are many specialty planes with different sole or blade geometries for unique cuts or moulding.

Regardless of the type of plane you’re using, follow these steps for effective planing and maintenance:

  1. Choose the right plane for the job: If you’re wanting to smooth out a large surface, a bench plane may be the best choice. On the other hand, for smaller pieces of wood, you may opt for a block plane.
  2. Position your body correctly: Stand in a stable position with your feet shoulder-width apart and maintain a comfortable distance from the workpiece. Use a comfortable and secure grip on the plane.
  3. Adjust the blade depth correctly: Ensure that the blade is set at the correct depth for the task, typically starting with a shallow cut and deepening if needed.
  4. Apply even pressure: Apply consistent and even pressure to the plane while pushing it across the wood surface, ensuring that you maintain a consistent angle and direction.
  5. Check your progress regularly: Check the surface for smoothness and evenness, making any necessary adjustments to the blade depth or pressure.
  6. Keep the plane blade sharp: Use a sharpening stone or honing guide to maintain the correct angle and remove any nicks or burrs from the blade.
  7. Clean and maintain the plane: After use, clean the plane of sawdust or debris and store it in a dry and clean area, preferably with a blade guard or cover.

Measuring and Marking Tools

Measuring tape on wood board

Measuring tools are critically important for accuracy in cuts and joinery.

Don’t underestimate the basic measuring and marking tools. They are critical for accuracy in your cuts and joinery. You’ll want to have the following on hand:

  • Squares: Squares help you get your edges and corners square (90-degree angles) with one another. There are several types of squares, including combination squares, try squares, and framing squares.
  • Marking gauges: Marking gauges help you make marks along the length of a board or workpiece. They consist of a beam, a fence, and a blade or wheel that scribes a line into the wood.
  • Rulers and tape measures: Rulers and tape measures are used for measuring the length, width, and height of workpieces. They come in various lengths and graduations, and some tape measures have features such as a locking mechanism or a magnetic tip for ease of use.
  • Calipers: Calipers are precision measuring tools used in various fields for measuring small distances and dimensions. They consist of two arms or jaws, one of which can be moved in and out to measure the distance between the two jaws.

Hand Drills and Braces

Hand drills and braces are manual tools for drilling holes into various materials. There are several types of hand drills and braces, each with its own unique features and applications:

  • Eggbeater drills are the most basic type of hand drill and are typically used for light-duty drilling tasks, such as drilling into softwoods.
  • Ratchet drills are similar to eggbeater drills, but they have a ratcheting mechanism that allows the user to turn the drill bit in one direction while holding the handle steady in the other direction. They are ideal for tight spaces where the user’s hands are too close together to turn the drill bit by hand.
  • Breast drills are larger and more heavy-duty than eggbeater and ratchet drills. They are designed for use on larger, more demanding drilling tasks and typically feature a crank handle for additional leverage and a geared head for increased speed and torque.
  • Gimlet drills are hand-held drills that create small pilot holes in wood or even plastic.

Follow these guidelines for accurately drilling the holes for your project:

  1. Use the right drill bit: Select one that is the appropriate size and type for the material you’re drilling.
  2. Mark the precise location of the hole so that you drill in the right place.
  3. Use a drill press: A drill press provides more accurate drilling than a handheld drill, allowing the user to drill straight holes at the desired angle.
  4. Maintain the drill bit: Regularly sharpening the drill bit will ensure optimal performance, reducing the risk of the bit wandering or breaking.
  5. Apply consistent pressure: This will ensure that the drill bit cuts at a steady rate and creates a clean hole.
  6. Use a backer board: When drilling through thin or delicate materials, use a backer board to keep the wood from splintering or tearing out.

And there we have it—the basic hand tools for woodworkers. But a few notes on sharpening, maintenance, and safety next.

Sharpening and Maintaining Hand Tools

Sharp tools are essential for achieving high-quality results. With dull tools, you risk an injury and you might end up with rough, inaccurate cuts.

Like slicing through a tomato with a sharp knife, sharp tools cut more efficiently, require less force to use, and produce cleaner and smoother cuts.

So what can you do to keep your tools in the best condition?

There are several sharpening techniques for hand tools. Two of the most common are:

  1. Waterstones: Waterstones are natural or synthetic sharpening stones that require water as a lubricant. They are commonly used for sharpening and honing hand tools such as chisels, planes, and knives. Waterstones are available in various grits, ranging from coarse to fine.
  2. Oilstones: Oilstones are sharpening stones that use oil as a lubricant. They also come in various grits.

By regularly sharpening your hand tools, you’ll improve the quality of your work and the lifespan of the tool.

Hand Tool Safety

toolbox full of tools

Inspect your tools before each use to ensure that they are in good condition.

Here are just a few important guidelines to protect yourself while you work:

  1. Always wear protective gear, such as safety glasses, when using hand tools.
  2. Inspect your hand tools before each use to ensure that they are in good condition and that all moving parts are functioning properly.
  3. Use the right tool for the job and make sure that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  4. Never force a hand tool to do a job it was not designed to do. If a tool is not working as it should, stop using it and have it repaired or replaced.
  5. Always maintain a firm grip on the tool and keep your fingers and other body parts away from the cutting or drilling area.
  6. When drilling, be aware of the location of any other people or objects in the area and take steps to secure the workpiece to prevent it from moving.

Get Started with Your Hand Tools Today

Hand tools have a special place in the world of woodworking. And as you invest in a few and learn how to use them, they will help you to become a woodworker with a solid command of the craft.

Remember, every craft requires dedication and practice. You won’t develop the skills overnight, but over time, you’ll be able to look back and see the incredible amount of progress you’ve made.

So, ready to get started on a project? Find some ideas in our lineup of 50 DIY woodworking projects.

Last updated on July 18th, 2023

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