Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Building my shop on a budget - Part 1 in a series of unknown length - My table saw and thickness planer.

Being new to woodworking means I still have plenty of tool purchases in front of me, but I have acquired many of the essentials. Having limited funds to make these purchases has forced me to be creative and to compromise. Prior to having kids and living on a single salary I would never had considered buying anything used, let alone tools, but necessity sometimes pushes you out of your comfort zone.

Make no mistake about it, if money was no object I would have gone out and bought a shop's worth of Powermatic, Festool, Leigh Neilsen and other high end goodies. However, with a little frugality, resourcefulness and acceptable compromise I have bought a table saw, band saw, router, planer, random orbit sander, shop vac and a #5 hand plane for under $800. The table saw and planer are the only tools I have bought new and the others, while used, are of good quality. In this series of blog posts I'll explain how I researched and bought each tool, the websites I used and some tips I discovered along the way.

Table Saw

When I first took interest in woodworking almost ten years ago I bought a very inexpensive table saw, but life got in the way and my pursuit of the hobby was put on hold. Fast forward to this past spring and I finally took this saw out its box and assembled it. If I had known then what I know now I wouldn't have bought it, it was just too light weight for my comfort. I started researching table saws that might be a step up from this one that wouldn't kill my wallet.

My search started at Amazon.com, my go-to site for just about any purchase. I like Amazon for two reasons. 1 - You can usually find everything sold at retail stores but for less money. 2 - The quantity and quality of their user reviews. Take their reviews with a grain of salt though. It's known that some product manufacturers will pay people to leave good reviews. At the other end of the spectrum you'll find people who had a bad customer service experience leave a bad review of the product, even though the product worked just fine, it was their buying experience that sucked. Reading Amazon's user reviews is a good way to get an overall sense of what people think as long as you can filter out what are obviously bogus reviews. Unfortunately, the saws that were available in my $200-$300 budget at Amazon were underwhelming.

Next, I went to eBay.com to check out new, old new stock and used options. The thought of buying a used power tool at auction made me a bit queasy, but I looked anyway hoping to find a gem and also to get a sense of what a fair price for a saw on the secondary market was. To do this, I found a number of saws whose asking price was in my budget and added them to my watch list. This allowed me to easily track their prices as the auctions came closer to closing. Eventually I could see a trend in used saw prices. I found that there were some decent used saws to be had for $300, but often the price of shipping was so high it made buying this way not affordable.

At the same time I kept an eye on what's available via Craigslist.com This is a great site for buying anything used, locally. It's the online version of the classifieds section of the news paper (remember those?). Craigslist is free to use, but lacking in features. Finding or listing items for sale is easy enough, but you have to check back often for new listings and if you are looking for more than one thing (I like to keep tabs on prices for multiple tools) the process of doing multiple searches every time is tedious. Add to that I live smack dab in between two cities that are available in craigslist, so I had to do multiple searches on multiple sites. Meh. RSS to the rescue. I found that using the RSS feeds for each search result let me track what's available from my feed reader, and it was updated automatically.* It turns out that there were lots of table saws (and other power tools) available in my area, but I ended up finding a new saw in my price range at Home Depot.

Ridgid R4512
Ever feel like you've been ripped off by Home Depot? Me too, but I got some of that back when I bought my Ridgid R4512. I'll explain how, but let me build up to it. I included homedepot.com and lowes.com in table saw search, mostly for comparing prices to ebay, amazon and craiglist. I'd buy from them if I could find a saw I wanted and I could get it cheaper than buying online. Table saws are heavy, so this the big box guys had a chance since I wouldn't have to pay for shipping. That's when I found the Ridgid saw. I had kinda forgotten about Ridgid since you can only buy that brand from HD, but when I found their contractor saw had a trunion mounted motor and a mobile base I looked a little deeper.

