12 essential woodworking tools for beginners: Start your woodshop right

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They say that the tools don’t make the craftsman, but the truth is they make a big difference. Starting off your journey with the right set of basic woodworking tools for beginners will not only improve your experience with the craft, it will save you a lot of money in the long run.

Let me also say right off the bat that this list is for true beginners. It does not contain thousands of dollars of machinery that will fill up a two-car garage. Instead, it focuses on just the essentials that every beginner (or intermediate) woodworker needs.

Woodworking can be a challenging hobby or profession, but getting started does not have to be expensive! You can get started with just a few hundred dollars of quality tools that will last you for years to come.

Below I’ve listed what I consider to be the 12 basic woodworking tools for beginners, including layout tools, hand tools, and small power tools. I’ve also noted a few extras (yes, you will need pencils), but the odds are you already have most of them.

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Essential woodworking tool: Marking gauge

Marking gauges are an essential layout tool for woodworking beginners.
Photo via Nick Rowan (Tiny Workshops)

Marking gauges have been a staple of woodworking toolboxes for centuries. Along with a simple combination square (see below), it forms the basis for any kind of joinery work — fine or rough.

Why you need one

What’s great about marking gauges is not just how useful they are for both basic and advanced joinery, but also how easy they are to use.

You will need one for mortise and tenon joints, dovetails, rabbets, thicknessing, and countless other tasks. It’s such an essential woodworking tool for beginners to learn the basics of joinery that it should be one of the very first tools you buy.

Plus, they’re very affordable and last forever.

Which ones to buy

Experienced woodworkers will likely want several marking gauges, but the best option for beginners is a quality combination gauge. It does the job of both a mortise gauge and a standard marking gauge.

Learn more in my full post about marking gauges, but I’ve listed two recommended buys below. Both will get the job done and last for years, but the second is a more premium choice for those who can spend a bit more.

Best marking gauges for beginner woodworkers

Best combination gauge

Robert Larson combination gauge

  • Inexpensive
  • Great for beginners
  • Covers wide variety of tasks

Best wheel marking gauge

WoodRiver wheel marking gauge

  • Attractive design
  • Precise cuts
  • Great hand feel

Cheap woodworking marking gauge

Crown 135 marking gauge

  • Very inexpensive
  • All-wood design
  • Plastic thumbscrew

Essential woodworking tool: Combination square

Combination squares are an essential tool for woodworking beginners.

The next tool on the list is another layout tool, and it’s even more essential than the first. What makes the combination square an ideal choice over other types of squares is its ease of use and versatility.

Why you need one

Like a marking gauge, a good combination square is a must-have tool for woodworking beginners. It allows you to mark and cut at both 90 and 45 degrees, which are the most important angles in woodworking.

Everything from cutting a board to length to joining edges to making mortise and tenon joints requires perfect 90-degree angles, and 45-degree angles are equally important for corner joints and countless other cuts. Even if you plan on going the power tool route, a good combination square is a must.

While a sharp pencil can mark lines from your combination square just fine, I’d recommend picking up a decent marking knife as well. I’d recommend the Stanley 10-049 locking pocket knife. It cuts precise lines, takes up very little space, and offers incredible value for the price. I’ve used one for over a decade and it hasn’t let me down.

Which ones to buy

Virtually all combination squares look identical, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they were all created equal. If your combination square is off by just 1 or 2 degrees it can cause absolute chaos in finer woodworking tasks!

The first option linked below is a cheaper model that should get the job done, but there is some variance in quality between products so make sure yours is square when you open the box. Just register it up to a straight edge, mark a line, flip it over, and mark another line. If the two match up, it’s square! If not, try to adjust it or exchange it for another unit.

If this sounds like too much of a hassle, the second choice might be better for you. It’s expensive, but it’s also a professional-grade combination square that will last for decades.

