JoeWoodworker
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Tool Buying - My Mistakes and Otherwise

There was a point in my woodworking in which I strongly believed in the "buy-as-much-of-a-tool-as-you-can-afford" theory.  But when reality sets in, (several months after you have bought the tool) you realize that this might not be true for all of your purchases.  At this point, it's easy to say "Maybe I didn't need that much of a tool for what I do" and if your are thinking that now about something you own, you are probably right.

I have purchased more tools than I care to mention based on comments from the professional cabinet makers whose articles we read in woodworking magazines everyday. Some of them only recommended one particular brand based on limited knowledge and the assumption that a given manufacturer's quality is present throughout their entire line of tools. Few cabinet makers recommend tools based on affordability. And lastly, some professional's recommendations are based on which manufacturer gives them sponsorship (in other words, free tools). But you and I are not them. We may enjoy woodworking as much as they do but we can't devote as much time to it because woodworking is not what we do for a living. I'd guess that few of the high and mighty professional woodworkers go home from a long day at work and head for the basement woodshop. Keeping this in mind, remember the difference in time spent using the tools they own compared to the hobbyist woodworker. Our tools do not need to be identical to theirs. Most of us are on a tight tool budget that requires us to make smart purchases based on what we need as hobbyist woodworkers.

It is said that hindsight is always 20/20 and it's something you just can't argue. So let my hindsight be your foresight and maybe the marketing efforts of tool companies and the holy rollers of the woodworking world can be put at bay while you make the right decisions in your tool buying future.

Diversion...
Do you really think that Norm Abram's $30,000 wide belt sander is something that even the average professional cabinet maker could afford?

In my opinion, Time Saver (the provider of the wide belt sander) wasted a huge sum of money by providing this tool to Norm Abram. I hope they were not thinking that Norm's viewers would consider purchasing one of these behemoths.


Table Saw
The focus tool of most woodworking shops is the table saw and for good reason. The table saw is sometimes considered a jack of all trades tool. In addition to ripping, a table saw can crosscut lumber, make moldings, and cut rabbets/dados.  I can think of several projects that I could have done start to finish only using the table saw.  I use the American made Powermatic 66 which is considered to be among the best saws ever produced. It weighs in at around 500lbs and has a 3 hp 220v motor.  Prior to this saw, I owned a Taiwan made cabinet saw of somewhat similar heft and power.  The $2000 price tag on the Powermatic makes it more than twice as expensive as the Taiwan version and the quality to price ratio is definitely questionable. The Taiwan saw operated very well and would serve most woodworkers (hobbyists especially) quite well.  The big differences between the two are in the casting of the inside components as well as the trueness of the table top. The Powermatic does have a truer surface and heavier components but I have not yet come to a project in which these attributes have made any difference whatsoever.

Reliability is a common concern regarding any tool. The Taiwan saw could have survived decades of use in a moderate production shop. I suspect the Powermatic could survive at least twice as long. But for the average woodworker who just wants a good cut, the Taiwan saw would be sufficient, if not perfect. If I could turn back time, I would likely exchange my Powermatic for my old Taiwan saw and use the difference in money to buy a drum sander or some other under-rated, but useful tool. 

Of course a saw is only as good as the blade it drives. I have had the privilege of using several different blades from the "Corvette" to the "Chevette".  The most over rated saw blade on the market (and one of the most expensive) is the Forrest Woodworker Series.  Out of the box, it is ludicrously sharp and the precision in its fabrication is quite evident.  These blades are hand assembled and hand flattened.  Many woodworkers are steadfast in exclaiming the virtues of this blade. I suspect that this is do to a lack of experience with other blades. In most cases, it is safe to assume that the "stock" blade that comes with the saw is less than suitable for achieving a good cut. I might argue that going from a stock blade to any premium blade would make the user think he/she has found heaven. A premium blade does cut noticeably better than the stock variety but one cannot assume that the premium blade he/she has chosen is the best for them. There are dozens, if not more, of premium blades on the market and price does not define the quality of the blade.  CMT, Jesada, and Amana make very good premium blades that cost 25% less than the Forrest and perform similarly. Plenty of computerized tests have been done to compare the quality of cut made by these premium blades and the Forrest blade has come out on top in many of them. But what is important to remember is that the #2 or 3 ranked blade may not cut noticeably worse in real life woodworking and you have to ask yourself, "Is this worth any extra $30?" 

