Woodworking Benchtop Tools

Bench top drill
Bench-top woodworking tools comprise one of the few booming segments of the tool industry. This is obviously due to the number of amateurs and hobbyists who can jump-start their shops by a quick trip to the local home improvement store. Retail hardware stores now devote considerable space to stationary tools that would have seemed esoteric just a few years ago. You'll have no trouble locating tools for the Two-Car Wood Shop. But once you purchase a major tool, you're stuck with it for some time, so it's a good idea to understand what you're getting.

Bench-top tool generally means a tool that resembles a stationary, industrial woodworking tool but has been down-sized to save space, weight and cost. These tools are aimed mainly at the occasional user, but might be found in professional hands in cases where the tool is sized for portability on the job-site.


Stationary and Bench-top Drill Presses


There are optional tables (stands) for any bench-top tool, or you can build your own table and bolt the tool onto it. This is fine if you have the space, but it doesn't magically convert a bench-top grade machine into a floor-standing, stationary tool. It may look more substantial but it's not.

In order to achieve space optimization, bench-top tools can be carried back and forth between the storage shelf and the workbench. "Carrying" could also mean transporting via rolling table, or dedicated lift/dolly. These work surfaces are discussed later.  There are some jigs and adapters designed to encase a hand-held tool so that it operates like a stationary tool. Drill-holders are a common example. There are even some for plate joiners, circular saws, planers and so on. These are mostly lightweight junk and don't even approximate the behavior of an actual stationary tool. Serious woodworkers will avoid them.  Router tables for inverted-mounting of hand-held routers are perhaps the only exception.

Trade-Offs


Obviously this compactness comes at a cost in terms of other parameters. Herein lies the art of bench-top tool selection and purchasing. On the one hand you're constrained by space and are forced to use smallish tools, but on the other hand you want to produce substantial results. These are some factors to consider:

Scaling Down


Consider what happens when the manufacturer decides to "downsize" a large, stationary tool. The tool has linear dimensions, (width, depth and height). To maintain the same proportions, all dimensions are shrunk down at roughly the same rate. So a bench-top tool that is half as tall as its stationary cousin might also be half as deep and half as wide.

Length, Area and Volume ratios


Therefore the surface areas of the tool are one quarter (1/2 x 1/2) as large as the original. This effect is most noticeable on the workpiece table - the in-feed and out-feed areas. Floor-standing table saws have massive tops and can be out-rigged with optional wings of substantial area, enough to handle 4' X 8' sheets. Bench-top table saws have just a foot or two between the blade and the fence. If you want the advantages of large, flat surfaces you might have to build them yourself or devise some other extra hands.

If area is reduced to a quarter, then volume must be reduced to an eighth, bringing down the mass and weight of the tool as well. An inferior bench-top tool can be flimsy, shaky and noisy. Manufacturers could counter this by substituting heavier materials in the smaller tools but they are more likely to do the opposite, employing plastic in the housings and fences. This is one area to watch for when comparing manufacturers.

A floor-standing tool might require a rigging crew to move it, some bench-top tools can be moved with one finger. When you deliver a piece of lumber into a tool blade you want to be certain that the tool won't slide away or tip over. This is where the workbench comes in. The bench is not just a passive surface upon which the tool is placed - it is an integral part of the tool's operation. All bench-top tools have mounting holes at the base and can be bolted down using wing nuts or some other quick technique. The mass & inertia problem is now partly transferred to the bench. Of course some tools might be such a weak link in this chain that they would twist or break under the applied forces. Try to avoid those tools.

The size problems are not always so severe. The manufacturer will try to maintain some larger dimensions so that the downsized tool does not become a toy. The results are sometimes Industrial Design comedies - big housings with tiny motors. The risk is that the user will judge the tool's capacity by it's physical size rather than by its power.
Power

Horsepower, torque, amperage - no matter how you view it, bench-top tools are usually less powerful than their larger cousins. Rated speeds will be about the same for any size of tool, but under a load the speed drops off quickly unless there is power behind it. The best approach:

  • Get as much power as you can within the constraints of size, portability and cost. As with cars, power yields dynamic stability. It's an added resource or safety net so that you have one less problem to worry about when you are focused on getting from A to B.
  • Adjust your expectations so that you can get where you're going in smaller steps. Michelangelo had no power tools.

