Guide written by:
Lucas, Antique wood-worker, Gloucester
Passionate about cabinetmaking or carpentry? Bit of a woodchip virtuoso? Then you won't want to pass up on a woodwork multi-tool! Everything you might want to do with a piece of wood, all in one place - planing, thicknessing, sawing, mortising, routing. This piece of kit is the Swiss army knife of woodwork!
- Tenoning trolley
Why a multi-tool, and what can I do with one?
The main advantage of a woodwork multi-tool is that it combines many machines into one, giving you access to a wide range of woodwork operations even if space is tight. The motor can be switched from one tool to another - via beltadjustment - depending on what you're doing.
The main factor when choosing is the number of functions offered - generally 2 to 6 but sometimes more - and the extra accessories available. No need to fawn over a six-function machine if you only need to plane doors and cut them down to size. A novice carpenter or DIY enthusiast will be well served by a powerful three-function model.
There are two main types of multi-tool:
- 2/3 function multi-tool, e.g. planer + thicknesser + mortiser or table saw + router;
- 5/6 function multi-tool, e.g. planer, thicknesser, table saw, router and tenoner.
Here are some common basic uses of a woodwork multi-tool:
- Planing, i.e. making two faces of a piece of wood perfectly flush;
- Thicknessing, or cutting a piece of wood of a desired cross-section, after planing;
- Dimensioning, or cutting precisely sized panels or pieces of wood;
- Routing, to profile pieces of wood with a rotating tool on a vertical shaft.
Professional users may wish to carry out more specialized tasks, using the multi-tool as a:
- Tenoning trolley, a tool designed for creating tenons in bulk;
- Mortising machine, also for serial assembly work;
- Circular saw with scoring machine, ideal for cutting melamine or panels intended to be visible without the risk of producing splinters. Great for professional results!
The second key thing to decide is the space you have available:
- In terms of bulk, a fully extended multi-tool bench may exceed 3m in length, while the smallest models can be under 90cm;
- Smaller models weigh around 50kg but the professional machines can exceed 1 tonne.
So it's up to you to decide between mobility and convenience or greater variability of function.
The last essential criterion is of course budget. A two-function entry-level model can be had for about £400, whereas a high-power professional machine can be over £10,000... Watch the purse strings!
To summarize, you've got to start with the difficult task of establishing exactly what you need your machine for, the space available to house it and, last but not least, what you can afford.
What types of power source are there?
Note that a six-function model will generally have three separate motors. With three functions, it may have one or two.
Two types of motors appear on these machines:
- Synchronous (electronically commutated);
- Asynchronous (conventional, less noisy).
Power supply can also be either single-phase or three-phase, depending on the type of supply to your workshop.
Handy tip: Choose a motor with thermal protectionto protect it from overheating!
How does power relate to function in a woodwork multi-tool?
Here's a brief summary, function by function!
- Planing / thicknessing: power dictates the machine's ability to remove material from a piece of wood easily and smoothly; this characteristic is referred to as height of pass. In addition, it affects the speed at which workpieces are processed via guide rollers onto the planing irons.
- Sawing: the more powerful the machine, the thicker the pieces you can cut - and the easier it is to cut hardwoods such as oak. Be careful not to overestimate the cutting capacity of your machine!
- Routing: again, power is everything! A more powerful router can remove more material and reduce the number of passes required to achieve the same result. A speed selector (in rpm) may be included on mid- to high-spec models, depending on the type of work (rough planing versus finishing, tool type, etc.)
- Tenoning and mortising: Ditto, power equals possibilities... greater cross-sections, mortiser speed range, tenoner cutting capacity etc.!
Multi-tools range from 1000 to over 3000W in rated power - sometimes expressed in horse power (HP): 2, 3, or 4 HP for example.
Generally speaking, models from 1000 to 1700W are mobile machines suited to conventional woodwork and carpentry applications. If you're actually setting up as a carpenter, you'll want a bit more power! Motors over 2000W will enable you to work on almost all types and sections of wood without any problems.
What info should I consider for each tool function?
Let's have a look at the essential info you need to know for each function to help you choose!
Planing / thicknessing
The most important factor here is the table width. This dictates your ability to plane pieces of wood of large widths. Widths range from 150mm to over 410mm for professional machines.
Table length is important in terms of safety; if you've got more length to play with, you can process longer pieces of wood without risk of toppling. Smaller multi-tool tables rarely exceed 1m in length, while their larger counterparts can reach 1.7m.
Processing speed, in metres per second, can be adjusted depending on the precision of the work you're doing, if you're willing to invest in a higher-spec machine.
The ability to easily change the iron - i.e. crucial cutting element - is important; you might also consider reversible, economical and practical irons.
Finally, the guide can be adjusted to plane at different angles, useful for making a long series of chamfers!
