Power tools are cool, but you know what’s cooler? Not needing them. A good journey person will tell an apprentice to learn how to use hand tools before they get to use power tools.
It’s not just an initiation thing, learning how to build without electricity can bring a better sense of the materials you are working with, and even produce a more precise cut or finish. These are also important skills to have if you want to build things off-grid without generators or electricity.
Power tools are great at doing things fast. You can cut a lot of 2x4’s with a chop saw, and use a pneumatic nail gun to make a framing job go a lot quicker, but not all jobs require this amount of material to be constructed so quickly.
Most jobs can be tackled with the right hand tools, and the matched skill level. Here are the top ten alternatives to power tools, and some of the projects you might use them for.
There are many kinds of hammers for various types of jobs, but a regular claw hammer is indispensable when it comes to non-powered hand tools. This type of hammer is versatile, and can handle everyday jobs and projects around the house.
The types of hammer you need depends on what work you do. If you’re a framer, or are planning on framing something up, then a framing hammer and some nails is all you need. There’s something liberating about freeing yourself from the noise of a compressor constantly turning on and off.
Drywall hammers are handy for hanging drywall. They have a sharp edge on the back to help lift and cut drywall into place, as well as a specific kind of nail head for driving in drywall nails. These can replace the need for a powered hand drill, and once you get the hang of them, can be more efficient to use.
For the average DIY-er, all you really need is one good, trusty hammer to do a variety of jobs, but if you start to really get into home renovation, then it might be a good idea to invest in a few others to help you get different jobs done more efficiently.
Awls go hand in hand with hammers. These simple tools have a long steel spike at the end of a handle, much like an ice pick. They are good for making precise marks or holes on wood, metal, plastic, or any other material you happen to be working with.
Instead of using a powered drill to make pilot holes for screws, awls can be hit with a hammer to set the spot for a nail or screw, acting as a guide for precision woodworking. They can also punch holes into drywall for wall fasteners and screws that need to hold up heavy things like frames or mirrors.
There are many different sizes and types of awls, and a scratch awl is specifically used for making lines. When used with a straight edge like a level or square, an awl can make a mark to guide any cuts with a hand saw or chisel for instance.
These humble little tools can be great when working out a layout for intricate cuts, or for doing simple work like punching holes wherever you might need one, which happens to be a lot more often than you might think.
3. Files and Rasps
Files and rasps are another essential combination of tools that any woodworker should have on hand to replace the need for powered routers and other electric tools.
Files are more versatile than rasps, and can shape many kinds of materials. Rasps are only used for wood or maybe stone. Each of them manipulates the material, but files are better at smoothing out surfaces that need refining, and will even sharpen metal blades, or remove metal burrs and rust.
A rasp is great at taking out a larger amount of material quickly without tearing a piece of wood. They have coarser teeth that act like a cheese grater against lumber. Both are used with two hands to push material away, and only work in one direction.
When used in conjunction, these tools can create round shapes, dull any sharp points, make angled edges, chamfer corners, and create the same indents that a router would without the worry of digging in too fast, or too hard.
These tools are a great way to work on your hand-eye coordination. Sandpaper can be used after file and rasp work to make a smooth, finished product.
4. Coping Saw
The coping saw helps you cope. There’s a carpenter’s joke in there somewhere, but the definition of “coping” is cutting the specific outline of two pieces of wood trim so that they join seamlessly.
The most common type of cope is used to connect pieces of baseboards or crown moulding where they meet in the corners. Trim shouldn't be cut at 45 degree angles and put together, walls are never that square.
This hand tool is like a mini hacksaw, but the blade can be turned, twisted, and re-tightened so that a variety of angles can be achieved. The u-shaped handle is also a little different so you can twist and manipulate around the item.
This is important when getting the outline of an elaborate piece of trim just right so that it fits flush with the other piece of trim. The coping saw can be used instead of a band saw to make intricate circular cuts, and makes finer cuts than a hacksaw.
It’s probably obvious that a screwdriver will replace a powered drill, but you’ll need a few of them in your arsenal to replace the various drill bits, too.
The most common screws are Robinson (square head), Phillips (cross head), and slot (flat head). Flat screws are becoming obsolete, but it’s still good to have at least one flat head screwdriver around for when you need to take out old screws, or for the tiny flat screws that still are used to hold electrical outlet plates.
All three screws come in different sizes, not just length, but size of the head. Just like drill bits, screwdrivers will have the size of the head listed as number one, two, or three (there are more, but those are the most common). The higher the number, the larger the screw head will be.
The hand strength needed to push most screws in manually is no different than what you need to hold a power drill. Using hand torque can be more beneficial than a drill which can drive a screw in too far, or too fast, which often splinters the material you are working with.
Screwdrivers can also fit into smaller spaces where a drill won’t. When used in conjunction with an awl, the right screwdriver may drive screws perfectly into refined woodworking projects in a way that a drill can’t.
Choose the right screws for your job and then find the screwdriver to match it. Typically, you want stronger screws for a stronger hold, but for framing or heavy wood projects, a hammer and nail are typically recommended over using a screwdriver.
