Kevin Brady - My Informational and Personal Interest Pages

Beginner's Guide To Power Tools
A Practical and Candid Guide For Starting Up Your Home Wood Shop
CONTENTS:
Foreword:

Many articles are available that purport to give advice on how to properly equip a woodworking shop. These articles are presented from every imaginable angle -- from the professional production shop all the way down to a tiny home shop set up in the corner of one's garage or basement. There are many good articles to be found on the Internet and in reputable print publications, authored by experts in the field. Then there are some articles that are, well, dubious at best. As to the opinions of the best tools to buy, just ask 100 woodworkers and you're likely to receive 100 different answers. It's like buying cars -- everyone has their opinions as to why their choices are better than someone else's. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what tools are best suited for the beginner.

So why add yet another article to the myriad already addressing the issue of shop tool selection? Because, once and for all, I'd like to provide some guidance for the novice woodworker who wants nothing more than to cut through all the hype and just buy some decent tools for his/her shop. I should point out that I receive absolutely no compensation for anything that I have posted here, and this discussion is purely my opinion on power tools based on my own experiences and observations. I am not shilling any particular brand or product.

I am not a woodworker by trade. I enjoy woodworking as a "serious" hobby -- one to which I devote a sizable amount of my spare time and money. I hope I can help shed some light on the various characteristics of certain tools and their uses. Moreover, I hope that this article can give the woodworking beginner some helpful buying information. After all, I learned some things about tools the hard way: I initially bought on the cheap and have since replaced those low-quality tools. Buy quality and you should not have to buy it again. This article is not intended as a rating of specific tools, nor is it a how-to instructional guide for power tools. This is merely a selection guide for the novice, directed to the home hobbyist. It's a bit long-winded, so please bear with me. Feel free to copy this, and pass it along to your friends. Welcome to a really cool hobby.

You may want to have a look at my companion article, A Beginner's Guide to Woodworking -- Practical Tips and Advice For the Novice.


DISCLAIMER:

The reader assumes all responsibility and liability associated with the hazards of woodworking. The author has no control over how a reader will act as a result of obtaining information in this article. The author shall not be responsible for any errors or omissions that may be present in this article. Accordingly, the author shall assume no liability for any action or inaction of a reader.

This article is directed toward a hobbyist audience and is not intended for application in a commercial, institutional, or industrial setting. Commercial woodshops are generally governed by a complex set of worker safety regulations, such as those mandated by OSHA. Satisfying the compliance of such regulations is beyond the scope of this article.


Your Specific Needs:

Before you select your tools, think about a few important factors and ask yourself some questions:

What kind of budget are you on?
What is the size of your shop?
What kinds of woodworking projects do you plan to do?

You will need to have a reasonably good answer to all of these questions before you go out and fork over your hard-earned cash. You may even want to ask yourself if you really want to use power tools at all. Many people find enjoyment in working entirely with hand tools. These self-proclaimed woodworking "neanderthals" build their creations using hand saws, planes and scrapers. Working with hand tools is quieter, creates less dust, and is less likely to annoy your neighbors. You can even enjoy your hobby while listening to music or chatting with others in the room, something difficult to do in an environment of power tools.

When considering your budget, my advice is this: you are far better off in buying a few quality tools than a bunch of mediocre ones. The home center stores typically carry a mix of serious gear and cheaper stuff. Home Depot has narrowed its selection of higher-end power tools in recent years, choosing to supplant those with its proprietary Ridgid line of tools. Needless to say, I'm not overly impressed with Ridgid, although they are probably a notch above the budget brands. Similarly, I don't particularly care for Sears Craftsman power tools, either. Craftsman was the brand of choice for our fathers' and grandfathers' generations, and they were quite the machines back in the day (solid, fifty-year-old machines are still circulating on the used market), but the brand seems to have lagged behind the quality curve in recent decades. Sadly, their moment has passed. Sears does make nice wrenches, I'm told. Other cheap brands include the ubiquitous Black & Decker, Ryobi, and Skil, available at stores practically everywhere on the planet. Of those three, Skil is arguably the most solid. Cheap tools like these will probably suffice for occasional use; however, you will quickly discover their limitations. I have owned some of these brands of tools, and have long since replaced them. Learn from my past experiences and buy quality…once.

There are stores that cater to the budget crowd. Harbor Freight, Coastal Tool, and Northern Tool & Equipment offer off-brand tools, many at astonishingly low prices. If you are looking for a tool that is not mission-critical and will not be used regularly, you might do well here. But if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Buyer beware. I recently saw an 18 volt cordless drill kit at one of these stores for $30. Such a tool would not come close in comparison to a Bosch or Makita cordless drill. I'll spend the $200 on the latter and have a tool that, when taken care of, will last for decades. I still have a fully-functional Makita quarter-sheet palm sander I bought in the early 1980s. However, the budget tool dealers do have a place for the serious woodworker: as a good source for many of the "expendables," such as drill bits, fasteners, sandpaper, etc.

