A happy holiday season to you!
For years, Popular Woodworking and other magazines have published lists of various authors’ favorite tools. I always look through these lists carefully because what’s in them is thoughtfully chosen. They’re not tool reviews but an author’s favorites tools. They’re the author’s choices for day-to-day use and come with the vote of the author’s own investment.
For some, the choices are made based on exposure to different tools through reviews. For others, who are full-time professional woodworkers, the choices are based on day-in and day-out use. I fall into the later category.
Objective tool reviews are important to readers, obviously, but personal tool choices can be subjective in a good way. It’s about use, function, and design. So, it’s always good to pay attention. Think of them as personal recommendations based on direct experience and the passage of time.
So, after years of being the personal tool shopper for many friends’ wives, this year I put together my own list of tools that I really like using, trust and recommend. And, for what it’s worth, ask anyone who knows me and they’ll will tell you that I’m very picky about my tools.
This year’s list, will not include my favorite woodworking-specific hand tools like chisels, planes, etc. Chris Schwarz and others have offered excellent suggestions over the years, so there’s no reason for me to repeat, particularly since we probably agree on many of the choices.
If you decide to add any these tools to your Xmas list, for convenience I’ve included links. These are non-affiliate links and there is no compensation. They’re just links I could quickly find. As always, by using the Google machine, you can find other sources for these tools, so look around. And, don’t forget to always start shopping with choice number one: buy local whenever possible.
This year, my tool lists focus on the key supporting players that help deliver precision, function and efficiency to every kind of woodworking. If you use hand tools, machine tools or digital tools, it doesn’t matter. The list is for you. These tools are sure to be helpful in your hobby or work. The list in this post are tools under $50. Mostly. The second list of tools in the next post, will go past that limit, sometimes way past. Not exactly stocking stuffers perhaps, but maybe tools to dream about. Think visions of the Daisy Red Ryder Range Model BB gun with a compass in the stock dancing in your head. Let’s get started…
Under $50 Tool List
Box of 96 is $9.96
Never underestimate the value of a simple tool
What can I say? I’m very picky about my pencils. As a career furniture maker, I believe the classic yellow Ticonderoga #2HBs pencils are the best. And, if you add the Pink Pearl Arrowhead erasers tips, that makes them even better.
I believe in these so much that I give them to every student whenever I teach classes. Why classic wood pencils and not mechanical? Two reasons: Any student that whips out a mechanical pencil to draw lines on wood is damaging and indenting it. The lead in mechanical pencils is too hard, too thin and you press harder to make a visible dent in the wood. These lines show up on finishing even after you erase them.
Besides softer lead, a Ticonderoga has the benefit of having a variable lead width depending on how you sharpen it. It’s sharp when you need it and not-so-sharp when you don’t. When tracing a pattern, for example, I go for a wider line that sits a little outside the edge of the pattern. This pays off for rough-cutting on a bandsaw where a little extra room might keep you out of trouble when cutting. And, it’ll leave you with the just the right amount of excess (1/16”- 3/32”) to shape to your pattern on a shaper or router table.
Pink Pearl Erasers. I’ve tried substitutes, but always go back to the original. Woodworkers make layout mistakes all the time and need to erase often. The eraser tips on yellow pencils just don’t cut it. Generously erase errant lines with something big and soft.
You’re first grade teacher was right. Ticonderogas #2HB’s and Pink Pearls. Go with yellow and pink and you go with the best.
Box of 144 is $7.07
If you’ve got pencils you need to sharpen them, right? For your shop, this sharpener should look familiar. It’s back to school time…
Wall Mount $8.95
For handheld sharpening these are artists’ long time favorites. For long points, the shaft and lead are sharpened separtely to get you the point really want.
If you’re a woodworker you need a sketch book. You can draw on anything, of course, but there’s something about a real sketchbook that demands attention, respect and constant feeding. A sketchbook is the place to go when you’re short on new ideas. Often, there’s something inside that will trigger a fresh, new solution. Think of sketchbook as a savings account. Make regular deposits and the miracle of compound interest will make you a better designer.
As to which sketchbook to get, it doesn’t really matter, just get one. Any artist sketchbook designed for drawing in pencil and pen is the place to start. My larger books all have Wire-O binding so pages can be flipped over to the backside, but the ones I carry around all the time are these horizontal format, 1/2 sheet, hard bound, Cottonwood Arts Designer Sketchbooks. I love them. Cottonwood is a small company run by artists that specializes in sketchbooks and drawing pads and every detail is first rate. And, thanks to my generous wife, I always have a supply at hand. Want to get out of the habit of just copying and building other people’s designs? It all begins with the ideas you put inside a sketchbook.
Every woodworker needs a few general-purpose hand tools in their shop. When it comes to screwdrivers, most use whatever cheap screw drivers they have around. Some have very nice wood-handled woodworker sets. As a lifelong car guy, I take another approach. My favorite screw drivers are the Facom screwdriver set preferred by Formula 1 racing teams. Years ago, I received a set as a gift. Thank you Bill! They’re perfection to hold and use.
