First time wood working(tool recommendations)

Hello all. I am wanting to start my first basic wood working project. The basic idea is to cut letters out of (probably) ply wood. Glue and or tack them to another board to make a sign. Painting and sanding of course.

What tools would you recommend for a man on a budget? My thoughts of what I need are these

A sander (should I do a sheet sander? Orbital sander? Palm finish sander? )
Possibly a router (should I?)
Work bench/table.

What would you suggest? I’m not sure what the real difference in types of Sanders are.

Thanks for any help.


It depends on how big of letters you are looking to make. Are they small 2" or larger 6"+? A scroll saw would be a great saw to have for smaller and even larger items. Scroll saws can be had for cheap on craigslist and facebook marketlace.

Larger letter and items a jig saw will work just fine. Do you have a drill? A jig saw doesn’t plunge well at all into middle of areas like the inside of an “O” for example. A drill would be used to drill a hole and a jig saw can then be inserted and go from there.

Orbit sanders are great and not expensive at all. Cheap ones can be had from $15-$20. A good solid sander like a Bosch is closer to $50. You can sand the face of the surfaces with the sander but I would do the edges by hand or with a sanding block.

Routers are amazing tools that can do so many different tasks its crazy. For this task I wouldn’t recommend a router. You wouldn’t have a way to hold the items safely and to no hurt yourself.

You can never have too many clamps. Start now and buy a couple and see what type of clamps suit your needs. If you dont have any now some inexpensive clamps are the Irwin quick grip type clamps and Bessey F style clamps. Clamps hold the work pieces down, up, or even together and act like a 3rd hand.

What types of tools do you have at your disposal now? A little more info in what you are looking to do now and later one will be a big help.

Thanks for the response!

Tools that I already have…

Ryobi: sawsal, circsaw, drill driver, impact driver, hand vac, radio, and multi tool.
I also have milwakue 12v impact and drill driver.
Rockwell versa-cut (small plunge cut circsaw)

I have a few DeWalt clamps.
Lots of pliers and screw drivers and Allen keys and drill bits and what not.

I used to do fire and water damage restoration. I have tools for demo work but have never done the finishing kinda work.

As for the project at hand. It would be a good size sign. It would fit under and infront of a 6foot table. My wife sells Lularoe (if you have ever heard of it) and this would be a sign for her pop up sales. I plan on making my self a sign first to “figure out” what the hell I’m doing lol.

I’ve heard of the company. I know people who sell it as well.

Since you are already invested in Ryobi cordless, I would get their jigsaw. They sell a cordless orbit sander as well or you can get a corded version. The letters seem like they will be on the larger side and sounds like a jigsaw will work just fine. I would print out letters and use light spray glue to adhere them to the wood. To help with taking them off, put a layer of blue painters tape down on the wood, then put the glue backed letter on top. It will make taking off the remaining parts of the letter super easy.

Google a scroll saw and see if that will suit your needs as well. A coping saw also sounds like it would a cheap and much needed small saw to accomplish what you want with the letters.

I second the notion of using a scroll saw versus a jig saw for cutting out letters.
You may also find the plywood is great for the sign board - but maybe not so good for the letters particularly if you use a jigsaw. Even with something like a high quality Baltic Birch plywood a plywood jigsaw blade - you may get chatter and tooth catching that will pull up the surface plies leaving a ragged edge. The advantage of a scrollsaw is that the table supports the work and the blade is under tension from both ends.

You might want to experiment with MDF or MDO if the sign is to be painted.

Of course you could also try cutting the letters out with hand tools - taking your time using a coping saw or fret saw. The real high quality one from Knew Concepts gets a bit pricey:

The router - probably a compact or laminate trimmer model would do - would come in handy if you wanted to give the edges of the letters and the sign some visual interest. If your Ryobi tools are cordless - you might look at their cordless router:

or HD also has the Ridgid corded deal that adds a sander:

In terms of how to rout edges on the letters - you can temporarily mount them with double stick tape - or rout the edges once the letters are painted and permanently mounted then touch up your painting. You’ll need a router bit or two to create the edges that appeal to you (maybe chamfer, roundover. or ogee for the letters and the sign board.

I’m gonna look into a scroll saw.

There’s two kits catch my eye

200 bucks would get me a jigsaw, router, sheet sander(X2), light, hot glue gun, and a hand vac
I could try to sell the extra sander and hand vac to Ballance out the price.

