Furniture repair and refinishing are jobs for hand tools. Certain power tools will make the work go faster and easier, but learn how to use the hand tools first. In this article, we'll discuss the best tools to include in your at-home workshop, including secondary tools that aren't necessary for repairs but can shorten your work time.
The only exception to consider is a portable electric variable-speed drill. With this power tool, you can make fast work of drilling holes in almost any material. Many drills are available with a large variety of accessories: saws, grinders, lathes, and the like. Buy the accessories as you need them. Start out with the basic drill and an assortment of drill bits. A cordless drill requires no electrical outlet and can be used outside.
One final word on buying tools: buy quality tools. Buy them all at once or one tool at a time, as your budget permits. Cheap tools are a waste of money and can cost you plenty in miscut and poorly cut materials. Cheap tools can also be dangerous because they don't hold a sharp cutting edge, and dull tools can slip.
Quality tools are well balanced, carefully machined, expertly matched, and properly heat-tempered. With some care, quality tools will last you a lifetime. The cost difference between a quality tool and a cheap tool is just a matter of a few dollars.
Buying quality tools involves a little comparison-shopping. Most home center and hardware stores have a "good, better, and best" tool display. You can easily spot the difference between a quality tool and a cheap tool by comparing one with the other. A quality tool will be well machined and look it. Cheap tools look like they came out of a poorly formed mold. The metal will be rough and sharp, or, at best, sometimes filed smooth along the sharp parts.
Once you know what you want, check prices on ebay and other online stores to make sure you get the best deal.
Listed below are the basic tools for furniture projects. If your budget permits, buy them all at the outset. If not, your primary selection should include scrapers, a hammer, a hacksaw, screwdrivers, a utility knife, a craft knife, and three sizes of clamps.
Scrapers: Putty knife, pull scraper, pull scraper blade, smooth-cut file, rubber spatula.
A stiff-bladed putty knife can be used as a scraper in cramped quarters, and it is useful when applying wood filler. A pull scraper removes old finish fast--right down to the bare wood. A furniture scraper is made for furniture; it's sold primarily at furniture specialty stores. If you can't find one, buy a regular flat scraper blade; it will work fine. Be sure you keep the scrapers sharp at all times with a smooth-cut file. Scraper edges become dull fairly quickly; you'll probably have to resharpen them two or three times during a refinishing project.
Hammers: 13-ounce claw hammer, ball-peen hammer, rubber or wooden mallet (or both).
A 13-ounce claw hammer is easier to swing than a standard 16-ounce hammer. Generally, you don't need the extra whacking power the heavier hammer provides, and the smaller hammer can also go into tighter quarters. A ball-peen hammer is designed for metalwork; one end of the hammerhead is rounded for flattening rivets. The soft faces of a rubber or wooden mallet are designed for driving chisels, and you will also need them to tap wooden furniture components into position.
If you can find one, buy a cross-peen hammer instead of a 13-ounce hammer. This tool has a flat face for heavy pounding and a smaller peen face to use in corners and tight quarters. Most tool outlets (hardware and home center stores) don't carry this hammer, but you can usually order it.
Measuring Tools: Combination square, steel ruler (24 inches long), 25-foot tape measure, friction-point calipers, bradawl or ice pick, utility knife with blade assortment.
Most furniture components are fairly small, so you don't need a large carpenters' square for marking and checking square cuts. A combination square with a removable blade is the best tool -- use it for a depth gauge, for angles, as a ruler, and as a straightedge with the blade removed from the handle. A steel ruler is needed for a straightedge more than for measuring. The markings, however, will be helpful.
Friction-point calipers are used to determine sizes of rounds (dowels and turnings), and they will save you plenty of time trying to match components.
The bradawl (or ice pick) and utility knife are used to mark cuts on furniture. Do not use a pencil; the pencil point quickly wears flat, resulting in inaccuracy. You can easily see a light knife cut or scratch line from the point of a bradawl, and you get accuracy in the bargain.
A 25-foot flexible steel tape measure with a wide blade is tops for general measurements (rough materials, for example). The wide blade is stiff so you can pull out a fairly long length of tape without it bending and/or drooping.
Not sure what other tools to include in your at-home workshop? Check out the list continued in the next section.
Primary Tools:Saws, Chisels, Planes, Screwdrivers, Drills
Saws, chisels, planes, screwdrivers, and drills are must-have tools for any at-home workshop.
Saws: Hacksaw, backsaw or cabinet saw, coping saw or fretsaw. Although a hacksaw is designed for metal, it can accurately cut small pieces of wood. The thin blade makes a narrow saw kerf -- a big advantage. And a hacksaw can be used for enlarging screw slots (or making new screw slots) and for cutting spring wire, bolts, nails, screws, and other metal parts.
A backsaw or cabinet saw is especially designed for cabinetmaking. It's the tool to use for making wood joints, cutting miters, and other fine, accurate work. Buy a backsaw or cabinet saw with 14 to 16 teeth per inch; the saw should be from 10 to 12 inches long. Both saws are designed for cutting across the grain of wood. However, they may be used for "ripping" (cutting with the grain), since most furniture pieces are not large enough for a ripsaw, the standard ripping tool.
