Monday, January 23, 2012

When hand-tools work better.

I like my power tools.  Making lots of repeat cuts with a hand-saw isn't my idea of fun, especially when a chop-saw and a stop-block will get me done with all of those in a couple of minutes.  But there are times when hand tools just seem faster.

Last night I found myself needing to cut a rabbet around a quarter of an inch deep in a piece of 3/4" ply.  Two of them actually, one in each of two boards.  I'm having some problems with my router (the cold temperatures seem to have frozen up the plunge base, and also shrunk it enough that I can't get the motor OUT of it to put in the other base...), and the table saw is a pain to set up when it's snowing, since I need to move things out of the garage to use it.

That's OK... I have a circular saw with a guide, and some sharp chisels.  I made my first cut 3/4" in from the edge of the board, made a few more cuts to clean out some of the waste, then started cleaning up with a chisel.  After about five minutes, I got sick of it, and realized I had a better tool for the job:  an actual rabbet plane.  It's an old Miller's Falls No. 85 that I picked up cheap on eBay, and it hasn't seen much use.  This seemed like a good opportunity.

I pulled it out, set the iron to take a relatively thin shaving, set the fence to keep it from running too far in, and started cutting.  About 30 seconds later, I was done.  For the second board, I didn't bother with the chisels.  I cut a line with the circular saw as a depth gauge (the depth stop for my rabbet plane is missing), and started cutting with the rabbet plane.  About two minutes later I was done, with a perfectly smooth bottom and a clean edge.

I'm not saying it couldn't have been done with a router or table saw, but I think it would have taken me longer to set up my saw than it took me to actually cut the rabbets with the plane.

Friday, January 20, 2012

CTR 4: Shark 10-2440 Fine Cut pull-saw

My last entry was about table saws, and the fact that they are not, in fact, essential to being a woodworker.  This is the tool that convinced me that was true.  OK, that's hyperbole.  I was already convinced, but this was a nice supporting argument.

Where, and how much?

   I got mine at Sears, and I paid around $20.  I've seen them at Amazon for the same, so I'd say that's the going price.

What is it?

   This is a Japanese-style saw, which means it cuts on a pull-stroke, rather than the push.  You can find all sorts of arguments for and against this both on- and off-line, so I'll limit my commentary to this:  Some people love it, some people hate it, and you should try for yourself before you make a decision one way or the other.  What that means in terms of use is that the blade is both thinner and floppier than you'd expect in a saw.  That's not the problem it would be in a European saw because it doesn't rely on blade stiffness to cut:  the force of pulling it through the wood keeps it straight.  That means it can cut a much thinner kerf, and, if sharp, can cut much more easily, because it's not trying to remove as much material.

   The other difference between Japanese-style and European-style saws is how sharp the teeth are.  On a well-sharpened European saw, you can hurt yourself.  Get your finger in the way of the stroke, and you're going to know it.  But it's pretty hard to cut yourself with it other than that.  This saw is razor sharp.  Each tooth is like a tiny little knife blade, and it WILL cut you if you grab it wrong.  Get used to that.

   Some more details:  The cutting edge is around 9 1/2" long.  One edge has about 9 teeth per inch, and is intended for ripping, while the other is around 17 TPI, and is intended for cross-cutting.  The blade widens towards the tip, and is narrower near the handle.  It looks odd, but is standard for a Ryoba.

What's the construction like?

   It's not bad.  There were some corners cut, no doubt about it, but they were in the handle, not the blade.  The handle is plastic, and the knob to fasten the blade in place is also plastic, and starting to wear.  I figure I have, at most, another year before the knob gives up and I have to find a way to replace it.  I'm willing to take that sacrifice for the price.

   The blade is an interesting question.  The teeth are cut, not stamped, which is a plus.  It feels (and cuts) like it's fairly high quality, but it has impulse hardened teeth.  That means that the teeth will hold their edge for a long time, but can't be sharpened when they dull.

