When I first started woodworking, I found myself watching a lot of how-to videos that featured very large, impressive, and undoubtedly expensive tools. You may think that you need these tools. You don’t. Remember that at one point in time power tools didn’t exist. Our ancestors used hand tools to bend wood to their will. Today, many people still advocate and only use hand tools. As a beginner, I wouldn’t recommend starting with hand tools unless you really like the idea of going slow, building up those flabby muscles, and getting your cardio workout. Who wouldn’t want to build biceps and bookshelves at the same time?
If you are new to woodworking (I recommend reading my tips for how to get started in woodworking post), you likely need some guidance on what tools to buy. For beginners, I recommend starting with a number of handheld power tools. They are generally affordable and are a smart way to start building your woodworking tool collection. Furthermore, you will continue to use these tools even after you become a professional. These tools can do nearly everything that the bigger, more expensive versions can do.
Here are five essential handheld power tools for beginning woodworkers. Remember: be safe with power tools, take your time, and follow the instructions.
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Tool #1: Circular Saw
Woodworking involves a lot of making big pieces into smaller pieces. Ideally, most of these smaller pieces are “square.” In other words, all of the edges are straight, parallel, and at 90 degree angles. This is how you typically see wood boards at your local home improvement store. Having all of the pieces square makes it a lot easier to join them together. The Circular Saw is the primary handheld power tool to help you make straight cuts and keep your boards square.
There are two major types of cuts: Cross Cut and Rip Cut. A Cross Cut is when you cut across the grain of the wood. This is the most common cut for the Circular Saw. A Rip Cut is when you cut along the grain of the wood. This type of cut will split one long piece of wood into two equally long pieces of wood. The big brothers of the Circular Saw are the mighty Table Saw and the efficient Miter Saw.
Here is a link to a newer version of the Skil Circular Saw ($61.99) that I bought 5 years ago and still use today. I’ve found it to be reliable and easy to use. It also has a cool laser on it to help with cutting straight lines. To achieve better results with this saw, consider buying a blade with more teeth to achieve a finer cut.
Want to make straighter cross cuts with a Circular Saw? I regularly use the Kreg Square-Cut. For only $12, it’s worth it. You can also use a Speed Square, if you have one of those handy. However, I like the Kreg Square-Cut better because you can adjust it to help you line up the blade to the cut line on the board.
Tool #2: Jig Saw
Straight lines are soooo 1863. Am I right? (My attempt at a Shaker furniture joke.) Many traditional furniture styles- including Shaker furniture- are fairly plain in design. They are mostly straight lines with very few curves. Today’s modern home dweller, however, appreciates furniture with some curves and pizzazz. The job of the Jig Saw is primarily to make curved or rounded cuts. It is also a handy tool to cut out ‘internal’ pieces like cutting the center out of a doughnut. To cut an internal hole with a Jig Saw, start by drilling a hole big enough hole for the Jig Saw blade to fit into and then go to town. The big sister of the Jig Saw is the agile Band Saw.
I don’t find myself using the Jig Saw that often. Perhaps I’m more Shaker than I know. However, when I do use it, I find it to be fairly hard to achieve a good result. I recommend cutting close to but not on the cut line and then sanding away the last bit of wood until you reach the line. Here is the link to the version of Black+Decker Jig Saw that I use that only costs $30. If you have experience with a fancy Jig Saw that you like, let me know in the comments.
Tool #3: Drill
A handheld drill is extremely versatile and will become a mainstay in your shop. At its core, a drill performs two functions: removing wood from a board and attaching boards together. When it comes to removing wood, most of us only think of using drill bits to make round holes. However, there are all kinds of bits that you can attach to a drill to remove wood. For example, you can attach sanding drums to sand down curved edges. This is how I get smooth edges after making curved cuts with my Jigsaw.
The other common use of the handheld drill is attaching boards together with screws. This is fairly straightforward, but once you become good at it you’ll have a lot more house chores to do like finally hanging a picture up on the wall. For the best results, try drilling a small pilot hole before screwing the pieces together. The grandfather of the handheld drill is the stationary Drill Press.
