one powertool to rule them all?
August 12, 2011 9:41 AM   Subscribe

I am shopping for a power tool for simple woodworking/cutting - on a budget. What would you recommend?

I live in a smallish apartment, have limited carpentry and woodworking skills but would like to attempt some simple projects - shelf, crafty kitchen table etc. Would something like the Rockwell SoniCrafter 37-Piece Oscillating Tool Kit by Rockwell be useful or should I just go for a circular saw? I am also not opposed to a hand saw, just seems a bit daunting for larger cutting projects.

I appreciate any advice.

posted by tgelston to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think either a compact circular saw would be your best bet. Don't forget that clamps and a square (the plastic speedsquare is great) should be high on your priority list for shelves or a table; straight lines are a good thing. Also, I can't overestimate the importance of eye protection!
posted by JMOZ at 9:55 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

(either a compact circular saw OR maybe a jigsaw, but probably the circ. saw)
posted by JMOZ at 9:55 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've done a lot of this simple making and some more complicated small carpentry projects. In my experience, the little oscillating tools take to long or just wear out pretty quickly. If I was starting from scratch I'd probably get a Makita set like this, having the lightweight battery makes a huge difference. The lithium ion driver is kind of amazing. I love it. Sink those babies! There are manner of sets at different prices, the 600 dollar set with a recipricating saw might be a good investment, but a good circular saw will take you a long way.

If you need another saw, the next one I would invest in is a simple chop/miter saw. This will take up some room on your bench but man, it will enable you to really finish your projects with some sweet trim. I've owned this one in the past and it did a fine job.

Also keep in mind that your local home depot or lowes can also cut for you, mostly free, so don't worry about trying to rip huge pieces.
posted by stormygrey at 9:56 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the compact circular saw. You're in an apartment and I don't think you'll want to store larger machinery for the few times a year you might use it. Honestly, if you haven't taken a hand tools class, see if you can find one. You can make amazing stuff with your hands and a little elbow grease. I was surprised how quickly I could rip through 2x4 and 1/2" plywood with my Japanese hand saw.
posted by amanda at 10:12 AM on August 12, 2011

Circular saw if you can manage with only straight cuts. Jigsaw if you need to be able to cut curves and can be content with straight lines that are only sort-of straight. Both if you need both capabilities. Skip the Rockwell tool entirely.

Or, what JMOZ said.
posted by jon1270 at 10:21 AM on August 12, 2011

I agree that multi-tools are kind of gimmicky.

If you're using a circular saw, it's great to have a raised work surface. If you live in Canada, get a pair of these folding metal sawhorses and lay a quarter sheet of plywood over them. I also find it useful to clamp some kind of straightedge to the wood that will act as a guide for the circular saw. Spend your cash on clamps, framing square, cordless drill, bits, etc. You might also want to buy a blade for your circular saw with more teeth; good for when you need a cleaner cut.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2011

For the price of the combo tool you linked you can get a nice circular saw, a finishing blade for the saw, some clamps and a square for layout. Use a straight board as a guide and you'll have no problems getting smooth cuts, far better than you can achieve with the Rockwell. You'll probably even have some money left over to go towards a decent cordless drill, which is the most useful around-the-house tool you will own.

You may also want to leave a healthy budget for the dozens of small tools that will make your work easier and look nicer when you're done - countersink drill bits so your screws set flush, good paint brushes for finishing, maybe a sander. A folding work bench of some kind can be great.

As everyone else has mentioned say away from the combo tools as your primary cutting tool - they do many things, few of them well.
posted by N-stoff at 10:41 AM on August 12, 2011

You might consider getting a chop saw rather than a hand held circular saw. The circular saw is a lot more flexible, but perfectly straight cuts on narrow pieces of wood is probably the most common thing you'll need for these kinds of small indoor projects. Perfect square cuts are hard and time consuming to do any other way without a lot of practice and chop saws are easy to work with on an apartment floor -- not saw horses or setup.

You're going to be buying S4S (surfaced 4 sides) wood unless you plan on dropping a couple of grand on a planer, jointer, and table saw so most of your projects will be fit around pre-fab wider pieces of wood that you make a single cut on, if at all. A japanese hand saw is great for these.

