In between stationary power tools and the classic hand tools that date back to our ancestors, we have power hand tools that we reach for at an ever-increasing rate. There’s a lot to cover in this group so I’m going to dive right in.
The first portable power tool that most woodworkers encounter is a drill, and today, that is likely to be cordless. For most woodworkers, a 3/8” variable speed reversing cordless drill is a shop staple that will soon feel like an extension of your arm. These tools are used for spinning screws into your project as often or perhaps more often than they are for drilling holes. The other two important features found on most of the popular drills are a keyless chuck and a variable torque setting. Variable speed lets you start slow, and prevent skating all over the piece; variable torque lets the drill stop before twisting the head off a fastener. While it might be tempting to buy these tools from a mail order source, if it’s your first drill, spend a few dollars more and go to a place where you can hold several different brands. This tool will spend its working life in your dominant hand – make sure it’s a perfect fit.
After a drill, and by ‘after’ I mean “the next place you should stop your cart,” you’re going to want a router. Eventually, you will own more than one router, unless you decide that you don’t like woodworking. There are two schools of thought here: 1) buy the least expensive router that will let you do everything you need to do and buy specialty models later. 2) Buy a powerful, expensive plunge router now and back your way down through lighter weight routers later. I would go with the first option, because you use a router often, and plunge routers are heavy. A 1½ hp router with a ½” collet will let you take care of most fabrication and detailing tasks in your shop. Also, when you buy that 3½ hp plunge router, the 1½ hp model can be left permanently under the router table you will have bought or built by then.
There are two or three essential power saws. It’s two or three because the third is essential only if you plan to remodel your home in order to install or make room for more of your woodworking projects. The first saw is what some of us older woodworkers still refer to as a “Skill Saw.” I’m talking about the 7½” portable circular saw that you need to have in your shop. I don’t have many requirements for this tool, but since I use mine mainly to cut sheet goods down to size, I’d opt for one that will hook into or rest against a guide system easily. A jig saw is also essential, and it’s where you have to start matching your needs to your budget. If you plan to do the type of woodworking that will involve a jig saw often, look for variable speed, variable orbital action and blades that are easy to buy in a crisis. If the saw you choose uses proprietary blades, make sure you always have ready access to a good selection and buy them in packs of five. If you do plan to tackle home renovation jobs, buy the third saw, a decent quality reciprocating saw. You will never use this for woodworking, but it’s essential for removing walls, door frames and other obstacles to installation.
The last tool(s) in the essential category are sanders. I would suggest a good belt sander and a good random orbit sander. Like all the essential tools, remember that you are going to use these tools often and forever, so buy the best you can. I was fortunate enough to receive a Porter Cable palm sander (predecessor to this) as a gift from my father in the early 80’s, and it still works. Whether you go for a random-orbit disk or pad sander is your choice, but make it carefully; they each have limitations, they feel different (one vs. mostly two-hand operation). Disk sanders work faster but buying disks can be more expensive than cutting sandpaper sheets, especially when you need an odd grit.
Other than drills, I would opt for corded varieties of all of these tools. You can buy cordless, but unless you need that, it’s not worth it and I guarantee that the tool will outlast the availability of batteries. I would also avoid the 92-part kits that run off of the same battery. Until someone promises in writing to a Congressional committee to always make batteries that will fit that series, I’m not interested.
OK fellow woodworkers, what’s your favorite power hand tool.