You might have better luck at Lowe's, as they tend to carry a broader line of big-name tools. If you live in or near a large city, you may also find a good specialty store that caters to professional woodworkers. If such stores are not available to you, there are good Internet retailers, such as Amazon, Rockler, and Seven Corners. Rockler also has retail stores in many major cities. Amazon posts user reviews, but keep in mind, some of the opinions can be very biased. Amazon also boasts free shipping on many of its items, which is a significant cost-saver in itself.

Go here for a list of links to numerous woodworking suppliers.

Used tools can sometimes be a good option, but go there with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. Make sure you're not buying someone else's problem. You may find a good deal at a yard sale, auction, pawn shop or used tool consignment shop, but be sure to look it over thoroughly before you hand over your money. Ask them to let you plug it in and start it up. If they refuse, walk away. These places often have an "all sales are final" policy. Quite often the price isn't that compelling anyway. I have seen lots of used equipment selling for 80 cents or more on the dollar compared to new, particularly at consignment shops. For a little more, I can get a brand new machine with a warranty. You might want to check ebay, and Craigslist, but be careful -- having a large machine shipped to you sight-unseen is a risky proposition. The cost of shipping a heavy item may offset the cost savings over a new one, and you may have little recourse if something is wrong with it. It would be wiser to limit your online search to sellers who are within a short driving distance. That way you can personally examine the item, maybe bargain a bit, and haul it yourself if you decide to buy.

My general rule-of-thumb for used tool prices is about 50% of new -- if the tool is in good, serviceable condition. I rarely pay more than that, unless the machine is in mint condition, or comes with accessories. Some "white elephant" tools, such as radial arm saws, fetch even less. I have seen numerous radial saws selling for around $50-$150 on Craigslist. Those asking for more will almost predictably re-post the ad in a few days with a more reasonable price. Of course, the market for tools will vary based on location. In any case, don't be afraid to negotiate, and walk away if the price doesn't seem right.

Quality vs. Country of Origin:

I have noticed a curious thing about tool buyers from reading the many postings on message boards and user review sites. It seems a good many woodworkers have a strong tendency to gravitate toward tools made in the U.S., without regard to the actual merit of the tools. Oftentimes, the person will make a simplistic and opinionated value statement, that if it is made overseas, it cannot possibly be as good. It's a silly argument, usually based on xenophobic beliefs. I have yet to hear anyone support such an argument with facts or solid reasoning.

If you are fixated on goods made in the U.S. (or any other nation, for that matter), you may be missing out on the opportunity to discover some well-made tools at reasonable prices. Many of today's quality machines are made overseas, from companies you would have never heard of 10 years ago. Some of the well-known "domestic" brands are now built overseas, or may be comprised of components made overseas. Conversely, some of the "foreign" tool companies (e.g., Makita) manufacture their products here. Quality is dependant upon many factors, and country of origin is rarely a meaningful factor by itself. The reality today is that more and more manufacturing is being farmed out to contract manufacturers around the globe in an effort to rein in capital expenditures and labor costs. Quality is based on, among other things, the engineering design, the capabilities of the contract manufacturer, and how closely the contracting company works with the contract manufacturer. Quality knows no borders, and a "Made in the U.S." label doesn't necessarily guarantee quality. Conversely, products made off-shore are not necessarily inferior. One assembly plant in China could be turning out high-quality goods, while the next plant a few miles down the road is cranking out pure crap. It's not black-and-white and one shouldn't look at it with such a simplistic view. The lines between foreign and domestic are blurred and you'll drive yourself nuts trying to make the distinction. For all you know, your dream tool could be developed in the U.S., by American designers with the aid of engineers in Bangalore, using licensed technology obtained from a company in France, comprised of parts made in Malaysia, assembled in China, improved upon by contract engineers in Korea, and marketed by a broker in Hong Kong to a retail chain back in the U.S. You are better served looking for quality design and construction, a good warranty, and reliable product support. Don't be afraid to spend some time looking over the choices, and asking lots of questions. Go online and read the reviews at Amazon or Epinions, but don't rely entirely on these reviews -- visually inspect the tools at a retail showroom to size up the workmanship.

As I mentioned earlier, carefully examine the different choices in a retail setting before you buy -- that will be your best guide. If you are concerned that your beer-drinking buddies will view you as being unpatriotic, then by all means stick with the domestics and buy based on your (or their) preconceptions. I, on the other hand am immune to peer pressure, and enjoy having more choices. What could be more fundamentally American than exercising choice? Besides, I'd put my Taiwanese 16" Jet band saw up against a U.S.-made Delta any day. The bottom line is that if you understand your needs and your budget, do your research, ask discriminating questions, and buy a quality machine, you should not be disappointed. Be open-minded and think about what you will do with all the extra money you save. <SOAPBOX MODE OFF>

A Few Words About Motors:

This is a topic that will annoy and frustrate many woodworkers. Many power tool manufacturers, particularly in the area of routers and circular saws, have a penchant for greatly exaggerating the horsepower ratings of their motors. So when in doubt, do the math.

