Buy Your Last Tool First? I don’t think so

Post Drill

Post Drill

There is an adage that gets batted around woodworking forums a lot, “buy your last tool first”.  The principle being that buying an inferior tool will only result in wasted money and lack of functionality that cause you to upgrade later.  This is not a bad thought but I think there are a few things wrong with this specifically relating to hand tool woodworking.

First, “buy your last tool…” suggests that there will ever be a “last” tool.  I don’t know a woodworker who doesn’t have an eye on some tool to appear on sale at a retailer or on ebay.  Lately I have adopted a less is more ideal with my tool kit but that doesn’t mean I’m not diligently looking for a post drill or panel raising plane.  There is no such thing as a last tool.

But enough of my glib attitude and on to my real point.  This will sound wrong coming from a guy that run The Hand Tool School but hand tools are not for everybody.  Anybody can learn to work with great accuracy and speed with hand tools but a lot of people just don’t want to.  I’m a little crazy in that I actually enjoy milling stock by hand.  That doesn’t mean that I will be selling my thickness planer anytime soon. With this in mind I hate to see this last tool first idea being given as advice to folks who are looking to “get in to hand tools” or want to “buy my first saw”.

For the woodworker looking to get started with hand tools there is much unknown.  Will they stick with hand tool work or get fed up with the tedium of hand milling and buy a jointer and planer.  Will they decide that hand cut dovetails don’t look different enough and buy a router jig?  Will the marking, cut, fit, marking, cut, fit, etc, etc approach of hand cut tenons bore them and they buy a good miter gauge or tenon jig for their table saw instead?  Imagine if these lessons are learned after the woodworker has dropped $2500 on saws, planes, marking tools, chisels, etc.  (that number is quite low actually).  Now the woodworker in question may gravitate back to hand tools later on and their expenditure will be worthwhile, but I have to imagine that some buyer’s remorse may creep in there or worse, the funds to buy the power tools will have come by selling off said hand tools.

I would like to think that the satisfaction from cutting joinery by hand feeds the obsession but different people are motivated by different things.  If your experience is based on completing pieces then the journey may not be as important.  There is also a little bit of Tim the Tool Man Taylor in all of us that yearns for the monster power tool that can rip a 32/4 piece of Maple without stuttering that draws many away from hand work.

Whatever the motivations it doesn’t matter.  As I said before hand tools are not for everyone.  Advising someone to start working with premium tools who has not prior experience may not be the best course of action.  This is coming from someone who has been known to do just this too.  There is something to be said about working with a finely tuned hand saw or plane when it comes to understanding how it should feel or how sharp it should be, but the cost that comes with that tool gives me concern especially considering that it is hard to build furniture with just 1 or 2 tools.  Add together the cost of a basic tool kit and very quickly your wallet begins to sweat.

Vintage saws in saw til

Even vintage tools can add up quickly. These 10 saws easily cost more than $1000.

Vintage tools can be a type of gateway tool that can get someone started quickly and cheaply but some knowledge and a willingness to clean them up and tune them is necessary.  Many would say this is a prerequisite skill and while I agree, the realistic side of me knows that our instant gratification society doesn’t play this way.  We are seeing some mid range toolmakers creating good quality tools for less and even some makers like Lee Valley that astound me with the low prices of their saws and the high quality that comes with them.  These make for a good option to get the tool in the woodworker’s hand to determine for his or her self if hand work is something they are in to.

Tool shows are a good option but not really realistic.  If you are looking for a specific tool this is a great place to lay hands on and get a feel for that maker’s offering.  If you have no frame of reference then it doesn’t really do much for you.  We all know that there is a difference between being in your shop alone and trying to do something as compared to having an expert looking over your shoulder with a perfectly tuned tool in your hand working on non threatening stock that costs the woodworker nothing.

