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When customers visit my shop we usually start by talking about their wood needs. If it is someone’s first time to visit I also try to get to know them, what they are looking for and what they are expecting from me. Half of them are just looking for rough cut wood, while the others are looking for wood that is processed a little bit more, perhaps jointed or planed, or even sanded. During our time together I get to understand their needs and abilities, and our discussion usually turns to the tools they have in their shop.
I am often surprised at what tools woodworkers don’t use or own, especially when they are some of the few that I find essential. Sometimes it’s just the difference between hand tool and power tool guys, but sometimes it’s just from lack of experience or the fact that they haven’t given it too much thought. Most likely they just buy tools as they need them and never really considered what tools would give them the most bang for the buck.
Since this is a common conversation, I decided to compile the following list of what I think are the most useful power tools and should be the building blocks of any woodworking shop:
Table saw. Of all of the tools in the shop, the table saw is the most useful and versatile. It excels at making straight cuts, and with the addition of any of a million jigs, can be made to perform an amazing number of tasks with repeatability and precision. I use the table saw for roughing out smaller parts from larger pieces, all the way through trimming parts to final size. The only limit to the table saw is that the piece needs to be small enough to be pushed through it. Above a certain size, the table saw becomes less useful and even impossible to use as the saw needs to be brought to the piece, instead of the piece being brought to the saw.
The table saw is best suited for making rip cuts, which are cuts along the length of the board, but with a crosscutting jig, the table saw can do just as well on crosscuts, which are cuts across the board. I even use the table saw for resawing thick lumber into thinner boards. The bandsaw is usually the tool for resawing, but any lumber under 6″ wide can be resawn on a 10″ table saw by cutting from both sides of the board.
Besides just making through cuts, the table saw can also cut dados, rabbets and other grooves with just a few adjustments. And, with the addition of profiled cutters and a creative mind, the table saw can be used to make all kinds of mouldings, including large crown mouldings.
The table saw also works amazingly well as a table. Mine is big enough to not only hold stuff, but serve as an assembly table when necessary. The table of the table saw is set apart from other tables because it is commonly the only one open and available in the shop. I try to keep it clear enough to actually use, which means that at least part of the top is usually available and ready to be used as a table or maybe even a saw.
Thickness Planer. Running a rough board through the planer is always fun. Even after sending billions of board feet through a planer, it never gets old. The amazing thing is that beyond making the wood look good, the planer can size lumber in ways other tools can’t.
I have met a lot of customers that don’t have a planer. And, while it is possible to operate without one, I believe that once you own one, you will find it hard to believe that you ever ran a shop without it. For me, it is along the same line of thinking for spray guns, where I say, “Stop thinking about buying a spray gun.”
Even if you buy your lumber already planed, you will still encounter many circumstances that require the use of a planer. For example, you might want to build a simple and delicate jewelry box out of small scrap pieces lying around the shop, and you will end up making a small and clunky jewelry box because all of your lumber is 3/4″ thick, and that’s how it is going to stay. That is just the first example. Think about all of the other times that you will pick up a piece of lumber in the shop and it will be the wrong thickness, either just slightly wrong or in an entirely different size category. A planer is a real problem solver and can fix all of that.
If you work with rough lumber, a planer will be absolutely necessary, except for the most rustic of projects. Every piece of rough cut lumber ends up somewhat not straight, not flat and not consistent in thickness, either from variations during the sawing or from stresses which occur while the wood dries. The planer, combined with the jointer, is a one-two punch to remove these variations and produce straight, flat and consistently thick lumber. The reason the planer is ahead of the jointer on this list is that some lumber is straight enough and flat enough to plane without jointing if the job is a little less finicky, thereby skipping the jointer.
Jointer. I use my jointer a lot. When preparing rough lumber it sees as much action as the planer. As a matter of fact, almost every piece of lumber in my shop gets surfaced on the wide face to straighten things out before it even heads to the planer. Without the jointer, my life would just be a crooked, twisty mess of painful attempts to make things seem straight.
One of the misconceptions about planers is that they make lumber straight. They do some straightening, but they don’t make lumber straight. That is what jointers do. Many lumber mills just send rough lumber through the planer allowing the board to exit the machine with the same ups and downs and whoops that is entered with, only now to a consistent thickness. This is especially apparent when gluing up a couple of these roller coaster type of boards and trying to get them to line up. After a couple of those glue-ups, you will swear by lumber that has seen the jointer before the planer, and never skip the jointer.
