Great Innovations in Woodworking

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This article is from Issue 100 of Woodcraft Magazine.

We salute ten game-changing advances in tooling

Here at Woodcraft Magazine, we’re big believers in credit where credit is due. So we thought that our 100th issue should include a salute to some of the best tool innovations in woodworking’s recent history. Some of these ingeniously designed tools provide better ways to join workpieces, some expedite cutting and smoothing, some offer great versatility for holding workpieces, and some have broken ground in terms of health and safety. We even give a tip of the hat to design software that’s proved to be a boon to woodworkers. 

It’s a good bet that you’ve seen a number of these products in the press, at stores, and in online videos. However, without actually putting a tool through its paces yourself, it’s hard to know whether to believe whatever sales hype may have been spewed about it. Well, we’re here to vouch for these particular brainchildren. They have been around now long enough to prove their real worth, aside from any grandiose advertising claims. So if you have been considering buying anything you see on these pages. you have the encouragement from your woodworking pals here. We’re glad we got ‘em!

SawStop. SawStop table saws incorporate microprocessor technology that stops a spinning blade in milliseconds to prevent serious injury.

Table saw safety 

The table saw has long been the primary workhorse in most woodshops, but it’s been known to bite and kick, chewing up hands and/or hurling workpieces across the shop. For decades, the only safety bridle on American saws was a splitter/guard combo that was so cumbersome that many of us simply removed it—a big invitation to danger.

Then SawStop joined the rodeo and tamed this magnificent beast with its proprietary blade brake technology. The mere touch of skin against the spinning blade activates the safety mechanism, stopping and dropping the blade in milliseconds to eliminate injury. That groundbreaking trick in itself is deserving of applause, but SawStop didn’t stop there. The machines that the company produces are top-notch—solid, accurate, and rich in features you need in a table saw. 

Riving knife. As opposed to a splitter, a riving knife rises, falls, and tilts with the blade, so you never need to remove it, exposing yourself to risk.

Even saws without blade brake technology have gotten safer, A little over a decade ago legislation forced manufacturers to incorporate European-style riving knives into their offerings to help prevent kickback, which occurs when a workpiece is allowed to wander away from the fence and into the blade’s rising rear teeth. It’s about time every saw had this simple, but very effective piece of safety equipment. Bravo!

A parallel reality. Recent-model parallel jaw clamps such as the Bessey K Body REVOlution at left include anti-tip feet, grippy handles, and workpiece standoffs. Frill-free but very effective early K body clamps are shown at right.

Parallel jaw clamps

Back in the day, woodshop panel- and case-assembly was ruled by pipe clamps and traditional bar clamps. These can do the job, but their short, metal jaws can misdirect clamping pressure and dent workpieces. Then along came parallel jaw clamps, named for their most salient feature: jaws that remain parallel under clamping pressure. This ability contributes mightily to accurate, efficient assemblies because parts tend to self-square under pressure. The 3- to 4"-long jaw depth provides extra reach when clamping case dividers and other parts with limited clamp access. A parallel jaw clamp can also be used sideways when throat depth isn’t important, reducing the number of clamps necessary for a given span. The steel-reinforced resin jaws are glue-resistant, flat, and built to withstand enormous pressure and abuse. 

With clamping forces typically rated at at least 1000 lbs., these clamps provide more than enough muscle for most woodworking jobs. They are available in a variety of lengths, and the bars on even the longest versions are stiff enough to resist significant deflection. Most modern versions have handles that are contoured and/or covered for good grip. 

Like any well-made product, parallel jaw clamps are not cheap, but they’re worth every Jackson. Start with just a few, and you’ll find yourself reaching for them first nearly every time.

The jig for the job. Some of the earliest pocket hole jigs, like this one from Kreg, are not much more than an L-shaped block of aluminum that houses steel sleeves to guide a special stepped bit. Simple as it is, it does a great job.

Pocket screw joinery 

Pocket hole drilling jigs have been a real aid to the small shop woodworker as well as an absolute boon to the DIY crowd. That’s because pocket screw joinery provides a quick, inexpensive way to connect parts. It can be a great approach for making face frames, joining cabinet panels, constructing jigs, and other applications where the screw pockets can be hidden or where aesthetics don’t matter.

A pocket screw joint is essentially a butt or edge joint reinforced with special self-drilling washer-head screws designed specifically for the job. A pocket hole jig guides a stepped drill bit to bore the steeply angled holes to accept the screws, which are then driven into the mating workpiece. The bit’s cutting depth is determined by locating a collar on the bit shank at the proper location to suit the stock thickness. To locate the holes, the workpiece is either clamped to the jig, or the jig to the workpiece. Simple, clever, effective. 

