Buying Tools – How Much Do I Spend

“We are not rich enough to buy cheap things” – Ancient Persian Proverb

Unless you are independently wealthy you have to budget the amount of money you spend on tools. In doing that you have to balance the quality of the tool, what you need it to do and how much it costs. A cheaply made tool that doesn’t function well or breaks easily will cost you more in the long run than a tool that cost more up-front but lasts longer. However you can spend money you don’t need to by buying tools that while expensive are worth every penny to someone who can take advantage of the level of precision that the tool offers, but you are not that person and will never be that person. Another thing to consider is how often will you use that tool and will a value priced tool be good enough. Personally I tend to spend more on my hand tools to get a higher quality as I know they will last forever and the technology will not change. For power tools I tend to go with a more affordable option or buy used. Let me give you some examples and reasons for my decisions.

Mechanics Tools (wrenches, sockets & screwdrivers) Pay More – I bought the Craftsman brand from Sears 25+ years ago and they are still going strong. I can’t say if the current production runs are the same, but they sure work for me. Plus the few that did fail were replaced for free by Sears. However I also bought a no brand set of impact sockets from Northern Tool and broke my own rule, but this set has been fantastic and they are not showing any signs of cracking or wear. Impact sockets take a lot of stress and I am surprised at how these have held up.

Circular Saw/Miter Saw: Buy on the lower priced side – I bought what I would consider “one step up” from the bottom and have been happy and had them for years. Now I do not use either of these on a daily basis so if your use pattern is different you might want to go higher up the price scale then I did. For what trim work I did the precision of the Ryobi miter saw I got was more than a match for my skill level. However I know a master craftsman that builds stairs that you wouldn’t believe that spent thousands on a miter saw but his skill level is high and he needs the more exact tools.

Handheld Grinders: I bought Cheap – I have both a 4-1/2″ and an 8″ right angle grinder that I got from Harbor Freight. The pricing on these was very low compared to other brands. But I only need these a few times a year. When I need them it would be very hard to get done what I need to do without them (mainly sharpening mower blades) but I just do not use them that much. I have to say I do not regret at all this purchase even it is one of my “cheaper” buys.

Cutting Things (Blades & Chisels): Pay More – I have found that investing more in quality cutting tools is wise. I’ve bought the bulk pack of sawzall blades and they were not worth the cheap price I did pay for them. Also spending a bit more on a circular saw blade will make the saw you do have perform much better. While not high-end I did buy a set of Stanley wood chisels and I did have to sharpen them but the do very well for me.

Cordless Tools: Homeowner grade – I have went with the Ryobi brand and I use the impact driver frequently. I would expect any brand you recognize and is sold in the big box stores would work for most people. Interestingly I know some contractors that also buy “value-priced” home owner grade cordless tools because they have found that it usually isn’t wearing out that causes them to replace these tools, it is theft, dropping or doing something you shouldn’t. Why buy expensive stuff for your workers to destroy?

Hand Tools (hammers, hand planes and the like): Pay More – For these tools you need to buy a brand that is recognized as quality, otherwise you will be disappointed. The big box stores do sell quality hammers (I have an Estwing that I bought 30 years ago) I have tried a wood plane once and it was close to worthless. I have done much better with used ones from eBay, a little clean up and sharpening and the work good. Lee Valley makes some absolutely wonderful planes, but at $250 and up I cannot justify spending the money.

In closing I would say do not let tool snobs prevent you from getting a less expensive brand of something you need. There is something to be said for saving your money and buying something that will last a lifetime, but keep in mind many power tools will not last that long no matter what brand they are or how much you spend so consider carefully how much you spend. Your best option would be to talk to someone who would have a similar use patter to you and see what they have and what they think about it. If anyone says with great enthusiasm “I would never buy anything but XYZ brand”, carefully consider their stance before you decide to follow them. My personal recommendation is to spend more money on non-powered hand tools and look for lower priced options on the power ones. Unless you are rich then I don’t think you will be coming to me for advice anyway.

Sawing Lumber – An Overview Part 1

First of all notice that I said “lumber” and not “wood”. What is the difference you may ask? Well for the purposes of this discussion wood is what trees are made of and lumber is when someone takes that wood and cuts it to a standard size and dries it to a stable moisture content. In years past the hand saw was king and doing everything from carpentry to building fine furniture used a hand saw. Later as the industrial revolution came about factories had powered saws, but small shops did not have a power source and likewise carpenters could not take a steam engine or water wheel to the job site with them, so they still used a hand saw.

