My advice when buying any tool is to buy the best tool you can afford. Price usually follows quality, and quality does matter in woodworking. It may be difficult to buy top of the line equipment when starting out. There are a number of strategies, however, that you can take. Buy one tool at a time. Or, buy used equipment. If you have to start out with less than the perfect equipment, at least you'll have time to learn what features are most important to you when you go to buy a replacement tool.
The table saw is the workhorse of a woodworker's shop. The table saw is designed to make rip cuts along the length of a board. It can also perform crosscuts across the width of a board using the supplied mitre gauge.
The table saw comes in three varieties: benchtop, contractor, and cabinet models. The benchtop model sits on the bench, as its name implies. The contractor version is a larger, more powerful version that sits on a leg stand. The cabinet model is the most powerful of the three mounted on an enclosed base. The cabinet saw also comes with the best rip fence and mitre guage.
My recommendation is to go with a contractor's saw or the cabinet saw. Stay away from the benchtop model. The motor is a small direct drive model (vs. belt driven in the others), it vibrates more, and sits too high for safe operation. The contractor's saw is a good compromise, has most of the key features the cabinet saw has and is significantly less expensive than a cabinet saw ($300 to $800 vs. $1300 to $2400).
The jointer is used for the flattening of the first face and edge of a board as part of the lumber preparation process (see my article, How to Prepare Lumber For Your Woodworking Projects. The role of the jointer is to remove the warp that develops in a board during the milling and drying processes.
The jointer comes in both benchtop and floor models. Get a floor model in at least a six inch width -- 8 inches is better, but also more expensive. The jointer will dictate the width of the widest board you can work. Expect to pay $400 to $700 for a six inch version. An 8 inch width will set you back $700 to $1200.
A planer is used to flatten the opposite face from the face first jointed. The planer allows the thickness of the board to be the same across its width. In other words, the two faces of the board are parallel to each other.
The benchtop version of the planer is perfectly good choice. The quality of bench planers is very good. They will set you back $250 to $450. A floor model will cost you $800 to $1500. They don't provide a significant return over the benchtop model unless you are dealing with a high volume of lumber.
The band saw is a very versatile tool that cuts curved shapes in a board, along and across the grain. Some may argue that the band saw doesn't belong on this list and others will argue that it is the only saw needed (i.e., you don't need a table saw). I fall somewhere in the middle. I believe it belongs in your shop, just not as much as a table saw. I did without one for a number of years, but now find uses for it all the time.
Band saws come in both benchtop and floor models. I suggest the floor model because, in part, good quality benchtop models cost more than floor models. Additionally, band saws come in different size diameters for the band to run around. A 12 inch or 14 inch band saw should suffice for most work. If you can, though, get it with an extension mount to increase the size of the board to run for resawing. Standard height is six inches, and extensions add another six inches. Floor model band saws range in price from $300 to $1400, so pay attention to features offered for the price.
The wood router is a powered hand tool for edge and surface treatments of a board. It can be used by hand or mounted in a router table. Routers come in a number of models, power settings, and prices.
As a first router, I recommend buying a kit consisting of one motor along with two bodies the motor can fit into. I recommend a one and three quarter to two and a half horsepower motor with a variable speed switch. This gives the most versatility and can be used both freehand and mounted in a router table. Prices range from $180 to $280 for a kit.
The drill is the last of the tools the beginner needs, and is probably the most used. It can used to drill holes and drive screws. I use mine all the time. I use mine for not only woodworking, but also for all kinds of work around the house.
Get a corded version first. It provides the most power and torque for drilling and driving. Also, you won't run out of power (as long as your electricity stays on). Corded drill run anywhere from $20 to $100. Battery operated ones run from $70 to $250.
Note: This list is by no means all inclusive. Many of you may argue for other tools, such as a mitre saw, radial arm saw, lathe, random orbital sander, scroll saw, drill press, or a biscuit joiner. All are valuable tools, but from my perspective the six presented above should provide the beginning woodworker with enough equipment to do an excellent job.
New Woodworker Hand Tools
Every woodworker needs hand tools. Here's a list of tools for the woodworker just starting out. This list is by no means exhaustive - its only meant to be a guide. A future article will include an extended list for the more experienced woodworker.
There are woodworkers who work exclusively with hand tools and there are those that use almost none. Just judge your selection of hand tools based on the degree to which you want to use them. Of course, doing a project that "requires" a tool you don't have is always a good excuse to buy one.
Marking Awl or Scratch Awl
Combination Square (I use my 6 inch much more than my 12 inch)
Engineer's Square -- 3, 6, and 9 inches are all useful
Pencils -- #2 or HB, white (for dark woods, like walnut)
Steel Rules -- 6 inch and 12 inch
Tape Measure -- 12 feet or 5 meters (16 feet)
Edge and Shaping Tools
Bench Chisels -- Bevel-edge, socketed (Set of 4, 5, or 6 -- 1/4 inch to 1 inch or 6 mm to 25 mm)
Mortise Chisels -- 1/4 inch (6 mm) and 3/8 inch (9 mm)
Bastard Mill File -- 10 inch (250 mm)
Smooth Mill File -- 10 inch (250 mm)
File Card with Integral Brush -- or Stiff Hair & Wire Brushes
Block Plane -- low angle, adjustable mouth
Smoothing Plane -- #3, 4, or 4 1/2
Jointer Plane -- #7 or 8
Patternmaker's Rasp -- Nicholson #50
Back Saw -- cross-cut teeth
Dovetail Saw -- rip teeth
Hand Scraper -- rectangular
Paint Scraper -- for glue removal
Bar Clamps -- 6 inch (150 mm), 12 inch (300 mm), and 24 inch (600 mm) pairs
C Clamps (G Cramps) -- 4 inch (100 mm) and 6 inch (150 mm) pairs
Pipe Clamps -- for 3/4 inch (18 mm) diameter pipe
Pipe Couplers -- to extend the length of pipe clamps