Buying used tools
Woodworking tools have fallen prey to the double whammy of shortages and price increases over the last couple of years. But it's the perfect time to arm yourself with a bit of knowledge and a healthy dose of patience to score some deals on used tools.
As with a used car, evaluating used tools comes down to condition. Ideally, you want something with low miles that has been well-maintained and requires only minor tuning. We'll help you separate the cream puffs from the lemons, and detail key items to check on specific tools. We're concentrating here on larger power tools, but not on vintage machines, which require different sets of search criteria.
Is used right for you?
Before hitting the garage sales or trawling the Internet for used tools, consider the pros and cons of buying used:
+ Woodworking machines takes a steep drop in value the minute you wheel them from the delivery truck into your shop. Save some cash by purchasing gently used equipment.
+ After a tool has been on the market for a few years, any shortcomings or design flaws will usually be well-documented, so you can steer clear of the duds or at least know what potential pitfalls to look for.
+ If you follow the concept of reuse, repurpose, and recycle, buying used tools is the "green" thing to do.
- Unless you're buying a machine in plug-and-play condition, plan on spending some time—and maybe money—setting up, adjusting, and possibly replacing parts.
- New tools come with the latest guards and safety features that older equipment may never have had or may be lost.
- Older tools may lack certain improvements such as riving knives (tablesaws), cutterhead locks (planers), or ball-bearing guides (bandsaws).
- Most new tools come with a warranty and after-sale support. When buying used, it's buyer beware.
- New tools can be delivered. You'll have to figure out how to get used tools home on your own.
- Hunting down good used tools can be time-consuming. If you have an immediate need for a tool, you're better off just buying new.
Where to find used tools
You'll have to actively seek out used tools, often from a variety of sources. Finding the best deals takes time, patience, and a little bit of luck. You can't simply walk into a store or place an order online. Here are some places to look.
Garage and estate sales often turn up the best deals, but can require a lot of time, not to mention the potential disappointment of going home empty-handed.
Public schools and universities can be a good source of used tools as they upgrade their equipment or (sadly) shut down their shop classes altogether. Inquire with the facilities department at your local institution or school district about their process for disposing of surplus property.
Many online woodworking forums have a subforum for selling or buying used tools. Facebook also has a number of groups dedicated to people buying or selling used woodworking tools.
Online classified ads like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace allow a more targeted local search. Online auction sites like eBay offer another alternative, but don't usually provide opportunity for in-person inspection, and can come with prohibitive shipping costs.
Local woodworking clubs often have members selling tools as they upgrade or change up their shops.
The best deals usually require acting quickly. But avoid the temptation to pounce on the first thing that comes along, especially at a too-good-to-be-true price. Instead, once you locate a promising tool, do some quick research. If you know the model number, look it up online for its original price, as well as for any reviews.
Assemble a small tool kit containing a flashlight, a mirror, a set of wrenches or sockets, screwdrivers, a tape measure, tie-down straps, and gloves. This will allow you to examine the tool and break it down for transport if you end up buying it. Also throw in some scraps of wood for testing out the tool.
Once you arrive at the seller's location, carefully assess the tool's general condition. (See below for tool-by-tool specifics.) Check for any obvious damage or missing parts. Equipment with broken castings, botched repairs, or missing major components is usually not worth buying, except for parts.
Be wary of rust on cast-iron surfaces. Light surface rust usually isn't serious and is easily removed. But heavy rust or pitting indicates poor maintenance that can affect performance.
Operate controls, locks, or adjusting levers and wheels to make sure they move freely. Controls that haven't been used in a long time may require only lubrication to loosen up. But watch out for any damage such as broken gear teeth or bent shafts.
Check the wiring, plug, and switch for damage and cracked or missing insulation. Check the data plate on the motor to determine the voltage. Larger motors often require 220-volt power. If your shop lacks a 220-volt line, you face a potentially expensive installation.
