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One of the more hotly debated topics among woodworkers is the choice between purchasing a tool new or vintage. To me the debate is mainly pointless because in the end most woodworkers end up with a mix of the two. The real question is which tools should be purchased new, and which should be purchased pre-owned, and that is where I come in.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave off items such as screw drivers and hammers, and stick with only the big guns: Hand planes, table saw, hand saws, chisels, and a handful of others. I understand that this topic has been covered ad hominem and in depth, and I likely have touched on it myself. This list, however, will be my definitive entry based on all of the experience I have acquired. What makes my list different? I have absolutely nothing to gain; I am not trying to make a sale or push a specific tool. I am only trying to help.
I’ll start off with the big three bench planes: smoother, jack, jointer. I own all three, with the smoother and jack being purchased new and the jointer being vintage. All three are excellent tools and I have no complaints with any of them. But if I could start over, I would do the exact opposite and purchase vintage jack and smoother planes, and a new jointer. Why? The jack and smoother planes are by far the most common hand planes on the vintage market. Often, high quality versions of each tool can be found easily for less than a hundred dollars. In fact, I’ve seen many nice examples in the $65 dollar range, which is less than a quarter of the cost of a new tool. Of course you will likely need to do some restoration on these tools, but these tools are the easiest of the bench planes to restore. A vintage jointer, on the other hand, can cost close to $200 for a decent tool, and that tool will likely still need some work. Good jointers are not as easy to find on the vintage market. And if one has twist in it’s sole it is near impossible to fix by hand. A high quality new jointer can be purchased for around $100 more than the cost of a vintage model, and it will come with a guarantee.
As far as panel saws, a rip filed panel saw is probably the best tool to purchase the vintage route. Rip saws are the easiest to re-sharpen for beginners (in fact, I would recommend practicing saw sharpening on a rip filed saw). And there are still a decent number of rip saws on the vintage market. As far as a cross-cut saw is concerned, I would purchase a good quality new saw before going the vintage route. Cross-cut saws are not nearly as easy to restore as a rip saw. It’s best to have a new saw that was professionally filed and set.
When it comes to back saws, I would stick with all new saws. There are still good back saws on the vintage market, but the problem is that they are often the same cost as a new model. In my experience, most decent backsaws on the vintage market are more “collector” tools than “user” tools. There are many high quality new back saw makers, and the price for them is generally reasonable enough to not even consider a vintage tool.
Purchasing a table saw either used or new is a tough call. You can get a good quality, woodworking table saw for between $600 and $1000. You can also go much higher, in particular if you go the Sawstop route (which I would never discourage). I’ve seen used, good quality cabinet saws cost between $300 and $500. The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, it is not easy to just eye up a table saw and know if it was abused. Electric motor problems are not simple to diagnose, and could crop up at anytime. Secondly, for the most part if you are purchasing a pre-owned table saw you will likely have to find one in your region, because the chances of finding a seller who is willing to take the saw apart and crate it up for shipping are slim to none.
Chisels I can go either route. I’ve seen some good quality vintage tools for a decent price, and I’ve seen some real junk. Luckily, it is not difficult to find good chisels both new and used, and it is easy to put together a mixed set.
Block planes are another example of newer is better. Almost every vintage block plane I’ve come across looks like it was used as a framing hammer. The good quality vintage tools are disproportionately expensive for what they are. I’ve heard some say that the vintage blocks are better, but I can’t imagine any being as good as my LN, and that tool was no more than many high quality vintage tools I’ve seen.
If you use a brace and bits, you want to go vintage. Vintage braces are a dime a dozen, inexpensive, and easy to restore. The same goes for vintage bits. Good quality new bits are expensive, and I’ve never come across a new brace that is as good as a vintage one.
Spoke shaves, on the other hand, I would only purchase new (or if you’re as stupid as me you can try to make a few). Every vintage spoke shave I’ve ever seen has been beat to hell. A new, high quality spoke shave is not overly expensive, and it comes with no worries. Are there good, vintage versions out there? Probably, but I’ve never seen one.
Joinery planes such as a router plane and a plow plane I would only purchase new. Here, I will name a specific brand and say that Veritas offers great tools, fully guaranteed, and very high quality. Vintage joinery planes that are in decent shape usually are the same price as a new tool. And trust me, when it comes to these tools, the newer versions are better than the vintage versions in every way.
