Minimal tools for basic wood projects
August 3, 2014 12:19 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to become more adept at basic wood working/carpentry skills, but I'm pretty clueless. My first project is to modify an existing wood work bench by removing a portion of the cabinets and extending a plywood countertop over the open space[1]. I don't want to spend thousands of dollars on tools, but I'm unclear what the minimal set (especially of saws) is for doing this job reasonably right.

I have the really basic stuff like hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, cordless drill, etc. I also have a fairly cheap (Home Depot cheap, not Harbor Freight cheap) circular saw and jigsaw. And a hand saw and a hack saw. But that's about it.

At the very least, I think I'm going to need to be able to make fairly straight long cuts on plywood for the countertop. And I'm going to need to make pretty precise cuts on smaller pieces of wood for trim pieces. I also will probably need to cut away some pieces of the existing bench without destroying the part I'm keeping. Thankfully most of the part I'm removing is separate pieces, but there's a long faceplate along the floor that's continuous and I'll need to cut it cleanly.

So, what do I need? A table saw? A miter saw? Both (I hope not)? In the past I've tried to do straight cuts with just the circular saw and sawhorses, but I've never managed to do a good job. And when the pieces get too small for the sawhorses, I'm stuck. As for the jig saw, well, that's been a disaster every time I've tried to use it....

Also, if there are any good books you'd recommend to help me learn this stuff, I would love to hear about them. Preferably real books, not Internet sites, as this is a hobby I'm using to try to use the Internet less... I'm not planning to build houses or fine furniture. Just stuff like this work bench, maybe a dog house, etc. Basic stuff.

[1] The current work bench has cabinets all along the front. Good for storage, but when I want to sit there at my stool, there's nowhere to put my legs under the bench, so I have to lean over awkwardly and keep hitting my knees on the cabinets. There's one area where the cabinets are separate, and the counter top is lower. Removing those and extending the higher counter across will give me a perfect place to work.
posted by primethyme to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think a table saw is something you're definitely going to need. You *can* make reasonably accurate cuts with a circular saw, if you have a good straight edge clamped down and stick to it pretty good. It's usually nowhere near as straight/accurate as a table saw though. A jig saw plus a straight edge - and the RIGHT blade - can cut OK straight lines. Cutting curves takes time and practice.

You can both cut lengthwise and cross-cut on a table saw, although cutting cross-ways with the guide usually provided is not usually fun and for wider/longer pieces, possibly not safe. The first thing I'd make for a table saw is probably a cross cut sled. Something like this. He uses a length of metal for the part that fits in the slot - I personally use a piece of hardwood, or a length of UMHW plastic. You can buy these plastic strips online, check rockler or maybe Lee Valley (both of which are good sources of bits and things you need for wood working)

I really only use my miter saw when I need to make a lot of repetitive cuts, I use the table saw all the freakin time though.

Anyway, table saws are great and no wood shop is complete without one.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:31 PM on August 3, 2014

The Anarchist's Tool Chest is considered good; you may want to get it from Lee Valley or the publisher rather than at Amazon's price. It has lots of advice about acquiring good tools without getting extraneous stuff. It champions hand tools (and one power tool; a planer).
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:34 PM on August 3, 2014

Sometimes it's just a matter of setting things up better. It's hard to make good cuts in plywood with a circular saw unless you have 1-a really good sharp blade, and 2-a straightedge that easily clamps onto the work. You can buy both. There are also what seems to be a new kind of circular saw that travels along its own track that you clamp to the work (seen them used on This Old House). A table saw is found in most shops and it can't be beat if you have the room. I have one and not enough room actually to use it. I think a cheap table saw is far worse than other methods for cutting sheet goods.

I tend to use a chop saw (miter saw) and a bandsaw a lot. And, hand tools (planes, chisels, good sets of drill bits, router with appropriate fences). Again, set things up properly, use good sharp blades and cutters (and keep hand tools sharp), work carefully.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 1:14 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recently renovated our kitchen from scratch, and I built ten full face-frame cabinets in the process. I probably went through eight or more sheets of plywood, so I now know a lot about cutting plywood without a table-saw. I hope this advice is helpful.