Best combination squares for beginner woodworkers

irwin tools 12 inch combination square

Irwin Tools 12″ combination square

  • Inexpensive
  • Great for beginners
  • May require adjusting for perfect square

starrett 12 inch combination square

Starrett C11H-12-4R 12″ combination square

  • Beautiful design
  • Excellent quality
  • Pricey

Essential woodworking tool: Clamps

Clamps are a must-have woodworking tool.

Ah, clamps. Ask any woodworker and they’ll tell you that you can never have enough of them. When you’re just getting started, however, there is a minimum you’ll need to get work done.

Why you need them

When you first start woodworking, you need clamps for everything. Holding your work, gluing panels, final assembly, a third hand you always seem to need… the list goes on and on.

But before you go buy a set of 24 or more clamps from the nearest big box store, you should know that as a beginner you can get by with about eight specific clamps.

Your main workhorses will be pipe clamps, which are sold in sets of fixtures. These fixtures are attached to standard sizes of galvanized pipe that you can buy in any home improvement store. This also means you can swap out the pipes for longer or shorter lengths, making them useful in just about any situation in woodworking.

That said, pipe clamps are large and heavy, which is why a few quality bar clamps should be your next purchase. These will cover most daily tasks in the woodshop, especially until you have a decent workbench and vise.

Which ones to buy

While you will inevitably build a small stockpile of clamps as you work throughout the years, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by buying the right clamps from the get-go.

For big projects like furniture, I’d recommend starting with four high-quality 3/4-inch or 1/2-inch Bessey pipe clamps. These will serve you well from your first build to your hundredth, and they can grow with you by simply swapping out the pipe. If you’re in the UK, you might want to consider sash clamps instead, as they’re easier to find there.

For everything else, grab four Bessey bar clamps. These are the clamps you’re probably most used to seeing, and the set of two 6-inch and two 12-inch clamps linked below will never go out of style. Avoid getting cheaper quick-release models, as these tend to be lower quality and break more easily.

Best clamps for beginner woodworkers

bessey pipe clamps

Bessey 3/4″ pipe clamp set (4)

  • Includes 4 sets of clamp fixtures
  • Required for larger builds
  • Feet prevent toppling

bessey bar clamps

Bessey bar clamp set (4)

  • Includes 2 6″ and 2 12″ clamps
  • Excellent quality with 600 lbs of pressure
  • Inexpensive

Essential woodworking tool: Hand saw

Hand saws are the most basic woodworking tools that every woodworker should own.

In an age of high-tech power tools and extreme precision machinery, it can be easy to forget about the humble hand saw, which is one of the most basic woodworking tools that every workshop needs.

Why you need one

These simple tools (in many varieties) were once used for everything from rip cuts down the length of a board to delicate joinery.

Many hand tool purists would recommend buying anywhere from 2 to 5 hand saws, but for the beginner doing everything with hand tools is simply too time-consuming, labor-intensive, and outright expensive.

While there are still some manufacturers making beautiful premium hand saws, the truth is most cheap traditional saws simply aren’t worth your time.

Thankfully, there is an exception, and it comes from the other side of the planet. Japanese pull saws are fantastic tools that are cheap to buy and provide excellent results. Plus, they’re versatile, very easy to use for beginners, and the blades are simple and cheap to replace.

Which ones to buy

I’m recommending a Kataba, which is a backless blade that can be used for rip cuts, cross cuts, and diagonal cuts. It’s perfect for cutting to length and sawing to precise layout lines for joinery, but I wouldn’t use it for long rip cuts (although it’s capable of doing so). That task is best covered by a circular saw later in this guide.

If you’re looking for even more versatility, consider getting a double-sided Ryoba. These have two sets of teeth — one for crosscuts and one for rip cuts. They’re more comfortable for long rip cuts, but a bit more difficult to manage in smaller joinery work.

Although it’s not listed below, the Z-Saw mini dozuki is also a great buy for joinery work. It’s a small back saw with an impossibly thin kerf.