The last tool I’ll mention is a high quality square. Once again, there are some good quality versions on the vintage market, and once again they are pricey. Good quality new squares aren’t cheap either. In this case I am on the fence, but if I had to choose one over the other I would probably stick to the new tool route. To name another brand, Starrett still makes great squares, and they are not much more in cost than their vintage cousins. As I’ve said with other tools, in this case you are getting a new tool that comes with a guarantee from the maker. You’re not getting that with a vintage tool.
I could mention tools such as a coping saw, marking gauges/knives, and so on, but I’ll stop here. My list covers most of the major woodworking tools, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not an expert. But you can trust me that this list and the logic behind it is sound. Whether or not you choose to heed this advice is completely up to you.
I’m not a woodworking expert, and I’ve never claimed to be a woodworking expert. But I do like to think I know a little bit about the hobby (notice I didn’t say “craft”). Like most people who woodwork on a somewhat regular basis, I have picked and/or developed a few tricks along the way. And just to throw my resume out there in case you think I’m just some madman looking to lead you astray; I have had three woodworking tips published in two separate woodworking magazines. So if you don’t want to take my word for it, maybe you will believe a magazine editor or two. And just for full disclosure, the following tips are just observations I’ve made over the course of five years of woodworking, though I do like to think that what I am about to tell you is a little more than just my opinion.
Most woodworkers use a coping saw at some point, even if you are a woodworker who mainly uses power tools. Most woodworkers also will note that coping saw blades are about as durable as dry-rotted shoelaces. I’ve found that when using a coping saw, the “fine” blades seem to break most often. Why? I’m not sure really. Maybe they don’t make enough kerf. In any event, in my experience they do break far more often, so I don’t even bother using the fine blades; I stick with the medium and coarse cut. They cut more quickly, they last longer, and because most coping saw cuts need to be refined with other tools, I can’t see the need for the cut to be “fine” 99% of the time anyway. On a side note, the Home Depot sells an inexpensive 5 pack of blades (Husky brand) which are American made, and they are as good as anything else I’ve ever come across.
Everybody has an opinion on sharpening, and everybody thinks that theirs is the correct one. I use a fairly common system: Diasharp, water stones, and leather strop. Sometimes I will use sandpaper, but that is most often for curved or profiled irons. What I don’t recommend is the so-called “ruler trick”. I’ve found two things out after trying this trick: one is that it is no faster than traditional sharpening methods; two is that it needs to be done nearly every time you sharpen to get it to work correctly. If you flatten the backs of your chisels and plane irons properly the first time, you will not have to do it again for a long time after. That isn’t the case with the ruler trick. The ruler trick is an unnecessary extra step that does not make your steel any sharper and, in my opinion, can actually make sharpening more difficult over the long term. There is one “but”, and that is with router plane irons. The ruler trick makes sharpening a router plane iron far more easy, because you are essentially turning the flat into the bevel, and making the bevel the flat. I didn’t come up with this; I saw it on the Popular Woodworking blog once and tried it, and it really does work.
While we’re on the subject of sharpening, I will also say that I do not care for micro-bevels. Micro bevels do not hold up for the most part, and once again I’ve found if you properly set-up your tools when you first get them then you will have no trouble honing them later. That being said, I do use a micro-bevel on my smooth plane, because it takes such a fine cut to begin with. I also use it on my paring chisel as well as my 3/4 chisel (which I use a lot for cleaning out dovetail sockets) But for the grunt work I leave the micro bevel off my tools. In my opinion sharpening the full bevel makes your edges more durable.
If you happen to have trees on your property, in particular sugar maple trees, you may notice some large branches on your lawn around this time of year. I normally break these branches and bundle them up for the township to collect, but at times some of the branches are too large to just stomp on. I have a basic bow saw, but I’ve found that an inexpensive Japanese style Ryoba saw does a much quicker job of cross-cutting branches than a bow saw does. Just for an example, this morning I found a branch at least three inches in diameter and about twelve feet long. I had it bucked up into foot long pieces in literally less than two minutes. Ryoba saws are, in my opinion, easier to grip than a metal bow saw, they are also far sharper, and they are much lighter and less fatiguing if you happen to have more than just a few branches to saw (as is the always the case with my lawn). And if you’re worried about it having trouble with wet/green wood, don’t. I’ve never had any problems in that sense whether the board was bone dry or still green.
So as I said at the beginning of the post: I’m no expert. But I do feel safe in giving you all my opinion here. I’m letting my experience do the talking here, not just my wacky outlook on the wide world of woodworking.