Editor’s Note: Summer is the time for backyard barbecues and Do-It-Yourself projects. If your project involves working with wood, Contributor Martin Winston has some tips that will speed you on your way.
The handcrafted nature of woodworking has its roots in simple tools with cutting, shaping, polishing, fastening or hammering roles. Those roots have long since sprouted a wonderful orchard of power tools that can make woodworking efforts much less tedious.
We’ll take a look at these modern power tools and why they present such drool bait at hardware stores, Lowe’s or Home Depot.
A Contemporary Shift in Power
In your grandparents’ time, all do-it-yourselfer power tools plugged into the wall and were powered by the AC line.
In your parents’ time, battery-operated tools began appearing; most were rechargeable, powered by NiCad or NiMH batteries; the power density of these limited both the available runtime between charges and the available power of the motor drive; typically, there were more power screwdrivers than anything else.
Today’s power tool landscape continues to offer some line-powered tools where higher speeds and greater power are needed (table saws, for example), but Lithium Ion batteries offer excellent power density and LiIon-powered tools are available for most do-it-yourself woodworking tasks.
While there are many interesting ancillary electronic devices – like stud finders, wood moisture sensors, work lights or fans – we’ll try to focus here on things that are power tools and that do permanently alter the shapes and configurations of pieces of wood.
There are many power tool brands out there: Milwaukee Tool, Black & Decker, Craftsman, Ryobi, Kobalt, Bosch, Makita, DeWalt, Skil, Hitachi, Porter Cable, Dremel, Wen, Worx and more. Very similar functionality for any given tool type is likely to appear across several brands. That’s one reason why batteries to power any one brand are incompatible with tools from other brands while within a brand, many tools are able to use each other’s batteries: a user’s initial investment in batteries and chargers creates pocketbook brand loyalty.
It’s smart to investigate the variety of tools within a brand that its batteries can power, and also take a look at the various kinds of batteries and chargers and their specs.
Measuring and cutting
Every engineering manager expects every prototype to be entirely free of trial & error because every value, every measurement, and every consideration was taken into account up front before anything was ever committed to hardware. The old line is, “measure twice, cut once.” It’s a great plan but not always realistic – neither with work nor with wood. Many woodworking practices developed as methods to correct, disguise or hide mistakes. Still, many woodworkers (hobbyists as well as professional) take it as a matter of pride that their measurements were good enough to follow those practices more as a matter of form than as a presumptive need.
Advanced measuring tools are simplifying that. Length, area and volume measurements are now often assisted by devices using lasers – more accurately, Lidar. Lasers on many saws now light up the lines along which they will cut. An ancient era of handsaws and bandsaws now sees rotary table saws, miter saws, circular saws, jigsaws, hole saws, speed saws, reciprocating saws and more.
Table saws, which are sometimes saws on their own stands, are built to make linear cuts, which may be square or at an angle. Angular cuts are the specialty of miter saws; compound miter saws can handle more complex combinations of angles. Where table saws tend to have larger diameter blades, there are also circular saws (sometimes used freehand, sometimes for cutting along guides; cordless circular saws with smaller-diameter blades are lighter in weight, easier to handle and so often preferred for simple trimming work.
Reciprocating saws perform a woodpecker-like in and out motion with typically thin blades, similar to those in keyhole saw hand tools. These are useful for cutting shaped holes in thicker wood.
The blades of a jigsaw are thinner still, making them very good at cutting more complex or detailed shapes.
Note that saws are a category of power tools that have in the past led to occasional gaffes, some dangerous, including cuts across the power cords of line-powered saws, which is more common among do-it-yourselfers than among the pros. Today’s cordless power saws have the safety advantage of no cord to accidentally cut. Also, removing a battery from a cordless tool renders it incapable of accidental activation and is even more convenient than unplugging a power cord.
Drills and Drivers
Driver is the categorical term for power screwdrivers, nut drivers, wrenches and so on. A motor spins a chuck, and the chuck holds a bit that mates to do the work. Drivers are similar to drills and have many of the same elements; typically, a driver spins more slowly and offers greater torque while a drill spins more quickly.