Besides flattening lumber, the jointer also puts a straight edge on lumber for joining two boards together and for running through other machines. I also use the jointer for making small adjustments during the final fitting of parts like drawer fronts, where small changes can make a big difference.
With these three power tools (and a few hand tools), I feel like I could make about 80% of the jobs that come through my shop on a daily basis. Obviously, some jobs will require more specialized power tools to complete, but these three probably find their way into almost all of my work. With that said, there are a few other tools that I couldn’t imagine being without and I feel need to be added to the list.
Spray gun. Not every woodworking job gets a film finish, but most of mine do. And of those, every one will meet a spray gun. For a million reasons, including making finishing fast and fun, I recommend using a spray gun whenever possible. It will raise your game and make you n0t hate finishing. (Click here to read my thoughts on purchasing a spray gun).
Chop saw (compound miter saw). I do a mix of woodworking from furniture to built-ins and even finish carpentry, and I find myself regularly using the chop saw. Even if used for nothing more than roughly cutting a long board into two shorter ones to fit in a car, this tool earns its keep. It is especially useful (with the help of an outfeed table) on long pieces that are precarious to push through a table saw. But, since a table saw with a jig can perform many of the same functions, this tool doesn’t make it to the essential list. With that said, I expect to have a chop saw wherever I am working, whether it be in the shop or at an install. If this was a post about on-site woodworking and trim carpentry, the chop saw might be the #1 tool.
Impact driver. I am a giant fan of impact drivers. I have been using them for a while now and can’t really remember my life before them (Click here to read more about my introduction to impact drivers). This is the one tool that I always have with me, and I expect to be within easy reach. So much so, that I own three of them and could imagine myself with a couple more. Like the chop saw, if this was a list of on-site or installation tools, the impact driver would be near the top.
Tape measure. I know this isn’t a power tool, but it is the one tool that you should always have with you. It is a pet peeve of mine – if you are planning on building something, or you are actually building it, have a tape measure with you. If you are in the shop, on the job site, or even at Home Depot make sure you have a tape measure with you or at least one very handy (Home Depot probably isn’t the best example, since they have them widely available, but you get the point). Without a tape measure, not much beyond rough work can get done. (Click here to read about my favorite tape measure).
For all of you out there that hate sanding, there is a new fun-to-use tool that takes almost all the work out of it, and may even make it fun. The new “Whirl-Whizz” sander combines the sanding power of four orbital sanders with the joy of playing with your favorite christmas present to make short work of even the most difficult sanding.
“We always had trouble finding anyone that wanted to sand the bottom of our slab tables and other hard to reach surfaces, like wood beams and ceilings,” says Scott Wunder from WunderWoods Custom Hardwoods. “That was until we started using the “Whirl-Whizz.” Now everyone in the shop wants to sand. Our only problem now is making sure that we have enough sandpaper on hand”.
The “Whirl-Whizz” sander looks like a standard hobby drone with just a few modifications, but don’t be fooled, this thing is a real workhorse. The four thin plastic spinning rotors provide the perfect balance between power and finesse by pulling the sander strongly to the surface, but deflecting and riding any slight contour changes throughout the process. The end result is a super smooth, consistently sanded surface that requires no hand sanding – that’s right, no more hand sanding.
“This thing works so good that the guys started using it in places that it was never meant to go,” Wunder continued. “After they figured out how to get it to spots other than the underside of horizontal surfaces, they found it worked better than any sander they had ever used. Before long they were sanding every surface with it, top, bottom, vertical, horizontal – it didn’t matter. If they could get the “Whirl-Whizz” to run into it, then they would sand it.”
As a busy business owner with lots of sanding to get done, Wunder has ordered ten more units to make sure that he always has a sander at the ready. The current average life span of the “Whirl-Whizz” sander, including rotor wear and incidental contact with unintended targets is about 15 minutes, but Wunder expects those numbers to go up as everyone at WunderWoods gets better at operating this new generation of sander. “Every new tool takes a while to master, and this is no different,” Wunder said defending his team. “A new battery will sand for approximately six minutes. As those batteries get older and have to spend more time on the charger, the life-span of each of our units will increase as it is used less. It really is just a matter of time.”