Best hand saws for beginner woodworkers

suizan kataba hand saw

Suizan Kataba hand saw

  • Used for both rip and cross cuts
  • Thin kerf and easy use
  • Inexpensive

suizan ryoba hand saw

Suizan Ryoba hand saw

  • Dedicated rip and cross-cut blades
  • Versatile and easy to use
  • Inexpensive

Essential woodworking tool: Smoothing plane

Smoothing planes are an iconic tool for woodworkers.
Credit: Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

The smoothing plane is an iconic tool for woodworkers, and for good reason. There’s something magical about gliding a plane across a piece of wood and watching the paper-thin shavings fly.

As silly as it is, it’s one of the greatest joys in woodworking.

Why you need one

Many guides will recommend beginners run out and buy a power joiner/planer, but to me, this is absolute nonsense. Not only do they take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money, but they’re also complete overkill for someone just learning the craft.

When it comes to just the essential woodworking tools for beginners, all of your planing can be done with a single quality smoothing plane.

As an added bonus, learning to be proficient with a smoothing plane will cut down dramatically on sanding time, which let’s be honest, is the worst part of woodworking.

Which one to buy

Before you go out and buy the cheapest smoothing plane you can find, you should know that this is one tool that’s not so easy to get right. Virtually all cheap models are more trouble than they’re worth, and may end up frustrating you into spending hundreds more on a power planer.

Granted, it’s not impossible to get decent results out of even cheap models like this Amazon Basics planer, but there’s a steep learning curve and you may need to replace a few units before you get one that works.

My main pick for beginners comes from Stanley, which admittedly doesn’t have the same reputation that it used to. Still, the Sweetheart No. 4 Premium is an excellent tool that costs literally hundreds less than the next decent model, and it’s a great pick up for beginners and intermediate woodworkers.

My second pick is one that will absolutely break the bank, but is simply unbeatable in quality. Lie Nielsen is well known for beautiful, high-quality tools, and its No.4 Smooth Plane is the benchmark against which all modern planes are judged.

Be warned though: it isn’t cheap, and for beginners on a budget that money might be better allocated elsewhere. For a nice middle ground, check out the WoodRiver #4-1/2.

Best hand planes for beginner woodworkers

stanley sweetheart no 4 plane

Stanley Sweetheart No. 4 Premium

  • Quality tool
  • Great weight and hand feel
  • Much cheaper than the competition

lie nielsen no 4 smooth plane

Lie Nielsen No.4 Smooth Plane

  • Incredibly beautiful tool
  • Highest possible quality
  • Expensive

Essential woodworking tool: Mallet

Everyone needs a woodworking mallet around the woodshop.

A mallet is one of those woodworking tools that makes a great beginner project, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still buy one early on.

Why you need one

You probably have a standard claw hammer somewhere in your house, and you might be tempted to use it instead of a more suitable woodworking mallet. Please don’t do this if you have any love for your tools and want them to last.

Keep your claw hammer for hammering nails and pick up a nice nylon head mallet for everything else in the woodshop.

Whether tapping joinery into its final position during assembly or smashing chisels into hardwood, a good mallet is immensely satisfying to use. Both the tactile feedback and sound will leave you addicted after first use.

Which one to buy

While not all woodworkers agree with the use of nylon head mallets for chisels, they’re a great purchase for beginners needing versatility.

I’ve picked a model from trusted mallet-maker Thor, which has two replaceable nylon heads and a hefty 900-gram (2 lb) weight. There are several other options that are lighter or have a different handle to suit your exact needs, but the 900g model is my first choice.

For those of you who must have a wooden mallet (and don’t have the time or means to make one), my second pick is an inexpensive 4.5-inch model from Crown. It’s made of European hardwood (beech), but it may need a bit of sanding before it’s ready for use.

