Woodworking in apartment: tools

When people talk about woodworking tools, they talk about table saws and drill presses and loud tools etc etc. Yes, those are essential tools for a legitimate wood shop, but for all us beginning woodworkers who doesn’t have a garage to hold all those big boy toys, does that mean we are out of option? Absolutely not. I’ll try give you a brief idea of how I chose my tools for woodworking in an apartment.


Power tools vs Hand tools

Let’s start by saying we live in 21st century. Yes, I admire those old woodworkers very much. It’s almost unimaginable to me to build a whole dresser with only saws and chisels. But let’s admit it: it’s slower, it’s less accurate, and for rookies like me those are the two most frustrating points to turn you away from getting into woodworking. You don’t want to spend an hour chiseling along that (not-so-)fine line only to find it won’t fit into another piece. With power tools, you can do the same thing in a much more accurate way in much less time. For weekend hobbyists, this is what we are looking for.

On the other side, there is a fundamental flaw in power tools that works against us. It can be LOUD. While this is not a problem for most people, it is a problem for apartment. You do NOT want your landlord/HOA/neighbor complaining about noise, since they can, and will, give you endless crap for the rest of your time living there. So, forget about those badass table saws and miter saws, those don’t ever belong in an apartment. I know, I’d LOVE LOVE LOVE to have a Bosch table saw on my balcony, but I rather have peace between me and HOA/neighbor.


Is there a middle ground? Yes. See, the majority of the power tools for woodworking is doing one thing: Cutting. That means it’s the high-speed motor, and the friction between blade and wood, that makes the most noise. We just have to avoid those parts, and we’ll have peace. What’s left there for power tools you ask? I say a lot. Drilling, driving, sanding, and maybe some small-scale jigsaw action could all use help with some power tools. Keep in mind though, those are still power tools, and that means those still generate a fair amount of noise. Use common sense. Don’t drill at 11pm and have your neighbor kicking your door or stomping your ceiling.


What power tools do you need?

For a beginner just starting, you don’t need those pro-level tools. I repeat, you don’t need DeWalts or Makitas or Milwaukees. Those brand tools are better built, but they are better built for pros. You don’t have to pay pro money if all you do is amateur stuff. The earlier you realize this, the more money you can save and spend on materials and stuff that helps you expand your ability and more importantly, imaginations. What you need is versatility and affordability. So, I suggest you get the following power tools:

A cordless drill. Yeah yeah, people will say they aren’t power enough, but do you really need all those power from a corded drill? Do you think that you need to drill a huge deep hole in an apartment? or drive some 3inch screws through real hardwood? I don’t think so. Plus, cordless gives you so much more wiggle room.

A jigsaw. I did say that cutting will generate noise, but I also said that it’s the friction between blade and wood that creates the most noise. Does a jigsaw have a huge blade? No. Do you want to cut round sides? Yes?

A sander. No, not those giant belt sanders. Hand sanders. It will be good enough for 90% of your projects. If you are ambitious enough to build something with a large surface, it will just take some more time to sand.

That’s it. Yes, three tools. You don’t need more to achieve 90% of your initial goals. I said initial goals, meaning build a box, a small hutch, etc etc. Something simple and functional.

What hand tools do you need?

A hand saw. We have to resort to handsaw to do the hard work of ripping/crosscutting large sheet of wood to smaller size. The noise of powered big saws(table/circular) is just unacceptable in apartment. $15 gets you a pretty good hand saw for apartment use.

A miter box. This is borderline optional, but it would be fun to build your own picture frame isn’t it? A miter box will allow you to make accurate miter cuts using hand saw. Sure you can try jigsaw, but as a beginner I’m not sure that will give you the best result. Remember, we want things simple, and we don’t have much patience for failed tries. $5 gets you a plastic one, and that’s good enough.

