Choosing Essential Tools for Woodworking

Having these 10 favorites on hand will make any future project a breeze.

Photo: craftstudio.missouri.edu

Whether starting a workshop from scratch or enhancing an existing one, few woodworkers will come up with the same workshop tools wish lists. Most often the first priority is either a table saw, band saw, or radial arm saw, followed by equipment to dress up lumber, such as a planer, lathe, and drill press. From there on, the equipment you’ll want will depend to a large degree on the projects you end up building most often.

Many shop projects can be built with just a major workshop saw, a drill press, and a good router with accessories, along with an assortment of hand tools. Priority hand tools for woodworking include a good set of chisels and a good plane. Consider the workshop tools listed below as investments. Evaluate your goals, and choose the workshop tools that best suits your needs. There is no need to buy them all at once, but as your skills improve and your projects grow more complex add the tools that will give you the right results: straight cuts, square corners, and strong joints.

Table Saw
Whether it’s a heavy-duty model that stays in a workshop or a portable bench saw, the table saw is an amazingly adaptable tool.

Formally known as a “tilting arbor saw,” this tool is just an upside-down electric handsaw that’s been mounted to the underside of a steel table top, with the circular saw blade protruding through a slot. The “arbor” is the shaft on which the blade spins. It’s an axle that can be tilted with respect to the horizontal table top for cutting angles; it’s raised or lowered to adjust cutting depth. A miter gauge enables the sawyer to push stock at angles or perpendicular to the blade (“cross-cutting”). A fence can be fixed parallel to the blade for cutting along the length of a workpiece (“rip-sawing”).

When buying a table saw, two factors determine both price and the flexibility of the machine. The larger the blade, the larger the stock that can be cut; a 10-inch saw is probably the most common size. The dimension of the table top is the other criteria: bigger is better for cutting large stock like plywood; but bigger is also less portable and more expensive.

Air Compressor
In this age of air-powered nailers, drills, sanders, impact wrenches, grinders, saws, spray guns, washers, and other pneumatic tools, the compressor has become a virtual necessity. The compressor consists of a motorized pump; a tank for storing the compressed air; an on/off control (governor) that tells the pump when to start and stop in order to keep the pressure within preset limits; and a regulator to control the pressure at which the air escapes the tank to suit the needs of the tools being used. There’s a metal frame on which all the parts are mounted, usually with a carrying handle and sometimes wheels.

There are many and varied compressors on the market. Important considerations in choosing one are portability (if the tool is to be hauled to a worksite, how heavy and awkward is it?); output (do the standard cubic feet per minute and pounds per square inch produced match the equivalent of the tools to be used?); and, of course, price.

Compound Miter Saw
In recent years, this versatile and accurate tool has become a fixture in the work shop and at the work site. Also called a “chop box,” the miter saw consists of a powerful circular saw mounted on an arm that hinges at the rear of the tool. When the blade is lowered in a chopping motion, it cuts through the workpiece, passing through a slot in the base. The motor and blade can be pivoted with respect to the base for miter cuts. Another adjustment makes it possible to tilt the blade, too, allowing for compound miter cuts, handy for jobs like cutting crown moldings, which are set at a pitched angle and that must also turn around corners. The diameter of the blade determines the maximum cut width, with standard sizes ranging from 8-inch blades up to 15 inches. A 10- or 12-inch saw is sufficient for most jobs.

Drill Press
A drill press is nothing more than a fixed-in-place version of the hand drill — a simple arrangement that does wonders for precise work. With an adjustable table beneath the chuck with a hole in its center, a spinning drill bit passes cleanly through a workpiece.

Drill presses are available as both freestanding floor models and in benchtop designs. The drill press is powered by an electric motor, driving it via a system of pulleys or gears. The drill bit is locked into the chuck, then is driven down using a hand-powered lever system. A spring pushes it back up when pressure on the lever is released. The size of a drill press is determined by the throat, the distance between the supporting column at the rear and the axis on which the spindle of the drill turns; thus, a 15-inch model will cut to the center of a 15-inch workpiece. A number of adjustments including a movable table depth, a depth gauge to set the distance the spindle travels and pulley adjustments to change speeds increase the tool’s functionality. The drill press can be used not only to drill round holes of all kinds but also for sanding, grooving, and even mortising jobs with the addition of specialized attachments.