There are a lot of things to consider and I should shut up before I begin to ramble further, but let me just close by saying that I think the best way in to the hand tool world for the neophyte is to go as minimalistic and cheaply as possible keeping quality in mind and then to get into the shop and work.  Yes there will be tools you wish you had to make a job easier, but if you pick a simple piece that you can be proud of when it is finished, I think you can gain an understanding of how much or how little you enjoy working by hand…before you spend your mortgage on tools.

Hmm sounds like a good podcast idea…

Have you ever bought the last hand tool first and regretted it?

12 Responses to “Buy Your Last Tool First? I don’t think so”

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  1. Ben Lowery says:

    It’s all fits and starts. I started down the power route, but realized I didn’t have the space, power or bankroll to really pull it off.

    I wish I hadn’t laid out the cash for a Lee Valley scrub. I hardly ever use it after I got a cheap #5 and a good blade for it. It’ll probably end up on eBay at some point.

    One nice thing about the higher end hand tools is that they hold their value. You can’t really say the same for even mid-level power tools.

  2. I can say that I have yet to dive in all the way when it comes to hand tools. All of the hand tools that I own right now are meant to supplement my power tools. I probably spent less than $200 on 2 block planes and 4 bench planes. The only hand tool that I have that I would consider “last” is my router plane as I bought the Veritas.

    I will say that buying the cheap Groz planes from Woodcraft did give me a huge appreciation for my hand tools as I had to learn from the ground up. I can see where learning with a top of the line and perfectly tuned #4 from Lee Valley could almost be like learning to bowl with the bumpers up.

    I fully intend to eventually get to a primarily hand tool style of woodworking, but for now it won’t be until I don’t have to make my living in my shop. For me any money I spend on tools is meant to get me more and/or better production. If that means buying the best one first, that’s what I’ll do.

    Great topic by the way!

  3. Interesting post!

    My first tool was a top-end Bosch jigsaw. I bought the wrong tool for the job (straight cuts) and I have since used it only occasionally: a mid-range one would been ok. My second tool was a DeWalt hand-sander. I spent a weekend getting some reclaimed redwood boards clean (not even flat…).

    My third tool was a vintage Stanley No. 5. No regrets.

    I guess you have to start somewhere, before you know that you don’t know that much. It would be easier to make decisions if you can borrow tools from someone. But it is fun figuring out your woodworking direction.

  4. James says:

    I felt like I was reading a recap of my last year and half of woodworking. The one good thing from buying premium tools is that their resale value is remarkably close to original value.

  5. Mark Schreiber says:

    Ha. I love the first picture. I just came into possession of my Grandfather’s old post drill. It was used in his Winchester hardware store back in the 1920’s. It is the last old tool I have. I wish it could talk…

  6. Rob says:

    My preference is for good quality old tools that have been well cared for or had little use.
    Some people eulogizing high-end hand tools seem to have cosy relationships with manufacturers, which makes me wary.
    As an amateur making mistakes, I’m glad I didn’t make some of these mistakes with tools for which the kids went hungry.
    Yes, I’ve probably bought some ‘last tools’ first, but these are tools I wanted to try out of curiosity, just to see how they work, not tools that I’d be using frequently – a mitre jack springs to mind, and who makes a new one anyway?

  7. Mike Siemsen says:

    What the neophyte woodworker needs to acquire are skills. initially with saws and chisels, then with planes, learn to properly sharpen, tune and use them. Purchasing shiny objects, power tools and jigs are usually efforts to try to buy skills. Get some hands on instuction in sharpening and using the basic tools and your tool dollars will be better spent because your purchases will be based on knowledge and need, rather than hope. You will know what the tool does before you take it out of the box. Plan your projects around the tools and skills that you have and add in items as finances, knowledge and need dictate. Typically the beginning woodworker would be wise to purchase inexpensive wood and keep their projects managble rather than tackle the hand carved rosewood highboy.

  8. Brian Eve says:

    Don’t forget about making your own tools!

