Buy Your First Tool First

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
— Confucius

Dear novice woodworker,

Starting out in this hobby is like standing at the edge of a sprawling valley.  Your path runs downward and splits off in all directions, providing limitless possibilities.  Choosing some tools is the first fork that you’ll encounter as you walk along this path.  If you turn to the woodworking community for tool recommendations, you’ll hear the phrase, “buy your last tool first.”  This well-intentioned, but misguided, advice is repeated in podcasts, forums, magazines, and blog posts by experienced woodworkers who have forgotten what it was like to be a newbie.  They look back along the path they’ve traveled and see a straight line; the forks, twists, and turns that they encountered along the way are hidden by the mists of time. 

“Buy your last tool first” is such a popular phrase because when an experienced woodworker looks back at their tool purchases, they see that money could have been saved by avoiding the “starter tool” purchases and jumping straight to the “wish list tool.”  This type of data mining paints a false picture, however, because it advocates making important decisions based on the isolation of a single variable (cost).  Take a step back for a second and sanity test the “buy your last X first” formula by applying it to other areas of your life.  Did you buy your last house first?  Did you buy your last car first?  What about your mobile phone?  Are you still rocking the iPhone 1 from 2008?  How about your television?  Computer?  Lawnmower?  Mailbox?  Mattress?  The real problem with the “buy your last X first” formula is that it’s built on three erroneous assumptions:

  1. Your interests will never change or waiver.
  2. You have unlimited funds available.
  3. Technology will stop advancing once you complete your purchase.

The word “woodworking” represents a group of diverse disciplines: turning, timber framing, furniture making, trim carpentry, carving, etc.  Until you dig in and build something, you have no way of knowing where your interests will lead you.  A 20” stationary planer is an impressive machine, but I guarantee that you’ll have a serious case of buyer’s remorse when you discover that you’re primarily interested in turning.  Beware of anyone who advises you to “buy your last tool first” because you can always sell it later.  This advice comes from people who are looking for a screaming deal on a used tool.  Selling a large woodworking tool is a pain in the neck, and you’ll lose money on the transaction.  No one is going to pay you anything near retail for a second-hand tool, even if it’s lightly used. My recommendation is to buy an inexpensive tool first, learn to use it properly, and learn what you do and do not like about it.  Build some projects and discover where your true interest lies before dropping a large amount of money on the ultimate power tool.

Speaking of money, do you have enough to outfit an entire workshop with wish list tools?  If so, please shoot me an email because I want to be your friend.  If you’re like the rest of us 99%-ers, however, I’m guessing that you have a fairly strict budget for your brand new hobby.  One of the reasons people are hesitant to jump into woodworking is the erroneous belief that it requires a massive upfront investment to get started.  The “buy your last tool first” mantra just feeds this myth.  You can do great work with a small investment in some simple tools.  As your skills grow, you’ll become more educated in what tooling is important for your work and what can be left behind.

I bought my 3 HP Delta Unisaw back in 2005.  It’s a powerful cabinet saw and I love using it.  At the time, I remember thinking, “this is the last table saw I’ll ever need to buy.”  After all, cabinet saws had remained relatively unchanged since the 1920s.  Why would I need to buy another one?  And then, in 2006, riving knives became standard equipment on new saws, and Sawstop appeared on the market.  New technology ushered in desirable safety features that suddenly made my saw look like a stepping stone instead of my “final tool.”  Does this make me love my current saw any less?  No, not at all.  But it does open up the possibility of upgrading sometime in the future, so be aware that even when you think you’re buying your last tool, you might not be.

So what now?  Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed; we’ve all been there.  It’s time to jump in with both feet and get started.  Buy your first tool first, build something cool, and let’s see where the path leads you.

5 Things

5 Things About Me That Other Woodworkers Think Are Strange

1. I finish my drawer boxes
The drawers on a well-used piece of furniture lead a hard life; they’re constantly being touched, yanked open, and slammed shut.  Drawers get over-stuffed and items spill inside.  It doesn’t take long for a shiny new drawer to become dull, dingy, and dirty.  Cleaning untreated wood ranges from difficult to nearly impossible, and almost always requires sanding.  A finished drawer box, however, doesn’t scuff up easily, wipes clean with a damp rag, and highlights the joinery with the drawer front.

I finish my drawer boxes with two coats of a 2 lb cut of shellac.  I usually just use SealCoat, but I’ve mixed it myself on occasion, as well.  A 1 lb cut would probably work fine, I’m just used to the 2 lb cut because that is how SealCoat comes out of the can.  Shellac is easy to apply and completely odorless when dry.  I never use an oil-based finish inside of a box or a drawer because the smell from the finish will never dissipate and will permeate everything that’s stored inside.

2.  I’m extremely casual about the calibration of my machines
When I bought my Unisaw in 2006, I put it together, calibrated it, and I haven’t thought about it since.  The only time I check any setting on it is when I reset the blade back to 90 degrees.  Table flatness?  Arbor runout?  I’ve never checked either of those and it hasn’t impacted my work in any way.  The same goes for my bandsaw, jointer, and planer.  In general, I think power tool users obsess over machine calibration way too much.  I think the difference for me is that I don’t expect a finished surface right off the machine.  I will be working those surfaces with hand tools after I make my cuts anyway, so they really don’t need to be perfect to a thousandth of an inch.

3.  I got rid of my miter saw and I don’t miss it
Okay, I’ll admit that my miter saw was a crappy 10 inch Craftsman, so it wasn’t that hard to give up.  I originally bought the saw for trim carpentry tasks such as installing baseboard, etc.  It worked fine for this purpose, but when I tried to incorporate it into my furniture-building workflow, I quickly learned that it could not be trusted for accurate joinery cuts.  With joinery out of the question, I used it mainly for breaking down rough stock.  After awhile, though, I realized that bringing heavy planks of lumber to the tool was much more difficult that bringing a light hand-held tool to the wood.  At that point, I started using my jig saw for rough stock breakdown.  Now that I’ve been doing that for a few years, I’m thinking about just buying a vintage crosscut saw instead so I don’t have to mess around with the noise and mess of a power tool for such a rough task.  Eventually, the motor in my tiny Craftsman miter saw burned out.  I was using it so infrequently at that point, though, that I’ve never felt compelled to buy a new one.

4.  I hate jigs
Some woodworkers love building jigs.  I’ve seen jigs that took days to construct and were prettier than some of my finished furniture projects.  I’m not that kind of woodworker.  When I’m in the shop, I want to be building my project, not a jig to use on the project.  I have little patience for planning and constructing jigs, so mine often end up looking like a deranged caveman built it with a rock and some sticks.  As long as they work, right?

5.  I’m apathetic about the Woodworking in America conference
It seems like the year is broken into three phases: the lead-up to Woodworking in America, the actual Woodworking in America conference, and then the flood of blog posts describing what happened at Woodworking in America.  With some of the biggest names in the woodworking world presenting at the conference each year, I can understand why people get excited about attending.  In recent years, though, it seems like Woodworking in America has become a glorified social gathering.  The talk online is more about the meet ups and parties after hours than the conference itself.  It sounds like fun, but I could never justify the cost and time of traveling across the country for that.  So, every year I skim past all of the WIA coverage with a shrug and a “meh.”