Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Best Power Tools for New Woodworkers

Quick answer: circular saw with 7-1/4" fine tooth Freud blade, electric drill. With these two power tools and some basic hand tools you can make furniture, boxes, shelves, and many other projects.
note; some links in this article are Amazon Affiliate and I will get a small percentage from Amazon if you buy using the link. The opinions are my own and not influenced in any way by outside parties.

Long answer:

Jigs and hand tools will be covered in a separate article. My answers are predicated on a limited budget but that doesn't mean you should buy cheap.

[General tip on buying used machinery: vintage American iron, or "arn", is considered King by many. Beginning in the 60's and especially in the 70's, Taiwanese machinery started to show up and many consider them equal, or at least a close second, to American made machinery. It's common to bash Chinese made machines but they can vary greatly in quality from total junk to excellent. The best values for beginners are usually American or Taiwan made machinery made prior to 2000. While not as cheap as typical Chinese machines, they will be a significant step up in quality. You can also more easily find parts and manuals.]

Saws. You'll be sawing wood on about every build so don't skimp. Quality saws cut like you imagine they should and cheap saws make the work frustrating and un-fun. A good circular saw will get you far, a tablesaw will get you farther. Handsaws are nice, buy them as you need them and don't skimp.

Circular saws allow you to cut straight lines using easy to make jigs or a straight edge. Factory blades are meant for rough carpentry and will leave splintered edges so buy something like the Freud Ultra Finish but keep the original blade for rough carpentry or cutting up reclaimed lumber which may have nails or dirt. Magnesium saws are lighter weight and less tiring. Electric brakes stop the blade quicker so you are less likely to accidentally cut something when setting down the saw.
Makita Magnesium
Dewalt w/ electric brake


Table saw vs. band saw: At some point you'll come to this dilemma; it boils down to if you are cutting mostly straight lines the tablesaw wins. If you are cutting irregular shapes, circles, and resawing lumber a good quality 14" (or bigger) band saw wins. Tablesaws can also do moldings and cove cuts. In my opinion, the tablesaw is the most versatile tool in a woodworking shop, arguably equaled only by the router. Unless you need to transport your saw to the jobsite, I recommend against a benchtop saw. They are tempting for budgetary reasons but are loud, the fences are flimsy, the table is small and are meant for rough carpentry work not fine woodworking. If you are that strapped for cash I would recommend buying a used saw or building a tablesaw.

Very important tip: the fence is the most important part of the saw. A quality fence on a mediocre saw is better than a crappy fence on a great saw. The best fence in my opinion is the Delta Unifence which is no longer in production. It wasn't popular because you can't use jigs that slide on top like the Biesemeyer but there are aftermarket fence replacements that give it that ability. But the Unifence has some unique features like tall and short faces and the ability to slide rearward which helps prevent kickback. And it is a very strong and rigid fence that resists flex better than any other. The second best fence is the Biesemeyer and it's clones. Other popular fences are the Incra and Vega.

New tablesaw recommendations: My personal bias is to buy saws from companies that design and make them, like Delta, Sawstop, Jet or Powermatic instead of companies that buy off the shelf designs and rebadge them (Ridgid, Sears, Rockwell). [Jet started as an importer] Also beware that Ridgid, Sears, and some Grizzy saws have an alignment defect that has persisted for many years and those companies are just getting around to fixing it in manufacturing but if you buy one with the defect, you are probably stuck with it.

The new Delta contractor saws are well regarded and easily portable. Grizzly hybrid saws are a solid choice. Sawstop tablesaws are very high quality.
Used tablesaw recommendations: The Delta and Rockwell contractor saws from the 70's - early 2000's are the best value in tablesaws especially if you buy one with a Unifence or Biesemeyer (or Bies clone). They often sell from $200-500 depending on fence and options. Older Craftsman tablesaws from the 70's - 80's are also well regarded but ignore the advertised HP rating, they often say 3HP but are really 1.5HP. If you buy an old Craftsman you'll want to change the fence to a Biesemeyer clone.

Bandsaws. A cheap bandsaw is better than no bandsaw. But there isn't a lot of difference between small (under 14") cheap bandsaws so don't overthink the decision. I would recommend buying the best used bandsaw, 14" or over, that you can afford. Or buy the cheapest bandsaw you can find, that runs well. Avoid 3 wheel bandsaws as the smaller wheels fatigue blades causing them to break often. Most bandsaws are clones of the Delta 14". (Actually most woodworking machines are Delta clones.)

Jig saws are great for rough cutting irregular shapes but are overrated and over recommended as beginner tools. They are less intimidating than circular saws but also less useful. Wait until you need one then buy the best Bosch you can afford, a used one is fine. Believe me, cheap jig saws are not worth the trouble. Bosch is not the only company that makes a quality jig saw but they invented them (sort of) and everything else is a clone so why not buy the original.

