Power Tools in the Shop
There are 2 classes of power tools commonly found in the shop, hand held and stationary. Some of them come in electric, gas powered, and air driven models. With the exception of the chainsaw, the gas driven types are generally not used much by luthiers. Ive been asked by many people over the years which power tools are the most important to purchase. This is open for debate, but here are my views.
Handheld Power Tools
For basic beginning luthiery, the electric drill/driver is the most useful handheld power tool in the shop. Cordless versions are more convenient than plug in ones. Besides actual drilling it is very useful as a driver for one of mans greatest inventions, the drywall screw. This tool is used for drilling and screwing in jig making, drilling holes for positioning pins during glue up procedures, making holes for pickup installations, and a myriad of other uses. If you buy a cordless model, go for one that comes with a charger, an extra battery, and has a high voltage rating. Generally the higher the voltage the heavier the tool, but there is a huge difference in the strength and battery life of low and high voltage models.
Possibly the most talked about hand held power tool in luthiery is the Dremel tool. While it is very poorly constructed, it is still finds a great many uses around the shop. Dremel tools are commonly used for routing inlay cavities, making soundhole rosettes, various kinds of brace trimming, sharpening bandsaw blades, sanding, shaping, and many other abrasive cutting activities. Its worst use is for cutting binding ledges. This operation should be carried out with a more powerful router such as a laminate trimmer. Whenever possible a larger more stable router should be used in place of the Dremel. You will get much cleaner cuts with larger routers. A Foredom flexible shaft driven type of tool is also a step up from the Dremel, having more power and stability.
Electric random orbit sanders are widely used in luthiery. They are not all created equal and cost does not always tell the whole story! When purchasing these units, look carefully at the ergonomics of the tool. Many of them are very top heavy and difficult to hold. And, while dust collection seems desirable, most units have very awkward systems that only get in the way. You will spend a great deal of time using this tool, so you want one that is comfortable. I will talk more about sanders in the section on air compressors.
Routers of various sizes are also found in almost every luthiery shop. A good laminate trimmer, with a tilting base and adjustable bearing foot is very useful. I prefer the one made by Hitachi, which costs about $100.00. The usefulness of a router depends a lot on your inventiveness in making jigs. Besides the normally thought of uses, some people even use them for joinery, though other tools are better for that. I still remember getting my first router and thinking I could just start carving out wood with it. You need to have jigs or guides! As far as machine quality goes, even cheap routers will do most jobs adequately if they have enough power. For some operations it is just as well to buy Sears routers (which I consider to be disposable routers) set them up with the proper jigging and only use them for one specific job. What kind of bit you use, and the direction of feed, is extremely important in routing. I still prefer to use high speed steel (HSS) bits for most light operations. Whenever possible, use ½ shaft bits for heavy cuts like blind dovetails. For heavy routing I like solid carbide bits if I can get them. Bit life is much longer with larger bits and the cuts are considerably cleaner. Probably the biggest mistake people make with routers is using dull bits. I know they are expensive, but you have to throw them away eventually, better sooner than later!
Stationery Power Tools
Stationery power tools are great assets to builders. There is a wide variety of them and if you have a barn and a lot of money youll find yourself filling it with these tools. Many of them are deceiving though and some building operations can be done better and just as fast by hand. The trouble with stationery power tools is that they require a lot of care and operator expertise to do their job well.
The bandsaw is the primary stationery power tool of the luthier. It is one of the few tools that I could not imagine myself being without. It is necessary for any resawing, though you can do minimal wasteful resawing with a tablesaw and handsaw used in combination. It is also most essential for making jigs and molds. It is fairly true that you get what you pay for, but almost any of the 14 and up saws on the market are serviceable for luthiery needs. Saws smaller than 14 are of questionable value. Dont waste your money on expensive guide upgrades to the smaller saws. They dont improve them much. For serious resawing of expensive wood, find someone with a fairly good size powerful bandsaw.
Next to the bandsaw, a second stationery tool that is really important is some kind of thickness sander. It does not have to be anything expensive or fancy. Though I have a commercial wide belt sander now, I still have a version of my old thickness sander that uses a PVC pipe for the drum and a car jack to raise the table. I use it almost everyday. If you are not in a production situation you can make a very simple sander that will allow you to make most of your parts accurately.
Close behind these 2 tools comes the drill press. While you can live without it, it will greatly improve the quality and accuracy of your work. You can use it for drilling, polishing, rosette cutting, and sanding/shaping. Since you will find yourself using this tool in jig making, which sometimes requires metal drilling, get one that will allow speeds down into the 300-400 RPM range at least. Most of my wood drilling I do in the 1000- 1300 RPM range.
If you have the room, both an edge sander and a disc sander are great tools. You can shape bracing on the flat surface as well as the drums of an edge sander. If you get a disc sander it needs to have at least a 12 disc. Grizzly sells a cheap one that works well. Dust is difficult to control on both of these tools though and collection can be difficult.
After these tools, the only one I consider essential is the air compressor. With the advent of HVLP spray units, the compressor is no longer really needed for spraying finishes, but if you are in a situation where your neighbors give you a little room, try to get a compressor that is big enough to run an air sander. It is commonly believed by people that the electric random orbit sander is great sanding tool, that is, until they have tried an air driven sander. While I am not inclined to recommend brands, in this case a Dynabrade brand sander is the ONLY kind to buy. All other sanders trail off into the dust behind these babies. Sanding is still drudgery no matter how you look at it, but air sanders will cut your time by at least half.
Besides these tools, the rest are just icing on the cake. If you have the room and can afford them, tablesaws, jointers, and oscillating spindle sanders are all useful. They make your job easier, but you can live without them. Probably the most over bought tool is the jointer. It does not do what you think it will do unless it is a well made, extremely sharp, properly aligned and well maintained. In working with wild woods like koa, even a great jointer can be useless. Hand joinery is far more functional for small operations. Cheap underpowered tablesaws should also be overlooked. Lack of power can be a problem in these tools, causing them to stall during cuts leaving the operator in dangerous situations.
While I also consider dust collectors essential for health purposes, they are a whole subject in themselves. A pretty good system can be constructed at a moderate cost and it is worth your looking into.
In my next column I will discuss hand tool use.