The difference of man and boy is only measured by the pricetag on the toys. Or tools. Add in noise, lights and whistles, and we’re sold! The need vs. want factor hits 42, and all we can think is: so shiiiinyyyy…..
But are power tools and specialized gizmos and thingamabobs really the answer? I do not think so. Hand tools are far superior to machines for most of what we hobby woodworkers do. Even in a professional setting, hand tools would be more efficient in one-off cases, than power tools. Even in smaller production runs, hand tools could be the best option. To understand why I think the way I do, let us look back on my woodworking journey. Story time!
A decade ago, my shop was merely a fantasy. A day dream. I had detailed plans for it; the layout, size, which machine goes where. The scope of my shop grew; in my dreams I built wonderful things accompanied with the buzz and screams from machines. The list of necessary equipment became daunting, and I started questioning whether I would ever see my dreams come true. The basic tools would be within reach, but I did understand that the machine is just a minor part of the picture. It is hard work to use a behemoth of a table saw as a hammer, so ya’ need a lump of steel to flail about. Soon you are nagging for a set of screw drivers too! And before long, fine dining might be adding a slice of ham to the spaghetti and ketchup dish. Priorities! Simple food still makes you full, but the wood doesn’t cut itself. So let us review the necessary, primary tool list of yesteryear:
Jointer / thicknesser
Dust collection system
Random orbital sander
various cordless tools
Lots of hand tools
Router with router table
Miter saw with miter saw station
Band saw sawmill
At some point, I would even have to get some wood, too…
I started to gather tools, but I needed space for the shop. I was planning on building a 50 m2 double door garage – the maximum size allowed without opening the Pandora’s box of municipal bureaucracy, building permits, property usage restrictions and what have you. To me, the task seemed daunting. I had no idea how to save up the NOK 3-400.000 I would need to build my shop, but I was hoping I could do it in stages. However, it seemed unlikely to me none the less.
But then I came across a video on Youtube that changed everything. The video is the first one in a series. Here it is:
Paul Sellers. That name is a real heavy-weight in the woodworking world, so remember it! He showed how to make a real sturdy work bench using the simplest of tools. No screaming machines. Just a man, some wood, basic tools – and a tree to butt the work up against to prevent it from flying about. Genious!
I was drawn into the world of hand tools by a man who have a life’s worth of actual, honest experience. I quickly figured out that I could realise my dreams on a much lower scale without needing to compromise too much, if at all. It would certainly not limit my options in what I could make. Hand tools. The shop dream began to look feasible. While still focusing on machines, I slowly began to change course during the construction of my digital pipe organ parts.
A couple of years passed, I met my wife, made a rocking cradle, got my first daughter, sold my house and property in Narvik, moved 1600 km (994 miles) to Etne, my second daughter – and finally, back in 2019, we bought the house where we live now. And where I finally have a shop! 30 m2 of former garage converted into a shop where I can indulge in my passion for woodworking and DIY projects.
A year ago, I converted a huge tree into a big stack of beautiful quartersawn oak using a rented band saw sawmill. I built the work bench Mr. Sellers showed how to make and I am in the tail end of the process where I am renovating the former garage into a nice space for my hobby. I even have gotten the power tools I need (and some that is nice to have), and most of the hand tools too. Kind of. To be obvious: you always need one more shiny thing…
To me, the transition from power tools to hand tools has been liberating in several ways. I can focus on the next project in stead of acquiring the next next thing that enables me to do this or that.
But let us be honest: hand tools are not a cheap and easy solution! Not even if you buy on the used market. Most of my hand planes are from around WWII or just after. Certainly a LOT cheaper than buying new ones from Veritas, Lie-Nielsen or similar – but still pricey. Unless you get a lump of rust, which will end up costing you even more before you can use the thing.
Hand tools can be had for very cheap these days, but the problem is that the manufacturers of most of the tools made today, often have no clue about how to make good hand tools for woodworking. A carpenter’s chisel is not the best option for fine joinery, although it will work to a degree. Bad quality steel may render a chisel completely useless if the edge gets dull after a few minutes of work. I’ve had cheap chisels that looked like the silhouette of the Lofoten mountain range after just one welly into hard oak… And I had a real brain fart and bought a dirt cheap hand plane with rubber handles – and the thing could not be made to cut no matter what. The slot for the depth adjuster in the cap iron (the chip breaker for those of you that don’t know the correct terminology) is in the completely wrong place or the frog bed is too high – I’d better frame that thing and hang it on the shop wall as a stark reminder not to cheap out on tools! I would not even use that piece of garbage as a fishing sinker! No fish with even the faintest sliver of selv respect would let itself be caught on such abysmal QC reject, nor would I ever prepare a meal from a fish with low enough standards! No, sir!