Routers are multi-purpose tools, there are so many jigs that extend their use it's worth buying a good one and eventually several. Both my routers (1) & (2) are Porter Cable. When I started woodworking they were the go-to company for routers but other companies have caught up. The guys at Fine Woodworking really like this Dewalt kit with two bases.

Drills, you'll probably use a hand drill more often than a drill press but a press is nice when you need a straight hole or want to use Forstner bits. Don't go overboard on an electric hand drill, just buy a decent one. If you want to splurge for cordless they are worth it.

Drill press: A cheap drill press is better than no drill press but I would recommend saving up until you can buy something 12" or larger and fairly good quality. Buying used is fine, mount a drill bit and give it a shake to see how much slop is in the quill.

Jointer: If you become a serious woodworker you'll want a jointer. They make your life easier and projects better. Some believe they are unnecessary but jointing is the first step in milling rough stock: 1) flatten one face 2) straighten one edge. My recommendation starting out would be to buy used 6" Delta/Rockwell, Powermatic, Jet, or Grizzly. Deltas are always the most common.

Planer. Very useful for making wood a consistent thickness and cleaning up saw marks. Dewalt planers are currently very popular.


Some may be disappointed this article wasn't a love letter to Harbor Freight as it is common advice to tell new woodworkers to go there and buy all your tools but cheap tools are frustrating to use and make the work more difficult. And if you think being in the middle of a project and not having the right tool is frustrating, wait until you are in the middle of a project and your tool breaks. you don't need nice tools to do nice work but it sure makes the process more enjoyable. I have never regretted buying a quality tool but I sure have regretted not buying it sooner.

Here is my list of basic power tools for woodworking in vaguely the order you should buy them. This is meant as a general guideline only. Like everything in life, situation and goals dictate your actions.

  1. Electric or battery powered hand drill
  2. Electric circular saw, track saw, or tablesaw
  3. Router
  4. Tablesaw, best you can afford, if you don't have one yet
  5. Drill press 
  6. Band saw
  7. Planer
  8. Jointer
  9. Jigsaw (or as needed)
Optional: Biscuit joiner. Not to open a can of worms but there is a lot of misinformation and irrational hatred for biscuit joiners. Mine doesn't get used a lot but it's very handy. Contrary to popular myth they are not for alignment, they are "joiners", and are meant for strengthening butt joints. Most likely you can live without one and cheap ones are frustrating so I would wait until you need it and can afford a Porter Cable. If you suffer from too thick a wallet then the Lamello is the mac daddy.

Optional: Domino. If you run a production shop or have money to burn or just want to be one of the cool kids, the Festool Domino and is nice to have (or so I'm told).

Optional: Lathe. Woodturning is a branch of woodworking unto itself and many find it fun and rewarding. If you think you will like turning, you probably will. The Delta Midi is currently the most popular and best (according to magazine reviews) mid-size lathe on the market. Many people choose to buy a vintage lathe first, see my article on How to buy a vintage lathe. Set aside extra money for lathe tools and accessories.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to buy a vintage wood lathe

Itching for a new pastime and think woodturning might be your thing but don't want to spend a lot of money on an unproven hobby. So you troll Craigslist but lathes in your price range were hot stuff during the Eisenhower administration. Then you spy this little beauty with some scratches and patina and it calls to you. For the price of date night you could be a woodturner; but should you buy it? What are you getting in to?

1920's-30's Goodell Pratt, not recommended for a first lathe.

Let's narrow this down quickly -- my recommendation is focus your search on cast iron by recognizable brands (Delta, Craftsman, Etc.) lathes that were manufactured after 1945. Why? Over time popular features became standardized making it easier to reuse chucks, centers, faceplates, etc. as you upgrade lathes. Lathes from the 1800's and early 1900's may have oddball or even one-off spindle and thread combinations that will require custom adapters. Machine tapers were not yet standardized and they may have Morse. Prior to about 1940 bearings were likely to be bronze bushings which require frequent oiling and are a poor choice for high speed motors. Ball bearings became common after 1950. There are good choices besides Delta or Craftsman but those two are the most common and both standardized early. Post 1950 should keep you away from oddball stuff; late 50's is even better. In fact, the newer the better but this article is focused on lathes from 1950-1980. Check the bottom of the article for a list of older lathes that are suitable for modern beginners.

