where to begin a love affair with trees

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

you’re passionate about designing and building things. that’s a great start. but you don’t have a workshop. or you’ve got a workshop and it’s full of things you don’t use and you’re ready to start again. here’s what the temptation looks like. you go on craigslist and facebook marketplace and start browsing for good deals. then you buy them and bring them home and you gradually build a collection of mediocre, outdated tools. but you’ve got a workshop and that’s a great place to start and you can build from there, right?


that is definitely what some people will recommend you do but i have five reasons why this is an awful starting point.

  1. if you’re not experienced using and maintaining equipment, you’re going to have a nightmare getting the machines working and they’re not going to perform well.
  2. safety precautions on old tools range from nonexistent to brutally-inadequate.
  3. parts are often unavailable, custom or extremely expensive — and shipping parts across or into the country that are often made of steel or cast iron means you’ll be beating your head against a financial wall.
  4. even if you can get them to work, old tools are going to break simply because they’ve been used so much so testing them to make sure they’re in working condition doesn’t eliminate the fact that they’re quite possibly older than your parents.
  5. most importantly, you’re a woodworker. not a machinist or powertool restorer. if you want to be one of those things, be one of those things. and you can be that as well as a woodworker (rollie johnson over at fine woodworking magazine, this is you!). but if what flutters your fall leaves is creating things from wood you won’t be spending much time doing that while you try to get old junk to hold square and level. which it might. but it probably won’t.

of course, this is about powertools. the equation and balance is completely different for handtools where antique might be (and often is) the best option even for beginners, especially as supply-chain disasters hit major manufacturers and prices spiral through the roof. but let’s talk about a shop where you know you’re going to be producing things for sale because that’s what we do. this isn’t about a hobby. it’s not about playing with curls or bashing together stick-furniture to foist on your unsuspecting adult offspring. this is about building a shop that will pay for itself. as quickly as possible. and that means designing and building efficiently and with quality results. so how do you start when your budget doesn’t allow you to just go to the powertool dealer near you and order a whole workshop full of equipment?

well, you start small and smart and you don’t buy a workshop full of equipment. you buy a few well-considered powertools, some handtools and you work your way up without compromising or investing in soon-to-be-replaced excrement and antique-wannabe paperweights along the way. let’s briefly take a walk down that path.

a beginning small-scale production workshop is going to need what i call the holy-trinity-of-startup-tools. and you might be surprised what that list includes. actually, you might be more surprised by what that list doesn’t include. it doesn’t include a tablesaw. it also doesn’t include what i call “disposable tools”. i’m assuming you have a drill. cause everyone has a drill. a cordless one you picked up cheap at walmart twenty years ago is just fine. you need some bits for it in common sizes but honestly you can wait years before upgrading to a nice drill. you will someday dump that twenty-buck mess for something nice but wait until you’ve decided which battery platform you want to standardize on and just get whatever they make when it’s convenient and on-sale. the same goes for a sander. your inexpensive random-orbital will do everything you need. it’ll be annoying. but it’ll work and you’ve got it in the closet already.

the three tools are these.

  1. bandsaw
  2. thickness-planer
  3. handheld router (no, not trim-router — full-size with a half-inch collet)

let’s talk about why.

a tablesaw cuts straight lines very accurately. there’s no drift (unless you’re either stupid or incredibly unlucky). it does one thing well. it’s a specialized expert in straight things — you can think of it as the powertool equivalent of a homophobic conservative (you know, only into straight things but deeply devoted to that obsession). a jigsaw can cut curves but it’s messy. what you want is something in the middle. a saw that can cut straight lines mostly well — approximate is close enough for almost everything because you’ll be fine-tuning with a chisel or sander anyway. something that can do accurate curves. something that can resaw. that’s a bandsaw. it’s not perfect at anything but it’s the jack-of-all-trades of the powertool saw world. it’ll get you started.

now i know what the next question will be. what size bandsaw should you get? there are two possible answers to that. you want your bandsaw to be as big as possible and as accurate as possible. and those two things dramatically increase the price. so here’s the solution. sacrifice size for quality. get a small — yes, small — bandsaw. a fourteen-inch model. you’re going to upgrade it later when your shop becomes profitable enough to pay for it. but here’s the thing about a fourteen-inch bandsaw. it’s awesome. and it will do 95% of everything you need to do in a small shop. that other 5%? well, you’re just going to have to do that by hand. but the difference between a small bandsaw and even an inexpensive large one is literally thousands. it’s up to you. but i’d start with a nice, well-built small one and take it from there.

the other thing you’re probably wondering is the question every woodworking teacher gets asked constantly — should i buy a planer or a jointer first? there is only one answer to this question. it’s always the same answer. buy a planer. the jointer is unnecessary. you may actually never need a jointer. there are all kinds of ways to use your planer to joint boards. but there’s absolutely no way to use a jointer to plane to thickness and guarantee parallel faces or edges. it’s just that simple. if you are going to work without a thickness-planer, you have to do all your thicknessing and smoothing by hand. and that will simply make your workshop too slow to be functionally profitable. it will never pay for itself. if you want to make furniture, you need a planer. there’s no equivocation on that. you can play around and have fun without one. but it’ll be a case of spending money hand over fist for materials and tools that you’ll never be able to make pay for themselves.

