Getting Started in Carpentry – Tools of the Trade

After the latest progress report on the Foreclosure Project, several people were inspired and wrote to me with this question:

I’ve always wanted to be able to do more of my own projects around the house, but I don’t even know what tools I would need to get started. Where can I get this information?

There are probably many great books in the library about this, and other websites as well. But since I had to go through that exact same learning process myself over the years, I thought I’d share my own thoughts on it and perhaps help some people avoid repeating my mistakes. Sometimes, you just want someone to tell you exactly how to get started, as I tried to do in the Pex Plumbing Article.

The Secret Simplicity of Carpentry:
To an outsider, carpenters are sometimes looked upon as magicians. But when it boils down to it, the craft consists of repeating only these four steps: Design, Measure, Cut, and Attach.

You design with your imagination, possibly augmented with graph paper or Google Sketchup. You measure with a tape measure, ruler, various levels and squares, and occasionally angle meters. You cut with an assortment of power saws which grows as you advance (I’m up to about eleven types so far), plus drills and other rotary tools. And you attach with nails (usually from a nailgun), screws, glue, and other types of adhesives.

Design, measure, cut, and attach, that’s it. Everything else is just fancy variations on those basic activities. The better you get at those activities, the better your work becomes.

A Philosophy of Tools: Quality vs. Price
A person who is “cheap” will focus only on price when making purchases, including tools . I’ve never been cheap (believe it or not), so I try to buy tools that give me a maximum level of usefulness (work quality and speed) and longevity, while still weighing these factors against the cost.

This equation also needs to take into account the frequency and value of the work you’ll be doing with the tools. I’m a casual professional, so my tools need to help me produce somewhere between $5k and $100k of value per year depending on what projects are going on. Even at the lower end of that range, dropping from a $100 saw down to a $50 one that is noticeably crappier is a bad idea, because every cut I make will be less straight, and I’ll waste time trying to make up for the bad cuts with other adjustments.  More importantly, my quality will go down, and a lot of the fun in carpentry for me comes from producing the best quality stuff I can possibly make in a given amount of time.

But it is also possible to go overboard in this department. Boutique toolmakers exist in every category, daring you to upgrade from the $500 table saw that I use, to the $3,600 one. What I’ve found from using both types of equipment is that the returns at the higher end are rapidly diminishing, at my level of work anyway. My guideline for quality is thus simply “top-of-the-line of what regular stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s carries”.

In other words, my tools are a mixture of Dewalt, Ridgid, Hilti, Milwaukee, Makita, but not too much Black and Decker or Ryobi these days. However, thanks to the crazy productivity of Chinese manufacturing, even those cheaper brands have advanced sufficiently that they are plenty good for weekend hobby use, and you should not feel like you’re cheating yourself by starting with them.

The Secret Place to get Cheap Low-Tech Tools:
The philosophy above applies to power tools like drills, saws,  and other complicated instruments. But you also need plenty of basic chunks of metal like hammers, wrenches, and screwdrivers. Home Depot makes a good slice of its profit by selling these at much higher profit margins than it sells the power tools, because it’s easier to mark a $3 (wholesale) hammer up to $20 without raising eyebrows, than it is to mark a $300 table saw up to $2100. But a few years ago, I discovered a place that sells reasonably good quality tools of this type at much lower prices – Harbor Freight Tools. Here’s a link to that store. (It’s a sponsored link, so I’ll indirectly get a buck or two if you buy something there after clicking the link, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay, of course):
Harbor Freight Tools WINTER SALE Expires: 1-31-12

The thing to note about Harbor Freight is that while their hammers and wrenches and even air tools and welders are great, the cordless power tools and more advanced things like table saws are often rubbish. So you’d be be better off picking those up at one of the standard retailers. If you’re unsure about a certain model of big-brand power tool, just type its name in to a search engine and “review” to see what others have said about it.

Also competing with both Lowe’s/Depot and Harbor Freight, is of course Craigslist. Just watch the price and age of the tools, since many of the sellers are contractors. Some of my brethren in the trade aren’t the most craigslist-savvy people, so they often ask too much, or don’t document the tool properly with pictures, don’t respond well to emails, etc. The best deals I have found on Craigslist are on big old tools (lathes, bandsaws, etc), or big package deals (“contractor going out of business, here’s my whole set of tools including an enclosed trailer for $4000”).

With all that out of the way, here’s my introductory tools list for various levels of aspiring carpenters and handypeople:

Level 1: stuff everyone needs:

Simple hand tools like screwdrivers, pliers, utility knife, wrenches, etc. These are usually most affordable when purchased in bulk, such as this kit at harbor freight, or similar ones at Costco. Throw in a tape measure, level, hammer, and studfinder, and you are already ahead of most of the home-owning public. With these, you can hang pictures, change your car battery, install a new dishwasher, change light and plumbing fixtures and door handles, and things of that nature.

Level 2:
Add a cordless drill (essential for driving longer screws and drilling holes). 18 Volt models are good, I like the Ryobi lithium battery drills as a model that can go from beginner to your first full house renovation.

Level 3:
Time to start cutting some wood. A good way to have basic cutting capability along with compact size and easy operation is to get a fully cordless system, right off the bat. In my opinion, the best cordless tool value on the market right now is the Ryobi Combo kit at Home Depot – the combo kits are a good deal, then you can add extra tools (there are many) as you need them.  A cordless jigsaw is a particularly useful one. You may also want to add an orbital sander and possibly a belt sander at this point. Now you’re ready to make desks for your kids, and shelves and simple backyard furniture for your house.