    I recently made a Krenov-style scrub plane using the instructions from the David Finck book. One can get a lot of new, useful skills from a project like this, and a premium tool to boot! All for far less than a premium tool.

  9. Chris says:

    My father-in-law found a post drill press when cleaning out the barns. I’m not sure he would part with it.
    Its pretty cool contraption. There was also a homemade table saw.

  10. Buddhawan says:

    Buy your last tool first. This sounds like good advice; let us take this example to some other areas. Golf, if the advice for golf was to buy your last set of clubs first, then no one except the extremely rich would be able to afford to play the game. How do you even know what type of clubs you need until you get a sense of the game? Would a $500 putter really make you a better putter if you have never putted before? Or, how about a $1k driver, would you drives really be better with such a club for a beginner? No, of course not. A better expenditure of money in this instance would be take some lessons to learn how to drive and putt and to read the hole. First, learn how to actually use the tools of the game. Once the basic skills are mastered, then invest in better clubs. Or how about cars? Would anyone suggest that you buy your last car first? Would this advice even make sense? “Listen kid buy your last car first, skip the beater that needs constant maintenance but teaches basic lessons about driving a car, and skip the brand new entry level car that you bought with your own money, and forget about the family car you know you need.” Not very good advice.
    There is something to be said for buying a crappy tool. There is also something to be said for buying less then premium tools as your first tool. You touched on it – master the tool, see if you even like hand tool woodworking. Instead use some of the money saved to take some classes (if/when available) to see and to learn. Then selectively upgrade.

  11. Richard says:

    Timely post, I just started working with a friend who has interest in woodworking. This is a two fold opportunity. He has small saw mill with no idea what he is doing. So we are bartering wood for knowledge. That said, he has bombed me with e-mails about tooling and its cost. It has taken a few days to calm him down and point him in the right direction on tools. I mean, I did not want him to morgage the house and I want him to take it one or two tools at a time. His statements to me is he sees what I have put together and he wants it all now. I had explain that I have been putting this tool kit together over the course of more than a decade. And most of what I have is vintage that I have rehabed. I have recieved a great deal of pleasure from just that. My wife has even enjoyed helping hunt down tools from trips out junking. The hunt and reablitation to a premium quailty tool is a blast. The woodworking from these tools is more satisfying knowing the work you put into the tool aswell. The other thing I’m getting out of this is the teaching. The teaching is making me think through the process more carefully, and there is a satisfaction in seeing a student discover and succeed.
    Regards, Richard

  12. David Young says:

    Were it not for you and the rest of the crew on the Wood Whisperer, I would never have researched Stanley hand planes and been able to find the ones I have, with a total investment for a #4, #5, #6 and #7 of less than $100, and all but the #4 are pre-ww2. The #5, in fact, dates to 1887, if you can believe that.

    Having tuned them up, having learned how to scary-sharp the plane irons, having used them for awhile, I have a good understanding of how they should function. I know how they function when they’re sharp, when they need sharpening, what their inconveniences are, etc. I now know the importance of a tight throat when working difficult grain. I know how to take aggressive cuts vs. whisper thin shavings. All of this with advice from great guys (like you) and gals like Kari, a little cash, and a whole lot of time and practice.

    Now, I know that the #4 I bought on ebay is worth about the $20 I gave for it, though it functions ok after quite a time investment in tuning. Still…it’s quite difficult to get the throat opening just right, there’s a bit of slop in the adjustment knob, and the lateral adjustment is less than stellar.

    So, feel free to name me exhibit A. I now know that I could benefit from a much refined #4 (looking at Lee Valley), and a good Low Angle Jack. Upgraded blades / cap irons for my Stanley Bailey’s should round those out nicely, leaving only the specialized planes I know I lack. A good shoulder plane. A side-rabbit plane. A low angle jack probably negates the need for a low-angle block…but I know I could also benefit from a router plane and a beading tool.

    Damn…where was I going with this again? :)

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