How to Choose Woodworking Hand Tools for Building Shelves

DIY tools

When it comes to the woodworking hand tools you need for building shelves, you don't need to spend a fortune. In my experience, unless you're planning on making woodworking a major hobby, you're better off buying good tools rather than the best. At the other end of the scale, avoid buying the cheapy sets that cost as much for 40 tools as you'd pay for one decent hammer.

There's something to be said for craftsmanship, not to mention safety. I once had a cheap wrench snap off when I was trying to force open a stubborn nut. I don't want to talk about it, but suffice it to say that mashed fingers and a bruised shoulder were involved. I learned my lesson; you get what you pay for. There is a huge variety of woodworking hand tools out there, and the good ones will give you a lifetime of satisfaction, accuracy, and fewer naughty words coming out of your mouth (trust me, I know about this one...).

To learn more about tools, and to see them in action, check out our ever-expanding page of freebies. Here you'll find how-to articles and video clips on woodworking techniques, proper tool usage, and lots of other great info that will help you to build shelves yourself.

Essential Woodworking Hand Tools for Building Shelves

Let's start with the basics for building shelves. Woodworking hand tools are the first things you should be purchasing if you are going to start building shelves. Here's a partial list of the tools you can't be without:

  • Hammer
  • Screwdrivers
  • Pencils
  • Tape measure
  • Builders square
  • Saw
  • Clamps
  • Sandpaper
  • Spirit level
  • Protective Equipment
  • Drill

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You can make do usually with one hammer when you start building shelves. Make sure that it feels comfortable in your hand. Practice tapping an imaginary nail gently. If you can't accurately control the hammer then it's probably too heavy for you. A hammer is a precision instrument, not just a blunt force tool. There are hammers designed for smaller hands and for women's hands as well.


You'll need more than one screwdriver for building shelves. There are many nice sets available that will cover all your needs for flat and phillips head screwdriving. In woodworking, most screws are phillips head. That's good news because they are much easier to work with and there's less chance of the screwdriver blade slipping off of the screw head and scratching the wood.


You will always be without a pencil when you most need it, believe me! Alongside my woodworking hand tools I always keep a large plastic cup filled with both carpenters' pencils and mechanical pencils. Carpenters pencils are those oddly oval or flat shaped ones with the large lead tip. They're shaped that way for two reasons. One is so they won't roll away from you when you tilt the board that they're on. The other is that they fit better behind your ear (really!). The downside to carpenters pencils is that even when you hone the lead to a sharp point, it doesn't stay that way for very long, so I like to have a good mechanical pencil for accurate markings as well when I'm building shelves.

Tape Measure

The rule of thumb, "measure twice; cut once" when building shelves only holds true if you are able to measure accurately. To this end, a good tape measure (and a good ruler) are necessary. Find a tape measure with well marked fractions, as well as a good locking mechanism so it doesn't jump out of your hand. I've found that the easiest to read is a white tape with black markings. There are also tape measures with a reading window built into the top of the casing. These take a little getting used to, but they are easier to use and I find them to be more accurate. The tape measure should be at least 25 feet long.

Builders Square

A builders square, or combination square is an L shaped tool that allows you to accurately draw a perfectly straight line across a board. It is an essential woodworking hand tool. You mark the board at the point where you want to cut it and then place the square on the mark. the short part of the L rests against the side of the board, which give you a straight line along the board from the long side of the L. This is much easier and more accrate than a ruler or tape measure. A square also makes it easy to accurately measure shorter lengths.


A good handsaw should fit your hand well, and feel comfortable to use. You need a crosscut saw for cutting wood, and you should consider a hacksaw as well for cutting other materials like plastic and aluminum.


When building shelves, just gluing two pieces of wood together is not enough. Any time you glue, clamps are a must. They will not only hold the pieces tightly together, they also act as a "third hand," holding onto the pieces so that you can adjust them before the glue dries. The will also hold the pieces at the angle that you want.

I tend to buy clamps as I go along. I've built up quite a variety of them since I began, but I started with 4 standard bar clamps. I still use them today, all the time. They are the simplest clamps, with a twist handle that presses the feet of the clamp together. Nowadays you can get the "quick-grip" style clamps which close together with a squeezing trigger mechanism. These are easier to use and I like them a lot, but they do cost more than the simple ones.


Even on finished boards you might find splinters and rough edges. Sandpaper can help to immediately smooth out the material and get on with the work. Sandpaper is sold according to grit. the lower the number the coarser the grit. A low number (40-60) is good for sanding off a lot of material quickly, but it will not make the surface smooth. A good method is to use a coarse grit to remove the really rough edges, and then a medium grit (150-200) to smooth it out. As you work with sandpaper you'll get a feel for what grit you need for any given job.

Sandpaper is sold either in larger sheets (usually 4 in a package) or in long rolls. No matter which you buy I recommend that you use it with a sanding block. A sanding block is simply a small block of wood that fits easily in your hand. By wrapping the sandpaper around the block you will find it much easier to use, and the work will go quicker.

Spirit Level

It's ironic that when you're putting together shelves you can't see if they're straight, but when you're done and you put the shelves in place you can see all too clearly that they're slanting up or down. That's where a spirit level can save you a lot of headaches. A short torpedo level is the minimum that you need in order to check your work, but the general rule of thumb is the longer the level the more accurate the reading. There are levels available that are 24", 48" and even 72" in length.

Protective Equipment

Don't do any work without the proper protection. Period. Protect your eyes, ears and mouth at all times to avoid injury. Splinters can fly, nail heads can snap off, you name it. Not only is the immediate danger of blindness there, but also the long-term hazards of noise from power tools and dust from wood that can cause all sorts of health problems. It's just not worth the risk. Invest in proper protective glasses, ear protectors and air filters and protect yourself.


While the list of power tools is endless, the goal here is to keep your outlay to a minimum. That's why I've avoided discussing the more expensive tools, until now. I do believe that a good drill is necessary for shelf construction. A cordless drill allows you to easily drill guide holes for screws and then screw them in with much less strain on your wrists. Cordless drills are rated by voltage. A low voltage (4-8 watts) drill is fine for screwing in screws, and it'll be lighter, but it's too weak for effective drilling. The more powerful drills can do it all, even hammer drilling. Find one that meets your needs. I personally use a 9.6 volt Bosch, and I'm satisfied with it. I could sometimes use more power for drilling, but usually it's not a problem.

Other features on a drill are a clutch (good for not "overscrewing" the screw into the hole, a built-in spirit level to make sure that the bit is level, and a reverse function for unscrewing screws.

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