Another benefit to shop owners besides the flawless results is that every “Whirl-Whizz” sander features an on board camera, which can be used for up-close inspection of a surface. By simply pushing a button for a still picture or holding the button for a video, it is now ultra easy to see what is really going on close-up. Many shop managers use the camera system remotely on their phone to make sure that their employees are performing as expected, even when they are away. At WunderWoods however, Scott points out, “We are having so much fun with the “Whirl-Whizz” that I didn’t even know it had a camera.”
Today, I was having a conversation with one of my customers about spraying a conversion varnish (Krystal, from M.L. Campbell) and the problems he was having with getting it to lay down nicely after it was sprayed. He said that he applied is wet enough to blend together and not be rough, but that he had a lot of orange peel in the finish. After discussing the possible causes of the orange peel it became obvious that he needed to add lacquer thinner to the mix, which he did not do.
This customer is new to spraying conversion varnish, which is a two-part mix that sets up and hardens chemically like epoxy, forming a super durable finish. The information on the can talked about the 10:1 ratio of finish to catalyst, but apparently didn’t mention a thing about thinning with lacquer thinner, so he used none. Even if it was mentioned, I assume that he was worried enough about getting the ratio correct (click here to learn how to easily get the proper mixing ratios) and not messing up the mix that he never imagined he could, or even that he should add lacquer thinner.
In this case, my customer was getting orange peel because the finish was too thick for his two-stage turbine. The kids at the finish distributor led him to believe that he shouldn’t need to add thinner, but they did not ask about the power of his spray equipment, assuming that he probably had a turbine strong enough to finely atomize the finish without thinning.
I continued to discuss the need to add thinner with my customer, and pointed out that a non-thinned finish requires more turbine power than he currently has. If he owned a 4-stage or 5-stage turbine, he could probably use the finish without thinner, but not with just a 2-stage. I speak from experience on this one, because my everyday gun is an older 2-stage model, and it requires at least a bit of thinning on almost everything I spray. I am okay with this apparent shortcoming because I am a proponent of applying multiple thin coats, as compared to fewer thick coats, which I believe are just inviting trouble.
As our conversation continued, he asked the million dollar question, “How much lacquer thinner do you add?” For me, the simple answer is, “Until it sprays good,” which is very ambiguous I know, but true. I have an advantage because I have sprayed more than him and I have an idea where I am headed, but I don’t truly know until I shoot a sample board with it and see how things are flowing (which I do every time before I spray the real thing). I spray a sample piece of wood standing up vertically to make sure that I can get a fully wet and flat surface with no runs or sags and to get a feel for how fast I need to move the gun to make all of that happen. If the sample surface looks good, I move on and spray the real thing. If I have issues, it is usually because the finish is a bit thick, so I add lacquer thinner until the finish sprays smoothly without orange peel and without runs.
Another, more technical way to determine the correct amount of thinner is to use a viscosity cup. A viscosity cup is shaped like a funnel and determines how thick a fluid is by the time it takes to empty the cup. A thin fluid will empty in just a couple of seconds, while a thick fluid might take 30 seconds or more. When I started spraying and used a viscosity cup, about 15 seconds was the right amount for my gun, but it will vary from gun to gun. When learning to spray, I recommend using a viscosity cup and to follow the manufacturers recommendations. If nothing else, this will give you a good starting point from which you can make later changes and have a way to achieve consistent results. After you spray for a while, there will be less mystery, and you will know from one test shot what needs to be adjusted, even without the viscosity cup.
When my customer asked about adding lacquer thinner, I know he was worried about possibly adding too much, and after thinking about it, I don’t know that you can add too much. I can follow the logic that adding too much thinner may change the chemistry, but I mix the 10:1 ratio of conversion varnish to catalyst first and then add the thinner, so there should still be the same amount of resin and catalyst, just with more space between them, in the form of lacquer thinner which will quickly evaporate and let the two parts do their thing. Even with other lacquer products, which includes sealers, nitrocellulose lacquers and modified lacquers, I can’t think of any time that I have ever had a problem because I added too much thinner.
I’m sure finish manufacturers would disagree and warn you to not be so cavalier about it, but I sure wouldn’t worry about adding too much thinner. Simply add enough thinner until your spray gun is able to apply a nice, even and wet film that flows out flat and dries without sagging. Even if you do mix it a bit thin, feel confident knowing that you can always compensate by moving more quickly or reducing the amount of fluid coming out of the tip of the gun.