Photo: craftstudio.missouri.edu

Lathe
When it comes to wood turning, the lathe is the indispensable tool for producing chair legs, bowls, and balusters. Workpieces are suspended over a metal bed, spun at high speed, and shaped using special chisels and gouges.

The wood to be turned is fixed between the “headstock” and “tailstock” of the lathe. The headstock houses the motor that spins the workpiece; the tailstock is adjustable, moving along the length of the bed to fit workpieces of various lengths. Once the piece is locked in place, the tool rest is positioned about an eighth of an inch away from the piece, just below its center line. The spinning workpiece is then shaped using a chisel or gouge held fast to the tool rest. Face-plate turning, in which the workpiece is fastened with screws to the face plate of the drive spindle, enables the woodworker to produce bowls and other hollow goods.

Thickness Planer
Planers are usually identified by the width and thickness of the stock they will plane. A 12-inch model will suffice for most home workshop jobs. Don’t force the piece into the planer: the machine has a feed control that adjusts the speed at which the stock passes the cutterhead.

Radial Arm Saw
The radial arm saw is basically a portable circular saw that glides on an adjustable arm suspended over a fixed cutting surface. The blade and motor are connected to the arm by a yoke, which is adjustable along both horizontal and vertical planes, enabling the saw to be swung in a variety of directions.

For cross-cut work, position the board flush with the fence at the rear of saw and draw the blade across the wood. The bevel lock allows the saw to be tilted for cutting angles; set it to the desired angle using the protractor on the saw housing. The saw can be swivelled right or left for mitering, or even turned a full 90 degrees for ripping. The blade can also be raised or lowered using a crank. The size of the saw is determined by the dimension of the blade the saw can accommodate. Many models use 10-inch blades, which will cut stock up to 3 inches thick.

Scroll Saw
Also known as a jigsaw, the power scroll saw might as well be called the gingerbread saw: That’s what it does best, cutting tight curves, angles, and intricate shapes. The scroll saw blades, called “jeweler’s blades” are short and straight. They’re clamped at the top and bottom and cut in a reciprocating (up-and-down) motion.

Most models have variable speeds, but the scroll saw is designed to cut precisely not quickly. Feed the wood to the saw flush to the saw table. Scroll saw blades are thin and easily broken, so take care not to bend, twist, or put too much pressure on the blade. Drill holes in the waste stock at the tightest corners to facilitate clean and neat cuts. The depth of the saw throat determines how large a piece of wood can be cut on a given saw; 16 inches is a common and generally useful size.

Table and Belt Sander
This is that rare two-for-one deal in which two tools have been effectively made one. The stationary belt sander uses a closed loop of paper that travels at speed around a pair of cylindrical drums. One drum is driven by an electric motor, the other is spring-loaded to maintain belt tension. Powered by the same motor, the stationary disk sander uses sanding disks that spin on a backing plate.

On both the belt and disk sanders, the workpiece is presented to the tool (the opposite is true of portable belt and hand-held disk sanders which are presented to the work; as a result, they are particularly useful in sanding oversized workpieces). On stationary sanders, an adjustable worktable or fence can be fixed in front of the sander to position the workpiece during sanding. Belt sizes vary greatly, with four-inch wide, two- or three-foot-long belts being usual, as are four- to eight-inch diameter disks.

Band Saw
The band saw is great for freehand and curved cutting, but its depth of cut also makes it suitable for sawing thick lumber. The table tilts on many models, allowing for angle cuts. Band saws come in many sizes but for most home workshops a good choice is a 12- or a 14- inch model (the dimension indicates the size of the workpiece that can be presented to the blade; a 12-inch band saw will saw to the center a 12-inch piece).

Blade size is another consideration: the variables are the number of points (teeth) per inch; the width and gauge (thickness) of the blade; and the kinds of teeth. Fewer teeth make for a faster but coarser saw cut; more teeth for finer work or for cutting metal.