Use self-driving screws that make their own pilot holes as you screw them in. You can also tap the head of a screw lightly with a hammer to make a pilot hole, though better to use an awl if you have one.
Wrenches are a key component to any toolbox. While there are powered wrenches and attachments for drills, the people that benefit from them most are those who are constantly needing to use these tools. Think mechanics or plumbers.
The average DIY-er doesn’t need a powered wrench, but a handful of combination, adjustable, and open-ended wrenches as well as a good ratchet set won’t break the bank and are essential for various jobs.
Combination wrenches have an open-ended wrench on one side, and a circular “boxed-in” wrench on the other side of the same handle. This gives you different torque and positioning options.
Adjustable wrenches are just that: they can be adjusted to meet different sizes of bolts or nuts that need loosening or tightening. Sometimes you can lock them in place for really stubborn jobs like a tight sink bolt.
The open-ended wrench has two open ends on each side, usually of different sizes that are commonly used, making them efficient for certain types of jobs where two of the same size fastener is found.
Wrenches are handy for everyday jobs like tightening nuts and bolts, faucet heads, hose attachments, and even tightening or loosening certain kinds of screw heads.
7. Ratchets and Sockets
A ratchet and socket are a combination of tools that make up what is sometimes called a socket wrench. Essentially, they can do what wrenches can, but with a ratchet and socket, you don't need to re-position the wrench, it will turn and continue to tighten or loosen while the head stays in place.
This allows you to work faster, and on tougher jobs. It's also helpful to have a ratchet for when you can't turn the handle in a full circle due to an obstruction, like underneath a bed. A wrench would need to be constantly re-positioned.
Ratchets and sockets are great if you tinker around with cars or like to change your own tires. They also come in handy for heavy duty projects that require a lot of bolts like building a deck, or attaching posts to concrete.
The socket wrench has a head that fits completely over the fastener, so it won't slip off easily. However it cannot fit onto certain things that wrenches can, like a hose attachment. That's why it's handy to have both sets around.
8. Hand Saws
When you picture a hand saw you likely see the typical wooden handle with a long angled steel blade attached to for making basic wood cuts. While these are the most popular and versatile hand saw, there are many other tools that fall under hand saw.
While the common hand saw is great for making mitred and straight cuts for basic jobs that a chop saw would handle, the hacksaw is another kind of hand saw that has a similar shape, but has an open blade with smaller teeth for cutting metal and plastic.
A hand saw when used with a mitred box can make precision angled cuts for trim work. You don’t want to use a hacksaw to cut wood, and a hand saw shouldn’t be used for anything but cutting wood materials.
Between the two of them you can tackle any job that requires something to be cut. They replace sawsalls, circular saws, chop saws, and table saws.
A few other "hand saws" are drywall saws, dovetail saws, door jamb saws, and Japanese pull saws, but these are all specialty saws that may not be essential for the DIY tool kit.
9. Cross Cut Saw
The cross cut saw is technically another hand saw, but it's purpose is to cut down trees and lumber, replacing the need for a chainsaw. They can be found as one-man or two-man saws: the first has one handle and looks like a regular hand saw, and the second has two handles and a rounded bottom to be used with two people.
A regular handsaw isn't meant for cutting into lumber as it has "rip cut" teeth, meant to cut along the grain. Cross cut saws have bevelled teeth that are angled backwards instead of forwards, and are meant to cut across the grain, which is what you need to do when cutting down trees, or making logs.
Using the wrong type of saw will ruin the teeth rendering the saw useless. The cross cut saw is also slightly stronger because of its bevelled teeth. While a chainsaw may be a little quicker at making cuts, a two-man cross cut saw can cut through a large tree trunk fairly easily, and much quicker than with an axe.
This would be a handy tool to have if you were building your own off-grid cabin and wanted to use the trees around you. It's also useful for cutting your own firewood when used in conjunction with an axe.
Chisels can make just about any shape into wood or metal that you want. They sit on a simple handle and have bevelled angled blades that when used with a hammer, cut into the material with their sharp ends.
You can make a box with just chisels. You can cut out mortises with chisels. You can make door jamb indents for hardware with a chisel. Whenever you need to carve into wood with precision, you should use a chisel.
While they can be driven downward to make a straight line, they can also be moved around or placed diagonally to make various kinds of cuts and to move material away. They can cut perfect corners, smooth out rough areas, or carve geometric shapes like circles or holes, replacing the need for a hole saw.
While a certain amount of patience is needed with a chisel, once you get the hang of it, this little hand tool can make light work of certain wood working jobs like dados and dovetail joints. They also have a variety of masonry applications, making them an essential hand tool for your DIY projects.
While hand tools may be a little slower, there are a lot less things to carry around to the jobsite. Think about the compressors and batteries that have to be plugged in, not to mention finding an electrical source that can often be annoying when trying to complete the task at hand.
Having a few good basic hand tools can free you from lugging around all of this extra weight. They also store more easily, and can be organized in no time.
You might save a bit on electricity, too, as the only power you're using is your own. Consider adding these alternatives to traditional power tools, and see how much simpler your life can get.