Stanley Saw Set


Hand Saws
Back in the very early 80’s Mr. Kruger taught me about saws in shop class. In the cabinet there were rip saws, cross-cut saws and back saws and only the teacher got to use the table saw. A good idea for 7th & 8th graders. However hand saws take maintenance just like any other edged tool and I’m sorry to say it is not common to find someone who can “tune up” and sharpen a hand saw. This requires some special files that are not too hard to find and a saw tooth set which is harder to find one in good shape. Plus you need the skills to file the teeth properly and “set” the teeth. While I have a love for traditional woodworking and tools, I have not been able to get this to work for me. I haven’t found a saw tooth set that I was will to pay the asking price for and therefore haven’t invested the money in hand saws. Except for those hand saws lovingly maintained by my old shop teacher I haven’t found any that made trying to cut a board anything other than an exercise in frustration.

Japanese Style Pull SawThe one exception to this is a Japanese style pull saw that I got for about $20. This saw cuts on the pull stroke so the blade can be much thinner and it has a cross-cut tooth pattern on one side and a rip pattern on the other. However to be fair I really only use it to finish the cut on an inside corner that I can’t get with my circular saw. The way this saws are made the teeth are hardened and really cannot be sharpened, the blades are almost always replaceable and disposable. The price is low enough that I would recommend everyone have one of these. There are much more expensive Japanese style saws that can be sharpened, but they are not someplace I’ve chosen to spend my money. My skill level isn’t high enough to benefit from that level of tool.


Circular Saw
Circular Saw
This is a power saw that as the name suggest has a circular saw blade and it is hand-held, that is the lumber is held down and you move the saw over it. You will hear some refer to it as a SkilSaw as that was one of the first manufactures and the name became synonymous with this type of saw. They start at $50 and good ones can be had for $100 and great ones cost $200 or more. For the average home owner the $50 ones are good enough if you are on a budget and I haven’t found anything that disappointed me about my $100 Craftsman saw. One thing I will recommend is buy a better blade with carbide teeth and use the one that came with the saw if you have to cut questionable wood or are not concerned about good the cut looks. If you are working with plywood you should consider getting a blade designed for cutting plywood, it will have a lot more teeth per inch and produce a better cut in that material.


Miter Saw
This is a very convenient way to cut material to length with either a square or metered end for corners. It is most frequently used to cut trim but I have used and abused mine and cut a lot of 2×4 studs and even PVC pipe. For the $100 I paid for it I have more than got my money out of it. I want to build a miter saw station for it so it is always ready to go.

Ryobi Miter Saw

Reciprocating Saw AKA Sawzall
Reciprocating Saw
This saw is mainly used in demolition or other rough applications as it does not product a particularly straight or smooth cut. But when something is in your way there are a variety of blades that can cut through just about anything. Again one of the “nice to haves” until you really need it, then it is a “must have”. There are some situations where almost nothing else will do. “Sawzall” was the first maker and it has become the name by which this tool is known.


This concludes part one and I feel I should mention that all of these, with the exception of the sawzall are really designed to make straight cuts. While you can make crooked cuts, that is more a user error then the design of the saw. Also all of these are designed for you to move the saw with the lumber staying in place, clamped if a small piece or just held with its own weight if it is a large piece. In the future we will provide overviews of other saws.


Blacksmith’s Post Vice – If You See One Buy It

While a post or leg vice is not necessary to get started in blacksmithing it is one of those things that is very nice to have. Further of the blacksmiths tools you need the ones you cannot make yourself are the anvil and the post vice. New they are $700 and up plus shipping, on eBay they are $150 and up (again plus shipping) or you can watch Craigslist. There is also the option of asking around as you never know who will have what. I missed out on an anvil from a guy at work where he just wanted it gone, I’m still kicking myself about that. Think about some old-time farmers as they often repaired things themselves in days past and now that they are retired or semi-retired there could be some of this kind of stuff sitting unused.