Level 4:
At this level, you will start wanting perfectly straight cuts in long pieces of wood, and perfectly square cuts across them. For these tasks, you need a table saw (the one I like by Ridgid is linked earlier) and a Miter saw. I use an almost identical earlier model of the Dewalt DW718 that I bought in 2000 and is still working perfectly to this day. If I was buying one today, I would probably choose the Ridgid 1290. In general, I’ve learned that Dewalt and Ridgid run neck-and-neck for high durability and quality, but Dewalt often has stupid design flaws like switches and power cords in inconvenient places, while Ridgid tools are more well thought out. Since I need to move around a lot, I have my miter saw mounted to this Ridgid rolling stand, which I have fallen deeply in love with after using an awful non-rolling stand for the ten prior years.

Level 5: You’re ready for fancy and fast attachment of those nicely cut pieces of wood. You can add a small air compressor and 18 gauge and 16 gauge nailguns. When you nail with a nailgun, the connection happens instantly with no wiggling of your wood. This lets you create furniture-grade quality, especially since the nail heads are so small they can barely be seen (and thus can easily be patched over before staining or finishing the woodwork). Nailgun and compressor kits are the way to go here, since you can get the complete system for $250 or so (or less at HFT). As an added bonus, the compressor will also come in handy for pumping up car and bike tires, as well as running other air tools you can get from harbor freight such as HVLP paint sprayers, ratchet guns, air chisels for chipping away old concrete and tile, etc.

Branching Out:
To create bathrooms and kitchens, you need to install tiles – a tile cutter (wet saw) and grinder with a diamond blade are essential for these tasks. For drywall, you just need some plaster (“mud”) spreading tools along with a utility knife and cordless drill. We covered plumbing earlier, and welding will get its own article someday.

When I graduated from homeowner to home builder back in 2005, I got to work alongside real professional carpenters for over a year. They taught me much more about how to work efficiently than I had ever known before. Most notable were the tricks of always wearing a huge toolbelt while working (to keep youself from running around looking for things), take time at the beginning of the job to set up a work table and a good network of extension cords and lights if needed, and keep your work area clean and organized as you go along. Also do a deep brainstorming at the beginning of each project to get as many of the materials you’ll need and reduce mid-day trips to the store. Always over-buy and then take advantage of today’s generous return policies, rather than underbuying and wasting time returning to buy more parts. And keep a nice inventory of all the common things like various sizes of screws.

Everyone who develops carpentry skills surely evolves a set of tool preferences to go along with them. These represent only one man’s love affair with the powerful little machines. But hopefully by at least introducing my own strategy, it might encourage some curious people to start exploring on their own.

Happy building!

  • Mr. Frugal Toque January 11, 2012, 6:36 am

    “Also do a deep brainstorming at the beginning of each project to get as many of the materials you’ll need and reduce mid-day trips to the store.”

    I’ve heard this expressed as a contractor’s maxim:

    “The quality of a project is inversely proportional to the number of trips you have to make to Home Depot.”

    Of all the tools I bought – including a compressor and nail gun – I’m pretty sure that the table saw was the most miraculous time saver of the bunch. Once you realize how fast you can turn out perfectly square, exactly identical drawer and cabinet sides, you wonder what the hell you were doing before that.

  • Geoguy January 11, 2012, 6:49 am

    Don’t forget the most important rule of carpentry, “Measure twice, cut once”

    • Elkbark June 8, 2012, 10:14 am

      Unfortunate that I only learned that rule after a period of time operating under the “I cut it nice, ’cause I cut it twice” method…

  • James January 11, 2012, 7:01 am

    I like your advice, I aprenticed as a plumber as a teenage and it has saved me thousands over the years as well as made me a valuable friend to have when other are in need. :)

    One question I had is how you store and organize all these tools. I have an above average collection of tools for a homeowner, and right now it’s mostly kept around a work bench in my basement. But then I have a collection of commonly used items in the garage, a drawer in the kitchen, and a work bucket that could be anyplace at any particular time. Do you keep all of your tools in one place? Do you have any hints on organizing all those screws, nails, and plumbing fitting you might need in the future but don’t need right now? I’m tempted to get rid of many of my tools simply to de-clutter, but then I get to thinking about how much they cost to replace and how much I have used them over the years.

  • Chris January 11, 2012, 8:07 am

    I too, have a love affair with tools. It’s a quiet dream of mine to be build my own house someday. A few years ago I had a less busy/stressful job and spent many afternoons in the garage building furniture and doing various wood working projects-I loved it. There’s something very primal and practical about being able to work and create with your own hands.

    I like your previous advice about volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity project to gain some skillz. Once I’m FI, it’s things like learning to build and create more that I’ll spend my time on!

  • FreeUrChains January 11, 2012, 8:09 am

    I have always been slightly afraid of Heavy Work equiment (saws, welders, etc), but the knowledge and experience is necessary to cut my Heavy Slave Chains and then weld them to my Masters.

