It's Tool Time!
You've done it! You've decided what kind of woodworker you want to be and what style of projects you're interested in working on. Now what? It's time to get some tools!
Some advice that I see quite often from other woodworkers is to just go out and get some basic, cheap tools to practice with and then upgrade as you get better. As someone who is now reaching the ranks of the "intermediate woodworker," I couldn't disagree more!
When I first started woodworking, I couldn't wait to start collecting tools to build my shop with. One thing that was a huge factor for me was budget. I didn't have the money to run out and buy the most expensive tools out there. I had to do what a lot of new craftsmen/woodworkers do and I headed straight for Harbor Freight. You could get all the woodworking tools you saw them using on the videos and blogs and with a 20% off coupon. Could it get any better?!
For the first three years I started woodworking, I spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on the low end tools you could find at HF. Every single Christmas and Birthday present I got during that time went straight to tools. In fact, my cousin still complains that she can't get off of the Harbor Freight email list.
I started building up a good collection of tools and everything seemed great. Then, I started to realize just how bad those tools were. Don't get me wrong, if you're an occasional hobbyist, DIYer or someone in construction, these tools will work just fine for you and there are many tools in that store that are good. They're just not the best tools for woodworkers. Woodworking demands accuracy and you just won't get that in these cheap tools.
As I would start doing more and more projects, I started to notice that cuts wouldn't be straight, measurements would be off and my butt joints would NEVER line up correctly. As these things continued to happen, I really started to believe that the problem was me and some of it was. As a new woodworker, you're learning how to use these tools and you're going to mess up. However, good tools with better accuracy make it easier on you to learn.
The final straw for me was on St. Patrick's Day (oddly enough) a few years ago when I was making a wine rack for my kitchen and a brad nail shot out of the cheap nail gun at an angle and went sideways through my finger. After that, I said I would not buy another cheap power tool and I haven't since. I've spent the last couple of years working to slowly upgrade my tools and say goodbye to my old cheap ones.
My budget is tight. How do I get the tools that I need?
Like I mentioned before, I spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on these cheap tools. Now, I'm having to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade them. So, now I'm spending double to get the same tools I should've gotten from the start. Yes, you can sell these tools when you upgrade but you won't get much for them. This is a lesson that I've had to learn the hard way and one that my wife has spent the last five years preaching to me about. Shh. No one tell her she was right!
Accuracy is key in tools. Squares need to be square. Table saw blades need to be parallel and miter saw fences need to be straight. Now, you can make small adjustments to any tool to try to make this happen but as new woodworkers do you really have the skills or time to do that?
With that being said, you do NOT need to go out and spend a month's mortgage payment on Festool tools or Woodpeckers squares to start with. These are AMAZINGLY accurate tools that will make your life easier but it really is important to understand how the tools work before you go out and spend that kind of money on tools. You simply need to get a good tool that will make your life easier, not harder.
If you're on a budget, one place I've found great luck with buying tools is Facebook Marketplace! You can get some really good deals on used tools on this site. You don't have to buy all of your tools brand new. Sometimes, it's actually better to buy them used ESPECIALLY if the person who owned the tool before you is a woodworker. Chances are that these tools are already set-up properly and you won't need to do anything before you get started. They will likely need some maintenance down the road but this will give you time to learn more about them before you have to do so. If you're lucky, the person selling it might be willing to show you how to use it.
If you're dead set on buying new, you can always go to your local home center. They have lots of great tools at a good price. Late November/early December is a great time to buy tools as they typically have Black Friday and holiday sales going on. I've also had good luck finding tools on Amazon and directly off of the manufacturer's website. If you sign-up for their mailing lists, they will let you know when everything goes on sale. I got an amazing deal on my 14" bandsaw by going directly to the Grizzly Industrial website and buying it from them during one of their sales.
So, what tools do I need to get started?
Everyone is going to have a different idea of what tools you need started. The following is my opinion of what every woodworker needs to get started. I didn't count any of the basic tools that most people own like hammers, screwdrivers, tape measures, etc. because I feel that is obvious.
The table saw is one of the most versatile tools that you can own. You can do rip and cross cuts and even cut joinery. With the right jigs, you can make just about any basic cut that you need to on this saw.
There are a few different options for the table saw. You can get a smaller jobsite saw, a middle sized cast iron saw like mine or a larger cabinet saw.
The type of saw you buy will largely depend on your budget, space requirements and the materials you plan to use. A jobsite table saw will perform 90% of the tasks you will do but if you plan to cut large pieces of plywood, this may not be the saw for you. I like my cast iron saw for larger projects.