One horsepower is equivalent to 746 watts. Since electric motors are not 100% efficient (in fact they are about 70% efficient at best), you need over 1000 watts of input electrical power to generate 1 HP of mechanical power. Since volts times amps equals watts, you can multiply the rated current draw of the tool (expressed in amps) by the line voltage (either 125V or 250V for the single-phase tools you will be using) to tell you how many watts of electrical power the tool consumes (input watts). Take the number of input watts and multiply it by 0.7 (a typical efficiency factor), then divide that number by 746, and you will have an approximation of the delivered continuous horsepower of your tool.

Let's do an example. A router that has an advertised horsepower of "3-1/4 HP," draws 15A at 125V. Let's see if you will really get 3.25 HP from this! 15 x 125 = 1875W of consumed electrical power. Applying the efficiency factor: 1875 x 0.7 = 1312W delivered electrical power. Convert delivered electrical power to horsepower: 1312 / 746 = 1.76 HP of delivered mechanical power. This is just over half of the advertised horsepower rating.

So where does the manufacturer come up with the inflated 3.25 HP figure? This higher horsepower "rating" is actually derived by measuring the motor's electrical current draw under "stall" conditions. They power the motor and clamp the shaft until it reaches the point where it has just stopped rotating. This quickly drives the electrical current much higher than the nominal 15A, in what is called "inrush" current. If you have ever noticed the lights dim when your circular saw blade binds up in the wood, you have witnessed this phenomenon. The higher inrush current is calculated into the power equation, yielding a higher horsepower rating, albeit an unrealistic one. When cornered on the subject, sales representatives and dealers of tools oftentimes will sheepishly concede that the advertised rating is "peak horsepower," or something to that effect. Keep in mind that this peak power is momentary -- a transient value -- not a value of continuous power. An electric motor wouldn't last very long under such stall conditions, if it didn't trip your circuit breaker first. By the way, if the router in our example really did deliver a continuous 3.25 HP, it would require 3,464W of input power -- that's 27.7A at 125V!

Since most 125V circuits are rated at 15A maximum, tools and appliances that plug into 125V outlets are thus limited to 15A or less. A good rule of thumb is that a motorized tool that plugs into a 125V outlet cannot deliver more than about 1-3/4 HP. If you want more power, you will need to consider tools that operate on 250V.

[By the way, if you look at the name plate on a true 1 HP motor (such as a Baldor), you will find that its rated amperage will be something more like 8-12A at 125V or 4-6A at 250V.]

Since every router manufacturer (and every shop vacuum manufacturer for that matter) distorts their advertised horsepower rating this way, the best advice is to compare models based on amps. The 15A model will generally deliver more power than the 10A model, etc.


Power Tools: Where Do I Start?

What are the essential, "must-have" power tools for the home shop? This is a touchy-feely question for woodworkers, and I guarantee that whatever recommendation I make will generate some debate, but here goes anyway...

Before I delve into the pros and cons of the different power tools available to you, I would suggest thinking of this first: safety. Before you roll a single machine into your shop, you should have a few personal safety devices on hand. Safety glasses or face shield, hearing protection (either plugs or muffs), and a good respirator are essential. A pair of work gloves are a good idea as well. For around fifty bucks you can have all of these, and you should get in the habit of using them. Make sure the devices are OSHA and NIOSH approved. Don't cheap out -- get the good ones.

In addition, I would highly recommend a dust collector, or at least a good shop vacuum to collect dust from your machinery. Reducing the dust at its source is the best solution and provides a healthier (and less messy) environment in your shop. Dust collectors for wood shops range in price from about $200 on up. Manufacturers to consider include Delta, Jet, JDS, and Penn State. In addition, I have an article that describes some simple DIY dust collection devices that you can build.

Table Saw

The first major power tool to get should be the table saw. It is, in my opinion, the most versatile stationary power tool for the woodworking shop. The table saw is primarily designed for ripping, but with a few minor modifications, it can do a good job of crosscutting. Many table saws come with a cheesy miter gauge that has perhaps a 6-8" bearing surface at best. Try to crosscut an 8-foot board with this and you will see your board teeter-totter all the way through. Attach a wider auxiliary fence to your miter gauge, or better yet, build a simple crosscut sled that slides across on the miter track.

You can cut dadoes on the table saw, make tenons, cut miters, and make bevel cuts. With sufficient infeed and outfeed tables, you can even cut large pieces of sheet goods, though it's a bit awkward and I still prefer cutting panels using a good circular saw and a straightedge.

I have a $400 Delta 10" table saw that I purchased about 10 years ago at Home Depot. It is equipped with a typical 15 amp, direct-drive "universal" motor. The saw works satisfactorily, but in hindsight, I would recommend something a bit better. If money is no problem, and you have 250V power available in your shop, you can plunk down $2000 or so for a good 3 or 5 HP Delta, Jet or Powermatic cabinet saw. But since few people care to pony up that kind of money, you can do quite well by getting a good "contractor" saw for less than half that amount. This compromise in price will still put a rock-solid saw in your shop, one that will provide the power and accuracy to tackle a broad range of tasks. Another advantage of the contractor saws over the cheaper ones is that the contractor saw will usually be equipped with a true induction motor. Induction motors are generally more efficient than their universal motor brethren, and tend to be more robust in construction. The contractor saw motors are typically a true 1.5 HP, and some are dual voltage (can be wired for either 125V or 250V). This is more than adequate power for most home shop applications.

