Every year of my husband’s childhood, he received a tool for Christmas.
Sure, there were toys, games, and sweaters, but there was always a tool or two to round everything out. His dad was a firm believer in giving useful gifts- and not just any ol’ tool that would break and need to be bought again- but good, quality tools that would grow with him. The thought was that by the time he reached adulthood, he would have acquired both a hefty tool supply, and the skills needed to use them.
Throughout the year, his dad would pull him alongside for projects. Over the years they built a deck, remodeled a bathroom, built a play house in the backyard. Through these and many other small projects along the way, he gained confidence and skills that have impacted his life far beyond just the ability to build great things.
We have tried to continue this tradition with our own kids, building up their little stockpiles of tools, bit by bit. Each year they get a new tool, and they spend that year learning how to use it well.
There’s a lot of finesse that goes in to learning how to use a tool. A great tool is just a start- you also need patience, skill, technique, and strength. And because of that, we believe that tools give our kids more than just a neat gift.
Here are some of the great ways that tools can help shape kids:
- Build self-control: Frustration and anger paired with tools leads to broken projects and mess, not beautiful things. As they learn this truth, they find that they are able to slow down, to breathe deep when they are frustrated, to try it again if it isn’t going well, rather than push through and break a blade.
- Teach planning and logic: Each project must be thought through ahead of time, planned out, and then crafted. If you skip ahead and don’t plan those steps, the project will not turn out well.
- Empower and Encourage: When kids learn that they can wield their growing strength to build (rather than just destroy), it gives them a whole new sense of strength.
- Aid in visualizing: When you start learning how to create parts and put things together, you start looking at everything differently. Instead of just looking at something for what it is, you start seeing with a dynamic view, pulling it apart mentally. You begin wondering how something was made, and what steps were needed to get there.
- Increase perseverance: Great things are not made in one session, and must be picked up over many days. It goes against the grain of instant-gratification and produces satisfaction in work invested.
- Deepen respect: for what it takes to really make something. Since our kids have been making things, they are not only kinder to the craftsmanship of others, but have a greater ability to marvel at the work that went into something.
So, where can we start with tools?
Below is a list of tools that would be great for kids who are just learning to work with wood. These are great because they allow kids to get a big “bang for their buck” but are also relatively safe. Of course, you would not need to invest in all of these right off the bat. You could easily begin with one or two, and add to their tool chest over time.
Spoke Shave: (~$15, Prime)
Use: Spoke shaves can be used to shape all kinds of things. You can use them to soften corners, round edges over, form fit a handle on a toolbox, or even shape things like handles or spoons.
Skill: A fundamental of woodworking is understanding grain, and a spoke shave can be like a tutor in this respect. A spoke shave is like a miniature hand plane, meaning it helps kids to quickly learn how to cut with the grain rather than against the grain. Its simple design allows you to “feel” the grain like nothing else.
Tip: It is best to start simple, with a nice, clear (no knots) straight grain pine board. When you first get one, you might need to adjust the blade a bit to take the right amount of wood (about a paper-thickness), but otherwise this is a pretty low-maintenance tool.
Coping saw/ fret saw: (~$15, Prime)
Use: This unassuming little tool is way fun. Because it doesn’t bind easily, you can use it to make tight curves and corners. This tool will allow kids to really create things- like ornaments or wooden spoons, or other shapes. My 8 year old loves this little saw, and has made everything from wooden hearts to toy hammers with it.
Skill: This is a great tool to build self control. If you push too hard, or pull too hard, the blades break. After a time or two, kids learn to slow down and work through a bind rather than ramming through in frustration. This is also a neat tool to help them with visualizing projects ahead of time, learning to follow along a line, etc.
Tip: For a kid, you will want to start with a medium-coarse blade. A fine blade won’t take out much material at a time, making it pretty frustrating for kids, but a coarse blade is rough to use for little guys. It’s best to use 1/4 inch softwoods with this tool when you are starting out. Have them put the board in a vice to keep it steady.
Extra blades: While they are learning the finesse of the tool, expect your kids to break a blade or two along the way. If they have extras on hand, this will allow them to jump right back in the game and try again, smoothing out their movements and practicing using a light hand.
Use: Though a bit pricier to set up, a brace can used to easily drive lags, screws and drill holes. It can also be used to make tenons to join two pieces of wood together. This is a strange looking tool, but is extremely effective and easy enough for my 8-year-old to use.
Skill: This tool is a great teacher for coordination. Because you have to line yourself up and stay straight as you work the brace, over time kids will be able to naturally sight lines and feel angles. They will be able to feel torque (yay for applied physics- ha!).
Tip: A note about screws: use lags or “torx” screws. Regular screws can be pretty frustrating to drive, and Torx screws will sidestep this frustration.
This set would allow kids to drill small (to gigantic) holes through wood. Pit Bull CHIAU0600 9-Inch Auger Drill Bit Set, 6-Piece
This screwdriver set would also work with a brace. Again, make sure your screws are “torx” screws and not regular screws. Exchange-a-Blade 98097 Assorted Torx Screwdriver Bit Set for Drivers 2-Inch Length Color Coded
Combination square set: This is great for introduction to layout, and gives a physical introduction to geometry.
Sandpaper: When our kids first started in the shop with their dad, sandpaper was their first “tool.” It rewards perseverance and puts a nice finish on any of their own personal projects. It’s a good idea to get a variety pack, since the lower grits will make quicker work, but the higher grits are needed for the smoothest touch.
Work Bench: You don’t need to go out and purchase one like this, of course, but having a sturdy table for them to do their work on is really important. A table with clamps or a vice will allow your kids to keep things in one place while they are working, reducing frustration and increasing safety.
Maybe you are like me- not well-versed in tools, but desire that your kids have access to this kind of thing. I thought this video by Paul Sellers of Woodworking Masterclasses over on YouTube was so fun. It shows how neat the coping saw and spoke shave are, and gives an idea for some basic projects a beginner can do.