If you are new to woodworking, you are probably experiencing the same feelings I had many years ago when I asked myself this question for the first time. Which power tools should I buy first?
It can be very overwhelming to go through the hundreds of offers and possibilities we find on the internet, so in this post, I will tell you what I think are the 7 essential power tools you need to have in your workshop as a beginner woodworker.
Here is the list:
1. CIRCULAR SAW
The circular saw was my first power tool, and I'm still glad it was. It is a phenomenal piece of equipment, and although some woodworkers tend to dismiss it, it has quite a few applications in woodworking.
What exactly is a circular saw? Well, it is a portable tool with a saw blade that you can regulate in depth to make straight cuts on solid wood or engineered wood-based products, like plywood or MDF.
It cuts fast, and without it, you'd probably have a hard time in cutting long pieces with a hand saw, especially if you need straight and squared cuts.
When I bought it many years ago, I still remember that it was my favourite power tool, and, at some point, I also built support to mount it upside down and use it as a table saw. Not the best of precision, but it worked (disclaimer: be very careful in using any power tool for what it has been built for!).
"You can tilt the blade between 0 and 45"
Another good thing about the circular saw is that you can tilt the blade at any angle between 0 and 45 and create angled cuts; this increases the range of applications to more complex works and give you more freedom in the style of your project.
So, now the question is...how to achieve straight cuts with a circular saw?
If you have a regular circular saw, the best and cheapest option would be to have a straight profile, clamp it to the piece you want to cut and use it as a reference for the saw. This profile can be of any material, can take a piece of plywood or MDF and make sure it is straight.
As an alternative, you can find on the market dedicated guides, they cost more, but they are very versatile and guarantee an excellent result. For example, Kreg produces a guide that you can adapt to any circular saw; you can see it here.
Finally, if you are willing to invest even more money, track saws are the answer. Nowadays, they are very popular: circular plunge saws with a t-track to follow an exact straight line.
Note: if you are interested in a Makita or a Festool track saw, their tracks are compatible and so interchangeable.
The jigsaw is complementary to the circular saw and has unique capabilities. In fact, having a jigsaw allows you to cut curves in the wood, designing infinite shapes and patterns that would be very difficult and time-consuming to achieve with a hand saw. That's why is a must-have tool.
I heard woodworkers several times saying that a bandsaw, even a small one, would be a better investment as it increases the possibilities in cutting curves. Still, I believe that a jigsaw is unmatchable in many situations.
"a jigsaw can be more versatile than a bandsaw"
Think of a long and thick plank, very heavy to move around. Now, imagine yourself having a bandsaw: you would have to lift the plank, move it around, place it on the bandsaw (at which point you would definitely need a medium size), and push it through the blade...not easy..uh?
You would most probably need somebody's help to do this.
With a jigsaw, this operation would become easier to achieve; forget moving the plank around; once you clamp it and secure it, all you have to do is move the jigsaw around and have your cut done.
Be careful tough! Jigsaws come in various sizes and power, and you cannot expect them to move fast into the wood, so take your time to avoid the risk of breaking the blade. This is especially true if the wood you will cut is thick and dense.
You can find different types of blades in the market; some are for rough cuts, others for finer results, so choose the right one for the job you need.
3. MITRE SAW
A mitre saw is a great companion in woodworking, and it will serve you well in so many different situations.
Normally used by carpenters in construction to divide long planks into smaller pieces, the mitre saw finds its place in many woodworking workshops. It is very useful for pre-dimensioning the wood before it gets planed and sized to the exact dimension.
A mitre saw does what it says: it's not only capable of making square cuts but can also do mitre cuts, thus dramatically expanding its potential uses.
I bought a mitre saw for my workshop many years ago and still have it. I used a DeWalt 718, a heavy-duty saw, for many projects. You can set it for virtually any angle or cut direction, and it's best when combined with a stand with support for long pieces.
"a mitre saw is precise enough"
You might now wonder how precise is this power tool. The answer depends on the model you choose. When it comes to my DeWalt, I have to say that it is precise enough, but it is not my tool to go when I have to make fine joinery. I cannot rely on it for exact angles; of course, I could spend time in adjusting the angle, but it still would cost me more work than necessary, and the standard blade I have is for general cuts, so the cut part would need some extra finishing.
Does it mean that I should change it? Yes, I could mount a better blade, but I use it for what it is, and I let it do the gross cuts, well aware that all the fine touches will be done later on the table saw.
That said, you can find on the market excellent mitre saws that will give you great results at the first cut and with a very easy and reliable angle setting. For example, you might want to look at Festool, that, with its Kapex, guarantees an unmatchable level of precision.
4. POWER DRILL
If you have ever used a screwdriver, then you will love the power drill! It is such a convenient tool that will save you from spending hours drilling holes or driving screws into the wood.