  • Derek January 11, 2012, 8:19 am

    Well written article!
    I work as an electrical contractor/family tool sales business, I see a lot of new people entering our trade regularly and the best advice that I can give them is don’t buy cheap tools EVER. It is far better to slowly buy high quality tools than quickly buy cheap tools then replace them with better as you go.

    Ridge and Milwaukee in my experiences been the most durable tools, followed by Dewalt. Dewalt tools are however the winning price point and more than good enough for nearly anything.

    Hand tools are wear things get expensive (electrical wise). Klein, Ideal Kipex, Irwin and Channel Lock for the win. Expensive yes, but extremely durable. A $1 screwdriver will last a few days, a good $10 will last longer than more homeowners grandchildren.

    Pawn shops can be a great resource for hand tools, I’ve managed to find some great stuff in them for about 1/10 the cost. You however have to know what you are looking at.

  • Dark Sector January 11, 2012, 8:43 am

    What can a table saw do that a panel saw can’t? Generally table saw fare that is sold at big box stores have very small tables that are difficult to keep big stock flush against, not to mention the rip fence, thus lowering the safety factor. A panel saw takes care of both of these things for you automatically using a feature known as gravity. And with a few tricks a panel saw can be made almost as portable.

    I also prefer to use a scroll saw over a band saw for glaringly obvious safety reasons. A scroll saw has a small blade that agitates 2-3 cm up and down whereas a band saw has two huge flywheels driven by a ~1 hp motor, yet you can do anything that can be done on a band saw with a scroll saw with a great deal more finesse and control.

    • MMM January 11, 2012, 9:14 am

      Hmm, a Panel Saw, eh? I see them at the lumber store, but it never occurred to me that I could own one.

      At first glance, it appears they would be substantially bigger than my Ridgid table saw (which weighs only 60lbs or so and can easily fit in the back of my Scion xA when folded, and occupies only a few square feet of my construction van so I can fit all other tools). Also, I’m talking about $499 retail here, even before discount coupons or sales. And it was good enough to remodel over a dozen houses and help build two from scratch.

      I like to hear the description of a possible upgrade path for people more serious than me. But I also want to remind everyone that this is an introduction to carpentry article – cost and size are important!

      Just curious – can a panel saw also operate sideways, allowing you to push 16 foot pieces of material through it as well? It looks like it could, but I don’t know much about them.

      • Sean January 12, 2012, 5:43 pm

        How about radial arm saws? I’m told they can take the place of a number of other saws. Not so portable, though.

        • Quentin Hartman January 12, 2012, 7:49 pm

          Radial Arm saws are pretty decent replacements for table saws, chop saws, and even miter saws for most people. They aren’t quite as precise or flexible as table saws or c compound miter saw, but generally close enough for 99% of the DIY work you would do.

          The biggest thing that would keep me on a table saw instead of a radial arm is that unless you have help and a willingness to bend the safety rules, your cuts are limited to the length of the throw of the saw. Usually this is somewhere around 24 inches. With a table saw, you don’t have any such limitation.

          • Jared Chmielecki January 13, 2012, 6:53 am

            I have a radial arm saw but no table saw. It has never been an issue. The table is much bigger than most table saws as It is just a 1″ piece of MDF that I cut to about 6×3 feet. The max width you can rip is about 24″, but honestly, I would rather use the skillsaw + a 2×4 clamped as a straight edge guide for long rips as table saws scare me.. (My grandfather hit the tip of his finger on the blade in a moment of struggle working with a large board by himself trying to rip it.) I do not consider the radial arm a replacement to the miter saw though, as it is so much slower to set up a compound cut on the radial arm saw than the miter saw. The miter saw is also a lot easier to transport. The radial arm stays in the garage and does not move. The miter is moved to a set of saw horses + plywhood table top near the work space. Can you use dado blades and router blades on a table saw? I do not have a router table, so the radial arm saw + the 3 shaped tooth router bit set is used for some patterns, or the router is mounted to the underside of the plywood top and it becomes a router table temporarily.

    • qhartman January 11, 2012, 9:33 am

      I’ve only used panel saws a couple of times, so I may be missing some of their capabilities, but table saws strike me as being a lot more flexible. The first thing that comes to mind is rabbets and over grooves precisely and repeatedly. You also lose the ability to make jigs for easily cutting the fingers for box joints. I can imagine that for some uses panel saws can be an acceptable substitute, and indeed, if you are cutting the typical 4×8 sheetgoods they are better than table saws. For precision and overall flexibility though, I think I would still prefer a table saw. As far as safety is concerned, yes, table saws are probably the most dangerous tool you find in a woodshop. However, that is mitigated almost completely if you use them properly. If you have trouble working with your stock on the table, get an extension. If that doesn’t work, you’re using the wrong tool or you need a second person to help you. Claiming a tool is universally unsafe is dishonest if the unsafe situation is caused by using it incorrectly.

      Again, with a bandsaw you have a broadly useful tool. A scrollsaw can indeed do a lot of things a bandsaw can do, but I can’t imagine trying to resaw lumber with a scrollsaw. It just can’t handle large enough pieces to be useful for that. For the work I do, that one feature would make me choose a bandsaw first. If you are making furniture, you can save substantial amounts of money by buying large pieces of stock from individuals or wholesalers and then dimensioning it yourself. The one thing a scrollsaw is better at, fine scrollwork, is something I do so rarely investing in a dedicated power tool to do it would be a waste. I don’t know about the safety issues you bring up with bandsaws either. If the design of them scares you, that’s fair, but to say they are more inherently unsafe than another type of saw is again dishonest. I’ve been working in woodshops my entire life, and the only injuries I’ve ever seen or heard of that happened on a bandsaw could have just as easily happened on a scrollsaw, or any other saw for that matter. They were all instances of someone getting hair or a fleshy bit too close to a blade. I suppose the catastrophic failure you seem to be implying could happen would be bad news, but I’ve never heard of a bandsaw flying apart unexpectedly.

