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Buying Woodworking Tools and Equipment

Precision, Durability and Function Cost Money

Text & photos by Tom Hintz


Value in Tools

   None of us likes paying more than we have to for anything. Unfortunately, trying to get a good deal can, if we are not careful, cost us more money.

   The popularity of woodworking has made that marketplace attractive to more and more companies who offer an ever-increasing line of power and hand tools. The law of supply and demand may have lowered the price of some tools, but it also spurred the marketing of bargain-priced tools that may or may not be the best value for your situation.

   When I first started buying woodworking equipment I tended to look for higher quality when making larger purchases. However, I was just as likely to put emphasis on price when considering smaller tools like drills, sanders, or routers. It did not take long in the shop to learn that regardless how well one tool was performing, inadequate performance of bargain-priced tools used afterwards could still produce unsatisfactory results. Sometimes, I had to remake parts of a project when mistakes or the limited capabilities of a lower priced tool rendered a part unusable. These situations were not only frustrating; each occurrence increased the cost of the tools I thought I had saved money on.

   An experienced woodworker once told me those of us who build projects regularly have to consider ourselves to be job shops, not hobbyists. We use tools more frequently, work with tougher materials and expect more precision than bargain priced tools were designed for.

Working Within a Budget

   Like most woodworkers, I would love to have my shop full of top-quality tools, all from the best names in the industry. Unfortunately, my budget steadfastly disagrees. Therefore, I have to compromise. Like most of you, I have to get the best equipment I can without having to convince my wife living in a tent would improve our quality of life.

   Having to operate your shop on a budget does not automatically mean buying cheaper tools. Planning purchases effectively, taking advantage of promotions and careful assessment of your shops needs go a long way towards stretching your tool dollars.

   It is also important to understand the capabilities of each tool and how jigs or techniques can expand its uses and effectiveness. All of the woodworking magazines and web sites regularly show us how to build jigs and fixtures that allow us to perform various tasks accurately and safely. Some of these adaptations allow one tool to do the job of another, and do it well. Knowing the needs of your shop and being able to match them to the various jigs and fixtures could increase your capabilities without having to add more equipment.

The 1/4-inch shank rail and stile set on the left did work, but produced erratic results and the setup required taking the mandrel apart and reassembling it in the new configuration each time.
The 1/2-inch bits on the right are dedicated, much heavier and produce great results. Set up time is also minimal.
Click image to enlarge.

What You See Is What You Get - Sometimes

   Sometimes the difference between a quality tool and its bargain priced counterpart is obvious. Other times the differences are less apparent. Price, in some cases, can be a general indicator of quality, but we need to look beyond a price tag to be sure a tool is right for our needs. There are high-dollar tools that were designed with specific capabilities that if exceeded, can shorten the life of the tool or affect the quality of the work it produces.    Case in point. I bought a rail and stile router bit set with a ¼-inch shank. The set consisted of a single mandrel on which cutters were changed to complete a set of rails and stiles. The small set worked, and I did build acceptable cabinet doors, but before long, it was increasingly difficult to get clean cuts and tight fitting joints.

   Later when I purchased a heavy-duty plunge router with a ½-inch collet, I also bought a heavy-duty kitchen cupboard bit set with ½-inch shanks. Laying these production quality bits next to my old ¼-inch shank set was revealing. The better set not only had the heavier shanks, they were much heavier overall. The flywheel effect from the additional mass of the production set would obviously produce smoother cuts. In addition, the new set had individual bits for rails, another for stiles and yet another for raising panels. My ¼-inch rail and stile set did not even offer a panel raising bit, and there few of them on the market with the smaller shank. The first doors I made with the heavy duty, and more expensive, bit set proved this was a wise purchase. They worked great, as I hoped the first set would have.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

   It is important to understand the needs of the work you are doing so you can temper your buying decision with that knowledge.

   If in trying to save money, we have to replace a tool that will not do the job, we simply increase the cost of the correct tool by the price of the "bargain" we thought we found.

Understand Your Needs

   Knowing what tool you need is important when having to make a list for someone who wants to give it as a present. Friends and relatives may have a true desire to get you a good tool, but they may not understand your needs and could easily present you with a tool that simply will not work."

   Now, after replacing several tools I thought would "suffice," I opt for the best tool I can afford. If we consider that our skills and capabilities are expanding, and the projects we build increasing in complexity, our need for quality tools is never reduced.

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