I use two types of handheld drills on a regular basis. The first is a Drill Driver, which is the bigger of the two drill types. A Drill Driver is designed to make holes and drill screws with precision. It provides constant torque (or turning power). This is the mainstay for most of our drilling needs. Here is a link to the Porter-Cable Drill Driver ($70.21) that I’ve been using for 5+ years with no problems. It includes two batteries and a charger.
The second type of drill is an Impact Driver. These are designed for one thing: driving screws. They are smaller, but provide a lot of power. They can quickly put a screw into wood and then quickly ruin your work by splitting the wood. These are optional for beginners, but they are really nice to have if you are going to be drilling a lot of screws. If you can afford to spend an extra $35 then I’d highly recommend getting a set of drills that use the same batteries so you only need one charger. Here is a link a Porter-Cable Drill Set ($104.99) that includes a Drill Driver, Impact Driver, two batteries, and a charger.
Tool #4: Random Orbit Sander
I would venture to say that no one likes sanding. It’s tedious, messy, and can take a significant about of time. However, sanding is one of those things that can take your project to the next level. Having a smooth surface ensures that any paint or stain goes on well. Plus, the first thing that most people will do when encountering your project is touch it so you want to have a nice smooth surface.
There are many handheld power sanders out there, but the Random Orbit Sander will be your primary weapon to find against the sanding blues. Like most power sanders, the Random Orbit Sander can quickly sand large areas, so be careful to not leave it in spot for too long or your flat surface may no longer be flat. Unlike most power sanders, the Random Orbit Sander does not leave lines on the surface. It does this by the way it randomly vibrates in a circular motion.
When using any sander, start with a coarser grit paper and move to a finer grit paper. A typical progression is to start with 80 grit, move to 120 grit, and finish with 220 grit paper. Sandpaper disks are widely available and they simply attach to the sander via the “hook and loop” system (Note that “hook and loop” is the non-trademark name of Velcro and is what will appear on the boxes). The older second cousins of the Random Orbit Sander are the Drum Sander and the Belt Sander.
Tool #5: Handheld Router (optional, but you’ll get +5 style points)
Have you ever wondered how the intricate edges on wood trim, crown molding, or kitchen cabinets were made? Most likely a tool like a router was responsible. A router spins a sharp, decoratively shaped bit very quickly so the woodworker can “carve out” that bit’s shape onto the edge of a wood board. There are many different kinds and shapes of bits that add decorative and design touches to projects. Just search for Router Bits and you could spend days just looking them all over. Adding decorative touches to the edges of boards isn’t the only function of a router, however. Other key functions include cutting wood to match wood templates or making channels in the wood for structural or design purposes.
I included the Handheld Router on this list because it can really elevate your project and because you will eventually want one for its versatility. However, they can get expensive compared to the other tools on this list and they aren’t needed for every project. That being said, there is something special about using a router and I think you’ll find it to be one of the top experiences as a beginning woodworker. The older neighbors of the Handheld Router are the Router Table, Shaper, and CNC Machine.
There are generally two types of handheld routers: small ones and big ones. Small ones have less horsepower, use smaller bit sizes, and can be generally operated with one hand (but I’d still recommend using two). Big ones have more horsepower, use larger bit sizes, and require two hands to operate. I have both types and found myself using the smaller one a lot more often. It’s lighter, easier to manage, and performs nearly as well as the bigger one. Here is a link to the smaller Dewalt Handheld Router ($167.04) that I use today. This particular one comes with both a fixed and a plunge base. The fixed base is great for repeated cuts. The plunge base allows for you to plunge the bit into the wood at a consistent depth. Whatever router you buy, I recommend getting one with both bases.
So, what did you think? Did I leave something out? Are there alternative tools that you’d recommend? What other woodworking topics would you like to know about? Leave your comments and questions below.