As designers, you understand how this simple premise could explode into a stunning array of variations, including some clever adaptations that are especially handy and effective. Before we get to those, we have some basics to cover.
A traditional chuck used a geared key to tighten three jaws onto the bit it holds and that approach is still common among many drills; these are generally classified by the largest diameter drill bit the chuck can hold, generally in multiples of ¼”. Larger diameters are generally associated with more powerful motors, working in tandem to deliver more torque. The biggest problem with chucks is that the geared key frequently gets lost. Sure you can use a cord to attach it, but sooner or later most people we know have misplaced them.
In drivers, larger diameters and higher torque may work in combination with socket heads; this combination is categorized as a power wrench and is generally an impact wrench; we’ll have more about impact in a moment.
More recently, chucks that handle fixed-cross-geometry hex-shank bits became ubiquitous and there are hundreds of available variations: different screw head designs and sizes, various shank lengths, a source of shank materials, hex-shank drill bits, hex-shank nut drivers and special adaptations to tighten things like wing nuts.
There is also an even newer variation on the plain hex shank that involves a circumference groove, designed to act in tandem with a sliding chuck head to make tip exchanges faster and easier while also doing a better job of preventing tips from falling or being pulled out.
We have also seen revolver-style drivers that maintain an onboard selection of several tips as a convenience; we find these to be lighter-duty tools, better suited to simple household repair than to do-it-yourself woodworking projects.
Some drills and drivers have chucks at right angles to the tool body, or a swiveling body that offers several possible angles. These are convenient for tight places and in some cases for better ergonomic comfort.
Many drills and drivers offer multiple speeds or variable speeds, often controlled by trigger pressure. Many have front LEDs to illuminate the point of work.
Every drill or driver motor spins, but there are some power tool designs where round and round isn’t their only direction of travel.
Here’s where we get into impact drivers, impact wrenches, pulse drivers, hammer drills and SDS drivers.
Hammer drills are most often used to drill into cinder block or concrete. They add an in and out axial pulse to the spin, pushing the drill bit into the work hundreds to thousands of times per minute.
Impact drivers and impact wrenches add extra “pounding” torque in a rotational plane; we visualize hitting the far end of an open-end wrench with a hammer. It’s easy, for example, to drive in a wood screw until its head is below the surface, but you will want to practice on scrap because it’s also easy to drive it too hard and too far, splitting the wood.
Pulse drivers are a variation on impact drivers designed to generate less noise as they work.
SDS drivers (there are multiple definitions of the acronym, so we’ll stick here with SDS) combine the in and out motion of a hammer drill with the rotational kicks of an impact driver. Most allow you to switch among standard drilling, rotary hammer or chisel-only modes.
For precise, careful drilling into a variety of materials, a drill press offers a greater variety of speeds. Their adjustable work tables allow accurate control over hole depth. And some models include both work lights and targeting lasers for very accurate control over the position of the hole.
While drills spin to burrow holes into wood, routers spin to create grooves along flat surfaces or to create shapes along edges. The size and shape of the groove or the edge contour is determined by the geometry of cutting teeth on the router bit.
For those familiar with metalworking, routing is the equivalent of milling.
Router designs tend to be optimized to specialty tasks, like trim routing. Plunge routers, as the name suggests, allow grooves to start in the middle of an area by placing the router in position then applying downward pressure. Fixed base routers are often used in conjunction with guides to help patterns do more as planned, less freehand.
Planers and joiners
Your grandfather’s planer (or plane) was a flat plate from which an angled blade emerged below, with fore and aft knob handles for applying elbow grease. The power tool replacement for that comes in a variety of widths and many horsepower levels. Instead of a single blade, the flat bottom plate is interrupted by a rotating cutting drum.
Joiners are an adaptation of planers designed to even out the surfaces of two adjacent pieces of wood so that when they’re glued (or otherwise joined) the contiguous surfaces appear very much like a single piece of wood. In other words, it planes both more or less at once, and both to the same level.