Avoid any saw that has an aluminum top. You will find this on the cheap saws, such as Ryobi, Ridgid, et al. Aluminum has a higher coefficient of friction -- it is somewhat "sticky." Thus, wood does not slide across it as smoothly as it does on cast iron. Aluminum is a soft metal -- it has the habit of developing burrs that will scratch your wood as it passes across the surface. This advice holds true for any piece of machinery where the work piece is slid across a metal surface -- jointers, planers, band saws, router tables, etc. Pay the extra money and get machines with steel, or better yet, cast iron surfaces.

The fence should be high quality. Loosen the locking lever and move one end of the fence so that it is slightly out of perpendicular. When the lever is tightened, the fence should "snap" back into a perfect perpendicular position. When locked, the fence should stay in place and not move laterally when bumped. The fence should be perfectly parallel to the blade. Raise the blade and measure the lateral distance from the leading edge of the blade to the fence, and again from the trailing edge of the blade to the fence. The two measurements should be exactly equal; you shouldn't have to tweak the fence to keep it parallel.

Get a good blade. There is no sense in spending $600 or more on a good saw and using a cheap $25 blade. For general ripping, a 10" blade with about 20-24 teeth will work well. Crosscut blades have more teeth -- typically 40-80. There are so-called "combination" blades that are kind of a compromise for both kinds of cutting and they work reasonably well. Only use blades with carbide teeth, as they will stay sharp longer. Freud makes good carbide blades in the $50-$60 range. For a little more you can get an excellent combination blade by Forrest that will leave a very smooth finish on your cuts. Most blades have a kerf (width of cut) of about 1/8." If your saw is a lower powered model (1-1/2 HP or less), you may want to consider a narrow-kerf blade, as this will require less power to plow through wood.

Table saws can pose certain dangers. Kickback is one of them, usually caused by the blade binding against the workpiece, resulting in the piece being thrown back toward the operator. The use of good featherboards, such as the excellent Bench Dog Featherloc, is advised. I would also recommend using an anti-kickback device, such as Board Buddies, to provide an extra margin of safety. And of course, always use push sticks to move the workpiece forward. A scrap piece of wood with a notch cut in the end makes a fine push stick. Always stand behind the saw, to the side of the feed path of the wood. That way, if the piece is kicked back, you won't be in the line of fire.

Band Saw

The band saw comes in a close second to the table saw for a "first-to-buy" tool. Like the table saw, the band saw can be used to rip lumber. However, the band saw can do some other useful tasks, such as cutting curves, making dovetails, and cutting tenons. The band saw can also slice boards edgewise, a process known as "resawing." This is a useful feature, especially if you plan to build projects with thin stock. Instead of planing a board down to thinner stock (and converting much of the wood into shavings), you can resaw it into two or more thinner boards. All that is wasted is the thin kerf from the band saw. You can even resaw boards into thin veneer. Band saws have the advantage of cutting a narrower kerf. However, one disadvantage to the band saw is that the cut is not smooth, as is the case with lumber cut on the table saw. Wood cut with a band saw needs to have those surfaces jointed or planed smooth.

Band saws are defined by the depth of their cutting capacity, which is the distance from the blade to the inside of the saw's frame. Thus, a 16-inch band saw is capable of cutting up to 16" into a piece of lumber. Because of this, the band saw is not a good choice for most crosscutting work, unless you are cutting short pieces. The cutting height is also an important consideration, as this determines the maximum width of lumber that can be resawn.

Band saws range from small bench-top models to behemoth floor-standing machines. The bench-top saws are basically "toys," and not much use unless you are using them for cutting small crafts items. These small saws are anemic in power, and you will find them a poor choice for cutting hardwood of any significant size. Outfitted with a narrow blade however, they work fairly well for cutting curves in thin wood. If you build small crafts items, such as birdhouses or plaques, you may find a bench-top band saw to be quite adequate.

If you want to rip lumber or resaw, you should consider a band saw of at least 14" capacity, with a motor of at least 1 HP. Most 14" saws have a cutting height of about 6," which is adequate for most resawing. If you plan to resaw wider lumber, you can sometimes add a riser block to increase the cutting height. However, if you resaw wider boards, your 1 HP motor will be struggling to pull the blade through the lumber. Consider stepping up to a saw with a more powerful motor.

Look for a saw that has beefy cast-iron wheels, a heavy-gauge frame and a rock-solid table. The table should be of cast iron with a trundle mechanism that locks it securely in place. A good fence is essential for ripping and resawing. The guide bearings or blocks are critical -- the blade tracking accuracy depends on them. The larger models often have motors wired for dual voltage, with bigger motors operating on 250V only. Make sure your shop is wired for this. Resawing requires a wide blade, typically over 3/4" width, with a pitch of around 3 or 4 teeth per inch (TPI). You may want to consider upgrading to a better blade, such as Timberwolf.

