Tools Part VI: Thickness Planers and Jointers

A long time ago I said I was going to continue the tool series by talking about thickness planers and jointers. Of course I forgot all about that until just now. But I did remember. Eventually. So here goes.

Both of these tools can be really useful for anyone who fiddles around with wood, but both of these tools are expensive. A decent thickness planer is going to run you about $400 – $700, depending on the brand, features, etc. A decent jointer is going to be even more pricey. Prices on decent jointers (not the bench top models, I wouldn’t recommend those to most woodworkers) are a lot more than that. Jointers with the same features and capacity as mine look like they’re going for well over $1,000. The cheapest Jet brand (which is what I own) with the same features as mine is going for around $1,400.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, so the first question you have to ask is do you really need either of these tools to begin with? There’s no hard answer, really. It’s going to depend on your needs, of course. I know a lot of people who dabble in woodworking who get along quite well with buying the wood they need pre-cut and surfaced off the shelf at the local home improvement store. But if you’re building fine furniture, gluing up boards to make panels or table tops, doing renovations to old houses or need lumber that isn’t standard dimensions, you generally are going to need these tools.

Let’s take a look at the tools themselves.

A jointer and a thickness planer look very different, but when you look at them closely they seem to do pretty much the same kind of thing. They both have wide, rotating cutter heads that are designed to shave very thin amounts of wood off the entire width of a board. But the two machines actually perform different jobs.

The planer is used for two things. First it’s used to put a nice, smooth surface on rough surfaced, unfinished lumber you might buy direct from a sawmill. The second use is to mill lumber down to a specific thickness you need. You may, for example, only have 1/2″ thick boards laying around, but you need a board that is 3/8″ thick for a specific project. They come in really handy if you’re renovating an old house where the existing lumber used in the house doesn’t match current standards.

A jointer also does two jobs. First it’s used to prepare boards to be edge glued together to make panels by putting a smooth, perfectly square surface on the edges of a board. That’s where the name comes from, the fine art of joinery where pieces of wood are prepared to be joined together.

Second it is intended to take a board and make its surface perfectly flat by removing warps, twists and cupping. (I will warn you that I have issues with some of the things people claim about jointers. But I’ll come to that later.)

You can do all of these tasks by hand using hand planes, and for centuries that is exactly what woodworkers did. And it is a royal pain in the neck. I’ve used hand planes and sanders to smooth and flatten large hardwood table tops and panels and I can tell you from personal experience that is it is very tedious, time consuming, annoying, tiring, and requires a considerable amount of practice and skill to do it right.

But let’s get on with this and look at thickness planers first.

That’s my DeWalt up there. I’ve had this one for – heck, must be at least 10-15 years now.

As was the case with table saws, I’m not going to cover the big, floor mounted machines that are more suited to a professional manufacturing facility and stick with the smaller ones intended for use by the hobbyist or small furniture maker. These planers usually can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide. How thick of a board they can handle varies widely. Generally you want a planer that can handle at least 4″ thick stock. You may think you’ll never need to run 4 or 5 inch thick slabs of wood through a planer, but you’d be surprised. When building furniture I’ve had to run things like table legs up to almost 4 inches thick through mine.

Planers all work pretty much the same way. Here’s a really bad drawing of the ‘guts’ of a typical planer.

There is an enclosure in which is mounted a set of feed rollers to push/pull the board through the machine. The cutter head itself is a long roller which rotates at high speed in which there are mounted two or three razor sharp steel knives that run the length of the cutter head. As the cutter head rotates, the feed rollers push the board into the machine, and the cutter head spins along at thousands of RPM, slicing off a very thin amount of wood along the entire length of the board. There is some kind of mechanism which allows the height of the cutter and rollers to be raised or lowered as needed.

Sidenote: Helical cutters. For some years now helical cutter heads like the one over there on the right have been all the rage. Instead of straight knives running the width of the cutting head, you have the setup seen in the photo over there, rows of small, individual square carbide knives set into a helical pattern around the cutter head itself. The claim is that they do a better job than traditional straight knives, are quieter, take less power, and when they get dull, you just loosen the screw holding it down and rotate it 90 degrees to get a new edge. If you get one chipped, just rotate it or replace only that one cutter. In theory they look interesting. But my personal experience is that they don’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype. I’ll talk about these later. If I remember. I probably won’t.

When you’re looking at a thickness planer there are a few things you should be looking at.

First, how robust is the mechanism which raises and lowers the cutter the rollers that feed the wood through the machine? A considerable amount of force is needed to hold that wood down, push it through the planer, hold the cutter head absolutely straight and parallel, etc. How good is the drive system that actually moves all of that stuff up and down? On the cheaper planers what holds that cutter in place and moves it up and down are nothing more than a couple of cheap, threaded steel rods driven by plastic gears, with a lot of play in the threads, and rods that flex as soon as you start pushing wood into them.

How sturdy and well built is it in general? Thickness planers have to endure a lot of stress and need to be made well enough to deal with that. They also are subjected to significant pressures and forces that can cause it to flex and bend as wood is fed through it. It has to be sturdy enough so that the cutting head is maintained absolutely parallel to the bed of the planer when a board is being pushed through.

Next thing is those knives. Those knives in there take a real pounding. They’re spinning at thousands of RPM and are being hammered down into wood that can be extremely hard and even abrasive. They get a lot of abuse. Thanks to modern metallurgy most blades are able to handle it, but eventually they’re going to get dull or even chipped. That means they’re going to need to be removed and resharpened or replaced. So take into consideration how hard it is to get at those knives, remove them, get them sharpened (if necessary) and then reinstall them properly into that planer.

The first planer I had was a major pain in the neck. It was the cheapest one I could find at the time. And it was awful in just about every way you can imagine. Just getting at the blades was a horrible job that required dismantling half the machine. And then trying to get them reinstalled after I’d had them sharpened was a nightmare. It was a hair pullingly frustrating and fiddly job to get them aligned that required the use of a couple of special jigs and considerable foul language. And even then I didn’t get them exactly right. Same with my 2nd planer. My third, well, I’d learned my lesson and got one that required no adjustments or alignments.

Cutter head on my DeWalt. The blades are disposable, and there are pins on the cutter head that fit into holes in the blades so they are perfectly aligned when they’re installed. No need for jigs, adjustments, fiddling around trying to align things. Just unscrew about 8 bolts holding the blade, remove the old one, drop the new one in, tighten it down, and it’s ready to go.
Replacement blades. Note the indexing holes to fit pins on the cutter head so the blades are always perfectly aligned.

With mine there are no adjustments. When the blades are put into place and screwed down, they are aligned. The blades are easy to get at, too. Remove 4 screws to take off the top cover of the machine, 3 screws with “T” handles on them to get off the dust shroud, and there they are. 8 screws hold down each blade. There’s even a tool stored in the planer itself that fits all of the bolts I need to remove, and has magnets built in to handle the blades so I don’t have to risk slicing a finger off on the razor sharp blades. (You do not want to handle those blades with your bare hands. Seriously. There are still blood spots inside of my planer because I got a bit careless the last time I replaced the blades.)

There are other brands that have similar systems to make blade changing as easy as possible. I’d highly recommend a planer that has some kind of system to make getting those blades aligned as easy as possible because eventually they are going to need to be replaced or sharpened.

Sidenote: Replacing the blades is more expensive than just getting them resharpened of course, but it isn’t all that much more expensive. A set of 3 for my machine costs about $80, which sounds a bit steep but those are double sided. So you’re essentially getting two sets for that price. And to give you an idea of how long they last, I bought 3 sets of blades for mine in 2012 and I still have one set unused. A set of single sided off-brand blades is going for under $30.

Dust collection on this one is pretty good. Just about all of the dust, chips, shavings, etc. is sucked up and blown out a port on the back of the machine. I have it connected to a hose on my “dust collection system”. Well, I call it that. It’s really a whopping great shopvac

The next thing you need to consider is how you are going to deal with mountains of chips, shavings and dust these things put out. Thickness planers put out huge amounts of the stuff. If you live in a climate that allows you to work outside and just sweep everything up and toss it into the compost pile later, good for you. But I live in Wisconsin and it gets bloody cold up here, and trying to surface a dozen or so boards out in the driveway when it’s -30 and snowing is no fun. So you need to be able to deal with waste material before it gets all over your house and into your HVAC system.

The better ones will have all of the guts of the planer enclosed in shrouds with a blower that will blow everything out of a port that you can connect to a dust collection system. Most of the better ones will have some kind of provision for hooking it up to a dust collector of some sort. But a lot, especially the cheap ones, are completely open and will be spitting shavings and dust everywhere. A real dust collection system is ideal, but you can make due with a high capacity shop vac. But be prepared to empty that thing a lot.

Capacity: Most of the planers in this class claim they can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, a lot of them, especially the cheaper ones, can’t. You try to chuck a 12″ wide white oak board through the average $350 thickness planer, the motor is going to bog down almost immediately and possibly even stall out completely. Or blow a circuit breaker. Or overheat the motor and burn it out if you do it too often. Oh, they’ll work fine for an 8 inch wide piece of spruce or softwood. They might be able to handle a 4 – 6 inch wide hardwood board, but that’s going to be about it.

If you look close at this pic of a wood sample I got you can see the “washboard” showing up as dark streaks running from the top of the photo to the bottom. That indicates that either the feed rate was too fast, the blades were dull, or the planer was having some other problem.

Which one should you buy? How much will it cost? It’s hard for me to make a specific recommendation because a lot is going to depend on what your budget is and what you’re going to be using it for. If you’re just going to be surfacing a few 6 inch wide boards a few times a week one of the cheaper planers will do a decent job for you. Just be aware that it is going to have “issues”, as they say. It might be difficult to get adjusted properly. For example, one side of the board might be 1/32 or more thinner than the other side. You might see a sort of washboard looking effect like in that photo up there. As long as you are aware that the planer isn’t going to be perfect and is going to have some problems that you will have to deal with, you might be able to get away with one of the ‘bargain’ machines.

But if you’re buying wood straight from a lumberyard like I do and everything going through the shop needs to be surfaced and milled to the right thickness, which is the case here, then you need to be looking at the more powerful and capable planers, not the inexpensive hobbyist models.

If you’re a pro or semi-pro woodworker, as I recommended with table saws avoid the ones with prices that seem too good to be true. I did some research before I wrote this and it seems that the “sweet spot” is in the $450 – $650 price range for thickness planers. Planers less expensive than that all seem to have various issues. The really cheap ones aren’t much good at all.

But at the other end of the spectrum I really don’t see any advantage to spending $700+ on a planer when a $600 or even $500 one will do just as good a job.

As I said, research, research, research before you pull out the credit card and buy one of these.

My personal recommendation? That DeWalt 735 up there is mine, and if mine ever blew up, I’d buy another one immediately. It’s selling for around $575 or so. I’ve had it for years, it’s handled white oak and ash boards up to 13 inches wide and everything else I’ve thrown at it. It produces a nice surface, especially at the slower feed rate, the blades are easy to change and it has a decent dust collection system.

Does the DeWalt have drawbacks? You bet. It’s loud for one thing. You’re probably going to want to wear hearing protection when you run it just to be on the safe side. Infeed and outfeed tables are an extra cost option. I don’t have them on mine, and they claim you don’t really need them, but I wish I did and keep telling myself I should get them. They’d come in handy when feeding long boards through it. It will occasionally spit wood chips back into the machine onto the table, and if I don’t clear it out before feeding another board through it can embed the chips into the underside of the board or scratch it. And the dust collection system built into it blows out so much air that it can overwhelm a wimpy, inefficient dust collection system.

Jointers

As you can see, I use my jointer all the time. Makes a handy makeshift table. Just this morning I found out it makes a good spot for clamping down the light I use with my lathe.

