How To: Stock Your Workshop

Know your needs and buy smart in order to build a workshop that is right for your needs.

Photo: Flickr

There are so many manufacturers, and so many kinds and types and models of virtually every tool, that the options may appear to be nearly infinite. Making the right choices can seem daunting in a marketplace where equivalent tools are sold for prices that differ, in some cases by 500 percent or more. Whether your principal priority is to be true to your tight budget or to advance your personal quest for the best, the best tool to serve your needs isn’t always evident.

Consider a few commonsense rules I’ve picked up over the years.

Start Sensibly. Invest first in the basic tools that you will need again and again. Wrenches and drivers, a drill and a circular saw, and other multipurpose tools probably should be on hand before sophisticated stationary power tools arrive. Make the decisions case by case: For example, a high-powered belt sander bought for one job is probably a poor investment, while a random-orbit sander that can be used for rough and finish work alike may get dozens or even hundreds of hours of use. Consider carefully what you really need, the options that are available, and buy the essentials first.

Add Equipment As You Go. When you set up your workshop you don’t have to own every tool you’ll ever need. A rarely used and expensive tool might better be borrowed or even rented for a special use. Many rental companies have a wide range of specialty and quite run-of-the-mill tools for a per-diem fee. If you only need the tool once (or once in awhile), the rental fees will probably be less than the purchase price would be. And no storage problem presents itself because the tool goes back to the renter when the job is done.

Using someone else’s tool also enables you to discover if you like a certain brand or model, and may save you money when you come to buy one for yourself. If you didn’t enjoy using the one from the rental shop or Dad’s tool chest, keep shopping.

Once you know what you like and know what you need, don’t hesitate to make the investment. You will discover (if you haven’t already) that friends who borrow your tools grow less welcome, especially if they care less about your tools than you do. Return tools promptly and in the condition they were in when you took them home.

Buying Tools. The feel of a tool is part of its pleasure. The heft, the tactile sense of belonging that a quality tool gives of being an extension of the hand—that’s what to look for when buying a tool, especially a hand-held tool like a plane or a chisel.

Now, you observe, that isn’t so easy when buying from a catalog. And mail-order suppliers often have the best prices, right?

Keep in mind that some catalogs are less available—and sometimes less cooperative—when a tool breaks down and needs repair. Many professional craftspeople will tell you to seek out a fair, friendly, knowledgeable local dealer and develop a good working relationship early on. That’s good advice. It may cost you money in the short run but over the long haul you will probably encounter fewer hassles.

Get the Feel First. Even if you can’t or don’t choose this approach, it’s in your interest to find an opportunity to get the feel of a tool before buying it. Maybe it’s at the store with the highest prices (ask if they’re negotiable) or in a friend’s workshop. But hands-on is important in making tool-buying decisions. If at all possible, put the tool to use, too.

At the very least, eyeball it. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from people who have bought tools through the mail only to discover a tool was smaller than anticipated or too heavy or badly made in ways the buyer would have detected if he or she had been able to examine it firsthand. Don’t be afraid to ask for dimensions.

When tool shopping, inspect the tools on display. Look for double-insulated bodies. Does the casting appear to be of good quality? Heavy-duty cords of reasonable length are often one indication of good-quality power tools. Does it look and feel sturdy? You may be surprised how much your own tool sense can tell you about a tool even if your inspection of it consists of little more than looking and lifting.

A Bargain Isn’t Always a Bargain. Unfortunately, the cheaper a tool is, the more likely it is to be made of inferior materials, to have been badly machined or shaped, or have any number of manufacturing defects. Cheap chisels won’t hold an edge and the motors on cheap power tools tend to burn out quickly. A penny saved buying cheap tools isn’t a penny earned, but more like a penny wasted. Quality, brand-name tools of good repute earned their reputations: There’s a reason why so many professionals buy American brands like Craftsman, Delta, Milwaukee, and Porter-Cable, and imported labels like Ryobi, Makita, and Bosch.

That isn’t to say that the occasional worker in a workshop needs the best tools on the market. Rather, you should consider your needs, try to balance your investment with the dividends you can reasonably expect, and remember the old adage: You will, most likely, get exactly what you pay for.

Look for Flexibility. Buying fewer, more versatile tools is one good way to save money. Tools with attachments often make sense, such as a router that with a simple adapter becomes a biscuit joiner and also cuts mortises. Learn as much as you can about individual tools from sales catalogs, from friends and tradesmen, and even from salesmen in shops.