   For all that I like it, this is essentially a disposable tool, and I'm not a huge fan of that.

How does it work?

   You might have guessed from the beginning that I like this saw.  You'd have guessed right.  I bought it on the grounds that, first, I wanted to see what cutting with a pull-saw felt like, and second, it was cheap.  It cuts extremely well.  Not "extremely well for a twenty dollar saw," just "extremely well."  I've crosscut and ripped both pine (ripping 1x6 on this is remarkably simple) and red oak.  Pine it had no trouble with: Chopping up 2x6 is easy, and ripping 1x6 width-wise (I needed a piece 5" wide by 1/4" thick) was no problem at all.  I've also cut plywood from 1/4" to 3/4", PVC pipe, and plastic gutter.  It had no trouble at all with any of those.

   Red oak is, perhaps, the one place this fell down.  Cross-cutting a 3/4" thick piece was fine.  Slower than pine, but it's a much denser wood.  It was still easy.  Ripping across the 3/4" dimension was also fine.  Then I tried ripping on the 5" dimension.  That... wasn't so easy.  I don't have a good European rip saw, so I'm not sure how much easier it would have been, if at all, but I don't recommend it with this saw.  Now... this is a fine cut saw.  I'll talk more about final surface in a minute, but the point of this saw is to allow precise, smooth cuts, and it delivers.  Ripping hardwoods is hard.  This saw was able to do it:  If I was willing to devote the time, I would have made it the full length of the board.  That wasn't the problem.  The problem was the amount of time.  I figure I spent about 20 minutes, and ripped about four inches.  I needed a two foot long board cut, and I just didn't have that kind of time.  Shark does make what they refer to as a "carpentry saw", which they claim is set up for more aggressive cutting.  It's likely that that would have worked a lot better, but I haven't tried one yet, so I don't know.

   For detail work (it is called a "finecut" saw, after all), it's superb.  I used it for my first hand-cut dovetail, and it was quick and easy to control.  I've done the same with an inexpensive (I'm tempted to say "cheap") backsaw from Woodcraft, and it sucked.  That one may just need sharpening, and I'll review it once I've given that a try.

   The final surface left behind by this saw is superb.  The cuts are, in general, smooth enough that they don't need much further treatment.  I can get a cleaner finish with a chisel, but not with any saw I've ever used.  I don't think I've seen any finish from a saw smoother than this, either.  Yes, it will still need a little sanding, planing, or scraping, but not much.  I decided to smooth a cut from this, and started at 220-grit paper.  It didn't take much work to completely erase the saw marks.

Final Thoughts

   For $20, I got a decent dual-purpose saw, without having to compromise on a single edge that tries to both rip and crosscut.  It cuts smoothly, cleanly, and, when I'm not trying to rip oak, quickly.  It leaves a nice surface behind, and is comfortable to use.

   My only real reservations about this saw are the quality of the grip and the impulse hardened teeth.  If you need a saw and you don't mind that it's disposable, you could do a lot worse than this for the money.  If you want a tool you can re-sharpen... you're going to need to spend some more money.  It depends on how you look at things whether this is worth the tradeoff.

Would I do it again?

   Probably, with reservations.  I'm currently looking for a good-quality used European saw.  I've never used one that was in good repair, so I don't have a lot of comparison.  I'm really not excited about buying more disposable tools, so I'd really prefer to spend extra money to get something sustainable.  In a pinch, I'd buy one of these in a heartbeat, over any big-box offering at a similar price.  There's no question in my mind that this is a good tool.  It's just not a long-term purchase.

UPDATE:  June, 2014.  I'm still using this saw, with the original blade.  Yes, it cuts noticeably slower than it used to, but this saw is well over two years old (I think I'd actually had it about a year when I wrote the original review), and the cut is still smooth and straight.  I'm even more inclined to recommend it now than I was then.  The knob I was worried about still holds just fine, though it feels looser every time I use the saw.  Seriously... despite the low price and impulse hardened teeth, it looks like they only cut corners in places it didn't really matter.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On table saws

I saw it again today on a forum:  "The table saw is the heart of the wood shop."

