Let’s start out with frogs with this little 30 second video. I put up a video a few weeks ago of some frogs singing when I was out on the bike, but this is in my own backyard this time. As soon as it starts to get dark here, this is what it sounds like here at the house. Turn up your volume and wait a bit. It takes about 10 seconds for the sound to kick in. You aren’t going to see much, it’s dark. It’s the sound that I want you to hear.
Frogs. Dozens and dozens of frogs singing their little hearts out. It one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. As soon as the weather got warmer and we got a bit of rain this frog chorus started in and I find myself going out into the backyard a couple of times a night just to listen to these guys.
So, let’s move on to lasers, specifically the laser engraver over there on the left. This is the “Laser Engraver laser engraving machine 3000mw laser class 4 Off-line Upgrade Version CNC Pro DIY Logo engraver” from a company called GanGou.
Now I’ve been interested in laser engravers for some time now. You all know by now I fiddle around with wood, and I thought it would be interesting to be able to burn artwork onto some of the things I crank out here from time to time. Especially now that I’ve been getting into this lathe stuff. If I am going to sell this stuff I’d like to put a logo, name, maybe a date, on the bottom of the bowls. A lot of people use custom made branding irons, but those are expensive and can’t be changed without buying a new one. A custom made branding iron with your own logo can set you back well over $100 or more, and then that is all it can do. This laser here costs about $250 and can engrave just about anything you can stuff into a .BMP file.
I never bought one before because they were way, way out of my budget. The good ones anyway. There were always really cheap ones on the market but every one of those I saw was utterly horrible in every single way. ES (Eldest Son) bought one of those a few years ago and it took him days just to get it running and it was utterly useless if he tried to engrave anything bigger than about 1 square inch.
That’s changed, though. Some of the cheap models are now very, very good, and this is one of them. It goes for around $250 on Amazon and it is a lot better than I expected it to be. The build quality on this thing is excellent. It is very, very well made. The hardware is all beautifully finished, the tolerances are excellent, the stepper motors are high quality. It is just very, very good.
It does have its quirks, though. The manual is terrible. But then I expected that. Utterly horrible manuals, instructions, assembly notes, etc. are pretty much par for the course with a lot of equipment these days, and this is no exception. The instructions were in both English and Chinese, and interestingly enough the Chinese instructions were just as bad as those in English. (Google Translate makes life for us dabblers in oddball equipment much easier.) The instructions for putting it together are pretty clear, but the rest of the manual deals with the included software, not the engraver itself. And, well…
The software that comes with it, well, you might as well not even bother installing it. In my case I installed it on my test computer, a more or less bullet proof generic, business class Lenovo laptop that I picked up refurbed for $200, running Win 10. This computer will run anything because there is no speciality hardware, no oddball drivers, nothing. It is your basic, simple, 100% compatible Windows 10 computer.
It won’t run the Gangou software, though. The drivers installed. Well, I think they did but it was hard to tell because all of the prompts were in Chinese. The software installed. It ran, and then immediately locked up tight as soon as I tried to click on any of the buttons. As far as I can tell, clicking anywhere in the program, on any control, makes it lock up tight. Sigh… I’ll fiddle with it a while longer to see if I can figure out what’s going on, but I don’t have a lot of hope. I don’t know yet if the hardware will work with the other open source or commercial laser engraver programs out there. I only just got the thing and I haven’t had time to really look into it further.
Fortunately you don’t need the software at all to run this thing. You can do everything from that little touch screen. Plug a flash drive with your .BMP file into it, turn it on, select the file you want to use, set the laser strength, do the positioning test to make sure the object is in the right place, and hit start. Using it from the touch screen is about as simple as it gets. And as you can see from the results of a test run on a tap handle I cranked out the other day, it does a pretty darn nice job.
