Hand tools for a cabinet maker

Written by David Savage

Originally published as A Cabinet Maker's Bench Tools in Good Woodworking Magazine / 2001

Part 1 of a series of 3

This month and continuing next month I will be showing you the kind of advice I give to students who are about to join our workshop on a one-year course in cabinet making:

Most of us have a bag of tools rattling around somewhere in the garage and by all means bring those with you but you will need to spend quite a lot of money on hand tools. We usually estimate a tool budget for a young cabinet maker of between £600 and a £1000 to get you going. You may spend a bit more than this and you certainly won’t spend less than this. My general advice is to buy as few tools as possible choose them well in the first place and learn to use them with confidence. There are so many expensive tools out there that you do not need that will only clutter up your work space and slow you down . I am going to be talking about a range of saws, chisels, planes, marking and measuring tools and routers. I have included routers because although it 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. What I won’t include are what would generally be regarded as “shop tools”. These sit in the tool box of the workshop owner and generally come out once every 5 years. They’re essential tools for the running of a business but then not the kind of tool that you might buy in the first year of training. You might acquire them at a later date but not right now. I’m going to be talking about the choices you’d have available and suggesting various brands and models. The best thing would be to come here and try out the tools that we have in the workshop but if you’re coming from abroad you might find that buying tools, in, for example the USA, would save you quite a few dollars from the present prices in the UK. Bearing in mind that tools when you buy them will also require a considerable amount of tuning and fettling to make them work. Indeed you might take the first 2 weeks and spend it on rather laborious metal work just to get your tools working to the standard that we need to do fine work. So where buying a more expensive tool will save you time in tool preparation I will indicate this.

There are so many expensive tools out there that you do not need that will only clutter up your work space and slow you down

Let’s first of all look at bench planes. A bench plane is a key piece of equipment to a cabinetmaker. It’s used for flattening components, bringing them down to final dimensions also removing the planer marks and final fitting of joints. No component made in a top quality workshop would go out straight from the planing machine. It would always be checked over and surfaced with a bench plane before final sanding and polish. You need a medium sized bench plane usually described in the catalogues as a fore-plane or a jack-plane. The fore-plane is slightly longer at about 18 inches, whereas a jack plane can be about 14 inches. Most of the people here would go for the larger plane. If you are of a relatively slight build I would recommend the smaller and lighter of the two planes. There are two types of planes available that are mass-produced – the Stanley and Record. If you were buying a Stanley plane I would recommend you bought a second-hand one. If you were buying a new plane I would recommend a Record plane. My experience with new Stanley bench planes have been rather unfortunate. The casting on modern planes tend 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. Record planes aren’t much better though they seem to be slightly better finished and have a nicer blade fitting arrangement. All mass produced modern planes have plastic handles which I think is a shame as your hands can get sweaty and the handles can get slippery. You can replace with Rosewood ones but that will cost you an extra £12.50.

All mass produced modern planes have plastic handles which I think is a shame as your hands can get sweaty and the handles can get slippery. You can replace with Rosewood ones but that will cost you an extra £12.50.

When you going to buy a plane – be it new or second-hand don’t buy it mail-order – go along with either a straight edge or borrow a straight edge from the tool vendor and check the flatness of the sole of the plane. Check by holding it up to a bright light source and resting a straight edge first diagonally corner to corner and then lengthways down the centre of the plane. If the plane is curving with the two ends moving away from the straight edge return the plane straight away to the salesman. If it’s bending away in the centre this isn’t too bad as the sole of the plane can be flattened if the toe and the heel of the plane are in contact with the flat abrasive surface. With either Record or Stanley plane we would recommend that you replace the blade with one of the higher quality replacement blades that are currently available. Clifton make an especially good blade called a Victor blade that we’ve had exceptionally good results from.

I would advise you if at all possible to buy an old plane. This is because the casting from an old plane would be well seasoned by now and would have stopped moving. The castings may also be heavier than modern versions and you may well find a plane with nice Rosewood handles. The same advice applies buying second-hand as buying new. Check it out with a straight edge. I’ve seen in the catalogues and had great reports of the Lie-Nielsen No. 5 Jack Plane. This is a great looking piece of equipment but costs about £211 as compared with the £50 for the Stanley No. 5 Plane. I’m dying to try one of these planes out so that I could recommend them with greater conviction but none of my students have bought one yet. So far we’ve managed to make the less expensive planes work very well though with some degree of effort in the tuning and fettling department.

As well as these main bench planes there are longer and shorter planes that you could buy at a later date. The smoother the common plane that is used for finishing wood and the jointer is a long plane used for shooting straight edges. You could also buy a low angle mitre plane but this is shop equipment and shouldn’t form a part of your initial shopping list.

