So, you’re thinking that you’d like to make some things out of wood. Maybe you’ve watched some New Yankee Workshop, or admired Ron Swanson’s woodworking skills on Parks and Recreation, or you’re having flashbacks from junior high industrial arts class. Great! Time to tool up.
Woodworking requires tools, and for most people that means power tools. These power tools can be roughly thought of in two categories: stationary, where you bring the wood to the tool (table saws, lathes, etc.) and handheld, where you bring the tool to the wood (hand drills, hand sanders, routers, etc.) If you need to acquire handheld tools, times are great. Modern technology has made them lighter, cheaper, and more accurate than ever. Buy one with a reputable name on it from a big box store, and in all likelihood it will treat you well.
For stationary tools, though, times aren’t so great. These tools don’t need much in the way of high technology. In fact, the designs of some of the best tools hasn’t changed much in many decades. That said, they do need good materials and good workmanship, and that means lots of money. You can go the Harbor Freight route, and curse your machines every time you use them, or go the high end route, and curse your credit card statement.
Fortunately, there is another way. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, a huge number of good quality woodworking machinery was produced. If you need a table saw, jointer, band saw, drill press, or lathe*, get thee to Craigslist. An abundance of these tools are out there, and you will pay pennies on the dollar compared to new tools of comparable quality.
How do you know what is good and what is bad? How will you know how to get it running and keep it maintained?
That is where VintageMachinery.org comes in to play. They have a large database of manuals and photos of old machines. Chances are, if your machine is from a well known manufacturer like Delta, or even a lesser known, no-longer-operating manufacturer like Boice Crane, you’ll be able to find the manual for it on that site. Even better, they have a very active discussion forum full of people who love nothing more than their old cast “arn” and helping people get these machines going. The discussing archive is full of over 10 years of collected wisdom, and if you can’t find the information you need, ask away. You’re likely to get an answer in short order. It is also a great place to brag about a particularly good buy (did I mention the 1934 Delta 14″ band saw I bought at an auction for $25?).
One place where things have changed over the years with these machines is safety features. If you go the old machine route, please do take the time to examine the newer equivalent, and duplicate where possible things like switch placement, and blade and belt guards.
*(You may have noticed that “thickness planer” is not on this list. While there are some really nice old thickness planers out there, they are relatively rare, and are finicky to maintain. I recommend going with a modern portable planer.)