Modern models. These days, advanced models such as the Kreg K4 (top) and the Armor Auto Jig (bottom) include easy-adjusting clamps, quick-set drill collar gauges, dust collection ports, and other features that aid efficiency and accuracy.

So hats off to pocket screw joinery. Although no one should expect it to win any contests against mortise-and-tenon, dovetail, or spline joinery, it sure has been a gateway into woodworking for many, and a real help in both the shop and garage.

The highs and lows of bench work. Routing dovetails at an elevated height is easier on your back and provides better working visibility, while a lowered work surface make for easier finishing and assembly of larger pieces. Even medium-height chores such as hand planing and scraping are done more effectively at just the right height for the job.


It’s a wonder why some great ideas take so long to arrive. Surely woodworkers have long pondered how to adjust bench height to suit their size and the job at hand. And that’s no small concern. Working too low can strain your back, while working too high is awkward in every way. Thankfully, in 2002 we finally got the ingeniously designed and rock-solid Adjust-a-bench, which can be set to the height of your choice between about 29" and 46" (depending on your chosen benchtop thickness). Without singing too many verses of praise here, let’s just say that, until you have actually used the Adjust-a-bench in your shop, you have no idea just how cool it is. Routing dovetails with a jig is no longer a pain in the back, nor is assembling a large case a stretch. In fact, you’ll be surprised just how many times during the workday that you-fine-tune the bench height for comfort and accessibility to your work. Check it out. Your back, legs, arms, and eyes will thank you. 

Ample muscle at the ready. The Domino’s adjustable fence system makes it easy and efficient to add multiple tenons to a joint, greatly increasing its strength.

Loose-tenon joinery made easy

The mortise-and-tenon joint dates back to at least ancient Egypt, and is just as important today. Modern substitutes such as dowels, biscuits, and pocket screws have their uses, but the venerable mortise-and-tenon joint still reigns supreme as far as strength is concerned. But making the joint well requires time and skill. A close contender for the crown is the loose tenon joint (See page 32.) which is nearly as strong and somewhat easier to make, requiring only a plunge router and jig. However, time and skill are still required to lay out the joints, cut the tenon pieces, and so on. 

A boxful of versatility. While not cheap, the full variety of available cutters and tenons allow the Domino to handle almost all your mortise-and-tenon joinery needs.

About fifteen years ago, Festool introduced the Domino, a handheld mortising machine that revolutionized loose tenon joinery. The tool itself is available in two sizes: the smaller 500, which is appropriate for most furniture work, and the larger 700, which is more suited to architectural-scale projects. Both tools work the same way: a single, interchangeable bit is plunged into the workpiece and oscillates back and forth to create a mortise. The width of the mortise is controlled by the bit diameter, and its length and depth are determined by machine settings. Various fences and guides help locate the mortises exactly where you want them. Layout couldn’t be easier: a simple tick mark at the center of the joint is usually enough. Once the mating mortises are cut, apply glue, insert the appropriate size of prefab Domino tenon(s), and clamp up the joint. Tenons are available in a wide variety of thicknesses, widths, and lengths to cover most situations. Wouldn’t the Egyptians have loved this!

Clean smoothing machines. A random orbit sander typically includes a dust bag or canister that can be removed to expose a dust port that can be connected to a shop vac.

Random orbit sanders 

With sanding, anything that makes the job even a little faster and easier is worthy of applause, so random orbit sanders deserve a full standing ovation. These hand-held finish sanders are much faster than their quarter- and half-sheet “vibrator sander” predecessors and are easier to control than belt sanders. The magic of a random orbit sander stems from the simultaneous rotation and oscillation of its disk, which results in a relatively aggressive cutting action that smooths a surface without leaving the swirls typical of a vibrator sander. A random orbit sander is almost a pleasure to use, if that word can rightfully be applied to sanding. No real strength is required to move the machine across the work surface, and changing out a disk is a snap due to standard hook-and-loop attachment. Holes in the disk and sanding pad allow sucking dust into an exhaust port that, when connected to a shop vac, creates a virtually dust-free operation. We’ve been using these things for some decades now and we’re still clapping. ‘Nuff said.

Solid spindle grip. For the spindle turner, a 4-jaw scroll chuck allows a blank to be held securely from one end while hollowing or otherwise shaping the entirety of the outboard end.

Lathe chucks

About 50 years ago, the field of woodturning began to evolve from the making of simple utilitarian bowls and spindles to the creation of more decorative and even conceptual work. Along with this shift came a need for faster, better ways to mount workpieces than using the typical face plates, screw chucks, and spur drives ubiquitous at the time. Borrowing from the machinist’s tool kit, manufacturers began offering four-jawed scroll chucks designed with woodturners’ needs in mind. Over the years, these designs have been refined, with improvements to the tightening mechanisms, capacity, and jaw configurations. All of this has combined to create versatile tools that permit a blank to be mounted almost instantly, then flipped face for face.

