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.
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.
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.
- Electric or battery powered hand drill
- Electric circular saw, track saw, or tablesaw
- Tablesaw, best you can afford, if you don't have one yet
- Drill press
- Band saw
- 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.