I’ve been asked a few times for advice on what you need to get started in woodworking. That is a really complicated question with no truly right answers. I know this sounds like I’m dodging the question, but I’m not. How you go about setting up your shop and what tools you buy really depends upon what aspect of woodworking you’re interested in exploring. The set up for woodturning is much different from carving. That said, let’s start with assuming you want to start with a general woodworking shop. There are a lot of tools that will be applicable with most shops.
For this installment I’ll just address the key tool for many shops: the Table Saw.
Let me first talk about safety. All table saws come with safety devices; blade guards, splitters/riving knife, etc. Regardless of all the safety features installed at the factory, the biggest safety feature is you. I will have an blog that deals specifically with table saw safety in the near future. In the mean time, please use the safety features that come with your saw, wear eye protection and use common sense. If something doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it. Ask for help or advice.
Table saws fall into 3 categories: Job Site Saws, Contractor’s Saws and Cabinet Saws. Each comes in at a different price range, size and capabilities. Keep in mind as you shop around that you do get what you pay for in tools. The cheapest tools do not always have the best quality control or accuracy.
The first category is the Job Site Saw. These are small table saws with direct drive motors. Some come with foldable stands to make it easier to move from site to site. These will range in price from $100 to $600 or more. These saws come with light weight guide fences and small miter gauges. Since these saws have the blade directly attached to the motor, that may increase the wear if you cut thick, heavy hardwoods. These saws are good if you have limited space or budget.
The second category is Contractor style saws. The most notable feature is that the motor typically hangs out the back of the saw with a single belt running to an arbor attached to the underside of the cast iron table and fixed open frame legs. They motors are typically 1 ½ hp running on 110v. These saws are heavier due to the larger cast iron tops. These saws can handle heavier wood, have professional “Bessemer” style of guide fence and removable inserts around the blade. Users can upgrade these saws with zero clearance inserts and dado sets to cut grooves and dados. It is difficult to control the dust from these saws so that is a drawback. They are typically the saw most contractors start out with in their shops.
The last category is the Cabinet saw. This is the type of saw I use in my shop. These have and enclosed base and heavier duty motor typically running on 220v. There are some that are labeled as Hybrid, they have the enclosed base but the motor of a contractor saw usually 1 ½ hp. They are the heaviest of the three styles which helps dampen vibrations and gives you a better quality cut. They also have better dust collection and are typically easier to adjust. They tend to be the most durable of the saws, with many lasting decades. Due to the weight, they are usually not moved around the shop but mobile bases are available either as a feature or as an aftermarket add on. They all have heavy duty guide fences and better miter gauges. Most users of these saws will buy aftermarket miter gauges to improve accuracy.
There are a lot of saws on the market, from Christmas specials for about $100 to heavy duty professional models that will run into the thousands of dollars. There are several options out there, from used saws listed in the local paper or online sites like Craigslist. I strongly urge caution when buying a used saw. Make sure that all of the safety equipment comes with the saw and if at all possible ask to see it run. If the top is rusted, you will need to spend a good deal of time cleaning it off to be able to use the saw safely.
My personal recommendation is that you decide what you want to do in your shop, how much space you can dedicate to your tools and your budget. If you have limited space like a small garage, a job site or contractor style saw will fit your needs. If you have a dedicated area and can leave a tool in the same place, consider a cabinet saw. Either way, buy the best tool you can afford and avoid poor quality or abused tools. Poor quality tools only cost you more money in the long run either in replacing them or in injury.