I don't think it is and that is why I sold my Forrest blade to the individual who bought my Taiwan table saw. Now, I use a Systematic blade which, ironically, is the blade that comes with the Powermatic table saw. It makes excellent cuts and won't cost a fortune to replace when that time comes. I have also had experience with the CMT and Jesada "combo" blades. I would rate these blades as above average.


Miter Saw
A nice complement to the table saw is a good miter saw. I chose the Makita LS1013 which is a sliding compound miter saw that uses a 10" blade. No one can tell you which miter saw is best for you but the following comments may help.

Questions of portability are usually offset by questions of accuracy.  I have not yet found a saw that would be considered 100% accurate when it has been moved from one place to another. In fact, most sliding compound miter saws don't hold up to the standards of "extreme" accuracy compared to non-sliding types. The best saws (with the best blades) still can not achieve a perfect beveled cut on anything over 8" wide. I have tried a half dozen miter saws (and as many blades) and have found that best miters on materials wider than 3" are made on the table saw. For picture frames (which require the utmost accuracy) a non-sliding miter saw would be best. But I can only afford one miter saw, so the sliding one was my best option.

I currently use an inexpensive Freud blade on my miter saw.

The sliding compound miter saw is a champ with straight crosscuts and small miters, but when you get the urge for "extreme" accuracy, try the table saw. You just might be surprised.


Bandsaw
After much deliberation, I decided to purchase a Meber bandsaw. These are imported and distributed by Laguna Tools. The process of buying this tool was nothing short of disgusting and proved to be the worse experience of this woodworker's tool buying past.

I requested the free video tape from Laguna to see the saw in action. After that, the company repeatedly called me to "push" the saw. Every 3rd day I would get a call with a lower price or cheaper shipping. I was already leaning towards the purchase of this saw based on its track record but the constant haggling was making me question the values of a company who had to push their products with such effort. About 10 days before I was to be married, the salesman called and offered the "LT-16 SE" for a fair price and include shipping via "overnight". I thought this would cost a fortune coming to Maryland from California so without any further hesitation I agreed to purchase the saw. I immediately made space in the shop and made arrangements to stay home from work the following day. The salesperson told me the trucking company would call me to arrange the delivery time.  Twenty-four hours later, I sat at home anxiously waiting. By 4:00pm, no one had called. I called Laguna to get a tracking number and to verify the shipment. They said it had been picked up and was on its way. As I explained how excited I was to get the saw, the salesperson said "Relax. You have your saw in a few days." Wait, wait, wait... it was supposed to be here today! It was then that I realized that the salesperson had scammed me. The saw was being shipped via "Overnite" as in the trucking company known as OVERNITE. Yeah, it was shipped "overnight" but it would take 9 days for my Overnite shipment to get here. Funny huh? I didn't think so and neither did my fiancÚ.

Regardless of that situation, I have never been 100% satisfied with this overpriced tool. I have used a few Delta bandsaws and each was very good. From medium resawing to rough cuts on cabriole legs to light scroll work, I have used these saws and honestly do not feel the Meber was worth the extra money. My advice... try sawing wood on a Delta bandsaw if one is available (seems that everybody has one ). Does it cut wood? Does the blade stay straight? Does the saw feel sturdy? That is about all it takes to make me happy when using the bandsaw. I think it will work for you too. 

10/25/05 Follow up: Apparently, I'm not the only one disappointed by Laguna. Click here for more.


Jointer
I survived for a long time without a jointer. The furniture I made without a jointer lacked finesse and just didn't exude professionalism. In time, I realized the importance of a straight and flat board in furniture making, not to mention the ease of working with a "trued" board.

Frequently, a jointer is your first tool used when you bring lumber into the shop and this is why a slightly wider jointer is preferable. My first jointer was a 6" wide model. The width of the jointer is usually correlated to the length. Trying to edge joint an 8' board on a 6" wide jointer is nerve-racking to say the least. The extra length on larger jointer makes work safer and more accurate. You can't put a price on safety. In fact, you can't put a price on accuracy either and this is why I believe the jointer is one of the few tools in which you should buy as much as you can afford. I now use an 8" Jet jointer and I have never been happier.