We've probably all seen it, if we spend any time on woodworking forums.
"Buy the biggest saw you can afford."
"You can't do woodworking without a good table saw."
"You can't do real furniture making without a high end saw."

I have to question that logic.  I suspect every woodworker who lived more than about 75 years ago would question it too.  What did they do before they had table saws?  Did they not make real furniture?

Look:  I'm not going to argue that table saws are useless.  I'm not going to argue that power tools are somehow cheating.  It's not true.  A good, reliable table saw can make your life a lot easier.  I don't think anyone who isn't pushing some agenda is going to argue that.

But what if you can't afford a good, reliable saw?  Or what if you don't have space for one?  Or just don't want one?  What do you do then?  Give up on woodworking?  Accept that you're never going to be able to make fine furniture?  No.  What you do is find a different solution.

I'm not an expert.  I don't really do fine furniture, not yet.  But I have a cheap table saw -- you may have seen the review I wrote here -- and I occasionally need to cut things up that I don't want to use it for.  Here are some solutions I've found.

1) Hand tools.  A good hand saw can solve a lot of problems, and for cross-cutting at any angle it can solve the problem.  It takes a steady hand and some practice, but it can be done.  A good, sharp saw helps too.  This is the direction I'm moving in for most things.  No need for a sled or a fence... a piece of scrap marked at the right length to make sure everything is cut the same works fine.  Learning to cut at the right angle takes some practice, but again... it can work.

2) Use a circular saw.   I've been told it's not possible to cut accurately with a circular saw.  That's not true.  I've done it, both with an old Skil brand saw (around 7 1/4" blade) and my little Ryobi battery powered saw (around a 5" blade).  Make sure the baseplate is square, and that the blade is square to the edge of the plate.  Get a GOOD guide for the saw.  I use an old piece of extruded aluminum -- it's straight, the edge is higher than the base of the saw, and I can easily clamp it to just about anything.  Also, put a good blade on the saw:  I use a Freud general purpose blade.  Then do the following:
  1. Make sure you know the distance from the edge of the baseplate to the OPPOSITE edge of the blade on your saw.  On my saw it's exactly 1" on the close side, which makes life easy.
  2. Measure on your wood, remembering to account for that extra space.
  3. Clamp down your guide.  If things are going to go wrong, this is most likely where it will happen.  Measure.  Measure again.  Clamp down the guide, then measure a third time.  Measure at BOTH ends of the guide, and again in the middle.  Make sure you've got everything lined up correctly.  And it helps if the edge you're measuring from is square and straight, so you might want to check that, as well....
  4. Once you're confident that your guide is accurately placed, make the cut.  Make sure the edge of the saw's baseplate follows the guide the whole distance -- you'll probably have a tendency to veer off a little at the end.  Don't do it.  Also, keep an eye on the cord, if you're not using a battery powered saw.  Cutting through that can really ruin your day.

It sounds hard.  And, if the alternative is running the wood over a table saw, it's a little more complex.  But I can now get the guide set in around a minute for cutting the full length of a sheet of plywood, and the actually cut doesn't take any longer than it would with a table saw.

Oh -- yeah.  And don't forget to support BOTH sides of the cut.  You won't more than once, anyway... having a quarter sheet of plywood fall on your foot kind of teaches you that lesson.

Are there other options?  Yes.  Is a table saw easier?  Usually, yes.  But is that table saw necessary?  No, not really.  The same holds true for just about anything you can do with a table saw:  On a recent project, I cut dadoes by edging them with a circular saw, then cleaning them out with a chisel.  I could have done it with a handsaw and chisel, but the circular saw was faster and I was in a hurry.