What is this talk of standardization? Modern wood lathes have two ways to attach accessories, 1) threaded spindles and 2) machine tapers. The spindle is the shaft to which your work attaches on one end and power attaches on the other end. The case that holds the spindle is called the headstock. Modern lathes have threading on the outside of the spindle so that faceplates or scroll chucks like the Nova G3 can thread on. The spindle is hollow, and the working end will have a machine taper into which accessories like drive centers, drill chucks or drill bits can fit. But lathes didn't always have both threads and tapers, and it's possible for the headstock to have a taper but not the tailstock. If the lathe you are considering doesn't have both a threaded spindle on the headstock and a machine taper on head and tailstock, I would pass on it.

This lathe has a spindle threaded on both ends so you can attach accessories to the outboard side. The silver pin is for indexing.

Lathe with a threaded spindle and Morse taper

Threaded spindles come in several sizes, the three most common in order are 1"-8 tpi (1" spindle with 8 threads per inch), 3/4"-16 tpi, and 1-1/4"-8 tpi. Lathes eventually standardized on Morse taper inside the spindle but very old lathes may have other tapers. Vintage Delta lathes are almost always 1-8 thread and #2 Morse taper in headstock and tailstock. Vintage Craftsman lathes are almost always 3/4-16 threads and #1 Morse taper in headstock and tailstock. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

What about the motor? Most old lathes will come with a 110V motor between 1/4 - 1 HP and will have 4 pulleys on the headstock giving you 4 possible speeds. These are enough for basic turning but eventually you can add variable speed to get much more utility from your lathe.

A "4 speed" lathe, note the step pulley with 4 grooves. Speeds are changed by moving the v-belt. 
Swing is the distance between the center of the spindle and the bed of the lathe, doubled. So if that distance is 4.5", it is a 9" swing lathe. The greater the swing the larger the items you can turn. Craftsman sold bajillions of 9x30 lathes, 9" swing and 30" max capacity between centers. If you want to make table legs, these 9x30 lathes are ideal. They are also useful for other spindle work like tool handles, honey dippers, spoons, cups, and small bowls. Delta lathes are more commonly 12" swing and allow you a little more room for bowls and platters. Delta also sold gap bed lathes, like this 46-111, that have more swing near the headstock.

1958 Craftsman 9x30 bench lathe modified with variable speed
1970's Rockwell Delta 46-111 gap bed lathe

So what to buy? My top recommendation would be a Delta because of the larger spindle and swing. I recommend buying a Delta or Craftsman lathe made in the 50's or later that has a threaded headstock spindle (sizes 1-8 or 3/4-16) and Morse taper in both head and tail stock. Look for a manual on vintagemachinery.org. Sometimes the manual will not tell you the tapers or thread sizes but it will be good information regardless. If the taper size isn't listed anywhere, they are easy to measure. A #1MT (Morse taper) is a little less than 1/2" across on the spindle. A #2MT is a tad over 11/16" diameter on the spindle. Before buying, have the lathe running and listen for any screeching, scratching, or grinding that may indicate bearings need replacement. Make sure the tailstock turns in and out freely and that the centers are removable from both head and tailstock. With centers in place, slide the tailstock to the headstock and check that the center points touch. A tiny amount of misalignment is not a deal killer but a big misalignment may indicate a Frankenlathe (a lathe assembled from parts of other lathes), mismatched parts, or other problems.

A list of vintage lathes that are good candidates for modern use. All lathes listed below have ball bearings or roller bearings, cast iron bed, a #1 or #2 Morse Taper, same taper in the headstock and tailstock, and a common spindle size. Years noted are the oldest I've been able to verify for a particular model, earlier years may not have ball bearings, tapers, or other conveniences. If no year is listed then I believe all years of that model to be the same. I welcome your contributions. Check back for updates.

Format:  Manufacturer | Model | Earliest Year | Size | Bearings | Taper Size | Spindle Size | Notes
How to read the size: a 12x36 lathe will have a swing of 12" (the spindle is 6" from the lathe bed) and 36" between centers.
  • Power King Deluxe (1933+), 11x36, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Power King 7100, 10x37, ball bearings, 1MT, 3/4x16 spindle
  • Power King 7120, 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle

  • Sears Craftsman 103 (1948+), 9x30, ball bearings, 1MT, 3/4x16 spindle
  • Sears Craftsman (1940+), 10x36, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle [Was advertised as a 10x54, 54 being the length of the bed. Sears had a long history of exaggerating specs up through the 1980s]

  • Delta 930 (1935 and later), 11x37, Timken roller bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Delta/Rockwell 46-111, 11x36, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Delta 1460 (1940+), 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Delta 46-305 and variants, 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Delta 46-400, 12x38, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle

  • Powermatic 45, 12x39, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Powermatic 90, 12x38, ball bearings, 2MT, 1-1/2x8 spindle
  • General 160, 12x37, ball bearings, 2MT, 1x8 spindle
  • Montgomery Ward/Duro, 14x38, ball bearings, 2MT, 1-1/8x7 spindle [this is an uncommon spindle size but Teknatool does have it on their list of adapters.]

