Build lots of stuff with just a few tools

One of the things I love best about building things by hand is the problem-solving. If you know a few tricks, you can use a surprisingly small tool kit to build a staggering amount of stuff. When writing my book, Build Stuff with Wood (coming soon), which is aimed at true beginners, I challenged myself to work with just a few portable power tools. Each one will come in handy for all sorts of DIY and home-improvement for years to come. And all four of them will fit in the back of your Mini Cooper when you move to Brooklyn or Banff (best town name ever).

I made some amazing discoveries along the way. Like the incredibly smooth-cutting blades you can get for a small jigsaw, which will produce cuts that rival those of the biggest bandsaw. Then there is the simple cutting guide you can make for any circular saw. It’s normally a rough construction tool, but the guide turns it into a star, for super-straight cuts on plywood and big boards that look like they were done on a tablesaw.

The other must have is a cordless drill, but not just any cordless drill. You want an impact driver, a new type of drill that rattles loudly when the going gets tough, melting big screws into hard woods almost effortlessly. It can drill just as well.

I went over my $100 budget on the last must-have tool. It’s a miter saw. If you want to build things inside or outside your house or apartment, you’ll want one of these cutoff masters. I’ve used mine when building decks, laying flooring, and making woodwork projects of all kinds. A good one is $300 or so, but it is so worth it. It will make perfect 90-degree cuts (or any other angle) on the ends of boards in just a few seconds, with zero fuss or setup. Just walk up, drop the board in place, pull the trigger and pull the saw downward smoothly.

And the miter saw is portable, meaning it can easily go where it is needed, for projects away from your dedicated workspace. I just used mine to build an entire fence. Look for that blog soon!

To be honest, I’d also add a router, one just like this from DeWalt, which is small enough for easy control but tough enough for any task. Use it to put nice roundovers and bevels on your edges, and too many more cool moves to list here.

That’s everything, and you don’t have to buy it all at once. Buy tools as you need them, and buy the mid-grade at least. You’ll be much happier in the end. I’m showing them below in the order I would buy them, starting with the jigsaw and cordless drill.

Get a good jigsaw and you can make almost any cut you can imagine. Eventually you’ll get tools that do more reliable straight cuts, but the jigsaw can remain your curve specialist. The key to success is buying a decent one, and replacing the stock blades with longer ones designed for smooth cuts in wood.
Here’s me cutting out the back of a bottle opener project for my book.
Smoothing the cuts takes just minutes with sandpaper and a block.
This is my favorite tool all time, a 20V impact driver. You don’t need a model this nice and powerful, but definitely get an impact driver over a normal cordless drill. For driving screws, it is simply amazing.
Here’s the driver assembling the frame of a cornhole game, also in the book!
The only downside to the impact driver is that it only accepts hex-shank bits like these, but you can get an auxiliary chuck for it that takes round-shanked drills.
As soon as you can afford it, get a miter saw. I recommend the 12-in., non-sliding type like this for best value.
You just walk up to the saw, line up a your mark with the blade, pull the trigger and make a perfect cut. Be sure to wear your ear and eye protection, always! (my lenses are polycarbonate, so they suffice)
Eventually you’ll want to make long cuts in plywood and also have a very portable saw for construction projects. You can’t beat the circular saw for that.
Make cutting guide, like I show in an earlier blog, and it will help you make perfectly straight cuts every time. Another trick is the rigid foam insulation I put under the plywood, for perfect support (and protecting the table beneath!).



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