Planer
Eventually, you'll realize that the world of woodworking does not exist solely of ¾" thick material. If you buy rough, undressed lumber, owning a planer is a must. My first planer was a portable Delta 12" model. It was loud, cheap, and temperamental. I sold it and bought a heavier duty Jet 15" model.  The difference from 12" to 15" isn't that much and there have only been a few times in which I have used the full capacity of the larger model.  But it must be recognized that the Delta would not have held up to planing the quantity of lumber that has gone through my shop. 

I regret selling the Delta for one reason only.  The Jet model I own (like most others in its class) has a lightly serrated steel outfeed roller which leaves tiny markings on even the hardest woods. Sometimes it is difficult to see the markings until after finish is applied. The Delta (and many others in its class) uses a polyurethane covered outfeed roller which, when kept clean, leaves no markings at all.  For less sanding and more piece of mind, I  would have preferred to keep the Delta for ordinary work and used the Jet for coarse planing. I want my cake and I'll eat it too!


Routers
I own 5 routers at this time. For some woodworkers, this might seem ridiculous and to others it might seem insignificant. Your first router should be one that is, at least, table mountable. Many router related tasks are safer when done on a router table and some tasks just can't be done at all without one. My first router was a Craftsman which didn't hold up for very long. In fact, it wore down to the point at which I just threw it out. I purchased a small 1.5 hp Bosch router which is great for table mounting if you are using small bits. However, if you start getting interested in using wider profile bits you will need something with more power. This led me to the purchase of my next router which was the Makita 3612C. I'm still impressed by this router and highly recommend it. For moderate to heavy duty milling, you can't buy a better tool.  For now, the Makita stays mounted year round and the Bosch is usually the first router I grab for hand routing. I now own a few Bosch routers. The Bosch tools have a certain feel in your hands. They feel comfortable, controllable, and therefore, safer. Lastly, I rounded out my router collection with a Porter Cable laminate trimmer. For small edge work and hinge mortising, its a guaranteed winner.


Sanders
I'll say it once for every one - sanding sucks. Any tool that can make short time of sanding is well worth the money. With such a large arena of sanding tools on the market, I went through the typical schemes of sander buying starting with a 1/4 sheet orbital sander which I now believe has no use in quality woodworking whatsoever.

A random orbit sander is frequently recognized as the end-all-be-all of sanding methods. It is definitely a tool that I couldn't live without. But it's not the last step in the sanding of a project. For quality work, you have to throw in a little hand sanding as your last step.  Without this last step, close examination of finished wood projects will always show random sander markings. I currently use a Dewalt sander which I do not particularly care for due to its limited aggressiveness. For larger projects, I use a Bosch 3727 6" random orbit sander. I highly recommend this sander because of its feel and control. 

10/21/05 Update: The Dewalt sander died. So I recently purchased the Festool EQ125 sander and the CT 22 dust collector. I must admit, this is a very expensive combination and one that I debated on for months. The sander is well made and runs nicely but I'm not sure that it's $100 better than a 5" Porter Cable or Bosch. The only thing worthy of mention is the dust collection.This combo leaves almost zero dust in the air. I was amazed by the power of the dust collection. The suction is so strong that it you can actually lift a small board from the workbench with the sander and vacuum running. After you turn off the sander, the vacuum runs for another few seconds. I use this as an opportunity to suck up any saw dust on the work bench by hovering the sander a half inch over the bench top while the tool spins down.

Eventually you will find a need for a belt sander.  Contrary to popular opinion, there are really only two types of belt sanders. Heavy and light. At first you may think that a light weight belt sander is best. I did. You surely, don't want to schlep around a 10 lb monster sander do you? Well, you should. A light weight sander may be easier to to carry to the work piece but the very same lack of weight works against you when you begin sanding. A light weight sander requires you to use effort from your arms and back to apply the necessary pressure for adequate sanding. However, a heavy sander will do that work for you without the bodily impact. A heavier sander requires you to only steer it back and forth. I have used both types for hours at a time and promise you that as long as you can lift the sander to the work surface, the rest will be much easier. I presently use a Porter Cable 3x24 sander that takes plenty of bite while sanding without any downward pressure what so ever.

