Going Pro as a Woodworker

Part 4 of a Series:
Tooling Up
By Douglas Bittinger
Smoky Mountain Woodworks  

It should be safe to assume that anyone who is considering making the leap from part time to full time woodworker already has a full stable of tools - at least enough to do whatever kind of woodworking you are considering.  But, for the sake of completeness and as an aide to those who may be just at the ogling stage, here are some thoughts on tools.

Who supplies your needs will depend on your location, what you are in need of, and how much room you have for storage. If you have room to store large amounts of lumber, buying in quantity will slash the price. Buying fresh sawn lumber directly from a mill in quantity and drying it yourself will slash it again. Buying finishing supplies and glue wholesale in multiple case lots saves you some money over retail prices. The larger the quantity you purchase at one time the larger the discount. But how much is too much; is it worth buying a 5 year supply of glue to save a couple of dollars a gallon? If you can't use large quantities yourself, try banding together with other shops in a cooperative and pool your purchasing power through quantity buying. Or you can try a sideline of reselling your excess stock at retail to hobbyist woodworkers. If this is not possible it may be most convenient to stick with the retail suppliers you've used all along for your general shop supplies.

I am a big believer in learning woodworking on hand tools before getting into power tools, and used them exclusively as I started my woodworking career.  Power tools make most woodworking tasks easier, but if you don't understand the principles behind them, easier is not necessarily better.  Learning to effectively use a hand plane makes knowing how to use a surface planer or jointer easier because you've learned to read the wood and predict where the grain will be giving you trouble.  But I am quickly becoming anachronistic in this stance.

I once worked with a fellow who was a perfect example of my thinking, we'll call him Brian (because... that was his name, but don't tell him I'm snitching on him).  We worked for one of those woodworking specialty stores, in fact we were helping to build the interior of a brand new store.  Our assigned task for the day was to build a special display out of wood.  We measured, and cut the lumber, planed it, sanded it and routed the edges - all with power tools on display in the store.  Then Brian pulled a Porter Cable pancake air compressor and a BN150 nailer out of inventory and began to set it up.  I did some clean-up while he worked on that, but after a few moments I heard him cussing under his breath as he searched frantically through the air tool accessory bins.  He was missing a vital coupler or adaptor.  "What are we gonna do?" he wailed, "We're running out of time here."

"Wait a sec…" I said, "I know just what we need." And I walked over to another section of the store, returned with the solution and held it up for him to see.

"What's that?" he asked, as if he didn't know.

"A hammer.  You drive nails with it."

He rolled his eyes and moaned that he couldn't handle *that*.  He stomped out the door to his truck heading for our nearest competitor to buy the part he was missing.  By the time he got back I had just completed the assembly and was filling in the nail holes with putty so we could finish it.

I couldn't help but wonder what someone like Brian would do in case of a serious emergency when the power was out for days or weeks and repairs needed to be made.  Wait it out?

What tools a woodworker needs will depend on what kind of woodworking he plans to do; if he plans to turn bowls, the tools will revolve around a lathe and a band saw, building wooden boxes will focus on a table saw and router, the more all-encompassing your field of woodworking the more demanding your inventory of tools.

To build furniture, I find the following power tools to be essential:

  1. A good table saw is the heart of my shop.
  2. A band saw with enough power and capacity to resaw wide hardwood lumber.
  3. A router table with a minimum of a 2 hp router.  Add bits as you need them.
  4. A good drill press that can be fitted with a mortising attachment.
  5. A surface planer.  Buy a good one, you will use it a lot.
  6. A stationary belt sander or oscillating spindle sander.
  7. A dust collector is essential.

I also have found these tools to be very handy:

  1. A miter saw.  This doesn't *have* to be a 12" double-bevel, compound angle, super-duper sliding miter saw; a 10" single-bevel, compound chop saw will do most tasks nicely at 1/3 the cost.  But buy a good brand that locks solidly into place and is accurate in its angles.  And build a proper stand for it, this helps a lot when working with long boards.
  2. A wide drum sander makes sanding panels much quicker.
  3. If you went with the belt sander above, get the oscillating spindle sander when you can afford it, these make quick work of inside large curves, something belt sanders can't do well, and inside holes and tight curves, something belt sanders can't do at all.
  4. A large jointer is nice to have, especially if you can not effectively use a hand plane.  You can joint edges on a good table saw or a specially equipped router table, or by using a Wood Rat, but flattening a board that has a slight twist is difficult to do well on any other machine.  But for this use you will need at least a 6 foot long by 8 inch bed wide.  Those little bench-top models are a waste of cash for this.
  5. Eventually you will want a good dedicated mortising machine.  The large floor models, have a vise system similar to a milling machine that not only holds your work firmly, but travels on dove-tailed ways that allow you to move the clamp in and out from the post AND left and right to give you perfectly placed mortise holes every time.
  6. An air filtration system to supplement your dust collector is a great thing for your health.
  7. A decent turning lathe is quite handy even if you don't make bowls or fancy spindles.  Making your own knobs and finials will save you many headaches in searching out something you've envisioned.  Once you get the hang of the thing you will find yourself turning legs and other parts because it allows you more freedom than being limited to stock parts.
  8. A scroll saw may prove useful if you do small parts, and is essential if you plan on doing fretwork.

Essential hand tools would include:

  1. A hand plane trio: a smoothing plan, a jack or scrub plane and a low angle block plane. A shoulder plane is also very handy for quickly trimming tenons.
  2. An assortment of screw drivers.  One of those multi-tip screw drivers is actually a good choice because the one tool carries many tips - less searching through the drawer for the right screwdriver - and the tips are replaceable when they wear.
  3. A ratchet and socket set.  I have a ¼" drive set with SAE and metric sockets that I use mainly for tuning my tools, but occasionally I need to use nuts and bolts in furniture as well.
  4. Pliers, crescent wrench, allen (hex) key wrenches, a medium vice grip and a strap wrench have all proven useful.  A set of open/box end wrenches will also get used often.
  5. A dead-blow mallet with plastic or leather face (not rubber) is essential and two or three hammers.  I find little use for large claw hammers in furniture making, but use tack hammers and the mid-sized (girly) claw hammer quite a lot.  Nail sets are very handy too.
  6. A good back saw and a flush cut saw are required.  Standard cross-cut and rip hand saws are useful if you know how to use them; there's more to it than just making it go up and down through a board! A coping saw is handy as well.
  7. Files and rasps; flat, half-round and rat tail, in a variety of sizes.  If you will do carved pieces, a set if riflers will be needed as well.
  8. Measuring tapes, rulers and squares.  Buy only good rulers, laser etched and accurate. Buy several tape measures – all the same brand and model to avoid confusion. One exception would be to have one with a “story stick” tape in it for setting up custom lay-outs.
  9. A hand-held random orbit sander, a good jig or saber saw, and a good drill; 3/8" minimum chuck size, variable speed and reversible.  Whether they are battery powered or corded is up to you.  Both have advantages, neither is ideal in all circumstances.

Those are the basics.  Any craftsman will find other tools he or she likes, some will get a lot of use, some will look great hanging on your wall collecting dust.

As I've mentioned, good tools are an investment in your future.  There is an old axiom which states, "Buy the best tools you can afford." And it is truly good advice.  Some caution is warranted, however, about what it actually means.

It does not mean that you must buy only the most expensive tools you can find.  Sometimes more expensive means better, sometimes it just means more expensive.  Do your homework, search out tool reviews - honest reviews that compare several brands, not paid advertisements that look like a single tool review - and compare what the tools offer against what you need.  Spending 20% more for a tool with bells and whistles you won't use is wasted money.  Forget the bragging rights, get what you need.

Many times two companies will each offer their version of a tool that are nearly identical, one company just spends a little more time on spit & polish, then charges a couple hundred dollars extra for the effort.  If having the prettiest tools is important to you, buy them.  Otherwise leave that extra cash in the bank and get the one that is not so gussied up but is just as solid, accurate and reliable as the other.  Be careful not to over-step this process though.  Some companies make tools that look ever-so much like the good tools, and are temptingly priced but are in fact poorly built.  Again, look to the reviews for side by side comparisons.  Woodworking magazines do this sort of thing all the time.  Gather knowledge about what makes a good table saw a good table saw, or a good jointer a good jointer then you can do some evaluations on your own.

Especially when first starting out it is tempting to buy cheap tools so you can get more tools with the same amount of money as you would spend on a couple of good ones.  In my experience this has generaly proven to be foolish.  It is difficult to do good work with bad tools.  If you can't afford a $900 jointer, instead of buying a $400 version that will do poor work and end up being junked because it broke down, buy a $200 smoothing plane and learn to use that to flatten boards while you save up for a good jointer.  Once you have the jointer you will still find use for the hand plane.  Nothing is wasted this way, and you can still flatten a board even if the power goes out.