Delta, Jet, Powermatic, and Laguna are good choices for bigger saws, with prices ranging from about $600 on up. Although I am not directly familiar with them, I have heard good reviews of Grizzly, that their machines are very reasonably priced and that their customer service is excellent.

Drill Press

A good drill press is indispensable for all the routine drilling operations that need to be performed with precision. A hand-held electric drill is fine for non-critical drilling. However, when you need to closely control the drilling location, depth and angle, the drill press is much better suited for the task. The drill press can provide repeatability; you can set it up to drill numerous holes of a uniform depth. By using a fence, you can drill multiple holes along a perfectly straight line. The drill press can ensure that your holes are perpendicular to the surface of the workpiece, or you can tilt the table to drill holes at a particular angle. Many accessories are available for the drill press. You can attach special bits to turn your drill press into a mortising machine. You can even find mandrels for turning pens.

Drilling with a drill press provides an added measure of safety. Small workpieces can be clamped to the table, thus preventing them from breaking free and spinning in the event the bit binds up in the material. Some types of bits, particularly rosette cutters, large-diameter Forstner bits and hole saws, are only safely used on a drill press.

Drill presses come in all sizes -- from small bench-top models to huge floor-standing machines. Drill presses are usually described in terms of their capacity, expressed in inches. This is not the same as the capacity stated for band saws. Drilling is a symmetrical function -- you can reach the center of a workpiece from any side. Thus, the capacity of a drill press is based on the greatest width of a workpiece that can be drilled in its center. In other words, a "12 inch" drill press has a distance of 6 inches from the center of the bit to the inside of the column (throat distance), enabling the drill press to drill the center of a 12" wide board from either side.

The size of drill press you buy depends on the type of work you will be doing. For small crafts projects, a bench-top model of 8 - 10" capacity will probably suffice. For larger woodworking tasks, a floor-standing machine of 14 - 16" would be a better choice. Another feature to look for is the depth of plunge -- how deep the machine will drill. At least 4" for a floor-standing machine is recommended. Most drill presses are capable of multiple speeds. Changing the speed is usually accomplished by repositioning the drive belt between different pulley wheels. The larger floor-standing machines typically have 12 or more speed settings, ranging from about 200 RPM up to 3000 RPM or more. Some of the better models include a built-in task lamp, which is a nice feature.

Look for a drill press with a robust cast iron table that can be tilted left or right. Other features are a chuck capacity of at least 1/2 inch, and a motor of at least 1/2 HP (3/4 HP is better) in the floor-standing models. The benchtop models typically have motors around 1/4 HP. Accuracy is important -- make sure the model you choose has a minimum of play in the spindle. Grab the chuck and try to move it from side to side. It shouldn't wobble.

Small, bench-top machines, manufactured by Delta, Ryobi, and others, can be purchased for as little as $100, and are commonly available in the home center stores. The larger floor-standing models are usually sold by dealers that cater to woodworkers, machinists and other trades people. They can also be purchased online from retailers like Amazon, Rockler, and Seven Corners. Brands to look for include Delta, Jet and Powermatic. Prices for the larger machines are typically in the $300-$400 range.

Router

The router is a versatile tool that can perform many useful functions. It can shape the edges of wood, cut box joints and dovetails, trims edges of laminates, plow grooves and dadoes, cut mortises and more. Affixed to a router table, the machine can be used as a shaping tool to create interesting profiles in wood, make tongue-and-groove joints, cut slots, and shape moldings. With the proper bits, the router can perform a seemingly endless variety of woodworking tasks.

Routers are generally touted by their power, expressed in horsepower. [Caveat: see my discussion of motors above.] Since the HP ratings tend to be greatly exaggerated, judge their power based on the amperage of the tool. Light-duty routers are usually found in the range of 8-11 amps, with the heavy-duty models approaching 15A. Consumer-grade routers are 125V machines.

There are basically two types of routers: plunge and fixed-base. Plunge routers feature a slidable motor that moves up and down a set of rails within the base during operation. The user starts the machine and by pressing down, plunges the rotating bit into the workpiece. The plunge router has a user-adjustable stop mechanism to limit the depth of plunge. Of course, the plunge router can be operated in a fixed mode when you don't desire the bit to be plunged.

The fixed base router is just that: the motor remains in one position within the base. You can plunge using the fixed-base router -- it just requires a bit of skill. The router is turned on and the user tips the base downward, plunging the bit into the workpiece. The depth of cut is adjusted and set before operation.

Either type can usually be mounted onto a router table. The router is positioned upside-down, with the bit protruding upward through an aperture in the table. The table has a fence that allows the workpiece to be fed horizontally into the rotating router bit.

Routers are equipped with a collet that grasps the shank of the bit, much like how a drill chuck holds a drill bit. Collets usually come in two sizes: for 1/4" and 1/2" diameter router bit shanks. Many routers include both size collets.