Drum Sanders
Few tools offer as much convenience as a wide body drum sander. I guess the manufacturers recognize this convenience and this helps to explain the crazy prices they get charge for them. Sporting impressive claims of accuracy, these machines do all but eliminate hand sanding of flat surfaces. I once witnessed a demonstration in which a promotional flyer was taped to a pine board and put through a drum sander. As the flyer came from the machine, I immediately understood how accurate these machines were... the ink layer was sanded off the flyer leaving only a white piece of paper. WOW!

I recently purchased the Performax 16-32 PLUS sander. I am not terribly thrilled with it. Before I made the purchase, I spoke with countless people who extolled the virtues of this machine. It seemed like a great machine based on the comments I heard and read. It does excel in flattening small boards. Of course, longer boards will go through it just as well but it is very time consuming and the board will require hand sanding afterwards. The machine I received had numerous production flaws ranging from a razor sharp metal edges to misaligned bolt holes. The speed control assembly also failed to work. The manufacturer agreed to send replacements only after trying to convince me that I had broken the parts. The parts took 2 weeks to arrive. I normally recommend JET tools (JET owns Performax), however, this may be one circumstance in which the Delta sander may have been a better choice.

There is a slew of other sanders around my shop for general purpose work. I own an oscillating spindle sander by Delta as well as a hand held pneumatic drum sander for shaping table legs and such. A bench top belt/disk sander is convenient for small projects but mine spends most of the time stored away. My most used sanding tool is a block of rubber wrapped in sand paper. Again, hand sanding has to be the final stage of surface preparation before a stain or finish is applied.  


Lathe
Ah...Instant gratification. Isn't that what we all want? Few tools in my shop bring such pleasure as the lathe. But at the same time, few tools bring such potential anguish. A small lathe project such as a vase or bowl can provide an hour's worth of fun in the shop. Larger projects can be enjoyable as well, but complex lathe projects will quickly prove overwhelming for the novice turner.

A few years ago, while turning the last leg for a dining table, I inadvertently cut 4 side by side beads on the leg instead of 3. At that point, there was no turning back (so to speak). I had to remake the leg which amounted to $25 in lumber. It only took a millisecond lapse in concentration to make this fine mistake.

I am also reminded of another fine example of "anguish" at the lathe... I was turning a bowl one evening when it suddenly flew off the lathe like a clay pigeon firing oven a rifle range. During the last minute of work on this piece, I took my eye off the tool (while cutting) to check the lathe speed. The tool caught the bowl and broke it free, sending it into a wall that turned the bowl into tooth-picks. Instantaneous disgust, anguish, and regret.

That's the dark side of turning and yes, it was completely my own fault. The lighter side is the thrill of taking a piece of what some would consider junk wood and turning into something. The key word is "something". I cant count how many times I have just chucked a piece of lumber onto the lathe and just started turning until I had a gut reaction to stop turning.  So many great bowls and vases have came from my shop starting as chunks and, without any preconceived notion of design, ended up as a work that I truly cherish.  This is the side of lathe work that makes the memories of stupid mistakes fade away. Its also what makes lathe work the most spontaneous means of working with wood.

Many woodworkers are not necessarily wood turners and the opposite is even more true. I know few wood turners who would also classify themselves as woodworkers. I believe most wood turners see the craft from a more artistic standpoint. This is not to say that woodworking is not artistic, but it does lend itself more to the phrase "form follows function". 

For a beginner, I suggest looking for a used, medium size lathe such as the Delta bench top model. You will quickly outgrow your first lathe if you have the talent and patience that it takes to turn wood and this is why I suggest a "used" lathe. I presently own a small-to-moderately sized lathe (not Delta) which I am neither happy nor disappointed with. It does what I need it to do and though I would love to have a giant Conover lathe, I cant justify the expensive for the amount of time I would spend using it. 

Hand Tools

Chisels
A good set of wood chisels is a great start in the hand tool department. I purchased my first set of chisels entirely based on the quality of the steel. What a mistake! The most important aspect of a chisel is how it feels in your hands. Visit a woodworking show or local cabinet shop and hold a chisel in your hand. Dont worry about the steel quality yet. Make sure the surrounding area is clear of people and slowly manipulate the chisel as if it were a model airplane performing combat maneuvers. Yeah, it may look odd but its well worth it. Bend your wrist inward and outward. Try bracing the handle against your body. A good chisel will feel compliant, controllable, and comfortable. Once you have established what type of handle feels best, then look at the quality of the tool steel. WOOD magazine did an article on chisels in the August '99 issue.

