December 2009 Archives

When to buy Craftsman tools


I know the answer for a lot of folks is "never".

But mixed in with the rest of my tools, I have a lot of stuff I bought at Sears. Not only that, I know I'll buy at Sears again. I even did, um, last week.

Yes, it's true that a lot of Craftsman tools, especially power tools, have weird gimmicks in place of solid foundations. The people choosing which tools to sell apparently believe that weird gimmicks will sell more tools than quality. For a certain audience, they're right - occasional users, folks just getting into using these tools, and people who learn about tools primarily from advertising. For other audiences, a few failures and it's never again, or never even the first time.

The first few Craftsman tools I bought - largely sanders - felt like a big step up from the Black & Decker stuff I'd used for model railroading. (Okay, some of them were actually rebranded B&D. But at least it was better stuff than I'd bought before.) They took abuse well, starting out on floor refinishing and similar projects. All of them are still going strong. I expect I'll keep my 3x21 belt sander, actually a rebranded Ryobi, for a long time to come. I recently gave away a pair of orbital Craftsman sanders, ten years old, but still working well, because I'd bought other better sanders that could do more things.

I've been less delighted with the Craftsman Industrial dovetail jig, though I've made it work a few times and have concluded that it's at least worth the battle to make it work. I'll have more on that here eventually. The one Craftsman router I own has done okay, though most of what it's dealt with is dovetails - not very demanding work. I had a Craftman tabletop drill press for a short while that did well on some difficult projects, but gave it away when I finally found the drill press I'd been looking for. Generally, Craftsman's manuals have been as bad as any I've seen, though bad manuals seem to be almost a requirement for sellers of tools.

The Craftsman machine tools and toolboxes I've bought have all been fine. A good ratchet set is a pretty normal thing these days, and the wrenches - except for one crazy strap wrench - have all been fine. Pliers, screwdrivers, retaining ring pliers, all the tools I use to maintain my power tools, have all been great. I'll happily buy those again. The Craftsman shop vac I have is loud and obnoxious and lies about its horsepower, but is what I expected of a vacuum at that price. With the Dust Deputy and a new filter, it even has great suction. So that's okay.

In tools I actually apply to wood, though... hmmm. I think I'll mostly buy Craftsman for single-purpose tools I don't plan to use very often. They work, but they usually feel strange. Vibrating, or flimsy, or loud in all the wrong ways. There's usually an obvious weakpoint that makes me cringe, like the collet in that router (a 315.275000) router which screws into the bottom of the shaft. The depth adjustment seems to work for me so far, but not for other people, who've seen the bit drop during a cut. I don't think cutting dovetails will stress it out - I hope not.

The belt sander, though, has turned out well so far.

If I had it to do over again...


Last night, I was flipping through one of the first woodworking books I'd bought, Woodworking for the Serious Beginner. It seems to be out of print, and have some mixed reviews, including a one-star review from someone who finds the title offensive because table saws aren't appropriate to apartments.

Nonetheless, I think nearly everything they wrote in 1995 still holds true, and if was starting again without the tools I'd already collected, I'd follow their recommendations for starting up: a simple table saw with a cast-iron top at the center, a router, and a jigsaw, (plus a mix of measuring and hand tools) and then the series of shop-built shop furniture they prescribe.

Instead, I'd already bought a tablesaw that came with accessories duplicating many of their projects, with an aluminum top, and lacking the one key feature they recommend in a tablesaw: minimum need to adjust it.

While I really do like my Ryobi BT3000, and it's done some great work, testing and adjusting cuts every time I've moved the saw or left it sitting for a while isn't a great way to encourage beginners to get to work. For starting out - and I know this doesn't make sense from a long-term business standpoint - it'd be a lot easier to have a saw with a blade fixed at 90° and a fence and miter slot guaranteed to be square to the blade. Eventually, once I'd learned to work with that, then getting into adjustments would be okay...

The only disagreement I really found with them in re-reading the book is about dust-collection, and then only about a detail. The Oneida Dust Deputy, which my wife got me for my birthday, has made the shop vac plus cyclone option much more realistic than it used to be. (And despite its being a finicky creature, I do think a small bandsaw is invaluable, and much safer than a tablesaw for a lot of small operations. It can come later, though.)

Their pacing is right, and I especially like that they recommend building furniture for the shop before building furniture that will go in more public places. It's the right progression, something I'm doing even now.

The mess


The basement was wet, but that wasn't the worst of it. The biggest problem was that I'd never really established where things should go, and as time went on it was hard enough just getting myself in and out of there, never mind cleaning up. Piles of wood and clamps shifted to become traps, shelving grew overloaded and unstable, and every surface became a pile. Well, except for the surface in current use.

What had started as a basement woodshop collapsed into a place where I kept tools, though only the most frequently used were readily accessible. The air compressor (and its coiled 100' hose) could power work upstairs, and I'd carry tools up to do work. Power and air tools at least mostly had cases, making them easily findable, and the machines all had their own bases. My cordless Makita tools and their charger generally stayed accessible. Hand tools and hardware had a much harder time, ending up scattered over time. A few tool boxes kept tools together for particular projects, but somehow I wound up with three awls, because I could never find them.

The one machine I used regularly, even when it required gymnastics to reach it, was the bandsaw. It may be tricky to get perfect right angles with it, but it always felt much safer than the tablesaw and far more flexible. A lot of household repair work involved small parts, which definitely was a better idea on the bandsaw. The drill press and lathe got occasional use as well, but the table saw mostly sat. The miter saw came out a few times for use outdoors, where it made 2x4 construction much easier.

In the cleanup process, I may have overreacted, buying plastic boxes to organize everything I possibly could.

plastic boxes.
Stacks of plastic boxes.

I'm still not done sorting, especially with the smaller hardware pieces, but it's slowly coming under control. I need to find a place to put all of those boxes, but I can get to all the tools and find almost everything. A few more steps, and I'll have a usable shop!

Then I can figure out which things should stay in boxes, and which need more creative storage.

The Basement


My tools have lived in the basement as long as I've lived here, though I've occasionally set up a temporary collection upstairs while installing flooring or doing other work.

The house is about 27' x 30', and the basement is about that size, with two large posts and a staircase interrupting the space. There's also a trench along the back and side of the foundation wall, which provided some drainage to water coming through the wall, and which makes useless about a foot of space in from the wall. At one point there were shelves and cabinets back there, but I ripped them out earlier this year before we had major drainage and repair work done.

That repair work is really what got me back into woodworking. First, it forced me to remove everything I could from the back part of the basement, which meant reorganizing and figuring out what I had back there. Second, it solved a major problem that had always caused trouble: the serious dampness of the basement. I've had two floods down there, and there was always water coming through the trench and up through the concrete. It had a major effect on the wood I worked with and the tools I used, and never for the better. Now, though, it's much drier, a much better place to work.

When I started, I just used one corner of the basement, but I've steadily expanded to include most of it, except the furnace, water heater, and laundry areas. There's a lot of reorganization yet to come, but I don't think I can complain about my space much any more. True, the ceiling is low, and the floor tilted, and I need to work on lighting, but having a garage door (if a small one) coming in is helpful, and it's really a lot of space.

You can get a sense of how the basement used to look at this old shop tour. Most of the mess shown there has been tamed, or at least stuffed into labeled plastic boxes. I'll have more on that soon.

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