Living Cheaply, Part 2 – Inexpensive Hobbies Start with Tools

Tools and lumber are the next areas to focus on for “Living Cheaply” – my short series on how to make woodworking one of your more inexpensive hobbies. There is no better way to live cheaply than to make things yourself. My theory is that productive hobbies like woodworking should not become expenses that take away from your enjoyment and your ability to share with others.

Tools – Quality is Cheaper in the Long Run, but Sometimes Cheap Lasts a Long Time Too

In the tool world, the basic rule is that quality is expensive. As it should be. Toolmakers worth their salt are performing the same economic function as highly skilled professional woodworkers. They are putting lots of time and energy into creating something useful that will last for generations. So in general, it is cheaper in the long run to buy high-quality tools and take good care of them. Buying lots of terrible tools is one way inexpensive hobbies quickly become expensive ones.

The problem is that you’re not necessarily able to follow that long-run advice all the time – especially not if you are just getting started. You don’t always know which tools you’ll really get the most use out of over the course of many years.

Rather than a cut-and-dry tool list or overly simplified rules, I try to follow an overarching and easy-to-remember strategy in my own tool-buying. It works for me and it should work for you. As always, the key is to be flexible in your approach, use your instincts and practice creative problem solving.

1) Once you’ve determined that you actually need a new tool for a particular job – which is not always the case, as many project plans can be modified to suit your existing kit – try searching the used tool market with an eye for tools that can be rehabilitated easily. Fifteen minutes of web searching should answer both of those questions for you – availability of the tool and ease of rehab.

Don't make an inexpensive hobby expensive by buying bad tools, but do know when cheap tools are actually a good option.

Don’t make an inexpensive hobby expensive by buying bad tools, but do know when cheap tools are actually a good option.

2) If you decide you need to go straight to the new tools market, determine whether this might be a case for a truly cheap tool. Cheap tools that last a long time do exist, even though they are the exception to the “quality” rule. One example is the Stanley crosscut handsaw (called “SharpTooth”) that you see at every home center. It’s a perfectly good tool, and it costs $10-$15. Another one I have recently discovered in the handsaw world is the Gyokucho double-sided pull saw. I paid around $45 for my 270mm model, and it has the makings of a tool I will use well for many years.

3) If you can’t go used and you can’t go super-cheap, go expensive and super-high quality. But delay the purchase as long as possible and look for a sale. By delaying, you give yourself one last period of time to work with what you’ve already got and see if you can still get away without a big purchase. And by looking for a sale, you obviously save a bit.

Be sure to sign up for our e-mail newsletter and keep yourself on all the lists we mail to, including our advertising partners, in order to take advantage of advice and deals for used and new tools.

This DVD is also a great resource on tool basics.

Lumber – Buy it Rough, or Go With Free Stuff

You are a woodworker, aren’t you? Not only is it more satisfying to work with rough lumber, but you’ll also save up to 50% on this portion of your materials budget. You can save up to 100% by salvaging material, and here again you get the satisfaction of really working with the basic building blocks of the craft.

I asked our Facebook fans how they save on lumber, and these were two of the many helpful replies.

roughlumber

scrapmaterial

Inexpensive Hobbies Should Include Woodworking

I’ll be working up the last post in this series soon, on other materials and obtaining information. In the meantime, tell us! How are you working to make this craft one of the more inexpensive hobbies, while still enjoying every minute?

Dan Farnbach

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Woodworking Daily
Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

8 thoughts on “Living Cheaply, Part 2 – Inexpensive Hobbies Start with Tools

  1. Kilmakaloo

    I appreciate the article, Dan. I followed a similar two-step plan as I established by collection of tools.
    STEP 1: Buy cheap first.
    STEP 2: If I use the tool enough that it breaks, then I invest in a high-quality replacement.
    This system helped me understand which tools I use most often, and to route the money I spend to the tools that make the biggest impact on my work.

  2. hhalka

    Love this series Dan. I would be interested in a revisit a few years down the road. I have found that something that I thought was essential, is not necessarily so. The good news is, that as you save for the next tool, you have time to contemplate other needs, and you prioritize things differently. My priorities now are different than they were a year ago when I first started accumulating for my shop. I think the two most indispensable things for me, however, are a table saw and sturdy work bench with a means to clamp things.

    Don’t forget to include garage sales!!! My wife loves to garage sale, and she has found a few gems for me at pennies on the dollar.

    You may also want to mention something about essential skills for keeping things cheap, like sharpening saws, chisels, and planes. You already mentioned making tools and rehabbing old tools. Ice storms are an opportunity for woodworkers. Fallen treess may be yours for the taking, check with the owner or tree service of course.

    You’re doing great Dan, keep em coming!

  3. tsstahl

    A strategy I wish I could use more often is borrowing. I don’t mean ‘borrowing’ where you never intend to give it back. I mean asking a fellow woodworker if she/he can show you how they use the tool and let you use it for whatever process requires it.

    I particularly like the Lie-Nielsen hand tool events because you can get straight answers on suitability of tool to the task. I hold off as much as possible purchasing high end tools until a Lie-Nielsen event passes by Chicago.

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