Setting Up a Hand Tool Shop – Step One

If I had a quarter for every post or article I’ve read about getting started in woodworking or setting up shop, I could retire and take the majority of the company I work for with me!

Almost all of these articles can fit into one of two categories:

– To get started in woodworking you need _________ tools.
– Pick a project and build your tool collection around what is needed to build what you want.

Both of these ideas are great, but both are frustrating if you are truly starting from nothing. There are so many little things that are needed to build even the smallest project that many experienced woodworkers take things for granted.

I’ve seen people build projects that are designed completely for beginners. They have a cut list, a tool list, and detailed instructions. Then the first thing they do is use a tool or a work holding device that’s not on the list.

I’m going to to do a series of posts that detail how I would set up my shop were I to completely start over, and I’m going to show how you can get some skills built up while you are slowly building your tool kit.

I’m going to be honest and start off with tools and supplies that are not the “right” way to do things. I know that I will be making recommendations that will make hand tool purists cringe or even possibly want to cause me bodily harm, but working wood by hand means you have to learn skills. You can’t just push a power button, shove a board through a machine, and get a square cut or smooth surface. Learning the skills is more important than building the best project now. Once you are comfortable with a skill, you’ll know what you’ll want to change or update.

– Mike Russo


I Have to Start Somewhere, so Here is Post #1!

I could talk about woodworking all day.  I just love it.  The tools.  The projects.  The techniques.  Everything about the craft has fascinated me from the day I watched Norm make a workbench with 2×4’s and plywood.  However, life has always managed to get in the way of having my very own New Yankee Workshop

At the same time I was watching Norm, I was ignoring someone else on TV.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I never could stand watching Roy Underhill.  He seemed like someone that was living in the past and worked so slow.  His show was just as long as the New Yankee Workshop, but he never seemed to finish anything!  Norm could build a  7 foot tall Shaker dresser in 25 minutes.  Roy would just show how to use some silly old tools  and never had anything but a few joints or a finished product already in the background to show for it.

Boy was I dumb!

Had I payed more attention to Roy on the Woodwright Shop, I would have 20+ years of woodworking experience under my belt.  But I stuck to the dream that someday I’d have all the tools that Norm did and THEN I could build cool stuff. Once I had the SPACE, I knew that’s when I could set up shop.

If I would have really watched and listened to Roy, I would have realized that a workbench, and a tool chest is all you really need.  Great things could have been built in my living room!  Just sweep up the shavings, put the tools back in the chest and everything in cleaned up and protected.

When I finally had a place to keep some of the big power tools and set up a table saw centered shop, the noise and dust became a problem.  Then there was moving tools out of the way to get cars in the garage and the need to have an extra accessory or specialized tool to tackle a task.  I could see this path would be a never ending addiction to gadgets and gizmos.

Then I read the Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz.  The idea that having a small kit of high quality tools that all fit in one chest and that chest could roll out of the way was a game changer for me.  By this point, the neighbors were complaining about the noise, my lungs were complaining about the dust, and we were going to move!  Time to test Chris’ theory!


I built the chest using pocket screws and plywood.  It needed to be done FAST!  It was the last thing I used my table saw on as it was sold the day after this was completed.  I don’t miss it one bit.  Now I work almost entirely by hand.  (I do have a track saw and a lunchbox planner as well as a few drills, but that’s it)

Learning to use only hand tools has been frustrating at times, but completely worth it.  Every time I make a mistake, I learn what not to do next time.  I’ve learned to slow down and think.  I’ve began to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

This year, I hope to be able to expand on the skills I’ve learned and I’m really hoping I’ll be able to share both successes and failures on this blog.  I hope you’ll check in with me regularly.  Not only to keep me posting, but also to force me out of my comfort zone.  2013 needs to be the year I make something BIG.  I’m working my way through some smaller, skill building projects now, but I want to build something that sits in my house for everyone to see, not just things that live in my tool chest or the corner of my shop.

I hope you’ll come along on this ride with me!

-Mike Russo