Getting Started on the Cheap

Every so often I get a question from someone new to the craft about getting started on a very small budget. So it was recently when a new reader of the blog decided they wanted to go the hand tool route, but didn’t have a big budget and didn’t know where to start. I get questions like this often enough that I thought I should put some thoughts on it down here for everyone. After all, economic times are tough, so it can be a challenge to get involved in our fine craft on a minimum outlay of cash.

If you’ve seen any of my podcasts, I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t spend what I would consider a lot of money on tools. I do have a very well outfitted shop full of hand tools, probably worth thousands of dollars by this point, but I have put that set together over years and many projects. I would certainly never suggest that all the tools I have are necessary to get started. I do have some recommendations on getting started for the budget conscious hobbiest though.

Hand tools are inarguably the way to go for those of us with very limited budgets. There are those who would argue that one can spend as much, if not more, on hand tools as they can on power tools. I would agree, IF the only option were new, premium tools. Fortunately, with hand tools, there are other, less expensive options if you are willing to invest a little time in exchange for a smaller initial cash investment. For folks with very limited budgets and plenty of time to enjoy the hobby, this is the very best option.

One of the first challenges for a new woodworker is choosing which tools to start with. I always recommend picking a project before buying any tools. At first, this might seem counter intuitive to the budget minded newcomer. If you are on a limited budget, how are you supposed to buy all the tools needed for the project and the lumber necessary to build the piece? Well, you aren’t, at least not all at once. You see, there’s no need to purchase all of the tools needed for a project before you start the project. The advantage of picking a project first, though, is that the steps of building the piece will guide your successive tool purchases, so there won’t be any questions about what tool you should buy next. The next tool needed will reveal itself as you progress.

There are several great advantages of starting this way rather than focusing on tool acquisition before you ever get started on a project. First, if you want to be a serious woodworker, you need to spend as much time as you can working with wood, not tuning up tools. However, if you are on a tight budget, tuning up old tools is going to be your ticket to eventually putting together a basic tool kit of quality, well tuned tools. If you start out with a list of tools, take the time to acquire all of those old tools, then take the time to clean, sharpen and tune all of those old tools, you will have months and many dollars invested in tools, but no skills or experience to use any of them. This process alone turns a lot of newcomers off of the old tool route because they are spending all of their free time fixing old tools instead of doing any woodworking. Picking a project and getting started right away lets you focus more initial time on working with the wood, and less time tuning up the tools.

Do not wait; the time will never be “just right.” Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.

George Herbert

A second, and equally important advantage to the budget minded hobbiest is that starting this way spreads the expenditure out over a longer period of time. If you blow your entire initial budget by purchasing all of your tools up front, you won’t have any money left for wood. However, if you aren’t buying all of the necessary tools before you get started, you will have a little more initial investment money to spend on a couple of boards for the project.

Finally, taking your time and working through a step of the project at a time will allow you to master one tool and one skill at a time. There is a lot of benefit to this. Hand work requires one to master a lot of different tools and skills. It can be overwhelming to have a pile of tools in front of you and not know how to use any of them. By purchasing, sharpening, tuning and mastering one tool at a time, you can focus all of your learning on the task at hand. This is a very similar approach to how apprentices were historically trained. They were given one basic task at a time to master. Only after understanding that task would they move on to learning a new skill.

This all sounds good, but how does one actually apply this strategy to a real world situation? I’ll offer up an example. Let’s assume I’m just getting into the hobby and I have a very limited initial budget. Let’s say my initial budget is $100. I will also assume that I will be able to add one or two tools per month at say $50 per month.

The first thing I would want to do is pick a simple first project I’d like to build. A small side table is a great first choice. I’d make it even simpler than the Porringer Table I built. Something in a Shaker style perhaps, with square tapered legs, straight aprons, and a rectangular top. With the project selected, I’d go and spend $25 on a 8/4 x 6″ x 8′ piece of rough sawn poplar for the legs (and some extra for practice), and another $15 on a 4/4 x 8″ x 8′ piece of rough sawn poplar. That leaves $60 of my initial budget remaining for the tools needed for the first step of the project.

The first step of the project would be to crosscut all of the pieces to rough length (about 2″ oversized). For this I would need a sharp crosscut saw. Well, $60 isn’t going to get me a premium western style crosscut saw, but there are other options. The easiest and least expensive is an inexpensive western style saw with hardened Japanese style teeth. These saws are surprisingly sharp, and very inexpensive. They are more or less disposable, though, so I will eventually need to replace it when it dulls. Another option is an inexpensive Japanese style pull saw. Again, these saws come incredibly sharp, but few people know how to sharpen them when they get dull, and many like the one in the link use a disposable blade. Also, if I don’t like the style or the pull stroke, then these saws may not appeal to me. A third option, and the one I decide to go with, is to get a good old Western style crosscut saw for $5 to $10 from a garage sale, a flea market, or EBay, clean it up, and have it sharpened. Something about 7 to 9 points per inch (PPI) makes a good general purpose crosscut saw. These old saws can be easily resharpened and should never need to be replaced in my lifetime. I can even save a few dollars of that initial budget by buying a properly sized taper saw file and learning to sharpen the saw myself (which I should learn to do eventually anyway). With the sharp saw in hand, I could actually start working on the project and practicing a valuable skill (sawing to a line).