      • Dark Sector January 11, 2012, 9:48 am

        In response to MMM, yes, panel saws can cut vertically or horizontally.

        There are also now machine tools with auto safety brakes (I don’t know what it’s called) that will stop when contacting skin. I guess I’ve never had to use a band saw for anything that a scroll saw or jig saw couldn’t do. My point in implying that they’re more dangerous is because a band saw encourages you to bring your hands very close to a blade that moves under the impulse of much greater energy than a scroll saw.

        • qhartman January 11, 2012, 10:08 am

          On table saws, the safety brake you are talking about is called a Sawstop. I’ve seen demos of them and they are pretty awesome. Expensive though, and only available in big cabinet-style table saws, not little portable ones, which is a shame.

          There’s actually a bit a of a dust-up in the woodworking industry because of proposed regulations regarding tablesaw safety, potentially requiring sawstop-like devices on all tablesaws. More details on this can be seen in this Fine Woodworking article, if you’re interested:


  • Ramses January 11, 2012, 9:30 am

    Used High quality, brand name Corded power tools at the farmers market.. around $10 to $15 each. I got myself a couple of them. A long heavy duty extension is a must, and the ‘hassle’ of plugging and running the power-cord to where the work is being done is well worth the money saved on new cordless devices.

    After all, if I can’t produce quality work/repairs with these affordable tools, then a $1000 worth of new equipment will not make everything better.

    • qhartman January 11, 2012, 9:40 am

      I agree with you on principle, but I LOVE my cordless tools. You can have battery powered circular saw when you pry it from my cold, dead hands…

      For me, it’s not the running of the cords that was the issue, it was managing the cords while I worked. I was always spending a portion of my concentration making sure I didn’t step on a cord mid-cut, or cut through a cord, or what have you. Now that I don’t have to think about that, I can work more quickly, more precisely, and with less overall stress and mental fatigue. I know it seems like a silly, minor thing, but it really made a difference in how I feel while working.

      • MMM January 11, 2012, 9:50 am


        You can of course do the same things with corded tools, but if you care about productivity like I do, you will heed my advice. Look at the combo kits. They cost NOTHING compared to the money and time you save with them. In my opinion, to skip out on cordless because of the cost would be an example of being cheap rather than frugal. I have cordless EVERYTHING now, even router, drywall cutout tool, grinder, 8″ miter saw, various drills and impact wrenches, etc. I also have the corded equivalents, but I use them only when the extra power is needed.

        • Ryan January 11, 2012, 1:02 pm

          The problem I have with cordless tools that should be kept in mind is that I don’t use them often enough so they are never charged when I need them. It’s bad for rechargeable batteries to leave them charging 24/7. I got frustrated having to wait 30 minutes to drill a hole to hang something, so bought a corded drill.

          If you’re a regular user, of for tools that you use on a project basis and can plan to have them charged, they are definitely more convenient, but for quick things hear and there I don’t think they’re ideal.

          • MMM January 11, 2012, 1:46 pm

            You’re partly right on that – rechargeable batteries do die over time whether you use them or not (I usually get about 5 good years out of each set). And they discharge over time – a month or so for a healthy battery. And they also wear out the more you use them, and the more quickly you discharge them, and the more thoroughly you discharge them. In other words, do NOT put your battery into a cordless sawzall and dig full-blast into a tree trunk until it completely stops moving. Better to do slower discharges, and recharge before it is fully dead (the “memory effect” is an urban legend, according to NASA).

            But it not bad to leave them on the charger: Better quality chargers (even Ryobis) detect the charge state and stop the current flow when the battery is full.

            For bigger jobs, do bust out the corded version of the same tool. But since drilling is a low-energy activity compared to sawing, cordless drills are generally just as useful and corded drills are silly. The only thing I use my corded for is mixing enormous batches of tile mortar with a paddle mixer attached.

          • Jeff January 13, 2012, 6:41 am

            I’m with you on this one. A brand new cordless drill is a wonderful thing, but that older one you’re trying to squeeze some life out of before you replace it is horribly frustrating. Plus it’s not very mustachian to use an expensive device that requires repeated investments when there’s a much cheaper alternative that will last you the rest of your life.

    • Matt January 12, 2012, 11:33 am

      Another vote for corded tools. I too am an occasional user, so ran into the “battery not changed when I needed it” problem. I had (well, still have) a nice DeWalt cordless drill. I bought it a long time ago—at least five years, maybe more like seven or eight.

      Maybe battery technology has come a long way since I bought that drill, but both batteries that it came with are now in terrible shape: one doesn’t work at all (won’t hold a charge); the other holds only a marginal, short-lived charge. But the drill is old enough that I can’t find even find replacement batteries for it. Also, even when the batteries were brand new, they took over an hour to charge.