Now let’s move on to jointers. A lot of experts will tell you that a jointer is an absolutely essential tool for any wood shop. I don’t agree. I think the average hobbyist woodworker can get along without a jointer just fine. Can they be useful? Yes. But I think their usefulness is overrated. The only thing I use mine for is edging boards before I glue them up into panels. But let’s look at what one of these things actually does.

Cutter head on my Jet jointer
The fence adjustment system on mine. It looks complicated but it isn’t that difficult to set up.

At first glance a jointer looks like it works like a thickness planer. There is a rotating cutter head on which there are mounted two or more very sharp blades which slice off thin amounts of wood as a board is pushed through it. But that’s where the resemblance ends. A jointer is open topped and has no feed rollers. You push the wood through it yourself. It has separate infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron, each of which can be adjusted independently. And it has a very beefy fence hopefully made of solid cast iron which has a rather elaborate adjustment system which lets you not only adjust the width of the cut, but also the angle of the fence.

I’m not going to waste your time and mine describing how a jointer works. A lot of people who are far better at this than I am have dealt with this. Here’s a link to an article at woodcraft.com that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about jointers. So scoot on over there and read that, then come back. I’ll wait…

Ah, back already? So, now you know everything about jointers. Excellent. And now you probably want one. You might even actually need one. Maybe. But before you max out your credit card on one of these, read on.

close up of the working end of the outfeed table on mine. To the right of the adjustment wheel you can see the dovetail joint that the table rides on.

They are big, heavy and expensive. Good ones are going to have infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron that is machined to extremely close tolerances, mounted on more carefully machined cast iron that has been milled into very accurate sliding dovetail mounting systems. All that carefully machined cast iron is necessary because those tables and their mounting hardware have to be absolutely accurate, absolutely flat, and cannot flex or bend. Cast iron isn’t that expensive. What you’re paying for is the machining of those parts. That’s where the costs begin to mount.

Jointers are classified according to the maximum width of the board they can accommodate. A 6 inch jointer like mine can handle boards up to 6 inches wide. An 8 inch can handle 8 inch wide boards, and so on. And as the capacity goes up, so does the size and weight of the jointer, and the price. Even a 6 inch jointer is going to be at least 4 feet long and weigh over 200 lbs or more. Mine weighs in at around 250 lbs.

There is a classification of jointers that are much smaller and cheaper, the benchtop jointer. But there are problems with these. Yes, they can handle boards up to 6 or more inches wide, but what about length? How long a board you can shove through one of these is dependant on the length of the infeed and outfeed tables. You aren’t going to push a 6 foot board through a benchtop jointer. Or a 4 foot board. Or even a 3 foot board probably. Unless you’re only going to ever work with lumber that isn’t much more than two feet long, a benchtop jointer just isn’t going to work.

As is generally the case with most of this stuff, all of the name brand models are pretty much equivalent to one another and are generally of good quality and will do a good job for you. They get expensive pretty fast. I did a quick look around and the cheapest 6 inch jointer I saw that had decent reviews and good specifications was around $800, with prices going up from there. Jet doesn’t seem to make an open base model like mine any more, but it does have one that seems to be pretty much a clone of mine but with an enclosed base going for a whopping $1,500.

So the good ones are big and very heavy. That’s something you need to keep in mind if you buy one. How are you going to get it into your shop? Will it even fit into your shop? Do you have someone who can help you put it together? You aren’t going to be able to do it yourself.

Like I said at the start of this, I have some ‘issues’ with some of the things the experts claim about jointers. Oh, they work just fine and dandy and will do the things the experts claim. Sort of. But here is my primary problem with them. Yes they will ‘fix’ problems like cupped boards, but Wood moves. It is made up of fibers that swell, shrink, lengthen, shorten, all depending on ambient temperature, moisture content and other factors. Wood is always under internal stresses and tensions. Always. When those forces are not balanced, wood warps, cups, twists and bends. And that is what a jointer is supposed to cure. But does it really? In my experience what a jointer often does is similar to someone with the flu taking NyQuil. It makes you feel better by alleviating some of the symptoms, but you still have the flu. It doesn’t cure anything.

I have a special term for boards like this: Firewood.

You can run a cupped board like the one in that drawing over there through a jointer and you’ll end up with a nice, flat surface. But did it actually fix the problem, which was an imbalance of the stresses and other forces in the wood that made it bend like that in the first place? My personal experiences tell me that sometimes it will, but often it doesn’t, and after I’ve flattened that board out and put it on the shelf, I’ll come back a couple of weeks later and find that it will once again be warped, sometimes even worse than it had been before. Not all the time, not even half the time. But often enough that I am not going to risk using a board like that one in that drawing in a piece of furniture. So keep that in mind.

Let’s see, I was going to rant about something else, wasn’t I? Ah, I remember. Helical cutters.

These things are something of a fad in woodworking, and have been for some years now. All kinds of miraculous claims are made for these things. I almost bought into the hype and seriously considered retrofitting both my jointer and planer with these things. I’ve had some experience with equipment equipped with these things since then and I’m glad I didn’t give in to that temptation.

First of all, holy cow are these things expensive! If you opt for a helical cutter in a planer or jointer, expect it to add $250 – $400 or even more to the cost of the machine. There are kits available that will retrofit one of these into the more popular planers and jointers, and even those are enough to make your credit card weep. There are kits to retrofit my DeWalt 735, but I could literally buy a brand new 735 for the cost of a helical cutter head replacement. $500 to replace the cutter head on a planer that sells for $575? Seriously? When the stock cutter head system works just fine and dandy to begin with? No thanks.

I’ve worked with a few planers equipped with these things and they just didn’t live up to the hype. It’s entirely possible that the ones I worked with weren’t set up properly or something, but none of them produced a surface on the wood that was as good as what comes off my stock 735. I tried out a 735 that was equipped with a helical cutter head retrofit kit and the surface of the wood wasn’t any better than that coming out of my stock planer. And it seemed noiser and started bogging down on wide boards. I just don’t think they’re worth the money for the average hobbyist.

So to sum up:

Thickness planers – they’re nice to have, you probably need one, and unless you’re running large amounts of hardwood through it you can probably get along with one of the under $400 models if you can deal with the potential drawbacks. If you need a really good one with better capacity and need to use it a lot, look at the DeWalt 735.

Jointers – I still don’t think the average woodworker needs one. Certainly it isn’t an “absolute must have” as the experts claim it is. The cheap (sometimes not cheap because I’ve seen some of these things going for well over $600) benchtop sized ones are just about worthless if you’re working with lumber more than three feet long. The full sized ones are heavy, large, and massively expensive. They are a ‘must have’ if you are doing a lot of edge gluing to make panels. As for surfacing a warped or cupped board, yes, they will do that but I noted my issues with that earlier.

And that’s about it for now.

Finishing Wood, Doors and Stuff

Shameless plug: Before I get started I have to mention this before I forget. The best resource I ran across for learning about woodturning has been the YouTube videos of “Turn a wood bowl“. Kent has a lot of videos that cover just about everything from the basics to more advanced topics. He takes the time to actually explain why some things work and others won’t, what mistakes to avoid, etc. He doesn’t just cover turning, he talks about how to sharpen your tools, how to finish them, how to sand them, tips and tricks to make your life a lot easier. I learned more from him than from all the other resources I’ve found put together. Or visit his website https://turnawoodbowl.com/

Many weeks ago we talked with the contractor/builder we’ve worked with for many years now about replacing a bunch of windows and our front door. He warned us that he was booked solid for the entire summer and it would be until mid to late fall before he could get around it. That was fine because we were in no hurry. One of the issues he was dealing with was massive delays in getting just about anything, especially anything that had to be custom made like our windows.

Ooo, it’s all shiny and stuff!

He finally got the door in the other day and came over and installed that, but we’re still waiting for the factory to finish the windows. But it isn’t just delays that he’s dealing with. There has been a massive increase in prices on even basic construction materials like 2×4 studs, OSB and plywood. It’s been a real struggle for him and his customers. His cost for basic materials has literally doubled in the last 10 months.

Anyway, he got the new door installed, which was one of the biggest issues we wanted to get taken care of before the snow flies. We’re hoping the window factory gets our order finished pretty soon here. Most of the windows we’re getting replaced would survive another winter, but one of them is in pretty bad shape. All we can do about that is keep our fingers crossed.

Finishes

I am always learning new stuff all the time. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about all of the stuff I get involved with. Getting involved in woodturning has been a very enjoyable, occasionally frustrating, and quite satisfying experience.

One of the frustrating things has been putting a finish on the bowls, vases and other stuff I’ve been making. When I make furniture I’m working with wood that is of very high quality to begin with, with beautiful grain that already looks beautiful without doing anything to it. With something like white oak or ash I just use a light stain to accent the grain and give it a slightly darker color to match the traditional arts & crafts style I like, and then top it off with a simple paste wax that protects the wood and is easy to repair and renew when necessary.

But with bowls and the other stuff I turn out on the lathe it’s a different story. First I’m often working with scraps of wood left over from other projects that aren’t exactly what you’d call high quality wood to begin with. I have to deal with large amounts of end grain which can be a problem to work with, and other issues.

My go-to finish was a product that was primarily beeswax mixed with tung oil and cedar oil to soften it. It produced a nice, semi-satin sort of glow that looked quite beautiful. But now that I’ve been doing this for a while I’ve noticed that some of the early pieces I did that were finished with that stuff looked downright nasty. The finish was turning dull in spots, no longer reflecting light, looking, oh, muddy, I suppose you could call it. Basically it was a good thing I haven’t been selling these things because whoever bought one and saw that happening would not be happy about it.

Experimental bowl. African mahogany, refinished with undercoat of home made shellac sealer with carnauba wax topcoat.

So what the heck was going on? Why was the finish deteriorating like that? I took a close look at the pieces on which the finish seemed to be failing and realized I was making a very basic mistake. The finish was being absorbed by the wood fibers, basically being sucked into the wood instead of remaining on the surface. This was most apparent on the endgrain when I took a close look at it. And it is a very basic mistake I should have realized before I tried to finish the bowls. But to be fair I never had to deal with it before, really. With furniture you almost never even see the endgrain and don’t have to deal with it. With a turned object like a bowl, the endgrain can’t be hidden and has to be dealt with.

close up interior of bowl with the shellac and carnauba wax finish. It does put a nice shine on the wood. Hopefully it will be more durable than what I was using.

So I’m experimenting with different materials and techniques to deal with the situation. I’ve started making my own shellac finish now, using a thin cut to make a sanding sealer that will seal the pores of the wood so it can’t absorb the final finish. That has the added benefit of helping to fill in small imperfections in the wood so they aren’t so obvious when the final finish is applied. And I’ve switched from the beeswax product to carnauba wax.

The results are pretty good so far. It’s a bit more work. It adds a few additional steps to the whole process, light sanding between coats of shellac, and considerable buffing with the wax. But the early experiments looked so good that I’m taking some of the pieces with the deteriorating surface, re-sanding them and refinishing them with the new technique.

The frustrating thing is that I already knew all of this about wood absorbing the finish and looking nasty. I never had to deal with it before but I still should have remembered. But I’ve learned my lesson now. The new process takes longer, requires more sanding, but so far it seems like the end result is going to be worth it.

This is also an entirely food-safe process. I’m making my own shellac. The only ingredients in that are shellac, which is food safe (and sometimes actually an ingredient in food) mixed with alcohol. The alcohol is just a carrier for the shellac and evaporates. And the wax is pure carnauba which is also a food safe wax. No weird, toxic chemicals involved at all. If this does a good job and proves to be stable, this is probably going to become the standard way I finish wood projects.

FLowers and New Project Finished

If you’ve been reading this thing for any length of time you know I love gardening and flowers. It might be mid October and we’ve had some pretty cold weather, but some of the plantings around here are still going strong like the flowers above. I still can’t believe how big those flowers get. My hand is in the photo so you can get an idea of how big they get. We still have two flower beds with these guys in full flower.

