Canadian Woodworking

Useful Tools for the Small Shop


With so many tools and machines getting larger and more powerful these days, it’s nice to know there are still some items that are made “just big enough”.

Not only do I usually not need the biggest, most powerful tool available, I often don’t want it. Generally speaking, I prefer to use something that’s sized perfectly for the job – be that in weight, size, power or budget. Unless you have unlimited funds, tools have to be carefully selected to offer the best in value and performance, without sac­rificing too much in terms of quality. This list includes tools I have used personally, and found to be very helpful and enjoyable while helping me do what I love – work wood.

lee valley measure tape

To be honest, this is where the idea for this article came from.

I use a 10′ tape measure every day, and love it. It got me thinking, “Why aren’t all tools sized this appropriately, and priced this rea­sonably?” It doesn’t weigh my apron down, causing me to list to one side while I work, and it’s seldom that I need something lon­ger. It’s perfect. After all, I’m not building tall ships, I’m crafting pieces of furniture. There are two reason I like this specific tape: (1) it’s offered in left hand and right hand variations (strangely, I prefer the left hand version, though I’m right-handed), and (2) it’s easy to read. It’s graduated in 16ths, rather than 32nds, and it only has imperial measurements on it, keeping things simple. Keep in mind, if you work in metric this tape is not for you.

tap measure
Measure Twice, Cut Once – Lee Valley’s 10′ cabinetmakers tape is easier and lighter to carry around in your apron. This tape is also very easy to read, reducing mistakes.

Porter Cable 4 1/2" Angle Grinder

I have been doing a fair bit of power carving over the last year. The options are endless, which opened up what I was capable of, as a designer and woodworker. The only thing I didn’t like was the burning sensation in my forearms af­ter working with a full-size angle grinder for as little as five minutes. This grinder was lighter and more manoeuvrable than what I was used to, allowing me to work longer with­out fatigue. Its six-amp motor had more than enough power for what I wanted to do, never showing any signs of letting up. This is a power tool without many bells and whistles, but it’s an angle grinder, so that’s to be expected.

Porter Cable PC60TAG
Grind All Day – With Porter Cable’s small angle grinder, power carving is much easier on the forearms. Safety is also improved with this more controllable machine.

Milwaukee 12V Screwdriver

Cordless drills have grown so powerful and cumbersome you need to be a weightlifter to control them. This driver isn’t going to sink 3/8 ” lag bolts 4″ deep, but it will do just fine with day-to-day operations around a wood shop. This driver takes care of 95 percent of my driving and boring needs without any problems whatsoever. Features include built-in LED for illuminating dark areas, a battery fuel in­dicator and a variable speed trigger. I opted for the ¼” hex chuck, but a 3/8 ” ratcheting chuck is also available. I also find this to be the most comfortable drill/driver I have ever laid my hands on, which is not to be underestimated. A sol­id performer.

milwaukee power screwdriver
See in the Dark – Milwaukee’s 12V screwdriver has lots of features, is powerful and is very comfortable in hand. It can also see in the dark.

Veritas Inset Vise

When I built my workbench, I decided on a style with a non-traditional vise set-up. It was great for most of the work I do, but lacked a little something when working solid wood in any serious manner. When this Veritas vise came along, I installed it, drilled a series of dog holes and test­ed it out. I wasn’t disappointed. It was easy to install and worked wonderfully. It easily holds planks tight, and even has a pivoting jaw for angled work. By removing the jaw, it virtually disappears when not in use, leaving my bench to function as it had before. I almost forgot how rewarding it is to peel a long, thin shaving from the face of a board!

Veritas Inset Vise
Plane and Simple – Veritas has again made it easier for us to plane wood. This inset vise can be installed in virtually any bench, adding versatility and enjoyment.

4" Engineering Square

For accurate measuring and layout in a shop, a small en­gineers square is a must. Its size means it can be handled easily with one hand, while marking with the other hand, and it will also fit in an apron, so it’s always within arms reach. Sometimes woodworking tolerances need to be 1/64″ or smaller. This is where a square like this comes in handy. It’s also nice to have a small, accurate square for setting up and adjusting machines.

try square
Squared Up – There’s no simpler tool than a small square. This layout tool from Workshop Supply is the perfect size for your apron.