Best mallets for beginner woodworkers

thor 714 nylon hammer

Thor 714 nylon hammer

  • Great balance, weight, and feel
  • Replaceable nylon heads won’t damage work
  • Perfect for chisels, assembly, and more

crown beechwood mallet

Crown 4.5″ beechwood mallet

  • Simple and durable
  • Inexpensive
  • Similar mallets can be made at home

Essential woodworking tool: Chisels

A decent set of chisels are essential tools for woodworking beginners.

Now that you’ve got a great mallet, it’s time to pick up something to (gently) whack with it.

Why you need them

If there’s one beginner’s woodworking tool that’s worth putting some thought into before buying, it’s chisels. There are just so many junk chisels on the market (even from reputable brands!) that can make your early woodworking experience an absolute nightmare.

Buying a good set of six chisels and learning how to use and sharpen them will dramatically improve the quality of your work. They can be used for joinery, shaping, paring, carving, and more.

For this list of must-have woodworking tools for beginners, I’m recommending a set of bevel edge chisels, which are versatile and affordable. Other varieties, like mortise chisels or bench chisels, are too specialized to start with and don’t offer many advantages.

Which ones to buy

The best set of woodworking chisels for beginners to get is the six-piece set from Narex. These Czech-made chisels have fantastic quality steel, and they will last you for a lifetime if taken care of properly. The stained beech handles are also a thing of beauty, and it even comes with a display case.

If you want to save a bit of money or prefer plastic handles for whatever reason, the Irwin Marples six-piece chisel set is also an excellent choice. They’re plenty hardy so you don’t have to worry too much about your inexperience causing irreparable damage to the handles or edge.

Best chisels for beginner woodworkers

narex chisel set

Narex 6-piece chisel set

  • Blades hold an excellent edge
  • Attractive finish and display case
  • Very affordable for beginners

irwin marples chisel set

Irwin Marples 6-piece chisel set

  • Simple and durable
  • Plastic handles
  • Inexpensive

Essential woodworking tools: Sharpening stones

Sharpening stones should be one of the first tools beginner woodworkers buy.

A quality plane and chisel will work well out of the box, but you’ll need something to keep them sharp as you use them over the years.

Why you need them

All cutting tools, no matter how well you treat them, will lose their edge over time. Fortunately, quality tools like the ones recommended so far are simple to sharpen with the right sharpening stones.

There are two main types to consider for woodworking: water stones (or whetstones) and diamond plates.

Water stones come in a variety of grits and require only water to sharpen your tools. However, as you use them they will naturally develop a concave in the center of the stone, so you’ll need to flatten them.

The best tool for flattening water stones is a diamond plate. These are more expensive but they can also be used on your tools themselves and last for decades without any maintenance.

I’d recommend buying a set of diamond plates if you can afford it, but those on a budget can make do with a nice set of water stones. I’ve recommended both below.

Which ones to buy

The set of three diamond plates below might not seem like a good value for a beginner woodworking tool, but it will quickly become an essential part of your process.

They aren’t cheap, they will keep your chisels and other cutting tools razor-sharp, and won’t deteriorate after years of use. They are well worth the investment early on.

If you just can’t justify spending that much, a double-sided whetstone like the second option below is another decent solution. It comes with everything you need to get started, including a guide for sharpening kitchen knives, which might help justify the purchase in some households.

Best sharpening stones for beginner woodworkers

ultra sharp diamond stone sharpening set

Ultra Sharp diamond stone set

  • Includes coarse, medium, and extra fine stones
  • Diamond plates will last for decades
  • Flatten and sharpen planes, chisels, etc with ease

sharp pebble whetstone

Sharp Pebble Whetstone

  • Double-sided 1000/6000 grit
  • Comes with knife guide and base
  • Inexpensive

Essential woodworking tool: Circular saw

Circular saws are a must-have woodworking power tool for beginners.

Now we’re starting to get into the power tool section of our list of must-have woodworking tools, and it kicks off with one of the most useful items in the entire guide.