There seems to be an endless variety of router bits available, with some specialized distributors offering catalogs featuring page after page of bits for sale. Some bits are comprised of high-speed steel, but carbide bits last much longer and are a much better value. Depending on the bit, prices can range from about $5 up to $100 or more. Many casual hobbyists will find the best value by purchasing an assorted set of commonly used bits. Some catalog suppliers sell decent kits of 20 or more carbide bits for under $100. But be forewarned: you generally get what you pay for. Cheap "house-brand" bits will not last as long and generally don't cut as cleanly as the better bits. Makers of high-quality router bits include CMT, Whiteside, Ridge Carbide, and Amana.

A good router will cost from $150-$300. Some brands to look for include Porter-Cable, Hitachi, Fein, Bosch, Makita, DeWalt, and Milwaukee. My personal favorite is the Hitachi M12V, a beefy 15A variable-speed plunge router that can be purchased for well under $200. Router tables can be purchased at woodworking supply stores or online. You can also build your own table. Router bits are available everywhere.

Sander

Unless you truly enjoy sanding by hand, a good power sander or two can make your pastime more enjoyable. There are many types available, but I would recommend getting two kinds: a belt sander and a random-orbit sander.

The belt sander is useful for sanding applications where you need to quickly remove a fair amount of material. It is indispensable for smoothing out rough surfaces, and removing high spots. If you purchase rough-cut lumber and you don't own a planer, the belt sander will find much use in your shop. They are absolutely necessary for sanding hardwood floors. Using the belt sander requires a bit of skill and attention to details, as it can quickly gouge your workpiece if you're not careful. Improper belt sander operation can also turn a flat board into one with unwanted terrain features. Mastering the belt sander takes much time and patience. Belt sanders are sold based on the size of the belts they use (width x circumference). A 3" x 21" belt sander is generally quite adequate for the home user, but you can step up to a 4" x 24" if you need to cover more surface.

A random-orbit sander is useful for the medium to fine finish sanding stages. These sanders come in many flavors, using round or rectangular pieces of sandpaper. I prefer the round ones, as I don't like the idea of corners possibly digging into my work. A random-orbit sander rotates the sandpaper around two axes -- it turns slowly about the center and simultaneously moves off-center in tiny swirling motions. This reduces the amount of arced scratch marks, though the sander may leave small swirl marks. You should always perform a final hand sanding using fine grit paper on a sanding block before you apply a finish.

Random-orbit sanders employ different means of attaching the sandpaper -- some are more convenient than others. One kind requires the user to apply a spray adhesive to the paper to adhere it to the sander, or may use paper with a peel-and-stick adhesive backing. Another type uses paper with a hook and loop backing. The sander has the hook surface and the paper has the loop surface. This kind is much less messy and easier to change paper, though the sanding discs cost a little more. The rectangular sanders are typically designed for using 1/4 or 1/3 sheets of sandpaper, and often use edge clips to hold the paper in place. My personal preference is the hook and loop type.

You can also find detail sanders that use small, triangular-shaped sandpaper pads. These are useful if you do a lot of refinishing work and need to sand into tight places.

Power sanding creates a lot of dust. Be sure to wear an approved respirator and eye protection while sanding. Hearing protection is a good idea as these sanders are quite noisy. If you do a lot of sanding of small workpieces, you may want to consider buying or building a downdraft table -- basically a wooden box with numerous holes drilled in the top surface. This is attached to a shop vacuum or dust collector to draw dust downward from the workpiece as you sand.

Brands to look for include Bosch, Hitachi, Porter-Cable, Makita, Fein, and DeWalt. Prices will range from about $150 to $200 or so for a 3" x 21" belt sander, a little more for a 4" x 24" model. Random-orbit sanders are relatively inexpensive, costing from $50-$100.

Bench Grinder

This is a good, all-around tool to have on hand for all the grinding, sharpening and deburring of tools and jigs. Typical models have motors in the 1/4 to 1/2 HP range, with shafts protruding from both ends of the motor to mount 2 grinding wheels of 5 or 6 inches in diameter. These machines are so inexpensive, there's no reason not to have a couple grinders -- one fitted with a coarse and fine grinding wheel, and a second unit with a wire brush and buffing wheel. You could spend a couple hundred a pop on a nice Baldor machine, but for most home shop use, an inexpensive Delta or Black & Decker will do just fine for a fraction of that.


Additional Tools to Consider:

The tools discussed above are what I believe to be the most versatile and best first choices for most beginners. A shop equipped with these tools, in the hands of a hobbyist who understands their operation, will be capable of tackling a wide variety of projects. Obviously, different types of woodworking will call for different tools. Lathes, scroll saws and other specialized tools are necessary for certain types of woodworking projects. In addition, many hand tools and accessories become a necessary component of a good wood shop. Chisels, planes, screwdrivers, jigs, outfeed roller stands, and measuring and layout tools are but a few examples.

There are some additional power tools you may want to consider as you develop your hobby and expand the capabilities of your shop. I will discuss them briefly.

