Freestanding Saws

What kind of saw do you need in your workshop? Here's some help.


In the thoroughly equipped workshop, there are more tools than you could shake a furring strip at. You know the workshop I mean, the theoretical one in which the space is endless and there’s a giant, industrial-grade table saw front and center. And a deep-throated band saw, a muscular radial-arm saw, and a more modest-sized bench grinder. And a planer, a shaper, and a drill press. Everything this side a candlestick maker, it seems.

Oh, it’s hopeless, you say, I’ll never fit all those/most of those/any of those in my space! Well, cheer up, I say, you don’t have to. Most people don’t need planers, or drill presses, or a shaper (hand-held planes, drills, and routers will suffice, after all). For a great many kinds of woodworking, the table saw is indispensable, but then some benchtop saws these days are remarkably good – and take up no more space when not in use than a medium-sized suitcase.

Which ones do you need? Which do you want? What do you have space for?

In deciding which stationary tools are essential to your shop, remember that more tools means fewer makereadies (that is, setup time to change blades or settings, or to fashion jigs). A purpose-made shaper saves the trouble of inserting the molding head into the table saw, the presence of a disk sander saves a blade change on the radial-arm saw, and so on.

On the other hand, a multipurpose tool like a Shopsmith or a SuperShop allows you to have a lathe, drill press, table saw (typically ten-inch), and disk sander (twelve-inch is common), and other attachments like a band saw, jigsaw, jointer, and belt sander—all in roughly the same number of square feet of floor space required by a bathtub. The downside is that every operation requires a changeover and, clever as such multipurpose tools are, the transformations do take time. More than a few woodworkers with limited space report the trade-off in setup time is worth it for the machine’s versatility: there’s no way they’d be able to fit the equivalent freestanding machines in the same space. It’s your call.

For beginning woodworkers, however, I’d recommend starting with one basic stationary tool, either a table saw (my preference) or a radial-arm saw. A small investment in portable tools (a drill, portable circular saw, sanders, portable planer, and so on) will provide the support machines to undertake some basic projects.

The serious woodworker probably needs a band saw, table saw (and/or radial-arm saw, or both), a jointer/planer, perhaps a thickness planer, and a drill press. The sky’s the limit, given space, money, and inclination. But don’t be intimidated: I’ve seen top-grade work come out of virtual cubbyholes with the aid of a minimum of tools.

See how it goes: If you spend most of your time changing blades on your table saw, exchanging a basic blade for a molding head, maybe you need a shaper. If mortising seems to take forever, maybe a drill press and a mortising attachment are in order. Many a frustration at the slowness of an operation can be resolved with another tool.