My final word on this is:  Don't let people tell you you can't be a woodworker if you don't have a specific tool.  You can almost always find another way.  It may be harder, it may make more time, but you can almost always find another way.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CTR 3: Ryobi BTS21

EDIT:  Pointed out by a reader at Woodworking Talk, this is the BTS 21, not 211.  Not sure how I missed that, originally.  Also, this saw is no longer available new, but may show up in the used market occasionally.

   So here's a big one.  It's a Ryobi table saw, sort of mid-size (by their standards).  It's not a benchtop, it's not a cabinet saw... so what do I think of it?

   First off:  I've had this for over a year.  I've done a lot of cutting on it.  The biggest cuts I've done have been cross-cutting 4x4, rip-cutting 2x10, and cutting plywood every which way.  I've also cut up a fair amount of 1/4" luan.  I've done dados in plywood, and both regular and pressure treated dimensional lumber.  I've gotten good use out of it, and despite the fact that this review isn't exactly positive, I don't think I made a big mistake. I just didn't know what I needed.

UPDATE:  I sold this saw a couple of years ago.  It continued to work reliably, but I was moving, and I met a guy who was starting out as a contractor and wanted a cheap job-site saw.  He got a saw, I got a hundred bucks, and I didn't have to move it.  It was a good deal for all of us.

   It's kind of an odd beast.  Rather than the standard miter slot, it has a sliding miter table.  Some people love these, some people hate them, and I'm in the middle.  It's heavy for a portable saw -- something like 85 pounds -- but light for a full-size saw.  While the wheels make it pretty easy to move around, it's pretty hard for one person to get it into a car or truck.  Ryobi sells (or sold) a dado insert, and it's set up to allow the use of dado stacks, but it can only take one up to 5/8" wide.


   While not fantastic, the saw is reasonably solidly built.  It IS a portable saw.  There's no way to get around that.  That means there are some tradeoffs:  it's not possible to build a collapsible stand that's as solid as a cabinet base and still portable.  You just can't do it.  But the top has stayed flat (see my comments on the sliding miter table for an exception), the base has been easy to work with, and nothing has broken.  Some pieces that would, ideally, have been cast iron are cast aluminum.


   Safety is important, I think we can all agree with that.  So how safe is this thing?

  Issue one:  it lacks a riving knife.  It does have a splitter, guard, and anti-kickback pawls, but a riving knife would have been better.  The splitter occasionally leans a bit one way or the other, which can make things interesting when you've gotten a piece of wood past the blade and into the pawls, and then find you can't advance any.  A tap with a push-stick straightens it out just fine, and it's never been a serious issue, just irritating.

  Issue two:  Getting to the shutoff switch can be interesting.  Say you're cutting a big piece of plywood -- a full sheet, 4x8 -- lengthwise.  Say something goes wrong two feet in, and you need to shut off the saw.  You'd better be able to reach the plug, because you're never going to reach the switch!  This isn't really a surprise -- there's not much space to move things around! -- but it is unfortunate.  I would have preferred to see the switch on the left side, where I could reach it without letting go of anything with my right hand, even if I was cutting something very wide.

  Issue 3:  You can't get a zero clearance insert for love or money.  They don't exist.  This saw uses super-thin metal for the inserts, so to custom make one you'd need to make a panel that was something less than 1/16" thick.  Sure, it could be done, probably, but it wouldn't be easy.  I've considered buying a second dado insert and hot-gluing a sheet of 1/4 plywood onto the bottom, but I haven't done it yet.

   Now, that said:  this is a cheap saw.  The splitter is solid, and the splitter, guard, and pawls are all a single unit.  It's quick and easy to remove and install:  it takes maybe 20 seconds.  So I've never felt like there was any reason to make a cut without those.   The guard is easy to see through, and does a good job of keeping things away from the blade.  The anti-kickback pawls appear to work, although I've never tested them in an emergency -- they do make it impossible to pull wood back, though, so I assume they'd work as advertised if they were really needed.