Clamps. Get as many as you need and then some more. Working in an apartment means it’s usually a 1-man job, which means there won’t be another pair of hands to hold things for you when you cut/glue things. Plus, when you glue things together, you need those clamps to apply consistent pressure so you can do other things. You don’t want to hold on to that wood for 30 minutes do you? Depending on the length you are looking at $5-$30 a pop. Think through before purchasing

Pocket hole jigs. Probably the most used joining(holding 2 pieces of wood together) method a beginner will use is screw and/or glue. You probably don’t know how to read wood grains, which means the joint you make might not be as strong as you think, but glue and screws, we all know they just work. Again, we are going after simplicity and functionality here, we’ll do those fancy dovetail joints later when we get better.

For screws, we know that it doesn’t look good on the surface, so how do we hide it? The answer is pocket holes. It’s basically a tilted hole that allows you to screw from the BACK of the wood instead of the front while still be able to screw into the front piece and hold it together. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ambitious enough to drill pocket hole without a jig.

What else?

The accessories for power tools: drill bits, driver bits, jigsaw blades, etc etc. You’ll know when you need one.

Wood glue. I’m using Elmer wood glue, you know, the small, cheap version. I’m not making things big enough that needs a gallon jug of glue.

Sand paper. You have a power sander, but you also have tight spots where your sander can’t get. This is where sand paper(and elbow grease) comes into play.

What tools do I have?

With all above in mind, I went to Sears and get the Craftsman bolt-on cordless drill and the jigsaw attachment. Reasons? Versatility and affordability.

Woodworking is basically four things: cutting, joining, sanding, and painting. Each of the four categories has a huge collection of tools you can get. But, do you really want to spend that kind of $ when first starting out? Also, do you want your apartment filled by all these tools? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that. That’s the reason I got the Craftsman bolt-on. The idea of changing heads is pretty genius if you ask me, and for home DIY people, the attachments are more than enough. The “base”, which is the power unit, comes with corded or cordless versions. I bought the cordless one since, well, I don’t need huge power but I do like some versatility. Plus let’s admit it, it looks better than corded. It comes with the drill/driver attachment, and you can get it for $80-$100 when there is a sale. It uses a “20V Max” Li-ion battery, which to me is always better than NiCd, and it holds a charge fairly well. The drill/driver attachment has a keyless chuck, so forget about losing the chuck key. It’s 3/8in, not the most burly one but more than enough for beginners. 10-level clutch plus a drilling mode, again, good enough for most beginners. I personally don’t really feel the difference between gears, but that could be because I don’t drive screws hard enough.

I also got the jigsaw attachment. You could argue that I get a “real” corded jigsaw that has more power, bigger base plate, etc etc, but I got it because of the versatility, and I don’t want to clutter up my tool cache. The jigsaw attachment has 1/2in stroke length, 4inch blade, and accepts both U and T shank blades. I have zero issues cutting 1/2 plywood with it. I’ll admit, it’s not the best choice when it comes to cutting straight lines, but it’s powered, and I wasn’t thinking quite straight when I bought it. I can see it being used a fair amount, but we’ll see.

A craftsman 12″ clamp. One of those “trigger clamps” that you can operate with one hand. Given that I don’t have much space for tools, 12″ is more than my usual need. Although I can see myself getting a pair of 24″ later when I have more space.

A Jorgensen 12″ clamp. This is one of those “traditional bar clamp” where you get more flexibility when moving the clamp, but you do need both hands to use it. I find it a bit more useful than the craftsman one, since the rubber padding on the craftsman clamp took a bit of clearance away, and when you are trying to clamp 12″ board you’ll have that one trigger pull that you never get in. The Jorgensen one, however, has a better clearance with a threaded handle so you can adjust it.

A box of Ryobi drill bits. Nothing fancy, just some straight steel bits.

I already have a box of driver bits with my screwdriver so I don’t have to worry about that.


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3 comments on “Woodworking in apartment: tools
  1. Ender says:

    Man, thank you!
    I couldn’t find these informations from any other woodworking blogs!

  2. Sail says:

    Thanks, hard to find this information.

  3. californiaqueen says:

    just don’t do anything like this at home when you live in close proximity to other people. is it that hard of a concept to understand? rent a garage/workspace or something if you must “build” at home when you live in an apartment or other dense residential area.

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