Skill Set: Getting Started with Power Tools

Woodworking Workshop
Skill Set: Getting Started with Power Tools

For our Woodworking Skill Set theme, we asked MAKE contributor Len Cullum to contribute some pieces on understanding basic tools and techniques. Here, he explains power tools common in woodworking. — Gareth

This week in woodworking tools, we move into the land of electricity, with impressive tools that exchange drudgery for speed, relative silence for roar, and charming shavings for clouds of dust. Power tools can ease some of the burden of woodwork but make no mistake, they still require finesse and a little practice to get the most out of them. They’re still hand tools, just far much more aggressive ones.

What can you say about a drill? It makes holes and drives screws. Whether cordless or corded, they all preform in the same basic way. Since everyone should at least be passingly familiar with what a drill does, I’ll focus instead on different styles of bits.

From left to right: twist drill, brad point, auger bit

First up is the standard twist drill. This is the most common style of bit for general purpose drilling. They work okay in wood but because of the shape of the tip, can leave a slightly ragged hole. If you’re drilling pilot holes for screws and the like, this is fine, but if you want smooth sided, clean holes for dowels or plugs, then you will want to step up to brad point bits.

The brad point, or spur bit, is designed specifically for drilling wood. It has a sharp point at its center which helps with accuracy and also keeps the bit from wandering when starting the hole. The spurs to either side act to slice the wood grain before pulling it out, keeping the hole much smoother and cleaner.

Auger bits are similar to spur bits but with smoother sides and center screw tip. This screw makes the bit pull itself into the wood which helps with the deep straight holes they are designed to drill. They are available in really long sizes so if you need to drill a five foot deep hole, an auger bit is for you. Try to ease in on the power when starting one because they can really get get away from you if you aren’t ready for it.

From left to right: paddle bit, forstner bit, hole saw

For drilling holes over 1/2″, most people turn to paddle bits and Forstner bits. Paddle or spade bits are the berserkers of the drill bit world. Their flat shape makes them flail wildly into the wood leaving raged destruction in their wake. If you need big holes fast in places you won’t see, these are the bits for you. And while all drill bits have issues with blow out on the exit side of the hole, these are exceptionally bad. To help remedy that, clamp a scrap piece of wood to the exit side. And if you need to enlarge an existing hole using one, first drill through a scrap with the larger bit, then clamp it over the existing hole and let it act as a guide.

Forstner bits look completely different from the rest and come in diameters from 1/4″ to 4″. They cut clean sided, flat bottomed holes. Because of their design, they can also drill overlapping holes which makes them great for wasting mortises or situations where you have to bore out a larger area. While the smaller sizes perform pretty well in a hand drill, the larger ones require a lot of power to turn so should be used in a drill press. Trust that you do not want to try to drive a 4″ bit by hand. If a hand drill is the only option and you need a large diameter hole, switch to a hole saw.

Hole saws are great when it comes to making large diameter holes. Since they only cut the outer edge of the hole instead of cutting all of the waste away, they require less power but because they leave the center intact, they are best for through holes.

Power saws for woodwork break into three basic varieties: circular, reciprocating, and band (I’ll leave chainsaws to someone else). Since bandsaws for woodworking are primarily stationary tools, I’ll cover them later. This time, I’ll focus on the other two.

Circular saws have a round blade that spins inside a housing and are mostly used for straight line cutting. They can be used freehand for rough cutting but for important cuts that need to be straight, it’s best to run it against a straight edge. A piece of straight lumber will work but I prefer the factory edge of a piece of plywood. There are also purpose built aluminum tracks available that do the same thing.

Jigsaws have a reciprocating blade that travels up and down through the wood. Because the body of the blade is narrow, they can be used for cutting curves and shapes. The narrow blade also means that cutting straight lines can be a challenge. This is especially true in thick wood where it’s common for the blade to deflect and wander below the surface leaving the cut with angled faces. The key to getting a jigsaw to behave is to use fresh blades, take your time and let the tool do the cutting. Don’t force it.

Trim router, plunge router

It’s hard to imagine a tool as versatile as the router. With its endless selection of bit shapes and styles and its equally vast set of jigs, there is little that can’t be done with one. There are bits for cutting joints, making edge profiles, following patterns, and incising designs. Basically, a high speed (8000 – 28000rpm) motor with a chuck for mounting bits and a sole to control the depth of cut, the router is a fairly simple device. But because of that simplicity, it is easy to manipulate and trick into doing your bidding. Of the three I own, the one that sees the most use is the trim router. Its small size makes it easy to set up and maneuver but it has plenty of power to do what I need.

Biscuit jointer with three common size biscuits

Biscuit Joiner
Biscuit or plate joining is a type of loose tenon joinery. Where a standard mortise and tenon joint is composed of two pieces, one with the mortise (female side) and one with the tenon (male side), a loose tenon joint has two mortises and a floating or loose tenon that they share. The biscuit joiner uses a small saw blade to cut a semicircular slot that fits one half of a football shaped piece of compressed wood called, you guessed it, a biscuit. When glue is applied to the biscuit it swells slightly, helping lock everything together. This makes for a clean, fastener free, and surprisingly strong joint. Because of this swelling action, you have to work fast. If you move too slow the biscuit can swell so much that the joint will no longer close. Breaking complex pieces into sub assemblies can help. Also be sure to dry fit everything together before gluing. You don’t want to discover the one misaligned biscuit when your racing the glue.

Random orbit sander, half sheet finishing sander

Nothing says drudgery to me like sanding. Hand sanding in particular. Hours of arm stress and mind numbing repetition. Power sanders help a lot. Broken into three groups, circular (and random orbit), orbital (vibrating) and belt. Each has its strong and weak points.

Belt sanders are nice in that they can remove a lot of stock quickly and in experienced hands can be used for finish sanding. On the other hand, because the belt travels in one direction, it should only be used in the direction of the grain. This makes sanding assemblies difficult. It’s also important to keep them moving to avoid sanding a ditch into the surface.

Orbital sanders move the sandpaper in tiny circles. So tiny that it feels like it’s just vibrating. This makes stock removal much slower but also leaves a finer surface. They can be used in any direction if moved slowly, but still perform best when moved with the grain. Available in quarter sheet (palm) and half sheet sizes they are great for final smoothing, but still leave tiny little circular scratches in the surface.

Random orbit sanders add the same orbital action to a spinning disc. This acts to get rid of the little circles and allows for sanding in any direction. It can be used for quick stock removal and finish sanding making it the sander to go for if you can only have one.

Be sure to check out our entire woodworking skill set

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.