So you’ll need to do a bit of investment. My 6 Ashley-Iles butt chisels (don’t go there…) set me back a tad over NOK 2000,- (about $235 US). The diamond sharpening plates just shy of NOK 3000,-. While this is a decent sum, it is still less money than the price tag on my CamVac dust collector, and certainly a LOT cheaper than my 16” BS400 band saw. Even if you opt in for budget versions of power tools, hand tools are a lot more affordable. Not cheap.
The biggest difference is the real estate requirements, though. Big machines takes a lot of space. Take the jointer/thicknesser. If you want to be able to process pieces 3 metres long, you need 3m + the length of the machine + 3m. And a bit of extra room to maneuver. In my case, we’re at 8 metres total with a bit of space. Take into account that you need at least 100cm width for the entire length – you need to be able to place outfeed supports and move the board from the outfeed to the infeed – and 8m2 of shop space is locked to that one machine. Even the area above the machine needs to be cleared for some height, leaving only high shelves or some wall cupboards. Of course you can use some of the space for moveable stuff, but when you need the space…
My shop is 7.5 metres long, and at 30 m2 it is not a very small one either. Machines do take up a whole lot of space! This is yet another area where hand tools are superior to machines.
As Richard phrases it in the trestle table series: you take the tool to the wood, not the wood to the tool. That means you can make pretty big stuff in a small space. Hand tools are pretty much the answer here, although some machines could make life easier for you:
The track saw is great for cutting straight cuts at a given depth. It kind of works like if the work and the table saw swaps places. In this case I cut the width of a work table top. The same saw was used when I cut the openings for the windows when I put up the OSB sheets for the walls in the shop. A track saw and two or three EPS sheets on the floor makes life easy when breaking down sheet goods. A nice-to-have.
Imagine putting down a rug 200 by 290 cm, which is a good size for a medium to large dining table setup. What if you limit yourself to building a dining table on top of that rug (for the most part at least)? This is kind of the scope in the trestle table series from Richard, mentioned before. Small space, big project. Hand tools are ideal (the only viable solution, really) for such an approach.
On a side note: I said that hand tools are affordable. But do not think for a second that hand tools come without luggage. Quite literally. You might think that a router requires bits, dust collection, a router table, jigs and a whole infrastructure to be a useful tool – and you are correct (for the most part). It is the same with hand tools. A hand plane requires sharpening frequently, so you need a sharpening setup. You need a shooting board or a bench hook. You need a work bench with options for holding your work, for example holdfasts. The good thing with hand tools, though, is that all those other items you need can be used for most of your other tools. The diamond plate happily welcomes your chisels too. Squaring off a card scraper? Diamond plates do that really fast.
Oh, so you think that you should get the ONE hand plane to take care of the odd smoothing of smaller items or trimming of pieces you aren’t comfortable sending through the thicknesser. Suuure, come with me my friend…
No. That won’t happen. You get the No. 4 plane, then you need to sharpen it and get tools for that. Then you start using it, and then you “need” a longer plane for jointing “because it is faster sometimes” – so you get the 7. The 7 is really a bit big, so perhaps a 5 or a 6. And of course a bull nose plane. And the plough plane, while a bit temperamental to set up, is so much easier to use for the odd drawer bottom dadoes….
Yup. Hand tools are affordable allright… Compared to machines they really are, though. But it is like a can of Pringles. Once you pop, you can’t stop…
Since the use of machines has been the “norm” in the Youtube woodworking scene for years and years now, people seem to think that you need a big table saw in order to get anything done. I am not surprised that people seems to think that they need machines to get things done since that is how “everybody” does it. If you ask “how do I join these boards into a table top”, I’ll bet you you will get at least two responses saying “buy the Festool Domino” and about 4 or 5 pointing you to biscuits. Preferably Lamello. I suggested a few clamps (possibly just one), pinch dogs and a spring joint. Dunno if the person asked understood what I was saying, but if not I hope a seed was planted.