For scrolls, holes, and other intricate cuts, the best tool is a coping saw. You can buy a variety of blades for this saw: rough, medium, and fine blades and blades for metal and plastic. By adjusting pins in the saw frame, you can change the angle of the blade to cut 90-degree corners without removing the saw from the material. Its power tool counterpart is a saber saw or portable electric jigsaw.
Chisels: Assortment of butt chisels, firmer chisel, in-cannelled and out-cannelled gouges.
For all-around use, an assortment of butt chisels (1/8-, 1/4-, 1/2-, and 3/4-inch-wide blades) is the best buy. You should also have one firmer chisel with a 1/2-inch beveled edge. This tool goes into corners that a butt chisel can't reach. In- and out-cannelled gouges are really chisels; they're called gouges because they're rounded in cross-section. You'll use these gouges for smoothing and hollowing inside and outside curves.
Any chisel should be driven with the butt of your hand, a rubber hammer, or a wooden mallet. Never use a metal hammer to drive a chisel; a metal hammer will smash the chisel handle.
Planes: Smoothing plane, block plane. A smoothing plane is best used for smoothing and squaring wood with the grain. You'll need this tool to match and cut furniture joints. You can also use it to unstick doors and windows and for other household chores. A block plane is designed to cut and smooth across the wood grain, such as the end of a board.
Screwdrivers: A four-piece assortment of standard slot screwdrivers and Phillips-head screwdrivers will handle most screw driving and drawing jobs furniture repairers/refinishers will need.
Screwdrivers are for screws. Do not use them to open cans, as marking tools, or for drills. And don't hit the handles with a hammer in an attempt to loosen a tight screw.
Drills: Hand-crank drill and/or variable-speed electric drill; assortment of drill bits and countersinks; screwdriver attachment.
Since most holes in furniture are small, you won't need a regular ratchet hand brace. A hand-crank drill provides plenty of capacity (usually) for most furniture jobs. Drill bits should range in size from 1/16 inch up to 1/4 inch. You should also have small and medium-size countersinks for flathead screws. Counterboring dowel plugs can be done with a drill bit.
If your budget permits, buy a variable-speed electric drill and drill assortment in addition to the hand-crank drill. The variable speed lets you start drilling slowly and then increase the drill RPMs as the drill catches in the wood or other material. With an attachment, you can drive and draw screws -- a great tool if you have lots of drawing and/or driving to do.
Clamps are often forgotten on the check list for must-have tools for a workshop, but they can be used in many ways to save time on a furniture repair or restoration project. Learn the best ways to use clamps in the next section.
Primary Tools: Clamps, Sanding Tools, Paintbrushes
Before you begin any furniture repair or restoration project at home, make sure your workshop includes clamps, sanding tools, and the other basic tools mentioned below.
Clamps: Several sizes of C-clamps, strap clamp, bar clamps. Clamps are a must for furniture repair; you will probably use clamps more than any other tool. Fortunately, clamps are inexpensive (except wooden hand screws) so you can probably afford a good assortment.
C-clamps look like large letter C's with a turnscrew at the bottom, hence the name. You can buy them in lightweight aluminum or heavier steel. To start out, buy six C-clamps, two of each size you choose.
A strap clamp is a strap with a buckle device on the end. You can use this clamp to hold irregular surfaces together. Rope may be substituted for a strap clamp, but you can't get pressure from rope unless you wedge a stick between two strands of the rope, twisting the rope tight. This isn't always possible in a restricted work area.
Bar clamps are steel bars with clamping devices on each end. It's more economical to buy bar clamp fixtures that fit on the ends of standard galvanized steel water pipe. The length of the clamp is determined by the length of the pipe.
Sanding Tools: Padded sanding blocks, foam blocks, dowel or garden hose. On most surfaces, use a block of scrap wood padded with a piece of thick felt; on curved surfaces, wrap the sandpaper around a thick piece of foam. Commercial rubber sanding blocks are made with metal teeth to hold the paper in position and may be easier to use. There are also flexible sanding blocks with rough exteriors that are suitable.
On concave curves, wrap sandpaper around a piece of dowel the same diameter as the curve, or slit a piece of rubber garden hose and wrap the paper around it, with the ends held in the slit. You can also purchase sanding cord to slide in and out of concave surfaces. The rotary sanding attachment of an electric drill can be used on hard-to-get-at areas; it uses thin strips of sandpaper to smooth rough spots without flattening the wood. Do not use a wire brush or sanding disc attachment.
Glue Injector: The glue injector, used to force glue into loose furniture joints, looks and works like a hypodermic syringe. It can save a lot of time and trouble when making joint repairs.
Doweling Jig or Dowel Center Points: These tools are also used for repairs and for doweling joints and flat components. The doweling jig is a clamplike device that fits against the edge of a part; it has an adjustable sleeve to accept a drill bit. The doweling jig is used where dowel holes must be drilled into both joining parts. Dowel center points, small points used to mark the drilling location, can also be used, but they do not guide the drill bit; it's much harder to align the dowel holes. A doweling jig is more expensive, but if you'll be doing much repair work, it's worth the price.