   Let's start with the basics:  does it cut?  Yes.  Does it cut straight?  Well... that depends on the user.  The fence system is pretty poor.  The measuring system is bad enough that I don't bother to use it for anything other than rough measurements:  "OK, I need 23 3/16 inches.  Slide it out to 23 1/2, then grab the framing square."  The fence can be made to be square, but you'll need to check it each time you set it.  Once it's set, it's solid -- I haven't moved it accidentally yet! -- but if you're incautious you can set it a little bit off of square.  Maybe a degree or two.

   What about power?  I've never had a problem.  It slows down cutting PT lumber, but I did cut 5/16" dados in over a hundred feet of the stuff without trouble.  It took a slightly slower feed rate, is all.  Not a big deal.  Cross-cutting 4x4 isn't an issue, except that it's at the very limit of the depth of cut.  Any warp in the wood can mean you don't QUITE get through it.  I did try a rip in 4x4 just to see what would happen, and that was fine too.

   How about that sliding miter table (SMT) I mentioned earlier?  Well, first things first:  I love the concept.  It's a built-in cross-cut sled.  How cool is that?  More than that, it's a built-in cross-cut sled with an adjustable fence!  And angle measurements cast into the tabletop, so no need for a protractor!  For 90 degree cuts, just set it to 90 degrees, and... um.  Wait.  The 90 degree line is almost 1/8" wide.  What do I line up with?

   Right.  So right there is the first big problem with the sled.  The cast in angle measurements are just plain bad.  Again, they're a reasonable approximation, like the measuring tape built in for the rip fence, but they're not exact.  They're within a few degrees, but it's impossible to get them closer.  So you do need that protractor or angle gauge after all.

  Next problem:  the miter fence isn't very stable.  I have had it shift when I didn't want it to, and there's only so much you can tighten down the knob.  If you're careful, it's not a problem.  But if you're not paying attention, you can really mess up a piece.

   Here's the big one:  the miter table isn't perfectly flush with the rest of the table.  Not much -- less than a sixteenth -- but noticeably.  Normally that doesn't matter much:  if you're cutting through a piece of wood, you wind up having to raise the blade another sixteenth of an inch.  You'll probably never notice.  It never bothered me.  BUT.. if you're cutting dadoes using the SMT, they're likely to be the wrong depth.  That can be a big problem if you don't remember to compensate for it.  The main thing is to remember to measure your depth from the SMT, not the regular table top.

   The last issue with the miter table is just that it isn't a miter slot.  Most of the jigs you'll find writeups for assume you have a miter slot.  That's fine, and you can modify most of them, but you'll never be able to just buy a pre-built jig and have it work.

Final thoughts:

   I bought this table saw because I needed a table saw, and it was cheap.  Home Depot accepted a Harbor Freight coupon, and I got the saw for, as I recall, a little under $200.  That's not bad.  I'm not sure my other options in that price range were any better.  As a rough cut tool -- think general construction work -- it's fine.  For finer woodworking.... it can be made to work.

   I don't want to be too negative here:  I knew what I was getting into by buying a cheap saw, and I got it.  For rough work, it's fine, and most of the problems can just be worked around for finer work.  For what I knew at the time, and what I needed at the time, I made a reasonable choice.

Would I do it again?

   No.  Given what I now know, it's not sufficient for what I need.  With what I now know, I would have put that money into either a used cabinet saw or, more likely, a cutting guide for a circular saw and a better router.  Put simply, this is a lousy tool for any kind of fine woodworking.  I do most of my sizing work with a circular saw now (with a good guide, I can get easily within about 1/32 of my intended final size), and only pull this out for rough work and dadoes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CTR 1: Harbor Freight 4-speed Woodworking Bandsaw

Note:  Originally posted 11-16-2011 at  This is now considered to be the first of the Cheap Tool Reviews.  I question the decision now, but it's still pretty cheap for a band saw, so I'll live with it.

I just bought one of these after reading a lot of reviews. One problem I had in making a decision was that the reviews I was finding were almost all at least a few years old, and there have been some changes to the design of the saw since then. So, in hopes of helping out people who are looking now, I thought I'd post my thoughts.