But, when you’re in a hurry a handy flat head or Phillips screw driver that you can grab and take to offending loose screw without digging through a set of 10 screw drivers is most often all you need. So, keep it simple, but don’t go cheap. These Vessel screwdrivers, used by Japanese motorcycle racing teams excel at this task. Unlike lesser screwdrivers, Vessels are special and exceptionally well made.
This model features a compact, soft, ball-head base with extremely hard steel reversible shaft bits. The exceptional ergonomics offer a soft touch that makes delivering a gentle tweak or heavy-duty twist a cinch. In my shop, one is always nearby to readily grab and go. Comes with three reversible bits, but unless you’re wrenching motorcycles you won’t need the one with Pozi bits. Great tool.
I love these little bars. I’ve used them for years during furniture assembly and for removing parts from jigs on a CNC. Amazes me how often I use it. What makes these tools special is the thin, tempered edge. Thin makes all the difference. Good tool.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference in the woodworking experience. I remember working on an order for 28 chairs years ago — my biggest run to date. I was getting terribly bored running boards for days at a time through the little desktop planer I had at the time and the endless sanding. Then I happen to run across a set of protective earphones with a AM/FM radio. What a revelation! This simple safety tool made the boring, yet safe tasks in woodworking go so much faster if I played some good music. It was by far, the best money I spent up to that point on a woodworking tool.
I’ve owned several different sets over the years, and now you can get them with bluetooth so they can connect to your cell phone. Very sweet. But, they can be a disctraction when there’s danger nearby and there’s lots of that around in woodworking. The rule in my shop is if there are any kind of cutting tools involved, or you’re fingers are going to near something dangerous, no tunes! Only turn on music for the safe and boring stuff, like long sanding sessions, etc. A handy link is below but if you happen to be a Costco member right now, check the tool section for a great deal.
Proper wrenches for your CNC
Search eBay for the wrenches that are an exact fit
ER-20 wrench $7.36
ER-16 wrench $6.49
Thin Hydraulic Wrenches for the spindle shaft
Other than a few CNC owners, I’ve never seen one that uses the proper wrenches for changing bits on their spindles. Out comes giant Crescent wrenches and the way-too-big mechanics wrench, every time. Great way to ruin a collet or over tighten the nut. What they’re missing is the pleasure of using tools designed specifically for the task.
For the collet specific wrench, look to eBay and search for your specific collet. In my case, two of my CNCs use ER-20 collets. For smaller spindles, it’s likely you need a ER-16. If your CNC uses a router, use the supplied wrench.
For the spindle shaft, a regular open wrench is usually too thick for the narrow opening. Best solution is to buy a hydraulic wrench which is thinner. If you look around you can find them with one end that’s has a more extreme angle than mechanics wrenches. That’s a good thing. Makes the job easier. My 2.2Kw spindles need 21mm. Check your own spindle for the correct sizes. Put those giant wrenches away! Life is good when you use the right tools.
Other sizes and formats available. This bright yellow, dual-format one works for me.
Tajimas are excellent tape measures in every way. Always accurate and consistent from tape to tape. Only Fisco Class One tapes from the UK come close. Tajima tape measures all have a bump stop to softening the rewind that keep the tape from stretching. They are extemely readable.
When it comes to tapes, it’s always best to buy them in sets, so tell Santa an extra would be nice. Mark and date them and check for accuracy once a year against your best ruler. And, while you’re at the Hida Tool website look around for other great Japanses woodworking tools. Lots of great things to dream about.
Even if you’re woodworking in a Imperial world, sooner or later you’re going to need a metric ruler in your life. This is well-made, thin, light and inexpensive. The 300mm (about 12”) Shinwa ruler fills that role, nicely.
PEC cosmetic second 18” – 24” machinist ruler, 5R format
$26.99 – $32.99
High quality rulers at a bargain price, particularly if you buy a cosmetic blem. Precision Equipment Corporation rulers are available in 4R, 16R and Metric formats. At the 18”or 24” lengths I use most often, I prefer a thick ruler that’s designed to fit in Starrett adjustable squares, though I rarely use them that way. I just like the thickness and weight.
One lives in my apron pocket right next to my pencils. 5R means inch fractions on one side and decimal inches on the other. Perfect combination for analog and digital woodworking. These are rulers that frequently get abused. The deep etched stainless steel version will take more damage then nicer satin finish rulers. Available in 4R format, as well.
I’ve tested a number of digital calipers in the last few years and found some great ones. This is the one I use every day to check board thickness on my planer and sander or to dial in CNC cuts. I love it’s large display, simple operation, accuracy, reliability and super low price. Most cheap digital calipers are terrible and consume batteries at an alarming rate —this one does not. Even comes with a data cable so you can input measurements right into you CAD drawings. Great tool at a bargain price.
Starrett 10H-6-4R Cast Iron Square Head Combination Square, 4R Graduation, 6″ Size
Okay, we’ve just stepped over the $50 line. But, it’s worth it. I love this tool. It’s used on every job. The Starrett lives in my apron pocket and if it’s not there I begin to panic. Mine is 20+ years old, still true and going strong. Available in several versions and also as a double square if that’s your preference. I prefer 4R format with a black wrinkled finished head and a satin finish ruler. A lifetime tool and worth every penny. PEC offers a close second with blems available at a bargain price.
Coming up next, tools over $50 worth dreaming about.
Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.