Three Essential Power Tools

A drill, circular saw, and router are the essential power tools for amateur carpenters to own. Here are some pointer on what to look for when buying them.

| August/September 1991


An electric drill, the first of our essential power tools. Back the work you're drilling with a piece of scrap to prevent the wood from tearing out when the bit comes through.


One school of thought on carpentry holds that no one should use power tools before mastering hand tools. The logic is hard to dispute: Hand tools demand patience, leaving time to contemplate methods and materials. With a power tool, intimacy is lost; things happen fast, and fine boards can be turned into kindling in no time.

I agree with the hand-tool argument—to a point. Anyone who plans to become a professional should probably observe it. But the occasional carpenter is better off keeping and learning to use a few essential power tools. An example: Back in my formative days as a wood butcher, I believed strongly in the superiority of hand tools for quality work and would argue beyond the point of absurdity about their efficiency. I often suffered for my pigheadedness.

One summer, my father-in-law—a meticulous craftsman who (horrors) used a circular saw for just about everything—and I were re-siding my turn-of-the-century farmhouse. The requisite 6" bevel-lap siding wasn't available, so we were faced with ripping 2" off the proud side of 8"-wide boards. Ever ready to prove my point, I wagered that I could slice a 16' board with my Pax 5 1/2-point ripsaw quicker than he could do it with his sidewinder.

To make a painful story short, I won the contest (by the barest of margins) but didn't argue when he suggested we resolve the issue by taking the rest of the boards to the shop for a pass through the table saw. That night, my beer bottle grip was far less tenacious than usual. Mind you, I still love that handsaw, and I can still cut a straighter line with it, but I've learned (if sometimes begrudgingly) to accept the place of power tools.

Power Tool Basics

For the person planning to only occasionally use a power tool, it may be tempting to buy a discount store bargain. Why should an amateur pay the premium for a tool built to last a lifetime in the hands of a professional? Because more than durability separates fine tools from cheap ones. Functional design, power, balance, and other details can help the less skilled do a better job with less effort. It certainly isn't necessary to buy the best, but do try to afford tools that will become your allies, not your enemies. And exactly what attributes should you look for?

Start with power. Because manufacturers use different systems for describing the power output of their tools, motor ratings are difficult to compare. As a result, it's best to ignore horsepower output ratings and look at an amperage input at full load, as listed on a tool's Underwriters Laboratory required label. The useful power output of a tool is equal to the amperage it draws minus losses to inefficiency. There are differences in efficiency, but they're seldom larger than 10% and are usually much less. In particular, beware of any claim that a tool "develops" a certain amount of horsepower. This sort of advertising copy is based on amperage draw as the tool bogs down; it's not indicative of sustainable output. The listed amperage is the best, if still imperfect, indicator of power.

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