ARTICLES & REVIEWS


A Newbie Woodworker's (Practical)
Wish List for Machines and Tools

by Kevin Kelly

I've put together a summary of answers provided to me and others who have asked about what tools to buy, and hope it will make it easier and less time-consuming for other newbies than searching the archives. However, give that a shot anyway; you'll find much more information than I can provide here.

Two caveats: first, treat everything I say here as a potential insult to your intelligence; second, realize that no one can provide definitive answers to many of the questions you have. Too much depends on what your individual wants and plans are. If you're new to woodworking, odds are you don't know exactly what kind of work you'll be doing in the future. In addition, as your skills grow, so too may your expectations of your tools.

A third caveat, and much more important than the first two. Woodworking involves very sharp objects, sometimes moving at high speeds. The risk of injury can be greatly reduced, however, by using guards on power tools and by always using eye and ear protection. Also, using any kind of cutting tool when one is tired, distracted, not feeling well, or under the effects of medication or alcohol is just asking for trouble. Work safely and intelligently, please; I'm sure that there's somebody who knows you that would like to keep you around and reasonably intact.

Stationary Power Tools

When it comes to buying stationary tools, there seems to be two main schools of thought. The first is that North American made tools are substantially better, specifically those made by Delta, Powermatic, and General. The second school of thought says that the Taiwanese (and increasingly Chinese) made tools are every bit as good. From my perspective, the high-end (and more expensive) lines from all these manufacturers are pretty comparable, and they all offer lower priced lines as well, usually made overseas. Decisions between brands often come down to personal preference or favorite color. One major factor in your decision should be service after the sale–how far away is the nearest service center, and how responsive is the manufacturer to customer requests? Jet seems to get high praise in this regard, along with Delta and Grizzly.

Tablesaw. For many people, myself included, this is the first major purchase. Those of us who got bitten by the woodworking bug while watching Norm know that nothing can be made without a tablesaw. You have three options here: 1) Cabinet saw, 2) Contractor's saw, 3) European-style sliding table saw.

  1. Cabinet Saw–This is what Norm uses, specifically the Delta Unisaw. These are heavy machines with an enclosed base. Motors are typically 3 or 5 horsepower and are all wired 220. They range in cost from $1000 to $2500, depending on fence, motor and accessories. These are wonderful machines if you've got the coin; you would probably never have to upgrade.
  2. Contractor's Saw–This is what many of us start with, usually all the while longing for the above. These are lighter and less powerful saws than their big siblings, usually in the 1.5 hp range and having an open stand. Although they can usually be rewired for 220, they tend to come from the factory wired 110. They cost about half what a cabinet saw does and come in a staggering array of forms. Unless you'll be slicing up a lot of 2" (denoted as 8/4) and thicker hardwoods, this should do you for a while or maybe forever. I have the Delta Platinum edition with a Biesemeyer fence.
  3. European-style sliding table saw–Wow. Very sexy and very expensive, starting around $3500 and going to astronomical levels from there. These usually have at least a 12" blade and a variety of motors starting at 3hp. Several features other than price set these saws apart from what Americans think of as a tablesaw. The left side of the table slides back and forth, parallel to the blade. When ripping or crosscutting lumber then, instead of the stock sliding across the table, the table carries the material past the blade. Very accurately, I might add. The downside is, though, most of these saws usually cannot be fitted with a dado blade. They also use a different kind of splitter, called a riving knife. This safety feature rises and falls with the blade, making it much more effective and less likely to be removed than the typical piece o' crap splitter that comes with cabinet and contractor's saws. Very often, these machines come standard with three-phase motors, which will most likely mean extra expense to you.

Fence. Your tablesaw is only as good as its fence. There are many to choose from, with Biesemeyer (and its clones), the Delta Unifence, and the Vega being the brands of choice. They come in different sizes, the most common being around 30" or 50." If you're going to cut sheet goods and you have the room, get the larger size. As to which one is best, all and neither. Look them over, and decide for yourself. I started with the Bies, tried the Unifence, and then went back to the Bies. For what it's worth, the Bies seems to be the most copied of all the fence designs.