      Personal preference aside, there is a real risk that the batteries (for your cordless tools) use will eventually be unavailable (e.g. manufacturing discontinued). And since they do wear out, at that time, you’ll be forced to buy a whole new tool.

      And, for those to whom it matters, batteries are harder on the environment: added manufacturing cost, electrical inefficiencies (battery charge, AC-DC conversion), and more stuff to go in landfills (unless you diligently recycle them).

      Again, I’m an occasional user, so maybe I’d sing a different tune if I was using these tools all day/every day. However, when I was younger I did a fair amount of carpentry-type work. That was long enough ago that cordless equipment wasn’t even available (or at least no one I worked with had them). In other words, I’m *used* to cordless stuff, so perhaps ignorance is not only blissful, but money-saving as well!

      • Chris January 13, 2012, 10:06 am

        Check into getting your batteries refurbished. Even if your batteries aren’t available, there are places that can rebuild them and make them better than new for less than the cost of a new battery. Also, yes battery technology has come a long way since you last bought your drill.

  • tjt January 11, 2012, 9:56 am

    Great article. I think you finally helped me realize why I haven’t been able to break the barrier of good home project execution: Unlike you, I AM cheap. I have two nice tools (Dewalt cordless drill, and an air compressor nail gun), both were gifts from my home-building father-in-law. Everything else is cheap and rusty.

    This would be one of the biggest benefits of getting into doing home renovations for me… I would finally have a good business reason to buy high quality tools.

    I have 2 questions:

    1. Where do you keep all of this stuff? I realize you have extra room in your garage with only one car, but then again your bikes and bike trailer must take up space too. At least that’s the predicament I have.

    2. You don’t really pump bike tires with your air compressor, do you? That doesn’t sound very mustachean. :)

    • MMM January 11, 2012, 1:29 pm

      Yeah, from investment perspective, you should think of good tools as dividend stocks that consistently yield in the 100-1000% range annually :-)

      Pretty much my entire tool collection can be packed carefully into my single Odyssey minivan with the seats out (it has roughly a 4ft x 8ft x 5ft cargo area). But to keep the garage clear, I usually leave the bulkier items out in my tool shed. In fact, I built a nicer 12×10 studio-style shed as an “addition” to my garden shed so I could also store plenty of materials. Tools aren’t impractically bulky, if you’re a homeowner. Apartment and small condo dwellers would have to scale down, however.

      I do indeed use the air compressor sometimes – but only if it happens to be nearby and with the right attachment on there. Usually I end up with the hand pump (which I recently discovered takes about 150 pumps to get a single one of my van tires from 20 PSI back up to 40.. d’oh!)

  • Kevin M January 11, 2012, 10:06 am

    I would suggest renting tools before buying infrequently used items like a wet saw. You’ll probably only retile a bathroom once in a number of years. I rented one for about $75 when I did our 500 sqft tile job and it kicked butt. I could have bought a cheaper one for around $125-150 but this thing just ripped through the tile like it was wood.

    Also, maybe I’ve just bought cheap cordless tools, but I went back to all corded models – drill, jig saw, circular saw. I just couldn’t stand the lack of power and the batteries dying mid-project.

    • qhartman January 11, 2012, 10:13 am

      The Lithium batteries that have become common in the last year were a revelation. They really hold a lot of juice. The construction project that requires more power than can be delivered by a pair of 18-volt Lithium batteries would be a rare thing in my world. Keep one on the charger and swap it out every couple hours as the one you are using runs down, and you are in business.

      • Jared Chmielecki January 11, 2012, 11:38 am

        I was going to comment on the charge duration for the cordless tools. I have had my ryobi one+ system for about 10 years now. I am on the second set of ni-cad batteries and they are beginning to become tired. I tend to prefer the cordless tools for a quick project, but for any project where I will be working more than an hour or so I use the corded tools.

        As to welders – the HF welders are NOT that great. you can however do some ‘upgrades’ to them to get them nearly up to par with a good name miller / hobart / lincoln equivilant. weldingweb.com has some diy upgrades for the HF welders in the HF specific forum. If you cut your teath on a cheap chinese mig welder, and then get the opportunity to use a good machine you will curse every cent you wasted on the cheap machine. Buy used good name welders from kijiji and craigslist. I traded an old car for an industrial sized Tig welder through craigslist. Best barter ever.

    • Marshall T January 11, 2012, 12:14 pm

      HF sells a wet tile saw for ~$60 that frequently goes on sale for $45. I’ve completely remodeled two bathrooms with it and it is still going strong.

    • MMM January 11, 2012, 1:34 pm

      I’m highly in favor of owning a tile saw myself ($290 at Harbor freight for a rental-quality one), but it depends on how much you like tiling. A single really kickass bathroom takes me many days to tile because I do the floor, the walls, the shower, various accents and inlays, etc. That would be stressful to rent for that many days, and many times the tiling happens in several stages that are not contiguous and/or spans several weekends.

      My tile saw came from Craigslist: $200, and I’ve used it for 6 years so far and its resale value is still right around $200.

      For a single quick bathroom or kitchen floor, a rental is still the way to go. Definitely rent for your first small project before deciding if you are ready to own.

      • Sean January 12, 2012, 5:46 pm

        Tiling is the one thing I didn’t do myself in my recent home remodel. The “f*ck up factor,” as I call the relative cost if you screw something up, is pretty low for most projects. Mess up drywall? Oh well, knock it out and buy another sheet. Tiling, though, is a major hassle and expense if you don’t get it right the first time.

