One good tool is worth half-a-dozen poor ones. Nearly anything can be made with a saw, a hammer, a screwdriver and a chisel.
The best rule when buying tools is to get only those which you need at once. Do not buy large sets or kits at first. But those which you do buy should be of the very best quality. Cheap tools are a waste of money and you cannot do good work with them.
It is impossible for the ordinary householder to check tools for quality. The only guides are the price and the brand name. The field of toolmaking is so competitive that you usually get exactly what you pay for. A saw costing next to nothing will be of far worse quality than one costing lot more even though they may look exactly alike. Good steel looks just the same as poor steel. A cheap wooden handle can be covered in good-looking paint or plastic.
A good chisel will take a razor-edge. Make sure then that you have a safe place to keep it. Always put your tools away with a cover over the cutting edges. Rust is a real enemy to sharpness. You may not be able to see it, but a film of rust blunts an edge considerably. A simple wipe with an oily rag after use will prevent this.
Sharpening is an important task with chisels and planes, but quite easy to tackle. For the time being though, you do not need such tools. Here is a short list of those you should start with. As you need more, we will describe them separately.
Naturally, many jobs can be done more quickly and sometimes more easily with power tools such as a portable drill. The principles of the work, however, remain the same whether hand or power tools are chosen.
The tenon saw is a general purpose tool. In fact you can make almost anything in wood with it. It has a stiffened back parallel to the teeth. It is roughly a foot long and has 10 to 14 teeth to the inch.
Though you do not need one of these as well as a tenon saw, many people already have one. It is better for cutting strips and planks but is not as versatile as the tenon saw. Roughly 2 ft. long and tapering, it is most useful with about 10 teeth per inch.
There is probably more wasted sweat in sawing than in any other operation. With a good, sharp tool the effort should not be great, at least for the sizes of wood used in our projects. The trouble arises quite simply through trying to go too fast. The saw is forced down into the wood and jams. Properly used, a saw will cut a slot rather wider than the thickness of its blade. So, the blade can still run freely to and fro, even when deep in the cut. But if pressure is exerted to make the saw cut faster, the slot becomes narrower and its sides are rough with broken wood fibres. These jam against the saw and the deeper this goes, the tighter it jams. Once a saw has been forced, it is hard to free it completely again.
To cut a strip of wood across, first draw the saw backwards once or twice, which will break the first fibres without the teeth digging in too deeply. Then commence making long, light strokes up and down. It is important to use the whole length of the blade and that the movement is forward and backwards, with hardly any downward pressure. The weight of the saw should be enough. When nearly through, support the free end or it may snap off before the cut is complete, leaving a jagged corner. Remember too that it is always harder to saw wood with the grain than across it.
One last point on sawing is to make sure that you saw on the waste side of any marking. For example, if you have marked off a piece of wood exactly twelve inches long, and then saw it exactly along the line, the result will be a piece slightly less than twelve inches, by the thickness of the saw cut. This may not seem very much but it can make all the difference in getting a close fit between two parts.
Again, most householders will already have one. But the rule about buying good quality still applies, as you must have a really strong handle with a securely fixed head. Loose heads are dangerous but almost unknown with good makes. It is useful to choose one with curved claws to extract wrongly-driven nails.
Hammering is a simple job, but how many hammered thumbs are there in the country? Hold the handle well down, NOT near the hammer head. If you cannot manage to do this comfortably, because of the weight, then get a lighter hammer. But always use the heaviest hammer suited to the work. To get a heavy blow with a light hammer means taking a long swing; with a heavy hammer a short stroke will have the same effect and is easier to aim. Keep your other hand out of the way, if necessary holding the workpiece in tongs, pliers etc. When driving nails, push them through a strip of waste card so that your fingers are well away when starting them.
Another common household tool. The tip is not ground sharp, but flat, so that it will not slip out of the screw slot. Strictly speaking you should use a screwdriver which exactly matches the screw you are driving; a counsel of perfection that few of ‘us attain! One with a ¼ in. wide tip fits most screws. A smaller one comes in handy at times. If you buy one, choose one of the ‘electrician’s’ type as it can be used for other purposes too.
You will make screw driving stronger and easier if you always drill a thin guide hole, before driving the screw. For perfect results in screwing two pieces of wood together an expert would recommend drilling a thin hole in the back piece and a wider hole, large enough to accept the thick shank of the screw easily, through the piece being attached. For our projects this is time-consuming and unnecessary. But a hole through the top piece does help in driving accurately.
Hold the screwdriver in line with the length of the screw and maintain steady pressure while turning. Make sure your screwdriver tip is not rounded with wear. Long screwdrivers are less likely to slip out of the slot than short ones are. Plain screwdrivers are best in most places, but where you can only get one hand to the job a ratchet type is useful. This tool has a device which gives a rigid turn in one direction, but a ‘free-wheel’ back again, so you do not need to change your grip when completing a turn.
