While some woodworking projects can be completed with a saw, a hammer and some nails, most require a level of sophistication that only specialized tools can offer. Shaping tools serve a decorative purpose, but they are also indispensable for joinery, dimensioning and precision fitting. They work either by shaving, wearing or cutting, and the usefulness of those that shave or cut is determined primarily by the ability of their blades to hold a sharp edge.
It takes a finely ground steel blade to shave a thin layer from a wood surface, and the design of hand tools that have such a blade varies according the method of controlling it. A chisel is perhaps the most basic, its straight-on motion usually aided by the tap of a hammer. A spoke-shaver, used for shaping wider surfaces, like chair seats, has winglike handles that the worker uses to pull the tool along the surface. A plane, with a blade that extends incrementally from the bottom of a hard, flat surface, is another hand-operated device used primarily to make wood smooth and flat.
Saws can do more than separate wood into pieces. They can also make small indentations and notches, shape corners and edges and produce line patterns. The most-used shaping tools that work by cutting, however, are rotary tools that use a routing bit to turn square wood edges into round or elaborately shaped ones. Routing bits come in shapes that can produce concave or convex curves, straight edges, bevels or more complex ogee shapes. Rotary tools, whether stationary or hand-held, are always power-assisted, because no manual tool could produce the force and precision that edge shaping requires.
Every cabinetmaker who keeps a rasp and a file in his tool kit to fine-tune edges also has an assortment of tools that rely on the abrasive action of sandpaper. Stationary and handheld belt sanders wear wood quickly and are useful, not just for surfacing wood, but for shaping edges and corners. Oscillating sanders can perform the same function at a slower rate and with more precision. Woodworkers, and especially woodcarvers, obtain the most accurate, detailed sanding, however, by using a rotary tool fitted with either a sanding drum or a grinding accessory.
Lathes have existed since the time of the Egyptians, and most people consider them to be shaping tools. Whether operated by electricity or a foot pedal, however, a lathe is an auxiliary tool that only turns the wood. The woodworker uses a chisel or rasp to do the actual shaping. Other important auxiliary tools include clamps and vises to keep wood firmly situated; hammers, preferably made of wood or resin to protect wooden chisel handles; and precision measuring instruments, including rulers, calipers, squares and T-bevels. Safety eyewear is also a necessity, especially when using power tools to cut, rout and turn wood.