        I suppose I ought to just suck it up and give it a whirl. And my bathroom tiling is looking a bit sad in places…

        • MMM January 12, 2012, 8:07 pm

          Sean, as a taunt to encourage you further, you should note that I taught my 65-year-old mother to use a tilesaw, cut, install, and grout tiles. She went on to do dozens of hours of flawless tile work alongside me when we rebuilt her two bathrooms and laundry room a few years ago.

          • Sean January 13, 2012, 9:04 am

            Oh dear. About 100 “Yeah, but your mother also [X]” jokes just ran through my head. I’ll spare you. Consequences of growing up in inner city Los Angeles.

    • Jeff January 13, 2012, 6:43 am

      Before you consider renting, consider buying the cheap one from harbor freight. Their power tools are crap, as MMM says, but if you’re only going to tile a couple bathrooms, it’s probably cheaper to buy a tile saw from harbor freight than rent one a couple times.

      • MMM January 13, 2012, 7:04 am

        I would say that the HF tile saw (the large one at least) is NOT crappy at all as I have used it. I also have a belt sander and the oscillating multi tool (corded) from that company, and one of my smaller compressors. Don’t paint it all with one brush – the store sells surprisingly good stuff, which is why I mentioned it in the article. The only crap I have noticed so far is just most of the saws and cordless tools. And those I only discriminate against based on the picture (bad design features are evident)and reviews.. I’ve never tried them.

      • Marshall T January 13, 2012, 7:25 am

        As a matter of fact, Jeff used my cheap HF tile saw (the one I did my two bathrooms with, I think I paid $45 for it) to do at least one of his bathrooms, too.

        The results speak for themselves:

  • Jeff January 11, 2012, 11:01 am

    I think the biggest roadblock for people is needing to realize that they can do any of this stuff. If you ever want to complete a home project, just watch youtube. It’s all pretty easy and straightforward.

  • Cam January 11, 2012, 11:40 am

    Any good books to reference if you’re completely ignorant of any sort of home repair? I was raised by a Dad who outsourced pretty much all of this and I’m clueless.

    • Marshall T January 11, 2012, 8:05 pm

      This book:
      Home Repair 123

      Is surprisingly comprehensive and easy to follow.

      I also like the Stanley books quite a lot:

      I’d recommend starting simple (paint some rooms, build a bookshelf, replace a faucet or a light fixture) and as your confidence builds, start tackling larger projects.

  • Agent9 January 11, 2012, 7:43 pm

    Hello. I’ve been placing comments (questions) in some of your older posts. Are you notified when I do that or should I ask my questions in the latest blog entries? Thanks.

    • Agent9 January 11, 2012, 7:46 pm

      Please disregard. I just saw your response in one of those posts.

  • Brian January 11, 2012, 8:36 pm

    Any room in your arsenal for a circular saw? Given what you said about the table saw and mitre saw, doesn’t sound like there is much use for that tool anymore.

    • MMM January 11, 2012, 8:50 pm

      It’s still handy for some things. Cross cuts in boards wider than 13″, rough cuts out of full sheets of 4×8 plywood, cutting off overhanging roof sheathing when framing a new roof. Also good for cutting sheet metal and even concrete with the right blades. But the circular saw tends to stay in the tool box when I’m doing finish carpentry on a house or making furniture.

    • Jeff January 13, 2012, 6:45 am

      Rough cuts where portability is preferred.

  • Lisa January 11, 2012, 10:15 pm

    The question I think most people should ask when they’re just getting started using power tools isn’t where to buy good ones, but “Why buy when you can borrow?” My city has a new (dare I say Mustachian) Tool Coop where you can borrow all kinds of home, garden & bike tools for FREE. For people doing regular work with the tools, this isn’t going to work, obviously, but for the average person who does the occasional DIY project on their home it’s a great way to save money. Here’s the link for the Vancouver Tool Library: http://vancouvertoollibrary.com/

  • JaneMD January 12, 2012, 6:25 pm

    I really appreciate this article because many people get into trouble when they try to do their remodels themselves. Heck, HGTV has a whole ‘Holmes on Homes’ and nightmare renovations dedicated to people who are in over their heads. On the opposite side of the coin are the ‘design on a dime’ where our professionals and all their professional equipment redecorate your room for $1,000.

    Hilariously, my husband is at level 1 and I am at Level 2 – I grew up on a farm with a hammer and a screwdriver. My father thought character building meant sending his daughters to shingle roofs in their spare time.

    • MMM January 12, 2012, 8:05 pm

      Interestingly enough, I believe one of the Holmes on Homes crew members happens to read this blog (are you there Mr. W.?) ;-)

      • MJB October 9, 2015, 3:09 pm

        Mr. W….. Is that the plumber from Holmes Inspections? Man, I love those shows, and I’m glad they’re on Netflix since we don’t have cable. I highly recommend anyone interested in becoming a landlord, flipper, or DIY’er… watch the Holmes Inspection series. Very educational and entertaining. Proves that newer homes aren’t necessarily better than old houses.

  • Sharon January 13, 2012, 11:13 am

    How do you feel about the Crafstman line of hand tools (available at Sears, Kmart, and Costco)? They have a lifetime replacement warranty. I wonder if that is it because they fail that often, or is it just because the manufacturer stands behind their product?