Sandpaper is still the basis of sanding, but we’re past the era when your only choices are a plain sheet or a sheet wrapped around a block of scrap.
Power sanders can move in many directions. A belt sander, as the name suggests, uses a loop of sandpaper in constant linear motion; some bench sanders are essentially belt sanders turned upside down. Sheet sanders use a spiraling circular motion, called orbital, to smooth a surface more uniformly, without imposing a grain direction; ransom orbital standards add even more perturbations.
Buffers and polishers, like you might use to help your car shine, tend to see more use with metal projects but they’re still part of the woodworking power tool landscape. For either genre, the goal is shine and, by implication, the polishing of a wax or wax-like coatings.
Such coatings create a shine (read: enhanced reflective characteristics) when heat accompanied by smoothing actions cause the surface to melt and reform. Even in the age of power tools, heat is generally generated by the friction of a material (often natural wool, synthetic wool or microfiber) selected to simultaneously perform the smoothing.
Some buffers simply rotate, spinning the buffing pad or bonnet; this pattern may leave swirls that are visible when light reflects from the polished surface, which may or may not be acceptable. Orbital buffers with their complex spin and spiral patterns don’t result in such swirls.
While the mechanical drive of an oscillating multi-tool is a spinning motor, the end effect is a lateral, very high-speed jitter. An arsenal of purpose-built attachments designed for such multi-tools translates that intense vibration into useful work of various kinds, depending on the specific attachment.
Categorically, these attachments accomplish cutting, sanding, smoothing and sometimes scraping and grinding.
Handheld rotational tools (like those associated with the Dremel brand) offer extreme precision in performing fine, small-scale tasks. Attachments include tiny circular saw blades and other cutters, grinding wheels, sandpaper cylinders and discs, drill bits, router-like shaped cutters, polishers and more.
Professional framers, roofers, and others in the building trades are more likely to use powered nailers and nail guns than most do-it-yourselfers, but they may come into play for such backyard projects as decks or gazebos. Note that nail guns present some dangers if improperly used, that using them for a single small project may not cost-justify their purchase. Hammers still work, and some kinds of specialized screws may provide preferable alternatives.
You face more than a thousand choices among nail guns and powered staple guns. Their broad categories include brad nailers, finishing nailers, flooring nailers, framing nailers, palm nailers, pin nailers, roofing nailers, siding nailers, and several others. Across those categories, the tools may be corded, cordless or pneumatic.
If the range of choices seems befuddling, consider this: Few do-it-yourselfers will ever hit a high enough count of the same kind of nail for a nail gun to make sense. As said above, hammers still work.
Vacuums, blowers, lights, storage
Working with wood can make a mess. Working with too many tools and accessories can be a mess. And if you try to use tools without clearly seeing your task, you can mess up your work. While not power tools per se, some categories of related products deserve at least a brief mention.
Because woodworking and sawdust generation are inseparable, the need for a vacuum is inevitable, but the one that cleans the floors indoors or the little handheld utility vacuums are generally unworkable for all but small-project bench-top. The need for a bucket-style wet/dry vacuum will depend on personal preferences and on the volume of sawdust; be aware that transfers from these to trash bags may result in a secondary (albeit smaller) cleanup need. Canister vacuums may provide an opportunity to collect the dust in a bag and the net difficulty of a cleanup may find a sweet spot in first using a broom and dustpan to move small mounds of detritus into that trash bag before using a vacuum to get the remainder.
Blowers also play a role in clean-up, often urging debris out of places that are difficult for a vacuum to reach. Some vacuums allow reconnecting their draw hose to an exhaust connection so they can double as blowers.
Task lighting has become more varied than ever since LED brightness and power consumption have considerably improved. In addition to clamp-on, bench-top, hanging and stand-mounted work lights, many do-it-yourselfers make use of small but bright forehead-level lights on headbands.
Tool storage options include carry bags, tool boxes and rolling tool carts and represent the least-changed adjunct to a do-it-yourselfer’s tool collection.