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Why Buy BIG? (When Benchtop Will Do)

Save some scratch (and space) by going smaller, without sacrificing performance.

  • The Rodney Dangerfield of the power-tool world

    Benchtop tools often get "no respect, no respect at all!" True, floor-standing machines typically offer more capacity and power than their benchtop brethren. But in some cases, the tinier tools pack all the punch you need, and the big boys may be overpriced overkill for the home woodworker. We'd buy these five benchtop machines in a heartbeat (saving money), and we'll tell when to ignore our advice and go big.


    Why buy? A benchtop drill press with a 10-12" swing capacity (the widest piece in which it can center a hole) handles 90 percent of boring tasks required for making furniture and cabinets. After all, how often do you drill more than 5" from the edge of a project part? And with 3"-plus of quill stroke, most benchtop models bore plenty deep for mortises.
    Cost savings: about $200
    Go big instead if you routinely bore holes larger than 2" into hardwoods, drill into steel, or sand aggressively with chuck-mounted drums.


    Why buy? Even if you make a lot of mission furniture, a benchtop mortiser will serve you just fine, thanks. The argument for a benchtop model is so one-sided, in fact, that even professional production shops rarely have floor-standing mortisers these days.
    Cost savings: about $700
    Go big instead if you'll routinely bore mortises larger than 12 " (for bed rails, posts, and the like). You'll need to step up to a floor-stander--or another method, such as a drill press--to get that kind of capacity.


    Why buy? Drums on benchtop models can sand inside curves on stock up to about 3" thick. The typically plastic gears and light-duty motor won't last as long as the components inside their beefier brothers, but you'd have to burn up two or three of these to exceed the cost of one floor-standing sander. Swap the spindle for the belt attachment on Ridgid's EB4424 (shown) and add edge-belt sanding at a benchtop price.
    Cost savings: $500-$900
    Go big instead if you must do aggressive sanding every day.


    Why buy? A 13" planer costs you only 2" of width capacity versus a 15" floor-standing model, but you gain floor space thanks to the smaller footprint (especially compared to a stationery planer with infeed and outfeed extensions). As a bonus, benchtop machines often deliver a smoother finish, with easier-to-adjust knives, to boot.
    Cost savings: $400-$1,500
    Go big instead if you regularly hog rough lumber down to thickness. A stationary planer cuts deeper and feeds lumber faster than a benchtop model, saving you time on big jobs. Also, the universal motors on benchtop planers require periodic downtime to prevent overheating during long planing sessions.


    Why buy? Legs on a lathe add weight that dampens vibration. Bolting down a benchtop lathe does the same thing. Today's midi-lathe, equipped with an accessory bed extension, has enough distance-between-centers and power to turn spindles 35" or so in length: plenty for table legs. And you can stow a benchtop model when not in use.

    Cost savings: $200-$300

    Go big instead if you plan to turn bowls, platters, or vessels larger than about 10-12" in diameter.

  • When to stick with stationary: Tablesaw

    Although some benchtop saws now boast stationary-saw features, the cost of those better machines rapidly approaches the price of a good contractor-style tablesaw, which offers greater rip and crosscut capacity (not to mention a better fence and miter gauge), a quieter and more powerful induction motor, and easier adjustments.

  • When to stick with stationary: Bandsaw

    Benchtop models lack the power and capacity to resaw hardwoods or rough out a bowl blank, so what you end up with is a glorified jigsaw for curve cutting. Even then, you'll get frustrated quickly by poor blade guides and blade-tensioning systems.

  • When to stick with stationary: Jointer

    Long face-jointing sessions can overheat the universal motor on a benchtop unit. And you will have long sessions making twice as many passes as with a stationary jointer due to the limited depth of cut. Fences tend to be flimsy, cut-quality marginal, and tables too short to joint workpieces longer than about 4'.

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