I presently use a nice set of Stanley chisels that fit my hands perfectly. The steel quality is not exactly the abolsute best but the feel in my hands makes the difference. These chisels routinely perform combat maneuvers around my shop. I also own a pair of Japanese chisels. The steel quality on these is second to none but I wish the handles had more girth.

Planes
I can't stress the importance of owning a block plane well enough. This will be another unfortunate instance of "buy the best you can afford". I have owned block planes from Stanley, Millers Falls, and Lie-Neilson. The Lie Neilson is worth its weight in gold and costs nearly as much. But you have to look at it from 3 important perspectives:

  1. It will be around much longer than you if taken care of properly.
  2. A good tool performs the most intricate work predictably and without gouging.
  3. If you decide to change hobbies, this is one of the few tools that will resell close to (if not higher) than its original value.

Tape measure
One tool common to any woodworking shop is a tape measure. I use a Stanley 25' tape measure for rough and large work pieces. But for day to day use I prefer a Stanley pocket-size 6' tape. I had the opportunity to buy the last stock of these when a local Hechinger's went out of business. So I have 8 of them now.

Too many?
Having this many tape measures around means never having to search for one - there is always one handy and within quick reach. Since they cost so little and offer such great convenience, I recommend these to woodworkers, hobbyists and professionals alike. For the sake of accuracy, be sure that each of the tape measures are the same model. 

Other Tools
Of course there is a myriad of other tools that are common to any shop. Here is a small list of the other tools I use:

Leigh Dovetail Jig
Nice joints, but too expensive and very time consuming as are many dovetail jigs. The Leigh jig has a few inherent problems that even the manufacturer can't resolve fully. The biggest one is the "offset phenomenon" which means that a four sided box requires the use of a block plane to flush up each of the four boards (not the end grain, the long grain on the top and bottoms) of a drawer of dovetailing. For a jig of this $$$ I didn't think I would have to do this. Like many other dovetail jigs, it requires two router setups. I had so much trouble keeping setups... well... set up, that I ended up buying two routers strictly for the jig. Tear out is also a HUGE problem. There are steps that reduce it but they are not consistently successful. And I like consistency! I hate surprises in my woodworking.

I recently had the chance to use a Keller jig and it was wonderful. You can't change the spacing on the pins and tails but I never change them on the Leigh.

Grizzly 2hp Dust Collector - possibly, the only Grizzly tool worth purchasing.

Air-born Dust Collector - I made my own using the common pleated bags that are used in so many other air filters.

Air Compressor - Campbell Hausfeild 50 gallon 5 hp - to run my air sander and finishing equipment.

Accuspray #19 Spray Gun - metal body finishing gun - a great spray gun but hardly worth the price - I suggest the Devilbis pressure fed "Finish Line" Model.

Bessey K-Body clamps - expensive but worth it. Don't waste your money on more than 3 or 4 Pony pipe clamps. The K-body's are a God send.

Tormek Sharpener/Grinder - I recently sold my Tormek and bought the Jet knock-off. Click here for more information.

Tormek Tip: The paste stropping compound that comes with the machine is expensive. I found that automotive polishing compound (in a medium to fine grit) works faster and is much cheaper.

Workbenches - Both of my benches are very basic. I have a pair of standard "Columbian" vises on one of them. Other than that, they are rather plain. I have worked at a friends workshop where there is a traditional cabinetmaker's bench with a fancy vise and bench dogs. Neither he or I ever use the bench dogs and vise isnt as powerful as we thought it should be. I guess it comes down to the type of woodworking you do (handtool vs. powertool).

One of my benches is 2.5" thick beech boards laminated together. I got the wood for free so I figured what the heck. Its a nice bench for hammering and such because the beefy-ness of it absorbs vibration and sound. My other bench is 3 layers is 3/4" plywood glued together. Its almost as solid as the other bench but was a heck of a lot easier to build. On this second bench, I have attached a piece of hardwood to the edge that is raised up 1/4" above the plywood surface. I did this for two reasons. 1) It allows me to place a piece of 1/4" masonite over the plywood face that can be thrown out when it gets ruined (stains, cuts, etc). 2) I can dump parts bins and screws on the workbench without having to worry about them rolling over the edge.

Yes, Joe is a practicing Catholic
 
 
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