After crosscutting the pieces to length, I’d be ready for the next step, planing the faces of the boards flat to prepare them for ripping. I’d likely be in a new month now and have another $50 to spend. So I’d look for a try plane. Metal try planes may be tough to find for $50, but an old woodie or transitional would be easily obtainable for about $25 to $30 (transitionals are grossly underrated by the way, so they can be had for next to nothing). The other $20 would be spent on a marble floor tile and some sandpaper (through 600 grit) from the hardware store to sharpen the iron (I could budget for proper stones at a later date). With the plane and sharpening media in hand, I’d spend the next month working on learning to sharpen the iron, tune the plane, and plane the board’s faces flat. At the end of that month, I’d have a very good understanding of how bench planes work, and I’d have learned another valuable skill (planing a flat face).

This process would continue for as long as it took to complete the project. Regardless of how long it took to complete, at the end, I’d have a respectable project, a basic set of well tuned tools that I knew inside and out, and I’d have learned valuable skills at a comfortable pace that would allow me to master and retain the information. I’d also be able to apply those skills to every future project I made.

So if you’d like to get started, don’t put it off because of your tool budget. You really can get started with nothing more than just a few dollars. Pick a really simple project that can be made using a small amount of hardware store pine and you can get started with even less than $100. You don’t need to have a full tool kit before you start learning valuable woodworking skills.


10 thoughts on “Getting Started on the Cheap

  1. Bob, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this article, not to mention all of your articles and videos. For me anyway, you’ve done far more than any blogger I know (including big name bloggers) in removing the fear, uncertainty and doubt from doing woodworking with hand tools, as well as the sage and common sense advice you give.

    I only wished that this article had been posted about 2 years ago as I started out in pursuing my interest in woodworking. Due to other financial obligations, I have yet to put together anything to actually do woodworking, so you can see why I’m excited by this post. Onward and forward, and thanks again.

    By the way, I sincerely hope you are putting together a book on hand tool style woodworking. I would be disappointed if you weren’t.

  2. I’m sorry, but I should amend one parenthetical comment in my previous response. You are a “big name” blogger in my book, and I think that others would agree.

  3. Bob, your genius is that you take the time to include examples and actually write down what many of us are thinking. Excellent post and your method of progressing through the project could probably be touted as the modern apprentice method. Think of how skilled the worker would become if all he/she could do was one task. So many of us rush through the steps and if all I had was a crosscut saw, then I would do a lot of crosscutting and get really good at it. I think we should call it the “Bob’s Building Blocks” method.

  4. Bob, I agree with the above whole heartedly. I wish I would have started out on a project by project basis. I would have saved a lot of money. I also like the fact that the focus is kept on work and not shopping. Not that I don’t like to do a little of that as much as the next guy.

  5. Bob, great comments, and insight! Now, for all of us who didn’t know or haven’t listened up to this point, you might want to post a series on tool simplification and reduction. OTOH, this might be bad if the wives ever found out 🙂

  6. Hi Bob,

    Great post! One thing I would suggest as a first project would be a saw bench (or two :-), or a saw horse (or two :-). They would help expand the “tools” in someone’s shop as well as give them practice on something that can be a bit wonky and it won’t be too discouraging. Just my thoughts…

    Thanks for all the work you do here. I really enjoy your posts and videos. As a matter of fact, I’m going back through some of them again since I didn’t make much progress last time. And I really do want to do some woodworking and use hand tools only. Great job!


  7. Bob –

    Thanks for this article! I am a beginner, with 3 small children, and very little time or extra cash to spend on woodworking. So I end up reading a lot because I can get 10 minute chunks of time, but not much else.

    You are the first I’ve seen to recommend picking the project first – and it makes a ton of sense. I am going to try and follow the steps you’ve laid out, and see if that will get me going again. Time to find a simple project, and then I’m off to the tag sales to find a replacement saw for the horrible thing hanging on my wall.

    Thanks again – I’m glad I stumbled on this site!

  8. Bob,
    It would be pretty cool to make a panel saw as a beginner project. However, I’m a bit nervous about potentially choosing inapropriate blade dimensions (width, taper, thickness, hang angle, how many bolts to use for securing the blade) since I have no old panel saw to reference dimensions from. I may also end up spending hours contemplating the correct location of the nib :).
    Are most of these variables simply personal preference, or is there some design guidance out there which I can reference so as to start off on the right foot?
    Thanks for the great blog!

    p.s. episodes #24 and #35 seems to be corrupt as I have not been able to watch – others play just fine.

    • The best advise I can offer to you as a beginning saw maker is to copy another saw. Most saws have arrived at very similar geometries for good reason. A good many years of experience from people who actually used the saws every day went into designing the saws that were made by companies like Disston, Atkins, etc. There are a lot of pictures of these saws on the interwebs and with just a bit of scaling, determining things like saw bolt location and handle hang are not at all difficult to do. So my recommendation would be to search the online images of old saws and find one that you like best. Then scale the pictures appropriately and make your patterns from them. Your first saw won’t likely be your last, so don’t worry about getting it perfect.

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