While the table saw can do the majority of the cuts you need, setup is not always fast or easy and can be difficult with long boards. At some point, you might consider getting a good miter saw to accompany your table saw. If you have a good table saw though, a miter saw is not necessary at the beginning so I didn't include it in the list. If you can't afford a table saw or a miter saw at the moment, a good circular saw will do to get you started!
A good drill/driver will make all the difference in the world. Whether it's pre-drilling holes for screws or hogging out material for joinery, a drill is a must. I have both a drill and and impact driver. They both have their uses and I've found them both very helpful in the shop.
Along with a good drill, it's very important to get a good set of drill bits. I recently invested in a good set of brad point drill bits and it has changed my life. The brad point bit has a point at the end that will put an indent in the wood ensuring that the hole is started exactly how it should be. After many messed up dowel joints from walking drill bits, I decided to try these and I'm so glad I did!
Random Orbital Sander
The random orbital sander is the perfect tool for every woodworker's favorite task..sanding. There are a lot of really good sanders out there and the best part is that they're all pretty affordable!
It's important to find a sander that will do the task you need it to do and be comfortable in your hands while doing so. After all, you will be spending HOURS using this tool when getting your projects ready for finishing.
There are several kinds of sanders but my preference is a random orbital sander. I find that these sanders have less scratching and they are actually powerful enough to remove a decent amount of material.
Most woodworkers say that you can never have too many clamps and this is so true! There's nothing more frustrating than getting into a glue-up and realizing you don't have enough clamps to do the job.
There are a hundred different types of clamps and they keep coming out with more and more. I think the type of clamps you buy depends on your preference, budget and space requirements. I have everything from pipe clamps, to c-clamps to f-style clamps and they all have their place in my shop.
As you start to buy different clamps, you will start to realize which types you like to work with more. Personally, I really like pipe clamps and the f-style clamps. I'm not so much a fan of the quick release clamps. I find that they just don't get as much holding pressure.
As you can see, I have a hodge-podge of clamps. I am not loyal to one specific brand although I'm really starting to love the guys in red. A good clamp will make a difference but I do have a lot of Harbor Freight clamps which are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper and still do the job. That's up to your preference!
A good square is EVERYTHING. Don't cheapen out on the square. If your pieces aren't square, they're not going to fit together properly. If your table isn't square, it's probably going to wobble. The square is actually the next thing I plan to upgrade.
There are several different types and sizes of squares. If you can only afford just one, I suggest the 12" combination square. It covers a larger area than the 6" and you can use it to check square on outside corners, inside corners and angles.
You don't need to decide whether to buy groceries that month or buy a fancy Woodpeckers square like the people in the videos have. Those are nice but not practical for the everyday person starting out. I actually recently got a tip from an experienced woodworker that is a company that sells factory blemished squares that are guaranteed accurate within .004." The only thing wrong with them is that they have some kind of cosmetic blemish on them and don't meet the factory standards and because of that, they're sold at half the price! I'll take a little chunk of paint missing for 50% off!
The chisel is one of the most versatile hand tools you will use. You can clean up ugly cuts, carve out mortises, chamfer profiles and much more with a chisel.
While you can go out and get any old chisel and it will work for you, there's nothing like a good set of chisels. A good set of chisels is typically made from a much harder steel and allows for a sharper edge that will last longer.
Of course with a set of chisels, you will need to invest in sharpening tools. A dull chisel is a dangerous chisel. Sharpening is a conversation for another day.
Chisels can range from a few bucks to a few hundred dollars. I got this set on Amazon for about $40 and it has been a great asset to my shop!
Some people may or may not agree that this is a good tool to buy when you're getting started. They're expensive and are they really necessary?
In my opinion, yes! It's very important that your wood be flat and square when using it in a project. I've found that when buying wood whether it be from the hardwood dealer or my local big box store, it always has some sort of twist, cup or bow in it. Without a tool to fix these problems, you either have to not use this wood or your projects may not join together properly because of it and this can get super frustrating. Plus, if you need all of your pieces to be one consistent thickness, this tool is very important.
A thickness planer is a perfect example of a tool you can buy used online! There are a lot of great options out there. I recently upgraded to this beast of a planer and I LOVE it. However, it's expensive and I had to work my way up to it. There's nothing wrong with that.
There are MANY more tools that I could list for you here but I think that if you're just getting started in woodworking, these tools will help you be able to begin working on projects. I also think it's very important in woodworking to learn the basics of hand tool work so it wouldn't hurt to get a good hand saw and practice cuts with it. I didn't list hand saws in my list because most people have moved to a power tool platform these days.
As you go, you're going to see the need for other tools such as hand planes, flush cut saws, jointers, etc. As your skill level progresses, you can begin to start investing in these tools.
I hope this article helps you in your search for tools for your shop. Happy shopping!