the third thing on the list, though, is probably the one that confuses people the most at first. and that’s because you’ve likely been told all the wrong things about what a router is for. or perhaps even what a router-table is necessary to make happen with a router. you’ll eventually want a router-table. they’re amazing. but you can do almost everything without the table, especially if you build a nice large secondary base for your handheld (plunge) router. a router is the most multifunctional tool out there. it will edge. it will joint. it will allow you to produce things from templates and flush edges. and it will make cutting a lot of joinery an absolute breeze. if there’s one tool that really makes the difference between just barely doing things and doing them well, repeatable and easily, this is the tool. get a good plunge router. not an amazing one for thousands. a good one. makita makes a nice one. so does bosch. the dewalt is totally ok. porter-cable has one, too. just pick one and get it. again, you’ll upgrade it later but they’ll all satisfy your needs for the moment.

once you have those, you’re ready to get started, right?

well, no. not quite. you’ll need a few other basic things but they’re not powertools. they’re handtools — at least they’re mostly at least sort-of handtools.

you need a workbench. it doesn’t have to be three meters long or anything. but you need a stable work surface. you’re going to be cutting joinery and that means you need a place to use a chisel. which brings us to chisels. you’ll need some of those, too. a small set of relatively-inexpensive chisels will be a great place to start. the narex ones have ridiculous handles but they’re totally ok. now you need a way to sharpen them. so get a set of diamond stones (coarse, fine, very fine) and that’ll get you through it. get a mallet (or build one) — if this costs more than five bucks you’re doing it wrong. once you have all that out of the way, you need a couple of saws. i recommend a dozuki and a rough kataba. the dozuki will let you cut fine, accurate joinery. the kataba will be for rough dimensioning. the other thing you need is a basic handplane. an old stanley jack is great. or a modern brand. get a cheap one. you’re not aiming for smooth and perfect. you’ll use it for basic rough flattening. if you spend more than fifty bucks, you’ve overshot the runway. and you might get away with half that. then there are a few other extras.

you need clamps. lots of clamps. no, not a hundred. but a couple of dozen cheap clamps won’t go astray for fairly small projects like bookshelves and coffee-tables. they don’t have to be brand-name (bessey and jet make awesome clamps but they’re simply not worth the money) — get the cheapest large clamps you can that put lots of pressure on a board. some small (18-24”) and a few larger (36”+) are a good investment and you can never have too many. then you need a way to measure things. a good metal ruler won’t break the bank and that’s enough. and some 0.5mm mechanical pencils to mark with. don’t use a knife. i have many reasons for saying that and i’ve written extensively about why marking gauges and knives and all those tools are simply a waste of time if you are serious about doing this — they are toys people find fun to play with but you simply don’t need them and they often cause far more trouble than improvement. now you’re ready to start building.

well, sort of, at least. you need some protective gear like face-masks but we’ve all got loads of those around the last few years, right? safety-goggles are a must. and wear clothing that’s not too loose or you could get it caught in a machine and that would be … unpleasant.

that’s the beginning, though, of your basic love-affair with woodworking.

if you’re curious where to go from there, i have a simple roadmap that i can describe in a single paragraph. once you start producing things and getting paid for turning trees into crafts, your first significant upgrade is adding a tablesaw. a real tablesaw. with a cabinet. when you can afford it, get that. until that point, keep waiting. then get a router-table and a trim-router. a table with a good-quality lift like the rockler or kreg or jessem because without a lift it’s just a handheld router with a big base and you’ve already got one of those. why a trim-router? you already have a big router. stick that in the table. now you need a little one for the detailed handheld work. no need to get a second big router. i suggest the next thing you seriously consider at this point isn’t what you might think. you’re expecting me to say a jointer. or maybe a sander. and those are great tools to get. but i’d say the next step is to get a small cnc to quickly surface and template and batch-produce parts. you’re running a small growing business at this point, right? you need to improve your efficiency and accuracy as much as possible. i highly recommend looking at the avidcnc devices. you’ll never look back once you start using one of those things to produce your templates and it will take your craft to the next level. then you probably want to look at a jointer. but again don’t get a little jointer. if you can afford an 8”, get that. if you can’t, wait until you can. there’s no point getting a small one and selling it. you’ll never get the money back. segmented cutters are nice, too. but honestly they’re probably not worth it on the jointer like they are on the planer unless you’re flush with cash at this point cause they really shove the price up. a drum-sander is excellent but you probably want a spindle-sander first. at some point, though, it’ll save you a lot of time (and money) to have both. then you can take a serious look at whether to upgrade the original tools. a bigger, more powerful bandsaw and planer. a drill-press for more accuracy in a lot of tasks. and don’t forget the dust-collector to replace your veritable old shopvac. but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. this isn’t where you start. this is where you end up once things are going well. assuming you still like your choice of side-gig. or gig. cause at this point you might well be doing it for not just your bonus but your salary.

anyway, that’s the starting-point. and i’m sure others will have differing views on this. but this is my answer to the almost-age-old question of how to get started. bandsaw, planer, router, some hand-tools, a few basic power things you already have, a little space to work in, a bench and your desire to design and build things. ready to begin?

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.