Thursday, March 25, 2010

Going Pro as a Woodworker Part 5 - Getting the Tools You Need

While teaching a recent woodworking class, I was asked a question in front of the group that could sound both humorous but very relevant. How do you justify or sneak your tool purchases past your better half? The class got all fired up about the topic letting me know that we had hit hot common ground.

Well my method was to leave it in the truck, go in, hug the wife and wait for my beloved to head for her favorite chair in the bedroom so I could usher the the tool or tools past the front door on the way to the shop. Then I blend it into the general collection as quickly as possible and get rid of all incriminating packaging ASAP. You probably do something very similar. It doesn't really matter how wealthy or poor you are we all have the same problems just a different number of zeroes at the end of them. The real point is that we don't want to and can't waste money on tools that are non-productive, mediocre or promise to do a lot but don't do anything well.

My first tool was a radial arm saw. The Sears info said it would crosscut, rip, route and perform great feats of joinery. My uncle said, "Don't believe all that, if you can get one tool that does a single job well. You will have something!" The saw crosscut well if you kept visitors from leaning against the saw's table (pushed it out of square). The motor ran at one speed making it a terrible router (too slow) and dangerous for anything else.

Finally I'll get to the topic. The first thing you need to decide is what do you want to build? That is an irritating question if you don't have an answer for it, but you can't argue with the logic. You buy a tool to do a job. If you don't have a goal in mind you don't need the tool. I have seen so many woodworkers put together a model shop, every tool and I mean every tool beautifully organized and ready for building something but not much is produced. On the other hand there are woodworkers who turn out amazing work with home-made tools or very few tools. Again they specialize and the work is not about the tools but what they want to accomplish. Simply a means to an end. If you don't decide what you want to accomplish it doesn't matter what tools you collect. You will just collect tools you better not go pro you will eventually be a generalist who has gone broke.

Because of competition, price and competition will help you get what you really need for the same or less than the cost 20 years ago. Old is not necessarily better or is the newest technology the best buy. It has to be assessed on a tool to tool basis. Stay away from gimmicks and hot items. Use your money for the basics. I have a six hundred dollar dovetail jig on the shelf that I don't need because I rarely build items needing dovetails, the manual is irritating and I learned to cut them hand. That purchase was made at least 12 years ago when I was a generalist, part-time non-specialized pro.

What do you need?

You have to have a good table saw at least a better contractor's saw with 1 1/2 HP or better, standard miter slots, t-square fence and a flat solid surface (cast iron or the new granite) top. I would build a crosscut sled and buy an aftermarket miter gauge without too many bells and whistles. Don't buy the gauge advertised by the slick salesman at the show. I have buyer's remorse for several show buys in my career. SawStop technology is great if you can afford it. It is arguable that we must afford it from the side of safety.

Buy a good heavy jointer. Everything starts at the jointer. Stock must be square and you better start at the jointer. Six inch is fine but an eight inch makes good sense at today's prices. But again, What do you want to make? The helical heads and carbide cutters are great if you are going to need almost finished flat, square boards, but you are probably not. You need square boards. Don't spend the babies milk money on this!

Planers are cheap! The lunch box type for less than $500 is the way to go unless you are running flooring.

Bandsaws are important to me because I use them for ripping, resawing, cutting out patterns and parts and shaping them. I make sculptural chairs so I need a big solid saw. I bought a 20 inch 3 horse Italian beast.

Lathe purchases should be based on what you want to do. You can justify a large lathe if you turn large bowls. You can turn most furniture products with a small lathe. But again if you build bedposts you need .......!

Hand tools are where I spend most of my money. Four or Five times the amount of stationary tools. But you must again know what you want to accomplish and buy the best to a point. My chisels are a mid priced brand they are not the best Japanese steel. My rasps are the best because that is where I need the best.

Don't go cheap on education, information, safety, light, heat or AC and cleaning the air.

After all of this the best tools in your pro tool box are attitude and persistence.

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