Jointer

The jointer is chiefly used to true up edges of lumber, but can be used to make bevels, and with the correct technique, can cut tapers on table legs. Avoid the cheap bench-top models and opt for a good floor-standing model with cast iron infeed and outfeed tables. Make sure the fence is rock solid. The models with 3 cutting knives generally make a smoother surface than those with only 2 knives. Most jointers come with high-speed steel knives; replacing them with carbide knives is a very expensive proposition, but this may be a good idea if you plan to use the machine a lot. A good 6" jointer with a 1 HP motor will cost around $500-$800. Look for Jet, Delta, or Powermatic.

Surface Planer

The planer is used to flatten lumber, and is useful for surfacing rough-cut lumber. The bench-top models typically have a 12-13" width capacity, and cost from $250-$500. Look for models that have a locking cutterhead (minimizes snipe), and ease of knife replacement. Most use disposable knives and better models have alignment tabs to simplify the installation of replacement knives. Power is generally not a distinguishing feature in benchtop models, as they all have 15A motors. I have used the cheap Delta benchtop planers and have found them to be unsatisfactory. Excessive vibration and poor feed rollers plagued these machines, making their use a tedious process. I have found much better performance with the venerable Makita 2012NB for just over $400. Also, look at the DeWalt DW735, at around $500.

The large floor-standing models feature 250V motors of 2 to 3 HP or more, and have capacities of 15 to 20 inches. These cost upwards of $1000. If you want to replace the steel knives with carbide, expect to shell out several hundred more. Planers (including the benchtop models) generate huge amounts of dust and shavings in a short span of time. A good dust collection system is an absolute necessity unless you enjoy standing in mountains of wood shavings. Planers are incredibly loud, and hearing protection is a must. This is the tool most likely to annoy your neighbors. Before investing in a planer, ask yourself how much you will really need one. Quite often you can have your hardwood lumber planed at the lumber dealer for around 20 to 30 cents a board foot.

For the bench-top models, look for DeWalt, Makita, and Jet. Good floor-standing models are made by Jet, Delta, and Powermatic.

Miter Saw

The miter saw is designed specifically for crosscutting. As its name implies, it can cut miters, and some models can also cut bevels (compound miter saws). The better models will cut miters and bevels of at least 45 degrees in either direction. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of sliding miter saws, capable of crosscutting up to 12 inches. These sliding miter saws are quickly taking the place of the cumbersome (and dangerous) radial arm saws. The slide miter saws are expensive -- if you already own a good table saw, you can perform 90 degree crosscutting by building a simple crosscut sled that acts as a carriage to move your workpiece across the blade. However, the sliding miter saws are indispensable for all the non-perpendicular crosscutting.

A good basic miter saw can cost as little as $100, with the sliding miter saws costing up to $600. Look for Makita, DeWalt, Bosch, and Hitachi. I have found the Delta miter saws to be rather flimsy.

If you insist on getting a radial arm saw, by all means don't buy it new. Used models are everywhere, and the sellers can barely give the things away. With contractors and shops switching over to sliding miter saws, there has become a market glut of used radial arm saws. You can find these saws, most often the Craftsman or older DeWalt models, at yard sales, auctions, and online at ebay and CraigsList. A decent used machine should cost you no more than $100. If the seller insists on more, walk away, as you will likely find another for a better price. If it's a pre-1993 Craftsman machine, check to see if it has had a safety kit retrofitted. Emerson Tool Company, a manufacturer of Craftsman radial arm saws, instituted a major product recall involving these older saws, and provides a kit for them, free of charge. If you have such a saw, and it does not have the safety kit, be sure to get one. Emerson will be more than happy to send you one, as this is much cheaper for them than a products liability suit. The newer Craftsman saws (1993 and later) have the safety features built in, by the way. In any case, if you buy a radial arm saw, be very, VERY careful with it.

Pneumatic Nailer

Once you try a pneumatic brad or finish nailer, you will wonder how you lived without it for so long. These nailers make short work of assembling cabinet parts, and a brad nailer is ideal for affixing plywood panels to the backs and sides of cabinets. You will use fewer clamps when gluing components. Just apply glue, affix the pieces together, shoot a few brads to hold them in place, and you are set. You can often find "package deals" with a small compressor and one or two nail guns for $300 or so. Porter-Cable has one such package, but also look at Senco, Hitachi, Paslode, DeWalt, and Bostitch. If you buy a nail gun, stick with that manufacturer's nails, as the guns tend to be finicky about the nails they shoot, and aftermarket nails may not feed well.

Stationary Sander

There are many types of bench-top sanders: disc, belt, spindle, etc. Some models incorporate a disc and belt sander into one unit. Spindle sanders rotate a cylindrical drum, and usually oscillate the drum up and down. These are useful for sanding the insides of curved surfaces. If you do lots of scroll cuts, a spindle sander is indispensable.

Disc/belt sanders can be obtained for as little as $60, though these models tend to be flimsy. Spend a couple hundred and get a bigger, more robust model. Spindle sanders cost about $200 on up. Look for Delta (but avoid their small bench-top models), and Jet. Make sure the fences and tables are solid and stay in place. Look for models that have dust collection ports, as sanders generate lots of dust.

