I have a 12 X 20 space for a shop. I want to build tables, bookcases, picture frames, etc. from reclaimed wood but I need to know what brands/models of tools are good to start out with in a very small shop. Also, in what order should I try to aquire the tools since I can't get them all at once.
A table saw would be my first choice, then if you are using reclaimed lumber at least a six-inch jointer. A planer for wider boards. Your portable tool needs will depend on the items you build but you will eventually have several. In your size shop mobile bases for every large machine will be necessary if only to get it in position to operate.
I think you ought to give serious consideration to Festo tools - look on 'toolguide.com' for them. They are German made and, I think, perfect for your situation. Their plunge saw is similar to a hand-held circular saw but the similarity ends there. This saw is precision German engineering. It runs on an aluminum guide rail you can get in various sizes - I would get one large enough to cut a full sheet of panel. They are metric so have one almost 8' but don't get that one, get the one that is over 9'. Their cuts are absolutely wonderful, just as good as a professional sliding panel saw. They are connected to d/c and I would highly recommend one of their new vacuums which are unbelievably quiet and powerful and much less expensive than their original one.
The Festo tools are very expensive but for your situation I truly believe they would be a perfect fit. I have the saw and their wonderful Rotex dual-action sander which also connects to vacuum. They also have a small ingenious table arrangement you can use like a table saw but much different. These tools will enable you to do without a table saw for now and are completely portable - I use mine outside most of the time.
I would then get a portable planer - I have the Dewalt which is good, but so are the others. This is very small and portable stuff. The most important tool for your situation in my estimation would be the jointer. You cannot really go portable here easily. I would get a Delta DJ20 which is an 8" or the smaller version, the DJ15 which would probably be fine for you. I use the DJ20 because I joint mostly 10' boards - if you don't expect to work with long stock the DJ15 would be perfect. I like these tools because they have the longest infeed table I have seen. This is important in order to do longer boards more easily.
A mobile assembly table (about 12" to 18" high) has become my second most used bench in the shop. I used a fire door purchased from a commercial renovation company. Since it was an OSHA and UL rated exit door it is 36" wide, 2" thick, heavy and flat! I cut it into 2 pieces from the original length of 10' to 4' and 6'. Glue and finish drips clean off of the laminate surface very easily.
Get clamps, clamps, clamps,... Pipe, bar, handscrews, spring, deep reach, small ones, long ones, ... buy them when ever you have a few bucks to spare. I still buy one or two a couple times a year to add to the rack. Build a rack on a wall and/or under the assembly table to hold them. Keep in mind you will never have too many clamps.
A one man shop needs to have the ability to move your heavy items around and to clamp them up.
Comment from contributor O:
I work in a tight space, also - a two car garage used for storage and a single car. The essential tools, from most important to least, are: a 10 inch table saw (I got the Bosch), a band saw (I got the largest Delta as of 1st quarter 2005), a plunge router and a cheap wooden table with adjustable height from Ikea. I also have a large collection of hand tools, but those don't take more then three large shelve spaces. I recommend a jointer and a planer. It will make a job a lot faster than using hand tools. A 12 inch jointer and a 12 inch planer will suffice for most projects. If you think you have enough space, I really recommend a large table saw with extension and an option to attach a router on the same table as the saw. This not only gives you a professional grade table saw and router, but also a large table. I currently do not have the space for such a table, but it is what I would like if I had the room.