Saturday, March 16, 2013

Shop Essentials

A friend of mine is building a treehouse for his kids, and it got me thinking about how I'd outfit an empty garage for that kind of work.

These are the basic ingredients I had in my shop around the time I started to find that I could build big wood projects start to finish without a trip to the hardware store.  It's a real milestone that feels great.

In each category, I've listed the most important items first.  I have a home depot nearby, so I've linked to the brands and items I prefer.  Lowe's has comparable stuff in general.


  • at least 20 8 foot 2x4s (Kiln Dried, not green), should be about $2/each.  Try to pick straight-ish ones, but no 2x4 is ever going to be perfectly straight or flat.  (Pretty much every other piece of dimensional lumber in the store is going to be green (look it up) except maybe some of the redwood, which is why the KD 8' studs are my go-to building block.
  • at least 5 sheets 3/4" cheap birch cabinet plywood or outdoor/marine-rated plywood (get it somewhere like Macbeath rather than a big box store:  Should cost about $30/sheet)
  • at least 5 sheets 1/4" melamine-backed MDF (should be about $30/sheet).  Watch out, the melamine edges are very sharp.  Knock down edges quickly with sandpaper
  • A 6-foot or so piece of ~1/8" thick 1" angle iron can be handy; it's super strong.  Hard to work with.  Cut with sawzall or hack saw, shape with angle grinder


  • 5lb box of 1 1/4" screws.  Use with plywood
  • 5lb box of 2 1/2" screws.  Use with 2x4s
  • 1lb box each of 3/4", 1", 1-5/8", 2", 3", 4", 5" screws

Get an organizer box like this and fill it with 1/4"x20tpi zinc-coated hardware.  This will cover all your bolt+nut needs.  Get boxes of ~100 each of these (50 or 25 for the longer bolts):

  • 2 boxes nuts
  • 2 boxes washers
  • 1 box of wing nuts
  • 1 box each hex bolts (aka hex cap screws) in 1/4-20 thread: 1 3/4", 2", 2.5", 3", 3.5", 4", 5" length
A drywall anchor assortment can also be handy for indoor handyman stuff.  Studfinders mostly suck; mostly I slide a little neodymium magnet up and down the wall until it sticks to a drywall screw.
A few feet of threaded rod (1/4-20, maybe something thicker (but then get nuts too)) is also handy.

Finishes and adhesives:
  • 1 gallon white primer (eg., kilz)
  • 1 gallon white water based latex paint
  • 1 gallon water based polyurethane, semi-gloss
  • 1.5" and 3" brush, pan
  • Cheap spray paint.  One can each: clear, white, black, grey primer.  
  • Titebond glue.  I mostly use original titebond, but there's Titebond II if you need waterproof.  Get one each of the 16 ounce bottles.
  • Twin tube 5-minute epoxy.  Also get a twin tube of regular epoxy.  JB Weld is handy too.  CA glue (aka krazy glue) also has its uses.  A small container of gorilla glue might also be useful, but watch out, it expands as it dries.  Research and experiment to get a feel for what kind of glue to use when.
  • Get a box of disposable nitrile exam gloves, use when gluing or painting or working on cars.
  • 8 12" 1-handed bar clamps.  They're stinking expensive, but very useful.  
  • 2-4 each of 18" and longer clamps.
Hand tools
  • 25' tape measure
  • Get a big cheap screwdriver set.  Also good to get a handful of ordinary #2 phillips screwdrivers.
  • To go with your machine screws, get a set of open-ended wrenches and a socket set.  Don't have to go crazy; cheap stuff is okay here.
  • A reasonable set of drill bits.  You don't have to go crazy on this.  A big cheap Ryobi assortment is probably fine.  Spade bits or hole saws are good.  Be sure to get a countersink or two.
  • 3 cheap box cutters
  • Japanese pull saw.  Most hand saws suck compared to this one.  I use it for everything.  Take a few hours and learn how to keep hand saws from catching and wandering.  Cutting with a hand saw is way more pleasant than using power tools.
  • Any old cheapish coping saw.  Again, get over the learning curve and you'll see how easy and pleasant it is to cut curves.
  • Automatic punch.  Keeps your drill bits from wandering when you go to drill.  Regular center punch is also fine for wood
  • Tri-square - most come with a scriber pin, more accurate than a pencil for marking your cut.  By far my most used layout tool
  • Big square
  • Speed square
  • T-bevel
  • 48" straight edge
  • 24" level.  Learn how to read it accurately.  Digital levels aren't any more accurate than an okay bubble level.
  • Basic framing hammer.  5 pound sledge is also handy.
  • Basic cheapish set of pliers, adjustable and pipe wrenches.  Get a roll of teflon tape for plumbing repairs
  • Couple of basic metal files.
  • A cheap set of chisels can be handy but will need sharpening.

Mainly you want coarse grit like 60 and 80 grit.  120 and 220 for metal.  Finer grits are just for taking out the deep scratches left by the coarse grits: you spend 90% of your time at the coarsest grit, then very brief passes with the finer grits until you get the finish you want.

Watch the number of sheets you get per package, price goes down quickly with quantity.  Get at least a dozen sheets of each of 60, 80, 120 and 220.

Repeat for whatever sander(s) you get.

  • I'm partial to face shields, specifically the Survival Air Systems 5145, which is way better than the standard ones at home depot.  They say they're not a replacement for safety glasses, but I prefer them.  Also, I love my prescription safety glasses and wear them as my normal glasses.  Should be cheap if you get them from overseas.
  • I'm partial to these corded earplugs since they're easy to take out and tuck into my shirt collar when I'm not wearing them.  I tend to reuse them, so a box should last you a long time.
Basic Power Tools:

Avoid cheap brands like the plague they are.  Husky, Task Force, Black & Decker, Skil, Buffalo, Chicago all suck, as does everything at harbor freight.  Don't waste your money.