(Before diving in, I should say that a table-saw with an outfeed extension is the best thing for cutting down large sheet goods. If you've got the space and money for one, I'd recommend it. I had neither, so I went with the circular saw.)

It's hard to cut straight lines in plywood without a guide, and it's especially hard if the sheet of plywood isn't fully supported underneath. For the latter problem, I put down a 4x8' sheet of 1/2" foam insulation to support the plywood and protect the floor or ground. I just set the circular saw blade to cut about 1/8" deeper than the thickness of the plywood.

To guide the cut, I used a homemade circular saw guide like this one, for maybe 80% of the work, and while it worked very well, I grew tired of measuring and marking lines and setting up the guide along the marks before making the cut. I then found the Kreg Rip-Cut Circular Saw Guide, and with it things went much more quickly and smoothly.

If I had it to do over, I'd probably spring for a Festool Saw with Guide Track. The Kreg jig was a bit finicky, and I've heard only excellent things about Festool equipment.

In terms of books, Taunton's Building Kitchen Cabinets guide was incredibly useful over the course of my project. I can't say enough good things about that book, both in terms of cabinet and counter-specific information and general woodworking advice. Get that book.

For straight and true cuts of dimensional stock, moulding, etc, you'll want a miter saw. I sold mine after the project – no space for it – but I wish that I could've kept it. They're really useful tools.
posted by jacob at 1:39 PM on August 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Festool saw is what I was thinking of. Boy, they're not cheap.

And jocob's idea of cutting plywood with a circular saw on top of a sheet of foam insulation is genius.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 2:17 PM on August 3, 2014

Before diving in, I should say that a table-saw with an outfeed extension is the best thing for cutting down large sheet goods.

A panel saw is the purpose-built tool for that, but it's hard to justify unless that's what you do for a living.

If I had it to do over, I'd probably spring for a Festool Saw with Guide Track.

The Dewalt version is a bit cheaper and gets good reviews. I'm newly space limited and had to sell my table saw, and one of the two track saws is what I'm planning to buy as a replacement. It will be slower and less versatile than a table saw, but in exchange it takes up less space and is more portable.

Do try the circular saw plus clamped guide first, though. It's way cheaper and might be sufficient for what you need. And whenever these questions come up, my advice is to only buy what you need, but buy good quality. Don't buy "just in case" tools, and don't buy shitty stuff that sucks to use and doesn't work right.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:17 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

That Festool thing looks amazing, but definitely out of budget for my current projects!
posted by primethyme at 3:46 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a Festool saw user, there are also knock-offs from DeWalt and Makita, and there's a guide system which will clamp on to other circular saws.

I use a track saw and the Festool MFT table in lieu of a table saw and a chop saw. With a good framing square (I started with an Empire cast one, I've moved up to a Woodpecker milled one, but even if you bought the premium Porter Cable one, that costs more than your circular saw did) you can get some amazingly accurate cuts with this setup. The plunge saw on the track is a hell of a lot safer than the exposed tablesaw, and you can do almost all the same cuts. I have eschewed a tablesaw in my shop, and really don't miss it.

But you also don't need to pay someone else for every setup: look to those devices as things you can recreate: A strip of masonite or good plywood glued to another piece can make you an edge guide, and of the bigger strip is cut by the first pass, you get that same "here's where the edge lies" that the expensive track saws give you.

Similarly, you can build an ad-hoc jig from clamps that'll let you do repeatable cross-cuts, and remember that you want precision over accuracy: Nobody cares if that dog house vertical is a quarter inch off from the plans, but it looks a lot nicer if all those verticals are exactly the same length.

