The cabinetmaking industry is a hard one to enter. You need a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, and a lot of equipment.
In this blog, we're going to focus on that last part. The equipment part.
Investing in the best tools brings a return that's hard to beat. It makes your process faster, efficient, and safer.
Plus, having the right tool for the job reduces overhead and helps you produce higher quality work.
But here's the kicker: Tools are not cheap.
Whether you're starting out or just looking to improve your shop, buying a bunch of equipment and machinery hurts the wallet. And sometimes it can be hard to really know what you'll get good use out of and what will sit in the corner of your shop collecting dust (it's okay - we're guilty of this, too).
So here it is. Our list of the absolute must-have pieces of machinery that we think are 100% worth the investment and will make cabinetmaking a little bit easier.
1.) Table saw
Table saws are the heart of your shop. It's the center of all your cabinet projects. And it's what you want to build your list of tools around.
Photo source: Comfr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sure, you can get by with using a handheld saw for a lot of the basic work and sawing tasks. But if you're cutting large pieces of wood, then a table saw is gonna be your best investment.
Table saws make significant and accurate cuts in a short amount of time - your results will be more consistent and higher quality.
They're extremely versatile, too. You can do: cross cuts, miter cuts, rabbet cuts, dado cuts, and ripping. And you can make jigs for your table saw to make it more functional in your shop.
Here's what you can do with a table saw:
- Cutting plywood to width and length
- Ripping hardwood for face frames, panels, doors, drawers, shelving, and more
- Creating door rail and stiles with dado blades
- Building straight dovetails in drawers
Photo source: Patrick Fitzgerald
Table saws are essential in any cabinet shop. They're convenient, consistent, and worth every penny.
If you're not sure which one to get, check out this awesome table saw buying guide by Saws Reviewed.
2.) Compound miter saw
Similar to a table saw, compound miter saws are pretty important in a cabinet shop.
Most of you probably know what they are, but for those who don't, a miter saw is a machine tool with a circular blade fixed on a swing arm. That swing arm can be brought down on to the workpiece to make the cut. They're designed to make accurate crosscuts and angular cuts.
They're similar to a table saw because they both use a rotating circular blade to cut the wood. But the biggest difference is a miter saw is used for a very specific purpose, whereas a table saw is more of an all-purpose wood cutter.
In a cabinet shop, you can use a compound miter saw to:
- Cut wood to length
- Cut complex angle cuts
- Cut narrow plywood
- Cut molding
- Trim doors
3.) Router table
If you make your own doors, then a router table is going to be your best friend.
It's a stationary machine that features a router mounted upside down with the cutter protruding through a hole in the surface of the table. Its purpose is to give the woodworker an easier time controlling the feed rate and the direction of feed movement.
Here's what you can do with a router table in your cabinet shop:
- Build raised panel doors
- Work with small or not too wide pieces
- Make a dovetail
- Make a variety of jigs
- Routing the same cut multiple times
- Routing stopped cuts
- Less mess to clean up - router tables usually have dust collectors!
A router will do the job, but a router table will do it better, safer, and accurately. If you already have a hand-held router and are on a budget (as we all are), you can easily build a table yourself.
If you are in the market for a router table, there are three types you should know about.
- Benchtop - These are used on top of a workbench. And are perfect for smaller shops since they're small and easy to move.
- Floor standing - Otherwise known as cabinet style router tables, these are a great choice for larger workshops. It has legs or a cabinet base that sits on the floor.
- Extension wing - If you're looking to optimize your space, then this might be the one for you. It's a router table that's an extension off your table saw.
Just like a table saw, we believe a jointer is part of the foundation of your shop. It's one of those tools that once you get, you wonder how you ever managed without one.
Photo source: SilentC at English Wikipedia. via Wikimedia Commons
Jointers are used to make one face of a board and one adjacent edge perfectly flat and square to each other. They're great for preparing edges to be glued together.
It has three parts: a cutter head, an in-feed table, and an out-feed table.
The in-feed table and out-feed table are perfectly flat to each other. The blades on the cutter head of the jointer are flush with the out-feed table. To adjust the depth of your cut, you can raise or lower the in-feed table. As wood is fed into the cutter head, material is removed making that face or edge of the board parallel to the out-feed table. See photo demonstration below.
How a jointer works Photo source: Struthious Bandersnatch via Wikimedia Commons
If you work with solid wood, a jointer is kind of a game changer. Flattening the wood with a hand planer is an option, but a jointer makes the process 100% faster and easier.
Get a jointer if you want your quality of work to go up and your frustration trying to fit two flat pieces that aren't really that flat to go down.