Circular Saw

A good circular saw is useful for cutting sheet goods that are too cumbersome to cut on a table saw. It is also useful for crosscutting long boards in the absence of a miter saw. It takes a good degree of skill to make straight cuts freehand. By using a straightedge clamped to the workpiece, you can cut as cleanly as on a table saw.

There are many cheap circular saws available, some for as low as $30. The arbors of these saws typically use poor quality sleeve bearings that quickly wear loose, resulting in undesirable blade runout. For about $80-$150, you can get a high quality model that uses ball or roller bearings. This will ensure much better tolerances and longer life. Get a saw with the highest amperage possible -- at least 12A. Ignore the hyped "horsepower" ratings. Look for DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee, Bosch, and Hitachi.

Jig Saw

The jig saw, sometimes referred to as a "sabre saw," is designed for cutting curves in wood, metal, plastic and other materials. This is useful in cases where you don't have a band saw. It is also ideal for cutting materials that cannot be cut with a band saw, such as sheets of plywood. Cheap models abound, but spending $150 for a good DeWalt or Bosch will give you a much more accurate tool that will last many years.

Scroll Saw

The scroll saw is indispensable for free hand cutting of thin wood (usually under 1" thick). This tool makes it easy to cut tight curves and intricate fretwork. A must-have if you like creating small wooden crafts items, such as plaques, children's toys, or intarsia designs. Scroll saws use extremely narrow blades, enabling the user to cut curves at radii much smaller than possible with a bandsaw. The fine teeth of a scroll saw blade can make smooth cuts that require little sanding. The scroll saw size is determined by the distance from the blade to the arm support. Hence, a 16-inch scroll saw is capable of cutting up to 16 inches from the edge of the workpiece. The scroll saw is rather pleasurable to use and is relatively quiet as compared to many power tools. But make no mistake, this otherwise docile tool is not a toy. It is quite capable of removing some fingers from an inattentive user.

A good scroll saw will cost anywhere from $100 to $400. Better saws have machined cast iron tables. Look for DeWalt, Dremel, or Delta.

Other Specialized Power Tools

There are a few specialized tools designed for performing specific operations. These might be well worth considering if you do certain types of repetitious woodworking tasks:

    Mortising machine. Tired of chopping mortises with a mallet and chisel? If you do lots of mortise-and-tenon joinery, this tool will make your life easier. Essentially a specialized drill press with a bit inside of a hollow square chisel. Benchtop models by Delta and Jet will cost about $200-$300.

    Oscillating spindle sander. This features a rotating, cylindrical sanding spindle that protrudes upward from the center of the machine's table. The spindle oscillates in an up and down motion simultaneous with its rotation, thus preventing the occurrence of horizontal scratch marks in the workpiece and reducing heat buildup. This tool is indispensable for sanding concave curved surfaces. Look for Jet and Delta, and expect to spend $200-$400. Ridgid makes a novel version featuring an oscillating teardrop-shaped spindle. However, I haven't heard any reviews as to its reliability - and I tend to be a bit skeptical of Ridgid tools. Your mileage may vary.

    Drum Sander. If sanding boards and large panels with a belt sander is not your idea of fun, and you have a wad of Ben Franklins burning a hole in your pocket, then a drum sander could be in your future. These machines will remove planer marks from lumber and make edge-glued panels smooth in a couple of passes. But the stiff price tag puts these big, floor-standing machines out of the reach of most average hobbyists; even the smaller models have price tags approaching $1000. Larger units can escalate into several thousand. Many models are open on one side, allowing the user to rotate the panel and sand the other half. Thus, a 16" drum sander can sand a panel up to 32" wide. Look for models by Performax, Woodmaster, and Delta.

    Cordless drill/driver. You're going to need a hand-held drill. Why not get a cordless one? Look for a variable-speed reversible (VSR) with a 1/2" capacity chuck, at least 12V. A good 18V model from DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee, Bosch, or Hitachi will be more than sufficient for driving just about any kind of fastener into stubborn hardwood. Some of drills (primarily Makita and a few others at this time) feature the newer nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, which boast a much higher energy density than the old-school nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries, yielding roughly twice the capacity. NiMH batteries can sustain more charge/discharge cycles, and are much less prone to the so-called memory effect that plagues NiCd batteries. The capacities of rechargeable batteries are stated in milliamp-hours (mAh) or amp-hours (Ah) - thus, the higher the rating, the better. A good 18V drill with 2 batteries and charger will cost about $200; the 12V models about half that.

    Plate joiner. Eventually, you will find that joining wood with dowels is a time-consuming and tedious task. A plate or "biscuit" joiner makes this task much quicker, and produces a more accurate and stronger joint. The biscuit joiner uses a special rotating blade to cut shallow semielliptical slots into the facing pieces to be glued. A biscuit - a flat, football-shaped piece of compressed hardwood - is inserted into the slots during the gluing proces to help bond and add strength to the joint. The biscuit also helps align the workpieces being joined. Look for models by Makita, DeWalt, Porter-Cable, or Freud. These range in cost from around $100-$200.


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