Paintbrushes: For applying paint and varnish remover, throwaway brushes are fine, but for finish application, use only good-quality natural-bristle brushes. Use a different brush for each type of finish. The same brush should not be used for both varnish and shellac. Brush requirements will vary from project to project, but for most pieces of furniture, a 2- to 3-inch brush is best. Discard brushes if they become damaged or deteriorated, or use them as throwaways.
Lint Pickers: Varnish and enamel finishes dry slowly, giving lint and dust a chance to settle in the finish. To remove, make a lint picker using a long fireplace match without the head. Melt rosin -- either music or baseball -- roll it into a ball, and stick it onto the end of the matchstick. Use the lint picker by touching the ball of rosin carefully to pick up the lint.
If you have the time and money, you should consider purchasing secondary tools for your workshop. They aren't necessary for repairs, but they also can save you time on any project. We'll look at some of those additional tools in the next section.
Secondary Tools Needed for a Workshop
The secondary tools below are not necessary for repairs, but they can shorten your work time and offer lots of convenience if you have them available in your workshop. Consider buying these secondary tools when you've mastered the basic tools and when your budget permits.
Magnetic Tack Hammer. This tool is fairly inexpensive, and it will perform lots of tricks: positioning a tack or nail, operating in tight quarters, providing easy-to-swing weight. One end of the hammer is a magnet; the driving face of the hammer is on the other end. Good magnetic tack hammers have a built-in tack puller in the magnetic end, making tack removal easy in hard-to-get-into corners. Buy the 8-ounce weight.
Jack Plane, Jointer Plane. Jack and jointer planes are expensive, but they are a must for cabinetmaking and for extensive furniture repairing. These two planes, with their long beds, complement one another.
The jack plane is used first, for cutting and smoothing wood surfaces perfectly square. The jointer plane follows the jack plane, giving the surface a final smoothness to ready it for gluing or for a perfect fit. These planes can also be used to rough-smooth the faces of boards, although you should probably take this type of project to a millwork shop and have them run the job through a power planer.
Spiral Ratchet Screwdriver. Sometimes called a Yankee driver, this tool has a push-release handle that turns automatically on a spiral shank. You just push down on the handle to activate the tip or screwing end. Several blades (standard slot and Phillips-head) are included with the screwdriver; they are usually stored in the hollow handle.
The ratchet on the shank may be set to either drive or draw screws, or you can set the ratchet in a "no turn" position. A spiral ratchet screwdriver's main role in furniture repair is to drive/draw screws quickly. The tool can also be used for hundreds of household and automotive repair and maintenance jobs, which spreads out the cost.
Wrench Assortment. You won't need these wrenches often, but when you do they're worth the price. Various size sets are sold -- from three wrenches up to a dozen or so. Sizes range from about 1/8 inch up to 1-1/2 inches; the basic sizes are 1/8, 1/4, 3/8, 1/2, and 3/4 inch. Boxed-end wrenches are probably the best buy for furniture repairs.
Locking Pliers. With this pliers tool, you adjust a little knurled knob on one handle and then lock the jaws onto almost any object. This is the tool to use for extremely tough-to-turn nuts and bolts. You can pull nails with it, too. A range of sizes is available, small to large. Small and medium sizes are adequate for furniture repair jobs.
Nail Sets. You can buy many sizes of this tool. What it does is set or countersink nail heads below the surface of wood and other materials. The cost is very reasonable, and the small, medium, and large models will all come in handy. Nail sets are tempered steel, so you can strike them with a hammer. The shank is tapered to a flat point that fits the top of the nail head.
Dividers. This tool is used in mechanical drawing to divide a line. Dividers are also excellent tools in furniture repair to locate screw and center points for drilling holes. You can use dividers, too, to transfer accurate measurements of various small furniture parts.
Adjustable Wrench. A knuckle-buster if you aren't careful, an adjustable wrench can be very helpful as a backup for boxed-end wrenches and locking pliers. A knurled knob adjusts the jaw so it fits most nuts; you hold it on the nut while you turn the bolt with a wrench, pliers, or a screwdriver. The medium size is adequate.
Rasp and File Assortment. There are lots of little jobs in furniture repairing that need just a touch of a file or rasp to smooth materials. This is where an assortment of these tools comes in handy. Round files and rasps are handy tools to have for smoothing and enlarging holes.
Saber Saw or Portable Electric Jigsaw. Buy the variable-speed or two-speed-type for cutting almost any material. You can buy a blade assortment for wood, plastic, metal -- even concrete.
The saber saw (sometimes called a portable electric jigsaw) is the counterpart of a keyhole saw, and it will perform some of the tricks of a coping saw. Besides furniture repairs and cabinetmaking, the saber saw can be used for a good many home maintenance and improvement projects; it even has the capacity to cut two-by-fours.
Equipping your at-home workshop with the proper tools mentioned in this article can save you time with your furniture repair or restoration projects and help them progress more smoothly than anticipated.
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