DeWalt Compact Router Combo Kit

This router would make a good first router, but a fantastic second router, to have around the shop. The single draw­back is that it only accepts ¼” bits, so you won’t be able to use any large bits. I enjoyed using the standard base. It’s easy to hold and felt very comfortable in my hand. But I think the real upside to this unit is its plunge base. Smooth, lightweight and easy to use, it makes plunging operations a breeze. I found using it to rout mortises was the perfect task for this little beast, as it’s easy to handle. No matter which base you use, the small LED near the collet is handy to have and the adjustable speed motor is also a nice touch. On top of all this, a handful of additional little features make this router a pleasure to use.

dewalt router
A Nice Fit – DeWalt’s compact router combo comes with a standard and plunge base, giving you lots of options. Its medium size and weight makes it easier to control than most larger models.

King Air Cleaner

This 650 CFM air cleaner is not meant to take the place of a dust collector, but it will go a long way in removing the fine dust particles from your shop’s air, so they don’t end up trapped deep in your lungs. With three speeds, and three timer settings, this unit works great whether you’re in the shop working, or done for the day. It has two filters, and the outer one should be removed and cleaned periodically so airflow isn’t restricted. It is quiet, easy to install, doesn’t take up much space and is simple to use with the included remote control. This air cleaner likely has the lowest “fun factor” on the list, but for your health’s sake I think it’s worth it. For the tiny shops out there, King has a 410 CFM air cleaner available for $199.

king canada air cleaner
Clear the Air – King’s air cleaner keeps the air free of small dust particles, so your lungs don’t have to deal with them.

Trademaster 2 Gallon Compressor

I don’t power a spray finishing system or shingle roofs for a living with this compressor. Mainly I use compressed air to power one of my pin nailers while assembling jigs and fixtures, as well as to assemble the odd cabinet carcase. There are few tools that are this handy when you already have your hands full. This simple compressor is more than enough for my needs. The really nice thing about this unit is that it is lightweight and easy to carry. This is a big plus when I need to bring a compressor into a client’s house for an installation.

Trademaster 2 Gallon Compressor
A Helping Hand – This Trademaster compressor is exactly what Brown needs; portable, quiet and simple.

Veritas Skew Block Plane

A block plane is an extremely handy tool to have around your shop. It’s also nice to be able to reach for a shoulder plane, when the need arises. To purchase a quality version of both is going to cost a fair bit of money, so why not combine the two of them? The Veritas skew plane is one versatile hand plane. Whether you’re chamfering corners or truing edges, fine-tuning tenons or planing rabbets, this plane is up to the task. If you were only going to purchase one of these planes (it’s available in both right- and left-hand models), I would suggest giving it a try be­fore you make a purchase. While test-driving it, keep in mind what sort of work you want it to do. This is a nice plane, with all the precision you’ve come to expect in a Veritas product.
05P76.01 / 05P77.01

Veritas Skew Block Plane
Not Just a Block Plane – Veritas’ skew block plane can do almost everything; chamfer corners, trim tenons, cut rabbets and smooth edges.

Blue Tornado 66 pc. Router Bit Set

I hate stopping a job part way through in order to drive to the hardware store because I don’t have the right tools. Because there are so many router bits available, I think most of those trips were their fault. Not any more. Having a large selection of bits on hand while planning and con­structing a project has been great. I have the 66 pc. ½” set, but there’s also a 70 pc. ¼” set available for $265. Various sizes of virtually all stan­dard bits (straight, round-over, cove, flush trim, chamfer, ogee, dovetail, etc.) are included, as well as some less common but still very useful bits. These bits represent very good value, as you’re spending less than $6 per bit. You’ll also spend less time driving to the store.

Blue Tornado 66 pc. Router Bit Set
Just About Anything – This Blue Tornado 66 pc. set of router bits has a bit of every job. And at less than $6 per bit, you’ll enjoy the value.

Last modified: February 16, 2024

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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