Used Tools for Woodworking; The Way To Go?

by
Jun 20, 2003


The Bottom Line Used tools may save you enough money to be well worth the extra risk.

Woodworking is an expensive hobby. Just the wood to make things is climbing in cost astronomically. The books and magazines you can obtain add even more expense. Then there is the space need. Woodworking is not a kitchen table hobby. With all of that expense, we haven’t even discussed tools. The cost of tools can equal that of a nice automobile. But it doesn’t have to. In an earlier piece about buying tools, we touched on used tools as a source. We will try to go into more depth here.

The woodworking hobby is growing at a happy pace (happy for the purveyors of woodworking tools and supplies). This growth is good for the hobby and for the hobbyist. As a hobbyist grows he expands his tool collection and replaces some of his tools with others. Some who start the hobby find it is not for them and their tools come on the market. Some hobbyists pass away and their heirs don’t wish to continue the hobby. All of this creates a viable used tool market.

In the area of hand tools other forces have been at work for some time. As power tools took over the woodworking world, the hand tools that were the mainstay of the professional became surplus. These have become widely available in the marketplace.

Buying used tools is much like buying a used car. Let the buyer beware is a strong incentive for care. Just as in buying a car, knowledge is a powerful weapon. There are generally no books with expected prices listed as in used cars, but there is a similar rule of thumb that can help in this area. Knowing the dealer, either of the car or the tool, is valuable. Knowing the reputation of the tool is important and can often be ascertained. Being able to examine and try the tool before purchase is equally important as it in a used car purchase. Any kind of warranty is helpful. Offers to assist in learning to set up, maintain, and use the tool adds value and reduces risk.

Used Power Tools

There are three types of power in general use in the woodworking hobby. The main one is the power lines to your home. Often the requirement is 110 volts, sometimes 220 volts, all single phase. Some commercial and industrial tools require three phase power. Think long and hard before committing to any of those. The second most popular today is battery power, usually provided by rechargeable batteries of the NiCad or NiMH type. These are fairly new tools and are having more impact in the new tool area than the used tool arena right now. Then there are the tools powered by compressed air. The range of air tools of interest in the woodworking hobby is more limited than the other two power types.

Since by far the widest selection of power tools available in the used tool marketplace are corded tools, we will start there. These tools generally fall into three categories, portable, tabletop, and stationary. Portable tools are those that can be hand held and taken to the work. Tabletop tools are usually smaller and lighter versions of stationary tools that can be placed on a workbench while in use and stored out of the way other times. Stationary tools are what the name implies, tools meant to be placed and left there most of the time. Even stationary tools can be made portable these days using widely available mobile bases.

The following list is of general tool categories. It is in decreasing order of availability on the used market:

Portable
• Drills
• Saws
• Sanders
• Routers
• Joiners
• Specialty

Benchtop
• Saws
• Drill presses
• Sanders
• Planers
• Jointers
• Router Tables
• Lathes
• Mortising Machines
• Specialty Tools

Stationary Tools
• Saws
• Drill Presses
• Jointers
• Shapers
• Router Tables
• Specialty Tools


This is a list of manufacturers likely to be encountered in the used market for power tools. Not all manufacturers make all power tools. It is (in my opinion) in increasing order of desirability for purchase:

Portable
• Central Machinery
• Skil (except older circular saws)
• Companion (Sears)
• Black and Decker
• Ryobi
• Freud
• Craftsman (Sears) (their older tools are usually better)
• Hitachi
• DeWalt
• Porter Cable
• Makita
• Bosch
• Fein
• Milwaukee
• Festool

Benchtop
• Harbor Freight
• Black and Decker
• Craftsman
• Hitachi
• Grizzly
• Makita
• Bosch
• Porter Cable
• Fisch
• Delta (their low price line, now called Shopmaster, is risky)
• Jet
• Powermatic

Stationary Tools
• Harbor Freight
• Woodtek (some are better. Buyer beware)
• Craftsman
• Grizzly
• Jet
• General
• Delta ( watch out for their low priced line)
• Powermatic


This is not a complete list, but those I know a little about. Use it at your own risk, just like used tool buying. The above list also is a rough indicator of increasing price in the used tool marketplace.

Buying a Used Power Tool

Before you begin your shopping odyssey, do your research. The web is a great place to get information. ebay will give you an idea of price. The newsreader thread rec.woodworking can enrich your knowledge of the good and bad. There is a searchable archive for rec.woodworking on Google. Next is friend and family advice. Talk to them, particularly older folk who have been around tools a lot. Once you have an idea of general price and quality, use the manufacturer list above and mark off those that fall outside your quality or price tolerance. Now you have a short list to begin your adventure.