I like the idea of having a router to make the letters/sign have some pop. I figured ply wood wouldn’t work for the letters but wasn’t sure what type of wood to go with.

Be careful about buying a scroll saw, don’t cheap out and think you can buy one new for $200 like I did. I purchased a Porter Cable scroll saw and the thing bounces around so much it it pretty much useless for fine work. A friend of mine purchased the Dewalt scroll saw about the same time and produces beautiful fretwork.

Yeah it’s $500, but that’s actually pretty cheap compared to some of the other decent machines on the market.

You could try and find an old Delta machine from the 1980s or so. I remember using them in shop class in middle school and they were solid machines.

If you are going to use a jigsaw, you could try using the upside down method to minimize chip out. Basically you have the pattern face you and put the jigsaw on the other side of the board. Then you follow the pattern with the bit of the blade that pokes through.

Since the jigsaw cuts on the up stroke, it’s going to blow out on the side it’s on and leave a cleaner cut on the back side.

I’m still not sold on the idea of a router. Smaller areas of letters like an “e” for example and other letters will be hard to get into depending on the size of the letter. Double sided tape may not have enough grip surface either and the letter could go flying. Being new to routers I wouldn’t suggest it as a first project. You could experiment with it for a while and see exactly how a router acts.

The Ryobi bare tool cordless kits look like a decent deal - but you will need to buy the battery and battery charger too - if you do not have them.

Benjamin’s comments about a scroll saw are spot on. My Hegner 22 works very well once you set the tension right - but its price might give you apoplexy. The Dewalt gets high marks for a lot less money. Another saw that gets very high marks is the Excalibur, but it is no longer made. Overall they all are a big investment if you only plan on doing one project with them.

Rrich1 - may be right about needing to better secure the letters before routing - hence my second suggestion about doing the edge routing after the letters are permanently affixed. You would also want to not do any climb cutting:

But taking cuts in stages - shallow cuts to start - then lowering the bit to its final position you should be able to accomplish what you want. Getting the hang of your router and the process - starting with some scrap wood, learning how to keep the base level and the feed rate steady - should also help.

Thanks for all the replies and thoughts. Lots for me to consider and budget for.

Wood working has always been something I’ve wanted to do. I have refinished a dresser before (using someone else’s shop) and highly enjoyed the project. You can get “beat up” furniture for pretty cheap, and knowing how to repair them would be great.

I do have Ryobi batteries and chargers. If I do anything cordless it will be Ryobi, but I’m not opposed to corded tools of this nature. Anything done with them will be in my garage or driveway

Routers and sanders tend to be energy hogs.
With current battery technology - that’s why you don’t see any cordless 3.5Hp routers or production sanders.
For the edge trimming and sanding that you are contemplating for making a sign - cordless should be fine for both tools.
But if you were to get into some extensive furniture refinishing - you will probably find that a cordless sander will run through batteries pretty quickly and may not be up to the task at all. In our cabinet shop - we even found many corded sanders lacking - preferring to use air-powered sanders instead.

What I’ve decided is to do a lot of pricing and reaserch and compare products for awhile. I get a monthly “allowence” which I’ll save up till Black Friday and buy tools then. I’ll have plenty of time to find the best tools for what I want to do. There’s a lot of basics that I’ll need (like a butt load of clamps) so money will be thiner then I’d like. I may spend some Christmas bonus on tools as well.

This is a hobby I know takes a good while to get good at so I wanna start now. Maybe when my boys get older they will want to learn it too (which sounds amazing!!)

I really do appreciate all the advice. It has helped already!

If you want this to be a fun little wood project for you then thats one thing. But if the goal is to have a decent looking professional business sign, I would rethink the material.
We had a professional sign made for our company and it blew my mind how much it cost but when it came, it was made from foam. Using that as a template, I was able to make a second copy out of regular pink insulation foam from home depot using an HF scroll saw. Be careful, spray paint melts that material, use brush on paint.
Most exterior signage companies use acrylic/plexiglass.

One of the problems with plywood is that unless its a very high quality. it will have voids in it that will have to be filled in if you want it to look really good. Looks like its kind of a bright modern brand so you will be painting the letters anyways, so theres no advantage to starting with the wood grained material to begin with.

I would think about think about using one of those as the materials for this project. They are both easily cut and sanded using woodworking tools and will end up being significantly lighter then plywood, which may be a big plus depending on how large her load out is. The pros/cons: pink foam is super cheap and easy to cut, but its not very durable. Acrylic is going to be just as durable as plywood but more expensive and might be harder to work with depending on your thickness.

