Saturday, May 12, 2007

Getting Started in Woodworking

I've decided to make my own wood products because the ones that I like on the market are waaaaay too expensive for me. I want new kitchen cabinets, radiator covers, screen doors, bathroom cabinets and vanities, book cases, cabinets for the basement, teak planters, a nice desk, a couple of beds, some benches, etc. Of course, building this all myself will cost money in tools and wood.

Developing a collection of tools to make all this happen requires no small investment in both time and floor space. Here I'll list some of the modern power tools you're expected to own, and then how I cut costs and floor space by using alternatives.

For starters, in order to make straight, square boards with parallel faces, which is absolutely essential, you need a jointer and a thickness planer. With the jointer you can get a flat face and side. The planer can then create a parallel and flat other side.

The jointer is part of the triumvirate of modern shop tools. Table saw, jointer, and router. Good jointers for under $1000 are only 6" jointers, which means you can only flatten boards that are 6" wide or less. They say you should buy the biggest jointer you can afford. Instead of buying a jointer, you can save space by investing in a good set of hand planes. This approach requires more manual labor, and time. The standard three are a smoothing plane, for smoothing surfaces and jointing or flattening small boards, a jack plane for flattening and jointing medium to large panels, and a jointer plane for jointing and flattening large or long surfaces.

You should NOT go cheap with hand planes. The cheapest you can go is antique Stanley Bedrock or Bailey planes (preferably Bedrock) found on eBay, Craigslist, or a yard sale or flea market. Expect to pay upwards of $100 for ones in good condition. You can be guaranteed quality steel by buying new planes. Lie-Nielsen and Veritas are your only choice for new ones, IMHO.

I'm going with the Veritas bevel-up jointer plane, and the Lie-Nielsen 4 1/2 smoother and low angle jack plane. Altogether that's more expensive than a decent 6" jointer, but you can joint and flatten boards much wider than 6", and you save floor space. ...and you have some really, really nice hand tools that, if properly cared for, will last you the rest of your life (and then some, which is why it's perfectly OK to buy high quality used ones off of eBay).

You also need a good table saw, and by good I mean one that you can count on for accurate, reliable cuts, and a table that is sufficiently flat and designed to handle after-market jigs and fences, and a zero-clearance throat plate. I bought an el-cheapo Ryobi $100 table saw last year, and immediately realized why it was the cheapest table saw in Home Depot: The blade is difficult to keep perpendicular to the table, and it's designed in such a way as to not take a zero-clearance throat plate, and the table is too cheap to work with after-market fences. It's crap! It did get me through the projects I bought it for though, and I only had $100 to spend at the time, and it fit in my car's trunk, so...

To save both space and money, you can sub in a modern guide system for a table saw. The Festool Rail Guide system is regarded as the best on the market. It comes with a high-quality, highly adjustable circular saw and lots of accessories, for about $500-$700, depending on how much you trick it out. Probably a worthwhile investment. I already have a good circular saw, so I went with the less expensive, but not as integrated, Eurekazone EZ Smart Guide system. It was $300 with the square attachment and shipping. It is not as good a system as the Festool, but hopefully it will suffice.

You'll also need a drill press. To cut both costs and floor space, you can limp along with a portable drill guide system, which turns your drill into a drill press. I've not tried one yet, but I've been told they are adequate for small projects, but after a while, you'll get sick of it.

You will also need a router, and there's really no way around that, but luckily routers do not take up floor space... just the router table. Routers are used to create decorative edging, dadoes, flushing up an edge with a template, rabbets, mortises, etc. You will use one in practically every project. There's two basic kinds of routers: fixed base and plunge. I won't tell you which one is the better buy. Just Google "fixed base vs. plunge router". There's plenty of debate on that topic.

Oh, by the way... You're also going to need a router table. And router bits, which aren't cheap.

And a band saw, to resaw your own lumber, cut book-matched panels, tenons, curves, and do a bunch of other nifty things. I think the band saw is a must-buy. There's really no simple way to do the things it can do with less expensive tools. A good way to save money on wood is to break down fallen trees from after a storm. If you're going that route, you'll want a riser block for the band saw, which adds an extra few inches (6 in the case of my band saw) so you can saw through 12" diameter logs.

You will need the thickness planer. I can't think of a way of getting a parallel face by hand without one. How did they do it in the olden days? Anyway, a bench planer is actually a relatively cheap piece of equipment (relatively), and will probably save you a lot of time you're going to want back after hand planing and jointing all your boards.

Now it's time to start organizing your work space. You're going to need to build a workbench. Follow the instruction Franz Klausz laid out in this article to build a classic cabinetmaker's bench. But first, Martin, you will need to make room in the basement to work. Raise the basement ceiling by tearing out the drywall ceiling, and lifting all the utility pipes up into the joists. Then reclaim some valuable floorspace by replacing the water heater and boiler with compact high-efficiency models. Or maybe it would be better in the long run to just build a two car garage, and make it the workshop...

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