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    Woodworking Wisdom I Wish I'd Known Sooner No 3: Stationary Power Tools

    Hey Everyone. 

    I thought this time I'd give you my 2c worth on stationary power tools.  

    On the one hand they are big, bulky, noisy, expensive, dust producing, finger removing behemoths.  On the other hand, they totally rock.  Why?  Because they allow the novice woodworker like you and me a degree of accuracy that we simply could not achieve without them. 

    My goal in the shop is to build furniture with wow factor, furniture with so much wow factor that people are astonished to find that I built it with my own hands in my own little basement workshop.  But I’ll tell you friends and neighbors, without stationary power tools my chances of pulling that off is less than none at all. 

    Right now I can take a piece (or two) of rough sawn stock straight from the lumber yard and convert it into four virtually identical table leg blanks in a couple of hours.  Without my jointer, planer and table saw?  I’d still be working on them this time next year.  Because that is the other thing that stationary power tools bring to the party – speed; and while I’d always encourage people to take their time and not rush things in the shop, speed can be useful.  My current project for example, is an oak library table that I started back in December.  It’s now nearly the end of June and I’m about half done.  And that’s with the stationary power tools!

    So stationary power tools do provide the new woodworker some real advantages, but as always there is a minefield of conflicting information out there about what you need to buy.  Here’s my 2c worth:

    The big three are, in my opinion, the table saw, the jointer and the planer (in my case I have this Axminster 10” jointer / planer combo machine, so I guess that makes it a big two, but for the sake of clarity I’ll treat them as separate machines.)

    The Table Saw.  This is likely to be the heart of your shop and the machine you’ll use most frequently.  I’d recommend that you get a 10” model (that’s the diameter of the blade) with at least a 1¾ HP motor.  Other things to look for are an adjustable fence, a riving knife, a good quality miter gauge and a cast iron table. Make sure it can take a dado stack – not all saws can. A model designated as a ‘contractor’ saw is probably a good bet and I’d avoid smaller (8”) saws and ‘bench top’ saws.

    My first table saw had almost none of the above features (an 8” bench top that was under powered, had a cheap, nonadjustable fence and that could not take a dado stack!) and it was a really bad buy.

    There’s a ton of information out there on how to tune up your saw, so I’d really suggest you do some research and set it up properly.  One thing I can practically guarantee is that right out of the box it won’t be that accurate.  You’ll need to make sure the blade is parallel to the miter slots, that the blade is at 90° to the table, that the fence is parallel to the blade and that the drive belt is aligned to the pulley.  I’d also recommend you give the table a good coat of paste wax (and renew it regularly).

    Since I bought my saw (the second, good one!) I realize that although I consider it indispensible, it only actually runs on average for about 20 minutes a week.  That makes me think that there might well be a fair few older, second hand units out there that despite their age have done very little real work.  Worth investigating anyway.

    Oh, and one last tip – for some reason the saw manufactures always seem to ship their saws with lousy blades.  Do yourself a favor and invest in a really good one.  Personally I like CMT blades, but there are lots of good ones to choose from.  A 40 tooth combination blade is a good starting point.

    The Jointer.  When you are milling lumber, the first thing you need to do is give the board a flat, straight face.  This can then be used as a reference when milling the other faces.  We use the jointer to flatten one side of a board and then to get its adjacent edge at right angles to it.  Once we know we have 2 flat sides that are at 90 degrees to each other, we can easily flatten and square up the other two faces.

    Jointers are generally classified by their width, and the first piece of advice I’d offer is to get the widest one you can – 6” at a minimum, but 8” + if you can afford it.  Other critical factors are the length and the quality of the fence.  I’d suggest that you should consider 48” (about 1.2m) the shortest acceptable length and make sure it comes with a good quality, preferably cast iron fence.

    Final Tips: Firstly, have you blades professionally sharpened (and have a spare set to hand) and secondly, learn how to set up your jointer properly before you use it.

    The Planner.  The planner is the Jointers little brother and is the tool we use to get a board to final thickness (in Europe it’s often called a thicknesser) and to ensure that the faces of the board are parallel to each other.  Once again the width is probably the critical factor, but fortunately 13” bench top machines are commonplace and this is ample for most home workshops.  As always, quality is of paramount importance as a cheap planer will give you endless problems – boards that aren’t square, lots of tear out, snipe at the end of the boards, and roller marks on the finished surface.  A good one on the other hand will give you nice square boards and a finish that will need a minimum of sanding. 

    Final tips on planers:  A cast iron bed is not essential, but is great if you can get one and good sharp blades are essential.

    Happy woodworking!