Ponderings #5: "Essential" Shop Machines?

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Blog entry by Tomcat1066 posted 01-16-2008 01:18 PM 1140 reads 0 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: Getting Antsy! Part 5 of Ponderings series Part 6: A Romanticized View of Hand Tools? »

I was just looking at Popular Woodworking’s site a few minutes ago, and noticed they have an article this month on power jointers. The synopsis refers to the power jointer as “essential”. However, have we really lost sight of what the word essential means?

es·sen·tial /əˈsɛnʃəl/ Pronunciation Key – Show Spelled Pronunciation[uh-sen-shuhl] Pronunciation Key – Show IPA Pronunciation
1. absolutely necessary; indispensable: Discipline is essential in an army.
2. pertaining to or constituting the essence of a thing.
3. noting or containing an essence of a plant, drug, etc.
4. being such by its very nature or in the highest sense; natural; spontaneous: essential happiness.
5. Mathematics.
a. (of a singularity of a function of a complex variable) noting that the Laurent series at the point has an infinite number of terms with negative powers.
b. (of a discontinuity) noting that the function is discontinuous and has no limit at the point. Compare removable (def. 2).
6. a basic, indispensable, or necessary element; chief point: Concentrate on essentials rather than details.

The first and the sixth definition are the key ones. They both indication that, if a power jointer is essential, that woodworking can not be done without one. But I think we can all agree that the implication is simply incorrect. It’s not essential. Essential for a production shop to be competitive? Sure, I can agree with that. But for the hobbiest? I just don’t think it’s essential.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love to have a nice, beefy jointer and planer to match. But I just don’t have the room. If I did, I’d probably have all the “essential” equipment like a table saw, the jointer and planer, the router table, the mortiser, etc. But I don’t. I have a hole that is smaller than some folks on LJ’s wood storage! Maybe in time I can get to where I can set up a bigger shop, but that time is far, far away.

In the mean time, articles that talk about “essential” shop equipment can be discouraging for someone just starting out. All of these “essential” tools cost significant money for a decent quality machine. The thing is, furniture has been made for a couple of millenniums and these “essential” machines have only been a round a faction of a percentage of that time.

And please don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing machines. Like I said, I only wish I had the shop to have them myself. The issue for me is just the term “essential”. It’s like I tell my wife Jennifer, breathing is essential. Food and water are essential. That new purse? Not essential…it’s just damn nice to have. That’s right before I hand over my wallet and she gets the purse anyways…but it was never essential! ;)

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

14 comments so far

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3361 days

#1 posted 01-16-2008 01:26 PM

Good point. However, I don’t discourage the wife too much when she tells me a new pair of shoes is essential. Instead I use that misunderstanding to inform her that the new sander is essential. While I agree that too many words have been over used and watered down to the point of being meaningless, I think using that can be a very good strategy with the Mrs. ;-)

-- Working at Woodworking

View rpmurphy509's profile


288 posts in 3277 days

#2 posted 01-16-2008 01:35 PM

I think it all depends on what you want to get out of wood working.
For some, the end product is what is important. For others it is the journey.
For me it is a combination of the two.

For those that are more interested in the product, these machines are essential to them.
I myself think the table saw, jointer, planer and a few other machines are essential,
since they help me get to where I want to be in a timely manner, for some projects.
Other projects are crafted around the journey foremost, and the project almost as an
afterthought. I could go without the ‘essential’ machines on these.

I enjoy hand cutting dovetails even though I have routers and jigs that make it
super easy and quick. But I don’t always use a dovetailing saw to cut them.

-- Still learning everything

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3218 days

#3 posted 01-16-2008 01:40 PM

The issue is though, the machines aren’t “essential” to have. They’re just essential to do the job quickly. They may be essential to enjoy woodworking for some folks. But I take issue with the suggestion that they’re essential for all. Besides, those things are expensive!! ;)

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27251 posts in 3244 days

#4 posted 01-16-2008 02:34 PM

I tend to agree with rpmurphy in that the definition of essential is a relative term. For instance I am more comfortable using power tools than I am hand tools. Not that I am knocking hand tools but I simply would rather shoot 45 miters on my sliding miter saw or table saw rather than using a plane and a shooting board. If I had to use only hand tools I could not imagine enjoying the experience of working with wood the way I do now. Given such I probably would give up the hobby and pursue something more enjoyable (golf maybe). I admire and respect those who choose to pursue the skills necessary to use hand tools but that is simply not for me personally. So, in that respect, power tools are essential for me to stay on my woodworking journey. There are many ways to arrive at the end of the same journey and we do not all have to travel the same path. But irregardless of the path we take it is not an inexpensive journey in any case (a complete of good quality planes can easily run $1500 to $2000 just for the planes themselves).

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View manilaboy's profile


177 posts in 3357 days

#5 posted 01-16-2008 03:29 PM

I have yet to read that article. I logged in to their site but I can’t seem to find it. I need to get this out of me.

Since the article is all about POWERED jointers, I would dare say that the author refers to the essentials of a MECHANIZED woodshop. And if we are to take a survey of al the jocks out here, they’d most probably agree that it is a basic and necessary element in a POWERED woodshop.

However, if the author generalizes that a powered jointer is indispensable to all woodworkers then I will probably stop reading anymore of his articles.

-- "Real jocks do it on a bench"

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3218 days

#6 posted 01-16-2008 03:52 PM

I had a longer post here, but I guess folks just don’t get what I’m saying. It’s not “essential”, it’s just damn nice to have. It may make woodworking enjoyable for you, but it’s not essential. It’s really not…even in a powered shop, it’s not absolutely essential. It’s still something you should look at getting since it increases your options, but it’s not essential.