One problem is that good tools cost money, and the difference between the good tools and the bad tools isn't immediately obvious, it only shows up while you're doing work down the road. And if you're serious about woodworking, the cost of materials will quickly dwarf the investment in tools; it's easy to drop a few hundred bucks on a weekend project at the home improvement store, if you start going to nice wood at the cabinet supply place, well... I tell the story of being out in the garage (before we built our shop) swearing at some tool, and my wife poked her head out and said "didn't buy the Festool version, huh?"

I had a major epiphany with the David Gingery "build your own machine shop from scratch" books, not that I expect to have enough time in my remaining life to do that, but because he talks about how to build up techniques and setups to do precise things.

I don't recommend that series for you, but maybe grab something like Ian Kirby's The Accurate Router, not because you're going to be doing anything with a router in the projects you mention, but because it'll help you think about how to make sure there's only one moving bit (tool or material) in any given cut, how to make sure that you're not doing any guiding during that cut, how to think about jigs and fixtures.

And I can't suss out from your profile where you're from, but find other hobbyists. I live on Sonoma County, California. We have an amazing woodworking interest organization here. You also have friends and neighbors who've dabbled (but might be in the closet about it).
posted by straw at 3:56 PM on August 3, 2014

Makita and some cheaper Chinese brands make cheaper rail saws (this is the term you need) than the Festo. The Makita is actually very good and this is a type of tool I would get long before a table saw.
posted by deadwax at 3:57 PM on August 3, 2014

Oh, and similar to the polystyrene foam suggestion, you generally use one of these on the floor, on top of a sacrificial sheet of mdf or plywood that is just scored by a mm or two through the piece you are cutting. I like this better than foam, you don't want to be throwing that stuff in the air.
posted by deadwax at 4:02 PM on August 3, 2014

"I think I'm going to need to be able to make fairly straight long cuts on plywood for the countertop."

You can do this easily with a longcut jig and a circular saw. Shit, you can do it with a couple of clamps and a factory edge.

"I'm going to need to make pretty precise cuts on smaller pieces of wood for trim pieces."

Assuming they are not compound angles a chopsaw will be perfectly adequate.

"I also will probably need to cut away some pieces of the existing bench without destroying the part I'm keeping. Thankfully most of the part I'm removing is separate pieces, but there's a long faceplate along the floor that's continuous and I'll need to cut it cleanly."

This can be done with a sawzall if you are good but I would just buy new wood and cut it with the chopsaw - the materials are cheap.

As a remodeler for better than a decade a chopsaw is the only tool you need in addition to your circular saw for that project and not even that. I would just rent a chopsaw.

Going forward I would buy a radial arm saw as opposed to a chopsaw, a sawzall if you are going to be remodeling, a belt sander and a router.
posted by vapidave at 4:14 PM on August 3, 2014

Not sure how things are in North America, but I haven't seen a new radial arm saw in over ten years. A sliding compound mitre saw is the modern equivalent. It is cheaper, more accurate and more portable. I would be lost without mine.
posted by deadwax at 4:43 PM on August 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Huh. OK, so full disclosure– I'm the rankest of amateurs and therefore you should take my advice with salt. But from my perspective, the greatest limiting factor in my woodworking has been the absence of a really good worktable surface and vise. I've found myself kludging together the craziest arrangements just to get something at the right angle (and rigidity) for cutting.

Then last month I bought a jawhorse.

I could go on for a while about how great this tool is, but suffice it to say I'm using it constantly during my current fencing project. Works great, saves me time, my work is better, and it folds up small.

So it may not be essential during your immediate project, but I'd suggest checking out the jawhorse at Lowes. While you're at it, pick up a couple clamps.
posted by carterk at 7:36 PM on August 3, 2014

Sorry for the delay in reply, but thank you for all the answers. I bought the Kreg Rip-Cut Circular Saw Guide jacob recommended, and it was a MASSIVE help.
posted by primethyme at 1:32 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been eyeballing the The EZ-One Power Bench track for saws, the inspiration for the Festool MFT table, I think. One can start by buying the track and adding components if it makes sense.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:35 PM on August 11, 2014

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