Gather up your notes, a few tools (a couple of screwdrivers or a multi-tool) and head out. Where do you go? Start with the classified ads in your newspaper or the local trash wrappers. Use the telephone to qualify the tool and the seller before making the drive. Check out garage sales in your area. If you have flea markets, haunt them. Auctions are often a good source if you understand the price (value) of the tool and can resist the temptation to throw in just one more bid. Some radio stations host local sales shows for their listeners. You will notice I don’t list ebay as an alternative here. With a few exceptions the risk is too high when you can’t see, feel, and try the tool first. If there is a good money back guarantee and the seller is very highly rated, it night be worth the chance.

Go find the tool. Look at it to determine its approximate age and condition. Twist or turn things to be sure they work. Look for bearings that catch, levers that stick, rust or pits from earlier rust. If you can see the motor brushes, check their length. This can be a good indicator of how much use the tool has seen. If there is a chuck, make sure it works smoothly and closes solidly. Check the cord for damage and the housing for chips or cracks. I once bought a drill for a friend that had the housing held together with duck tape. I got it for almost nothing and a new housing cost eight dollars with shipping. Plug it in and turn it on. Listen for funny noises that might indicate bearing problems. Try out the features like variable speed or reversing. See if there is excessive sparking around the armature which might indicate problems. See if the tool quickly develops hot spots which might indicate shorted windings in the armature. Don’t hesitate to ask to disassemble the tool (if you can put it back together again afterwards). Open the housing and look inside. I did that once and found a tool that seemed in great condition had had a mouse chewing on the armature winding.

Once you have determined the condition of the tool, make an offer for it. Start low and don’t go over your preset value. Remember the tool with duck tape. Cosmetic flaws can lower the value in the mind of the seller but may not lower the value of the tool much at all. Be prepared to dicker, to walk away and return. Don’t seem overanxious to get the tool. A poker face is helpful here. If you can, negotiate a satisfaction return agreement, giving you a few days to really examine the tool.

When you get the tool home, particularly if you have a return agreement, don’t just toss it on the bench. Get out your tools and your cleaning supplies, and your lubricants. Often these days, manuals for tools can be downloaded from manufacturer’s web site. If not, give them a call or write them and ask for a manual. Although I couldn’t get parts for a 45 year old Craftsman Tool, I still got the manual and the parts breakdown diagram. That was enough to bring it back to top shape. The goal is not to make it like new again but to make it work as well as it did when new. Clean and lubricate but don’t bother with cosmetics. Paint to protect from rust but not for looks. If you aren’t handy with tool overhaul, either stay away from this level of used tool or obtain assistance.

Another source of used tools is the refurbished, near new, tool market. The bargains aren’t as great, but the risks are often lower and the life expectancy of the tool longer. Try to find manufacturer refurbished and a guaranteed tool if this is your choice.

Buying Battery Powered Tools

In general, our advice is don’t buy used unless you know the tool and the seller. These tools have been around for a pretty short time and the first couple of generations were not as good as the current crop. If you know the tool, can check the batteries, and trust the seller, it might be okay to buy. Just remember that a couple of batteries can cost more than a newer tool. Batteries have a useful life of three or four years. Most of the battery powered tools are in the portable tool category and the advice as to availability and manufacturer quality can also apply here.

Air Tools

If you want air tools, you first need a source of high pressure air. This is called a compressor. These can often be found used as well. Follow the advice given for buying power tools here. Some of the safer brands are Porter Cable and Craftsman. Check the Epinions reviews for other brands you might encounter.

Among the most useful air tools in the woodworking shop are nailers. Starting with narrow crown staplers, the next most useful is an eighteen gauge brad nailer. An angled finish nailer, fifteen gauge, can also be useful in cabinet work. Good brands here are Paslode (pricey), Porter Cable, and Craftsman.

Paint guns fall under air tools as well. I don’t have enough experience with these to make recommendations as to how to buy used.

I have found my Craftsman air ratchet to be valuable in things like tool assembly and maintenance and outdoor furniture assembly. Since these are most often thought of as mechanics tools, the brands mechanics know and love would be best. Ask them.

Hand Tools

This is a specialized subject with different criteria than power tools. We hope to cover this in a subsequent advice Epinion.

Conclusion

I have a friend who completely equipped a shop, stationary tools, portable tools, and hand tools for about what I paid for my contractor’s saw. Although his tools don’t have all the bells and whistles of those in my shop, they work just as well, some even better. With what I know now, if I had to start over, my shop would look much older in the tool department.

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