every year, one of the big questions on everyone’s mind as the seasons get snowy and trees start to get used for decoration rather than just furniture is what to buy the woodworker in your life for christmas. so let’s think about a bunch of small things, another bunch of less-small things and a few rather large things pretty-much every woodworker will smile finding under the tree christmas morning. this isn’t an exhaustive list and (warning) some of these involve the use of electricity so if the woodworker in your life is actually morally opposed to the use of electrons those might be off-limits. i’m an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to how to shape wood, though, so they are welcome in my shop any day.
before we get on to the specifics, though, there’s one gift every woodworker is always happy to receive regardless of season, time or quantity. wood. want to find your way into the heart of someone who builds things? give them some beautiful raw materials and they’ll forever be grateful. it might help to know what their favorites are but here are a few basic suggestions.
exotic wood is expensive. it’s always nice to have a few small pieces to use as decoration and a little goes a long way. if you’re in north america, this usually means things like wenge, bubinga, ebony, cocobolo, padauk and zebrawood. if you can get your hands on a few of the hardcore rare african or australian species, that’s likely to be appreciated, too. remember, a single nice example is far more desirable than large quantities of poor-quality wood — that’s never going to end up in a project anyway.
domestic wood tends to be expensive, too. seriously, wood is a disaster for the wallet in recent years. that’s not because it’s not worth it. it’s simply that most woodworkers are operating at a loss because they’re doing it as a hobby rather than selling enough of their work to make a profit. that means every new investment in lumber is another trip into the painful area of throwing good money after enjoyment. that being said, north-american domestic species like maple, walnut, cherry, oak (white or even red) and ash won’t go astray in just about any workshop, especially if they are either very straight-grained (ask your hardwood dealer if you’re not sure but it should be visually-obvious) or highly-figured. take a look at the pieces coming from the shop and see what wood is used in them already — some more of that is probably going to be well-received.
some woodworkers like softwood (pine, fir, spruce, cedar, etc) but that tends to be far less expensive and a lot of us (like me) simply don’t use it unless we have to so that’s not going to light up the eyes on christmas morning the same way a nice board of curly maple or figured walnut will.
the last piece of advice about wood is that woodworkers come in three main flavors when it comes to wood — the ones who work with softwood all the time, lovers of hardwood (knights of the white oak unite!) and passionate advocates for veneer. i happen to be in the second and third camps — i love working with good-quality veneer. if you’re connected to a woodworker who is down with the veneer and has started to ride that train, that’s another beautiful thing to provide — a few sheets of burl or highly-figured decorative veneer can be acquired relatively inexpensively and that’s far easier to wrap than a stack of white oak. anyway, if you’ve taken an interest in their life, you probably already know this. just don’t think wood is a tacky or meaningless gift. we truly do want more of it. always. there’s no such thing as an overfilled woodstack if you’re building things on a regular basis.
there are many things that can appear in the stocking that will never go astray. it doesn’t matter if we already have them. we can always have more these come in two varieties — consumables and multiples. i’ll get to the multiples in a minute.
consumables are things like glue, sandpaper, pencils, chalk and even epoxy.
there are many varieties of glue but most of us use the same three types all the time. the vast majority is done with basic wood-glue — and the dramatically-most-popular of those is titebond. you’ll probably never go wrong with a bottle or two of titebond (especially 3) in the stocking. there’s no shortage of uses for it and you can never have too much. it lasts years if unopened and sometimes even after it has been if stored properly. so it won’t go to waste. cyanoacrylate glue (also called “super” or “crazy”) comes in various types but you can usually find it in thin, thick and gel. thick and gel are a bit more specialty-focused and most of us probably don’t use them much. but for quick repairs, making jigs and dealing with plastic in the shop, thin ca is something that’s always nice to have around — if your woodworker is also a turner, this is even more typically the case. the third type isn’t really a glue at all but a liquid plastic — epoxy. whether you’re doing full-on epoxy resin as a decorative element or just using it the way i do as a way to fill cracks and glue pieces together, a serious two-part epoxy (totalboat, west system) or even a five-minute epoxy for shop tasks is definitely something just about every woodworker will use and, being liquid plastic, this won’t go bad — a properly-stored bottle of epoxy, as it only works after it’s been mixed together, will literally last decades.
sandpaper is the gift that keeps on … wearing out. whether it’s the kind you’re using by hand or the type to fit the random-orbit sander (you’ll have to check which kind they need but hand-use sandpaper is always useful regardless), sandpaper is part of pretty-much every project in the shop. skip the really low grits, though. we’re not talking about rough carpentry here. 120, 180, 220, 320, 400 and 800 are extremely useful. if you’re looking at working with a lot of epoxy or you’re turning things like pens and handles, 1200, 2000 and beyond might be helpful. but a nice new stash of 220 and 320 is probably never going to go astray — especially the hard-to-find and overpriced stick-backed sandpaper that makes construction of sanding blocks and sticks so much less annoying! 3m makes great paper as does klingspor but if you go to any woodworking supply shop they’ll have a few different good-quality brands. most people don’t care too much as long as the paper is fresh — especially if it’s free.