To start off, I have almost no experience with bandsaws; I've used one before, but mostly for metal cutting, not wood. Bearing that in mind, here we go..

0) What I didn't use.

I knew from the reviews that a link belt was highly recommended. Since I was at HF anyway, I bought theirs. Other than that, everything is stock, although I'll be replacing the blade as soon as possible.

1) Moving and packing.

It's a heavy box, but not completely unmovable. I got it out of my car on my own by sliding it onto a furniture dolly, then rolled it into the garage. Getting parts out of the box was an interesting experience. The base and table were on top, right up against the cardboard, set into a molded styrofoam tray. Removing the tray revealed the rest of the saw, assembled and with a blade in it, and the motor. No evidence anywhere of fasteners or a manual. Why? Well, because those were UNDER the saw. In a little nook that was completely hidden until you'd lifted the saw. Anyway. On the plus side, everything was in the box (with one odd sort-of-exception, which I'll mention later), which rather surprised me.

2) Assembly.

A) The base. This went really smoothly. Contrary to my expectations, the instructions were quite clear, all the parts were there, and all the necessary screw holes were cleanly cut and lined up where they were supposed to. The base looked like it was going to have a lot of gaps, but tightening down the fasteners with a wrench closed them all up. As a side note: except for the belt guard housing, every nut and bolt used in assembly is 13mm. I recommend making sure you've got a 13mm box wrench AND a 13mm driver on a ratchet before you start working. You'll want them both.

B) The saw. There wasn't much to assemble here. It was all pre-built, with a blade installed, and all the fasteners tightened down. That's a bonus, because this is where the manual was least clear. The table and its mount DID need to be installed, which was quick and easy. It was also where the "sort-of-exception" I mentioned above came in. The instructions claim you're supposed to use two M8x30 bolts to attach the table bracket. By that time in the assembly, I only had one of them left. However, I also had an M8x35 (more or less) bolt that wasn't called for in the instructions anywhere. As it turned out, it was exactly the right length for the right-most of the two holes I was supposed to be bolting the bracket into, so I decided to just use it and not worry.

C) The motor. Installing the motor was a pain, but not terribly difficult. It absolutely required two people; the motor has to be held upside down under an angled bracket, and then bolts have to be run through from underneath and nuts put on them from the top. I can't help feeling like there must have been a better way to design that.

I'm also going to mention the belt-guard box here: that also sucked, and was probably the hardest part of the entire assembly. It requires putting four fairly small pan-head bolts through four similarly small holes, all on the inside of the assembly, and the drive pulleys pretty much meant I couldn't get my hands anywhere within four inches of the rear holes. A long pair of needlenose pliers solved the problem, but it was a nuisance after everything else being so easy. Assembly probably took around an hour and a half, including checking to make sure the wheels and pulleys were lined up and tensioned correctly.

3) Fit, finish, and accessories.

I'm favorably impressed by the saw as a whole. While the sheet metal edges on the base aren't rounded over, they're also not as sharp as some bases I've worked with.

Once all the nuts were tightened, everything seemed quite solid. The blade tension was really low (essentially no tension) out of the box, but the tensioner works well, and the knob on the new version sticks up above the top of the saw, so it's easy to use. While the table bracket looks and feels like plastic, it seems to actually be cast aluminum with a plastic coating -- tap it and it rings like cast aluminum, and it's too heavy to be plastic. One frequent complaint in the old saw was that the side panels that cover the wheels aren't hinged. Well, they are now. That's mentioned in comments on a few older reviews, but I thought I'd make it part of the body of this one. The lower panel on both my saw and the display model has to be really slammed shut to latch; I'll likely replace the catch with a magnet eventually.

Something I haven't seen mentioned anywhere is that the new model has a brush set to sweep off the lower wheel, out of the box. I'd planned to buy and install one, but now I don't have to.

