Often, when I sit myself down to compose a book review I ask myself what there is to
say about my subject. Sometimes it's because there doesn't seem to be much. That's
not the case with this book, however. My problem with Watson's Hand Tools: Their
Ways and Workings is there's too much to say. Weighing in at over 400 pages, and
replete with a reported 450 hand drawings by the author (no, I didn't count them), this
venerable tome describes dozens of hand tools and their chief variations, how to select
the best, set them up and put them to work.
I say "venerable tome" because Watson's work dates from 1982. As we all know, a lot
has changed since then, finger-saving table saws, lithium-ion battery packs for cordless
tools, laser guides for chop saws and drill presses among them. But change in the
world of hand tools, not so much. What that means is that Watson's work is still highly
relevant to hand tool woodworkers of today. As Watson himself states, "a plane shaves
wood no differently now than it did in 1780." The book's age simply defines it, like the
1965 Mustang, as a classic.
Watson's book is encyclopedic. Organized mainly in alphabetical order, he marches
through the full range of hand tools needed in the woodshop. He begins, though, with
the workbench and vise, essential to any meaningful woodworking. The vise, he says,
should be the largest one possible. Watson offers guidance on how it should be
mounted. Plans for a couple of workbenches, including a closet-sized model, are
presented in an appendix.
Individual hand tools follow. A 9 lb. anvil, he says, is useful, especially for straightening
bent nails but for other smithing tasks as well. A scratch awl is most useful in soft wood;
a brad or birdcage awl is best for starting or boring holes in hardwood.
Watson devotes more space to braces and bits, and describes the mechanics of
braces, maintaining them, using pressure so the lead screw cuts deeply enough to pull
the bit into the wood, and how to bore through holes cleanly to avoid tearout on the
back side. He also discusses brad point bits, shows how to align a hole drilled in two
dimensions and how to make an adjustable shop-made depth gauge that works better than painter's tape wrapped around the bit. He also describes a shop-made jig for
boring holes at angles. Then he discusses expansive bits, using brace and screw driver
bits, countersink bits and reamers.
Following a brief review of wire brushes, Watson moves on to a longer discussion of
chisels, their various types and best practices for a variety of applications of chisel on
wood. Clamps follow: C-clamps, handscrews, steel bar clamps, pipe clamps, and spring
clamps. This discussion is somewhat dated since the introduction of F-style clamps, but
Watson's basic guidance on clamping technique remains timeless and useful to today's
Drawknives are next, and Watson presents best practices for using them. Then come
hand drills, egg beater style; Watson describes good techniques and shows how to
make a wooden depth stop.
Files and rasps merit a longer treatment, with drawings and descriptions of various
types. Watson shows how the user can make his or her own handles and how to put
the tools to work. A side discussion treats reducing the diameter of chair rung ends;
another shows how to scrape grooves and moldings. An especially interesting and
instructive section shows how Watson finishes a saw handle using rasps and files. This
section is easily the best discussion of rasps and files I've seen anywhere.
H is for hammers. Watson displays the types and describes their uses in a variety of
applications. Inshaves (think scorps, travishers) follow, and Watson describes their
uses and how to make a wooden blade guard, a topic supplemented in an appendix. A
jackknife, he says, has many shop uses, including cutting and shaping wooden pegs.
Levels follow and, typically, Watson describes how to use them most effectively. Then
come mallets and Watson's drawings illustrate several types. Marking gauges and their
uses are illustrated. Mitering tools, miter boxes and shooting boards, are next. Nail
sets also merit brief attention.
A major section is devoted to handplanes, their construction, setup, adjustments, use
and maintenance. Watson describes the principal types of planes and how to use them:
jointers, smoothers, jack planes, block planes, rabbet planes, plow planes, tongue and
groove planes, and combination planes. Special attention is given to jointing operations,
smoothing, cutting rabbets, bevels and chamfers, rounding square stock into rods and
planing thin stock on an upside down plane using a notched stick. For the newer
handplane user, this section will be quite valuable. But even I learned some new things,
and I wrote a book on handplanes! The only fault I find with this section is that it's
entirely devoted to metal handplanes, and wooden planes—both bench and molding
planes—are missing altogether.
Next come pliers, prybars, rulers and sandpaper. Then hand saws, which merit more
extended treatment. Included is a discussion of rip and crosscut saws, set to the teeth,
flat vs. taper-ground backs and why they matter, saw handles, and which and how
many saws are needed. Watson reviews best practices for stance and technique, then
considers various specialty saws: back saws, coping saws, compass saws, tenon and
Scrapers are next, both flat and handled. Then screwdrivers and effective methods for
using them in cabinetmaking. Spokeshaves, then squares, follow, along with the T-bevel gauge.
Sharpening is not a tool, but its practice—described here—is critical to effective hand
tool work. Watson used oil stones, the primary tool available in his day, and sharpened
by hand. Waterstones or diamond plates are better choices today, and honing guides
are especially recommended for newer woodworkers. Watson shows how he sharpens
plane and chisel blades, drawknives, inshaves, saws, auger bits, reamers and
countersinks, jackknives, scrapers and twist drill bits.
Appendices cover plans for workbenches, shop-made tools to use with hand tools, such
as a "grinding palm" for sharpening small blades, a bench hook, auger bit depth gauge,
mallet, saw handle pattern, saw horse and shooting board. The book concludes with an
inventory for a typical hand tool collection.
There's little wit in this book and you likely won't read it to while away time on a lazy
day. But there's wisdom aplenty: it's a straightforward explanation of essential tools and
how best to use them. And that's why you want this book. The drawings are clearly
rendered and make this book the outstanding reference it is. If you are into hand tools,
you should have it and read it, at least the sections on those tools about which you have
questions. Or surprise yourself and learn something new about a tool you think you
know all about already. But even if you are mainly a power tool user, there are
sections—admittedly fewer—you'll find informative. This classic volume belongs in
many woodworking libraries and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
Find out more and purchase Hand Tools - Their Ways and Workings
J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes.
He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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