Check the condition of belts and pulleys. You can easily replace most cracked or frayed V-belts. However, some tools use proprietary belts. Make sure replacements are still available.
Almost every woodworking machine has a shaft or arbor of some sort spinning on bearings that can wear out or fail. To inspect the bearings, unplug the tool and, if possible, remove the belt tension from the shaft or arbor (ask the owner for permission before doing this). Try wiggling the shaft. It should move only slightly, if at all. Slowly turn the shaft by hand to feel for smooth rotation with slight resistance. Bearings that feel gritty or have rough spots as you rotate the shaft are probably due for replacement. Decide if that's a chore you want to take on.
Ask the owner if you can power up the machine to try it out. Howling or screeching from the motor as it powers up or down is usually a sign of a bearing about to fail. If the tool shakes or vibrates excessively while running, try to pinpoint the source. It may just be a matter of tuning or adjusting, but it can also be a sign of more serious damage. If you're unsure, it's best to walk away.
If the seller doesn't mind, use some of the wood you brought to see how the tool performs. Replacing blades or knives or performing a tuneup often takes care of minor issues. But if the motor stalls or the tool simply doesn't function as it should, that's a red flag. If the motor feels uncomfortably hot after testing, that's a sign of a potential problem.
Make sure the tool includes all the parts that it was originally sold with, such as guards, fences, miter gauges, wrenches, and a manual. If you notice something missing, ask the owner if they have it, or use that as a bargaining chip when negotiating a price.
In addition to the general guidelines above, there are specific things to check depending on the type of tool you're looking at.
Tablesaw Check the arbor bearings and blade for runout. Make sure the saw includes the rip fence, miter gauge, insert plates, guard, splitter or riving knife, and arbor wrenches. Older saws may not have the same safety equipment that newer saws have, such as a riving knife (required on all tablesaws manufactured since 2010) or flesh-sensing technology (SawStop).
Sanders For disc sanders, check the disc for runout. For belt sanders, check that the tracking and tensioning mechanisms function properly. Examine the belt rollers for excessive wear or damage. For drum sanders, run a wide board through the sander (if possible) to check the parallel alignment of the drum with the table. Examine the feed belt. It's a wear item and may need to be replaced.
Lathe See that the tailstock and tool rests are included, as well as the drive and tail centers, spindle wrench, and knockout bar. Check the thread size of the spindle because some older lathes use uncommon thread sizes, making it difficult to find aftermarket chucks or faceplates.
Drill press There's not a lot to go wrong with a drill press; abuse and hard wear are what you're trying to avoid here. Check for any runout in the chuck. Lower the quill using the handle and check to see that it returns to its starting position when you ease up. If it doesn't, the return spring could be broken.
Planer Check the condition of the cutterhead knives (or inserts) and infeed/outfeed rollers. Some planers use manufacturer-specific knives, so if you're buying an out-of-production model, make sure knives are still available.
Dust collectors/shop vacuums Dust collectors don't have many moving parts to wear out. Check the impeller fan blades for damage. Older dust collectors may have a 30-micron bag that doesn't filter very effectively. You can upgrade to a better filter bag, but make sure to factor that into the cost.
Mitersaw Check for side-to-side play in the head. If it has a lot of wiggle, it won't be much use for woodworking, but could still be good as a rough cutoff saw.
Jointer Bring a long straightedge and a try square to check for sagging tables or a twisted fence. Tables can be shimmed, but a twisted fence or table is not worth fixing. Make sure the guard functions properly. Check the cutterhead knives. If they're dull or badly chipped, factor in the cost of resharpening or replacing.
Bandsaw With the saw unplugged, open the doors and check the condition of the tires on the wheels. Tires with cracks or deep grooves will need to be replaced. Turn the upper wheel by hand (carefully) to see that the blade tracks in a straight line. Examine the guides for wear and turn the thrust bearings by hand to see if they turn freely. Check the table trunnions for cracks or damage. If the saw originally came with a rip fence and miter gauge, make sure they are included.