    • qhartman January 13, 2012, 11:15 am

      I love my craftsman hand tools. I’ve had some of them for over 10 years and I have yet to test their warranty, and that’s not for lack of trying. While I respect my tools, they don’t enjoy overly gentle handling.

  • nyne January 15, 2012, 7:09 pm

    If you want to run air tools, paint guns, etc., you’ll want a bigger compressor than the ones linked in the article. An HVLP paint gun for example might use 15 CFM. The Porter Cable compressor you linked is rated at 2.6 CFM at 90 PSI. You don’t necessarily need a compressor rated at 15 CFM since the tank allows you to use stored air faster than the compressor can resupply it as long as you stop periodically and let it catch up, but if you’re going to run your tools or paint gun for a long period of time, you’ll either need a large tank or a more powerful compressor. The smaller compressors like the one you linked are great for portability, which is important for powering nail guns for construction projects, but they aren’t very well suited for things like paint and bodywork where you’re going to be working in one specific area of your garage/shop and using a lot of air. I’d like to eventually be able to do auto body and paint work myself at home, so for me, I will eventually buy a large stationary air compressor such as this one: http://www.harborfreight.com/air-tools/air-compressors/5-hp-60-gallon-165-psi-two-stage-air-compressor-93274.html

  • Nigel May 6, 2012, 4:05 pm

    When I was tiling my two bathrooms and a kitchen I bought a new decent table tile saw, did the work over a few months then sold the saw for not much less than it cost. This cost less than renting for a week and I started with a new saw so no problems at all and it was under warranty the whole time I was using it. If I had kept it for the next tiling job I would have had to store it and possibly the coolant pump would have seized up if it had been left for more than 5 years.

  • CALL 911 February 17, 2013, 12:27 pm

    In a dissenting voice, I must disagree about Harbor Freight – at least in my experience. I have vowed to never return there at least 3 times (that siren song of “cheap” keeps luring me back).
    I have found nearly every product there to be of poor quality. I’ve had warped drill bits, bladeless cutting tools (spokeshave, chisels, etc – yes I could spend an hour grinding blades onto them, but why should I have to?), rotary bits that spontaneously disassemble, ax heads separating from the handle, shorted power tools, mismachined air tools, etc. They’ve always been good about letting me exchange the stuff though. The things I’ve been happy with include my air compressor, multimeter, and flooring nailer.
    I have come to terms with them. If I need precision, I don’t go there. If I want it to last more than 10 hours of use or one project (depending on the device), I don’t go there. If the HD/Lowes price is <15% higher, I don't go there.
    You may have different results.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 17, 2013, 12:34 pm

      Yeah, I appreciate the dissenting voice! I’ve only bought a small amount of HF stuff, and I guess I might have been lucky. But as the post says – I think it’s a good store to get a sledgehammer, crowbar or a hole saw bit kit.. not most of the power tools.

      • Cheryl Bier January 22, 2020, 4:17 am

        And clamps! HF is the only place to buy clamps, in my opinion. I don’t know how much use carpenters have for clamps, but for a woodworker, you can never have too many.

  • Mr. Minsc August 24, 2013, 11:02 am

    Corded VS Cordless

    In my experience get both. ;) There’s nothing more awesome than the ease of monkeying up in to the attic space to cut out the hole for your main stack (Plumber here!) with a cordless saw. On the flip side there’s nothing more frustrating than running out of juice 3/4 through the cut with no other charged battery on site.

    Speaking of batteries, it’s time for a refurbish as I’m down to only one that holds a charge. I’m glad I found this website though. The choice would have been to either refurbish the batteries or replace my Ridgid combo kit with a new fancy smancy Milwaukee kit. I’ve used Milwaukee and know they are great tools and when ever I do replace my kit they’ll likely be what I get. That said, this Ridgid kit still has a lot of life left in it so a new set of batteries will be the way I go.

    For anyone who does a lot of drilling, say a new construction plumber, look in to the Milwaukee Super Hawg. It is a beefy tool but I believe the ability to drill a 2 9/16″ hole through a stud as if it were butter is worth it. Plus you can easily drill larger diameter holes without the worry of the ripping your arm off when the drill bit catches a surprise. ;)

  • peter March 27, 2014, 8:43 pm

    The link for the Ryobi drill that you recommend no longer works. Could you let me know the specific type of drill? thanks

  • Mackenzie April 23, 2015, 1:35 pm

    After seeing his dad’s DeWalt cordless drill last decades, my husband got himself the same one. I think he’s had it over 10 years himself. As far as he’s concerned, they’re use-serviceable too. He’s replaced the battery chunk inside the slot-on battery piece, and on a used one he grabbed on eBay for cheap he’s about to replace a piece of the motor (I think he said it just needed new brushes).

  • Cynthia September 18, 2015, 10:06 pm

    I need help my fiance just got into carpentry his birthday is coming up an I want to get him a really nice set of tools he works for the union and I have no ideal on what I’m doing

  • Ryan T September 24, 2015, 11:52 am

    If I were an occasional professional carpenter like you, I would agree completely with your summary. However, I’m a more of a hobbyist carpenter.