Bandsaw. Bandsaws are usually measured in terms of their wheel size, the most popular for the home shop being a 14" model. The larger the wheel size, the wider the stock you can cut. Re-saw capacity is also an important factor. There are open-stand and closed-stand bandsaws, with motors starting at 3/4hp and going up from there. Expect to pay between $700 and $3000, depending on wheel and motor size. I have a 14" Rockwell with a riser kit, and it does everything I ask of it.

Jointer. Jointers, sometimes called surface planers, essentially do one thing–they make one face and one side of a board flat, with a 90-degree angle between them. (They can, of course, perform other tasks, like rabbeting and tapering, but their primary function is flattening.) Jointers are measured by how wide their tables are, starting with a 4" and going up at least to 20" and maybe more. Many people get by fine with a 6"; most of us dream of an 8" at least. Some people (David Marks, for instance) have jointers that look like aircraft carriers. A 6" jointer will start around $300 and up; an 8" will be more than double that amount. Like so many of these machines, weight can be a good indicator of quality.

Planer. Planers help jointers in producing square stock. Once a side of a board is jointed flat, it is run through a planer, sometimes called a thickness planer, to flatten the opposite face. While a jointer could also perform this task, a planer also makes the two faces parallel to each other. A jointer doesn't. Planers seem to come in two basic forms–portable or "lunchbox," usually 12" or so in size, and stationary, 15" and above. The size is based on how wide a board the machine will accept. Many folks like the DeWalt 12-1/2"; a portable planer will run between $350 and $450. Stationary planers are into four figures.

Drill Press. Drill presses are either stationary or radial, and either benchtop or floor models. More folks opt for the stationary, with benchtop or floor model decisions being based on space. If you have the room, get the floor model. Presses are often measured in terms of the maximum diameter of a circle whose center can be drilled on the press. (I find it more helpful to divide that number in two; that figure is roughly the distance from bit to post.) 12"-15" models seem to be the most popular. There's probably no need to pay more than $400 for a decent drill press.

SCMS. Sliding Compound Miter Saw, now considered by many to be the ultimate crosscutting weapon for the woodshop. SCMSs have for many people replaced the radial arm saw for this function. Not only does an scms crosscut, it can cut miters and compound miters easily and accurately, if you get a good one. If you're going to get one, get a good one–folks seem to like the DeWalt, the Makita, and the Hitachi best. If I ever replace my non-sliding miter, it'll be with the Makita. Expect to pay $500 or more for a quality saw.

Radial Arm Saw. Not nearly as common as they once were; these saws excel in crosscutting but can be lethal if used as a ripping tool. Some folks swear by them, others at them. They are next to useless when confronted with sheet goods. If you're new to woodworking and don't have one of these, you probably won't need one for some time, if ever. Costs range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Dust Collector. If you going to mess with wood much, you have to decide how you are going to manage the dust you will produce. Wood dust is a health hazard. Some people, myself included at this point, make do with one or more shop vacs. This option is inexpensive but laborious and often inefficient. Another option is a dedicated dust collection system with a 1.5 hp or higher motor, hoses and ductwork. Pricing is difficult to estimate because it is determined by the number of machines you'll service, the length and type of ducts you'll use, and whether you choose a one-stage, two-stage, and/or cyclone. Dust collection systems are not a one size fits all, so do your homework carefully before spending your money.

Lathe. At this point, you may or may not want to get into turning wood. Lathes are measured in terms of swing–the largest diameter stock that can be mounted and turned. Lathes seem mostly to fall into two size distinctions: full-size, with a swing of 16" or greater, or mini/midi/whatever, with a typical swing of 10" or less. (Lathes also come in a variety of bed lengths. The longer the bed, the longer the piece you can turn. Almost all small lathes also offer bed extensions). Midi-lathes start in the $300 range and are perfect for pens, tool handles, small to moderate spindles, and even some small bowls. The full-size lathes pick up where midis leave off, both in price and in capacity. Their prices start at $500 and go up to ten times that or more. Many turners who own and use big lathes such as Poolewoods and Oneways and the like also have a smaller lathe, so a midi isn't a bad place to start. I have the Nova Mercury lathe (the smallest midi) and love it.