The Nitty Gritty

This section has been added to the original posting by request, but I must start with the disclaimer that the following discussion derives from my own personal opinions formed through actual use of the tools and hundreds of reviews I've studied.  If you are a tool manufacturer or seller and are offended by my comments on your equipment... don't yell at me, make better tools.

Most of the power tools currently in my shop are made by Jet.  I have found them to be comparable to Delta in power, accuracy and reliability, but priced just a bit lower because they are not as 'polished'.  When I replace/upgrade them, I will most likely go to Powermatic as they are consistently rated as the Cadillac of (non-industrial) woodworking tools.  Interestingly enough, Powermatic is owned by The W.M.H. Group, which also owns Jet.

One exception for this upgrade plan is the table saw.  I currently have (as of 2008) a 12 year old Jet 10" contractor saw.  It has been very reliable and because of its robust construction, despite being dismantled and moved to a new shop twice it provides me with accurate cuts so smooth that by fitting it with a good quality blade and an extended fence I can even cut glue joints in long boards on it.  I would like to step up to a cabinet saw to gain the extra power (I occasionally pop the breaker on my contractor saw by ripping thick hardwoods) and a left tilt blade.  When I do, I'm considering going with the SawStop brand just for the safety feature.  In all my years of woodworking I have not incurred a single serious injury, and feel that as long as I continue to be careful (and by the grace of God) I will be fine with a conventional cabinet saw.  But I am again considering hiring one or more employees, and I can not afford to pay for their carelessness.  Of course, there are plenty of other tools they could cut themselves on, so maybe this is just one of those "bells & whistles" things I warned about earlier, and should take my own advice.

My bandsaw is a 16" Jet.  My only complaint with it is that the guide bearings went out of it early (all of them) and need replacement more often than I deem appropriate.  Otherwise it is an excellent saw for everything from detail work on up through resawing 6" thick lumber.  I like Wood Slicer and Timberwolf bands, especially for resawing.  This tool, and my table saw use motors that *can* be rewired to use 220 volt single phase power if you have it available.  Of course that means changing the plug and the on/off switch too but, as I understand it, going to 220 volt power gives the saw more oomph and uses less electricity.  Twice the voltage, but the same amps and with more muscle to boot.  Now that I have a shop with 220 volt power available, it is something I have put on my To Do list.

My turning lathe is also a Jet, a small Jet that has been stretched.  This is actually my second Jet Mini Lathe, the first was being used for a project that required lots of turning work and the drive belt broke just into the beginning of the project.  This is not something that happens often.  That lathe was actually the first tool Marie bought for me way back when we set up shop together in St. Louis, and it had never needed any servicing other than a replacement tailstock bearing, and they just wear out when you use them all day every day for several years.

But, try as I might I could not locate a replacement drive belt; everyone was out of stock even the main USA Jet distributor.  Another shipment was on its way from China, but the ship had been waylaid outside its US port and for some reason it was not being allowed to dock.  It could be months before a belt was available.  I couldn't postpone this job for months.  So I bought a new Jet Mini Lathe (complete with drive belt) and finished my job.  When the belts were again available, I bought a couple; one to keep as a spare, the other I put on the old lathe and sold it.

At some point I needed to turn some furniture legs that were too long for the mini lathe, but I didn't want to buy yet another new lathe so I bought the Mini Lathe bed extension that Jet offers and it has been a completely acceptable alternative.

My router is a Bosch 1617EVS and is an adequate router.  It lacks the muscle needed to swing the really big panel raising bits, but does just fine for everything else -- including mid-sized panel raisers.  After 9 years of daily use the electronic speed control is going wonky on me and getting it to run at just the right RPMs is difficult, but is does still run strong.  Simply bolting it to the router table plate and using the routers built in depth adjustor does not work as well as I had hoped it would; dust cakes in the frame preventing the motor from sliding up and down as it should, so I have to lift it clear of the table and persuade it some as I raise and lower the bit.  A router lift would work better, but before I go that route I will find a 3 hp plunge router and lift combo that work well together, mount that in the table and use the Bosch for freehand and template (above table) work.