So far I’ve only done about a dozen engravings with it, including test runs, so I have no idea how long it will hold up under continued use, but considering how well made it seems I’m not too worried about that. And at around $250 the price is right. The reviews on Amazon are all over the place. But you have to be really cautious about reviews these days. And a lot of the really negative reviews seem to have been from, well, idiots, to be blunt, people who couldn’t figure out how to put it together, didn’t know anything about laser engravers in the first place and that kind of thing. One of these days I should really do an article about product reviews and how to try to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
So I’ve been making handles for beer taps of late. A couple of very good friends of ours bought a tavern in a Milwaukee suburb and are converting it into a brewpub, and we might have invested a few bucks in it. The handles on their taps were left over from the previous owner, and all of those handles are left over from the usual big monopoly beer brands which sell stuff that tastes like their breweries are directly connected to the Clydesdale stables drainage ditch. So those handles have to be replaced with something that reflects what’s actually in the kegs they’re connected to. Hence the need for the laser engraver I’ve been talking about. I’ve done a couple of experimental efforts already. They’re dirt simple to turn out in just about any shape I want. The chrome ferrule down at the bottom consists of a threaded rod; a wood screw on one end to go into the tap, machine threads on the other end to fit into a chrome plated brass fitting that then screws onto the tap itself. Those are cheap. I got these for about $1.50 each from a company in India and they’re good quality.
So now that I’ve done some experimenting I am going to crank out about 8 of these for them, and use the laser to engrave their own company logo on them and even specific beer names if they want. And I can make ’em out of scrap wood I have left over from other projects, even glue up blanks with different types of wood like the experiment over there on the left.
Someone asked if I was still bike riding and I am indeed. As soon as the weather started getting warm enough to get out I was out on the bike every chance I had. I’ve had some issues with breaking spokes. I’ve had to have spokes replaced three times already this year and I only have a couple of hundred miles on the bike. I think it’s being caused by shock from going over the railroad tracks around here. The rail crossings have gotten really, really bad over the past year.
Anyway I am out and about, but I haven’t said much here because I figured you all were getting bored with it.
Holy cow it’s dry out there. Thats the river down by the old stone bridge which is on my regular route. This time of year that river up there should be about 3 feet deeper and flowing along at a pretty good speed. Instead it looks more like it normally would at the end of August – completely stagnant, only about a foot or so deep.
We’ve been under fire warnings almost since the snow melted here, and we’ve already had several wild fires. They’re small when compared to those out west, but yes, we have them here too. We got a good shower last night but it doesn’t come close to making up for it. We’ve had to water the gardens here on a regular basis already, something we generally don’t have to do until mid to late summer.
But it still looks amazingly beautiful out there. The road and trailside flowers are in full bloom and I really look forward to getting out of town and into the countryside.
Let’s see, what else… The vegetable gardens are all in. We have the raised beds planted with onions, beans, a variety of peppers, etc. We have one that’s all beets this year because, well, we like beets so why not? We put in a couple of squash, a few cukes. I have two jalapeno peppers growing in pots out front. Only two because I’m the only one who likes jalapenos around here. We only put in 3 tomato plants this year because we still have a lot of canned tomatoes from last year.
The big ash tree in the backyard is going to have to come down. I noticed a large hole near the top of the trunk right where two of the main branches come together and it looks like it’s rotting from the top down. So that has to go before it comes down and damages something. We already talked to a service about doing that and they’ll be coming at the end of summer to take it down. I’m going to keep the wood, at least all of the big stuff, and we’re going to keep the stump and turn it into a decorative feature. That means we get a significantly lower cost for the removal of the tree, all they have to haul out is the brushy stuff.
And that, my friends, is about it for this time.
What’s coming up…
I’ll put up photos of the “official” tap handles once I get those done.
I’m doing some experimenting with the boxelder wood I got from MrsGf’s sister and that stuff looks really nice. If that turns out I’ll put up some pictures of that.
I suppose I should talk about the DeWalt battery chainsaw I picked up a few months ago. That has turned out to work a lot better than I ever thought it would and it deserves a look. I have a Poulan gas chain saw but it is very, very old, very noisy, very messy, leaks oil and is just nasty. So far the DeWalt has been working well. I use it for cutting up large blocks of wood that won’t fit on my band saw or table saw so they’ll fit on my lathe.
I use a variety of tools with the lathe, from traditional steel skews and gouges to carbide tools. Carbide tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they can be extremely useful. I do most of my work with traditional bowl gouges, but I use my carbide tools often enough that they’re right there in the rack with my gouges.
Carbide cutters last a long time but eventually they do get dull, and then you either have to spend a significant amount of money to replace them or you have to sharpen them. Some people think you need special equipment, special jigs, and special sharpening equipment to do it. You don’t. If you have standard carbide cutters like these up above, all you need to sharpen them is a diamond hone.