A massive piece of forged iron
A massive piece of forged iron

What makes a blacksmiths leg vice different is it is designed to take a beating. First of all they are massive, often times 40″ tall and weigh in the 100 lb range. Notice the leg or post that goes all the way to the ground to transfer the force from striking your work down to the ground. Further the screw goes through two eyes forged in the clamping jaws, this isolates the screw from any striking forces applied to the jaws while you force the metal to the shape you want it. When I think what most of us use a vice for I think this is a much better choice than the machinist vice that you normally find for sale in hardware stores. I was fortunate enough to buy what amounts to a full but small blacksmith’s shop after searching for close to a decade and it included this leg vice. I’m not sure how old it is but it is all I can do to lift and carry it. Now that my house is built I can turn my attention to assembling my smithy. Even if you never plan on doing blacksmithing, a leg vice is a good tool for anyone’s homestead. This is also a word of caution, if you have a “regular” vice don’t strike it or something clamped in it very hard as it can really mess up the screw.

Do You Have A Sewing Kit?

As I got out my winter coat for the first time I remembered that a button had come off last spring. When I was in school many years ago we had a class called “Home Economics” and both boys and girls took it (as well as shop class). In that class I was taught the basics of sewing among other home skills. The class was easy for me because much of it I had already been taught by my mother. Now I’m not claiming to be able to make an article of clothing from a bolt of fabric but I did turn out a respectable apron made out of denim that I used, ironically, in shop class. Continue reading “Do You Have A Sewing Kit?”

An Introduction to the Axe

While I would probably recommend buying a chainsaw first over an axe if you are a property owner with some woods, an axe is a close second. Further I find I really enjoy using an axe and for some smaller tasks it can be quicker than getting out and starting a chainsaw plus an axe is lighter to carry into the woods. I sure wouldn’t want to cut my winters firewood with an axe and hand saw, but I still wouldn’t want to be without one (or more) on my little homestead. There are some good ones still being made, but there is also a lot of junk and of the several I’ve bought at places like Home Depot and Tractor Supply have been close to useless.

In my experience cutting the small branches off of a tree is where you run the greatest risk of the chain coming off your chainsaw. A good sharp axe can take those off of a green tree with one hit. further the back side of the axe can be used to drive in a felling wedge (not metal, I use plastic) and help you get your chainsaw un-stuck when something didn’t go according to plan. An axe always starts, is quite and doesn’t run out of gas until you do. Further if you do any kind of green woodworking an axe is one of the basic tools.

If you want to buy new Husqvarna has a line of axes in the $60 range that have received excellent reviews and I own 3 of them and have to agree. However I haven’t found any retail store that sells them, even Husqvarna dealers would only order one for me if I made them, so I just went to Amazon and the axe showed up on my doorstep. These are forged heads and they are a little rough in that the head of the axe is not ground smooth. Just the cutting area is ground so you can still see the hammer marks further back, however I do not consider this a negative. To start with I would recommend the Multipurpose Axe and while I normally don’t like multipurpose tools as they often don’t do any job well in this case I feel this is the right design. I wouldn’t want to fell too many trees with it but for something you are going to carry into the woods it is a great size, small enough to carry and just big enough to do the job. Be careful because it is very sharp and I cut my thumb good because I was used to duller junk axes. Gransfors Bruks is another excellent brand, but all of their stuff starts in the $100 range and goes up. There are others names I would consider like Cold Steel and Council Tool, but I just do not have any personal experience with them.

Another good option is to look at garage sales and flea markets, but this usually takes some patience to find something and you will frequently need to replace the handle. However these can be a great deal (sometimes only a few dollars) and gives you the chance also to learn how to replace the handle or “hang” the axe. Avoid anything that looks cast and I find in older tools the metal almost looks black. Unless you are an axe collector or know what you are buying I would be careful going over $10-$15 for an axe head or $25-$30 for one with a good handle. Further you might be able to make a little pocket-money buying axe heads and refurbishing them and reselling the known brands. Below are a couple of good YouTube videos from the US Forest Service. The first shows how to hang and sharpen an axe and the second on how to safely use one. A great bit of safety advice is 9 minutes into the second video and I taught it to my son. If you follow it you will never cut your foot or leg with your axe. Below that is a couple of links I found on where to get good quality hickory handles online. Beware once you start buying axes and discover how usfull a good axe is you might find the number going up every time you find a “great deal”. Of course my opinion is there is no such thing as too many axes.