Grinder. If you've got a lathe, you'll need a grinder to sharpen the tools, and you may want one for rough sharpening of plane blades and chisels even if you don't turn. The Tormek, a water-cooled, ultra-slow turning (90 rpm) delight of a grinder is almost $400 plus accessories. A lesser but still highly functional slow speed (1700 rpm) grinder can be had for under $100, though.

There are many other stationary power tools that you may want/need/obsess over, either now or in the future–router tables, mortisers, shapers, stationary sanders, ornamental mills, the list goes on and on. Those listed above, though, are the ones most woodworkers either already have (the fortunate) or are working towards getting (the rest of us). Also keep in mind that no power tool will arrive at your door assembled and ready to go to work. Almost always, you will have to put it together and spend some time adjusting and aligning before it's ready to go.

If at all possible, try out these big tools before you buy them. Many dealers will allow you to demo their machines, and I've found woodworkers to be the best sort of people in the world, and often they will let you try their tools.

One final note, a $10,000 Felder saw will not automatically produce any better results than an $600 contractor's saw unless the operator comes to the tool with skill and understanding. In other words, the most important tool in your shop is the gray matter between your ears; sharpen it, and you can produce stunning results with modest equipment.

Hand Power Tools

You probably already have some or all of these tools, and you may have more than I have listed. This is a good starter list, though. I would probably put the belt and disc sanders at the end of the list. With the others, though, it's hard to choose which one is the most useful or necessary. As far as brands go, take your pick and your chances with it. Of the tools on this list, I own at least one from Porter Cable, Makita, Skil, DeWalt, Milwaukee, Senco, and Bosch. Brand name isn't as important as finding a match between your likes and needs and the tool's features.
Drill (Corded and/or cordless)
Nail Guns
Circular Saw
Disc Sander
Router (You'll probably end up with lots of these.)
Jigsaw
Belt Sander

Hand Tools

If you are a devotee of Norm, you may wonder what hand tools you need other than a hammer and a leather tool apron. If you want to make fine projects out of something other than plywood, you'll need a good set of hand tools. Machines can only do so much, and often your work will demand a more delicate and accurate touch than they can provide. Besides, no matter how much you love your power tools, nothing quite equals the satisfaction of handwork. Below is a list of the basics, along with some recommendations.

Planes. Handplanes come in a dizzying array of forms and sizes. I think you need three to start–a bench plane, a block plane, and a shoulder plane. Many people like the #4 bench plane, called a smooth plane, but I prefer the larger 5-1/2. This plane can take the place of both a 4 and the longer 7, although one day, you're probably going to want one of these as well. Block planes come in two basic configurations; I think the low angle plane is more useful. A shoulder plane's blade is as wide or wider than the plane's body and is thus the ultimate tool for cleaning up a tenon or rabbet. My handplanes are all Lie Nielsen and together these three cost about $700. That's a lot of dough, but they are exquisitely made, are a joy to hold and use, and will be around long after I'm gone. Similar planes are available from Stanley, Record, Clifton, and Lee Valley (although I'm not sure that any of them still make a 5 ½) for less money. They will require considerably more time and effort on your part to make them usable, though, and I don't think that even then they will match the performance of the Lie Nielsen. Many people, however, swear by Lee Valley planes.

There are also Japanese style planes that cut on the pull stroke. I don't think these tools are ideal for beginners, though.

Chisels. Chisels come from two parts of the world, East and West. Western chisels are the typical chisels from Marples, Sorby, Lee Valley, Stanley, Hirsch, the list goes on and on. A set of four Marples Blue Chip chisels will cost about $25 and will perform as well as more expensive ones, but you'll probably have to sharpen them more often. On the other hand, a set of four hand-forged Barr Chisels will run you $300, last longer and hold an edge longer as well. There are, of course intermediate options. An awful lot of woodworkers seem to like Hirsch or Two Cherries brands.

