Essential Shop Tools
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The world of woodworking tools is vast, with hundreds of products claiming must-have status. Whether you’re new to woodworking, or looking to round out your arsenal, the following tools will give you the ability to build almost anything out of wood.
Shaper Origin is designed to augment your woodworking tools—not replace them. While Origin will revolutionize your work in the shop, there are fundamental cutting, shaping, drilling, and smoothing tasks which are better suited to other tools.
Remember that you don’t need all of these tools on day one. We’ve loosely written this in a suggested buying sequence so that your shop can keep pace with your skills as you naturally develop.
Get Started with Portable Power Tools
The good news for those who are just beginning is that you can create an incredible amount of beautiful projects with just a few handheld power tools. The secret, at least at first, is working with pre-surfaced lumber, letting you do without the larger machines required for planing and dimensioning rough-milled wood. You just have to pick your boards carefully, putting the warped and wonky ones back in the stack.
Once you’ve added those larger stationary tools to your shop, these compact power tools will still be useful; the versatility and adaptability of hand tools mean that they’ll always have a place in your shop.
A note on the first four: At a bare minimum, these first four tools will allow you to build a wide variety of projects and remain useful in your shop for years to come. They work exceptionally well with Shaper Origin + Workstation to expand your capabilities, which is why we recommend them first.
Long straight cut are the foundation of many woodworking projects, and a quality track saw makes this operation accurate, easy, and realiable. A table saw is a great tool—we'll cover that in a bit—but you won’t regret first getting a track saw. It takes up far less space and costs hundreds of dollars less than a table saw. You’ll also use this tool for all sorts of home-carpentry projects.
When you are tired of sanding by hand, invest in a random-orbit sander. We recommend either a 5” or 6” version. Its sanding action is very efficient and won’t make deep scratches that will show up under your favorite wood finish. As for the hook-and-loop disks that attach to the sander, get packs of 120-, 150- and 220-grit, and work progressively through these abrasives to prep a surface for a fine finish.
Cordless Drill or Drill and Driver Set
One tool every woodworker needs is a cordless drill. Many drills today, however are sold as a drill and impact driver set. You'll use the drill on more projects than the impact driver in your fine furniture work, but having both can be especially helpful as the impact driver makes the largest screws and bolts amazingly easy to install.
Round off your first set of woodworking tools with a dust extractor. Connected to your new power tools, it will not only keep your shop and lungs clean, but it also makes your sander and rotary tools work more efficiently. Look for a dust extractor with HEPA-level filtration, to be sure that the finest, most dangerous particles stay out of your airways.
Our short list continues with two additional saws, each good for a specific type of cut. First is a miter saw, an indispensable tool that excels at cutting boards to length, including at 45 degrees for miter joints. You’ll use this tool for decades, for all sorts of projects.
Sliding compound miter saws provide the freedom to make cuts at a variety of angles and you’ll likely find that the radial arm comes in handy when tackling larger stock. Make sure that you opt for a 12” or larger blade diameter for sufficient cutting capacity.
Before you invest in a bandsaw, you can use a handheld jigsaw for many of your curving cut operations. Buy a pack of blades designed for clean cuts in wood, and you’ll be surprised at what this little workhorse will do.
You’ll likely own quite a few routers in your lifetime, but a 1- to 1-1/4-HP model will do 90% of what you need. Look for a combo kit that comes with two essential bases—fixed and plunge—to expand what you can do with the tool.
Add a Few Hand Tools
Aside from the basic hand tools that every shop needs—tape measure, combination square, compass, hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, woodworking clamps, etc.,—there are some classic woodworking hand tools you should add next. These take over where power tools leave off, working safely and quietly, with almost zero setup.
The first is a handsaw. We highly recommend starting with a Japanese pull saw, a thin type of saw that cuts easily on the pull stroke. You’ll use it for all sorts of small cuts—more quickly and safely than you can with a power tool. Start with a two-edged pull saw and you’ll find yourself reaching for this all-purpose workhorse for years to come.
Next up is a set of basic woodworking chisels, called bench chisels. Go to one of your local retailers and buy a 4- or 5-piece set to start.
One warning about your new chisels, and the block plane that’s coming up next: They don’t come sharp, and they won’t work well until you learn how to sharpen them. We don’t have room to cover that here, but there’s lots of information online about this essential skill. Find a system that works for you, and discover for yourself the particular pleasure that a the right chisel in the right moment provides.
Your last essential hand tool is the block plane. It fits in one hand and does a wide range of things quickly and beautifully (but only if it is truly sharp). It will make a perfect little bevel on all of your sharp edges, making your work friendlier to the hand and eye. It will smooth rough surfaces, and it will quickly bring one surface flush to another, which is helpful in all sorts of ways. You’ll acquire other hand planes along your journey, but you’ll use this one most.
