What Woodworking Tools I Would Buy Now
Based on my 30 Years Experience

by Bruce Lamo
Minneapolis, Minnesota


The old saying "If only I knew then what I know now" certainly applies to buying woodworking tools. Like nearly every woodworker, I would love a large shop equipped with all the best tools. Like most woodworkers however, I have had to make choices due to finances, space, and what was available at the time of need. As I look back at the purchases I made over the last 30 years, I have few true regrets, but there are many things I would do differently. Here is how I would approach equipment selection today.

Hand Tools
Even though I have many large power tools I am still a fan of hand tools, in particular, planes and chisels. In many applications I have found they are the fastest means to an end. Other factors in their favor are their cost. Good hands tools are not cheap, but compared to their motorized counterparts, they are usually much less costly. Another is space. Besides taking up far less space in the shop, they often require less space to use. Think of edge joining an 8 foot long plank. On a jointer you need a minimum of 16 feet of work space. With a hand plane, you move the tool, not the material, so you only need slightly more room than the length of the material.

The problem is that hand tools tend to require more practice, and if you are looking to build that new piece of furniture in fairly short order, time for extensive practice to gain experience is in short supply. I won't argue with the idea that machines are often a shortcut to results.

Power Tools
There is a seemingly endless selection of power tools. Variations of tools that were only seen in large cabinet shops and furniture factories can now be found at the local big box hardware stores. Prices are lower today than they have ever been in terms of real dollars. Quality can vary and old brand names don't always mean what they used to. So where do you start?

What's Typical
For almost any project, a few basic requirements must be met. Wood needs to be cut to size. Some joinery will take place, and the surface needs to be prepped for finish. Hence, the most common sequence of tool purchases might go something like this:   An inexpensive table saw, one or two hand planes, an orbital sander, and a chisel or two. For many projects, that will get you by.

As projects increase in size and scale, there is usually a desire to get a larger table saw, a miter saw, add a small jointer, a router and maybe a belt sander. Eventually, things get out of hand and you are seen at every tool sale, and spend more time online looking at the few remaining tools for which you have not yet found a project that will justify their purchase.

The Goal
Since money and space are usually in high demand, you want your purchases to make sense and work for you as far into the future as possible. To do this, the focus should be how to expand your capabilities rather than getting one project done quickly. With this in mind, and based on what I've learned over the past three decades, here's how I would proceed if I were starting over now.

First Steps
Hand Tools — Three to four hand planes. A low angle block plane, smoothing plane, jack plane and a jointer plane are the most used sizes. With these in hand and some practice, you can go a long time without a planer, jointer, belt sander, and a few other machines. The market now has a few brands that are close to, if not ready, to use off the shelf. I also think the purchase of at least one good hand saw, a few good chisels, some clamps and a card cabinet scraper are necessary for most projects.

Power Tools — A good table saw is usually the most used machine in the shop. New saws have vastly improved fences and better safety features. A good contractor saw has adequate power and can come with up to 49" of ripping capacity to handle sheet goods. This would be my first big purchase. A router is often a highly coveted machine. There are almost endless cutters available now and it is hard to argue with their versatility. I recommend looking at the combo packages that include a plunge base. It is a good way to get two machines for the price of one. In my opinion, an elaborate router table is not necessary for most applications, nor are the expensive and bulky jigs and templates for making joints. What tends to happen is the tools start to drive what is made. Drawers start to fit the machine or template instead of the piece of furniture. Sufficient joints can be made with the table saw, by hand, or you can make your own templates to fit your project.

These tools will enable you to build almost anything. Remember, up until the mid-1800s, almost no power tools were used. Furniture was largely made by hand. There are many fine examples of that furniture still around today, so it is safe to say that it wasn't the tools that made the craftsman back then.

Power Tools
As your experience grows, it is typical to look for the next upgrade, which is often a bigger tablesaw, a miter saw, a small jointer, or a small planer. As I see it, if you own a decent contractor saw, a bigger, heavier cabinet saw won't give you much more than what you already have. The quality of cut will only be marginally better. I would look to spend my money elsewhere.

A miter saw is a very useful machine, but their real contribution is speed. The alternative to a miter saw is a hand saw or the table saw. The table saw should deliver a superior cut, but it normally takes longer for setup. You need to decide what your time is worth.

A small jointer is better than no jointer, but a small jointer is not a great addition to a shop. A jointer needs table length. I would skip buying a small to medium size jointer. Once again, rely on your hand tools. They can perform as well or better than a machine that costs hundreds more, they require a great deal of room, and they should be run in conjunction with a dust collector. You can flatten boards with a jack plane and straighten edges with a jointer. With a little experience it becomes a quick task.

