The other day (actually several months ago), I was woodworking in my shop one weekend when someone stopped in and asked what tools one needs to start woodworking. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked and I gave the same advice I’ve given before, as I’m sure many of us have, rattling off a list of tools that adds up to a tidy sum.
“Well, most shops are built around the table saw, but you’ll also need a router table—-a must. Bandsaws are nice for curves and small pieces. A chop/mitre saw comes in handy. If you want to save money on wood you’ll also want a surface planer and of course a joiner is nice for squaring up pieces. And then there are the hand tools…”
But this time, while telling him, in the back of my mind there was this nagging feeling that I was giving really terrible advice (you know the kind that makes the screeching record sound on TV). And I’ve done a lot of reading some articles that touch on this subject lately and I’ve realized there is a much better answers and they make a lot more sense. There are a couple different ways I think one could approach the subject better. The first is by answering their question by asking several of them (and I’ll get to those in a bit). The second is to start simple. Robert Lang makes this point in his recent blog. His advice can be summed up in one sentence “one sharp tool and a hunk of wood will take you farther, faster.”
I’ve been woodworking now for about 10 years and I had the benefit of having my future Father-in-law help me get started in a shop where he owned a great many tools (mostly power). While I worked in that shop for a few years before setting up my own in a storage unit and soon after a one-car garage. I really didn’t start with much. In fact, I still don’t have a table saw (one of the central pillars of a modern shop, remember). Not that I haven’t needed one, but much like Chris Schwartz has said, “there are five ways to do everything in woodworking.” When I started in my own shop, I used a jigsaw to rough cut shapes and then used a router with a straight bit running along a carpenter’s level to make nice clean edges and ends.
The moral of the story, find out what tools they already have. Maybe they can get started today… it’s probably won’t be a Federal style highboy, but they can cut their teeth on some simple things first like a bird house, a step stool, or a spoon. These projects are great too since they don’t require much wood (which can be cheap and/or made from scratch) and are everyday items. It is nice to be inspired by a completed project that you see frequently to remind you to get back out in the shop.
Now for the questions. Course I already gave you #1.
1) What tools to you already own?
See above discussion.
2) What would you like to see yourself make?
This helps guide the best choice for the fewest number of tools to get started. Do you want to make furniture, turning, carving, etc.?
Want to turn? Get a small lathe and 3/4” skew and a gouge or two and you’re in business. Don’t forget a sharpening stone or grinder.
Want to carve? A small set of carving tools. And by set I don’t mean a pre-packaged set—they’re a waste of money since you’re unlikely to use half the tools in a set. I’d suggest four gauges, two with a gentle sweep one smallish and one largish, and two with a narrow sweep again one smallish and one largish. Add a knife or a skew chisel to the mix and you’ll have a decent beginners set. Go with the sharpening stone here (they’re delicate).
Want to build furniture? Again start small. A saw (chop, circular, jig, band, table, hand… whatever, choose one or two), a square and some sandpaper. Go ahead, use nails or screws. Work on learning fancy joints if you like it later. Just remember the more accurate you are the better it looks and holds together. If you like it come back later and I’ll give you a list as long as my… arm.
3) How much do you want to spend? (No limit! Oh please, everyone’s got limits and who knows if you’ll really like it.)
Either way, start by looking for used tools. Craigslist, gumtree, ebay, a used tool sale, flea market, and estate sales are great places to start looking. You’re unlikely to find anything at garage sales… Most garage sales that advertise tools have wrenches, rusty hammers and worn out screwdrivers. Just remember used tools often need a lot of work. You’ll save a bundle but spend a bunch of time tuning them (there are lots of good resources for learning how to do this and how to choose a good prospect). Don’t want to spend the time? I don’t and never have; I like to work on wood not tools. Just expect to pay more and don’t buy crap—you’ll regret it. A good tool holds its value well and you can get most of your money back if you don’t like woodworking.
So what makes me an expert to give this advice you ask? Ha! I’m no expert, but I’m not too old to remember what it was like when I started. I’m probably just moving out of the beginner stage, although with many things I’m still there. I didn’t grow up making things; when I started woodworking I couldn’t drive a nail straight if my life depended upon it. I just looked at the price of decent furniture before I got married and thought “no way I can’t afford that and I can probably learn to do it myself for less than the cost of the cheap junk.” So for those of you looking to start… there may be hope for you yet and it doesn’t have to cost a bundle.