Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Essential power tools

There is an interesting thread on one of the forums I read about what power tools are essential in a hand tool shop.  Of course history proves none are really essential and I can definitely imagine not having any.  The lists vary but many of them include a bandsaw, a thickness planer and a drill press.  I'd add a cordless drill and call it good.

It's not that you have to have any of these tools.  If I someday have space limitations I will do without them, but they are nice to have.

I have begun reducing my power tools.  Last year I sold my tablesaw, a major step symbolically and substantively.  I won't say that I never miss it, but I am getting along just fine without it.  The chopsaw is next.  I have a miter box.  The tailed jointer gets used very little, isn't necessary and, at 6" wide, is very limiting anyway.  However, I use my bandsaw all the time and would really hate to be without it. It would be the last power tool I parted with.  I would really like to keep the thickness planer.  The drill press is convenient.

I keep looking at the router table.  I'd like to get rid of the screaming beast but the step to the hand tool equivalent is a really big one if you are going to replicate its functionality.  I purchased a plow plane, a router plane and a shoulder plane and use them regularly, so my use of the router table has declined a lot. The three of them together cost a whole lot more than the router and table.  The thing to do next is purchase one hollow and one round.

I don't look forward to sharpening them.  Truth be told, the major impediment to adopting hand tools for me is sharpening.  Sharpening really is a gateway skill.  Chisels, planes, scrapers, spokeshaves, handsaws . . . all demand that the woodworker be able to sharpen.  This is very unlike power tools where you use a blade and throw it away or can send it out periodically to be sharpened.  I've gotten reasonably good at sharpening straight blades in their many forms, have a good beginning on sharpening handsaws and am turning to curved blades.

Ironically, many hand tool woodworkers rely on power tools for sharpening.  There's definitely an argument for them; I bought one and use it periodically, but it's not a silver bullet.  I tend to think you should sharpen your hand tools with hand tools, but that's just me.


  1. Not being a purist, I'm definately keeping my thickness planer, bandsaw and the RAS is just too handy for crosscuts to give up. We shouldn't feel bad though as Chris Schwarz still has a tablesaw in his shop and Frank Klausz can't get by without his stroke sander.

    My theory is that I'm keeping power for any task that is either too laborous or that I don't like doing by hand. No regrets and no guilt.


  2. I agree with your power tool choices Andy, band saw, planer and drill press. The drill press is convenient, but not necessary and I could be very content with just the band saw and planer. The only hiccup in this, is that I still have several sheet good projects in the future and a table saw makes it much easier. If it was not for house remodeling projects, I would be tempted to ditch the table saw. The router I hate, with its loud whining noise and whirling blur of destruction just waiting to grab my flesh.

    1. Bill,

      I convinced myself to sell the tablesaw because I promised myself that, if I missed it a lot, I would buy the Festool tracksaw. I think there is no question that it is better for sheet goods than a tablesaw, unless you have the room for massive infeed and outfeed tables.

  3. The key to sharpening curved edges is to not do it very often. Use your straight edge tools for the bulk of the work then clean up or refine with the curved edge tools. For example, the rabbet plane does 95% of the moulding work and the hollows and rounds show up for the last few passes. At this rate, a sharp iron will last some time and even then only need touchup with a strop for 2 or 3 sharpenings before needing to go back to a stone or wheel.

  4. I think your power tool choices are really the essential tools you need if you find them more convenient to use and if these are the tools that you use often. I think it is only practical to let go of power tools you don’t use much and change it with something more efficient for your needs.

    Alphonse Daigle