Why you need one

Many other buying guides for beginner woodworkers will recommend a table saw as one of your first purchases, but a circular saw is a much better choice. Here’s why:

First of all, circular saws are much cheaper. A good circular saw will cost you a few hundred dollars vs a thousand dollars or more for a decent table saw.

Table saws also tend to be either too small to be used for large projects or too big to fit in small workshops. A good table saw can be great for repeatable cuts and speedy manufacturing, but if you’re just starting off these shouldn’t be your focus.

The best investment you can make as a beginner woodworker is a nice circular saw with a track. The track ensures perfect crosscuts and rip cuts — no matter how long the workpiece is.

Trust me, you won’t miss the table saw. Buy one when you’re ready to commit more money and space to woodworking, but not before.

Which one to buy

Which circular saw is best for you will depend largely upon what you plan on building. If you’re going to stick to smaller builds, you can definitely cut some corners here.

For a cheap, bare-essentials circular saw, the Skil 5180-01 can’t be beaten. It’s small and lightweight but still has more than enough power for even demanding tasks.

If you plan on working with sheet materials or just want to completely future-proof your toolbox, you should get a track saw like the Makita SP600J. It’s a lot more expensive than the option above, but it comes with a track that ensures perfect cuts every time. You can also buy just the saw to save some money before investing in a track later on when you need it.

Both options are corded, and although cordless models are the latest and greatest, they simply aren’t worth the extra cost for beginners.

Best circular saws for beginner woodworkers

skil 5180 01 circular saw

Skil 5180-01 circular saw

  • Capable of cutting most materials
  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive

makita sp6000j circular track saw

Makita SP600J track saw

  • Quality build
  • Comes with track for perfect cuts
  • Expensive

Essential woodworking tool: Router

Routers are one of the most versatile woodworking tools you can buy.

Our second essential woodworking power tool for beginners is a router. It’s a bit more difficult to master than a circular saw, but it will quickly become your go-to tool for many tasks.

Why you need one

A power router is one of the most versatile woodworking tools you’ll ever own. Forget about rabbet planes, forget about dado blades, forget about cutting circles and other regular shapes by hand. A router can do all of that and more with ease.

As your skills improve, a router can do even more with the help of jigs. Jig making is an art in its own right though, so don’t worry too much about this as a beginner.

Some routers come with a few basic bits, but you’ll probably want to expand your collection with a router bit set eventually. A router table is another great addition, and you can even build one if you have the time.

Which one to buy

For beginners, I’m recommending a smaller general-purpose wood router that you can expand upon later with add-ons like a plunge base. This makes the compact Makita RT0701C the ideal choice. I’ve been using this router for years and I still love it.

It comes with enough accessories to do nearly all common tasks, with extra pieces and accessories available for purchase later on. This helps you save money with your first purchase, which is huge when you’re just getting started.

If you’re looking for something with a bit more power, the Bosch 1617EVS is another great option. It’s more expensive and doesn’t come with as many accessories as the Makita, but it’s a very high-quality router that will last you a very long time.

Best wood routers for beginner woodworkers

makita rt0701c wood router

Makita RT0701C

  • Compact and lightweight
  • Essential accessories included
  • Inexpensive

bosch 1617evs wood router

Bosch 1617EVS

  • Quality build and powerful variable motor
  • Comfortable handles maximize control
  • More expensive

Essential woodworking tool: Power drill

Power drills are an essential tool for both woodworkers and homeowners.

This is one of the few basic woodworking tools on the list that you may already have. If not, it’s time you picked up a power drill.

Why you need one

A power drill is a must-have tool for not just woodworkers, but for anyone who does the occasional DIY work or home repairs.

Assembling IKEA furniture, drilling holes to hang picture frames, mixing paint, and even sanding round surfaces are a breeze with a simple power drill.

The main thing to consider is whether to pick up a corded or cordless model. Corded models tend to be cheaper and more powerful, but cordless models are just so much more convenient.

