Hand tools for a cabinetmaker

Most of us have a bag of tools rattling around somewhere. At Rowden, we usually estimate a tool budget for a training cabinetmaker that starts at £1000 to get you going. You may spend a bit more than this, you may spend a little less. Aside from some essentials, that we will advise you on when you are here – each makers tools kits is quite personal.

There are so many expensive tools, that you do not need. They only clutter up your bench, confuse the issue and slow you down.

Critical for a woodworker are saws, chisels, planes, marking and measuring tools and routers. Although a router is not a hand tool, the small router has really become an essential bench tool for the modern cabinet maker. Any employer would expect you to have your own router. There are many other tools to buy, and some will be useful, but when starting out, our general advice is to buy as few tools as possible, consult informed opinion, feel the tools in the hand before you buy if you can, and learn to use them with confidence.

Those joining Rowden from overseas, especially the USA – have a distinct advantage in terms of expenditure. You will save a reasonable amount compared to current prices in the UK. One should also bear in mind that new tools will require some tuning and fettling to get them to the necessary standard for precise woodworking. Cheaper or even used tools can sometimes be a false economy accordingly – needing many more hours of work to bring them up to scratch.

Bench Planes

A bench plane is critical for a cabinetmaker. It becomes an extension of your body at the bench. It’s used for flattening components, bringing them down to final dimensions or removing the planer marks and final fitting of joints. No component made in a quality workshop would go out straight from the planing machine. It would always be checked over, surfaced with a bench plane even lightly, before final sanding and polish. Most joining Rowden, will need either a jointer plane, or a fore-plane – in the Stanley numbering system, a No. 8, No. 7 or No. 6. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the bigger the maker. Most at Rowden will be most comfortable with a No. 7 or No. 6, with the No. 8 only suitable for those who are larger in stature. It’s possible too that a No. 5 could be right, for a more slight maker. This is one reason why it is much more sensible to get hands on time with the tool before committing. Too heavy and it will be arduous to use, too light (and short) means it won’t serve its purpose. Some will advocate having a range of bench planes in your tool kit, each with a specific purpose. We have found that to be unnecessary for most people. Having a single bench plane such as those noted above will service 90%+ of what you need as a maker.

In our sharpening area, we have a large granite surface plate — the kind usually used by engineers. We obtained this when we had to argue with some tool suppliers that their planes were not as flat as they said. This surface is flat within a measured number of microns and has a warranty signed by an inspector to prove it; we check all of our new tools on this surface. It has been a fantastic investment and saved many, many hours. A new plane should be perfectly flat, with no time to be spent faffing around to bring it to that state, or working to make the blade sit securely within the mechanism of the plane body.

At Rowden, we recommend Lie Nielsen, Clifton and Stanley planes, in that order. Right now, Lie Nielsen make the best planes you can buy. They need little to no work out of the box, are very stable and sturdy and should last a lifetime. They are also very expensive, but you are paying for less hassle, less work to get it to workshop standard and very good quality casting. Clifton also makes reasonably good planes, but they tend to be a little heavier and require a few more hours to get them right. That may not be an issue, but again suggests one should try the tools in the hand to see what ‘feels’ right. With new students overlapping, staff and other makers around the atelier, getting hands on time and advice about the various brands is generally easy to manage at Rowden.

If you were buying a Stanley plane we would recommend you bought second-hand. The casting on modern planes tends to be so green that you can spend half a day getting the plane dead flat only to find it continues moving and is no longer flat in a few weeks time – so you are back to square one. Buying a used Stanley plane (or frankly, any used plane) can be a minefield, but older Stanleys were built to last, and often, they do.

The blade that comes with the plane should be good for some years but it will again, require work to get it flat and sharp. Generally speaking, we are either using A2 steel Lie Nielsen blades at Rowden, or Hock blades in the high carbon variant (O1). The Hock A2 blades are also very good, but we seldom see them.

As well as these main bench planes there are shorter (and likely longer) planes that you might look at, at a later date. Another variant to consider would be a low angle plane, but this is ‘nice to have’ not one you need. A low angle or other planes shouldn’t form a part of your initial shopping list.

Block Planes and Shoulder Planes

The second plane you need is a small block plane. A 60 1/2 Block Plane varies greatly in price and quality. Lie Nielsen again make an excellent 60 1/2, but similar is available from Veritas and Clifton. You can find cheap block planes, but expect them to have quirks or additional set up time. Having an adjustable mouth to the plane is desirable and gives you a certain amount of flexibility in use, reducing chatter and enabling you to finesse your use of the tool.

Shoulder planes are used for fitting joints, unsurprisingly working in smaller areas such as shoulder and planing right into the corner, parallel with the body of the tool. Although they are not used every day you will find many occasions to use these planes. Accordingly its another essential tool. They will enable you to trim joints to considerable accuracy. When buying a shoulder plane, check that the sole is flat, the mouth is clean and also check that both sides of the plane are sitting exactly 90 degrees to the sole of the plane. If it’s not – send it back.

Veritas, Clifton and Lie Nielsen all make good shoulder planes and you will need at least one. Again there can be good shoulder planes to be had in the second hand market, usually made by Record or an old firm called Preston. Again check the plane being square and flat before you buy.

Shoulder planes are used for fitting joints, unsurprisingly working in smaller areas such as shoulder and planing right into the corner, parallel with the body of the tool.

Generally, we are recommending either Lie Nielsen or Clifton for shoulder planes at Rowden. A Clifton 410 and larger Lie Nielsen would be plenty for most to start with.

Other Planes

We also recommend a cabinet scraper. The Stanley 80 is a small cabinet scraper in a handle or holder. It is for finishing a surface smooth and does so brilliantly. If you want to get a proper scraper plane, then you should go looking for a second-hand Stanley. An alternative to this (that we seldom see) is the Veritas Scraping Plane. The Stanley though, is what we recommend. For its intended purpose, its a workhorse. An old reliable, when set up right.

You will need a set of cabinet scrapers along with your scraper plane. These are small square or shaped pieces of tool or tool steel. Veritas make a good range of scrapers as do Clifton and the latter is what we would recommend.

Finally, spokeshaves – we prefer a wooden one by Woodjoy or Veritas. These small planes are unmatched in finishing curved surfaces. We tend to recommend getting one with a flat sole, and one with a curved sole. These can be bought second hand as they aren’t a mainstay, but still an essential tool if there are curves incorporated into your work.