my bench is my castle

let’s get a few things out of the way, first. i’m not a traditional woodworker and i’m not a tool collector. i don’t value things because they’re old or, for that matter, because they’re worth a lot of money. i look for three things in a tool. is it useful? is it safe? is it reliable, accurate and easy to maintain?

if it’s not all three, i don’t want it.

now that you have an idea of the criteria for this list, please keep in mind this is specifically written for students and recent graduates so it will emphasize two things.

one is basic tools. there will be some that seem expensive or commercial, certainly. but they won’t be industrial or large-shop tools. there are many reviews of such things that you can find, i have no doubt.

the other is simplicity. these will be tools that are relatively simple to acquire, setup, figure out and start using. while many people enjoy the complexity of customizing or creating tools, that’s not what this list is for.


during the pandemic, i am using this as a time to update not just these lists but my entire educational site. if you find some broken links or missing pages, i apologize. looking for specific information that’s temporarily absent? reach out and ask. i’ll happily help, if i can.

new or used?

buy new tools. i’m going to say that again just to be clear on this. buy. new. tools. don’t try to get a good deal. don’t go to yard sales and expect to get a bandsaw for twenty bucks and a package of cigarettes.

if your hobby is tool restoration, fantastic. buy old tools and restore them. what we’re talking about here is building furniture. there is certainly crossover and many people who enjoy building things with their hands also enjoy collecting and restoring historical tools. i am not one of those people. i don’t build things because i like how a plane feels in my hand or because the floor looks pretty with all the curls. the plane does indeed feel pretty good and the floor is beautiful. but i do this because i love designing and crafting an object that is as close to perfect as i can make it.

there are limitless used tool guides on the internet, especially on youtube, where people go through the mind-bending process of auctions and tool meets. sure, i’ll appreciate antiques as much as the next person but i don’t get excited about the fact that i have to use the flower of eighteen-nineties technology to cut the joinery on my next coffee table. so if that’s what you’re looking for, i would recommend checking out wood by wright, jonathan katz-moses and mike farrington.

  1. they work better. a quality new tool (no, not a new stanley plane from the box store – it’s unmitigated excrement) is the result of many years of iterative progress. it will generally be made from better material, held to a higher standard of construction and be more accurate, easier to maintain and simpler to setup than old tools. there are a few exceptions to this but it’s a good general rule to keep in mind.
  2. they’re safer. whether you’re talking about sawstop’s flesh-sensing technology or the general acceptance of dust-collection across the board, the introduction of riving knives as standard on tablesaws, guards (i generally prefer the european-style ones but any guard is better than no guard) on jointers or any other safety feature on modern machinery, even a decade or two ago these simply weren’t the norm. in many cases, people are looking at used tools old enough that they’re from a time when seatbelts were optional and people smoked on airplanes, drunk driving was encouraged by movies and nobody was willing to admit the connection between sticking things in your mouth, lighting them on fire and sucking in the smoke and getting cancer. we’ve created a much higher expectation of safety from society and our tools have done their best to keep up. buy a delta unisaw or an oliver jointer from the “good old days” and if you ever lose your concentration in the shop you’re going to be seriously reconsidering your insurance policy, quite possibly with one less hand.
  3. they’re easier to repair. parts for new tools are still available. you don’t have to go to a machine shop and get something custom-made. you don’t have to scour the internet hoping someone isn’t going to gouge you for the oddly-sized bearing you need or source aftermarket guides or mounting brackets that were bad enough new but have now been made so cheaply it’s amazing they didn’t disintegrate in shipping. not just easier. if something goes wrong with your new tool, you can call the manufacturer and you’ll likely get a solution quickly that will get you back to the thing you got into the shop to do in the first place – making furniture.

anyway, that being said, there’s nothing wrong with using old tools. you just have to remember that there’s a tradeoff. what you save in money, you spend in time, effort and potential risk. no tool is infallible or perfectly safe. but we can stack the odds in our favor.

there’s a caveat to this. most of what i’m talking about here refers specifically to powertools. if you are looking at a saw or chisel, the technology hasn’t likely changed much in the last fifty years. while i generally recommend buying new to avoid the annoyance of restoration and setup, if you can get one in good condition requiring little or no work, it’s no less safe, no less precise and no less valuable than its modern version in most cases.

one last thing before we get to the specifics. the tool you have is better than the tool you don’t have yet. there’s no excuse to not doing something because you don’t have the latest addition to your shop. yes, a brand-new bandsaw will supercharge your building game. but the one you already have will still cut a board. this isn’t an excuse for a shopping spree. it’s more like motivation to build the thing you’re working on now so you can afford to upgrade when you deliver it to your client.

by the way, the pictures for the tools are the stock photographs provided by the manufacturers and the prices are approximations either directly from them or from large national distributors. i apologize for any errors but this information is provided for free with no warranties attached.

sponsorship? critiques?

no. the information you see here is not sponsored or the result of any deal with manufacturer or suppliers of the tools talked about. i have never been given money or tools in return for a recommendation either in-class or online.

if you think i’ve left out something that is new, easily-available and better value than something i have discussed here, feel free to let me know. if you don’t agree with my recommendations, please remember you are here reading by choice and can select another source of information. my views are not always popular but i will not engage with those who seek to criticize or influence so i promise it’s not worth your time to try. i’ve spent my days for many years facing students who want to complain about anything and everything. i long ago learned to ignore criticism without even hearing it. thanks for understanding.