Dewalt tends to be good.  Ridgid is okay.  Ryobi is OK but on the cheap side.  Porter Cable, Fein, Milwaukee and Makita and Panasonic, Bosch are good. 

Buy corded tools unless you're setting up a high volume shop where you'll be using tools every day.  The corded tools will last you forever.  If you're going to get into the battery powered tool racket, a little impact driver and a drill will be by far the most useful tools.
  • 12gal Ridgid shop-vac.  Amazingly useful.  Fill up air mattresses, suck the water out of your clogged dish washer, use the exhaust side as a leaf blower.  I love my shop vac.  Consider the new compact models that have the same big motor as the big units but a small canister: much less bulky to move around, and canister size is rarely an issue.
  • 2 each 50', 25', 12' extension cords.  Triple-headed are handy but not mandatory.
  • Corded drill with keyless chuck. I have this one and it's okay, this one might be nicer.
  • Small impact driver.  This one is a conundrum: I absolutely love them, but they're only available as cordless and the batteries are extortion.  They're super small and light and can drive your 2 1/2" screws through a pair of 2x4s with no pilot hole, counter sink it, and then shear the head off if the wood doesn't budge.  Get these (not the double-headed ones), preferably the plastic box rather than this 5-pack, since they do wear out.
  • Oscillating tool.  These little buzzing tools are surprisingly versatile -- they'll cut through a 2x4 or a framing nail if you have enough patience.  Mainly, though, they're the tool you're glad you have when none of your saws will fit into a tight corner.
  • Circular saw (be careful!).  A modern, pricy alternative is a "track saw".  I haven't used them, but they look like a really nice solution for clean long cuts on plywood.
  • Sawhorses and adjustable height rollers.  I'm not very knowledgeable with these, but you need good workpiece support when you go to cut things like sheets of plywood.  Big blocks of foam on the ground are also great for cutting sheets of plywood.
  • Drill press.  This floor standing model is the one I have and it's utterly ubiquitous; almost everybody makes them just like this.  Desktop variants look a lot cheaper and might be fine; the floor standing nature itself isn't important to me.  
  • Random orbit sander (safe, but minimize dust) and velcro sanding disks (see above for grits)
  • Jigsaw or sawzall.  I could demolish my house with just a sawzall.  Not very accurate.  Sawzalls are kinda terrifying since they like to jerk around.  Great for cutting angle iron or through the screws holding 2x4s together.
Optional but handy:
  • Angle grinder (be very careful!) and 3 each sanding flap discs, thick disks, and cutoff wheels.  This is mainly about grinding through metal; cut angle iron, cut off protruding screws (leaves an ugly scar), cut through locks.  Cutoff wheels can explode into deadly shrapnel; use with extreme care.
  • Air compressor & nailers.  A pancake compressor is fine for nailers and inflating things.  Air staplers and 16/18 gauge brad nailers can be very handy.  Somewhat scary; be careful.  Big contractor framing nailers are more scary.  If you want to work on cars, you'll want a compressor with a bigger tank to run a big impact wrench.
  • Compound miter saw.  These are how contractors chop up a whole pile of 2x4s in seconds.  Make sure you have good outfeed support (side wings to support long workpieces on both sides of the saw).  Not especially accurate, and nowadays I prefer to work on my hand saw technique instead
  • Handheld belt sander with 60 or 80 grit belt.
  • Router.  Be careful, they're dangerous.  This is getting into finer woodworking; mostly people go crazy at first and roundover or chamfer everything.  Linked is a small handheld one which is very wieldy.  You can get a bigger one and get or make a router table (bigger the table, the better), which can be quite useful for certain things.  (My porter cable is super quiet, which I love). 
  • Jointer & planer.  If you start getting into fine woodworking, these are what you use to clean up rough cut hardwood.  (Otherwise you pay a big premium for S4S "surfaced 4 sides" hardwood).  You can also clean up 2x4s, but 2x4s are mostly a lost cause for fine woodworking.  This jointer is meh, this planer is great.
  • Further afield are things like bridgeport vertical knee mills, which are amazing tools that everybody should learn how to use.  But they're mainly for precise metal machining.
  • CNC routers are also amazingly useful tools, but they're huge and expensive.
Expensive tools:

Don't cheap out on these.  Cheap versions suck and are scary, and you can get along without these tools until you're ready to take the plunge on a good one.
  • Bench sander.  Bench sanders are amazingly useful.  I've never found one I'm totally happy with, but don't get anything they have at home depot.  Disk sanders are generally useful, spindle sanders are useful for curved pieces.  I use the 6x48" belt sander the most (first link).
  • Bandsaw.  These are arguably safer than table saws (although the sawstop has what no bandsaw does).  They have a complimentary set of abilities to a table saw: they can cut curves and resaw really thick pieces, but the neck depth is a limitation.  Get 3tpi 1/4" wide (or 3/8") blades.  Don't get higher tpi or wider blades unless you're cutting a lot of super thin stock or other specialty tasks.  There are good arguments for whether to buy a table saw or bandsaw first.
  • Table saw. Table saws are arguably the most dangerous tool in the shop.  They're powerful and useful and can be quite accurate.  They're the best tool for ripping (long cuts along the long axis of the workpiece, parallel to an opposite edge), but for cross cuts they're usually limited by how much table is between the front of the blade and the near edge of the table -- beyond that, the miter gauge is hanging off the table.  Cheap table saws are scary.  If you're going to get one, get a sawstop if at all possible, preferably the cabinet saw rather than the contractor version.  Table saws are used a lot in fine woodworking (boxes and small cabinets), less in framing/contracting.

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