Eastern chisels come from Japan and are made in an entirely different fashion. They are delightful tools to use, but are more brittle and may be less versatile than their western counterparts. Those of us who use them, however, will never forsake them. Cheap Japanese chisels cost $15-20 each. The most expensive I have seen are more than ten times that amount.

While there are different styles of chisels–bench, dovetail, mortise, paring, etc–start with a bevel-edge set of bench chisels. Those may be all you ever need.

Saws. What, handsaws? Surely I jest. Nope, and don't call me Shirley. If you're going to learn to cut dovetails by hand, you'll need at least one good handsaw. Essentially, everything I said about chisels applies to handsaws–a choice of western and eastern, of expensive and cheap, as well as a choice between rip and crosscut, handle style, blade length, tooth count, and many other options. Start with a rip tooth saw designed to cut hardwoods. Once again, in my book, Lie Nielsen is tops among western saws, at a cost of $125 or so for the kind I describe. Excellent Japanese saws are available for less than half that.

Sharpening systems. If you've got cutting tools, you have to keep them sharp. In fact, you have to lap and sharpen the blades of your planes and chisels before you can use them effectively. (Lapping is the process of flattening the non-beveled side of your blades and can be a tiresome process to say the least. You only have to do it once for each tool, though.) There is a variety of ways to keep your tools sharp, and each one has its advocates and critics. The big three seem to be something called Scary Sharp, which uses successively finer grits of sandpaper stuck to something flat. It's cheap and effective, and you can find info about it on the web. Waterstones and oilstones are the other two favorite sharpening media. I prefer waterstones; the King brand is relatively inexpensive and readily available. I do use the sandpaper method for flattening my waterstones (which I'm probably too obsessive about) and for lapping blades and chisels. The most important part is no matter what you use to sharpen your tools, do it often enough to keep your tools sharp. A dull tool is an unhappy tool, and you may pay for its unhappiness.

Other cutting tools. Other more specialized cutting tools like spokeshaves and scrapers are really delightful tools to use and play with. If you want to make Windsor chairs, you'll need spokeshaves and adzes and all manner of other cool cutting tools. Then there is the world of woodcarving and its requisite gouges and other tools. None of these, though, are essential to getting started in basic woodworking.

Measuring. Before you cut anything with hand tools or power tools, you've got to measure it. Okay, you don't have to, but you should. In addition to measuring tapes and folding rules, both of which are inexpensive and readily available, invest in a good 6" metal rule with increments down to at least 1/64". Starrett makes the best, I think, and they're cheap compared to everything else you're going to spend money on in this hobby. This tool is invaluable for setting blade height and other fine measuring that a tape simply cannot do. You're also going to need at least a couple of squares; again, I think Starrett makes the best ones, and they are pricier than what you can pick up from your local home center, but they are worth every penny. Look into a 12" combination square and a 2-3" engineer's square at least.

Marking. You've got to have a way to mark what you've measured. Pencils work okay, but sometimes you really need a knife to get the precision you'll need. Some people use throwaway knives with snap-off blades; some people buy special marking knives. Patrick Leach at www.supertool.com makes my favorite (also a marvelous information page on planes) for $58. It's expensive but excellent and beautiful.

Workbench. Probably should be listed first, as it is difficult to do anything without some place to work. Workbenches can be elaborate or simple, expensive or cheap. You need something that's a comfortable height for you to stand at and work on, that's flat and won't move around when you don't want it to. You'll need some kind of vise or other method to hold your work still, and you need good light so that you can see what you're doing. I got the garage workshop plans from the New Yankee shop and modified them slightly to fit my needs.

Obviously, you're going to need other things, too – hammers, screwdrivers, drill bits, saw blades glue, sandpaper, etc. – but the list above covers the most of the major tools commonly used in woodworking. I hope this information is helpful to you. Thanks for reading.

. . . Kevin Kelly

© 2003 by Kevin Kelly . All rights reserved.
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