The alyssum have been hanging on too. Beautiful little flowers that are incredibly fragrant. I can usually smell them as soon as I go out the back door of the garage where they’re planted.

And these guys up there can be depended on to keep going strong well into late fall until it starts getting really cold.

Cleaning up the yard this fall has been a lot easier now that the pear tree is gone. Having that tree collapse was kind of a blessing in disguise. We miss not having the pears, but we definitely do not miss the mess the tree made. Trying to clean up all the falling pears was an incredible pain in the neck, and we’re going to have a lot fewer leaves to deal with this year too.

MrsGF and I were discussing what to do back in that area now that the tree is gone. We’re going to have a much larger area with full sun there now so that’s going to expand the planting possibilities enormously. There was a small heart shaped garden there that we put in back in 2000 that was almost entirely shaded out by the tree. Next spring we’re going to be expanding that to the west into an oval shape that will include the tree stump, about 20 feet long and 6-8 feet wide. That new bed will probably be for ornamentals.

We thought about making it a raised bed but discarded that idea. That area is very well drained to begin with so we don’t have to worry about too much water as we do at the back of the house. We’re going to have to haul a ton of compost in though because the soil there is pretty poor. Not going to do anything with that until spring, though. We’re still sketching out ideas about the exact size and shape of the bed and what we’re going to plant in it.

And I’m still fiddling around with wood. I finished this thing last week.

That’s a vase, not a bowl, and one of the bigger things I’ve done. It’s about 10 inches tall and 6 inches wide, made from walnut and oak. It turned out reasonably well. I really like working with walnut. It machines beautifully and I love the color and grain. A glass insert goes inside so it could be used for fresh flowers, or leave out the insert and put in dried or silk flowers.

That vase started out looking like that monstrosity over there on the right. That was a block of glued up old bits of walnut and oak I found laying on the shelf that I didn’t have any plans for. And to be honest I had no actual idea of what it was going to be when I started this. Usually when I start something like this I have at least a general idea of what I want it to be, but not in this case. I really don’t recommend people just sort of “wing it”, but in this case it worked out in the end.

That was biggest thing I’ve ever tried to spin up on the lathe. It was so wide it just barely cleared the bed of the lathe. Usually I try to round square blocks off by knocking off the corners with a saw to make it balance better, but I don’t have a saw big enough to handle a 10 inch tall, 8 inch square block, so I just had to spin it up slow, keep my fingers crossed, and start chipping way at it.

That’s it for now. Hopefully next time I’ll be continuing the tool series and talk about thickness planers and jointers. Unless something else comes up first.

Is 5G a Scam? It’s Rant Time (Feel free to skip this one)

I just read yet another overly hyped article about the miracles of 5G and how it is going to “transform” my life, and well, enough is enough. I just had to throw my two cents in on the whole 5G cell network nonsense because I’ve been hearing so much hype and, frankly, pure B.S. that I can’t stand it any more.

Look, all that stuff about gigabit speeds and a revolution in data communications because of 5G? Don’t believe any of it. Pretty much none of it is true, certainly all the hype you’re hearing from the cell phone companies isn’t.

5G does indeed deliver impressive speed. Theoretically it is faster than the internet connection to your house. (Well, hell, just about anything is faster than the connection I have at my house which often drops to speeds not much faster than what I could get back in the 1990s with a 28K modem. Just one of the “joys” of the government protected internet/cable tv monopolies we have.)

But that’s the key word, isn’t it? Theoretically. In the laboratory. In testing. Out in the real world 5G almost never reaches those speeds. In fact, it doesn’t even get close. Real world testing of newly installed 5G networks is showing that they are operating at speeds that are no better and often worse than the old 4G network. Seriously. Real world test results where the new 5G network is supposedly up and running are showing that in a lot of areas 5G is slower than the existing 4G/LTE network. And that doesn’t surprise me at all

I know a bit about radio, and that is exactly what the cell phone system is, radio. I know how propagation works, how radio waves at specific frequencies behave, how they can (or more importantly can’t) penetrate things like buildings, windows, etc., I know something about transmitters, receivers, antennas and all that guff. I know all that because I play with that stuff almost every day. And system just will not, can not, deliver the bandwidth and speeds these companies are claiming it will except under ideal circumstances which almost never exist out here in the real world.

Some of their transmitters at certain frequencies have a range of a whopping 150 yards. That’s it. Some of the frequencies being used are blocked by, well, everything, even glass. In difficult areas at some frequencies the companies would have to not only install equipment every few hundred feet, they’d have to install repeaters inside of large buildings to get coverage. Trying to fully implement this network to make it capable of what the cell companies claim it will do would cost massive amounts of money, trying to get permits, locate transmitters, etc would be a nightmare. So outside of dense (and high profit) urban areas, it just ain’t gonna happen.

Sure, it has a lot of potential, especially in rural areas. The system that runs down in the 600 mHz band has a lot of potential. It won’t get anywhere near gigabit speeds, but it does promise to deliver speed in the 30 -40 mbs range, which is a hell of a lot better than what most of us out here in rural areas are getting.

But all that other stuff about pushing up to gigabit speeds with ridiculously low latency times? Don’t believe it. The only places where you’ll see those kinds of speeds are in the most densely populated areas where the companies can maximize their profits.

And then there is going to be the cost. That seems to be one thing everyone is forgetting to mention. What is this going to cost us? You can be darn sure that the cell/data monopolies are going to try to suck every penny they can out of you. There are going to be data caps, speed throttling, and eye watering overage charges. They’re going to milk this for every penny they can get. And if you think they won’t, I should remind you that one of the big cell companies drastically throttled back the speeds and capabilities of some of California’s emergency services, including the fire departments a year or so ago. In the middle of a state wide fire emergency while whole towns were burning. Even though they paid extra for “unlimited” service. So yeah, they’re going to charge you through the nose for it.

5G has huge potential. The problem is that for most of us out in the real world we’re never going to see that potential fulfilled because of a lack of infrastructure, poor implementation by the carriers, and sheer greed on the part of the companies.

Resin Experiment

Just thought I’d keep you up to date about the resin experiments. I started this about a week or so ago and, of course, I entirely forgot to take photos. Sigh… But I can show you the end result and tell you that it worked out reasonably well for something I just threw together.

I stuck a battery powered tea light in the thing. Turned out much better than I thought it would.

I did all of this just to see how the whole system worked and to discover any quirks or issues I might not have been aware of. It all worked surprisingly well.

The resin I’m using here is from Naked Fusion, their “Deep Pour” formula, and it was really easy to work with. I had no problems at all with mixing it or coloring it. You might remember this was the stuff that got damaged in shipping and started leaking on my front deck. The hardener bottle got punctured. The resin bottle was fine, and I managed to salvage about two thirds of the hardener, putting it into sealed glass jars. Anyway, I do like this stuff a lot now that I’ve had a chance to try it. It has no VOCs and virtually no odor at all. Some of this stuff is so nasty you have to wear a respirator just to work with it. I had no such problems with this. It mixes easily, was easy to use with coloring agents, and worked just fine.

I took a bunch of small wood scraps and shoved them into a plastic container, mixed up about 30 oz of the resin with some coloring in it, poured it over the top of the wood, then chucked the whole thing into the pressure tank. I pumped it up to 65 PSI and let it sit for 24 hours. After that I released the pressure on the tank and checked, and it was still a bit, well, squishy. But I expected that. Naked Fusion says it can take up to 72 hours or even longer to fully cure, depending on the temperature, quantity of material being used and some other factors.

So I put it back in the tank and pulled it out after another 24 hours hours and was able to peel the mold off it. The epoxy still felt tacky to the touch so I waited another 12 hours, by which time it seemed fully cured. That’s pretty much spot on according to the instructions.

The tank seemed to do its job of eliminating bubbles. I didn’t see any noticeable bubbles in the epoxy when I looked at it under a strong light.

I stuck it in the lathe and flattened one end, used a 2″ Forstner bit chucked into the lathe to drill a mortise into one end to fit my 4 jaw chuck, and got to work because I what I really wanted to see was how well this stuff could be shaped with my equipment and tools.

Wear a respirator if you work with this stuff. Seriously. Do I really need to tell you that you do not want to be breathing epoxy dust? Or wood dust, for that matter.

It machines pretty darn well, but dear lord it’s messy! I should have taken some photos or a video of it because holy cow it was a mess! I had long, thin strings of epoxy flying off everywhere and getting into everything. I looked like I was covered in tinsel after a few minutes, and so did everything else within three feet of the lathe. I had to vacuum my hair afterwards, for heaven’s sake. And change all my clothes, including my socks. I can see I’m going to need to rig up some kind of frame to hold the nozzle from the shopvac close to lathe to try to suck this stuff up before it gets all over everything the next time I do this.

I’ve heard people claim you can only work this stuff with carbide tools. I’ve heard other people claim you can’t use carbide tools and have to use HSS tools. So I tried both and it doesn’t matter. My traditional steel roughing gouge and bowl gouges worked just as well with this stuff as my carbide tipped tools. The only issue I noticed is that the epoxy can chip if I started to try to make too deep of a cut. Using a traditional bowl gouge works a wee bit better, but only because the “U” shape of the tool guides the material away from work. With the carbide tools waste material tended to build up right at the cutter head and I’d have to stop more often to clean things off so I could see what I was doing

Sanding this stuff is a major hassle. Sanding worked ok up to about 120 grit, but finer grit sandpaper clogs up almost immediately. I can see that if I want to get a good, glass smooth finish on this stuff I’m going to have to resort to wet sanding. I didn’t want to go through all the the mess involved with that for this experiment so I only sanded up to 120 grit and then quit.

Normally I use a beeswax/tung oil blend to finish off my wood pieces because I like it. I personally don’t like wood with mirror like finishes on it because I think it looks ridiculously artificial. I like wood to look like wood, and the beeswax gives it a nice finish without ending up with something that looks like it was dipped in plastic. The finish on this is also an experiment, using a carnauba wax product. That worked out pretty well too. I don’t think it’s any better than the beeswax/tung oil finish I’ve used before, but it isn’t bad at all. And for some reason it smells like blueberries? Seriously?

All things considered I think this experiment was pretty successful and I’m confident enough now to want to try more serious things with this system.

Are there drawbacks? You bet. Some serious, like the cost. If this looks like something you want to try yourself, I’ll warn you right now it ain’t cheap. That one and a half gallon resin kit up there will set you back about $170. If you want to color the resin you need to buy dyes, powders, etc. and that’s more money. That pressure tank used to reduce bubbles in the resin will set you back about $400. There are cheaper tanks on the market but I wouldn’t trust them. You can get a pressure pot from a certain well known ultra-cheap tool vendor that I won’t name that costs less than half what my CA Technologies tank cost and, well, I personally don’t know anyone who has had a cheap pressure tank explode on them, but stories about these things failing and actual photos of failed tanks pop up all the time. Plug the phrase “resin casting pressure pot failure” into Google search and you’ll quickly find out which brand I’m talking about. If you need a pressure tank for resin casting you very, very much want to avoid the cheap brands and the home made ones you see out there.

Then you need molds, of course. You can try to make your own. There are silicon molds in various shapes and sizes that you can buy. Since I was going to be machining this stuff anyway I wasn’t worried about the mold shape. I just ordered a bunch of cheap, disposable plastic mixing cups off Amazon in various sizes and those work quite well.