Tool Caddies for the Tablesaw and Lathe

Long time in coming: simple tool caddies to collect my most commonly used tools in a designated place. Construction is super simple, butt joints, glue, and brad nails. Bottom of both is 1/8" oak/poplar ply. The TS caddy bottom fits into a dado. The lathe caddy bottom fits into a rabbet and is tacked with glue and 5/8" brads. Why are they different? Because I wanted to see if one way would be more durable than the other.

Caddy holds a Nova G3, Nova Midi & tommy bars, Delta centers, Nova centers, PSI centers, Bondhus 4mm hex wrench, knockout bar, and extra jaws.

I have two lathes so a caddy is more convenient than a fixed location like a drawer, a cabinet, or on the wall. Now I can bring my chucks and centers to whichever lathe I'm using in one easy to carry box. I may add holders that will attach to the backside of the caddy for a few lathe chisels.

The TS caddy was badly needed. These are tools I use constantly, like tape measures, a marking knife, pencils, a 6" combo square, pocket calipers, center punch, scribe, Wixey, 12" rule and 6" rule. In the past these tools wanted to clutter my tablesaw and end up on the fence. Since my TS is in the center of the shop, this caddy is within a step or two of any other tool. 


The Tools

Why do I have 3 tape measures? Good question, guess I have tape measure fetish. The yellow Stanley is both inch and metric. Once upon a time I planned to convert entirely to metric but it isn't very practical as American woodworking is still inch centric. The green tape is my newest and is a center finding tape measure, regular inches on top and half scale inches on bottom, I like it. The black and chrome center tape is a Lufkin engineer scale (tenths of inches). Some other tools of note are a BluePoint 12" combo square, a Lufkin 6" combo square, a Bluepoint automatic center punch, a Stanley scribe, a General pocket caliper, an iGaging digital caliper, a 6" Craftsman rule, a 12" rule (can't remember the brand).

Friday, April 29, 2016

Folded Cube Table / Stool / Bench

Around 1pm Thursday my oldest daughter tells me she has a project due 9am Friday for her design class. Okay, sure I'm happy to help. Turns out it is THE project, which they had the entire semester to do and is 1/3 their grade. I leave the room and stew for a few minutes because I'm very angry, get over it, fetch my daughter and we go to work. We take care of the paperwork portion, then the prototype requirement, and by 4pm-ish we are in the shop starting work on the actual build. We discuss lots of options but realistically we only have time for plywood. The idea is a cube table/bench/stool made of 8 triangles (legs) and 1 square (the top). Everything is mitered. It was tempting to say, 'It will be butt joints, glued and brad nailed,' and we would have been done in half the time but this is a design project, not a: make Dad's life easy project.

We cut squares, then bisected the squares to make 45/45/90 triangles for the legs. I hot glued plywood scraps to the sled for registering the squares. The hypotenuse doesn't need to be precise, just cleanly cut. To prevent splintering, we set the blade about 1/8" above the sled and ran the squares backward over it. After scoring all the pieces, we raised the blade and cut through.

Miters were cut by burying the blade into a sacrificial fence and sliding the edge to be mitered along the fence. The benefit is you can cut your pieces to finished size before mitering. I recommend running each piece through twice, first with the miter gauge to remove some waste then a second time against the fence to cut your final miter. That reduces the cut off and prevents it being trapped under the blade.

What luck. Two nasty storms, with hail, came through a few hours apart and both knocked out the power. At one point we busted out my Goodell miter saw from the early 1900's and using a battery powered light, kept working. Here she is making a test cut to make sure we are at exactly 45°, the old miter box was dead nuts.

Here are pictures of the glue up, which was tricky because everything is mitered and wanted to slip around. We considered biscuits or splines but with all the glue surfaces they weren't necessary for strength and we were against a deadline.

There wasn't time for a finish but that's how it goes when you procrastinate. We worked until around 2:00 am -ish; 4am now and I'm still wired from too many cups of coffee. I'll get more pictures when she brings it home again. [update; finished picture at top] Considering it was last minute, I'm proud of the result and proud of her work ethic today. (Not proud of her putting it off until today, we are going to have a talk about that.) I don't think it would have been much better if we had more time. The miters came together extremely well considering how many there are. Four of the triangles are mitered on three sides. The top is mitered on four sides. The remaining four triangles are mitered on two sides. And lord help me, she wants to build another one from solid wood.