Of course, if you envision working with full sheets of plywood or want to build larger book shelves or a kitchen table, the flexibility of the hand held circular saw is probably worth it.
posted by stp123 at 10:48 AM on August 12, 2011

I would also say a compact circular saw. I know it can be tempting, but don't buy the cheapest one you can find. It will be great when you first buy it, but then as you use it you will notice small things about it that make your work more difficult. Then you'll do some research, and find out that a much nicer one comes at just a little bit more than what you paid for your cheapest model. Then you realize that you really want that one, but then what do you do with the one you have? You can't sell it, and nobody needs two compact circular saws. You could give it to a friend, but then they would just get frustrated with it like you are.

Can you tell this has happened to me more than once? There a many, many reviews of woodworking tools on the internet. Be sure and spend some time with them before you buy. I can't advise you on any models, because I still have my frustrating, cheap circular saw, the first power tool I bought (but not the last).
posted by Quonab at 11:03 AM on August 12, 2011

With a good router one can do almost anything.
posted by bz at 11:05 AM on August 12, 2011

All depends on the router and the bits you select. Many folks haven't experience with a high-horsepower production router. A 3 1/2 HP router and a good cutoff bit and you can make a cut nearly as fast as a circular saw. Of course, that's just the beginning of what you can do with a router.
posted by bz at 11:50 AM on August 12, 2011

If you're on a budget, a Japanese style pull saw like the Bakuma 300. Two of us used those as our primary saws to rip sheets of plywood in order to build the boat with which we won this year's Bodega Bay Boat Building Challenge in 3 hours. The other saw we used was a cheap coping saw to cut the curve details.

With a little care a good pull sw saw will let you do everything from cutting big sheets of plywood to dovetails (that latter link was assisted by a drill press, a coping saw, and a good sharp chisel).

Quiet, good clean cut, faster than you'd guess. As I said, we had to cut over 30' of plywood to build that boat and the cutting didn't take all that long.

Since you're an apartment dweller, consider sticking largely with hand tools (in woodworking circles, such folks are called "galoots", which might help you search better). I've got a decent power tool setup, but add to the tools mentioned above a good jack plane and block plane, a chisel or two, the stones to sharpen those, and you're starting to get somewhere.

For router-like capabilities, some scrap steel and a torch to temper it and you can build your own shaper planes. Shapes you can't necessarily do with a router, a little slower, but not screamingly loud.

I'm not a fan of cheap tools, but you can do some amazing stuff with hand tools where if you tried to spend the same few bucks on power tools you'd end up frustrated and... well... someone recently suggested that the average drill gets something like 8 minutes of use over its lifetime. Lots of people have cheap tools cluttering up the closet 'cause they're such a pain in the ass to use that they do one project and never open it up again.
posted by straw at 12:27 PM on August 12, 2011

Best answer: I have been in exactly your shoes. I started woodworking in an apartment, building things on my balcony and in my living room. My advice is to skip the cheap multi-tool kits like the one you linked. Take that $135 and:

1. Start with a decent circular saw. Don't buy Craftsman or DeWalt stuff if can avoid it: they're not good values for the money. Aim for something like one of the classic mid-tier work saws like the Makita 5007NK ($90). Granted, a circular saw won't do anything you arm can't do with a saw, but cutting is one of the most tiring things you can do and this one tool will take you a long way.

2. Pair it with a good long straightedge. If you own a big level, great. If you have to resort to a piece of $30 aluminum angle from your local Lowe's / Home Depot metal section, that'll do. (If so, aim for the thickest, stiffest piece you can afford. 1/8" thick 1.5" wide angle is pretty damned stiff.) If you want to buy something fancy like a Bora Clamp, go ahead but I still recommend something that can be dual-use like a level. You want something metal (edged at least, hopefully ground with swirls like you see here), stiff, and clampable. It'll be your cutting guide for the footplate of your circular saw. (Heck, even a straight 1x4 pine board will work; just take your time at the home store going through the bin and sighting down the edge until you find a dead straight one. Then pray it doesn't warp too much.)

3. Buy two or more good quick bar clamps. I'm a huge fan of the Irwin Quick-Grip line (and I've tried dozens of types throughout the years; some are marginally better for certain jobs but nothing beats the Quick-Grips for ease and speed of operation, light weight, and stiffness). Longer clamps are better (you'll be able to use them to clamp drawers together, etc.) but are more unwieldy; I have stocks of both medium-length (~12-18") and long (36", etc.). A couple of the 18" ones ($20 ea) are a sure hit. If you can afford a couple 36" ones, great. Anything small that you can't clamp together you can usually just mash together under a handful of piled-up books.