Point out the existence of red anodized aluminum, blue pocket hole jigs, or any other new new thing that redefines sliced bread and/or solves non-existing problems, and I could go on for ages.
To me, it is a bit sad when someone asks “how do I glue up these boards into a dining table top” and the only answers are “buy Plano glue press system”. Don’t get me wrong, Plano makes GREAT products. It’s just not feasible, in my mind, for most hobbyists to spend that amount of money for something she or he will get very limited use from. What happened to “make you own glue press”? It is really not that hard, and it would be cheap. You could just screw two two-by-fours to the bench (it IS a work bench, not the sacred altar for thumb twiddling!), place the boards between them and use wedges to press the boards together. A couple of cauls, and the top would be pretty flat. Cheap sash clamps would work great too. I would know, I’ve made three laminated tops and the sides for a rocking cradle with mine so far.
When I grew up, we had a class in woodworking. Or at least woodworking related. In 7th. grade (first year of Junior High back then) i made a letter opener in wood and a shoe horn in metal as required projects to pass the class. I got to try wood turning. Made me a mean bat!
I dont think anybody learns woodworking in school anymore, unless the teacher is “in the trade” so to speak. Arts and craft or similar themed subjects has replaced the former “tresløyd”, which is the Norwegian word that best translates into “woodworking” in my opinion. In primary school, I had to make a trivet. I think I made a version where I glued slices of Juniper to a plywood base. I did not learn how to use a hand plane, though. But even so, the woodworker seeds was planted! Slow growth, though. Tight annual rings at least…
The point of it all
And so I arrive at the idea I had for this article. Is the handyman (or woman, #metoo taken into consideration) really “handy” anymore? Is the focus on machines and all the gizmos, doohickeys and thingamabobs – products made to make a profit and to make things simpler (as in inferior, lesser, barely adequate, with less skill and knowledge) – the reason why people no longer seem to know how to do pretty basic stuff? We search for solutions on how to use a machine to get the job done in stead of doing things manually. We want to make lots of things, but we do not want to invest the time to acquire the skills needed. So we buy a pocket hole jig or copy how mass produced stuff is made. Been there, done that. In some cases, it is a very good solution. Not so much if the thing you want to make is meant to last for some time. A drawbored mortise and tenon will not fall apart if the glue fails, but a pocket hole is usually doomed if the wood cracks or the screw snaps.
Using power tools almost exclusively does not make you a woodworker in my mind – as it is the machine that works the wood while you hold the tool. There is absolutely no feedback from the wood – you only know that you went against some rising grain after the fact. In my definition, that does not qualify as woodworking. You are a wood machinist. But by saying this, I do not mean that using power tools is a bad thing. Not at all. You do what ever YOU feel is best, and I applaud you anyway. I do use power tools, but I’m prefer the control and exactness hand tools give me. The chisel whoopsie translates to a power router minor disaster; with the chisel, you can usually glue back the piece that almost split on you. The router has transformed your beautifully prepared piece into toothpicks before you can even begin to think “this does not look good, better stop”.
Paul Sellers puts it nicely: “if you slip with a handsaw, you always stop before you hit the bone“.
Power tools have their place, but you should be wise when to use them. Here’s some thoughts on that subject (all of these are from a hobbyist perspective and are intended on yours truly):
- When to (usually) use machines:
- repetitive tasks in a production run. Might need jigs.
- donkey work, such as the rough dimensioning of lumber
- a band saw for rip sawing planks.
- a router with pattern bits in stead of having to make or source moulding planes, although I would love to use the planes. Produces a MUCH finer surface.
- When NOT to use macines:
- you need to make a complicated jig before you can use a machine for a given task.
- You need to buy an expensive machine that does only one thing
- Doing something because you think a machine is faster or easier. It could be correct, but probably not. Unless you make a dozen or more.
- Reaching for a machine because you are afraid your forehead might develop a bit of moisture. Giddyup!
There really is no thing called “sanding flat”. You sand down the high spots, but it is incredibly inefficient. The result produced is a dull surface with soft corners. Compared to what a hand plane – and perhaps a card scraper or a cabinet scraper – produce, which is a surface that actually might need to be lightly sanded to scuff up the surface for finishing with paint or some varnishes. The corners will be very sharp, something you cannot do with sanding. A hand plane or the scraper is the last tool to touch the surface before applying oils, waxes or shellac. Saves time – no sanding!