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Many professional signs are also made from bent sheetmetal… Rather than woodworking tools - there are a whole set of tools (from hand tools to jigs and machinery) use to form metal channel letters.

There are also lots of tools to cut, bevel and notch different foam board. Some like those from Logan use knife blades, others use hot wire cutters or hot knives and still others use saw blades. When EIFS was all the rage in our area, we became rather proficient in cutting and bevelling foam for exterior house “siding” having the appearance of masonry with additional architectural detail.

But your thread started with the notion of creating plywood letters to apply to a plywood backer board. Like Anton - I questioned using plywood for the letters, suggesting MDF or MDO - which can be cut and machined a bit like wood - but does not have voids like many grades of plywood - and is a lot cheaper than the Baltic Birch plywood that I also mentioned.

Wood signs can also be created in relief by routing the letters into a board. There are templates, router bits and router guides of varying quality and utility to help with this. Then painting or even gold-leafing the inset letters can produce a dramatic sign.

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Here’s another suggestion. You could get a milescraft Sign Pro. Here’s a link:

Or you could get a pantograph made by Milescraft also.

And you could get a good quality router. My first router was a Dewalt DWP611 pk at this link:

This is still my most used router and it would be the first one I’d buy if I were starting out. It has both a plunge and fixed feature. I’d never buy a handheld router without a plunge feature, except for trim routers. This one is small enough to be used as a trim router but powerful enough for nearly all the jobs I do with a handheld. If you were to use one of the milescraft kits, the plunge feature would be important, I’m pretty sure. It’s also got excellent dust collection, very important for woodworkers since routers make a big mess, though you have to buy the attachment, which isn’t very expensive. I got mine during the holidays and using the coupon that they usually have during that time.

I own the sign kit linked above, though I haven’t used it yet. Got it at a garage sale for very cheap. One of these days I’ll make some signs from it. Look on youtube, I’m sure there are some videos there. It gets decent ratings on Amazon, and some folks who never used a router have had good luck with it from the reviews.

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When you go to purchase router bits, don’t get milescraft brand. I have gotten excellent buys on bits from Amazon Warehouse. I usually find Whiteside, Freud CMT and Amana bits for less than the cheaper brands, though they are usually repackaged, etc. And these brands hold up well and cut well. But make sure to inspect them for any defects (chips on edge, look at shank, etc.) and send them right back. I’ve had to do this at times, but otherwise have gotten great buys. Signmaking bits should not be too expensive, and for the router above, you have 1/4" shanks. As a woodworker, I would never be without a router.

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Sign-making was never my thing - but I’ve seen the jigs at some woodworking shows over the years. Everything from Milescraft has always looked to me to be rather flimsy - but they sell so I guess some folks like them. Their sign-making jigs as well as those from Rockler and Woodcraft seem to get some pretty mixed reviews. I may be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be anything between the level of these and dedicated CNC routers. Maybe that’s because its a small market - or perhaps because CNC routers can be had in lower-end implementations at more affordable prices than once was the case.

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After some research and what not, I’ve decided a DeWalt scroll saw is what my main desire is. I’ve actually sold some of my comic book collectables in order to buy one. I know it’s an expensive first tool in a hobby I may end up hating, but who cares.

So I will get a scroll saw, sander, and router. Those are my main 3 tools I want. I’m leaning towards a Makita sander and either a Bosch or DeWalt router.

Still looking at a lot of reviews and articles about which are best. But at the end of the day I’m going to buy the sander that feels best in my hands. Routers seem to have a more universal “feel” to them

For a Router, I’d suggest this kit:

It can be had for the same price at Lowes and Home Depot but if you shop around you can find it for $189:

Later on if you want to mount it in a router table - then Bosch makes a dedicated base into which you can slip the motor:

I just got the router pack that Fred recommended as well as the dust collection and a bosch router table. I can confirm that this is a great tool (compared to me old, old router that was passed down to me). I also looked at the full-sized dewalt and I would recommend holding both in your hands. I bought mine more for router table use and occasional use for trim and dovetails. When I use it for edge/trim routing, it is very top heavy and hard to control. I probably would have more luck with the plunge base but I am still learning the best way to use it. If it wasn’t going to live in the table most of the time, I probably would have gone with the dewalt but I had some more reservations about the dewalt’s adjustments in a cheep(er) table than I did about holding this one. A smaller trim router is on the wish list but this fit my needs more until the budget allows. I think you would be happy with either.