If you really want to get into cabinetmaking, a planer is worth the cost. They're great to have when you need to smooth boards and mill them to an exact thickness.
They work hand-in-hand with a jointer. The jointer is used to flatten one face and square up on edge and the planer is then used to make the second face flat and parallel to the first.
A planer serves 3 specific purposes that other tools don't:
- It makes the second face of a board parallel to the other face
- It smooths rough stock
- It reduces stock down to the exact thickness you need
Like with most of the tools mentioned here, you don't need one to get by. But they're nice to have for larger jobs where you need to replicate parts accurately. They give you a control of your stock thickness you can't get with any other tool.
6.) Drum sander
No matter how good you are with a hand sander, you just can't beat the time saved with a drum sander.
Drum sanders are a large, fixed base machine designed to produce a smooth finish on wood. It features a single or dual drum that is mounted horizontally over a moving belt.
Drum sanders work best for projects that require perfectly flat surfaces.
For a cabinet shop, that includes:
- Face frames
- Hardwood panels
- Drawer sides
There's two types of drum sanders: closed drum and open drum.
A closed drum sander is mounted on four pillars. Stock must be smaller than the opening. They lack the ability to reverse the stock. Because of this, a lot of them are larger in size and for industrial use.
An open drum sander is where the drum is suspended over the moving belt. It allows you to double the width of stock you can sand.
For cabinets, you're going to want a sander with at least a 32" reversible capacity. This size will allow you to sand all end panels and cabinet doors, tackle most base cabinet face frames, and sand flat trim, base board, and cabinet door rails and stiles.
7.) Vertical panel saw
Every kitchen project uses panel material. Which is why investing in a vertical panel saw is a good idea for a cabinet shop.
Panel saws are designed to easily cut large panels of wood, MDF, and plywood - like 4'x8', 5'x10' or 5'x12' panels.
There are two types of panel saws: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal panel saws are pretty similar to table saws in that you feed material into a single spinning blade.
A vertical panel saw, on the other hand, sits vertically, requiring less floor space. They make two kinds of cuts: cross-cuts and strip cuts.
A lot of cabinet shops work with panels, veneer, plywood, and other sheet goods, so that's why we suggest a vertical panel saw. They make it extremely easy to cut large pieces of wood. And they're especially helpful if you're a one man shop - a vertical panel saw will save your back, the sheets surface, and a lot of time.
Here's what it can do for you and your shop:
- Cut large wooden panels to smaller sizes
- Size plywood, MDF, particleboards, and other engineered wood
- Custom cabinet making and joinery
- Build tables, dressers, and furniture
You can, of course, use a table saw to cut plywood, but there's a lot of shuffling and lifting of the material. And most table saws are not big enough to accommodate large pieces of wood. Plus, you run the risk of the blade catching the plywood and then you're left paying the price.
If you work a lot with sheet goods, a vertical panel saw is going to be a great investment. Even though they are one of the more expensive machines, that price is worth it for how much time you save and how much more efficient your shop will be.
8.) CNC Machine
Here's the thing. We don't think you need a CNC machine to successfully operate a cabinet shop. But when discussing machines that enhance and improve your shop's efficiency, a CNC machine needs to be mentioned. And that's why it's on our list.
Our CNC machine cutting a HDF board!
CNC machines take your shop to the next level. They make your projects more efficient and accurate. It gives you the ability to make quicker adjustments based on your customer's needs and lets you use material more efficiently - resulting in less waste.
Invest in the tools that make sense for you
The tools you choose to invest in depend on a lot of factors. How big your shop is, how you buy your lumber, and what you're willing to outsource.
A great way to determine the best place to invest in your shop is to assess what you already have and then figure out how each added tool will improve the way you work.
We suggest finding the areas in your shop you want to invest in, what areas you're okay with, and what areas you're okay with outsourcing.
Get a good deal
As we all know, tools are expensive. It can be a little overwhelming especially if you're just starting out.
You don't need the nicest and newest equipment on the market. You just need something to get the job done.
Luckily, there are good deals everywhere. We suggest checking social media sites, like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, to find online auctions in your area. Also, start forming relationships with other cabinet shops near you - a lot of them have equipment they've grown out of that's just sitting in a corner.
Outsourcing is an option, too
And if you ever need extra help, outsourcing is always a great option. It essentially allows you to have access to several hundred thousand dollars of equipment, but the great part is, you only pay for what you use.
We always suggest shops that are just starting out to outsource their doors and drawers. It cuts out the hefty investment in milling equipment. But... we might be a little biased.