4. A cordless drill. Small and cheap will do fine. As always, if you can afford something nice and well-supported, buy it. Good small ones show up at pawn shops, but a new good drill is around $200. (I've recently become a big fan of the Bosch PS30; they'll only chuck up to a 3/8" drill bit but they're well-made, powerful, and light so you can use them for hours and not suffer. They sometimes show up for sale at Lowe's here with a spare battery for ~ $160.) If you're saving, hit the local pawnshops for a manual drill (a.k.a. a "brace") for $10-20 but expect quality to vary wildly; try many and make sure they work.

5. A cheap box of assorted home store twist (fluted, not spade) drill bits. 1/16" to 1/2" will cover pretty much everything you'll do. Don't worry if the box says "for metal." That just means "can cut metal or anything softer." ~ $20

With these three things you'll be able to cut and glue a very large number of things, and that's what 90% of woodworking is about. I've made bookshelves exactly this (and still use them downstairs!) If you get more ambitious, my follow-up purchases would be, in order:

1. a good 12" combination square. Splurge and buy the $40 Chinese knock-off of the Starett. It should have a stainless rule and a hardened steel head.
2. a good (not Stanley, not Craftsman, maybe start at Marples/Irwin) small 1/4" wide chisel: $8 Also, learn to sharpen it; see the Scary Sharp technique for a low-cost method using sandpaper from the auto store.
3. a mid-cost multi-purpose panel handsaw; even a basic Stanley Fat Max saw ($18) will cut well enough to cover everything the circular saw can't safely do. P.S. don't try unsafe cuts with the circular saw; you'll regret it.
4. a router. Here's where you want to spend good money. Buy something super-common in the woodworking world so that accessories for it are cheap. The Porter-Cable 690 is the old standby: powerful enough to cut anything you want but light enough that you won't kill yourself trying to hoist it around. It looks like the 694 is the replacement for the old 690. You have to buy the kit with both fixed and plunge base, though honestly you can get by with just the plunge base if you don't mind the bulk. Buy good bits when you can; Freud is good enough without breaking the bank. Buy 1/2" shank when you can. Basic useful starter bits are: 1/2" flush trim bit (bearing on the bottom); 1/4" flush trim bit (bearing on the top) which can function as a generic plunge bit for you.

Build a good set of simple 2x4 sawhorses (collapsible-type work great for cramped apartments) as your first project. You can build and finish all your other stuff on those.

I built furniture for years with basically the tools above plus a good coping saw. Many of those pieces of furniture are still in use in my house and shop. I've long since upgraded to a proper woodshop behind the house but the raw skills I learned in those days are still 95% useful.

P.S. if you have questions, feel free to memail me. Good luck and have fun building!
posted by introp at 12:43 PM on August 12, 2011 [13 favorites]

I think for you any type of circular saw (including a chop say) is a terrible idea. First of all, you say you are in a small apartment; these saws create a tremendous amount of sawdust that is very hard to capture and will find its way to to every part of your small place.
Circular saws are also hard to control and fairly dangerous in inexperienced hands.

I would say the tool you want is unquestionably a jigsaw (rightly called a sabre saw). I would get a corded one and a good brand, think Bosch, Dewalt, Makita. They won't create nearly as much sawdust and are very easy to control. It's a great safe tool to gain experience with and you can do what a circular saw will do and way more.

With the assortment of blades that are available you can do everything from fine woodworking to demolition, all with a small light tool. You'll be able to cut wood, metal and plastic with ease.

Bosch has a blade call "Clean Cut" which cuts on both the up and down stroke, it makes super clean cuts in wood and you'd easily be building bookcases and the like in no time. Cutting plywood you'd want to score your cut line with a utility knife to sever the top fibers and get a clean cut.

Expect to pay a least $100, maybe more for a good one. Cheap ones aren't worth the money as they have inferior guides making straight cutting impossible, they're frustrating to try and use. And a good one you'll pass down to your kids.

