With the world’s economy taking a nose dive in 2009, we saw a lot of things happen to the tool-making community. Many of the major manufacturers, which were pummeled by the housing market, played it safe this year. Either they held out on introducing new tools that would require a big investment in the factories, or they diverted their resources elsewhere.
However, some toolmakers, particularly individual makers, small companies and lean manufacturers, kept going. And as a result we saw the most unusual crop of new tools and machines in a long time.
Many of the machinery makers were cautious in 2009, but Grizzly Industrial and SawStop in particular still seemed to be firing on all cylinders. And their efforts definitely show in this year’s list of our 12 Best New Tools.
And on the hand-held power tool side of the market, Makita seems unstoppable when it comes to continuously refining the products in its strong areas (as least as far as woodworkers are concerned): cordless drills and miter saws.
But the big story is the number of the amazing hand tools we saw across the board in all price ranges. Check out the list. You’ll see what I mean. And if you want to see reviews of our runners-up to this list, visit our web site at popularwoodworking.com/dec09.
— Christopher Schwarz, editor
BENCHCRAFTED Tail Vise
For years we’ve watched the quality of vise hardware decline as old-school factories closed. This year we’ve had a renaissance with some new vise makers coming onto the scene, including Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.
One of the most delightful newcomers has been Benchcrafted, a small Midwestern company that makes a simply awesome tail vise. I installed the tail vise onto my workbench and was blown away by how smoothly it moves and how firmly it grabs the work. Plus, unlike a traditional tail vise, this unit won’t sag.
Everyone who visits our shop wants one. This is a lifetime vise.
BENCHCRAFTED ¦ benchcrafted.com
BLUE SPRUCE Round Mallet
Few tools in our shop get universal acclaim, but the new resin-impregnated mallet from Blue Spruce Toolworks sure comes close.
Since I purchased one of these mallets from the Oregon-based company, two of the other woodworkers in our shop followed suit.
The mallet is almost impossible to resist. It’s the perfect weight (1 lb.) and size (8 1/2″ long). It’s beautifully finished. It’s perfectly balanced. But what is really astonishing about the mallet is how it can take a beating without getting beat up.
Most wooden mallets (round or square) become dogmeat in short order – no matter what sort of wood you use. The Blue Spruce sidesteps that problem by using an acrylic-infused head. Every pore is filled with plastic, yet the mallet feels like wood to your hands and responds like wood when you hit something. That is, it doesn’t bounce like a rubber mallet.
It also has a lot of punch for a mallet of this size, though it’s definitely not a wrist breaker like a cast-iron mallet can be.
I’ve had this Blue Spruce mallet since February, have been using it just about every day and have yet to make a dent in it. It still looks as good as when I got it out of the box.
We think this plastic technology could be used in other woodworking tools. Blue Spruce already uses it in handles for bench chisels. It would be great for the handles of mortise chisels – those receive a whupping. It also could be used in the totes for saws and planes – these are notoriously fragile. How about a wooden try square made from it? (I assume the acrylic reduces or eliminates the expansion and contraction process.) Hammer handles? Stay tuned.
BLUE SPRUCE TOOLWORKS ¦ bluesprucetoolworks.com
SAWSTOP Contractor Saw
By now everyone knows about the patented and effective sawblade-stopping technology that is the heart of every SawStop machine. But what everyone doesn’t know is just how good the contractor version of this saw is.
When equipped with the company’s T-glide fence and solid cast iron wings, this is a serious woodworking saw. The fit and finish is outstanding and the guarding system is excellent (SawStop was among the first to embrace the new guards). And I don’t think we’ve ever had a contractor saw in here that was as easy to assemble.
In working with the saw, we found it to be stable and powerful – it has a 1 3/4-horsepower motor like many hybrid table saws.
If you spring for the saw, we also recommend the excellent mobile base, which lifts the saw with ease and is quite stable.
To be sure, the SawStop costs more than other contractor saws, but it’s a no-compromise machine. Not on quality. And not on safety.
SAWSTOP ¦ sawstop.com ¦ 866-729-7867
VERITAS NX60 Block Plane
Veritas has a well-earned reputation for making excellent hand tools at reasonable prices, so some people thought this Canadian company had gone off the deep end when it introduced a $279 block plane.
We, however, love the thing. It is quite possibly one of the most curvaceous and beautiful block planes I’ve ever seen. The level of fit and finish (check out the elliptical knurling) is off the charts.
And we are also wild about the nickle-resist ductile iron in the plane’s body. This makes the plane both durable and extremely corrosion resistant. And some of us like how shiny it is.
We now think that Lee Valley Tools sells the most complete range of one-handed planes, from its $39 “Little Victor” plane on up to this masterpiece of design and engineering. If you want the coolest-looking block plane in your city, call Lee Valley Tools.
VERITAS ¦ leevalley.com ¦ 800-871-8158
ECCENTRIC TOOLWORKS Backsaws
This year I picked up a dovetail saw and carcase saw that blew me away. They were, compared to peers, the first among equals.
The backsaws from Andrew Lunn’s Eccentric Toolworks are super-tuned jewels. They start more easily than any Western saw I’ve used – much like a Japanese saw. They fly through stock with ease. They are extraordinarily balanced and leave but a whisper of a kerf behind.
And on top of all that, the saws have beautiful handmade touches (such as carving on the tote) that make them as nice to look at as they are to use.
Yes, these saws cost more than your typical premium Western saw. But the Eccentric saws are a bargain when you compare them to blacksmith-made saws from Japan, and they really do cut in that league, in my opinion.
Each saw is hand sharpened, set and tuned by Lunn until he is completely satisfied with its performance. There’s a bit of a waiting list for Lunn’s saws now that the word is out. You might want to get in line now because it’s only going to get longer.
ECCENTRIC TOOLWORKS ¦ eccentricwoodcraft.com