Horsepower designations are susceptible to creative specification, so be aware of what things mean. In rotating terms: Power = Torque x Speed. In electrical terms: Power = Volts x Amps. These values can change depending on whether you are looking at loaded, unloaded, peak or brake conditions. But just as with purchasing cars, the number of power levels from which to choose is limited anyway.

Accessories


All power tools have consumable parts such as blades, bits or sandpaper that actually contact the wood. There may also be third-party accessories such as jigs, fences and templates. It's a good strategy when buying tools (or anything else) to choose a base product that is compatible with a good variety of standard accessories. The alternatives are higher cost, fewer choices and the risk of obsolescence. Fortunately the industry has very few renegade designs, but it's always wise to check the consumables when buying a power tool.

Some examples:
  • Tenoning jigs and other sliding devices are usually designed for a "standard" 3/4" wide x 3/8" deep slot. But sometimes the smaller tools will have smaller slots.
  • A bench-top drill press should be no problem - it will accommodate the same range of bits as a full-size, floor-standing drill press.
  • There are established standard sizes for jointer and planer blades. Also for sanding discs, belts, sheets and most sanding drums.
  • A nominal "ten-inch" table saw, even a cheap one, will take a standard 10" diameter blade. In that size you can find a variety of professional woodcutting blades.
  • Some saws are better than others at fitting dado and shaper blades. Also these cuts can require considerable power, so it's wise to have a dado strategy when first buying the saw.
  • Downsized band saws can only handle proportionally downsized blades. At the very small end, the quality and variety of blades is limited to a kind of hobby-grade selection.
  • You can go a long way with the commonly available 1/4" shank router bits. But if you plan to do a lot of heavy-duty routing, get a machine that can handle industrial-strength 1/2" shank bits. These can be safely bushed to take the 1/4" as well.

Time

The consumption of time is inversely proportional to the available power. To avoid overwhelming and damaging the bench-top tool you must make moderate, sometimes cumulative cuts and keep the feed rate to a safe level. This means more time spent adjusting the depth of cut, more passes over the material and possibly slower passes. None of this should matter very much since you are not operating a production shop - you're doing this for fun. Also, unless you are producing large numbers of identical pieces, most of your time is spent in layout and setup, not in the actual cutting of wood. If the tool is so weak that it can only nibble the work, then you've bought the wrong tool and you're better off using hand tools.
Repeatability

Repeatability in this case means making a cut, doing something else for a period, then coming back to the same tool to make an identical cut. Since your tables and fences are probably knocked down or re-arranged after each use of the bench-top tool, repeatability is affected. Best to make all the cuts at once if you can.

Safety

Small fences and feed tables. Lightweight platforms. These can present added safety hazards because the user now has to take on more tasks and can't lean into the tool with confidence. Small tools are not such stable and supportive partners as their larger cousins.

Practical Limits to Downsizing

The Downside of Downsizing While it's possible to employ all bench-top and no floor-standing tools, it might not be advisable because some tools just can't scale down that far without losing some of their intended functionality. I'd be suspicious of the following tools if I could easily pick them up and carry them across the room:

  •     Band Saw
  •     Jointer
  •     Thickness Planer
  •     Lathe

On the other hand, if your expectation and your intended use of the tool is low, then the results might be fine. I have a bench-top band saw which has been satisfactory so far because I don't use it to "re-saw" boards for thickness. It doesn't have the capacity for that job.

Consider the Upside


From the points listed above it should be clear that a big stationary tool has performance advantages even though it consumes more space and is harder to move around. But, depending on the tool, it might not need to come to the center of the garage anyway. Decide what the "foundation" activities of your shop will be and consider acquiring one or two substantial tools to perform those functions. Depending on your area of focus any of the following might be good investments as floor-standing rather than bench-top tools.

  •     Table Saw
  •     Jointer
  •     Band Saw
  •     Radial-Arm Saw
  •     Lathe
  •     Thickness Planer

Conclusion

Bench-top tools are a viable means of equipping a non-professional wood shop. Their major advantage is compactness when not in use. If selected and used carefully, they are capable of general-purpose machining on projects of furniture-size or larger. They might not be suitable for intensive use on the core activity of a special-purpose shop.





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