These things aren’t all that expensive. The one in the photo up there cost me $45 and will probably last for many years. We have one in the kitchen we use to sharpen knives and we’ve had that one for over 20 years and it’s still working well. This one is 325 grit on one side and 1200 grit on the other. The 1200 grit side is the only one we’re going to use.
Note that this will only work on standard type cutters like the ones in the photo. If your cutters have a negative rake or any of that other fancy stuff, all bets are off.
Take the cutter off your tool. Put the diamond hone down on a flat surface. You may want to put a piece of plastic under it because things are going to get wet. You need to use something as a lubricant when you do this. There are fancy honing oils and other stuff out there. I use (drum roll please) glass cleaner. Yeah, seriously. Hey, what can I say? It works for me.
Thoroughly wet the surface of the hone with the stuff. Put your cutter face down on the hone. Then put your finger on top of the cutter and start moving it round in circles using light pressure. Do this for a minute or so, moving all over the surface of the hone so you don’t just wear out one spot.
Add more liquid as needed to keep it wet. After doing this for a while you’ll see the liquid starting to get dirty looking. This is the surface of the cutter wearing off as it is moved against the hone. This means it’s working.
It doesn’t take long to do, maybe a minute or two is probably all it will take.
When you’re done the surface of the cutter won’t be shiny any more, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t cut with the surface, you cut with the edge, and that edge is going to be sharp.
Is it as sharp as a brand new cutter? Possibly not. But it’s certainly going to be sharp enough to let you keep working with that tool, and save yourself some money in the process.
Note that this isn’t going to remove chips. You’re honing, not grinding, so you aren’t removing anywhere near enough material to get a chip out.
I forgot one item when I looked at the tools I’d picked up during 2020, and that’s the Oneida “Dust Deputy” in the photo over there on the left. It helps to deal with an ever present problem for anyone who works with wood, the dust and debris generated by woodworking.
In an ideal world we’d all have professional quality dust collection systems. But those things are big, expensive, etc. Not all of us have the space or the money to set one of these up, so a lot of us end up using a good old fashioned shop vac as our primary dust/debris collection system. Modern, good quality shop vacs can be almost as efficient at removing dust and debris as a traditional dust collection system, although they don’t have the capacity to keep up with some tools like planers and jointers. It all depends on the power of the motor, the CFM (cubic feet per minute air movement) and the filtration system the vac uses. The biggest drawbacks are that the vacs are (usually) very loud, have to be moved around the shop to be hooked up to individual pieces of equipment, and have to be emptied very frequently. Lugging my big 16 gallon sized shop vac up and down a flight of stairs to get it in and out of the house in order to empty it is not fun.
This Dirt Deputy gadget and similar devices have been around for a long time, but I’ve never been that interested in them before because A) I wasn’t making that much dust and debris before now, and B) I figured that like a lot of things that sounded too good to be true, it was, well, too good to be true. But wood turning generates massive amounts of dust and wood shavings, far more than making furniture did. So not only was I lugging that big vac up and down the stairs all the time, I was going through filters like crazy. No matter how good of a job you may do blowing out or cleaning that filter, you can’t get it completely clean and eventually it will get plugged up to the point it won’t pass enough air to permit the vac to work. So I decided to try this thing.
The basic idea behind these things has been around for a long time. You hook the shop vac up to the outlet on top, hook your hose to the lower outlet, slap it on top of a standard 5 gallon bucket, and that’s it. As the air (and dirt) whirls around inside of the funnel shaped thing, the dust and shavings and other debris end up falling down into the bucket instead of getting sucked into your vac.
As I said I was skeptical of this thing, but the darned thing actually works, and works pretty well. Even fine dust seems to settle into the bucket instead of ending up in the vacuum. Instead of having to lug the whole vac up the stairs and out to the garage I can just carry the bucket. But the biggest hope I had was that this would save me money. Those big cartridge filters on my shop vac are expensive. About three of those filters would pay for this whole Dust Deputy thing, so it could potentially save me a lot of $$. And it does. This thing has already paid for itself in the two months or so I’ve had it. I’m really quite pleased with it.
