My first "workbench" was a simple table-style surface. 2x4 legs, 1/2" plywood top, held together with black drywall screws. I built it in my first apartment when I was twenty-two, with my first (and only) power tools: a circular saw and a drill.
In the back left corner, I mounted a shiny, new, bright blue Irwin swiveling bench vise. It was awesome to have it there when I needed it - holding metal stock and angle iron for cutting, helping me bend rod and pipe, even keeping dowels and small wood parts in place while working on them. Unfortunately, these activities constituted a very small amount of the projects I was doing, and mostly, the vise just got in the way during the other 97% percent of tasks.
So, for the past few years, that vise has just been in a storage crate, and I get it out and try to hold it in place when I need it. Which, in case you can't guess, does not work. Ever. So, I wanted to come up with a solution that would allow me to install a machinist's style swiveling benchtop vise, without having to permanently install it, or drill holes in my benchtop and have to thread and tighten nuts and bolts every time I use it.
I get this question a lot, and it's my privilege to answer and help folks out. Whether its someone looking for a gift for a creative friend or family member, or a somebody just beginning their DIY journey, people simply want to know "what should I get?"
And so, here are my picks from some of my most recent conversations. They're all over the spectrum, but all are solid, go-to options that I can't imagine working without. I think you'll enjoy them too.
Have you ever marked out a board, went to cut, and re-checked your measurements after hearing the words "Measure twice, cut once" echo in your ears? It's remarkable how nuggets of shop wisdom can stick with you and save you a ton of trouble on a project.
At ManMade, we're big on collecting aphorisms, witticisms, and maxims that deliver helpful lessons in tidy packages. Sometimes, they're just what we need to stay productive, and get motivated to try something new. So, we're providing a few of our favorite in the form of free downloads: printable artwork to hang in your home, office, or wherever you create your DIY projects.
Unless you're a millionaire, I always recommend going with used hand tools when getting started in woodworking. (Though, full disclosure, no millionaires have yet to ask my advice.) Vintage tools are plentiful, much less expensive, and depending on their age, usually a better, longer-lasting tool than you can buy at your local big box store. And the best part? Antique tools are more likely to be made in the USA or Europe, where they've been crafted from higher quality steels than modern tools from the home improvement center.
Over the weekend, I found this nice, broad 1 1/2" chisel at a favorite antique mall, with a mere $7.50 on the price tag hanging from the handle. It was in mostly great condition. The top and back had been coarsely ground a few times, and the bevel wasn't square to the sides, but the steel was in beautiful shape and the handle looks like it's never been pounded on.
Most of us get into woodworking from a practical point of view: we need to work on something around the house, so we head to the home center and get tools to break down dimensional lumber and bang it back together. So you upgrade from a circular saw to a compound miter saw, and maybe even get yourself a pocket hole jig so you can hide your hardware from sight.
And then, as it inevitably happens, something changes in your point of view. You're now longer just doing "home improvement" or "building things"... you're now: a woodworker.
Stationary power tools are often the most full-proof way to do a job. They're anchored to the floor or bench, and come with flat tables and fence systems so you can guarantee your cuts, holes, and other bits of shaping are square and straight.
But, besides being expensive, they're not always the right tool for the job. So, instead we turn to handheld tools, both electric and manual, to get things done. And therein lies the rub - human beings are not machines. Try as we might, we often can't do something with our hands as straight or square as a large stationary tool.
Besides using guides and other accuracy aids, there's a super simple and easy trick you can add to your mental toolbox to help guide the tool to do its best.
A few weeks ago, I declared ISOTunes the best headphones for woodworkers and DIYers. They include both audio drivers for sound and 27 dB of OHSA-compliant hearing protection from machine noises in the same package, and after spending all summer testing them out in real world situations, I can't think of a better investment to improve your shop time.
So, I'm pretty excited to share that I've collaborated with ISOTunes to give away three pairs of ISOTunes PRO headphones to ManMade readers.
If you do woodworking and DIYing in inches, a solid understanding of fractions is essential. Being able to calculate that half of 4 1/4" is 2 1/8", or that 1 1/2 + 1 3/16 = 2 11/16" is basic shop math that will keep your projects moving quickly.
But often, bringing fractions into the process is, well, completely unnecessary. Let's say you have a board that you'd like to divide into equal parts. You could measure it, then bust out a pencil, paper, and the calculator app, and eventually have to Google a decimal-to-fraction converter to figure out the size of each section. Then, you'd have to find that crazy number on your ruler, and carefully add the units together to mark out your parts. Or... you could just do this.
There are a few adages with which I can start this post. "You get what you pay for." "Some things are too good to be true." Yes, it would be awesome if there were a store in every town that sold solid, dependable tools at bargain prices. When you're just getting started, a place to fully outfit your shop on the cheap would be an amazing gift. I get it. I've been there.
But anyone who knows about Harbor Freight also knows about the reputation of the products it stocks: namely, that the quality is rather unreliable. Today, as I was discussing this post with my friend and colleague, M.E., her immediate response was, "There was one in the same plaza as my old job, so whenever we needed anything, we got it there. And ultimately whatever we bought, broke five days later. That place is the Dollar Store of the home improvement world."
