Getting Back to Basics
I had an epiphany a few years ago while watching a television interview of a local athlete. When asked how his team would bounce back from a tough loss, he said, "We just need to work hard, get back to basics, and improve our fundamentals." Okay, he regurgitated a cliché that he found in the back of his league-issued handbook for media relations, but his response still had merit when applied to woodworking. I realized that the gadgety tools that I loved in my early woodworking years were holding me back, so I decided to also go back to basics and refocus my efforts around a core set of tools to develop the fundamental skills. Here are three key strategies that will help you create a similar tool kit.
Stay away from sets
Tool manufacturers love to offer some tools, such as router bits, chisels, and carving gouges, in sets. The humble chisel, for example, is nothing more than a pointy edge on a stick, but there are dozens of variations. Buying a set of chisels seems like a good way to instantly stock your shop with a broad variety of tools. But all too often, you end up with a few chisels you use regularly, and the rest just gather dust in a cabinet. In reality, you're better off buying just a few basic bench chisels; start with the most useful sizes: 1⁄4 ", 3⁄8 ", and 1⁄2 ". Pare some end grain, whack them with a mallet, and practice sharpening. Using the tools will tell you which of the specialized forms you should learn more about, and which you can ignore.
Purge the one-trick ponies
The minimalist tool kit has no need for tools that aren't used often enough to justify the space they occupy in your tool cabinet. A dovetail jig does that one thing really well, but does it earn its keep in your shop? How often would you actually use it in a year? If you're not mass-producing dresser drawers, you may be better served learning to cut that same joint with the multi-purpose tools you already own. Cut them by hand with a saw and some chisels, or use your tablesaw or bandsaw, if you prefer power-tool methods. Once you hone your skills at cutting joinery with basic wood-working tools, you can walk into anyone else's shop and execute the same joint with the same quality.
Don't need it now? Don't buy it now
Ten years ago I bought an array of C-clamps because I thought it was important to "build up my clamp collection." I haven't found a use for them yet, but they sure look great hanging on my clamp rack. I leave them there as a reminder to never buy a tool until I have an immediate need for it. If you're ever considering the purchase of a tool that "looks neat" or "could be useful," just put the catalog down and back away slowly.