pencils and chalk are always useful in the shop for marking — as are markers like sharpies. i can’t begin to describe how many pieces of chalk (multicolored if you can find a good selection) and disposable mechanical pencils (.5mm is generally the most useful for me) have disappeared over the years. a few boxes of chalk and packs of mechanical pencils will always be appreciated. there’s nothing like being able to mark an accurate line or make a quick note on a piece of wood without having to go searching for a pencil on the other side of the shop. having dozens of extras lying around all over the place is generally a happy place to be. there’s nothing special about a pencil, practically-speaking. just the cheap ones from the office-supply store or box-store will work just fine if you have enough of them — they’re going to get lost faster than wear out, anyway.
there are various things in the shop you can never have enough of. not just pencils, though that’s definitely the first thing that comes to mind. here are a few of the others, though, that are inexpensive and, even if they already have one, they’ll be happy to have.
squares. my most-used square is a 150mm combination square but i have several of those, some 300s, 600s, 100s, etc. you can’t have too many of them. even a few cheap ones never go astray. i recommend starrett if you can afford it because they’re awesome but there are various other good brands, too. johnson makes a really nice one that’s very affordable and irwin’s is ok but a bit less precise. anyway, a few combination squares and you can just about do anything in the shop. try-squares, machinists’ squares and 1-2-3 blocks are also definitely on the list of useful squares for shop-use, though i find i only really reach for the combination ones unless i’m working on setting up a machine — then i use the machinists’ square, as you might expect. in theory, you can have more squares than you need. but i can’t imagine anyone ever complaining about it.
rulers. measuring is important. remember that thing about measuring twice and cutting once? most of us end up measuring a dozen times for every cut. just because it’s so hard to put the wood back once you’ve cut it off. again, i recommend starrett but short, medium, long, really-long, whatever you can get. metal rulers with etched numbers are truly important and invaluable in the shop. my most-used is (like the square) a 150mm but i use my 300 all the time and a 1200 is awesome for larger projects. a tape-measure is a necessity but having more than one of those isn’t all that helpful as they’re not used that much. metal rulers, though, are worth their weight in … iron.
many woodworkers (probably the vast majority) don’t agree with me about marking. i believe in using a pencil, always a pencil and only a pencil, never a knife. i have reasons for this and there are absolutely justifiable ways to get better-quality joinery and higher levels of accuracy this way. but it’s a decision and a way of working. most do their marking with knives. that means a few extra marking-knives are definitely useful to them. other marking tools it’s useful to have multiples of if you cut your marks rather than pencil them include marking and mortising gauges. if you check out the ones listed from veritas, grammercy and igaging, they’re all good-quality and i have no doubt they’ll be well-received — unless, of course, you’re like me and simply don’t use them. but i’m in a small minority and i still find them beautiful and fun to make from kits.
which brings us to an interesting aside. if you’re going to buy a tool for a woodworker, there’s often the option to get it as a kit they can make. that’s almost always going to be the more fun approach. even if they don’t want the tool, they’ll enjoy the making and probably give the tool away after and be very happy for the excuse to get in the shop and make something quickly.
other things that are useful to have multiples of, by the way, are clamps. i really like bar and pipe clamps but quick-clamps and f-style clamps are really useful in the shop, too. some woodworkers (not me) really like wooden hand-screw clamps. i find them slow and annoying to use but most don’t agree with me on this and actually like them for many tasks. whatever they’ve already got a few of and use regularly, though, is probably a good bet. having more clamps is good. having less is … usually an excuse to go buy some cause they’re so useful in the middle of a project. i’ve never heard of a woodworker who doesn’t want more clamps.
beyond the basics of marking gauges and small things, there are many kits out there for woodworkers. but the ones i usually recommend are for saws. grammercy and blackburn (among many others) make kits for frame-saws, turning-saws and other specialty tools. while these aren’t necessarily going to get used all the time in an average shop, they’re fun to make and usually relatively inexpensive. i highly recommend them as gifts — the grammercy kits for the 36” frame-saw and 12” turning saw are particularly nice things to play with.
it’s also fun to make handles. many tools are available unhandled or simply come with worn-out ones. you can never have too many chisels. the thing to keep in mind, though, is that you probably want to ask a reputable vintage tool dealer before parting with any of your money. whether it’s american-style or japanese, a good-quality old chisel is going to cost some actual money — what you can pick up for five bucks is probably worth exactly nothing. if your woodworking gift-recipient is a fan of the vintage tools, though, a beautiful example of history is probably going to be a great place, especially if it’s something where the steel is a bit out of their typical price-range because it looks like it needs a new handle, something we can all quickly remedy with a few hours in the shop.
speaking of chisels, you really can’t have enough of them. but they vary a lot in quality and size. there are a few chisels that will almost always be well-received, though.
