The nerd in me loves solving wood shop problems with technology. Here is my top 10 list of useful electronic gadgets that you can add to your shop.
Remember, pleasure has the power to change productivity. When we are pleased by the tools we are using, we are more likely to be happy with out output.
1 - Digital measuring tools.
Whenever I think about these types of devices, one brand pops into my head, and that is Wixley. This company makes various digital measuring devices, from protractors and height gauges, to angle finders and calipers.
Generally speaking, all electronic measuring devices use a combination of a sensor and scale of evenly spaced elements to determine how far the sensor has moved.
To understand how these devices work, think about what you see when walking past a picket fence. Yard, post, yard, post, yard, post….. Assuming a well built, evenly spaced section of fence, you could measure the distance between two posts, then walk along the fence counting the posts and you would know precisely how far you’ve gone by using this formula.
D = Pn * Pd
Where D is your distance, Pn is the number of posts you have passed and Pd is the distance between posts.
You would be sensing and calculating distance just as an optical linear encoder does, which happens to be the most commonly used encoder technology. Other encoder technologies are inductive, capacitive and magnetic.
For more on linear encoder technologies, hit this Wikipedia link.
2 – Moisture meters
It is hard to think of a better tool to illustrate the synergy between lumber and electronics than the moisture meter. Like people who have nothing in common, other than loathing Celine Dion music, lumber and electronics are unified in their distaste for water. Moisture meters use the water in the wood to measure the “moisture content” of the lumber.
The big question when it comes to moisture meters is Pin or Pinless.
The best Pin style moisture meters will have insulated pins with only the very tips being exposed metal. This way the sensor will not be affected by surface moisture, as the sense current will follow the path of least resistance, which is typically the short distance between the two pins. Pin meters measure the resistance of the wood fibers and use this to calculate moisture content.
Pinless style meters on the other hand create a magnetic field which is used to measure the capacitance of the wood fibers. More so than the pin method, this measurement method will be thrown off by surface moisture. Also, it is impossible to know at what depth the reading was taken. Lumber typically has a moisture gradient throughout its cross-section, which means it could be 8% on the surface but a full 12% in the middle.
Now, here is the kicker.
Who is to say the more accurate measuring method is better in practice for the average home woodworker? Sure, the guys at the saw mill or lumber yard working with large logs don’t mind treating their wood like a campfire marshmallow. That doesn’t mean you should feel the need to poke you lumber too.
Also, most kiln dried wood will have a much more even moisture gradient, lessening the importance of measurement depth. So long as you know the approximate percentage and consider the effects during construction, the non-invasive advantage of pinless is certainly desirable.
Lingomat is a company that offers both styles, and has their products have done well in Fine Woodworking reviews.
3 – Lasers on Tools
As you will see later, in the Hall of Shame, adding a laser to a tool doesn’t automatically make it better. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good laser as much as the next guy.
In use, I’ve found that lasers are generally good for rough alignment, as I haven’t had much luck with absolute precision or laser light longevity.
From a technical standpoint, lasers are very unique source of light. Unlike other light (or photon) producing electronic devices, which emit a wide band of wavelengths, a laser outputs a single wavelength. This is refered to as “coherent light” and enables the more high-tech uses of lasers.
Example: Light doesn’t interfere with light, therefore multiple lasers with different wavelengths can transmit down the same optical medium without any crosstalk, a problem common in copper based transmission lines.
If your tool didn’t come with a laser, it’s not too late to add one. Just pick up a tool like this and bolt it on.
4 – CNC machines
When the topic of CNC (computer numerical controlled) machines come up with traditional woodworkers, a “rise of the machines” tone creeps into their voice. In reality, a CNC machine is just another tool that we can use to maximize our shop time.
CNC machines have evolved at a rapid pace and it is no surprise since the heart of the system is a computer. A CNC machine couples a specialized computer to motor drive circuits to enable either the movement of a cutter head, or to move material past a stationary cutter.
5 - Remote dust collector switch / Automatic blast gates
Installing a dust collection system is like hiring a cleaning crew to work in your shop. With a sufficiently powered unit and well designed duct work system, you will have far fewer piles of sawdust to sweep up yourself. But unless you are a furniture factory, you will not leave the collector running constantly.
Ding! By installing an RF (radio frequency) system like the Long Ranger you can call your crew into action at any time.
An important consideration if your like me and want to design your own system, is the Amp carrying capacity of the remotely controlled outlet. There are many devices on the market to handle household current draw devices, but would not survive a demanding shop environment.
To maximize the efficiency of your dust collector, an automatic blast gate system can also be used. Here is a link to the Rockler blog review of the LDS dust collector system that combines these two systems.