Small planers on the other hand can do a lot for you. Here it is hard to argue with their capabilities. A large industrial-weight planer is a machine few small shops can justify, but there are numerous portable planers available for a few hundred dollars that can deliver a reasonable cut. They allow you to quickly clean up glue joints or prepare rough lumber.

Another tool I have found almost indispensable is a drill press. Industrial grade machines are very heavy and too expensive for most woodworkers, but a small floor model or even a bench model will handle most woodworking needs without too much trouble.

Another big machine many covet is a bandsaw. If you do any resawing, they are a necessity. It is important that your bandsaw be sturdy and powerful enough if you are resawing wide boards, and you will get much better results if you choose a blade specifically designed for resawing, such as Highland's famous Wood Slicer.

There are some who also swear by their bandsaw for ripping lumber. A bandsaw can cut faster and is far safer to use than a tablesaw. I personally still prefer to use a tablesaw for ripping for two reasons. First, the bandsaw table and fence are smaller than a typical tablesaw. I find this makes it harder for me to keep a straight edge. Second is the quality of cut. A bandsaw rip will usually be rougher than a tablesaw rip.

[Editor's note: While this statement may be generally true, most woodworkers who have tried using a premium bandsaw blade like Highland's Wood Slicer for ripping and resawing have routinely achieved cuts with their bandsaw every bit as smooth as a tablesaw cut, without sacrficing the increased speed and safety that a bandsaw provides.]

If your interest is in cutting curves, it is hard to beat the speed of a bandsaw. If you do a lot of really intricate cutting, a scroll saw may come in handy.

Another option is the circular saw mated with a metal guide (known as a track saw). These systems have quickly come into their own and can deliver exceptional results. They are ideal for both ripping and cross cutting sheets of plywood, but can handle solid stock if it is wide enough. These systems can cost as much as a table saw but they are compact and very portable.

Dust Collection
At some point dust collection needs to be considered. For safety reasons all power tools should run in conjunction with a good dust collection system. However the reality is that many woodworkers will put up with the dust for a while, if not forever. There are machines that really can't be run without dust collection such as a large planer or a bandsaw. The chips and sawdust must be extracted or else the buildup will damage the machine. A large shop vac may be sufficient for smaller machines, and portable dust collectors are available that can be moved from one machine to another. Dust collection is a reasonable investment that should actually be made early on. Your health is well worth the cost.

Bench top machines have come a long way with respect to dust collection. Most now have ports that connect to a shop vac. For a few dollars you can buy a switch that will automatically power up the shop vac when you turn on the tool (such as a sander). When you turn off the tool, the switch will allow the shop vac to run a few extra seconds to clear the hose and then shut off.

Miscellaneous Bench Tools
The most common bench tools in the woodshop are routers and sanders. We have already talked about routers to some extent. Orbital sanders have come a long way from the jitterbug style of old. New sanders leave a better finish, are quieter and last longer. At some point, probably right away, you will want a sander. No one likes to sand. It is tempting to buy multiple sanders to address an unpleasant task. Here again, I point to the hand tools. Learning to use a smoothing plane and a cabinet scraper will reduce your sanding to little or nothing and cut down your overall time to finish a project.

A belt sander can be a real workhorse if stock is in rough shape. But good stock prep and careful joinery can eliminate most uses for a belt sander. It is the least used machine I have.

Other specialty tools such as a biscuit jointer or newer versions of hand held joint making machines are handy and can speed up joinery, but in my opinion fall far short of being necessary.

Summary
Tools are purchased to expand our capabilities and this will vary by the needs and goals of the individual. Bigger, or more expensive machines are often better as the machine goes, but before we make these purchases, we should consider what is really needed for that next project. Is it a machine, or is it skill? If the machine is in lieu of learning a skill, is it really worth it?

When it is time to make a purchase, is it better to compromise and get an undersized machine that will only improve our capabilities by a small degree? After 30 years of working wood, my shop is equipped with several large, heavy machines that I greatly enjoy having and using. If I had to do it over, I personally would skip most of the interim-sized machines that did not serve me well and I would wait for the time when I could afford and have room for the right machine. In the meantime, I could still be productive with a smaller, but carefully selected group of the right hand tools and power tools.





Bruce Lamo has done woodworking pretty much all his life, although never exclusively to make a living. He prefers making furniture and working with solid wood, but often uses plywood when making cabinets. This article originated when a few friends were considering buying tools that based on his experience, he thought would not be a good investment.


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