I love doing a holiday gift guide every year. It’s my chance to share some of the best new gear I’ve seen, plus a few existing products you might have overlooked. From best buys to treat-yourselfs, stocking stuffers to workshop heavyweights, there’s something for everyone. I’ll start with music, which makes everybody happy.
Best bluetooth earplugs on the market
I like listening to music and podcasts in my workshop. When I need to concentrate, it’s tunes; when I don’t, it’s talk. And these new IsoTunes noise-isolating headphones are the best I’ve tried. They hang on the back of your neck till you need them, but more often than not I plug them in my ears and leave them there. When the occasional call comes in, I’m ready. For everyone from gun owners to frequent fliers to DIYers of all stripes, these earbuds rock.
There are two models, the normal IsoTunes and IsoTunes Pro, with the main difference being battery time: 4 hours of music in one; 10 hours in the other. But the super-comfy earbuds and controls are the same either way, as is how amazingly effective these are at canceling the roar of my loudest tools. Both come with a number of different plugs for different size ears, so you can get the fit just right. It takes a minute to compress the foam plugs and get them into your ears, but once you do, you’ll be amazed. In fact, you’ll forget they are even there.
More music, in the form of two awesome projects
While we are on the topic, here’s an awesome little project kit from Rockler, a great source for project ideas of all kinds, especially for beginner and intermediate woodworkers. The Rockler Bluetooth Speaker Kit includes a sweet-little full-range speaker, with the wiring and electronics you need to put your music into almost anything.
Rocker also includes a free plan download on the product page. By the way one of the nice Forstner bits featured below will be perfect for installing this kit.
This kit has proved so popular at $30 that is it sold out at the moment. But if you buy one now you still might get it by Christmas.
While we are exploring bluetooth speaker kits, if you want true hi-fi sound in a kit that can be installed into almost anything, check out the kits at Case of Bass. Most include a big rechargeable battery, bluetooth unit, a serious amp, and serious speakers. The rest is up to you. I recommend that you buy the intermediate or high-end kit, which includes the lithium-ion battery (and can also be plugged in).
A couple of how-to tips for installing a Case of Bass Kit. Use some flexible foam (like egg-crate mattress topper) to create a divider between the left and right channels inside the box you build. For more amazing Cases of Bass, look here.
WoodRiver Forstner bits are a steal at $60
I just tested big drill bits for Woodcraft magazine, from hole saws to spade bits to the all-time greatest option for large holes, the Forstner bit, and the WoodRiver Forstners ran away with the best-buy award, boring big, clean holes in the hardest woods for much less than the other top-performers. And this 16-bit set just went on sale, covering all the sizes you are likely to need. It’s even got a nice wood box for storage and protection.
If you don’t already know about Forstner bits, listen up. Unlike any other drill bit, these make flat-bottomed holes for all sort of projects. They also leave a perfectly clean rim and smooth walls. Due to their unique cutting geometry, they can be used (in a drill press only) to bore holes at an angle or partially off the side of a board. If you are clearing out a mortise, you can overlap the holes without these bits wandering a bit.
If that weren’t enough, you can use Forstner bits in handheld drills too. But stick to the straight holes for that, no partials or angles!
There’s nothing like a great pair of boots
I’m lucky that my workshop is in an attached garage I can walk into through a door near the kitchen. But when I plan to spend more than an hour out there, I put on workboots. It might seem like overkill indoors, but the solid support makes a huge difference on concrete floors, and lets me move around more quickly and positively.
A legendary Portland boot company, Danner, recently reached out with an offer I couldn’t refuse, a free pair of its latest hiking boots, complete with the logo of the Portland Timbers soccer team on the side (one of my other obsessions, aside from building stuff and being outdoors). All I had to promise was to try them out, and let folks know if I like them. As it turns out, I don’t like them…I flipping love them. These are hands-down the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn, and I’ve got wide feet that are pretty hard to make happy. I wear them all the time in the shop now, plus they look cool around town too. My next move will be to try them out on the rocky trails of the Columbia River Gorge. Stay tuned for that.
By the way, Danner has models for all sorts of pursuits, all made in its factory in north Portland. These are made to be lightweight and waterproof, for the Pacific Northwest. In fact, if you don’t mind the Timbers logo on the side, and the white sidewalls, you can get these on sale for $135. Otherwise, they are $200, and still worth every penny.
Good boots are a great investment. You’ll go through 10 crappy pairs of light hikers during the lifespan of one pair of leather boots that are well cared for. I’m still hiking in a great pair of boots I bought 25 years ago.