Tennessee Hickory Products Lots of good information but it appears they only sell larger quantities
Hickory Handle Store From what I can tell this is the way to buy small quantities of Tennessee Hickory Products


Cordless Drill and Impact Driver

Cordless tools took the world of contractors and builders by storm about 20 years ago. The price kept coming down and now they are very affordable for the home owner and are extremely convenient and have enough power for most jobs. One thing to keep in mind with cordless tools is the batteries will be a noticeable expense and they will need to be replaced over time. Also the various brands use their own proprietary shape and connectors so you cannot swap batteries between brands of tools, they are not like AA’s, C-cell or D-cell batteries. Therefore you will likely stick with a brand once you start buying it. For the homeowner and DIY’er I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the main brands like Dewalt, Black & Decker, Makita or Ryobi. There is a lot of debate over which is the best, but my opinion on the matter is unless you are making a living with the tool they are all good.

Personally I have all 18V Ryobi tools for the simple reason many years ago there was a 5 piece set for sale at Home Depot and that is what I started with and so that’s what I stayed with. I am a home owner, not a contractor so keep that in mind as it did influence my decision. However I did have a new house build and did most of the inside work myself using these Ryobi tools and while none of my original batteries are still good the only Ryobi tool I had stop working was the radio and having it outside in the rain might have had something to do with that. I’ve also talked to contractors and many of them are going with cheaper tools like Ryobi because when the get dropped off a ladder or left in the rain or on a job site or stolen, they are easier to replace. They are finding that a tool get damaged due to the operator or conditions it is in rather the just breaking because it is not up to the work. Buy what you want, just consider you may be paying more money than you need too based on your usage pattern.

After having said all that I recommend to start your collection of cordless tools with a drill and impact driver. Home Depot has the Ryobi set on sale for $100 and that price will probably stick through the holidays. I did find a similar Black & Decker kit for about $110, but I don’t personally know anything about it. You really do need both the drill and impact driver, they do different things. The drill obviously drills holes and can be used to drive screws, however an impact driver does a much better job. I have also used the impact driver to work on my tractor when I was not near a power source to use an air-powered impact wrench. I was surprised at the stuck bolts the impact actions could get out that I could not get out by hand with a socket. Of all my cordless tools (and I own more than I care to admit) I have used the impact driver probably more than the rest combined. After you buy these two you will also need some drills and driver bits. At this stage I would recommend just a small $10-$20 set until you know what you really need and there will be a future post on this subject.

Let’s Talk Tools

old-tools-3-1517382-639x809First of all let me start by saying I love tools. Old, new, power, hand it doesn’t matter. For some activities you must have tools and sometime special tools, other times you can make do with something close or cobble something together. I believe that everyone (and I do mean everyone) should own some basic hand tools, further if you own or take care of a home there are some additional tools that you should have. Then as you develop additional interests you can acquire tools specific to that area of work i.e. plumbing, mechanic, woodworking.

Tools will be assigned levels to give you our recommendation on when you buy them as your progress toward being a well tooled man or woman. Note that everyone’s circumstances are different so this should just be viewed as guidance. Each tool or category of tool will be described along with why you need it, how flexible/specialized it is. Level 0 are things that I believe every person should have, this will be a short list and will only let you do the very basics. Even those that live in an apartment should have the level 0 kit However everyone needs to start somewhere and this will be a set that doesn’t cost that much and doesn’t take up too much room. From there we will go to level 1 which is designed for the home owner and again are things that I consider to be the “must-haves” for anyone that wants to do their own projects around their house/property. We will try very hard to have options depending on your budget including answering “if I can only buy one, which one should it be”.

I also consider what you have in the kitchen to be tools and while I’m a little less qualified to speak in this area we will try to provide sound guidance. One of my favorites from the Food Network is Alton Brown and in his book on Gear For You Kitchen he describes moving everything out from his kitchen and putting it in the basement. Then when he needed something he went down and got it and in the end he was surprised how few things he really needed. I feel this is the case for many things we have, we may buy large sets of things thinking the company that put the set together must know what we need. However I suspect that many times it is the case they put together sets to sell more product.

If you are just starting out on building your tool collection I hope this series will help you. I’ve seen many articles and discussions on building a tool collection and I always felt they overwhelmed the new user with too many options and too many choices. This series will answer the question “What should I buy first” so analysis paralysis will not set in. if you don’t have everything in level 0 seriously look at buying them first. Next level 1 will likely be a “should have for most people who would read about tools on this or any other web site. Further there will be projects that are focused on learning how to use a particular tool to help build skills.

I hope you enjoy this series and everything will be indexed on the Tool Recommendations page.