The bucket list of essential hand tools for the self sufficient life got a lot of positive feedback. It wasn’t designed for carpenters specifically, but for people who prefer to handle most of their own construction, repairs and homestead maintenance using their own two hands. Looking back on that list I came across some missing pieces, like putty knives, a set of micro screw drivers and channel locks, but in general it covered most everything you could ever need and it all fits in a single five gallon bucket — sweet!
What I did not cover, and the purpose of this list, is the primary power tools that would make it possible to complete virtually any project up to the size of a home or barn. I realize that while the first list could easily be put together for under a thousand dollars if each item were purchased brand new, most people either have a good start or could complete it with a couple of visits to local yard sales or a quick glance through craigslist for less than $200, not bad for a lifetime of self sufficiency, tool-wise. To put together the following list requires both a broader skill set, more room and a considerable investment, especially if purchasing these tools in factory packaging. Locating them via second hand options provides a bigger challenge, especially considering manufacturer preference and size/age/condition. The former would likely run somewhere between $5-$7,000, the latter in the $2-$3,000 range; a not inconsiderable investment. For those reasons alone I recommend that anyone interested be willing to consider if the long term plans for use would be worth the short term expense.
Since I don’t want to either promote or push any specific brand, suffice it to say that the most important consideration is how well the tools hold up under frequent use and how they ‘feel’ to the user. Over the years I have used virtually every brand available and my personal favorites are different for each tool; Makita makes the best Drill/Drivers, DeWalt the better table saw and miter saw, Milwaukee the best sawzall and impact tools. These determinations have been based on years of constant use, ergonomics, design and durability, etc. I suggest trying each tool out if possible and getting your hands around them at the very minimum.
1) Battery Powered Drill/Driver. The sheer variety of uses for this set, the portability of a battery powered versus AC powered and the long life of lithium batteries these days make this set one of the most frequently used tools on the farm. I switched over to GRK fasteners a few years back and these heavy duty screws offer an upgrade over phillips head in much the same way phillips replaced slotted screws. They are reusable, structural quality and impossible to strip. The down side is the cost (usually 2-3x) but in terms of longevity and holding power they rock. Keeping batteries charged in cold weather, especially below zero is a challenge and having extra batteries is worth the expense. Most of these sets come with a tote that keeps them together and offers extra room for a couple of indexes for tips and bits. I suggest at least one set of standard drill bits, one of paddle bits, one of hole saws, one complete driver set and a set of masonry bits.
2) Power Saw. A 7 1/4" power saw is the standard and they are part of the basic tool kit. They are also one of the tools that come in both battery and AC models although I have never seen a battery model that was even close to a hard wired saw in terms of performance. I happen to prefer a worm drive version, but this saw, while a monster for mass cuts and dimensional (green, rough sawn lumber), is tricky to operate. Because of its offset blade, sighting it takes some getting used to and due to the gyroscopic pull of the saw it has a tendency — even for skilled carpenters — to cut off its own cord on occasion.
3) Table Saw. For sheet goods and rip cuts a table saw is a must-have tool. Especially if you have any intention of making furniture/cabinetry or any type of finished piece where precise cuts come into play. I have a large, three phase table saw that stays in the shop, but most of the work I do is on a much smaller 10” portable which handles quite a bit of work for its size. These saws can be quite dangerous for newbies, especially when working on small pieces, but properly handled they are one of the most reliable and easy to use tools you’ll ever work with and a pleasure to have when required.
4) Sawzall. This is the ultimate demolition tool and one of those most frequently abused by telegenic, minature female, HGTV hosts. It looks like a minature chain saw but rather than featuring a circular chain it is a reciprocating (back and forth) fixed blade that operates like a jig saw. This saw allows you to cut into blind spaces, make plunge cuts through walls and floors, get into hard to reach locations, etc. The drawbacks are that it is like cutting with a live animal. If it hooks up or binds it can jerk out of your hands, it throws debris — and in demo it’s almost always filthy sawdust and petrified vermin droppings — and it has a tendency to drop blades whenever it feels like it because the fastening system is based on an allen screw that vibrates loose no matter how tightly you bind it. It also has a propensity to find hidden electrical wires in walls, so make sure to avoid the older all metal versions in favor of a heavily insulated newer model.