Here you need to know the maximumsawing height as well as the blade diameter. Table length influences ease of cutting longer pieces of wood, but be careful that the overall size doesn't become untenable!
Another key point is whether to go for a sliding table mounted on rails, enabling careful cutting of wooden panels. It must be robust, easy to operate and come as close as possible to the saw blade.
A guide parallel to the blade allows rapid angle cuts, but it must be reliable and accurate.
For your safety, it's a good idea to get a protective guard, otherwise watch those fingers! A riving knife or splitter behind the blade is essential as it can prevent pieces wood from jamming and being thrown to the other end of the workshop...
Routing / tenoning
There are two types of router, those which use routing cutters of different diameters (typically on smaller multi-tools) and those with a conventional shaft (30 or 50mm); the type dictates the range of tool heads you can use on your machine.
Needless to say the second option allows more efficient machining, but smaller cutters are completely sufficient for small-scale carpentry applications!
The table opening indicates the maximum tool width possible on the machine.
Another important factor is speed (in rpm) and the option of adjusting it for different uses. A safety guide with adjustable safety bars is handy to keep you well-protected!
Make sure you're aware of the mandrel clamping strength so you can establish what type of mortice bits to use. A broad diameter makes for quicker mortising work.
Finally, think about how your mortising table is fitted and removed from the multi-tool, as this can be a laborious task in itself.
Comfort and convenience: a word of advice?
The major strength of a woodwork multi-tool is arguably also its greatest weakness! To switch from one operation to another, you might need to remove accessories or make adjustments. This takes time and the ease and efficiency of the transition varies between models! It's up to you to decide if the great versatility offered by this type of machine justifies the 'faff factor'.
Since the switch will generally involve a drive belt adjustment, it's worth considering this point in particular. It can eiher be done manually or electronically, depending on the model.
As for the machine itself, a one-piece frame is generally a sign of robustness and stability. The tabletop can either be made of aluminium or cast iron, both of which are very effective. Aluminium is of course lighter but also more fragile - careful when working with nails! - while the more robust steel will significantly increase the weight of the machine and should be avoided if you plan to move it around. An anodized table surface offers improved resistance to wear and corrosion.
The settings for each machine function can also be more or less straightforward...! Adjusting planing height, saw or router can be done either by means of wheels or levers, or electronically (more precise). Spend a bit extra and your machine can be equipped with an ultra-precise micrometric adjustment device!
For your safety, opt for a model with a punch-type emergency stop button.
What about optional accessories?
Here are a few optional gadgets to enhance your mutli-tool experience:
- A manouevring device, very practical for putting your machine away without damaging your back!
- Servants, to process longer pieces of wood with minimal risk;
- A vacuum cleaner, a real help for the lungs and to avoid constant cleaning of your workshop;
- A shaft working kit, for the router function, to enable you to cut curved shapes etc. Sometimes it comes with the machine;
- An automatic guide, again for routing, which drives your workpieces along without you needing to push - perfect for large-volume work in safety!
A quick summary before we go?
It's a complex task choosing a multi-tool. First think about your expectations for your machine, and narrow down the products on the market that way. You may even want to consider buying two machines (e.g. planer + thicknesser and saw + router), hence saving time on tasks requiring several different functions and minimizing the 'faff' of adjusting your machine.
Don't hesitate to invest a bit more than you might have expected as a more versatile and powerful machine will give you a great wealth of possibilities when you've finally got your head round it!
Finally, always think about safety - these machines can be dangerous, so watch out!
Learn more about woodworking tools...
To find out more about woodworking tools, follow our editors' advice and check out their other guides:
How to choose your drill bits?
How to choose your wall chaser?
How to choose your router?
How to choose your circular saw blade?
How to choose your edge-planer?
How to choose your frame cutter?
How to choose your clamps?
How to choose your screws?
How to choose your drill?
How to choose your circular saw?
How to choose your table saw?
How to choose your workshop vacuum cleaner?
How to choose your mortiser?
How to choose your protective eyewear?
How to choose your hearing protection?
How to choose your respiratory protective gear?
How to choose your protective gloves?
How to choose your safety shoes?
Guide written by:
Lucas, Antique wood-worker, Gloucester, 27 guides
After some time busting my hump at construction, specifically at renovation, painting, carpentry, laying kitchen and bathroom tile, I decided to get my degree as a Carpenter. And I did well because nothing is more pleasant than working on a timber frame or designing a wooden house. Everything about woodworking fascinates me, and building my own home in this material is one of my goals. I’m also a follower of construction tools: I love to learn about innovations, the way they’re used, the tips and tricks, or the performances of each new tool on the market, whether it’s for woodworking or not. I would be happy to advise you and help you with your choices. Happy Tinkering.