Let’s talk about the resin for a minute. There are a bewildering variety of brands and types out there. Every different type has its advantages and disadvantages. If you want to do stuff like this, do your research before you start buying anything. I can’t emphasize that enough. Most of the “art” rosins are only good for very thin pours, 1/2 inch or less, often only 1/4″ thick. If you want to do stuff like that tea light up there, you need a “deep pour” resin that can be poured at least 2″ thick. Some resins cure so fast I don’t know how people can actually work with them. Others, like this one from Naked Fusion, can take days to fully cure. Some put out nasty fumes. Some produce considerable heat during the curing process. You get the idea. Research, research, research!

And I suppose before I wrap this up I should add the usual disclaimer. I do not get free material from manufacturers, I do not accept advertising, I am not paid by the makers or dealers of any of the products or tools I talk about here. All of the stuff you see here was purchased by myself. If I recommend a specific product it is because I personally have used it and liked it.

Tools Part V: Table saws

There’s no way to get around the fact that table saws are expensive. If you’re buying new, you’re looking at around $500 for a decent contractor style saw, up to several thousand dollars or more for a high end cabinet style saw. Can you buy used? You bet, and you can save a significant amount of money doing so, and even come up with some pretty good deals. But you need to be really, really careful when buying used because it’s easy to end up with, frankly, a piece of junk that may look good but is really completely worn out and will require expensive repairs before it can even be used. But I’m not going to get into used equipment in this, I’m going to stick with new saws.

Of course the first question is do you really need one? These things are big and expensive, so can you get along without one? That’s a question only you can answer, really. I’ll just say this – if you’re doing any kind of semi-serious woodworking, the table saw is pretty much the workhorse of any woodshop. It’s used for cutting boards to length, ripping boards to width, trimming panels, framing cabinet doors, making tenons, dadoes… The list goes on and on. If you think you need one, you probably do.

So let’s say you’ve decided you do need one. Before you max out the credit card, there are a few things you need to think about before you ever buy one. Things that most people don’t seem to think about until it’s too late.

My now 15 year old Jet. Observant readers will note that the blade guard is missing. I took that off because I had the throat plate out so I could take photos of the arbor under the table. Normally you never, ever take off any safety equipment on a saw. Never. Not if you want to keep all of your fingers, that is.

First thing to think about is the amount of space you have. These saws are big. They take up a lot of floor space. That’s my 15 year old Jet saw in that photo up there. It is 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide. So it is physically large. Plus you need enough clear space around it so you can work safely. If you want to rip a 6 foot board, for example, you need at least 6 feet in front of that saw, and 6 feet behind that saw, in order to slide that board through the saw. So you really need a minimum of at least around 14 – 15 feet. Cross cutting isn’t quite so bad. You’re almost never going to try to cross cut a board more than a few feet long.

Now most of us don’t have a lot of space to work in. I certainly don’t. My shop is a spare room down in the basement. It’s a good sized room, but if I didn’t have my big tools on wheeled bases so I can move them around there is no way I could fit everything in that room and still have room to work. Wheeled bases like the one on the left under my saw can be really helpful. But they do have drawbacks. They have to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of the tool, which can be hundreds of pounds. They absolutely must have lockdown levers you can work with your foot like mine do because you do not want that tool moving when you’re using it. So they can help, but you’re almost always going to be better off if you don’t need to add wheels. These tools ideally should be bolted directly to the floor because that makes them safer to use and helps to reduce vibration. But most of us don’t have ideal conditions, so you do what you need to.

Big honking motor.

The second thing you need to be concerned with before you buy a saw or any big piece of electrically powered equipment is your electrical service. Can the electrical service in your home, garage or wherever handle the load that will be placed on it by that saw? Look at the specifications of the motor on my saw in the photo up there. It draws 18 amps. But the average electrical circuit in most houses is only rated to handle 15 amps. Go look in your service panel, the circuit breaker box of your house. Chances are good that all the breakers, except the ones feeding an electric clothes dryer, central air system or electric stove, are going to be 15 amp. So just plugging that saw in and turning it on is going to exceed the rating of the average household electrical circuit. If you try running that saw you’re probably going to be tripping the breaker on a regular basis and in extreme cases even causing the wiring to overheat.

My house was completely rewired from top to bottom when we bought this place and we installed separate service panels specifically to feed the garage and my workshop so they could handle the extra load. I have 20 amp circuits feeding the outlets in the shop, not the normal 15 amp, so it can handle this kind of thing.

So before you buy a table saw or other big power tool, make sure your electrical service can handle the load. If necessary talk to a professional electrician about improving the capacity of your system. If heating up a cup of water in your microwave makes the house lights dim, you really, really need to talk to someone about doing some upgrades before you try to bring in a big power tool. I’m not telling you to rewire your whole house, but having a separate 20 amp circuit run to your work area is something you should consider if your equipment is a power hog like mine.

The third thing you need to be concerned with is just getting the thing home and into your workshop area. These saws are big and heavy. How are you going to get it delivered to your location? How are you even going to get it off the delivery truck? How are you going to get it into your workshop? How are you going to get it assembled? Getting my equipment into my basement workshop was a royal pain in the butt that involved hand carts, in one case a cart used to normally transport big vending machines that I had to rent with a powered stair climber built into it. And that’s not counting the bruises, strained muscles, smashed fingers and considerable amounts of foul language.

Sidenote: 120V versus 240V. If you look at the motor up there, you’ll see it can be rewired to run on 240V instead of 120. A lot of tools in this classification will have motors like that. Some will even require 240 only. Why? I won’t go into the technical details but generally speaking a motor runs more efficiently on 240 and there are advantages to going that route. But do you need to? Probably not. First you almost certainly aren’t going to have a 240V circuit in your house, and having one added is going to cost a significant amount of money. And second, you probably don’t need it anyway. Unless you are running a commercial production shop or something like that, the average woodworker isn’t going to need to jump to 240V tools.

SO let’s get on with this and talk about actual saws. Choosing a saw can be a bit overwhelming because there dozens of different types and brands on the market, each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

There are three basic types of table saws; contractor saws, hybrid saws, (which I think is actually a ridiculous and misleading thing to call them) and cabinet saws. To confuse things even more, I’m seeing what are really hybrid saws being marketed as contractor saws, and hybrid saws that look like cabinet style saws. I really think that classification system should be scrapped entirely and we should be using things like the saw’s capacity, but let’s ignore that.

contractor style table saw

Contractor saws are generally smaller, more compact, and often come with folding stands and wheels to make them easier to move around, and you’ll often find them at job sites being used by, well, contractors (duh). Once upon a time contractor style saws were, well, to be brutally honest they were almost all pretty much junk. But wow, have things changed in the last twenty years or so. Oh, the really cheap ones are still pretty much junk. But the better quality contractor saws are now damn near as good as the other types of saws. They’ve become more powerful, much better made and genuinely good. If you look at the major brand names and the higher priced models, well if I didn’t have my Jet I wouldn’t mind having one of these. The only real drawbacks are that they are still a bit less durable because they have to be light weight to be more or less portable. And because they have to be small, they don’t have the capacity of the full sized table saws. But that smaller size and lighter weight can be a genuine advantage for those of you who don’t have a lot of room for a saw. And the smaller capacity can be gotten around by building your own stand with infeed and outfeed extensions, side wings, etc.

Makita, DeWalt, Delta and a few other manufacturers make some pretty darn nice contractor style portable saws. They’re definitely worth looking at, especially if you have a tight budget. But as with any of this equipment, research, research, research! Get online and read reviews, evaluations, get on YouTube and look at the videos. Make notes about things you like and dislike. After all, even these “cheap” saws are going to set you back around $400 – $500 or more for a really good one.

Cabinet style saw. Generally you pay through the nose for this style saw and, frankly, for 95% of us the extra cost just isn’t worth it.

I’m going to do something I probably shouldn’t and toss the whole classification of cabinet saws out the door and forget about ’em. Why? Because cabinet saws are big, heavy, and securely bolted to a concrete floor once they’re put in place. They take up a lot of room. They often require 240V power. They generally require a fixed and high power dust collection system. And they’re expensive. You can expect to drop at least $2,500 or much, much more on a decent quality cabinet saw. And I think that’s utterly ridiculous because that saw isn’t going to work any better for the average woodworker than a $1,000 saw will.

And let’s just junk that whole “hybrid” classification too while we’re at it because it’s just silly and I have no idea why people started using that term anyway. And no one seems to actually adhere to the mostly nonexistent standards of that classification system anyway.

Note the wheels used to raise/lower the blade and change the angle on my saw. On this saw they’re separate, but on some there is only a single wheel with a lever that switches between angle adjustment or height adjustment. Which do you want? Doesn’t matter in the slightest as long as it works.

No matter what you call ’em, this style saw is a full sized table saw with a pretty hefty motor, usually 120V but often the motors can be rewired for 240 if you want, good sized tables that will handle just about any normal sawing job you need to do. And generally it has an open frame holding it up like my Jet up there in that photo and not a fully enclosed cabinet base, although as I noted, some are now coming with enclosed cabinets. It’s going to have a 10″ saw blade, a tilting arbor, hand wheels on the front and/or side to raise and lower the blade and to change the angle of the blade, a pretty good quality rip fence, a miter gauge that is most likely a piece of junk and should be replaced with one that is actually accurate and safe, and, of course, safety gear designed to keep you from cutting off bits of your body while using the saw, like anti-kickback devices, a riving knife, shield over the blade, etc, and a flat (hopefully) machined heavy steel or cast iron table with side wings to support larger pieces of wood.

Speaking of safety, I’m going to be talking about SawStop saws at the end of this just to give you a heads up

And no matter which brand you look at, they are all basically pretty much the same. I’m sure DeWalt, Jet, Delta, and the other major brands would argue with that, but when it comes right down to it they are. They’re all going to have similar features, have similar build quality, similar capacity, similar size, weight, everything. Personally I have a lot of Jet equipment, and I like it a lot, but I’m not going to tell you to run out and buy Jet because Jet’s saws aren’t going to be any better or worse than those being sold by Delta or Shop Fox or the other brands. And they’re all going to cost about the same as well, with no more than a couple of hundred bucks differences in price between saws with similar specifications.

So I’m not going to recommend a specific brand or even a specific model. Instead I’m going to talk about what you need to look for, and the things you may need to add or replace once you do buy it.

Stuff you should look for

The table should be nice and flat, well machined, and smooth so wood will slide easily over it. If it has table extensions as my saw does (those white plates on either side of the plain metal table) they should be absolutely flush with the surface of the main table

When the angle of the saw blade is set to 0, the table should be at exactly a 90 degree angle to the table. This is easy to check. Just raise up the saw blade and put a square on the table and butt it up to the blade. If it isn’t you should be able to do some fiddling to get it to that point. Hopefully you won’t have to.

The hole in the table the saw blade comes through is called the throat, and the removable plate that fits around the blade is the throat plate. It should be perfectly flush with the surface of the table, and there should be some way to adjust it to make sure it is flush. If you look at mine, you’ll see the throat plate has leveling screws recessed into the plate itself to allow it to be adjusted. If it isn’t perfectly flush with the table you can have the wood catching as you slide it through the saw and that can be dangerous.

The arbor. It may look simple but there is actually a lot of engineering in that design and if anything in there is off, it’s going to cause you potentially serious problems, ranging from the blade wobbling to excess vibrations.

The arbor is the shaft that the blade itself is bolted to which, in turn, is mounted on an assembly that permits the arbor and blade to be raised and lowered and tilted. The arbor should look and feel sturdy. There should be absolutely zero play when you try to move it, especially not in the bearings nor in the lifting and tilting mechanisms. Reach in there and grab the saw blade (carefully) and try wiggling it back and forth. The saw blade may flex, but ignore that. If the arbor, the bearings, the shafts, anything under there wiggles, moves, shifts position, makes clicking noises, anything that doesn’t seem quite right, avoid that saw like the plague. If any of that equipment down there isn’t absolutely perfect, you’ll never get that saw to work right.

