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5 Problem-solving hand tools

Hand scraper on table
5 Tools every woodworker should own and use religiously.

Not every woodworking task calls for a tool with a plug or a battery. Sometimes, the best tool for a job is powered by your own two hands.

Peek inside the WOOD® magazine workshop and you'll see nearly every stationary and hand-held power tool imaginable. But open the drawers nearest our workbenches, and you'll find them filled with well-used hand tools ranging from utility knives to block planes. That's because even the greatest assortment of the best power equipment can't handle every woodworking task.

A simple card scraper, for example, has no speed adjustment, no accessories or attachments, and barely even an instruction manual. But it can peel off an old finish faster and cleaner than a random-orbit sander, and leaves an almost-burnished smooth surface when used on bare wood.

Some of these hand tools (see Sources, listed below) require a bit of skill and practice, but most produce excellent results right off the bat. All of them deserve drawer space near your workbench.

Bench chisels

Like a trusty pocket knife, you'll reach for a sharp chisel to help with a host of odd jobs. Ours get a regular workout smoothing the walls of mortises roughed out on a drill press. For this task, you'll want a chisel at least 1" wide to pare the walls, as shown below, and a 14 " or 38 " chisel (or the nearest metric equivalent) for the ends. We prefer chisels with beveled edges, which can reach into tight corners or between hand-cut dovetails.

Chisel making hole
Chisels flatten the walls and square the rounded corners on this drilled mortise. A guide clamped to the workpiece keeps the chisel at a 90 degree angle.

Other uses: Keep a set handy to tweak the fit of all kinds of joints, not just mortise-and-tenons. We also use bench chisels for everything from trimming off tiny bits of glue squeeze-out, to squaring router-rabbeted corners on the backs of frames, to shaving finish flaws from flat faces.

Success secret: Tougher steel generally costs more money. So buy the best quality you can afford, even if that means settling for the smallest available set or buying individual chisels as needed. Then learn how to hone a razor's edge on them. To see a free video explaining a no-fuss sharpening technique, visit woodmagazine.com/sharpeningvid.

Contour sanding grips

Look around your shop long enough, and you may eventually find some object the right size and shape to use as a temporary backer for sanding a profile. Instead, skip the search, and get a set of these pliable grips. Their varied contours sand everything from crown molding contours to 18 " round-overs without altering the profile. A full set includes angled, concave, and rounded shapes.

Gray sanding pads on board with slots
Foam sanding pads work well on broad curves, but contour sanding grips reach into and around tight curves and V-grooves.

Other uses: Use the narrow handle to reach deep into grooves. Or flex the handle against a gentle concave profile in place of a foam sanding pad.

Success secret: The small sanding surface area wears quickly, so frequently rewrap the grip with fresh abrasive. Small sanding tools have a way of disappearing; keep them organized in a kerfed scrap block, as shown above.

 

Card Scrapers

Because it takes off so little wood, card scrapers smooth wildly figured woods without tear-out. On straight-grained wood, they also can eliminate at least one of the coarser sandpaper grits needed to remove tool marks. Use curved or goose-neck scrapers to shear tool marks off gently rounded profiles.

Scraper on board

Other uses: Try removing a defective or damaged clear finish by sanding it away, and you'll quickly discover "corning." That's when finish turns into hard globs that clog sandpaper and mar a surface. A card scraper quickly peels off film finishes -- including polyurethane, which resists abrasion, as shown opposite top. If necessary, follow up by finish-sanding at 180 or 220 grit, and you're ready to refinish the surface.

Success secret: Card scrapers work by planing off wisps of wood (or finish) using a tiny hook along the edge. To get a hook that's just right, see a free video at woodmagazine.com/cardscraper.

Low-angle block plane

You'd need a stack of sandpaper to produce the smooth surfaces left by a few strokes from a well-honed block plane. Keep a sharpened one handy to perfect mating faces before edge-gluing joints.

Black sander shaving curels off wood
With the blade set to remove shavings less than paper thin, a basic block plane peels away burn marks in a couple strokes.

Other uses: Try a low-angle block plane to cleanly trim proud end grain from a butted corner joint or through-dovetail joint. Unlike sandpaper, a block plane removes an even amount of wood when chamfering a sharp edge.

Success secret: Tune up any new plane by first flattening the sole using 180-, 220-, 320-, and 600-grit wet/dry abrasive sheets lubricated with WD-40 on a piece of plate glass. Rub the sole back and forth, rotating it end for end periodically, until it's uniformly shiny.

Then hone the blade using tips from the sharpening video mentioned earlier. Keep it sharp by storing the plane immediately after use.

Flush-trim/dovetail saw

With no tooth set, these saws help you trim plugs or dowels flush without scarring the surrounding wood. As an added precaution in soft woods, such as pine, first push the exposed plug through a hole in a worn-out sanding disc, as shown at right. Then sand flat the remaining nub.

Saw cutting off plug tip
A disc placed abrasive-side down around the plug prevents minor saw tooth scratches should you accidentally pivot the blade.

Other uses: At least one saw (see Sources, below) includes two interchangeable blades -- one for flush-trimming, and the other with a rigid back for making super-thin kerfs for hand-cut joints, such as dovetails.

Success secret: For flush-cutting, flex the saw body to keep it pressed firmly against the wood surface, and cut on the pull stroke. Don't rotate the saw handle in a way that angles the teeth enough to dig into the surface.

Sources
Bench chisels: Boxed set of six bevel-edge chisels (14 ", 38 ", 12 ", 34 ", 1", 114 ") by Irwin Marples no. 30033, Rockler, 800-279-4441, or rockler.com

Contour sanding pads: Set of 15, no. 68Z82.10, Lee Valley Tools, 800-871-8158, or leevalley.com

Card scrapers: Set of two BAHCO Swedish scrapers, no. 02Z10, Woodcraft, 800-225-1153, or woodcraft.com

Block plane: Veritas Apron Plane no. 05P27.01, Lee Valley Tools.

Flush-cutting/dovetail saw: Dozuki flush-cut/dovetail saw set with two blades and one handle no. 22305, Rockler

 

Hand scraper on table
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