There are two places where there are angle gauges: the table tilt measure, and the miter gauge. Neither is perfect, but both are adjustable. The table's gauge was off by around a degree: once I'd squared the table to the blade, I reset it to zero, then used a Wixey digital angle gauge to check the rest of the readings. They're certainly very close - within two tenths of a degree, as far as I could tell -- and should do for most purposes. For anything really precise, I've got the digital gauge, which is easier to read anyway.

The miter gauge... what can I say about it? It's cheap plastic with numbers molded into it, and it's screwed to a cheap piece of aluminum c-channel that more or less fits the miter slot. The tick marks for the angle indicators are a good eighth of an inch across. We're not talking "high precision" here. If I need to set an accurate angle, I'm going to use a protractor, rather than trusting the miter gauge. It does have an adjustable needle, so I can set it to "90 (or 30, or 45) degrees plus or minus a little", but that's about as good as it gets. It also doesn't really slide through the slot cleanly, because it gets hung up on the mouth for changing the blade. I'm planning to round off the front corners of the gauge, to see if that helps. It does more or less lock in place, but I suspect it will cease to do so pretty quickly. I don't expect to need the gauge all that often, though, so maybe it won't really matter.

A number of people complained about the drive belt being lumpy and uneven. While I didn't use the one I got -- I'd bought a link belt, so why bother with it? -- it seems to be OK. I'd still say go with the link belt: by all accounts they decrease vibration, and the added expense brought the price even with the Ridgid and Porter-Cable 14" saws, rather than above them. (Actually, if your local Lowes/HD won't accept HF coupons, it's still a lot cheaper than either...)

The blade that came with it is, as you'd expect, not very good. I made a couple of test cuts in some scrap 3/4" ply, and it works, but not well. It did cut fairly straight, and with essentially no drift across a six inch cut, though, so it's probably passable as an emergency backup. The manual claims it's 6TPI and 3/8" width. I haven't counted, but I would have guessed 8 or 10 TPI from a quick look. I did notice a couple of damaged teeth before I used it, and I suspect there are more, so it's not going to get used much, if at all.

4) Final thoughts.

I had just about been convinced to buy a Grizzly before I bought this. It occurred to me, though, that I know for a fact I was going to want to cut metal with it, and the Grizzly just doesn't step down to speed that I'm comfortable with for that. Between that and the option to save $200, the HF model seemed like the right choice. If money hadn't been a concern, I probably still would have gone with the Grizzly, and bought a cheap low-speed benchtop or something for cutting metal. As it was, versatility won out over quality.

I do plan to buy the riser kit for the saw: it's currently available from HF parts for $85 + shipping, although it can't be bought in the stores. I'll be building a fence -- there was a fairly nice set of plans in the most recent ShopNotes for a rip and resaw fence that can accommodate for drift -- rather than buying one, and I have pretty much all the parts for that. So with the addition of the riser and a couple of good blades, I'll have a tool that should do everything I need (and most of what I want) for a pretty good price.

Overall, I'm pleased with my decision, and suspect I made a right choice, if not THE right choice.


Would I recommend this saw?  Yes.  But, as with most HF products, be prepared to bring it back if you find out it's a lemon.  They're not likely going to all have all the parts, so assume that yours will have some problems.  If you want a reliable out-of-the-box machine in this price range, I'd recommend the Porter-Cable.  That's the only one I haven't seen reports of people needing to make major modifications to.  It's also one of the least versatile, so you take your chances... for me, the HF was the right choice.

If money isn't much of an issue, I'd probably recommend going higher-scale.  The miter gauge with this one is really junk, and it doesn't have a fence.  Going with, say, the Grizzly I thought about would have resolved both of those problems, out of the box.  It is a lot more expensive though, so again, it's about making tradeoffs.

Monday, January 9, 2012

CTR 2: HF Mortise Gauge

Cheap Tool Review #2.

I picked this up in the fall, and only just used it for the first time, though I'd checked it to make sure it was all there and not broken when I got it home.  Here are my thoughts.