Going Bowling. Scroll chucks offer bowl turners myriad ways of holding onto blanks, including expanding their jaws into a recess, and gripping the outer rim with a set of “jumbo” jaws.

These days, numerous manufacturers offer chucks with subtle differences between them, much the way automobile models may vary somewhat. To kick the tires when shopping, consider capacity, interchangeable jaws, and compatibility with your lathe. But do get one of these chucks if you’re a turner; it will really open up the road for you. 

Nice teeth. Carbide insert cutters are available as original equipment on new machines such as this RIKON benchtop jointer or as retrofit cutterheads for many older machines. They are a huge improvement over traditional, full-length steel knives.

Insert tooling

Woodworkers are well aware of the benefits of carbide-tipped router bits and saw blades, with their long-lasting edges that withstand tough materials. Carbide cutters have long been incorporated into industrial jointers and planers in the form of easily replaceable individual carbide “teeth” installed in spiral rows for sheer cutting. This insert tooling has now found its way into smaller jointers and planers as well. While more expensive than machines with traditional full-length steel knives, these new offerings are well worth the investment. They’re quieter to operate, the cutting edges stay sharp longer, and restoring a dull or nicked cutter is a simple matter of loosening its screw and rotating the tooth to present a fresh edge. Forget all the fussing involved in setting traditional knives. Nice. Very nice. 

A tough scrape. Love turning but not sharpening? Carbide-tipped scrapers such as this one from Easy Wood Tools might be just the answer. They hold up well, leave a nice surface, and when they eventually do dull, a fresh edge is just the twist of a hex key away.

With a bit of clever innovation, these inserts have made the leap into the woodturning world in the form of carbide-tipped scrapers. While purists may scoff at the lack of finesse required to use these tools, they are capable of producing remarkably smooth surfaces on the toughest woods. Available in round, square, pointed, and semi-circular shapes, these newcomers are worth inviting into your shop, especially if you incorporate resins and other dense, non-wood materials into your work.

Computer Numeric Control. Whether big or small, a CNC router is akin to having an extremely capable assistant waiting to do your bidding. A few keystrokes and a little mouse work are all it takes to prepare a file for cutting.

Digital innovations 

Computers have taken over nearly every other aspect of modern life, so it’s no surprise that they are invading woodshops too in the form of CNC (Computer Numeric Control) routers. Whether cutting parts directly or perhaps simply making forms for a bent wood project, the ability to quickly create precise, repeatable curves and other shapes is a real game-changer. In addition to two-dimensional cutting for producing flat parts, signs, and plaques, CNC routers can carve all sorts of complex 3D shapes sparked by your imagination. Along with furniture work, craftsman have been employing this technology to make everything from wooden boats to prefab buildings. 

Although larger machines can be prohibitively expensive, you may be able to rent time on one at one of many maker spaces that have sprung up. Or connect with shops that own CNC equipment through websites such as If you’d like to own one, you’ll find a number of reasonably priced smaller machines on the market. You may want to also check out laser engravers, which are capable of remarkably precise pierced scrollwork, as well as burning legible text so small that you need a magnifying loupe to read it. 

Drawing on the computer. There is nothing like a good drawing to help you visualize a project. A 3D modelling program such as SketchUp allows you to build things onscreen before committing tools to wood.

Another thoroughly digital woodworking innovation has been computerized drawing. AutoCad® and many other programs have been used for decades to produce 2D and 3D versions of designs for industry. But using this software typically required extensive training. Fortunately, a more recent 3D modeling program called SketchUp has proven itself much friendlier to the novice, and has come into wide play among woodworkers. With some practice, determination, and help from online tutorials, anyone with a computer can learn to fully construct projects on screen before generating any sawdust. Check out the free version.

Shop vac cyclone. This Oneida Dust Deputy connects inline between the dust source and the vac via intake and outlet ports on the cyclone that sits atop the easily emptied 5-gallon bucket.

Dust collector cyclones 

At their simplest, dust collection systems employ a blower to suck wood debris into a receptacle, exhausting the return air through a filter. A significant problem with this kind of single-stage system is that the blower impeller gets overworked and the filter can clog quickly, compromising suction. But then someone came up with the brilliant idea of incorporating a cyclone that funnels off chips and heavy particles before they slam into the blower impeller and filter, which then have to manage only the finest dust. This greatly improves the system’s efficiency and durability. Cyclones, which have been in industrial use for years, have now made inroads into the small shop, with manufacturers offering units designed for use with single-stage dust collectors and shop vacs. This type of cyclone typically takes the form of a funnel-shaped attachment that connects to a common 5-gallon bucket, which serves as the primary waste receptacle. Here’s to small thinking!


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