Just to say, I have a large shop with table and chop saws, cordless and corded circular saws..but I love my jigsaw. I have a Bosch that has a neat accessory plate that allows you to mount the jigsaw upside down, with the blade coming through the center of the plate, which clamps to a table or piece of wood. Very handy.
posted by PaulBGoode at 12:43 PM on August 12, 2011

Response by poster: Holy moly you all are great. Lots to look over and think about. I do already own a decent cordless drill but counter sinks sound like a great addition there. I can also do projects outside the apartment, I was mostly sharing that as storage space for when I am not using the tools is at a premium. Hopefully in the not so distant future I can post some project results.
posted by tgelston at 12:56 PM on August 12, 2011

Re PaulBGoode, a sabre saw is indeed a mighty useful instrument. I wouldn't advise it being the first tool, though: the flex in even the best blades doesn't allow for glue-line rips, and ripping dead square and straight (vertically) lines for gluing is the basis of most projects. As a later tool, though, it'll do a lot of things a hand saw and a coping saw would otherwise be used for.
posted by introp at 1:10 PM on August 12, 2011

Re: introp
I disagree. The tread is named “One powertool to rule them all” The OP stated “I am shopping for a power tool for simple woodworking/cutting - on a budget”.
The OP also stated he/she was in a small apartment, suggesting that the work would be done there. I see that subsequently they said they had access to larger space.

That said, I still maintain the jigsaw is the superior tool. The only thing a circular saw can do is cut a straight line fast. The jigsaw can do the work of a circular saw, band saw, coping saw, hack saw; can cut straight lines, circles, wavy lines, ellipses..anything. Trim carpenters use jigsaws to cope the largest crown moldings (an unwieldy and dangerous job with a circ). Why you can almost drill a hole with one.

The blade guides on good jigsaws keep the blade cutting square, certainly in 3/4 stock.
As to glueline rips, the jigsaw would certainly not be my tool of choice, but neither would a circular saw with a 1x4 guide from the Home Depot, that would be a challenge for a novice for sure. But gluelines are super straight and square so that boards glued on their edges mate perfectly, normally a multi step process achieved with a table saw and jointer.

So for one tool that does more that any other, in my opinion, the jigsaw rules.

I also noticed the OP liked your answer more than mine.
posted by PaulBGoode at 4:14 PM on August 12, 2011

Introp has great suggestions... really great.

I am with PaulBGoode on the jig saw, though. I find that making shapes and partial cuts is a lot easier with a jig saw, and blade selection allows for metal cuts as well as wood cuts. It's not the tool for furniture building, but its flexibility and relative safety speak to the inexperienced and budget-limited user. Also, most of them are variable speed, which is not the case for rotary saws.

Craiglist is a good source for used gear, too, and a lot of this kind of stuff is bought and unused and sells for dimes on the dollar compared to new. Lower quality work does not demand upper quality tools. A little wear is OK, IMO.
posted by FauxScot at 5:22 PM on August 12, 2011

Just a word about countersinking in softwood. It usually looks horrible and it's easy to go too deep and compromise the structure of the wood. I have decided that I prefer cup washers. They look pretty smart.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:57 PM on August 12, 2011

I suggest taking a few courses with someone who really knows how to use a japanese saw. In my humble experience, a japanese saw solved many of the problems I would have otherwise had to resort to a powertool such as the circular saw or chopsaw. Jigsaw, though, that's quite different. I agree with PaulBGoode on that front.
posted by Freen at 4:42 PM on August 13, 2011

Response by poster: PaulBGoode you have a great answer too :) I think I am going to leave the "best" answer on introp just for the sheer amount of information he has shared. I appreciate the additional responses and certainly like the greater flexibility of a jigsaw. I also have been looking at the japanese saws - I am not afraid of a little elbow greese, have fond memories of using a manual saw with my dad as a kid and the price seems great too - This one looks like a good all arounder?

Thanks again!
posted by tgelston at 3:25 PM on August 15, 2011

I can't speak to the Shark saws, but in looking at it I notice that it's got a suspiciously low price, and I really like the straight handle for pull saws. So I'll reiterate my call that you should carefully consider the cheapest tools and understand where the compromise is happening. More than once I've been out at the shop, cursing at some tool that I'm unable to get tuned just right, and my wife will snarkily call from the house "you bought something other than Festool, didn't you?"

She's usually right. I can't always point exactly to why the more expensive tools are better than the cheap ones until after I've used them for a while, but once I have I can tell you that I've never regretted saving my pennies for the high end version. Of course the other half of that is that I also spend a couple of thousand bucks a year on wood, so the capital costs of tools aren't as onerous as if you're building a bookshelf or two out of knotty pine.
posted by straw at 2:30 PM on August 16, 2011

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