Cost:  How can you beat it?  Full price (as of this writing) is $10.  I got it on sale and with a coupon -- I think I paid under $3.50.  The other marking gauge I have is a Veritas Wheel gauge, and it cost $35.  That's a heck of an increase.

Construction:  While I'm not sure what kind of wood it is, it seems to be reasonably hard.  The finish is thick, and should provide a fair amount of construction.  While the beam isn't perfectly fitted through the fence, it IS reliably consistent, and it doesn't wiggle at all once the thumbscrew is tight.  The brass castings are pretty nice -- if I ever decided to build my own gauge I'd probably salvage them -- and the pins are solidly attached.

Use:  This one's harder to say.  What I've discovered is that I don't LIKE pin-type gauges.  I bought a Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge the same day, and I use it a lot.  The HF mortise gauge... well, if you like pin gauges it seems like it would work well enough.  It's solid, there's no slop, and you can drag it across the piece without worrying about the beam sliding around.  The catch is that the pins aren't sharp, so they don't cut across the grain -- they try to follow it.  I've never used an expensive pin gauge, so I don't know if they have the same tendency, but I can't imagine that they don't.  For my use, I'll stick with wheel or blade type gauges.

As a note, I'm told some people have filed the points to be narrower and more blade-like.  Now that I've learned that I don't like them as they are, I may give it a shot.  And for $3.50, it's not a bad deal for those occasions where I really need to mark two parallel lines.  I just won't use it most of the time.

Final recommendation:  If you're really hard up for cash, or if you already know you like pin gauges, this is a nice deal.  As with everything from HF, make sure all the pieces are there and it's built right, since their machining is variable, but it can work.  If you're not that hard up for cash, or you're not sure how you feel about pin gauges, buy something better.  This is a time when some extra money nets a lot of extra value.  You can probably find the Veritas Wheel gauge for $30 if you wait for a sale, and it's a FAR nicer tool.

UPDATE:  Thanks to a reader at, here's an article about filing the points of a pin-type gauge into knives.  I'm not convinced it will work on this gauge, since the pins are pretty tiny to begin with, but I'll give it a try and post another update.

UPDATE, 6/16/14:  This is now my go-to gauge for most things.  It's quick an easy to adjust, and filing the pins to more of a football shape (instead of a cone) make it work a lot better.  For long marks cross-grain, I frequently use the Veritas wheel gauge, but I've come to a point where I reach for this HF gauge more often.  That said, the Veritas gauge is more accurate and will certainly last longer, so it's not at all a one-sided debate.

Woodworking on the cheap

Up until about a year ago, my woodworking projects could best be described as "bash it together of 2x4 and 16 penny nails, and hope it holds up long enough."  Around a year and a half ago, I started building a deck.  I quickly learned the advantages of, say, measuring first, or buying higher quality tools.

And I started reading woodworking forums.  This was crucial.

But I started noticing something:  whenever someone asked about two tools, the most expensive was invariably recommended.  Here's a personal example.  I asked about three bandsaws.  The Harbor Freight model, a Porter Cable, and a Ridgid.  After the current discounts, they were all going to come to around the same price -- about $220.  The most common vote was for the Grizzly, a $525 saw, and one that wasn't on my original list, because I couldn't afford it.  People asking about inexpensive table saws are told "You need to buy the most expensive saw you can afford."

OK, look.  I understand.  More expensive tools are, almost always, more efficient tools.  Frequently they're also safer tools.  But many of us can't afford to spend a thousand dollars on a table saw, or even five hundred dollars on a band saw.  We need to know where we can economize, and where we're really going to regret it later.

In this website, I hope, among other things, to post some reviews of less expensive tools.  I'm not a master craftsman.  I'm not an expert woodworker.  I'm just a guy who enjoys playing with tools in his shop.  All my reviews will be from that perspective.  If you're a professional woodworker, you'll probably disagree with my reviews a lot of the time.  But if you're someone like me, I might be able to save you some money.