Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Buying an initial set of hobbyist woodworking tools

If you are just starting out making things out of wood, the first thing to do is acquire a good basic tool kit to get you through your first projects. I think people generally start doing woodworking 3 different ways:
1) They were exposed young, either through a family tradition of craftsmanship, school shop program, or an innate desire to make things.
2) They've done a few projects around the house like assembling kit furniture, fence or furniture repair and desire to expand their repertory.
3) Basic need - a desire to make furniture better than they can afford to buy, or satisfy immediate furniture needs as cheaply as possible.
Whichever route we take, most people accumulate tools to accomplish the job at hand. Sure, sometimes people dive right in and purchase a bunch of tools all at once, but most people don't have the means, desire, or even the knowledge to pick out tools that way.
Years ago I wrote an article that was published by The Guild of Oregon Woodworkers about buying second hand tools from garage sales. I do recommend buying your first tools as inexpensively as possible without sacrificing quality (click here to read it) but that isn't the focus of this blog entry.
TIP - join a local woodworker's guild or club to learn from others rather than solely your own mistakes. Some mistakes are bigger than others - most folk start off with hearing, 10 digits on their two hands and 2 eyes; at a minimum you should at least hang on to those - safety first!

Here is my minimum list of equipment for making furniture from surfaced and (mostly) square lumber from a Home Center:
1) Eye protection - safety glasses are a must. Buy extra for any helpers!
2) Hearing protection - in ear or over ear, use whatever form you like every time you turn on a power tool. The important part is to never forget to use, and to use properly. Again, make sure you have protection for your helpers too.
3) Circular Saw - really, almost any will do, what is important is the blade, and how square the blade is to the shoe. For construction almost any blade will do, but you'll want a high quality blade if you are trying to make good looking furniture. I like Freud crosscut blades for their clean cutting action - get one that fits your saw.
4) A fence / sawing guide - for the shoe of the Circular saw to ride against. It can be homemade, or a fancy self-clamping guide. The important thing is that it be perfectly straight as the fence turns your lowly hand-held circular saw into a precision instrument. It has to be long enough to cut the pieces you are making. You may even need two - a short one and a long one depending on your projects.
5) A drill - a reversible, corded, variable speed hand-held drill with a 1/2" chuck, with a set of bradpoint drillbits in the common small sizes. Why 1/2" and not 3/8" ? Because this is one piece of equipment that you won't grow out of, or need to replace if you buy a good one the first time. Cordless and impact drivers may be tools that you add to your arsenal, but you'll be reaching for your larger drill more often than you think. Kreg Pocketscrews or Dowels or Miller dowels, they all rely on a good handheld drill. I also prefer a chuck with a key rather than a hand-tightened keyless chuck. I like a key chuck because I think they hold more securely and I've had keyless chucks bind and be hard to loosen, especially when wearing gloves or with sweaty hands.
6) Squares. You'll want a couple and for a few different reasons. A Speed square, a framing square, and a combination square are good ones to start off with. A good large combination square would be my first purchase in this category.
7) Sanding - at a bare minimum, a selection of sand papers in various grits up to 220 or higher, and a sanding block or two. First upgrade in this category would be a random orbital sander. My personal favorite is the Porter Cable Quicksand - of their current models, the 343K would do nicely.
8) Rules and tape measures. A good straight accurate rule and a quality 12' tape measure are handy for getting sizes right. When it is critical always be sure to use the same measuring device for all tightly fitting joinery because small differences occur between various types of rules.
9) A workbench, or at least a work surface. The Black & Decker Workmates come in a variety of sizes, the larger of which is a small workbench! A undrilled solid exterior door and a couple of sawhorses can be a great initial bench. Using a sawing guide on your bench can mean cutting into the bench itself, one method to protect your work surface is a 4'x8' piece of rigid foam to put under the board being cut, so the protruding blade divots the foam instead of bench or floor.
10) Clamps - good clamps are expensive, but pay for themselves in ease of use. I got my initial bunch of clamps from Harbor Freight (ugh) and still use some of them today... However, if you can afford at least 4 Bessey K-body clamps large enough to build your initial projects, you will save yourself a lot of grief. There are a lot of different clamps and types of clamps out there, but the Bessey K-body is a gold standard. Other clamping types are needed too, like "C" and "F" clamps or other small adjustable clamps for holding things in place. Mostly buy as you need, but always in groups - clamps of a common size from one manufacturer are easier to use together. "You can never have too many clamps"
11) A handsaw - doesn't have to be fancy, but a circular saw does poorly on inside cuts. Use a handsaw to finish what the circular saw starts. A handheld jigsaw would be the first upgrade in this category & would allow for some curves in your work.
12) Hand powered screw drivers in a range of sizes, both Philips and straight bladed - especially important if you are driving brass screws. TIP - cut grooves for brass screws by using a steel screw of the exact same size first, then back it out and hand-drive in the brass screw. This will save a lot of wear and tear on the "swear jar" as you won't break or damage as many brass screws that way. I like drills for putting in most screws, except for exposed / decorative ones.
13) Consumables - pencils, glue (I like Titebond III as a general purpose glue) and screws, sure; but also whatever finish you are going to apply, and the proper applicators and cleanup for that finish.

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but with the above equipment you can build nearly anything. Equipment beyond this will allow you to do so more quickly and attractively / with greater detail. Popular Woodworking has a special "I Can Do That" program that has a similar basic list of tools. Their PDF Manual is an amazing free download.

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