Of course, all of this is merely my own 42 cents. But think about it for a minute. If you need to spend 2 hours building a jig for cutting splines in a picture frame, maybe you are on the wrong path? What does the plywood for the jig cost? How much is your time worth? How many picture frames are you actually going to build? If you are producing a couple of dozens or more, yeah, possibly! In other cases – grab the hand saw. Or maybe you are using the wrong joinery all together?
Remember it’s “always worth the effort to learn, create & share with others.”Shawn L. Graham – Worth Effort
However, to be able to use a hand saw in such a way that you achieve the desired outcome, you would need to acquire information and train yourself. Since most woodworking channels and sites show the use of power tools, people are lulled into thinking “that’s the way to do that”.
Rex Krueger wrote a thought-provoking article about what a woodworker is: “No such thing as woodworking“. I thought about incorporating my own thoughts on the subject in this article, but Rex has formulated it so well. In short: is whittling a figurine also woodworking? What about chair making? Is woodworking more than being a cabinet maker (a generalization, but the point is rather valid). Go read the article. It is very good.
“I could probably do that if only I had that tool! ” How limiting! I am saying this to the mirrors of the past!
There’s hope, though. I do think that almost everybody can learn how to use hand tools. By learning how to use and maintain hand tools, I think you as a woodworker will have more options in your arsenal when tackling a project. You will know when to use power tools and when to grab the hand plane. You will improve the efficiency of your power tools too, as you get a better understanding on the best way to do certain tasks.
Think about it – if you know how to make a mortise and tenon joint, you won’t need these:
What might surprise you the most, is the fact that you will save a lot of time too! Certainly it must be more efficient and faster to make a cut on the miter saw than using a hand saw! Well, you spend the same amount of time marking for the cut, then you have to go over to the miter saw – maybe even set it up if you do not have a dedicated place for it – put on PPE (goggles, ear protectors and dust mask), switch on the dust collection then make the cut. Then switch everything off, remove the PPE and walk back to the bench. And knowing how effective the dust collection is on most miter saws, you would be wise to wear the dust mask for a while after the sawing is done. And remember to have your air filter running, too!
If you have 100 identical cuts, sure! But “one off” cuts? How about cutting just a sliver off of a shelf edge? That could be pretty dangerous if the off-cut is grabbed by the blade and hurled about in your general direction.
In the meantime, I’d slap the piece in the vise or the bench hook, grab the hand saw and be done with it. No PPE needed. Fast. Easy. No risk of pieces of wood being flung anywhere, unless I cut on the wrong side of the line…
And you can do it on top of the rug – that is, in a very small space. After all, it is far easier to move the hand saw than moving the miter saw. Think back to those 8 metres / 8 square metres needed for my jointer / thicknesser.
By learning how to use hand tools, you have more options. You will understand more about how tools interact with wood. Your power tools will be more effectively used, and you will “see” solutions to problems in a totally different way.
But the most satisfying ting, I have to confess, is the feeling you get when you use your skills and knowledge to create a chamfer on the edge of a table top using nothing but a hand plane, and when you sight along the edge it is dead straight.
Looking back, my dream shop has withered down quite a bit. Gone are the demand for big machines – although I do own a couple of the larger sized ones – and the requirement for a huge shop space. No need for a outfeed table for the table saw. No need for dedicated space for a machine that does one thing. No need for a mortising machine (would love to have one, but it would be a luxury item with very little value to me). Not even really need for a table saw, at least not a huge cast iron thing. I might get one in the future, but I do not really need it. Apart from the shiiiiiiinyyyyy factor. One needs that!
As for you who reads this: My message for you is that you should do things the way YOU want. If machines are your way, then by all means use them. The only thing that matters to me, is that you actually DO something: make something! It might look like shite to some, but at least you did it! (and those who criticises you better show that they can do better, or shut up!)
Just remember to share what you do and do learn, so that others can too.
I do however encourage you to grab a hand tool and make. Don’t be afraid to sweat a little, it is good for you. Good for your mind and pocket book, too.
Manual labour… I gotta hand it to ya!