If you spend $100 or more on your new block plane, it should work well after a quick sharpening. Or you can buy a used plane, or a less-expensive one, and learn how to tune it up.
Graduate to the Four Essential Woodworking Machines
Once you decide woodworking is a permanent part of your life, you’ll want to invest in a few essential woodworking machines. To economize, you can look for well-maintained used stationary tools in your area. And remember: you don’t have to buy all of these at once.
A table saw is purchase number one. The mainstay of any woodworking shop, a table saw lets you rip wood cleanly (cutting with the grain to make a board narrower) and crosscut boards just as well at any angle. You can also cut all sorts of joints with the help of some shopmade and store-bought jigs and fixtures.
If your space is limited, start with a portable saw that will fold up in a corner. For more power, smoothness, and cutting capacity, trade up for a contractor or cabinet model that’s always ready to go. Like any machine, you can put your table saw on a mobile base and push it out of the way when needed.
Whether portable or permanent, make sure your saw has a riving knife. Shaped like a dolphin’s fin, a riving knife moves up and down and tilts sideways with the blade, meaning it stays on the saw for almost any type of cut, letting it do its very critical job: preventing dangerous kickback. This happens when a board twists sideways, contacting the back of the blade, which is the part that’s spinning in your direction. The riving knife sits in the cut, preventing that from happening. Understand that it’s a godsend, and keep it on the saw.
Next up is a 14” or 15” bandsaw. Where the blade on a jigsaw will flex and cut a little crookedly in some situations, a bandsaw’s blade is supported top and bottom, letting it cut much more smoothly and accurately.
A bandsaw is the best tool for cutting curves and the safest one for ripping boards to rough width before bringing them to other machines. It also lets you tip a board on edge to turn a thick piece of lumber into two thinner ones, making it a close second after the table saw in the list of most important machines in your shop.
Follow your bandsaw up with a drill press. If you’re looking to conserve space, you can opt for a bench top model; the decreased horsepower is unlikely to be an issue if you’re only using the drill press for woodworking. Like the machines covered above, the drill press has a table that keeps the workpiece square to the cutting tool. The drill press also lets you use very large bits safely. If the table lacks a replaceable insert for supporting the back of a drilled hole and preventing chip-out, add a plywood table of your own, plus a fence for positioning multiple pieces in the same spot for easy iteration.
The last essential machine for fine woodworking is a planer. This lets you smooth rough boards and make any board thinner. It won’t straighten a warped board, however, so you’ll have to avoid those at the lumberyard. A 12” or 13” planer is relatively affordable, considering its capacity. Keep the knives sharp, be sure to attach your shop vac to it, and you’ll love what this machine can do.
Ready to Take on Rough Lumber? Add a Jointer
The final step on your way to serious woodworking is owning a jointer. Its original job was to square and straighten the edges of boards for joining them together, hence the name, but its real job is flattening the first side (and first edge) of a board before it goes to the planer and table saw to flatten and dimension the other surfaces.
The jointer therefore allows you to pick any board you want—thick, thin, warped, or straight—and begin turning it into a perfect rectangular solid. It sounds boring but starting with perfectly square, straight, and uniform pieces is the key to really good work, helping you avoid frustration later, when cutting joints and assembling projects.
The jointer also lets you graduate from pre-surfaced stock to rough lumber, opening up a much wider variety of beautiful species from around the world.
The trouble with the jointer, however, and the reason many woodworkers leave it to last, is that you need a wide one, ideally as wide as your planer, because the two work in tandem. And wide jointers are very expensive.
This is why many people go for a used jointer, to get more width for their buck. You can also opt for a planer-jointer combo machine, which combines both functions in a single unit that is priced close to a single-function jointer of similar width.
If you are taking the plunge on a jointer-planer combo machine, we recommend going for one with a segmented carbide cutterhead. “Segmented” means that it has lots of small carbide teeth, which come with four sharp edges on each, making a knife change as easy as rotating the teeth. Compare that to standard straight, steel knives, which nick easily and are tricky to set at the same height.
Carbide stays sharp at least 10 times longer than steel. Multiply that by the four edges on each carbide tooth, and you have a cutterhead that will stay sharp at least 40 times longer than your old steel knives. On top of that, the small segmented teeth cut much cleaner than straight knives, leaving very little tearout in even the gnarliest hardwoods.
There are other tools you’ll add along the way, including more advanced hand planes for smoothing surfaces and fitting joints, but these are the essentials, and this is the order most people buy them in.
But our most important advice is to work with what you have right now, and add tools as your ambition and skills grow. In other words, let your projects guide you as you assemble your shop.
Woodworking is about problem solving, and even if you don’t have the ideal tool for a particular job, combining the basics that we’ve outlined above with a little bit of ingenuity will help you learn and grow as a woodworker. There’s no better way to learn than by doing, making mistakes, celebrating small victories, and moving on to the next project.
So don’t wait—dive in as soon as you can and have fun!