The threads on the shaft should look relatively, oh, robust, shall we say? The pulley on which the drive belt rides should be perfectly square to the shaft itself. If it isn’t it is going to cause vibration problems.

Oh, and how easy is it to get at that arbor? You’re going to have to change that blade sooner or later. You may also want to swap the blade out for specialty blades as well. So you want to be able to have relatively easy access to the arbor to replace the blades.

Then there is the safety equipment. All saws will come with at least the minimum, which is some kind of splitter or riving knife to keep the wood from pinching on the blade, anti-kickback devices of some kind, and a shield over the blade.

You would think that the most dangerous thing about a saw is that spinning blade, and it is indeed very dangerous, but what can be even more dangerous is what is known as kickback. When the fibers in wood are cut, this can, oh, disturb the balance of forces in the piece of wood, so to speak. Internal stresses that were balanced before, become unbalanced when the fibers are cut, causing the wood to move, and squeeze around the saw blade, pinching against it. This can cause the wood to be launched at high speed directly back at the person using the saw. This isn’t just painful, it can literally be lethal. Some years ago a guy at a factory in Fond du Lac got killed when a piece of wood kicked back on the table saw he was using. So when I tell you that you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw, I mean you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw.

If you look at that photo up there you’ll see what looks like a wing with teeth just to the left of the throat plate. That’s an anti kickback pawl. There are two, one on each side. I would much rather have a riving knife, but that wasn’t generally available when I bought this saw. Riving knives are now considered to be one of the best ways to avoid kickback, and if you can get that on the saw you’re looking at, do it.

RIp fences on modern saws are generally pretty good, certainly more than adequate for anything you or I might be doing.

The rip fence: Once upon a time, when you bought a table saw generally the first thing you did was throw away the rip fence it came with and bought a good one. Seriously, they were often that bad. Fortunately those days are long gone, and the rip fences on modern saws, at least the better saws, are generally pretty good, even outstanding, and possibly nearly as good as the aftermarket ones.

Unless someone sets the saw up for you, you will almost always have to fiddle with it to get it properly aligned and square, but that’s generally not a difficult job.

A couple more things about rip fences. First, many, like mine, have distance indicators that supposedly show you the distance between the fence and the blade. Mine even has a dopey little magnifying lens built in and a “micro adjustment wheel”. And, well, yeah, don’t rely on any of that guff to actually work. Just get out your handy tape measure and actually measure the distance from the fence to the blade. Remember the old adage: measure twice, cut once.

Second, some people, even people who really should know better get freaked out when they find out that the back end of a lot of these fences don’t lock down when you push down on the locking lever. The front does, but the back doesn’t, and actually it will flex a bit if you push on it hard at the back. They believe this makes setting the distance between the blade and the fence inaccurate somehow. And wow, some of them get weird, even a bit obsessive about it and think this is the most horrible thing ever, and because it isn’t locked down their cuts aren’t going to be accurate.

And I suppose it would be a problem if there were any actual pressure against the back end of the fence. But there isn’t. Or shouldn’t be.

Think about it for a minute. The only thing you should really care about is the area of the fence that lies in front of the blade and the point at which the wood is in contact with the blade. That is what controls the distance between the fence and the blade, not the back of the fence. The back of the fence doesn’t do anything except provide a smooth route out of the saw for the wood and keep the board straight. It has nothing to do with the actual cut. There should be very little force against that fence in any case, and most of that force is going to be before and at the point the cut is actually being made. That is where accuracy is an issue. Not at the back end of the fence after the cut has been made.

If that fence is deflecting, then you do have a problem because it shouldn’t be. If it is, that means there is something mechanically wrong with your fence or its lockdown mechanism, or you are pushing the wood against the fence with way too much force. That fence is there to be a guide. Period. You shouldn’t be putting any kind of significant pressure against it as you guide the wood through the saw.

In fact, there are valid reasons not to lock down the back of that fence, IMO. The primary one is safety. There is no such thing as a perfectly aligned saw. If that fence is locked down tight at both ends and can’t give a bit at the back, and the saw blade isn’t absolutely, perfectly, 100% aligned with that fence, and the wood isn’t absolutely straight with perfect grain, under the right circumstances it’s going to cause the wood to bind up between the back of the blade and the fence and this is not a good thing. Having a bit of deflection at the back of the rip fence can be a good thing.

Now that being said, some saws come with fences that do lock at both ends, and you can get a lot of aftermarket fences that do, and people like them and even think they are absolutely necessary. I think they’re wrong, but well, hell, I think so-called “american cheese” should be banned because it is neither American nor cheese, and that hasn’t happened yet, so there you go. And don’t get me started on “Canadian bacon” or “English muffins”…

Oh, wait, I’m getting off topic, aren’t I? What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, saws. Let’s see, where did I leave off… Okay, I finished that up, what’s left? Oh, miter gauge.

A miter gauge is a special device you use to measure those funny hats that bishops wear…

Typical piece of junk miter gauge similar to what most saws come with.

Oh, all right, I admit it, that was a really horrible joke but I couldn’t help myself. A miter gauge is, well, one of these things over there on the left. It’s a type of guide. You butt the hunk of wood up against it and then push it forward into the saw. It sits on a long rectangular shaft that slips into a groove ground into the table of the saw. In theory, it keeps your wood at the proper angle as you feed it into the blade. Normally you keep it locked at 90 degrees, but you can adjust it so you can make angled cuts as well.

Note that I said “in theory”. That’s because most of these are, frankly, junk. They’re usually way too small to adequately support the wood you’re trying to cut, hard to adjust, the angle settings are inaccurate, and they are just generally not very well made all the way around. I mean, come on, look at mine over there. The pointer is basically a roofing nail they soldered into a hole and bent over for heaven’s sake.

Don’t worry, though, I’ll talk about miter gauges in detail when I get to the “optional stuff” section of all of this coming up soon.

Very soon, I hope, because you’re probably getting just as bored with this as I am by this point.

Now I was going to show you a picture of the on/off switch on mine saw but I seem to have lost it… Oh, wait, there it is. Here we go, that’s it over on the right. I will not pull any punches here. That switch totally sucks. It isn’t the “Start” button that’s the problem, it’s that “Stop” button. It’s in an awkward position. I have to fumble around for it if I’m not at the right angle to directly see it. It’s wobbly and I have to fiddle with it to get it to work. It’s potentially dangerous, even, because in an emergency you need to shut that damn saw off RIGHT NOW because you need to pick up the finger you just cut off and get to the ER so you don’t want to have to be standing there fumbling around trying to find and then push the damned button. You want a nice, big, easy to find and easier to push OFF button. Granted I could retrofit this thing with a much better kill switch, so to speak, but, well, I’m lazy, I’m cheap… Well, you get the idea. Most modern saws come with much better switches than this one has. Or should.

Dust. Lots and lots of dust…

Finally let’s talk about dust. Table saws are really good at turning very expensive wood into great, heaping piles of sawdust, and you need a way of dealing with it. One of the advantages of cabinet saws is that most of that dust is confined in the cabinet where it can be easily sucked up with a dust collection system.

Dust collection on saws in this class is pretty much, well, to be honest it’s pretty much a joke. Mine makes an attempt at it. It has a plastic plate that bolts to the bottom of the saw body with a big hole in it to attach a vac or dust collection system. But since the whole back end of the saw is open (has to be because the motor mount and belt run through there) I get dust flying everywhere whether I bother to hook up the vac to the port or not. True, having the vacuum on helps a lot, but it still chucks a lot of dust out the back. It isn’t as bad as, oh, a big power sander or a lathe, but these saws do produce a significant amount of dust and you need to be prepared to deal with it. Breathing this stuff is most definitely not good for you. And if your shop is inside of your house, it’s going to get everywhere. Be prepared to change your HVAC system filters a lot. A dust collection system would be nice, but most of us don’t have the money or space to stick in an expensive dust collection system. I certainly don’t. My dust collection system is a big shop vac and a 21 inch fan in the shop window sucking the stuff out of the house before it can get into everything.

There are a lot more things about table saws I could get into but these are some of the important things and I imagine you’re getting just about as bored as I am by this time, so let’s get on with this.

Money, money, money… So much money…

So, what is a decent table saw in this class going to cost? Well if you thought that spending $500 on a contractor style saw was bad, you might want to go take a lie down before I drop some of these prices on you. When I bought my Jet about fifteen years ago, I spent somewhere between $500 to $600. That was a lot of money. Well, still is a lot of money. My model saw isn’t made any more, but to get one with capabilities you can expect to pay somewhere between $1,100 to $1,500. A Jet in the same class as the one I have looks like it is selling for over $1,400. Yeah, that $500 contractor style saw is starting to look a bit better, isn’t it? I knew these things had gone up drastically in price since I bought mine, but it wasn’t until I started doing some research to write this that I realized that they’d doubled in price in the last fifteen years. Ouch.

Can you get cheaper ones? Sure. Should you consider the cheaper ones? Definitely. But be very, very careful out there.

If the price sounds too good to be true, it is. Stay away. I’ve seen saws with silly, even ridiculous brand names that I’ve never heard of before selling for just a couple of hundred bucks. There is a reason why that saw is selling for $700 less than a Delta or Powermatic or Shop fox or the other well known names, and that reason is that it is a piece of junk. You cannot make a 10 inch table saw of any kind of decent quality and sell it for $200. I’m sorry, you just can’t. Even if you find reviews online claiming that these things are the best thing ever, don’t believe it. Stick with recognizable brand names and buy from reputable retailers. Delta, Shop fox, Rigid, DeWalt, Jet, Grizzley, Milwaukee, Bosch, SawStop, Powermatic all make pretty darn good saws.

What about used? You can get some really good deals on used table saws, but be careful. You can pick up a real gem at a good price, or you can get burned. But do your research first. There are forums and articles and videos galore out there with advice on what to look for when buying used, so go do some digging.

Oh, one final note before I move on. I want to talk for a minute about so-called benchtop saws. If all you’re doing is, oh, cutting up 2″x2″ square bits of wood to make pen blanks or building HO scale models, one of these might be useful, but generally speaking they’re utterly useless for any kind of serious woodworking.

Options

Now, let’s talk optional equipment and addons and other goodies people will try to sell you after you have a saw. Let’s get back to that crappy miter gauge first.

This one is sold by Woodcraft under their brand but is actually made by Incra.

Like I said, most of them aren’t worth much. If you’re doing work that requires accurately cutting angles and doing it safely, you’re going to want an aftermarket miter gauge like the one in the photo over there on the right. That is an Incra 1000SE. I’ve had it for a lot of years now but it is still in production. It is very, very accurate, easy to use, extendable, with built in hold down. The thing is just nice. Everything is adjustable so you can fine tune it to ridiculously tight tolerances. If you make fine furniture, picture frames, do cabinet making, anything that requires very accurate cuts, you need to consider throwing away the miter gauge that came with the saw and getting something like this. Kreg makes one that’s just as good as Incra’s and sells for a bit less.

And I’ll warn you right now it ain’t cheap. That thing is selling for around $190 right now. And you probably don’t need one as elaborate or accurate as this one is. I make furniture and picture frames and boxes and other things that require highly accurate cuts. I’d still encourage you to look into upgrading the miter gauge, though. There are much less elaborate versions that are significantly better than the ones most saws come with that sell for under $75.

Freud dado blade package. I should point out that dado blades are illegal in Europe. Apparently Europeans can’t be trusted with sharp objects? I know the UK was considering banning points on knives a few years ago. I wonder about people sometimes. I really do.