Not trusting the glowing reviews left on Home Depot's website I took to the Lumberjocks Woodworking Review site to see if anyone had anything bad to say. LJ has a loyal user base full of people who are not afraid to rip a tool for quality problems, but the Ridgid saw got a few positive reviews. Turns out this saw has a pretty happy user base of its own. Too bad it was $200 out of my budget, even though the extra money seemed worth it. Then I read it, the tip that almost feels like stealing. I did not know this, but Home Depot will honor competitor's coupons. Harbor Freight is a competitor. Harbor Freight often has 20% off coupons.  Home Depot has to honor that right? Turns out, not so much. I called my local Home Depot and they claimed to have never heard of Harbor Freight (liars) and would not honor that coupon. I called homedepot.com customer service and they don't consider HF to be a competitor (lairs x2). I called a Home Depot that's about 30 minutes from me, and about 30 seconds from a HF store and they reluctantly told me they would honor the coupon, but it could not be one printed from the web. I've never seen a HF printed ad since there aren't any stores close to where I live, but no problem, I bought two from someone on ebay. Spending $2 to save $100 was a no brainer.

That brought the saw down to $399, but still out of range. I headed back to craigslist, this time as a seller. I found the used version of my cheap saw was listed multiple times for between $75 and $150, so I put mine up for $100, along with some very clear pictures. I've sold stuff on craigstlist before and know to be specific, include good pictures and an honest description to make a quick sale to avoid a hassle afterwards. A couple of days later a new home owner who wanted to tackle hardwood flooring on his own drove away with my barely used saw and he left me with $100. I couldn't get to HD fast enough with the coupon and the cash. With a little bit of effort and plenty of reading online, that $499 saw cost me $299.

Thickness Planer


I have read a number of forum posts by new woodworkers like myself who ask which tools they should get first to starting building their shop. Plenty of people reply with short lists of tools, but in my opinion the smartest responses are by those who say to buy tools as you need them. There's no need to rush out and buy a biscuit jointer, for example, if you are not working on a project that calls for one. So I had been putting off the purchase of a planer until I wanted to do a project that required wood that I couldn't easily buy from a home center or lumber yard. Well, that time has come. My next project is going to be a table and chairs for my two pre-school aged boys.  I am going to mimic a set of table and chairs set that my wife saw online. I want to copy it as much as possible, right down to the wood species which is birch. Birch is not sold in any lumber yard close by, so I'll be looking to a hardwood dealer who will most likely have rough lumber or S2S in a thickness that doesn't match my plans. Enter the planer.

Ryobi AP1301
I again started my search at Amazon and found that I was only going to be able to afford the cheapest of portable planers, which are under $300. And they all seemed to stink in terms of their reviews. I next went to Fine Woodworking's tool review site and found a portable planer review from a year or two ago that reviews a number of models. While the $500+ DeWalt and Makita planers earned the highest marks, a lowly Ryobi planer was named as the best over all value. Home Depot doesn't have any ads on FWW's website, so I thought maybe there's something to this review. I next looked at the LJ reviews, which are also favorable. The common statements were that this a good machine for the home hobbyist, but probably wouldn't stand up to the daily use of a pro shop. Well, pro shop I am not and short on funds I am, so the $229 Ryobi AP1301 was bought online. This planer is not sold in stores, at least not in any within 50 miles of me, so I wasn't able to use my other HF coupon, but the price literally can't be beat, especially for a new 13" planer. I considered buying a used planer, but I was wary of the wear and tear a used machine would have. And still, at this price I am getting a new machine for not much more than a quality used one.

So there's $528 spent and I've got two of the bigger purchases done. While I haven't yet used the planer (soon!) I don't think I am going to regret buying this model based on what I have read online. The next post in this series will be about how I got the router and random orbit sander. I bought them together from a source I though I would have never used. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading!

* I started to write instructions on how to use RSS feeds from Craiglist in Google Reader, but that's a lot of typing. The process isn't difficult but I like to provide as much simple detail as I can when I create instructions, which I do often in my day job. That's more work than you might think and this blog gets a whopping 4 readers per day on average. Contact me via Google+, Twitter or leave a comment if you'd like instructions. If there's enough interest I'll whip up some complete instructions with some pretty pictures.