And that's the trick: Harbor Freight stocks items that are designed to be sold, not to be used. I'm not saying their business model is dishonest or nefarious. Nor am I a tool snob with an unlimited budget. I'm only interested in spending as much money as necessary to get the job done. I know what its like to have your aspirations be bigger than your budget. But buying things that don't work, no matter how much they cost, is not saving money. The majority of products there simply will not stand up to repeated use, nor give the you the results you're after. When it comes to their sell-line of "Quality Tools, Lowest Prices"... well, one of them is true.
I'm a huge fan of having a few rows of dog holes in my workbench top. And, more than anything else, I use them to secure a holdfast - an ancient and genius piece of design that secures your work to the work surface with a simple tap from a hammer or mallet. When your ready to release it, just hit the back and it's free. Seriously - it's ten times fast than clamping, and you can fasten your work anywhere across the bench top. Brilliant.
To speed up the process even more, I wanted to come up with a permanent way to protect the wood from the force of the steel being banged into it. You can use a hardwood scrap between the holdfast and the workpiece, but I figured there's reason to spend twenty minutes once and protect my work forever. No digging around for scraps required.
I am grateful to have a dedicated workshop in our basement. It's a great place to both work on projects, and store tools and materials. And while my shop time is super important, there are a few things even more precious to me. Like my family.
So, I'm interested in learning more about some smaller wood projects that I can do in the evenings during family time. Projects like carving, whittling, and other non-furniture making projects that I can do while we watch a movie or reading time in the common areas.
So, I hit up Craigslist, and found this older model Workmate for a mere $10. And, in an afternoon, I turned it into a portable space to get creative and start making some chips... no noise or sawdust required.
One of the great conundrums of woodworking is this simple fact: you need a workbench to build a workbench.
In fact, in order to build a proper workholding system replete with vises, rock-solid joinery, and a sturdy wood top, you also need a complete shop full of power tools to mill the wood to size, a fleet of clamps to laminate the top, and tons of experience to know how to use all that stuff in the first place. And to build it from hard maple or other appropriate wood, it'll cost at least $700 for the lumber alone.
I've wanted to build a boat ever since I sunk my small dingy on the Trinity Lake as a kid. Once I have the space, I will fashion a sea-worthy vessel and take it out to brave the ocean, or at least a sizeable pond.
Thickness planers are awesome. But I don't have one.
They're an expensive and specialized piece of equipment. A new one starts around $300, and the price just goes up from there. I'd like one, sure, but most of my woodworking projects don’t require it, so I haven’t made the investment yet. There are a few other tools I'm more interested in before I make the leap to a planer.
But there are times when I have a rough piece of wood that needs to be trimmed down to a consistent thikness or large course areas need to be smoothed out. Instead of picking up my orbital sander and going to town for 45 minutes to thickness the piece of wood, I turned to my table saw. While this trick is limited to wood with a width of approximately 6 inches, it can save you a ton of time for small projects. It's a really simple process.
The random orbital sander is one of the first tools any maker or DIYer should own. In fact, I can't think of another powered tool that I use more, on nearly every project involving wood. The design is simple, and right there in the name - they move, in a random circular pattern, to sand wood.
A huge improvement over its predecessor, the pad or orbit sander, these guys use special shaped sandpaper disc to get your project smooth fast and with minimum swirl marks. Well, at least faster than sanding by hand, and with much less energy. But with great power comes great...opportunity to mess things up. These wondertools work, but there are
Often, when it comes to DIY projects, we create our own circles by starting from a center point. Whether a compass, string guide, or specialized cutting jig, a circle emerges from our pencils or saws precisely because we've created an established and consistent distance from a single origin.
But, what happens when the shape already exists, and you need to know how to find the center of a circle? You can do it in less than a minute without any specialized math, memorizing a formula, or even knowing what pi is.
I love watching new things get made. But as equally invigorating?
Watching old things get repaired and restored.
There are plenty of reasons to fix old things: keeping them out of the landfill, learning how they're made, making a little extra jingle, appreciating the products around us that we take for granted, cultivating the mindset of taking better stewardship of our surroundings.
Thankfully for the world, there are a lot of people doing this for the love of the act, because they spend countless hours in their workshops and upload their process videos for free viewing on YouTube.
Read on for our top picks of tool (and other) restoration YouTube channels!
First came the radio. Turn it on, tune in the dial, and hope you'd have something listenable during the quiet moments. Then came the shop stereo, usually an old bookshelf system we didn't mind getting covered in sawdust. But for the last ten years or so, it's been all about the personal audio player...and for most of us, that means our smartphone. Why blast the tunes throughout a space, keeping up with loud machines and bugging those around us when you can have literally anything you want playing through your own set of earbuds?
Whether you opt for music, podcasts, audiobooks, or digital radio, most DIYers and woodworkers have a set of earbuds plugged in during most parts of a project. The problem? If you use power tools, you still need to wear hearing protection to 1) take care of your ears and reduce loud exposure to noise and 2) hear your audio over the roar of the motors.