6 – Variable speed attachments
Nowadays it is common to see variable speed control on many tools. Everything from cutoff tools to sanders are variable speed. For tools without motor controllers built in, in-line units are available that work with most tools.
One electronic component that may be at the heart of these variable controllers is the TRIAC. The TRIAC can conduct current in either direction, which is necessary for 120VAC applications, and can be triggered to conduct for only a portion of the voltage cycle.
An easy way to understand this is to consider the stoplight application.
Stop lights allow traffic to flow in both directions, but control when the traffic can flow. A TRIAC controls the flow of current the same way a light controls traffic, only at a much quicker frequency. By doing so will provide a lower voltage to the motor winding, resulting in less magnetism and a slower speed.
7 Flesh Sensing / Blade Stopping
These technologies are responsible for saving hot dogs everywhere.
Thankfully, what works for hot dogs, also works for sausage fingers.
The Saw Stop is the most popular brand out there and the tech inside is indeed very cool.
The blade on a Saw Stop unit has a low level voltage signal on it, and when you contact the blade it tries to charge your body’s capacitance. Your capacitance alters the signal level and the controller picks up this change. Then all heck breaks loose. A spring loaded aluminum pawl is held in place by a fuse wire. After a touch is sensed, the controller dumps current through the fuse wire, burning it to a crisp which releases the pawl.
Here is a link to a video where you can watch the Saw Stop in action.
A newcomer to the flesh sensing game is Whirlwind Tool. Their technology looks promising as well and can be adapted to most any machine. They are currently awaiting patent approval.
8 – Full Bin sensor
This guy doesn’t look very high-tech, but his name holds the key to this technology.
That guy up there is Marco Polo. Most people know how to play the game inspired by this famous traveler, but for those who were not allowed to have fun during their childhood, there is a quick rundown.
The searcher, who cannot open their eyes, tries to find the searched by calling out “Marco”. The searched has to reply “Polo”. The game is most fun when played in an echo prone area, such as an indoor pool.
A “Bin Full” sensor operates in a similar manner in that both a transmitter (“Marco”) and a receiver (“Polo”) are used.
One technology type that can be used are “Proximity Sensors”, which can be acoustic, just like our Marco Polo game. The sensor, which includes both the sender and receiver, is mounted in the lid, pointing down. As the bin fills, the echo from the transmitter arrives at the receiver proportionally quicker. Once the time delay hits a defined threshold, the sensor closes it’s pair of contacts, which can in turn be used trigger a warning device.
9 – Electronic hearing protectors.
Nothing is better than time spent in your shop, jamming out to your own personal soundtrack. Trouble is you gotta really crank your stereo to hear it over the tools.
The worst part is, if we want to continue rocking out for years to come, we have to wear hearing protection while in the shop. Well thanks to this little techno-marvel, you can have your cake and eat it too.
Lee Valley Tools sells this unit that blocks out harmful noises while piping in your favorite radio station or personal media player.
Zem has also developed a way to protect our sensitive hearing that doesn’t require electronics.
10 – LED lights.
When it comes to task lighting, Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) have too many advantages to be ignored. This is especially true for a shop environment where vibration is the name of the game.
Conventional incandescent or halogen bulbs with filaments are quickly destroyed by vibration. An LED (pronounced L-E-D) is a semiconductor that emits photons as a result of the current flow across the PN junction. It is a “solid state” device which means it is much more robust. They are available in the same form factor as the current bulbs, so you don’t need to update your fixture, just pop in an LED bulb.
Where LED currently cannot outperform the other options, due to their high cost, is in general lighting. When deciding upon a light source for your general lighting need, look on the bulb package for a “lumens per watt” metric. The more lumens you can get, the better.
Here is a short list of items that didn’t quite make the cut due to selection criteria. They are none the less very helpful.
SketchUp – The free 3D modeling software from Google. Get it, learn it, use it.
The Wood Whisperer App – Available for both Apple and Andriod devices.
Laser levels – While not used very often in the shop, they are a life saver on site.
Hall of shame
Technology isn’t pixie dust so it can’t make all product that include it fly off the shelves.
Black and Decker Auto Clamp – While it may have merit in some situations, you’ll never see one in my shop.
Laser on a hand saw – A laughable contraption if I’ve ever seen one but here is a link to someone making a case for it.
I intentionally didn’t go into many power tools during this post. Most power tools are electric not electronic.
Electric tools are built of passive components. When switched on, electrons flow through the circuit freely.
For a circuit, and a tool, to be considered electronic, it has to have at least one active component in it (like a TRIAC). An active component can control the flow of electrons, modulating their flow, typically based on user input.
If your favorite shop gadget didn’t make the list, let me know what it is in the comments below.