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.


The Circle of Life

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and our tools shape us.
— Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was a 20th century Canadian philosopher who was heavily involved in media, advertising, and television.  He’s responsible for several theories and catchphrases that would be familiar to most adults today, but I think his most interesting quote is listed up above.  I came across this quote a while back in a photography context, but it’s applicability to woodworking immediately struck me.

We truly do become what we behold.  As a woodworker, I’m the product of countless books, magazine articles, TV shows, online videos, audio podcasts, and real-life experiences.  Every piece of woodworking information I’ve ever encountered has influenced me, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.  And this process never ends; these experiences will continue to influence me throughout the course of my life.  What changes as time goes on is the relative weight of their influence.  Early on, woodworking media had a huge impact in my work habits.  These days, my personal experience carries more weight, but outside input is still a factor.

This is the first visual aid I've ever created for this blog.  Nice!

This is the first visual aid I've ever created for this blog.  Nice!

There’s a symbiotic relationship between the environment, the tools, and the maker.  My environment is a basement shop because that is the space available to me.  In this environment, certain tools, such as very large machinery, are impractical due to the difficulty of getting them in and out.  The way I design my projects is affected, as well, because I need to consider how I will move completed projects up the narrow shop staircase and out the door.  Even my workbench was influenced by my environment; I designed it using knockdown joinery so I can get it out of the basement if I ever decide to move.

During the build phase of a project, my tools dictate my workflow.  I always look for ways to accomplish my goals using the tools that I already have, and I’m usually successful.  If I get blocked, modifying an existing tool is my next step, followed by biting-the-bullet and purchasing something new.

It’s fascinating to think about how our shops and our tools influence our decision-making process.  Once you’re aware of this influence, you can use it to understand why you do things the way you do.  Can your process be improved to get better or faster results?  Will a technique or process change be a success or failure?  Either way, don’t sweat it.  Once you accept that you are what you behold and that your environment and tooling heavily influence all of your decisions, the pressure’s off.  The universe is calling the shots, so just head into the shop and have some fun.