One of the commonest jobs is putting up shelves. As these look terrible if they are not level you should have a spirit level right from the start. But there is no need to buy a large, expensive one at first. A cheap one may be quite serviceable, because the bubble glasses are much the same in dear or cheap sorts.
Do not just measure the level one way. Turn the tool round and measure the other way. Any errors in the level itself will then be shown up. And do not forget to measure across any working surface or shelf, as well as along it. Measuring for vertical is done in the same way as level. Apply the body of the tool firmly to the wood being checked and if the bubble is central in the measuring glass the wood piece is vertical. To measure a long area for level, lay a dead straight length of timber right along it, and check with the level on this, rather than on the workpiece itself.
Trysquare or Setsquare
You do not really need one of these for the earliest jobs, but marking out timber in perfect right angles is an important part of woodworking. Therefore it is as well to get one early. Since this is, like the spirit level, a tool without a cutting edge, one can economise on it. Cheap ones are usually reasonably accurate, though they may be more easily knocked out of true than dear ones.
You will also need a few sheets of sandpaper for smoothing off. This is made in different grades of roughness. Buy No. 2 Medium for the first smoothing and No. 0 Fine for finishing off.
One especially useful tool, if you intend to fix shelves to solid walls, is a Rawlplug Hammer Drill, and of course a supply of Rawlplugs. These provide the simplest and quickest way of making a strong attachment to a wall. You can buy them in small sets, complete with drill, plugs and screws.
You do not need a full sized plane for most simple woodworking. You will usually buy ready-planed timber. But a very useful tool indeed is a miniature plane like this, called a block plane. It has all the adjustments found on larger planes, and is very light to handle. It will tackle almost any smoothing job you are likely to meet and requires hardly any strength to use.
Using a full-sized plane requires skill and is not to be learned in a day but the small block plane we recommend is not so difficult. There are two adjustment points on this type (though you can get simpler planes with only one). The main adjustment is the small knob at the rear which controls the amount the blade protrudes from the bottom ‘sole’ of the tool. The more it projects, the deeper the cut and so the larger the wood chip removed. The second adjustment is at the front of the plane and controls the size of the mouth through which the blade passes. The wider the mouth, in general, the less broken up the chips become and so the more wood is removed. It is also made wide when planing along the length of a strip of wood, but narrow when you decide to plane across the sawn end of a piece.
An ordinary plane will not smooth effectively the end-grain of sawn timber, the cutting blade being set too steeply, but this small type has a very low slope to its blade and will tackle sawn ends quite easily. When doing so, plane inwards from the edges, NOT right across, or you may tear away the wood at the end of the stroke.
This is one of the most generally useful of all simple woodworking tools. It simply is not worth being without one. Even the smallest and cheapest will give good service and the replaceable blades last a long time. You can buy them shaped like planes, like files or even rounded, or to use revolving in power tools.
There is little actual skill in using shaping tools, though one does develop a proficiency at getting quick results. They are very versatile however, and the skill lies in developing their uses. Working straight forward and back gives a smoothing effect, while more wood is taken off, more roughly, by letting the tool run diagonally. As with the block plane one sometimes may damage end grain by planing right across, instead of from the edges to the middle.
If you have no small power drill, this is the next best thing and makes the work much simpler. Besides the drill itself you need the actual ‘drill bits’ which make the holes. These may be in Carbon steel or high speed steel. (This last name has nothing to do with its speed of use; the name relates to the method of tempering the steel used in it). Carbon steel drills are cneaper but will serve most homes well where not a great deal of drilling is needed. High speed steel cuts harder metals and wears better. For making holes in walls or solid floors, DO NOT use either of these sorts. Buy instead special masonry drills. These are prepared to deal with almost any stone with ease.
Hand drilling is easy and presents few problems. The commonest mistake is to try to drill too fast. Maintain a light downward pressure and a steady turning motion on the gear handle. Clear chips from the hole frequently. When the drill is nearly through, go slower. As the tip appears at the rear, but before it breaks through fully, turn the piece over and finish the job from the rear. This will prevent breaking of the rear fibres and making a shaggy hole.
It is easier to drill walls and solid floors if you have a power drill, and you will find it easier too to make the necessary holes in the wood of your various projects. But the saving is very much one of effort rather than time, in smaller projects at least. A useful tool if you have one, but it is not necessary to rush out and get one specially, unless you intend to do a great deal of work. The drill bits used are the same as for the hand drill above. Note that when drilling stone, concrete or brick with masonry drills, you should use the slowest speed of which your tool is capable, and keep the drill bit lubricated and cooled.