Dado saw blades: Well, first what’s a dado? Basically it’s a groove cut in a length of wood that will make a place to stick another piece of wood, like cutting slots in the carcase of a bookcase that the shelves will sit in. Rather than trying to chisel all that stuff out and probably screwing it up (I know I would) you get out your trusty dado blade, put together a stack with the right blades and shims to get the proper thickness, bolt it onto your saw, run the boards through, instant slot. Neat, clean, fast. Well, sometimes it’s neat, clean and fast. In actual use it’s a bit more difficult than that, but if you need to cut long grooves in wood, a dado blade comes in very handy. That’s my Freud in the photo up there. A set like that costs around $130 – $140. Do you need one? Heck, I don’t know. If you need one, you need one. If all you need to do is cut a slot in two boards, get a cheap one. If you need to make a lot of dadoes, get the more expensive, better quality ones. They’ll make a better cut with less chipping.

If I need a throat plate to accomodate a special saw, I just make my own.

And if you do get a dado blade, you’re going to need a different throat plate for your saw because it ain’t going to work with a 1/2 inch stacked dado cutter. You don’t need to buy one, though. You’re a woodworker, remember? Make your own. I do. All you need is a bit of hard maple (oak or ash would work too), a thickness planer, a jigsaw or scroll saw, and some sandpaper. Get a nice bit of hardwood. Use the thickness planer to shave it down to the thickness you need. Slap your existing throat plate onto the board and trace out the outline, then cut it out with a scroll saw and sand it down to get the fit right. Lower the saw all the way down. Slap the new throat plate into place, move the rip fence over the top of the new plate to hold it down, and with the saw running very slowly raise the blade up to cut through the new plate. Instant custom throat plate. Well, okay, not instant, but you get the idea.

Push sticks – Do I really have to tell you that you do not want to get your fingers anywhere near a saw blade spinning at about a gazillion RPM? I don’t? Good. You need push sticks to hold down and push the wood you are cutting. I buy ’em, make ’em myself, whatever. They’re easy to make, but they’re also really cheap to buy. I must have a dozen or more laying around because I keep misplacing the darned things. I have some I made for specific uses, like cutting larger panels that have fancy hand grips. Of course I couldn’t find them when I wanted to take a picture.

Stuff people will claim that you need but you really probably don’t

Special drive belts: If you start scrounging around on the internet or through woodworking magazines and the like sooner or later you’re going to run into an “expert” who will claim you need a special drive belt for your saw, specifically something called a “link belt”. They will claim that your standard V-belt is an abomination that is causing nasty vibrations, thumps and bumps and, oh, heck, I don’t know, probably causing the ice caps to melt, tuna to go extinct and my hair to fall out for all I know. Personally I think it’s a crock. I’ve used saws that were equipped with belts like these and I didn’t notice any difference at all in vibration, noise or anything else when compared with similar saws using normal V-belts.

Expensive aftermarket rip fences: Go back and read my comments about rip fences earlier. Most modern table saws in the price range I’m talking about here already come equipped with pretty good fences. I don’t see any need to “upgrade”. If you’re saw has a poor rip fence, by all means look into replacing it. There are good ones out there. Again, do some research.

Anti-vibration gubbins that bolt to your blade or arbor or on the legs of your saw: For a while I was seeing these things advertised all over the place, but it seems to have faded a bit in the last ten years or so. The claim was that your saw blade is a weak, wimpy thing that shakes and rattles and vibrates and is hurting the accuracy of your saw. Yeah, sure it is. If you have a decently made, good quality saw blade, no, it isn’t. And if you have a cheap, crappy, badly made saw blade, these things aren’t going to help in any case. Basically the ones I’ve seen are little more than big washers that do literally nothing. Clamping a big steel washer to the side of your saw blade is going to do nothing to balance that blade. And since the majority of the blade isn’t supported by that thing, it is still going to flex and shake if it isn’t well made.

Specialty jigs: There are a lot of companies out there who will gleefully sell you all kinds of jigs that are supposed to make life easier for you. I have to be honest and admit I’ve fallen for it and bought some of them. Learn from my mistakes. Most of them aren’t worth it. I make a lot of mortise and tenon joints for furniture, and I went and bought one of those things over there on the right, a special jig for making tenons. I dropped, oh, heck, it was probably around $130 or so on that sucker. Does it work? Uh, well, sort of? To be fair, yeah, it does. But here’s the problem. It takes so long to get it set up, takes so many test cuts to make sure the depth and width is set properly, that by the time I got the thing set to accurately make the actual tenon, I could have cut a half dozen of them using just my dado cutter and miter gauge. Seriously.

That’s the biggest problem with these jigs for making speciality cuts, they work but often are so fiddly and take so long to get set up that you’re better off not bothering and doing it by hand, especially if you only have to make a few cuts like that.

Of course on the other hand I did drop over $400 on my mortising machine and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But if you’d ever had to make dozens of mortises the old fashioned way with a drill, wood chisels and a mallet, you’d know why.

SawStop saws:

The last thing I want to talk about are SawStop saws. I will say right up front that I like Sawstop saws. A lot.

The SawStop system consists of an electronics package together with a gadget that is something like the disc brake system on a car, only more so, and a drop system. Electronic sensors constantly monitor the saw. If it senses that you just shoved your finger into that saw blade, it instantly stops the saw and drops the blade down through the table. The demonstrations are undeniably impressive. They usually take a hotdog or piece of raw chicken and just barely touch the blade and Bang! It happens so fast that the saw just barely nicks the sausage or chicken before it stops and drops.

The system is, well, damn, it’s impressive. Look at the brief demo below.

I have worked with SawStop saws and they are very, very nice. We had them at the school district in the high school technical/engineering department. They are very, very safe. They work exactly like they show in that video. The merest touch of skin and BANG!, the saw shuts down virtually instantly.

But you’re going to pay for that safety. The cheapest one I’ve seen is $1,400 for their portable job site style saw. A “contractor” style saw goes for $1,700 (All things considered, that’s not really that bad of a price), and the cabinet style saws can run over $4,000.

So the safety system is impressive, but how does it work as an actual saw? Like I said I’ve used these things and they’re very good. The quality all the way around was well above average. They were accurate, powerful and pretty much top of the line saws.

Would I buy one? In a heartbeat. That’s how much I like them. If I personally was shopping for a table saw, the first one I’d be looking at is one of the Sawstop saws, probably that “contractor” style one for $1,700 or so. If I ever need to replace the Jet I have now, it will be a Sawstop that takes its place. No, I am not getting paid to say that. I like the saws that much.

The system isn’t cheap, obviously. If it does trip, the guts of the thing have to be replaced. There is a cartridge type thing you have to replace that will cost you about $70, plus the saw blade will have to be replaced. So let’s say it’ll cost you about $200 total to replace the cartridge and blade if it trips.

And it does have false alarms occasionally. We had it trigger when trying to cut pressure treated lumber, green lumber, things like that. But the false alarms were very rare. If I had one I’d buy a spare cartridge or two to have on hand just in case.

And here’s the thing you have to ask yourself, how much are your fingers worth? Spending $200 to replace a cartridge and saw blade is a hell of a lot expensive (and less painful) than a trip to the ER.

That’s it for now. Next time thickness planers and jointers and whatever else I can shovel in before I get bored.

Sigh…

This is what I found on my front deck the other day.

This is, or was, rather, $180 worth of epoxy resin. This stuff ain’t cheap, folks.

Fortunately I got out there in time to keep the stuff from soaking into the wood on the deck. There were two plastic bottles in that box, a 1 gallon and a 2 quart, containing the epoxy resin and the catalyst. The catalyst bottle had a dent in the bottom that was leaking, and the plastic bag the bottle was in which is supposed to keep stuff from leaking out failed too.

I suspect it made it through shipment until the moment it hit the porch. The delivery driver seems to have just tossed it onto the deck, at which point it hit just right to punch in the bottom corner of the bottle and crack it. I was in the basement and fortunately heard the thud when it hit the deck and got up there before it soaked into the wood. It looks like it was badly packed. Someone threw in some of those plastic air pads, shoved the bottles in, put a bit more packing on top and sealed it up, leaving the bottles laying loose so they could move around and work their way around the padding.

Amazon’s response was great. Seriously great. I got on line to report it and within a minute I had a real person on the chat line and within another minute or two they issued me a full refund. No red tape, no arguments, no need to send photos or try to return the stuff (that would have been interesting, trying to return a leaking jug of resin) just an apology and asking me how I wanted them to send me a full refund. A short time later I got a confirmation email from them. The email told me that I was free to do whatever I liked with whatever I could salvage from the shipment.

I got to the leak before I lost a lot and transferred it into glass jars. There was a gallon and a half total before the puncture happened, and it looks like I have at least a gallon plus a couple of cups left that’s going to be useable, which is a good thing because I waited two weeks for this stuff to come in.

It might sound like I’m getting a lot of free resin out of the deal, and I suppose I am, but this could have been a complete disaster if I hadn’t been home and heard the thud when it hit the porch. If that stuff had soaked into the wood deck I don’t know what we would have done. I suspect we would have ended up having to replace a significant amount of wood on the deck. That catalyst is thick, sticky, and doesn’t dry by itself. The wood would have been ruined.

Anyway it could have been a heck of a lot worse, and I have enough of the stuff left that I can play with it and see how it works.

Autumn is here

Well, okay, not according to the calendar. But as far as I’m concerned the seasons change not by the actual date but according to the weather conditions. We got hit with a hard frost the other day and that pretty much brings the growing season to an end for a lot of our plants. So that means it’s autumn no matter what the calendar may say.

And while it may be chilly outside, we’re still getting a new central air system put in tomorrow morning. Our old air conditioning system is probably pushing 25+ years, if not a bit more than that. It’s actually a bit amazing that it lasted this long. But it has a freon leak now, and while they could probably repair it, we’d still have a 25 year old AC system that could fail at any time just when we need it most. This is as good a time as any to get it done. Probably the ideal time, really. The air conditioning season is over, the heating season hasn’t started yet, so the company has the time to do it. So we might as well get it over with now so we’re ready when the heat comes next summer.

Gads, it’s going to be an expensive fall, though. The AC is going to run us $3,200 (this is a big house). The contractor just called and said our new windows and doors are now ordered so he’s going to be rolling in sometime in a couple of weeks to do that, that’s going to be over $7,000. Ouch. Still, it all needs to get done. Especially the windows. One window on the north side of the house is literally rotting away and won’t survive a winter and the exterior door is nearly as bad. So once that’s done we’ll be ready for cold weather. And we got a taste of that already as you can see from the frost covered grass below.

It got cold. The remote sensor for the thermometer is out on the front porch which is pretty sheltered, and that said it got down to 32 F so that means out in the yard and gardens it got well below 30. The grass out in the yard was white with frost before the sun came up and the roof was covered with frost, so it was pretty cold out there for a fairly extended period of time overnight.

This is the time of year when we’d normally have so many pears we didn’t know what to do with them, so it seems odd not having the tree any more. While I do miss having fresh pears, I don’t miss having the tree, to be honest. It collapsing and having to be removed wasn’t really a bad thing. If it were still there the whole area would be covered with a thick carpet of fallen pears, and those would be covered with bees, wasps and, well, it could get nasty out there. MrsGF and I would no sooner pick up 5 gallon buckets full of the things, and the tree would drop a few hundred more.

We’re already talking about what we’re going to do with that area. Now that it isn’t shaded out by the tree we can grow just about anything out there and we don’t have to worry about finding plants that can handle shade. We’re thinking about putting a raised bed out there or expanding the existing garden that was being shaded out by the tree that we had in flowers.

The frost brought an end to the tomatoes, of course. But that’s not a big loss because they were already well on the way to winding up anyway. The peppers are still doing fine, though. They aren’t as fragile as tomatoes are and are in a sheltered area that didn’t get hit with the frost.

The raised beds did very, very well again this year. Building those was the best thing we’ve done in the garden over the years. We cut back on the number of tomato plants drastically this year and still had more than we really needed. We planted onions around the outside edges of the raised bed and that worked out beautifully as well. The onions did really well. We didn’t have to buy a single onion all season. Just walk out to the garden and grab one. I am really going to miss that. I’m going to miss the flavor even more. Like just about everything else we grow the flavors are much more intense than the produce we get from the store.

