Pick Your Poison. (Or: Is the Price Worth it for Tools You Don’t Feel Passionate About?)
I prefer working with hand tools as much as I can. I find them much quieter, safer and more fulfilling than machines. I believe that only when using a hand tool can one become intimate with the essence of woodworking — sensing wood’s density, manipulating its grain, listening to its whispering sound when layers of shavings are carefully peeled off under the sharp edge of a handplane.
Don’t get me wrong, I could not succeed in my line of woodworking without the assistance of machines, yet planes, chisels and handsaws are more dear to my heart, hand and yes…my pocket. When I build my cutting boards, I rely on stationery tools to mill, cut to size, groove and drill my design. But I also find that there are cases when a handplane is indispensable for surfacing boards with capricious grain or for chamfering corners. With a small block plane I can chamfer the corner of the boards fast and efficiently, and because I like to use my planes, there is no reason to set up the router table with a 45° router bit to do the same job with more noise. Furthermore, a sharp top-notch block plane will allow you to cut with the grain in almost every grain configuration, whereas a router table setup might not.
While I feel reverence for most of my hand tools, and I acknowledge the indispensable contribution of the big electrical helpers for rapid manipulation of wood, I feel quite indifferent when approaching the dusty realm of sanding. I have no passion for sanding and no fetish toward the tools that I use.
My approach is boring and utilitarian: I wish to pay the least for the tool that will last the longest time without falling apart. I learned from experience that even tools that carry the hallmark of fancy brands may only last just a few months of intensive sanding work, so it just doesn’t make any sense to buy them when you have a cheap alternative at half the cost.
This is why I bought my Harbor Freight orbital sander. The tool is so cheap that even if it falls apart in half the time that say a DeWalt sander will, it will still be cost-effective. The only thing that bothered me was that once this tool met its maker (unfortunately most of our cheap electric tools these days are impossible or impractical to maintain) I would be responsible for yet another blob of plastics and metal parts that ends up in the landfill (yes I am that kind of a guy who cares for my environmental footprint). However, my initial trepidation had gradually subsided the longer I used this sander. After two years of routine use, though not “industrial” use, I can say that the sander has paid for itself a few times. It is still going strong and except for its inadequate dust-collecting bag (which is why if the weather is good I prefer sanding outside), it does its job probably as well as any top-notch brands out there.
While I don’t anticipate any major change in my attitude toward sanding, there is always the possibility that sometime down the road things will change, perhaps I might even meet “the right tool” that will scratch my heart. Do I hear a Festool whispering in my ear?
It doesn’t matter which brand of table saw you use, you need to know how to perform maintenance and use it properly. Check out “Power Tool Essentials: The Table Saw” at shopwoodworking.com.