Mobilize your shop for less
If you’re like me, you’re a little strapped for space. So I mobilize everything I can. That lets me shift the big stuff around to make room for the project at hand. I’ve been using mobile bases for years, but I recently tested one for Fine Woodworking that changes the game. There is no more heavier-duty, smoother-rolling mobile base for the money than the new “Bear Crawl” from Grizzly. Trust me, you want the stiffest construction and best wheels you can buy in your mobile base, so you know it will handle the heaviest machines in your shop without flexing or getting hung up on debris. Simply put, the “Bear Crawl” is a beast, and a shocking deal at $65.
The Bear Crawl base has big levers that make it easy to push down the feet that keep the base locked in place, or drop it down onto the swivel casters.
Workbenches are a lot longer than woodworking machines, and trickier to mobilize, so a lot of folks just slide them around to make space in the shop. Unlike a machine, a workbench needs to sit on its legs, not a mobile base, to provide a solid foundation for effective handwork. Rocker has the solution. Instead of trying to build a giant frame that fits around all four legs, they created casters that attach to each leg individually.
Read the instructions carefully and installation is easy. After that, you just stomp each lever to raise the heaviest bench onto smooth-rolling wheels, or drop it down solidly onto its legs. Here’s a bonus idea: Make your workbench the right height to act as an outfeed table for your tablesaw, and you can roll it into place whenever you need to.
Great little scraper for dried glue
Woodpeckers is one of my favorite sources for innovative hand tools, and they’ve struck again with this simple solution for scraping away glue squeeze-out. It’s nothing more than one of those carbide cutters from a segmented-head milling machines, with a handle attached, but it’s genius nonetheless, and a great stocking stuffer. The great thing about carbide is how long it’s edges will last, even after scraping a mile of hard glue, and each of these little cutters has four edges. When one side gets dull (someday), you can just loosen and rotate the cutter to get a fresh new edge. Another cool thing about carbide is it won’t rust, so you can scrape wet glue too and just wipe off the tool afterward.
Woodpeckers’ standard scraper has slightly curved edges so the corners don’t dig in, but they also sell a flat-edged accessory cutter for $12 so you can get into corners. I haven’t tried this little tool yet, but I’ve used others like it, and at $25 it’s well worth a try.
Three great gifts for hand-tool lovers
If you’ve ever dreamed of cutting dovetails by hand, or just want to use more hand tools in your work, these three items are all essentials, and all incredible buys considering their quality. The first two are from Veritas, one of the best hand-tool makers and innovators on the planet. The last is one of my favorite finds from Japan, for just $20.
Veritas Tools are made in Canada, and they include innovations you won’t find anywhere else. One is the molded spine on the back of their handsaws, made from a high-tech metal/polymer blend, which is just as strong as a traditional folded-brass spine but lighter and cheaper to manufacture. That makes the Veritas dovetail saws the best value out there. These are push saws, which many people find easier to use than pullsaws for precise cuts, and Veritas does not compromise on the steel or the sharpening of these saws, making them a joy to use.
A marking gauge is an essential tool for any fine woodworker, specializing in accurate lines parallel to an edge, not only for marking, but also preventing tearout when you actually make a cut at that line.
I just edited a review of marking gauges for Fine Woodworking magazine (check the latest issue), and the standard Veritas wheel type came out on top for value, as it has again and again in various tests. It’s doesn’t have a micro-adjuster like some of the pricier, newer models, but with an O-ring inside the fence controlling its movement, fine adjustments are easy. Most importantly, it’s sharp disk cuts perfect lines with and across the grain, and the round brass fence rides a board beautifully.
And last but not at all least, this is one of my favorite tools to use. Every time I sharpen a hand tool, which usually involves waterstones, I wipe it off and reach for my little camellia oil applicator to protect the surfaces of the blade from rust. I use it on the cast-iron bodies of my hand planes also, after handling them, since finger oil causes corrosion too.
There are other rust preventers out there, and some might even be rated higher in scientific tests, but this one is so nice to use that you won’t hesitate to use it. Camellia oil is a light, subtly fragrant, traditional Japanese tool oil that comes in small squirt-bottles, I like to apply it with separate little bottle that has a wick on top. Both come in this handy little set from Woodcraft. I rub the wick on the steel, and then spread the oil around with my fingers. Just another Zen moment in the workshop.
Last but not least, Build Stuff with Wood!
I’m biased of course, but I think my new book is a wonderful gift for woodworkers and wanna-be woodworkers young and old. Amazon has the best deal on it, of course.
It’s chock full of advice for true beginners, plus 13 projects for sawdust-makers at every stage of the journey. Inspired by the free-wheeling, creative spirit of the maker movement, I threw out the old dusty rules (except the ones for being safe and getting good results) to design a bunch of cool, usable, brag-worthy projects anyone can make with just a few basic power tools.
Whether you have zero skills and experience, or you’re just looking for great projects that don’t take forever to build, this book is for you.
Happy holidays everyone!