Power drilling: As with the hand drill, do not be in too much of a hurry and remove the drill to clear chips from time to time. When breaking through, instead of reversing the piece, one can get a fair result by drilling downwards very slowly indeed, with the drill at top r.p.m.
When drilling masonry of any sort, use slow speeds, and keep the drill tip cooled with oil or water.
DIY Woodworking Basics
Woodwork for the home calls for cutting wood to shape, smoothing it and joining the parts together. There is nothing very difficult in any of these operations. A highly skilled woodworker might do the jobs quicker and more accurately but for all normal domestic purposes anyont: can easily learn to use wood.
Most furniture is made up of shelves, frames and boxes of different sizes. A kitchen wall unit may be a simple open shelf, or a box with a shelf inside. Drawers are only boxes shaped to fit inside other boxes. Fit legs to a box and you have a dressing table. Make a very tall box and you have a wardrobe. Four legs held together by a rail near the top is the basis of a stool (with a padded top), or a table (with a solid wooden top). Lengthen the back legs upwards and add a cross-piece to make a chair.
Wood is bought in strips, planks or sheets. All are cut and smoothed in much the same manner. Only the ways in which they are joined together are different. By learning to make a few simple basic joints and structures you can soon make almost any article used in the home.
Everyone needs shelves. Most of us like them in sets. Every kitchen calls for units of cupboards and drawers, some with hard-wearing working surfaces, with sliding or hinged doors. Or supporting a sink. Most of us would like a coffee table, extra dining chairs, chests of drawers, built-in wardrobes and fitted dressing tables. By making them at home we can save money and the furniture will be exactly the right size and shape for our home. Often too, we can afford to buy wood of a quality found only in the dearest furniture, because of the saving we make in ‘doing it ourselves’.
Nor need the furniture look ‘home made’. Given time and patience anyone can produce work as accurate as any made in a factory. And there are plenty of ancient tricks of the trade to correct those errors which all of us make at times!
Few home woodworkers never have any accidents. These are, it is true, almost always very minor. But don’t neglect any cut, however small. Wash it immediately in running water. Any traces of dirt must be removed. Steady pressure with the other hand maintained for five minutes or so will stop the bleeding from minor cuts and there may well be no need for wrapping. There is a good deal to be said, in modern medical thought, for not applying dressings, whether bandages or self-adhesive tapes, unnecessarily to minor wounds. These tend to bar air from the cut, and may constrict the nearby circulation. A drop of Iodine does no harm though. Serious cuts should of course be seen by a doctor as soon as possible, even if the wound seems clean and easily controlled.
Sawing is also a skill which can be improved. It is possible to make perfect tenon joints without using a chisel on the exterior faces, simply by dead accurate sawing, perhaps using a saw with finer teeth.
As in the early stages of learning any craft, the methods you use at first may be gradually changed to more effective ones, requiring more skill.
Marking out and measuring lengths and angles become a matter of greater precision. A coarse pencil or Biro is no longer even considered. A fine pencil or marking knife is used all the time. The ruler and cheap trysquare give way to a steel tape and a precision square. Where at first you were content to buy wood ready planed, trusting to the accuracy of the machines in the woodyard to give you square sections, you may buy longer planks to do your own work from the rough.
A sure mark of progress in woodwork is an increasing concern for sharpness, the grinding and honing before every step, the purchase of special angle-grinding gauges to make certain that the blades on planes or chisels are perfectly ground.
Increasingly too, you turn to the harder woods, finding, perhaps with surprise, that these are in many ways easier to work with and better to fit accurately. Certainly it is much easier to get a tight fit with a dovetail joint if the wood is fine grained and hard, though the practice with setting out in softwoods is worth while at first.
Again, new tools or variants on the old ones will be bought; rip saws, specially designed to cut along the grain, for example. Certainly you will buy more holding devices (or make your own), cramps and clips and so on.
You may find an increasing use for power tools of various kinds, not only drills but their many attachments, such as a jigsaw, planing devices, sanders, even compressors with small spray guns.
Every year, too, there appear more and more small but useful gadgets, for help in specialised jobs. With these the best rule is only to buy them when they are essential for doing a good job or when they will speed the work up so as to make a big difference to the time spent.
In buying equipment, much will depend upon what your eventual feelings are about ‘do-it-yourself’ in general. It may be that you will do work of this kind mainly for the enormous cash savings that can be achieved by producing your own furniture and doing your own repairs, decorating, and so on. It may be, on the other hand, that you will turn to do-it-yourself for the pure enjoyment of working and of making items of increasing difficulty and attractiveness in design.
In this last case you may purchase tools and equipment which, though not economically justified, will give you many years of pleasure. This might extend even to complex machine tools such as lathes, milling machines and so on.
But in every case you must start learning the basis of your work in the handling of hand tools.