We took a break and drove all the way to the lakeshore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers to have a picnic. Cold down there along the lakeshore, but wow, it was a beautiful day. Had a very pleasant afternoon down there. With Wisconsin’s infection rate now totally out of control and the county we live in having one of the highest infection rates in the state, opportunities to do anything are a bit restricted so just getting out and about was nice.

I haven’t talked about the virus and how it is effecting our lives because, well, you get enough of that everywhere else, don’t you? Still it’s very frustrating. This was supposed to be more or less under control by this time. Instead the number of new infections is hitting new records almost every day here in the state. It’s completely out of control here. ICUs around here are at full capacity and they’re trying to find beds in other hospitals in the state and, well, it’s scary. MrsGF and I are both in one or more high risk groups so… Well, you know. To top it off I pretty much have virus like symptoms all the time. I have upper respiratory allergies so I always have congestion, watery eyes, stuffed up sinuses, a slight cough, etc. Basically I have almost all of the early symptoms of the virus all the time except the fever. Sigh…

But enough of that. How about a rose instead?

Yes, we still have flowers despite the frost. Some of the flowers are pretty resistant to cold weather and are still doing fine, and we have a potted rose up on the front deck that’s still in full flower.

Let’s see, what else…

I’m going to take a stab at resin casting, which ought to be interesting. I’ve gotten reasonably good at wood turning and am now looking for a way to expand on that a bit by doing stuff like, well, this-

I doubt I’ll ever get as good as this guy, but what the heck, why not give it a try and see what happens? I’m rather impatient to give this a try. I have just about everything I need except for the resin and that should be here this week. I hope. More about that when it actually happens. A lot of the videos you see make it resin casting look easy. It isn’t. I expect my share of utter disasters as I get started with this.

And once again the importance of proper safety gear was proven to me rather dramatically when this happened:

Ouch, that could have been nasty. I was turning a bit of white oak when the tool got caught, hard, on an imperfection in the wood. Not only did the force snap the tool in half, it hit so hard it actually bent the tool rest on the lathe and I have to get a new tool rest. The metal part of the tool snapped clean out of the handle, splitting the handle in half, and flew up and hit me square in the face. If I hadn’t had the face shield on, well, it would have been nasty as I said.

MrsGF and some family members have once again been suggesting I try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out. And I suppose that some of it is good enough that it might be marketable. But there are so many issues with trying to sell stuff and, well, is it worth the effort? I used to run my own business so I know a bit about all of the permits, red tape and tax issues that go along with operating a business legally. Emphasis on that word, legally. A lot of people try to slip under the radar, thinking that they’re too small and insignificant for the government to bother going after them if they try to ignore all of that. But do you really want to take that risk? Heck, even zoning can be a problem. You may be turning out some really neat stuff down there in your work room in the basement or that spare bedroom, and no one is going to bother you because it’s a hobby. But if you start selling it, well, now you are a business, a manufacturer, and a lot of communities have very strict zoning ordinances concerning manufacturing. Zoning boards are often very unforgiving. They don’t give a fig if all you’re making a few pens and selling ’em on Etsy. You’re making and selling stuff commercially so you are a manufacturer. Period. Things can be even more strict if you’re in a home owners association.

And then there’s pricing your stuff. I did a scrounge around Etsy the other day looking at the various vendors selling bowls and, well, either they’re losing their shirts on every sale or something funny is going on. I found one person selling 6 inch wide, two inch deep “hand crafted solid black walnut” bowls for $20. Seriously? You add up the cost of the wood, sand paper, the finishing materials, add in a bit to cover the cost of the tools, the lathe, etc., and you’re already losing money at that price. And that isn’t even beginning to add in the cost of Etsy’s fees, bookkeeping, filing taxes, or the maker’s time to produce the bowl. So yeah, either the maker is losing his shirt on every sale, or there’s something unethical going on. I did some quick estimates and I’d figure that just to break even I’d have to sell a bowl like that for about $35, and that would be essentially doing all the labor for free. And he’s running them out for $20?

So the thing is, even if I’m only turning out a bowl a week or so, it’s just not worth the hassle to try to go commercial and sell this stuff.

That’s all for now. I’m working on the next part in the tool series. That’s going to be covering the big stuff like table saws, jointers, planers and other big ticket items. I’m having to do some serious research because I’m not really up on what’s going on in the market right now. I’ve owned all of my big power tools for at least 10 – 15 years. One of the good things about big ticket items like this is that while they’re expensive, generally speaking they’ll last you a lifetime, so you only need to buy them once. Hopefully.

Sidenote: I rarely look at the viewer statistics but I did notice an interesting thing the other day. It seems a lot of my readers are from India. On a lot of days the number of visitors from India outnumber even those from the US. India is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so I’m delighted by that. I don’t understand how they found this goofy blog, but I’m thrilled they come and read this.

Tools Part IV: Small Power Tools

I’m going to split power tools into two general groups, hand held power tools, and the big expensive ones like table saws. I’ll deal with the big ones in the next installment of this.

The goal of this whole series is to help you avoid making the mistakes I made, some of which have been pretty darned expensive. Far too often I’ve ended up paying big bucks for an overhyped, high end tool when a medium priced tool or even a cheap one would have worked just as well. Or even worse, I spent a lot of money on speciality tools I only used once. So hopefully this will help you avoid the mistakes I’ve made. And I’ve made a lot of them when it comes to small power tools. I never should have bought that battery powered DeWalt circular saw, for example. I never should have spent that much money on a reciprocating saw… Well, you’ll see as you read along.

DC Vs. AC – Corded or Battery?

Some of the tools I’m going to be talking about in this section are available either as battery operated, or AC versions which have to be plugged in. So which is better? Unfortunately the answer is, it depends. It depends on how much you are going to use the tool, what the tool does, etc. For some of these tools, the battery versions are so ridiculously expensive that buying one is just silly. For others, the battery versions are so much weaker and less capable that again buying one would be silly. For others it’s a coin toss as to which is better.

Buy separately or buy a kit/collection?

A lot of tool makers will gladly sell you a whole bag full of their stuff, and regularly push these collections as “deals”. DeWalt, for example, will gladly sell you a kit that includes a drill, reciprocating saw, circular saw, flashlight, even a radio, that all work off the same battery system. So will other tool makers like Milwaukee. But while they make it sound like this is a good deal, it usually isn’t. Generally you end up paying just as much for those tools as if you’d bought them separately. And often you’ll end up paying for tools you will seldom, if ever, actually use. If the collection is indeed made up only of tools you will actually use, and they aren’t overcharging you for them, then sure, go for it. But that radio? You’ll probably never use it. And that circular saw? I hate to say this but most battery operated circular saws aren’t very good, even the brand name ones. But I’ll come to that a bit later. Let’s talk about drills first of all.

Drills

Electric drills are an essential tool for any handyperson, hobbyist, woodworker or even someone who just putters around in the garage occasionally. Drills have become a utility tool, used not just for drilling holes, but for driving and removing screws and bolts, polishing, sanding, etc. I honestly can’t remember the last time I used a regular screwdriver. I grab my battery operated drill with a screwdriver bit it chucked into it. Of all the power tools in the shop or the garage, the drill is the one that is probably going to be used the most often.

Generally speaking the argument of DC Vs. AC with electric drills was over long ago, and batteries won hands down. Oh, you can still buy corded drills, really good ones. And they’re generally less expensive than the battery powered versions. But battery operated drills have become so efficient, so good, and so damned convenient to use, that the only AC powered drills I have are specialty items like hammer drills or drywall screwguns. The drill I use just about everyday is the one over there on the left, a DeWalt that runs on a 20V LI battery system that is shared with several other DeWalt tools I own.

Sidenote: A brief word about drill size, i.e. how big a drill you can chuck into the chuck. Most hobbyist and handyman type drills are 3/8 inch, which is generally fine. I prefer one that has a half inch capacity, but I’m probably tougher on drills than you are and need larger capacity than you do. You can get bigger drill bits with smaller shanks that will fit a 3/8″ drill, of course, but I think the 1/2″ capacity drills are better all the way around. The motors in the bigger ones are generally stronger and the whole drill is more heavy duty. The drawback is money, of course. 1/2″ drills are going to be more expensive. But for the average home owner, hobbyist and even woodworker, the smaller sized drill will probably work just fine.

What Does A Drill Need?

Any drill, whether corded or battery powered, should have should have all of these features.

1 – Reversible – you should be able to reverse the direction of the drill with the flip of a switch. Why? Because in all likelihood you’re going to use that drill not just for drilling holes but for driving or removing screws, tightening or removing bolts, etc. and being reversible is absolutely necessary.

2 – Keyless chuck. The chuck is the part of the drill that accepts the drill bit or screwdriver bit, etc. Once upon a time we had to use a chuck key, that thing over there on the left, to tighten up the chuck to hold the bit or whatever in place. The gear on the key matched a gear on the chuck, and you twisted it to tighten it up. And everyone had trouble keeping track of the damned chuck key. They were always getting lost. Or the gears would get stripped. Or you could never get it tight. You get the idea. They were a royal pain in the neck. Keyless chucks let you clamp down on a drill bit or whatever by just twisting a collar around the chuck by hand. Best invention to hit the drill market since, well, rechargeable battery packs, really.

3 – Variable speed. The speed of the drill should increase as you increase pressure on the trigger, and decrease as you let up on the trigger. Some cheaper drills come with just a fast/slow or hi/lo switch. That’s okay but it isn’t a real replacement for a variable speed trigger. Why do you need it? Because drilling different materials requires different speeds. And you don’t want that drill immediately jumping to a gazillion RPM as soon as you hit the trigger when you’re trying to drive a screw into a board.

4 – A clutch. A clutch is a device that limits the amount of torque, or force, that the drill applies. This allows you to set the drill so it will stop turning when it has to apply more force than you want. This makes it a lot easier to drive screws, use it as a nut driver, etc. You set the clutch, and when it gets the bolt or screw tight, it stops turning before it strips out the screw or twists your wrist off. It should be adjustable so you can set it where even gentle resistance will trip the clutch, all the way up to full torque.

Those four things are absolute musts. There are other features that are nice to have but not absolutely necessary. A built in light so you can see what you’re doing is nice to have. So is a built in bubble level so you can make sure you are drilling level and plumb.

As I said before, that drill in that photo up there is the one I use almost every day, and it’s proven itself to be pretty darned tough and has been able to handle everything I’ve thrown at it. It’s been dropped, kicked, slid across floors and otherwise beaten and abused, and has handled everything it has needed to. I don’t think it’s over priced, either, even though there are cheaper ones out there that are almost as good. Without a battery it’s going for about $80 on Amazon. And it also works off the same battery packs my little circular saw, sawzall, string trimmer and leaf blower use. Yes, all my battery operated tools are DeWalt. I’m not a DeWalt fanboy and I certainly don’t get any kind of reimbursement. But I do like that DeWalt drill a lot and think it’s well worth the money. And just to prove I’m relatively unbiased, I’m about to badmouth DeWalt’s battery operated circular saw in a moment here.

I’m not telling you to run out and buy one like mine. There are a lot of drills on the market that do everything this one does, and do it just as well, and are even cheaper. And when it comes right down to it, well, a drill is a drill, right? If all you need to do is drill a few holes and drive a few screws, a cheap 3/8″ drill off the shelf from Walmart is going to do it. As long as it has the necessary features and seems to be made reasonably well, go for it. The DeWalt is a good choice, but you can also get good drills from Milwaukee, Skil, Black & Decker and a dozen other brands, and almost all of them are going to do the job.

