Thursday, May 15, 2008

In Defense of Cheap Tools

As I continued to remove the bandsaw marks on the sawbuck table legs, I reached for a chisel to clean up the deepest crease in the profile. But not just any chisel. My FIRST chisel.

It was purchased 16 years ago at a big box store for a few bucks—ugly, yellow, too-short plastic handle and all. I knew almost nothing about woodworking back then and had no idea what made one chisel better than another. I just knew I could afford this one and hey, it has a cutting edge, doesn’t it?

16 years later, this 3/4” Stanley Workmaster® proudly occupies the #1 slot in my chisel rack. It might not hold an edge as long as my Japanese chisels or be as pretty and as well-balanced as my German chisels, but it’s a real workhorse, sharpens quickly and cuts cleanly. And it reminds me that I don’t have to buy the most expensive tools to get good results.

Bottom right is a photo of the first plane, block or otherwise, I ever purchased. I think it cost $10 at the big box store. Knowing nothing about planes at the time, I bought it thinking hey, it has a cutting edge, doesn't it?

It took me a while to learn how to sharpen it properly, but it does indeed cut.

A few years ago, our woodworking club hosted a used tool sale where I offered to the sell this plane for $2. No takers.

And lucky for me! I brought it home and, not having used it in years, took a swipe on some wood. Nice clean shaving. The mouth is fixed too wide for a fine, thin shaving, but still, it cuts perfectly.

So, how do I employ this plane? It accompanies me every time I visit MLFKAG (My Lumberyard Formerly Known As Garage) which houses stacks of rough cut lumber that I bought at various auctions. Often the wood is so rough or so old, I can’t tell what species it is. A few passes, and the plane quickly exposes the grain beneath the rough surface. I’ll never try to sell you again, little guy.


Presbyfruit's History Bits said...

you have yellow plastic in your shop?

Kari Hultman said...

Don't get any funny ideas. You are not allowed to stow your big green workout ball out there!

Geemoney said...

I love it. My first plane was (still is, actually) an Anant 9 1/2. It won't take continuous shavings of end grain, but it does just fine, and the mouth closes up better than a Record that I picked up later.

Anonymous said...

All well and good, but let's get serious now. What bevel angle to you sharpen to? Do you use a microbevel and if so, what angle? Scary Sharp, Tormek or Waterstones? Are you using a hand held magnifying glass or a binocular microscope to check the edges?

About those shavings from the block plane, have you mic'ed them yet and if so, how thin are they?

Anonymous said...

I'm with you VC. My dad was a power/hand wood weekend warrior when I was young (1950's). There wasn't much money for tools, but I grew a permanent place in the heart for plastic handled chisels, the economy lines of stanley and craftsman planes, cheap screwdrivers and the smells of wood, sawdust and glue... I have only one of his old defender planes, but have collected easily (omg) 50 or more of the plastic handled chisels... it's odd, and I've my share of "quality" tools, but with my dad dead since I was a youngster I can still feel the warmth of his hand like I did as a five year old each time I hold one of those plastic handled chisels... where's the shrinks???

Anonymous said...

I am no expert in Woodworking as I am still very much a beginner. But, I am very familiar with the desire to buy the most expensive gadgets. Not wanting to spend a few hundred quid on expensive planes and chisels, I bought three planes from ebay for 20 each. Pretty soon, I found how sharp the blades dwarfs everything else in comparison when it comes to taking nice shavings. You need good tools but not ones that which costs an arm and a leg.

A bit of personal experience who would rather not be separated from his hard earned money :)

will said...

The reality is good tools are expensive. But that doesn't mean having a high quality tool translates into quality work.

In days of yore when masters and apprentices did their thing, it was typical to own and use tools equivalent to your work level. As one progressed, so did the tools.

Now days, anyone can use whatever they choose. Pros can make any tool work for them and beginners can spend large dollars on tools beyond their scope. So, the best way to equate tool quality and usage is, It's not the tool that makes or ruins a project, it's the person using the tool.

Judging by Kari's photos I would say she can use whatever she wants - her work quality shines.

Kari Hultman said...

Geemoney, I'm with you...whatever works for you is perfect.

Gary, you make me laugh. ; )

Vinny, that is a wonderful way to remember and be connected with your dad.

Anon, I share your desire to hang onto hard-earned money!

Bill, early on I did think that if I bought more expensive tools it would improve my woodworking. It didn't, of course. What helped was taking classes with professional woodworkers. I would love to read a post about the "days of yore", and about masters and apprentices and their tools. (hint, hint)

Mark said...

Hi Guys new blogger Mark

I think the thing is when we all start we usually have tools given to us, buy them from the discount store or pick them up cheap at the flea market etc. As our abilities grow and our skills get better any inferior tools get left bhind as we ask more from them. If they can deliver as does Kari's first chisel and block plane thats fine but if they don't then we are on the prowl for a new Lie Neilson or other piece of tool porn. And we will usually spend as much as we can posibly aford.
Great blog Guys keep up the good work.
Nice work Kari!
You cansee mine at

Anonymous said...

Was that Queen Elizabeth I just saw!

Mark said...

No,probably a Kangaroo, they look similar.

Anonymous said...

In all seriousness, the dollars figure of a tool or the complexity of the design don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Ok, so I lied about the serious part.

My old beat up #4 outperforms the fancy new planes because I know what makes it tick. I understand the limits of what I can do with it and what tricks I can pull out of the hat. Same old blade, same old almost but not quite flat sole.

I agree with you... it's not the tool, it's the user understanding how to use the tool.

Kari Hultman said...

Mark, welcome to the wonderful world of blogging!

Gary, you bring up a really interesting point: that you "know what makes [your plane] tick". There's a personal connection that woodworkers have with their tools. You can make your plane perform better than I or anyone else could because it's an extension of you.

I especially love to come across old wooden handtools that have depressed finger and thumbprints from years of service with one woodworker.