Are there drawbacks to it? Sure. There always are with things like this. The biggest drawback in this case is a reduction in suction power, which makes sense. You’re adding several feet of air hose, the Deputy itself, possible air leaks, etc, into the system. So that all restricts air flow and reduces the amount of vacuum power. In my case, my big vac, which could keep up with my thickness planer without the Deputy installed, can no longer handle my DeWalt planer with the Deputy. That’s not a big deal, though. I don’t use the planer all that often these days and when I do need it I simply hook the vac up to it direct and bypass the Deputy.
So, what’s this thing cost? Oneida will gleefully sell you a whole “kit” for about $100+ which includes the Deputy wind tunnel swirly thingie, the bucket lid it attaches to, a short hose to hook to your vac, some hose clamps, a 2nd bucket that the first bucket nests into, and little wheels to bolt to the outer bucket to make it easier to lug around and the instructions tell you to drill holes through the side of your vacuum and bolt the 2nd bucket to your vac for some reason and, well, don’t. You don’t need the 2nd bucket, you don’t need the wheels, you don’t need the hose clamps (if your existing hoses don’t fit perfectly, you can always resort to duct tape, that’s what I did), you don’t need any of that stuff. Basically they’re charging you $50 for a couple of buckets you can probably get free and $10 of hardware. If you want to try one of these, get the “basic” kit.
The basic kit goes for about $50 without the wheels, the buckets and all the other guff, and that’s all you need. It comes with the cyclone thing, some bolts and a gasket. That’s it. You get your own 5 gallon bucket with a lid (probably free). Cut a hole in the lid, screw the cyclone thing to it, and use your own hoses and clamps. If you need more hose or clamps you can get everything you need at the local home improvement store.
The way things look right now, this thing is going to save me easily going to save me money on filters.
I found a vendor on Amazon that was selling large blocks of Indian rosewood. It was actually not all that expensive and I’d never worked with it before so i got a couple of blocks just to see what it was like. I picked up two pieces, about 6 inches square and 3 inches thick. I think I paid about $30 each for the two pieces. That may seem like a lot but that’s actually pretty reasonable for this stuff on the commercial market. If you want good quality imported woods, you’re going to pay for it. Rosewood is really popular with the pen turning people. I see a lot of places selling rosewood blanks sized for pen makers, but almost never see large pieces big enough to make bowls.
As you can (hopefully) see in that photo over there the wood is absolutely beautiful once it’s sanded and finished. And it just feels nice to the touch. Whenever I walk past that bowl I find myself running my fingers over it. I can see why pen turners like this stuff. It is a bit messy, though. I don’t know if it was just the pieces I got or if it is normal, but the stuff seemed really oily, with the dust clinging to my tools (and me). It machined beautifully, though. No problems with catches or snags or weird tear outs or anything like that, and it even sanded down beautifully. And it polishes up to a beautiful luster.
But the smell… Now I’m one of those weird people who are classified as a “super smeller”. I have a ridiculously sensitive sense of smell (and taste, for that matter). To me this stuff has a very distinctive aroma that vaguely resembles, well, poo, to be blunt. MrsGF can’t smell it at all. After putting a finish on the bowl the smell diminished greatly, but I can still smell it when I get within a couple of feet of it. I wondered if maybe it was just that one block of wood, but the second one smelled just like the first.
I like this rosewood stuff, but… There are problems. I’m seeing what I suppose you could call micro-cracks in the wood, very fine, almost invisible cracks that I can’t see unless I get within a foot or two of the bowls. I’m rather concerned about that because I have no idea why they are there. I need to take a closer look at this and figure out what happened. Wood is, well, wood. It moves, absorbs and gives off moisture, swells, contracts. It’s all part of the challenges of working with the stuff. I generally know what happened when a piece of wood cracks or warps, but I’m not sure what’s going on here. MrsGF is encouraging me to start trying to sell some of this stuff, but I don’t want to end up with people complaining about something like this so I want to figure out what went wrong before I turn out more stuff in rosewood.
Let’s see, what else…
Oh, the pear tree – I saved a lot of the wood from the pear tree when we took it down last year after it collapsed with the intention of possibly using it for various projects. I got curious about how it would look and work so I grabbed a bit that seemed reasonably dry and ended up with this small vase.