    My first power tools set was a Black & Decker “homeowners” kit with a drill and hand tools. The 14.4V drill/driver didn’t have a removable battery and was a complete waste. I upgraded to a DeWalt cordless drill/driver, impact driver, and circular saw combo kit with two batteries that I got on sale for $199. I’ve had it for about 4 years and it’s awesome. If you can find a great deal on a DeWalt set like that I’d recommend it. However, the Ryobi and Porter Cable stuff has really come a long way. If I needed a replacement right now, I’d probably get a Ryobi set. Their battery technology is nice and the batteries work in tons of stuff, including yard equipment.

    A side note, I highly recommend an impact driver. They are unequaled in quickly driving in screws. I’ve rarely used my standard drill/driver since getting the set.

    On the subject of Harbor Freight, I usually check what they have first and read the reviews from their web site which are very honest. I’ve saved a ton of money by getting hand tools, bar clamps, and other accessories from there. Their drills are crap, but some of the bigger power tools are a bargain. I have a 12″ compound miter saw from there (it won the best value award from The Family Handyman) and am very pleased with it. Their fixed based router is also an award winner (though I get a Ryobi one instead because I had gift cards at Home Depot). Also, things I use infrequently, but that are super useful when I need them I get there: angle grinder ($12) and oscillating tool (the heavy duty blue one, $25) are good examples. You can basically always use a 20% off single item and a free item coupon whenever you go. Just do a quick search. I’ve gotten several free tape measures and a voltage meter with the freebie coupons.

    So in summary of this rambling comment:
    1. Get a good combo kit to cover the most frequently used tools (namely drill, impact driver, and maybe a saw of some type). Ryobi or Porter Cable is great for 90% of people.
    2. Check Harbor Freight first for everything, but take time to read reviews. Often I buy a cheap tool from there for a particular job and it ends up working great for years. Their prices are so low you can usually buy 4-8 of the item before arriving at the cost of a single name-brand one.

    On a final note, I recently discovered that Stanly tools merged with Black & Decker a while back and Porter Cable, DeWalt, and Bostitch are owned by Stanley Black & Decker, Inc.

  • Retire29 December 31, 2015, 3:09 pm

    I’m late to the party on this one, but I just wrote an article detailing you should never pay retail at Lowe’s or Home Depot. There’s a very easy way to obtain 15-25% off of every purchase with some clever utilization of readily available discount coupons and discounted gift card resellers. I wrote up a little tutorial here (http://www.retire29.com/save-19-off-everything-buy-lowes-home-depot/), if you don’t mind.

    Eric at Retire29

  • ryanf January 7, 2016, 10:59 am

    thoughts on Kobalt brand tools?

  • Woodshop Bob May 28, 2016, 7:44 pm

    Given the advancements of lithium-ion batteries and brushless motors, cordless tools make even more sense that when MMM wrote this over four years ago in 2012. (Time for an update!) Cordless impact wrenches do more than ever, and some Li-ion drills do impact, hammer, drill, have clutches and LED lights. DeWalt’s lithium-ion driven FRAMING nailer can sink over 600 nails on a charge, their finish nailer more like 1,000. Amazing stuff!

  • linuss silvers April 30, 2017, 3:04 pm

    The best of this article was the last paragraph,”Working Efficiently”. It’s common sense, but I seldom take the time to do it. It’s really applicable to any project. I use to think of it as being organized, but that word brings up the image of a nerdy high school year book editor (for me anyway). One of the things I do, is I have a general work bench which is a general collection of all my common tools. But for very specific tasks, like changing oil in a vehicle I make a kit. It contains the tools specific to that task, even if it means acquiring another socket wrench/socket just for that purpose.
    The question I have MMM, how do you work efficiently when you have many different projects? Having an actual job helps, but having lot of free time and money makes it harder (I would imagine, I’m getting there)

  • Matt May 12, 2017, 1:10 pm

    Thanks for the tip about Harbor Freight Tools. I’ve been a Craigslist tool buyer for a while now, and too many of my purchases have been “surprisingly” unreliable! After checking out HFT’s website, I put in for a sick day next week just so that I could go to the one closest to me. I’ll try not to spend too much.

  • JonathanH June 10, 2017, 11:57 am

    I just wanted to say thanks for your recommendation. I just bought a Ryobi combo kit for our new house and look forward to building some new skills!

  • Matthew In Michigan January 6, 2018, 10:43 am

    what a great article! I’ve become more of a DYI since becoming “Mustachian”. It’s very rewarding to successfully finish a project yourself and definitely builds confidence!
    I’ve also seen your few YouTube videos on renovations, you should post them more often…I would think you would have had quite a few from your MMM headquarters project :)

  • Matthew In Michigan January 6, 2018, 10:47 am

    great article! I’ve become more of a DYI enthusiast since finding your site a few years ago. Completing tasks yourself definitely builds confidence and keeps the momentum going to do bigger projects.
    I also see you have a handful of projects on YouTube, you should post more often there! I would think you’d have quite a few tips with just completing MMM headquarters :)

  • RH April 18, 2019, 10:24 am

    I purchased my first miter saw (50% off!) the other day. So far, I have replaced 6 rotten deck boards and now my creative mind is gaining some muscles since I can now cut a straight line over, and over, and over again. I never had the right tool that could do that. The thought of building raised garden beds, fireplace wood racks, a fence, and replacing the deck in 2 years doesn’t seem so daunting now! I’m digging it! It’s like I woke up a sleeping creative giant.


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