If you want to go the hand tool route, you can make do with a gimlet tool set, screwdriver set, and a hand drill. Still, you won’t be able to accomplish the same tasks as you can with a simple power drill.

Which one to buy

Both of the options recommended here are cordless drills, and neither one will break the bank. The first is a small 12-volt model from Bosch. It’s simple and lightweight, and will do almost any task you need as a beginning woodworker.

If you’re looking for more power, the Dewalt 20V Max cordless drill. Its brushless motor gives it more power than its competitors and longer battery life. It isn’t cheap, but it’s a great investment for homeowners who do frequent DIY tasks around the house in addition to woodworking.

Best power drills for beginner woodworkers

bosch power drill ps31 2a

Bosch power drill PS31-2A

  • Compact and lightweight
  • Includes bits and carrying case
  • Inexpensive

dewalt cordless drill dcd791d2

Dewalt 20V brushless drill DCD791D2

  • Powerful brushless motor
  • Lightweight but sturdy build
  • Pricey

Essential woodworking tool: Random orbital sander

Random orbital sanders are an essential woodworking tool that make sanding a breeze.

The final must-have woodworking tool for beginners might seem like a luxury, but you’ll be kicking yourself for not buying one as you finish up your first project.

Why you need one

Sanding is one of the most tedious parts of woodworking, and no matter how clean your work is you’ll need to do some sanding before applying a finish.

A good random orbital sander will make the penultimate step of each build much faster and enjoyable. Plus, with great dust filters and a mask, your lungs will thank you as you grow older.

Random orbital sanders are slightly more expensive than belt sanders or other sanders, but it’s worth the extra expense. They offer a better finished product without the swirling patterns that other types leave behind.

Which one to buy

My first pick is a versatile random orbital sander from Makita. It has a comfortable handle for long sanding sessions, as well as the option to hook it directly to your dust collection system if you have one. It’s not too expensive, but you can save a few more bucks by not getting the carrying case.

If you’re looking for a real budget solution, the Black+Decker BDERO100 offers a ton of value. It’s roughly half the price of the already inexpensive Makita, but isn’t quite as full-featured.

Best random orbital sanders for beginner woodworkers

makita bo5041k random orbit sander

Makita BO5041K 5-inch random orbit sander

  • Comfortable to hold and use
  • Variable speed and powerful motor
  • Relatively inexpensive

blackdecker random orbit sander

Black+Decker 5-inch random orbit sander BDERO100

  • No-nonsense sander
  • Perfect for occasional use
  • Very cheap

That’s it for this guide to the basic woodworking tools beginners will need. Let everyone know in the comments below which tools you picked up, or if you have any more recommendations.

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2 responses to “12 essential woodworking tools for beginners: Start your woodshop right”

  1. Scott Dallmeyer Avatar
    Scott Dallmeyer

    Pipe clamps: Use black steel pipe. The clamps usually have locking surfaces that, when tightened, dig in to the galvanizing of galvanized pipe and leave a raised ridge of galvanizing. This ridge and subsequent ones interfere with sliding the movable part back and forth on the pipe.

    Planes and chisels: Very good ones are frequently available at rummage and yard sales. Planes may not be ready to use without some sharpening and adjusting, but the dollar saving can be considerable.

    Same is true of chisels. Old ones can be very good quality. You often find socket handle chisels with no handle and the socket very mashed from pounding. File off the mushrooming and whittle a handle from a piece of broom handle.

    All-steel chisels will take lots of abuse whereas wood handled chisels should only be used with a mallet.

    You really only need, maybe, a 1/2 inch and a 3/4 inch chisel to start, but a set of four (1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 1) is pretty common and useful. You’ll get more over time.

  2. Bas Avatar

    Thanks so much for this extensive write-up. I’ve made some questionable purchases already and tend to mainly look at power tools. This has a nice balance between manual/power tools and was refreshing to read. I’ve been taking notes and I am going to reconsider my next buys. Thanks!

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