Circular Saws

I own this one. I wish I didn’t. You don’t want a battery operated circular saw. Seriously.

Circular saws like the battery operated one of mine over there on the right are pretty much ubiquitous. Just about everyone who has ever needed to cut a piece of wood has one and, well, why not? They’re handy, they’re cheap (or should be), and not too difficult to use. If you need to whack six inches off a 2X4 or cut a board in half, chances are good you’re going to reach for a circular saw.

But then I realized I haven’t used my circular saw is something like two years. Seriously. When I wanted to take a photo of my saw for this, it took me twenty minutes just to find the dopey thing. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need one. I don’t generally use one because I have alternatives like a table saw, power miter saw and stuff like that laying around the shop. For lopping off the occasional 2X4, cutting down a sheet of plywood or something like that, there really isn’t any alternative.

This is one of those cases where basically a saw is a saw is a saw. There is little or no difference between brands. Sure, the more expensive ones will be of a bit better quality and will probably last longer, but generally this is a case where a $50 saw is going to serve the average person just as well as a $150 one will. Seriously.

And this is a situation where you do not want a battery operated tool. Battery operated circular saws are almost universally underpowered, have less cutting capacity, usually, and generally can’t stand up to the same kind of heavy use (and abuse) that even the medium priced corded versions can deal with. And you end up paying two or three times as much for a decent battery powered saw as you’d pay for a corded one. I have a 20 year old Skil circular saw laying around somewhere that has more power, bigger capacity and is easier to use than that $120 battery powered DeWalt that I own in that photo up there. And I paid a whopping $40 for the Skil brand saw. So for three times the money I got a saw with less power, less cutting capacity, and a battery that lasts a woefully inadequate amount of time? Oh, brother…

That isn’t DeWalt’s fault, of course. To be fair the saw itself isn’t bad. It’s about average or even a bit above average quality for it’s price. But almost all battery operated circular saws just aren’t very good. It’s basic physics. Cutting wood takes a lot of energy and a motor with a lot of torque. A DC motor and battery pack that is light enough to be easily handled by the average person just doesn’t have the torque or the energy storage capacity. So almost all battery operated circular saws are under powered, can’t cut material as thick, and the batteries discharge astonishingly fast. Stick with the AC ones.

What about features you should look for? Uh, well, okay, how about one that cuts wood? Seriously, that’s really all you need to be concerned with. Oh, and is it well built enough that it isn’t dangerous to use. And that’s about it. When it comes to circular saws, the bells and whistles on the high end models aren’t worth the money. You can drop $300, believe it or not, on a high end circular saw, and in the long run it doesn’t do anything that a $50 Black & Decker or Skil does.

There is one upgrade that will make just about any circular saw, especially the cheap ones, work even better, and that’s a better blade. A lot of these cheaper saws come with blades that are a joke, little more than a piece of stamped sheet metal. For about $20 or or a bit more, you can get a carbide toothed blade that will cut better and last much, much longer. Frued makes excellent circular saw blades (and blades for miter saws and table saws). About the only good thing about my DeWalt battery saw is that it comes out of the box with a decent blade.

Routers

Routers can easily turn into the proverbial money pit, to be honest. We’re talking some serious cash here. Almost every hobbyist woodworker I talk to thinks they need a router. And when I ask them what they actually use it for, they either lie and tell me they use it all the time, or admit they’ve used it maybe twice since they bought it and it’s been gathering dust on the shelf ever since.

Okay, so what the heck is a router and do you need one?

My 890 Porter Cable must be well over 10 years old now and it’s still purring along like brand new

A router is sort of like a combination high speed drill and plane built into one. It spins at up to 28,000 RPM or so, turning a bit that has cutter blades shaped in various profiles.You use ’em to make decorative moldings, putting edges on table tops and panels, rounding over edges of boards, to cut complex shapes, and the list goes on and on. Basically they’re used for for shaping and adding decorative elements. You can get jigs and templates that will let you do things like make dovetails and other speciality joints.

That’s my Porter Cable up there in that picture, and as you can see from how dirty it is, it gets a lot of use. It’s an old 890 series router, with an optional plunge base, 1/4 and 1/2 inch collets (the thing that holds the bits), variable speed, soft start, and I dropped a considerable amount of money on it. I’ve had it for – well, must be more than ten years now, and it’s still going strong. It was not cheap. They don’t make this particular model any more but it looks like models comparable to this one are going for well over $200, probably closer to $300, and that’s without a plunge base, bits and accessories. When I add everything up I probably have close to $1,000 sunk into just this one tool system. See what I mean about a money pit?

But do you really need one? I could use a router to cut a sheet of plywood. But I don’t. I use a saw for that. I could use it to round off sharp corners on a table top. But I generally don’t. I’d use my little block plane for that. There are a lot of things a router could be used for, but it’s generally easier using a different tool for the job. What they are good for is mostly decorative things like moldings, making dovetail joints with a jig and things like that. So unless you make fine furniture or are making custom moldings for a window or picture frame or something like that as I do, you probably don’t need one.

Power Sanders

These are one of the greatest inventions ever, in my opinion. Anyone who has ever had to sand a 3′ by 6′ table top by hand before finishing it will tell you the same. I have four of them laying around at the moment, but I only use three. The one on the left, the square one, does work but it doesn’t have any kind of dust collection system so it sits on the shelf. The other three get used regularly, though.

Most orbital sanders have holes in the pad to match holes in the sanding discs. This is help with dust control. Most of them have some kind of dust collection system that, in theory, sucks up the dust through the holes and shoves it into a bag or some kind of filter. Sometimes it actually works. Maybe. Sort of. Kinda.

Despite the variety of sanders in that photo, IMO the only one you really need is an orbital sander like that Bosch up there. That’s really my workhorse sander. It uses sanding disks that attach with a hook and loop system, has holes in the disk that match holes in the sanding disks that permit it to suck up a lot, but not all, of the dust generated from sanding, and does a pretty good job of smoothing wood down. Discs are available in a wide variety of grades ranging from very coarse to very fine.

Prices bounce all over the place, but dear lord don’t spend a lot on one of these! I’ve seen prices pushing $200 for a sander that doesn’t do any more than a $40 Skill or Black & Decker.

Belt sanders like the Skil can be useful. Generally I use mine for hogging off large amounts of material with a coarse belt on it. Works well for fitting doors that stick, for example. But it gets used nowhere near as much as the orbital.

The “Mouse” is the red one with the point from Black & Decker and generally only used for finish sanding into tight corners. It’s handy, but do you really need one? Probably not. It also has no dust collection system on it so it gets messy real fast.

Generally speaking power sanders are reasonably cheap and can save you a lot of time. If you’re building furniture or doing any kind of finish carpentry, you probably need one.

Reciprocating Saw

Okay, here we go again – Yes, don’t buy this one either! I way, way over spent on this saw. I was, I suspect, drunk when I bought it. I could have got one for almost half the price that would work just as well.

Sometimes called a “sawzall” these things have pretty much replaced things like hacksaws, pipe cutters and the like for a lot of us. I wouldn’t technically call it a woodworking tool, but damn, the thing is handy. I’ve worn out three of these over the years. This DeWalt is the latest to move into the workshop. I use it for cutting pipe, trimming branches, sawing off bolts, well, you get the idea. You can get different saw blades suitable for everything from cutting steel, to wood, to demolition work.

Do you need one? Well, maybe? They’re certainly handy to have around. If you do buy one, don’t buy one like mine!!! I almost put this one in the “Holy Cow Did I Screw Up With This One” category because that puppy up there would set you back over $170. Dear lord, did I really spend that much on a saw? What the hell was the matter with me? Was I drunk? Temporarily insane?

No, no, no, no… If you decide you need a reciprocating saw, don’t spend more than $100 on one. This isn’t rocket science. All the thing does is move a blade back and forth for heaven’s sake. $170? Really? What the hell was I thinking? If I needed to stick with DeWalt they make one for $100 that would have worked just as well.

Nailers

This is the last one I’m going to cover in this segment. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about nailers, but damn, they’re handy, so I’ll touch on them briefly.

Now if you’ve ever hammered a nail in and, after smashing several fingers, bending a half dozen nails over and hammering the heck out of your wood, you’ve told yourself there has to be a better way of doing this. There is. Nail guns. Now there are electric ones and pneumatic ones (air powered). Generally speaking the electric ones are, well, frankly every electric one I’ve tried has been crap. I’m sorry, but they were. I stick with pneumatic.

I have three. One is a finish nailer for finish nails (duh), one is a pinner, a special type of nailer that uses headless nails called pins. They don’t have much structural strength and are generally used for holding together glue joints in furniture until the glue cures. I also have a big framing nailer for, well, framing (also duh).

Do you need one? Well, not really, to be honest. They certainly do make life a lot easier if you’re remodeling a house or putting up trim and stuff like that. But you can get along without one. They aren’t all that expensive, though. Well, unless you add in the cost of the air compressor you’ll need to power them. And you can generally rent them, along with an air compressor, at tool rental places so if you only need one for a short time for a special project like remodeling a room, you don’t need to buy the thing.

Specialty Tools, Or, Holy Cow Did I Screw Up With This One

I make mistakes. A lot of them. Over the years I’ve bought a lot of tools I wish I hadn’t. For whatever reason, buying xxxxx seemed like a good idea at the time, or I bought into the hype and advertising or whatever. And now I’ve ended up with a tool that spends its life collecting dust and providing a home for spiders. Here are a couple of examples.

My biscuit joiner. What the hell is that? Well, back in the good old days when “This Old House” was an actual home improvement show that showed you how to actually do stuff instead of what it is today, which is apparently an advertising platform for whatever company gives them free stuff or coughs up a few bucks, the biscuit joiner was the tool to have if you were making tables or panels according to their in-house carpenter, Norm. And I was gluing up a lot of boards to make panels for wardrobes and tables and said, wow, this is something I have to have. I mean, if Norm says I have to have one, well, I do. Right? Spoiler warning: I didn’t.

The tool is basically a special purpose saw that does only one thing, cut matching slots in two boards that accept those wooden biscuits you see in the lower left corner of the case. Cut the slots in the edge of the boards, slop on some glue, slip in the biscuits, shove the boards together, and it makes a strong, secure joint that is better than just merely gluing the two boards together.

Only it is utterly useless. Yes, it will indeed let you cut matching slots for the biscuits and all that. But it doesn’t matter. If you know what you’re doing that joint isn’t going to fail whether you have those biscuits in there or not. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have never had a glue joint fail if the joint was properly prepared, and I used a good quality glue and properly clamped everything while the glue cured. Never. I’ve had the wood fail alongside of a glue joint. But the joint itself? No. That includes edge glued boards. So why the heck do I need a biscuit joiner? I don’t. I used it twice, realized it was a complete waste of time, shoved it back on the shelf and there it’s sat for the last, oh, decade or so. I don’t remember what I paid for that thing, but I might as well have just flushed the money down the toilet.

I do know what I paid for this thing up there because the price tag is still on it, $199.99. And once again it was money not well spent. I bought it because I was refurbishing hardwood floors at the time and thought it would be really useful. It wasn’t. I did use the saw attachment to cut out boards that needed to be replaced, but I could have used tools I already had for that. The other functions like sanding, scraping and all that which are listed on the front of the box? It would do that, yes, but very, very badly. (Handy hint: the phrase “As Seen On TV” actually means “Totally Useless”. If it appears anywhere on the box or in the advertising for a product, don’t buy it. Just don’t.)

The thing about speciality tools in general is that they usually don’t work very well, and they almost never work as well in real life as they do in the advertising. I have a tenon jig for a table saw that works, but takes so much time to properly set up that by the time I have it ready to go I could have cut the tenon by hand faster. I have sharpening gadgets that either don’t work at all or actually make tools more dull than they were to begin with.

Well, you get the idea.

That’s it for now.