Go to Highland Woodworking website
Tool Making for the Woodshop
By Kerry Lambertson

It's a fact that from time to time the right tool just can't be found. Maybe the chisels available just aren't the right size to cut the necessary mortise, or the handle on your scorp bumps against the edge of your Windsor chair seat as you attempt to shave a smooth, fair hollow. Or perhaps, despite the wonderful revival in hand­tool craftsmanship of late years, the needed tool isn't available on the market, or you need it before UPS can get it to your door.

I suggest an alternative to throwing up one's hands in exasperation and leaving the project unfinished for another day. The clever woodworker, with a few basic tools, many of which are probably already on hand, can become a metalworker, and make or modify many simple tools. This approach offers all kinds of advantages. Shop­made tools are sometimes more affordable than their hardware­store counterparts, and often of equal or better quality, not to mention being customized to the job at hand.

Sawing out the tang on a small drawknife. The offcut will be used
to make a marking knife.

This sort of practical, jack­of­all­trades attitude is far from new. In fact, the ability to make or modify basic tools was commonplace only a generation or two ago in American workshops and on American farms. The ability to tap threads, saw through steel, forge weld, and and grind new edges on old tools saved many a lengthy trip to town or costly delay in a project. I believe that this approach is just as beneficial today as it was in times past, and making tools is fun! Few things are more satisfying than using a tool that you have made to make something new, and before long you may even find yourself using a tool that you have made to make another tool.

Chances are good you may already have a drill press, lathe, bench grinder, machine vise, and belt/disc sander in your shop. Add a small propane or MAPP gas torch and a good quality hacksaw to these, and you have the capability to make or modify many common tools. The basic procedures of sawing, grinding, bending, drilling, and polishing steel are all that are needed to make many hand tools.

Grinding the drawknife bevel. Note the shop-modified grinding jig.

A basic knowledge of tool steel is important to understanding how this process works. There is a dizzying variety of alloy steels available, only a few of which are relevant to the woodworker. At its most basic, a high carbon steel, that is, a steel with a relatively high proportion of carbon to iron content, has the capacity for hardness that is needed in a cutting edge. This kind of steel can be found as scrap in many steels that are used for cutting, or in load bearing operations. Leaf springs, lawnmower blades, old garden shears, and bed frames all offer sources of high carbon steel that can hold a good cutting edge. Additionally, 01 tool steel in dimensional stock is available from many suppliers, and is a convenient source of tool steel at a reasonable price.

Heating a tang for bending.

Steel is generally worked most easily when it is in its soft, or annealed, state. Dimensional tool steel stock is often sold annealed, but salvaged steels will have to be annealed before being worked. I generally accomplish this by placing the piece deep in the red­hot coals at the bottom of my wood­burning stove, and allow it to gradually reach critical heat and then cool there. On the morning of the next day, I retrieve the piece from the ashes and get to work. If you don't have a woodstove in your home or shop, this can also be achieved in a small campfire, or by heating the piece red­hot with a torch and burying it in sand or ash.

Bending the drawknife tang around a steel rod. Leather gloves may
not always be sufficient to protect your hands from the heat,
so work carefully!

To hold a good cutting edge without being so brittle that it shatters under stress, steel must be tempered properly. This process is often perceived as mysterious knowledge held only by master blacksmiths, but in fact it is a straightforward procedure. The details of the process go beyond the scope of this article, but there are many excellent materials in print that cover the subject. I assure you that with a bit of determination and the assistance of a good book, you can master hardening and tempering!

As in all shop endeavors, safety cannot be stressed strongly enough. Wood shops tend to be full of shavings and sawdust, which mix all too well with the hot sparks from grinding steel. Red hot steel will certainly leave a mark in the unfortunate event of it contacting your skin. Similarly, tiny bits of steel encountering your eye will be an experience to remember for a long time to come. The stakes are high here, ranging from permanent personal injury to a catastrophic fire in your shop. I insist that if you are going to pursue making and modifying your own tools (and I hope that you do), you research and follow all safety procedures.

There are many good blacksmithing and toolmaking books in print that will cover these processes in detail. I can personally speak of three, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Making Wood Tools with John Wilson , by John Wilson, is a relatively recent publication covering tool projects from a travisher to a smooth plane. The Complete Modern Blacksmith , actually a compilation of three books, by Alexander G. Weygers, offers a near complete treatment on making tools from salvaged steels, and setting up a shop in which to do so. Finally, Making Hand Tools by the boatbuilder Harry Bryan describes in detail a dozen or so boatbuilding related tool projects, from a boatbuilder's slick to a bench vise. Any one of these books will offer the fledgling toolmaker a great introduction to the subject, and between the three of them, you will have projects and ideas for years to come.

Toolmaking is a grand adventure, and opens to the door to possibility previously unknown. I hope you find in it the excitement and satisfaction that I have.

Kerry trained as a boatbuilder. He now builds furniture and teaches woodworking skills at various gatherings and folk schools. He has a particular passion for hand work and efficient use of hand tools, and enjoys designing and building items of day-to-day necessity. You can email Kerry at k_lambertson@yahoo.com .

Return to Wood News front page


1045 N. Highland Ave. NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30306
Tel. 800-241-6748

Email us at customerservice@highlandwoodworking.com
Visit us on the web at www.highlandwoodworking.com

Copyright © 2016 Highland Hardware, Inc.

Errors regarding pricing and specifications are subject to correction.
SOME SALE QUANTITIES MAY SELL OUT and become unavailable at the advertised price.