most of us have neglected our collections of the very-small, very-large and speciality. a chisel of the 2/3mm or 36-60mm range is probably something most people don’t have nearly enough of and that’s extremely useful. these are outside the range of typical kits and are usually purchased only as single chisels. you might want to check on favorite brands or at least favorite styles (japanese or american in particular) but here are a few guidelines. for an expensive chisel, narex and two cherries are good american-style brands. better quality chisels are made by veritas and lie nielsen. you won’t go wrong with those. japanese chisels are generally made by individual makers and vary much more in quality (and price). if you go to a reputable dealer (hida, iida, etc) they’ll point you in the right direction — just pick your budget and tool of choice and it’ll be pretty easy to choose. skew and fishtail chisels are useful and most woodworkers don’t actually have them — or at least don’t have enough of them. those are usually nice things to get and hobbyists rarely find the excuse to spend the money on them.
another tool that fits in the hand and is always useful, even if you already have one or two of them, is a block plane. no, it’s not the most useful plane. but you can pick them up cheaply — both low-angle and standard-angle — and having a few setup at different depths is useful for many tasks. i like to keep one really light, one really heavy and one medium one so i don’t have to adjust them if possible. and they’re used with one hand so they’re far less exhausting for tiny adjustments than picking up a heavy full-size plane.
other fun tools in this size and price range include spokeshaves, drawknives, rasps and files. they’re small, easy to ship and wrap and constantly useful — even if you’ve never used them before. as spokeshaves go, the veritas and lie nielsen ones are truly awesome but even the cheap amazon ones are wonderful to play with. there are many drawknives out there but for the money i think the mora is probably the best deal. rasps and files range from the incredibly-cheap (avoid those) to the extremely-expensive (beautiful but usually unnecessary). aim for something reasonably-priced and you’ll probably get it right. ones sold at woodworking shops tend to be quite good regardless of brand — i’ve never seen a bad file or rasp at a shop like woodcraft, though many bad ones are sold at hardware stores every day.
if your gift-recipient hasn’t done much carving, that might be another place to look for something interesting for them to play with. there are excellent starter sets from narex, flexcut, pfeil, mora and two cherries that range from the under-a-hundred-bucks range to two or three, depending on your budget. if they’re just starting, i’d suggest one of two places to begin. two cherries has a few fantastic sets for under a hundred dollars with six or seven tools in each — they’re all excellent. if you’re looking for something a bit more niche, though, mora makes some great spoon-carving knives. to get started, a sloyd-knife, tight-hook and loose-hook are all you need and that’s pretty inexpensive. while you’re at it, a small carving hatchet or axe might be helpful but i understand not everyone wants to put such a dangerous-looking tool under the tree, especially if there are kids around. so that might be an addition for another day. there are amazing handmade tools for carving and they’re definitely, in some cases, worth the money. but starting out the difference isn’t significant and it’s usually better to start with the inexpensive ones and see if it’s really something enjoyed in the first place, anyway.
there are a few other things i generally recommend as gifts for woodworkers, though this may be a bit more controversial. i believe in exploring what’s out there rather than sticking to the tried-and-true tools. as such, i think everyone should experiment with japanese saws. if you don’t have one, it’s worth a couple of days playing and some really excellent saws are available that work on the pull-stroke for very little money.
if you pick up a suizan dozuki, it will definitely give you a different understanding of what a fine, precise cut is. whether you decide in a few months you really love the thing and want to use it for all your fine joinery or you simply want to chalk it up to experience and go back to your american-style saw, you can get them for under forty bucks and that’s less than you’d pay for a lot of other far-less-educational and far-less-fun experiences. other good brands of japanese saws include z-saw and gyokucho but i have found the suizan to be the best value. i recommend a dozuki as your first japanese saw but a kataba or ryoba are both great choices, too.
the other saw your woodworking recipient may not have is a bushcraft saw. i find these extremely useful, especially the folding ones. you never know when you’ll have to chop down a small tree somewhere or take off some branches — or, like me, use it in the shop for rough cutting boards to length and shape. i think every workshop can be supplemented by and enjoy the use of a silky gomboy. they’re thick-plated, nearly-indestructible saws with replaceable blades that fold and are light enough to stick in your backpack and simply keep there (unless you’re going through a security checkpoint cause, you know, it’s a saw). if you have one, you’ll find new uses for it. it’s like a pocket-knife but without being limited to things the size of an apple.
one last little tool, though these often come in kits of multiples, which is great, too — card-scrapers. while i’m a huge proponent of sanding, a card-scraper will save you so much time both with preparing for finish and getting things in the right shape in the first place. dfm makes some great ones — a few flat and curved ones make a great little collection. while you’re at it, get a burnisher (carbide if you can find it because that’ll make your life far easier).
i don’t usually include this specifically but i keep getting asked for specifics so here it is. i highly-recommend talking to a reputable tool dealer in your area but here are some excellent brands to pick something up from… almost anything they make will probably be happily-received under the tree this christmas. it’s not a complete list but it’ll get you started.
- lie nielsen
- two cherries
- knew concepts
if you want a reputable dealer for japanese tools in america, i recommend hida or iida. there are definitely others but these are two i have had great experience with and they’ll point you in the right direction for the right brand and item for your budget. having a relationship with a good tool dealer is a great thing for any woodworker (or woodworking partner)!
well, merry christmas and all that. seriously, though, if you’re shopping for the woodworker in your life, i hope i’ve made that task a little easier. good luck with the rest of your holiday tasks!