So far we’ve managed to make the less expensive planes work very well though with some degree of effort in the tuning and fettling department.

The second plane you need is a small block plane. When I was in your situation I bought a Stanley 60 1/2 Block Plane which would cost you somewhere about £40. I’ve still got that plane but I’ve upgraded it to a hand-made plane sold by Bristol Design. Nick bought himself a small Lei-Neilson low angle block plane which sells over here at about £67. After sending the first one back to the factory, which I have to say was replaced without a question asked, I think he is now very happy with his plane. This is the all bronze block plane that comes without the adjustable mouth. There is a steel Lei-Neilson block plane a low angle and an adjustable mouth which is available at about £106. The adjustable mouth is desirable and would give you a certain amount of flexibility in use and I am sure I would pay the additional £40 to gain it. I think in your situation I would have the Lei-Neilson block plane.

Next you’re going to need ideally a set of probably two shoulder planes. Shoulder planes are used for fitting joints, planing right into the corner and although they are not used every day you will find many occasions to use these planes. They will enable you to trim joints to considerable accuracy. When buying a shoulder plane, check that the sole is flat 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.

You’re going to need a large shoulder plane with a blade width between 1 inch and 1 1/4 inches. At the moment the large Lei-Neilson shoulder plane at £159 is the only one that we are finding to be widely available. There are very good shoulder planes around in the second hand market usually made by Record or an old firm called Preston. Again check the plane going out to square and flat before you buy. A medium sized shoulder plane would I think be best coming from Clico who manufacture the Clifton 420 shoulder plane. This is 3/4 inch width and perfect for medium sized work. Clico also make the 410 shoulder plane which is slightly smaller but would be still in my mind categorised as a medium shoulder plane. Falling into the small to medium sized category would be the Lei-Neilson 1/2 inch shoulder plane. This is a lovely looking tool but costs £112 – it has a tap and try adjustment whilst the Clifton claims have a screw adjustment. I would not worry too much about having tap and try on the shoulder plane as these planes are usually left set up and it’s quite easy to learn how to use tap and try. In the really small planes category there’s basically only one small shoulder plane available on the market. This is available from Clico and it’s called the Clifton 400. It has a width of 3/8 inch and a cost of approximately £44.

Shoulder planes are used for fitting joints, planing right into the corner and although they are not used every day you will find many occasions to use these planes

I think if I were about to buy a set of shoulder planes I think with some reluctance because of the price I would be spending my money on the large Lei-Neilson shoulder plane and the 1/2 inch Lei-Neilson shoulder plane. This would probably cover most of the work I wanted to do and I would keep my eye open in the second-hand tool shops for a small 3/8 inch plane or even buy the small Clico plane at a later date.

The next kind of plane that comes to mind is a scraper. The Stanley 80 is a small cabinet scraper in a handle or holder. This retails at about £19 and is very good value for money. If you want to get a proper scraper plane and there is no doubt that a scraper plane is a better and more useful tool then you should go looking for either a second-hand Stanley scraper plane or a Lei-Neilson 112 large scraper plane. This costs about £137 but is the ‘ducks guts’. An alternative to this that I have not used but I have heard good reports is the Veritas Scraping Plane Insert. This sits in your bench plane and turns your bench plane into a scraper plane. Again until I try this out I cannot recommend it with conviction but it looks a great idea at about £20 but it would not replace the Stanley 80. You will need along with your scraper plane a set of cabinet scrapers. These are small square or shaped pieces of tool or tool steel. I know that Veritas make a good range of scrapers as do Clifton, as do the Axminster Power Tool Company. I think if I were buying these again I would buy a set of four square scrapers in differing thickness from the Axminster Power Tool Company for about £11.80 and I would buy a set of curved scrapers from the Veritas range. 3 thin ones and 3 of their thick ones at £6.57 each. I recently bought a cabinet scraper burnisher from Clifton and was very pleased with it but when one of my students bought the Veritas Tri-burnisher at £18.87 I wish I’d spent the additional £6 or so for that one instead. The polish and finish on both these tools is exceptional but the shape of the Veritas burnisher makes it that much more useable when turning a hook on an awkwardly shaped scraper.

You will also need a couple of spoke shaves especially if you intend to make any of my furniture . these small planes are great for finishing curved surfaces . Get one with a flat sole and one with a curved sole. These are best bought second hand as they don’t get a lot of work. Unless it is really nice and little used avoid the wooden spokeshaves these are lovely but I need to show you what to look for

Next we’ll look at chisels and possibly marking and measuring tools.

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