Essentials are wood, something to cut the wood, something to make the wood flat, something to mark the wood, something to beat the hell out of the wood, and something to selectively remove parts of the wood…more or less.

Now, would this manner of woodworking be fun? For some, sure. For others, not so much. However, that is true whether your choice to cut the wood is a cabinet saw or a hand saw (to say nothing of points in between).

So why don’t I put it this way: A powered jointer isn’t essential, but one does need some way to make the wood flat, and a jointer is damn good way to do that.

That clarify where I’m coming from a bit better?

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View gizmodyne's profile


1768 posts in 3512 days

#7 posted 01-16-2008 05:01 PM

Magazines also have a primary duty to advertisers. So there may be more than one reason to see them pushing jointers.

Essential or not (and I understand your point), I would not get rid of mine.

-- -John "Do I have to keep typing a smiley? Just assume it's a joke."

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3218 days

#8 posted 01-16-2008 05:02 PM

I don’t blame ya! If I had one, I wouldn’t either! ;)

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View coloradoclimber's profile


548 posts in 3490 days

#9 posted 01-16-2008 05:04 PM

Sticking to definition number 1 for essential you are correct, a power jointer is in no way essential to work wood.

In fact no particular tool is in any way essential, not a saw, a drill, glue, any kind of plane, hammer, chisel, anything. Hell, when I was a kid I used to rub popsicle sticks on the sidewalk to sharpen them up then bite them on the end to split them down the middle. Sounds like the only tools I needed was a strong set of choppers and a free section of sidewalk, no fancy metal tools for me.

What’s that I hear, someone saying I’m just being over the top. Uh huh, that just sounds like a point of view. If a person wants to be a definition zealot I think they’d be hard pressed to find ANY tool that is ESSENTIAL.

On the other hand if you want to define wood working as being within a given set of parameters, such as quality, timeliness, cost, ease, etc. then different tools do become essential under different situations.

For the Mrs maybe a new purse isn’t essential, but for someone in the fashion industry, modeling industry, or some other purse related industry it may well be that having a certain purse is absolutely essential. What is essential is dictated by the circumstances. Breathing, food, and water are only essential if you want to keep on living a healthy life. The Mrs having that new purse is absolutely essential if you want to keep on living a happy marriage :D

edits to genericize

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3218 days

#10 posted 01-16-2008 05:30 PM

Actually, I agree with you about some of what you say. No tool is actually “essential”, but something is needed to fulfill that role. You need to flatten and straighten a board, then a planer and a jointer are two great tools for that. So are hand planes. A rock would probably work eventually as well.

I am trying to say, and I didn’t do a good job in my blog post at all of saying it, is that all that is essential is a tool that will do a specific role. You need to joint the edges and faces of a board. That is essential for X project. A jointer is merely one tool that will do the job, and in many instances it’s probably the best for most folks. But I still don’t think it’s essential.

I’m definitely not setting up any kind of straw man here, and frankly I don’t care if anyone replies, so it’s not about my entertainment. It’s simply my thoughts on this issue. If you don’t agree, that’s cool. And while I enjoy a good debate, calling me a “definition zealot” is definitely not real productive to discourse. Definitions are what they are. Ascribing different meanings to words makes communication difficult, which may be the whole issue I had with the Pop Wood article. Perhaps they were using a definition of essential that doesn’t exist in the dictionary, nor do I use it myself, hence the confusion.

But whatever. I thought I had finally explained where I was coming from pretty well. I guess not.

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View rpmurphy509's profile


288 posts in 3277 days

#11 posted 01-16-2008 06:04 PM

I agree with you Tomcat, no specific tool is essential if there is another method, tool or way to accomplish
the same goal. No argument at all. For me, it is all about perspective though for an actual person who works
the wood. I have all sorts of hand tools, among my collection are planes, files, rasps etc. But for me, having
the powered tools can be an essential part of me enjoying the project I am working on.

From the original post, and it’s intent, you are 100% correct. But you also made a broad statement, similar
(but on the opposite) of the author we are referring to.

I started my shop with a hand saw, coping saw, measuring tape and a hammer. And with these
tools I did ‘o.k.’. After purchasing and learning to properly use some powered tools they have
since become an essential part of my personal wood worker experience, but this is not to imply that
my saws, hammer etc are also not an essential part of what I do.

Very thought provoking post, makes me re-think exactly what in my shop I can or can’t live
without in the grander scheme of things.

-- Still learning everything

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3218 days

#12 posted 01-16-2008 06:14 PM

Thanks rpmurphy! You’re right about the original post. I guess the article was the catalyst, but it’s based on stuff I’ve been dealing with for a while. I sort of blew up, and this is the result. That’s why I tried to clarify later on.

Thanks for understanding where I was coming from!

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View mot's profile


4911 posts in 3459 days

#13 posted 01-16-2008 06:46 PM

My head hurts, now.

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View Dan Lyke's profile

Dan Lyke

1509 posts in 3547 days

#14 posted 01-16-2008 07:23 PM

Like gizmodyne, I’d point out that as a subscriber to a magazine you are not the customer, you are the product. The advertisers are the customer.

And now that I have a tiny space for a full-time shop (as soon as we get the boxes currently in it unpacked), a jointer is actually further down the list for me than a planer, given that I can use a circular saw on a rail for edges up to 2” thick. Might try to justify one of those convertibles, though…

-- Dan Lyke, Petaluma California,

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