The stuff machines nicely, sands well and looks fairly good once it’s finished. It seems to be prone to cracking. You can’t see it in this photo but on the backside of that thing there is a vertical crack running almost the entire length of the vase that’s sealed up with epoxy. Still the results are encouraging and I’m going to keep fiddling with this stuff as I get time.
As I said, MrsGF and a few other people are telling me I need to try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out so they’re pushing me to set up a shop on Etsy. Sigh… I don’t really want to get involved in all of that guff, but I do see their point. If I keep this up much longer I’ll have to rent a storage unit somewhere just to store the projects I’ve been cranking out.
Someone asked what kind of wax and finish I’ve started using recently so here’s a bit more info.
The basic formula for the sanding sealer I use is one ounce (weight, not volume) of shellac flakes to one cup of denatured alcohol. Put the flakes into a glass jar that has a tight fitting lid. Add one cup of denatured alcohol. Give it a stir, put on the lid and let it sit for at least 24 hours. If there is still undissolved shellac at the bottom of the jar after 24 hours, give it a gentle shake and let it sit another 12 hours. By that time everything should have dissolved. Once it’s dissolved, pour it through a coffee filter into a clean jar and put an air tight lid on it, and it’s ready to use. It will be pretty thin. That’s ok because for this application I don’t want a thick product. You can make different “cuts”, i.e. concentrations, of shellac for different purposes. It’s pretty useful stuff for a woodworker. If you make it yourself it’s of better quality than the pre-made stuff you get at the home improvement stores. I am not sure how long of a shelf life it has, to be honest. I’d think that as long as you have it in an airtight container it should last for months.
I use it mostly as a sealer. I figured out (I think at least) that the reason the beeswax/tung oil finish was looking so poor after a couple of months was that it was being absorbed into the unsealed wood. Maybe. I do know that after I started putting on the sealer before the final finishes the projects look much better and doesn’t seem to degrade over time.
I use a disposable brush to put a thin coat on the raw wood after it’s been sanded. Don’t load up the brush and really slather it on, use just enough to cover the wood. A lot of it will absorb into the wood, especially on end grain, so I put on 2-3 thin coats. Then I buff it lightly with #OOOO steel wool. Wipe it down with a clean cloth and look for any imperfections or problem and sand and apply another coat if needed.
This is what walnut looks like after three coats of the shellac has been applied.
Now you could just buff this out as-is, maybe put on a thicker cut or more coats as necessary to get a nice finish. Shellac makes a perfectly good wood finish all by itself and has an advantage in that it is repairable. You can just apply another coat, the alcohol will dissolve the existing shellac and it will all blend together. But shellac is fairly easy to damage and I want something a bit more durable and harder, so I’ve started using carnauba wax.
Carnauba is interesting stuff. It’s made from the leaves of a palm tree from South America. The stuff is incredibly useful. Go look it up over at Wikipedia if you want to know more.
I learned an interesting trick for applying the wax from watching videos on Youtube. I buy solid carnauba formed into a bar about the size of a candy bar. I spin the bowl or whatever on the lathe at about medium speed and press the bar against the spinning bowl.
This leaves a deposit of wax on the bowl. Then I turn up the speed on the lathe and buff it out with a clean cloth.
That generates enough friction to heat the wax up and melt it, leaving behind a nice, glossy surface.
As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of advantages to this. It doesn’t take long to do. The shellac dries pretty quickly so I generally just leave the piece on the lathe during the whole process. It only takes a few minutes to apply a coat of the wax. The resulting finish looks pretty darn nice. And it seems to be pretty durable as well. Best of all there are no harsh or harmful chemicals in this stuff. Shellac and carnauba wax are both so safe they’re used as food ingredients. The alcohol evaporates within a few minutes. Some caution is necessary because of alcohol fumes, but that stuff is heck of a lot safer to use than many of the additives they put into commercial finishes.
It’s also reasonably cheap. That bar of wax cost me about $13 and it looks like it will last me a year or longer. It takes very little to cover a bowl. That 1 lb bag of shellac flakes cost me about $30. At the rate I’m using it that bag will last me over a year as well. The actual cost of the shellac works out to about $1.87 of shellac flakes per cup of liquid product at the rate I use it. Denatured alcohol sets me back $35/gallon, or $2.18 per cup. Rounding everything off, it costs me about $4 per 8 oz cup to make the liquid shellac I use. Now I could get commercially premade stuff for about that cost or even a bit less than that, but this way I know exactly what’s in the product I’m using. I don’t have to be afraid of some kind of weird chemicals being in the stuff that could be potentially harmful. Some commercial producers throw in additives to extend the shelf life because that can could be sitting on the shelf in a store for years before someone buys it. They also add coloring agents, chemicals to control evaporation rates and I don’t know what all else. And the quality seems much better than what I’ve bought commercially.