You will find it useful in so many things, from hanging your favourite pictures on the wall or mounting your brand-new TV.
If many years ago power drills had chords to connect to the electrical socket, the modern ones are equipped with battery packs, nowadays most commonly lithium.
"choose your power carefully"
They sell in different powers, normally 12V and 18V, with a brush or brushless motors. The 18V can achieve more demanding tasks but are more expensive; surely, with time, this price gap is shrinking and buying an 18V will be more and more convenient.
Regarding the electric motor, the brushless power drills can deliver more torque, up to 20%, just because no physical carbon brushes create friction in the motor.
What can you actually do with a power drill? As I said, it is very versatile, and you can either use it to drill holes or insert screws; it all depends on the bit you mount.
Whatever model you will choose, I highly recommend you buy a power drill as one of your first power tools, you will use it every day, and you will never regret the purchase.
Among the power tools I own, the router is probably my favourite and always makes me happy when I have to use it.
The reason? It boosts my creativity and allows me to enhance the final design of my pieces.
Now, here is the thing...the world of routers has evolved so much that it would be impossible in this post to cover everything, even superficially. So, I will give you a rough idea and what to look for if you plan to purchase one.
In one of the future posts, I will dedicate more time to discussing specific characteristics in-depth.
"a router has interchangeable bits that spin at a very high speed"
We have many types of routers available in the market: mini, small, medium, and big! Essentially, a router is a powerful tool with an interchangeable bit that spins at a very high speed.
This bit cuts the wood, and depending on the profile of the bit, you can achieve different results.
But, to make it clear, a router doesn't only serve artistic purposes; it is very useful in a large variety of situations; it can make your joinery, cut grooves and create mouldings.
In the picture below, I was trimming the edges of the curved doors of my Ocean Wave (I'll tell you more in a future post), and I used a medium size router with a collar to follow the profile and have a perfect cut.
The market offers a vast selection of bits, from the straight ones to the very complex profiles for mouldings. If you want to have a better idea of it, you can visit the website of CMT, a major international manufacturer of router bits.
I would probably go for a medium size if I had to choose a router as I first purchase. While studying at the Chippendale School, we had the DeWalt DWP611 with the additional plunge base, which served me well in most of my projects.
All woodworkers know this...sanding is not one of the most enjoyable activities in woodworking...actually it can be quite monotonous and boring. But..it's part of the deal if you want to obtain a perfect surface to apply your finish.
The sander comes in help and will save you a lot of time and effort, but there's a small price to pay for it: it can create a lot of dust and, if used for a long time without taking a break, it will give you pain in your arm.
For the dust, the best way is to keep it connected to a dust collector. All the sanders in the market come with an attachment where you can collect the hose, and they are generally quite efficient.
For the long usage, I'd recommend taking regular breaks so you don't finish your job with an arm that you can barely move!
A few words on the sanding paper: you will find different types and qualities, and getting lost in them is very easy. Many cheap products look attractive but are also very low quality; you will feel that you saved on spending, but you will find yourself constantly replacing the paper. This will eventually make you spend more on paper and time spent on replacing the material.
I suggest going for known brands, like 3M and Mirka. I haven't used 3M particularly, but I know Mirka better, and their products are very long-lasting and deliver a perfect finish.
When it comes to grit, you don't need a huge selection; 80 grit is very aggressive and will remove the material very fast. As you start your sanding on a cut piece, start from 120 grit, move to 150 and stop at 180 grit. It will be the final step to have the wood ready to absorb the coat of oil that will protect your project.
7. DRILL PRESS
We finish this long descriptive list of the essential power tools to have in our workshop, talking about the drill press.
This tool is halfway between a portable power tool and a stationary machine.
A drill press is designed to bore precise tools in wood or metal, depending on the bit you mount. If you mount Forstner bits, these holes can be very tiny or very large.
A great advantage of the drill press is that it can bore holes at a consistent angle once it is set, thanks to the support that can be tilted at any angle.
I highly recommend this tool, and I use it myself many times in the workshop; an example is when I was preparing the form to laminate the armrest of my chair; I had to bore several holes of 55mm, and without a drill press it would have cost me much more time of work and a lot of extra effort.
Many solutions are available for purchase, and if you don't have high expectations, you can easily stay within a reasonable budget and have a decent drill press.
You can look at the second-hand market if you want something big or, if you want to contain the dimension, look at this Bosch PBD 40. I used it several times and was precise enough to finish the job. On top of this, it comes with a laser indicator to facilitate the positioning of the piece.
In this long post, we looked at the 7 essential power tools that every woodworker should have in the workshop. Of course, this is not a definitive list and doesn't want to be exhaustive. It's just a way to introduce what I consider important to have, to help you get better results in your woodworking.
In future posts, I will go more in-depth, describing the specific uses of these tools.
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