I've mounted the router in a router table & fence with an aluminum plate and mounted that on top of an old sewing machine cabinet as a base.  This creates a good stable base.  The table top, fence and plate are only fair -- They do the job but just barely.  My biggest aggravation is in trying to keep the plate leveled with the table, the little allen set screws used to accomplish this tend to turn themselves because of the vibration from the router.  I will eventually get around to building a better system, but for now this works well enough to get by.

For a drill press I chose the Jet 16" floor model, and have not been disappointed in it.  It offers 16 speeds, of which I use about 5, and yes it does require me to lift the hood and manually shift belts from one pulley to another, but I don't find that to be inordinately difficult or time consuming.  I bought it with the mortising attachment, which works OK, but I needed to do some custom designing on the back-stop and hold down mechanism.  There is just enough play in the quill that the mortising chisel can shimmy around a little, making it difficult to get absolutely perfect mortises, but this has never been a real problem.  I just cut my tenons a tad thick and clean up the mortises with a chisel.  And that is pure vanity, for no one except me is likely to ever see the mortises after I've glued tenons into them.

On my Tool Drool List is a stand alone mortising machine that would bring more accuracy and convenience to my work.  Both Jet and Powermatic offer models with milling machine like work holders that allow the work to be precisely positioned and moved in both directions for exceptional cut control.  The Powermatic version also has a tilting table, for making angled mortises.

There are many drill press table designs out there that purport to offer great advantages over the stock table (which was designed for metal working using a milling vise).  The only real advantage I see is a larger work surface.  Adjustable fences sound good until you start figuring out what all you do with a drill press and try to decide what style and configuration of fence will work best.  I do so many things that no one style of fence will do it all, I'd need several interchangeable fences and that means building my own table and fence system.

And I will... when I have time.

My one and only Delta tool is an eight year old 22-580, 13", two speed surface planer and it has been an excellent tool.  Even on the 'roughing' speed it has given me nearly perfect surfaces, and on the 'finishing' speed the surfaces had been so smooth I hardly needed to sand.  Until recently.  In the past year or so the poor ol' thing is just showing its age.  This was not designed to be a commercial surface planer or to be run literally every day to smooth thousands of board feet of rough lumber a year as well as dimension at least that much more once the lumber is cut into parts.  I have loved the ease with which the knives can be changed, the consistent accuracy of the depth gauge, and the relatively snipe free surface.  On the other side of the coin, the gear box gets jammed up -- maybe with wood dust -- and has to be taken to a repair shop to be cleaned and serviced as I can find no sensible way to get into the thing.  And the two-sided disposable knives are convenient, but it rankles me to toss out so many chunks of perfectly good tool steel.  I've tried re-sharpening them but have had very little luck for my efforts.  And they don't last very long when used on hardwoods, even when I take very conservative cuts, so I am replacing the $45.00 set of knives about every two or three projects, more often when I have a lumber intensive project.

We recently built a project that was going to require us to laminate up some good sized timbers from lumber, and the Delta was producing wavy surfaces even on the 'finishing' speed.  But instead of replacing an otherwise usable planer with a new one, I decided to campaign for a Performax 16-32 wide drum sander.

This tool too is being made by W.M.H., although I see the bigger Performax machines still bear the original name, this one and it's smaller brother now wear the Jet name badge.  But, it is still the same wonderful machine that I grew to know and love many years ago.  In fact they've incorporated an automatic conveyor speed control that prevents popping the breaker if you take too deep a cut or too high a feed rate for the drum to handle.

This is not the tool to use for thicknessing.  It will do it, but that task is very slow on a drum sander.  But once the machine is tuned properly you can not beat this tool for getting a smooth, flat surface, especially on wide panels.  Because of its open ended design I can sand panels up to 32 inches wide in two passes, or 16 inches wide in one pass.  On this machine changing the sanding belts is a breeze and takes only moments to do, so stepping through multiple grits on a single small project is not the nightmare you might imagine it to be -- and can be on other, similar machines.  We've only had ours for a short time, but so far I'm happy with it.