It does slightly alter the color of the wood, however. The lightest grade of shellac will add a sort of golden tone to woods, especially lighter colored woods. It generally isn’t all that noticeable, though. It is available in different colors that range into a deep, reddish brown.
Rikon Band Saw
I mentioned a week or so ago that I bought this. So far it looks like it’s a pretty nice saw, but it’s early days yet. I bought it from Amazon. It arrived well packed in a single big box weighing around 80 lbs. I had to use a handcart to get the thing down into the workshop. It does not come with a stand so I had to spend another $50 to get a stand for it. It went together pretty easily. It took longer to put the stand together than it took to put the saw together. The saw comes with all of the tools needed to put it together except for a screwdriver. The only thing I had to put on the saw was the table and a few bits and pieces, and do basic setup of the blade guides. The blade was pre-installed. Installing the table was a bit fiddly, and I think I’ll need to get in there and do a bit of fine tuning to get everything perfectly square.
So far it looks like a really nice saw. I’ve wanted one of these for a long time and it is already proving itself to be one of the more useful tools I have in the shop.
To be honest I didn’t really expect much from a bandsaw in this price range. I paid $430 for the Rikon and I assumed that despite the glowing reviews it would be under powered, be flimsy and have problems. I was wrong. Build quality seems to generally be excellent. The motor hasn’t bogged down even when cutting 4+ inch thick stock. Dust collection isn’t as good as I’d like it to be but even there it isn’t horrible. It does a good job cutting curves and circles.
It does have some minor issues that aren’t deal killers. They claim it has a full 5″ cutting capacity. It’s actually a bit less than that. It seems rather noisy when cutting, but I don’t have a lot of experience with bandsaws so this might be normal. I’m a bit concerned about the amount of sawdust that accumulates on the lower blade guides as shown in the photo up there. The fence is, well, a basic fence that pretty much works, but I’d have liked one a bit more sturdy. Still, at this price I should be grateful it comes with a useable fence at all.
Let’s see, what else is going on- oh, I have a new resin piece sitting in the pressure pot that should be coming out in 2 days. I’m using up some scrap wood and am going to try to make a small decorative lamp. I picked up some small LED lamp inserts with in-line switches for about $7 each that look like they should work. So we’ll see how that goes once the resin is cured and I get it out of the pot. I figure it will take at least 2 – 3 days for it to cure.
The weather has been, well, this is Wisconsin. The weather here is always a bit strange. I remember days when we literally had snow storms in the middle of May. In the last week we went from winter like conditions where the temperatures never got above 35 degrees and one or two snow falls, to temperatures now up in the mid to high sixties.
Not much is going on out in the gardens. MrsGF got bored yesterday and did some more cleanup in the gardens, but other than that most gardening stuff is going to be on hold until late winter when we start planning what to grow. And somehow that dopey rose bush in front of the house is still in flower.
I don’t know how this thing does it. After days of temperatures under 35 degrees, dipping down to about 20 at night, this thing is still flowering?
I picked up a really nice piece of ambrosia maple and I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. It looks like a really interesting piece of wood. The problem is it’s green. My moisture meter says it’s up about 35% moisture. That means I can’t just start whacking away at it. I’ll have to work it down into a rough shape and then let it sit and dry for a few weeks before I can actually finish it up.
A lot of wood turners love working with green wood because it is a lot easier to rough into shape on the lathe. I think these people are silly. Working with dry wood is, in my personal experience, not that much more difficult than working with the green stuff if your tools are sharp and you’re using the right techniques. I like to think I’m a patient person, but sitting around waiting weeks or even months for a green bowl blank to dry down? No thanks. Plus green wood warps, cracks and checks as it dries down and I’ve ended up with nice pieces of wood being tossed onto the scrap pile. So I’d much, much rather work with dry wood than green.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.