5) Miter Saw. This is the one saw that can turn a hack into a journeyman carpenter. It cuts precisely by holding your stock against a fence and adjusts to cut at any angle including bevel cuts. You can frame and trim with this saw and if you take your time with each cut you can turn out multiple pieces with factory precision. It’s the one saw that only gets better the bigger you go and if you can afford it the larger the better. This saw has one drawback and that is the overconfidence people tend to have when using it. NEVER, EVER use this saw to cut without having some sort of stand or bench to properly rest the piece you are cutting. I once watched a young carpenter trying to lever the piece against the table while cutting only to sever his index finger when the weight of the stock pulled it back down and he was unable to keep the portion he was cutting in place. Ouch.
6) Compressor. I debated whether to include this one because it requires an incredible number of additional tools to hook up to it to become useful, from nail guns (I rarely use them, but by elbows tell me I should start) to impact wrenches, to sprayers to foamers, but time and experience has proven that between the inflation attachment and the little piece I use to blow dust out it’s one of those tools that can’t be replaced by anything else when you need it.
7) Dremel Tool. I think this small, hand-held rotary tool is one of the most innovative little creations known to man. If you ever have anything that needs to be done on a level that requires reading glasses you are going to want to have one. It features a spinning arbor that can be used to hold fifty or more attachments from cutting bits and grinding heads to sanding discs and polishing tips. It gets into places no larger tool can reach and with speeds that no hand tool could ever hope to replicate. This is also one of those tools that works across disciplines as we use it as often for crafts as we do in maintenance and carpentry. Make sure you get a large selection of attachments for this in order to get the full use out of it.
8) Disc Grinder. They love to use this tool in movies because whenever you see it, there’s a shower of sparks flying in the air around it. It cuts, it buffs, it polishes, it sands, it even grinds. The variety of discs available guarantee that no task shall remain undone once properly employed. It does what a bolt cutter does, what a whetstone does, what a sander does, only way, way faster.
9) Belt Sander/Orbital Sander. These are your finishing tools and they will take care of making even the roughest job look pretty nice when all is said and done. I like sanding by hand using a block. I do and I think that everyone should try this technique whenever you’ve got some sanding to do. But if you have a large piece, if you are doing a number of pieces — we make rock maple cutting boards for sale during the winter months — you can put a 7 year old on one of these things safely and for hours with little or no risk and always turn out a beautiful finished product, every time.
10) This one is a toss up. I am torn between three tools, each one great, each one used far less than anything else on the list above, each one geared towards a specific material. I leave it up to the reader to choose —
Multi-Tool. I picked this tool up about three years ago and I’ve used it half a dozen times. In each case there was no other tool that could do what this one does. It is not cheap and it’s so new I haven’t seen a used one up for sale anywhere. It has the ability to offset cut (cut under something without touching the thing in front) as well as cut a multitude of different materials from wood and metal to ceramic and plastics, each one without issue. It’s small enough for any size hand, fairly risk proof and comes in a great kit box filled with attachements when purchased new. Very cool tool, still not sure if it should be the final choice for the list.
Port-a-band Saw. This is one for metal working in places where the stock is fixed or when you don’t have access to a metal shop. It cuts rebar and angle iron like a cheese knife and is great in demolition where metals are present. Again an almost specialty tool, but one that beats the ever loving hell out of a hack saw.
Rotary Hammer. If you work with stone, masonry or plan on removing concrete in finite quantities, this is the tool for you. We live in an area that is boulder strewn and rock filled and it has saved me more time in fencing applications than I care to count. One hell of a tool that will jar your teeth loose if you spend much time using it, but once again, light years ahead of a cold chisel and hammer.