DeWalt is the heavy duty end of the Black & Decker tool line, and most of their tool line does seem to be slanted toward carpenters and general contractors, but some work well enough for furniture making too.  I've never had a problem with any DeWalt tool I've bought.  This "chop saw" is one of them.  This is far from being the fanciest miter saw made -- even by DeWalt.  It is a 10" model with single bevel, compound angle capability.  Meaning that I can swing the blade up to 45 degrees to the left or to the right to make a miter cut, but can bevel cut only by laying it over to the left.  It features a great blade guard that retracts as the blade is lowered but keeps me safe all other times as well as a blade brake to stop the spinning sooner.  Miter angles are easy to read, have positive stops at all the common angles, and locks solidly in place even in between the usual angles.  Its reach is a bit limited because the saw is not a slider; anything over 6" wide takes two cuts to complete.  The sliding versions are like miniature radial arm saws in that the saw head moves in and out on rails to allow cutting much wider boards.  But, there are some safety issues with them, they take up a lot more space on a bench, and they are much more expensive.  This one does what I needed it to do very well.  I am working on a long fence with locking stops and a built in ruler, then it will do even more.

Yes, I know... the wall paper in this area of the shop is pretty "girly".  I plan to paint over it as soon as I can.

Our final piece of stationary equipment is an ancient Skill disk/belt sander that is my one violation of the "don't buy cheap tools" policy.  This one was used as a demonstration model by a tool jobber I used to know.  When his company sent him a new one, he practically GAVE this one to me; I couldn't pass it up.  This thing has been in my shop(s) for... golly... probably 14 years.  It is ugly, the disk sander fell apart -- but that's OK I never used it: too small -- and the bearings on the belt sander are going out so it is very noisy.  I keep patching the bearings and waiting for the motor to burn out so I can finally throw the thing away and get a "good" one, but the crazy thing’s motor won't DIE!

My hand held power tools are an eclectic mix of brands, I won't put you through a complete roll call, but will instead just summarize my thoughts on the various brands.  Porter Cable has never been a disappointment.   I think their finish sanders are about the best there is.  Milwaukee and Makita are great too.  Hitachi is a newcomer to my stable of tools. Both Hitachi tools that I bought were no where near as good as the Bosch tools they replaced.  I won't do that again. 

Craftsman hand tools (wrenches, screw drivers, etc) are great tools, but avoid anything with a motor in it.  Craftsman also tends to make their tools so they do not play well with other brands; accessories don’t swap out. I acquired a Craftsman wooden handscrew clamp in a box of stuff at a tool auction and was amazed to find that the threaded rods are threaded backward from what I’m accustomed to. I have a bunch of these clamps and all other brands spin the same way to open and close them, this one got painted bright green and tossed in the bottom of the box so it gets used only as a last resort.

Grizzly is a brand I’ve looked at a lot because of their low pricing, but have only bought a few router bits. Those have worked quite well except that they include no instructions for setting up their specialty bits. But instructions for similar bits are available on the web, so it worked out. In the past Grizzly power tools have fared badly in the reviews, excessively heavy, under powered, hard to set up and tune, lots of vibration. But recently they have been earning better marks from the reviewers; not many top honors, (I’ve seen them take Best Value once or twice) but they are no longer dead last every time. They seem to have stepped up to the plate and are trying to provide decent tools at a reasonable cost. Shop Fox is Grizzly painted white.

Woodtek is another brand I had written off as being junk because they are never included in any of the reviews I’ve seen. However upon searching for information about the company I came across a good number of reviews and comments posted to tool user and woodworking forums. It appears that the people who have bought this brand recommend them highly. I have not tried any of their tools, so I have no experience to report on. Being a died in the wool skeptic, I tend to wonder if those personal posts aren’t placed by Woodtek employees!

I also have no personal experience with brands like Fein and Festool (I'd have to charge a lot more for my furniture to afford them) but they are treated kindly in tool reviews; very often the only negative noted is the price.  DeWalt and even the occasional Black & Decker tools also fare well in the reviews and I have been happy with any I’ve bought.  My experience with Ryobi tools is that there are two kinds; very good and very bad.  Do your homework on this brand before buying.  Ryobi tends to be innovative; sometimes this produces a superior tool, sometimes a disaster, but very little of what they offer is mediocre.

And that is about enough of that.

Douglas Bittinger has been building custom fine furniture for over 25 years, and has been lead repair tech for a major furnishings retail store chain. Along with his wife, Marie, he currently operates Smoky Mountain Woodworks in Edwina, TN.

For your convenience, here are links to all the articles in the "Going Pro as a Woodworker" series:

Taking the Plunge into Professional Woodworking

Is Self-Employment Right For You?

A Suitable Workspace

Tooling Up

Finding Good Suppliers

Financial Tools

Setting Prices

Marketing Your Work

Hiring Employees

Retiring to Management

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