Back in grammar school we were taught never to answer a question with a question, but I am afraid that I must break that rule, to properly answer that question. To determine what tools are needed in your woodworking shop, you need to determine what kind of woodworking do you want to do. While society tends to see all woodworking a general subset, the truth is that there are many different and varied types of woodworking.
A wood turner may never have a need for a tablesaw, but wouldn’t part with his lathe, sharpening station and maybe his drill press. Likewise, a woodcarver may only have needs for carving tools and a way to keep them sharp. So, please allow me to ask the question, “What kind of woodworking do you want to do”?
If your interests are more toward the main street of woodworking, cabinet and furniture building then there is the holy trinity of woodworking tools that should be in your woodworking shop.
That trinity consists of the tablesaw, the jointer and the surface planer. A good, solid and repeatable tablesaw is essential for quality woodworking projects. A jointer, is the second component of the trio. The jointer and the third member of the trio, the surface planer, are essential for ensuring that all of your stock is squared and flat. Stock, no matter where it came from is not properly dressed or milled.
All of the lumber that comes into your shop should be ran first across the jointer, to get two opposing edges square or a true 90 degrees apart from each other. Then the lumber should all be ran thru the surface planer to correct for any differences in thickness of the stock. Then and only then can you begin the actual cutting of the stock.
Your tablesaw should be the best that your budget allows. Stay away from the small, light weight tablesaws. These can be plagued with problems such as under sized motors, light weight-flimsy table tops, and poorly made arbors. These combine to give you poor, unrepeatable cuts. This is not to say that all small job site saws are bad, some are very good, just be careful. Due diligence is the key word here, know what you are getting.
A quality tablesaw must be equipped with an equally quality rip fence. The fence must be easy to adjust, as well as always remain parallel to the saw blade. Your fence must also be rigid enough not to flex or bend. If the fence flexes, you may end up with a bad cut, or worse the wood can get caught between the blade and fence, and be ejected from the saw. If your saw of choice isn’t supplied with the fence you want, consider an after market fence.
The jointer is often over looked when setting up the shop, but no other tool can replace it. Jointers are sized by the length of the input and output tables. The longer the tables, the better. You want to be able to completely support your stock on both the input and output tables. When the stock extends beyond the ends of the tables, there is a tendency for the stock to loose contact with the jointer knifes, which results in scallops or gouges in the end of your stock. Just the thing you were trying to eliminate in the first place. Just like the table saw, the jointer must have some mass to it, otherwise it will translate the vibrations of the motor, pulleys and belts unto the table. This creates an uneven surface in your work.
Thickness or surface planers have under gone a lot of rework in recent years. The results are units that are within the price range of most woodworkers. Planers are sized for the maximum width board that they can handle. Look for a planer with at least a 13″ width. Since it is nearly impossible to find stock any wider then that, larger units maybe over kill.
Unlike the jointer where the cutter head is beneath the stock, the cutter head on surface planers are above the stock. This cutter head is raised and lowered on a set of columns. Some of the early units that hit the market had only two columns, which allowed the head to be torque out of alignment if too heavy large of a cut was attempted. I would not purchase a unit without four stout columns. Also check that the head moves up and down the columns smoothly.
These three tools, will often be the most expensive tools in your shop, but they are also the most used tools in your shop. It is impossible to create quality woodworking projects, without having the ability to complete dress and mill your stock so that it is square, flat and of each dimensions. To take this one step further, it is also impossible to create that piece that will treasured for years, unless you are able to get the correct, precise cuts in your stock. So start with the trinity, and build your collection of tools from here. But these are the three most important pieces.
What tools have you found to be the most valuable in your shop?