Simpleton great!

I have often thought to myself “God, I’m simple” whilst enjoying simple things such as the feel of a well planed board. Is “simple” a negative term, really? Should we celebrate a simple life more?

This is a rant. It is my random thoughts on a subject. They mean something to me only, and anything in here does not apply to you unless it’s actually true. Witchburners – no need for your services!

“[Hobbits] love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favorite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.
(…)
But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow. And yes, no doubt, to others our ways seem quaint. But today, of all days, it is brought home to me, it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.

-From the “Lord of the rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

No bad thing to celebrate a simple life. That one really stuck with me. As a woodworker I find the quote even more powerful! I am a big fan of hand tool work, however I do own – and use – machines as well. Maybe I am a bit apprehensive, but to me it seems like hand tool woodworkers are looked upon a bit of a down-the-nose by many people. Maybe we are considered outdated or stubborn? Old fashioned? Why on earth would you choose a hand saw over an electric miter saw? An electric hand plane is so much easier!

Recently, someone asked how they should go about cutting down a stump that had become rather mangled. The person used it as a chopping board, to cleave fire wood and so on. Several people told him to “make a jig and use a router to make the top flat, just take shallow passes since it is end grain”.

Router sled. I’ve done that once. Not again, if I can avoid it…

My response was to make a knife wall and use the hand saw. It would be quicker than making a complicated setup for a simple job.

Another thing that bugs me, is the fact that you are GUARANTEED to get a “Festool Domino” as a response (not “get a” or “I recommend” in front – just the brand and model. Period. Did not even put up the effort to form a complete sentence), if you ask how to join a couple of planks to make a table top.

Really? A NOK 20.000,- machine to join three or four boards? Not to mention the cost of one single domino cookie! A D10x80/150 BU pack of 150 costs NOK 1134,-. That means NOK 7.56 per plug. Insane!

To compare apples to apples (sort of): The Domino DF500 10x24x50 costs about NOK 4.8 a piece. They come in a pack of 85. I found a pack of 3600 dowels 10×50 at NOK 0,36 a piece. Even if we use two dowels (at NOK 0.72) per one Domino… Well, it is rather self-explanatory.

I fully understand that the Festool Domino is a great tool for what it does. No arguments there. I also fully understand that in a setting where you want to “slap it together with some glue and get it out the door and get paid”, this could be a nice tool to have. Just charge the customer for those overpriced cookies, and they could cost twice for all you care.
It is going to be a hefty pricetag on the coffee table mr. John “DIY” Doe is making in the basement as a hobbyist, though.

By using hand tools, one could make the same table without any need for complicated machinery and huge investments. A spring joint, pinch dogs, cauls and / or good clamps is all that is needed if you know how. Which is not a big secret. There is no need for any reinforcement of the glue line as they will never ever fail – unless there’s something wrong with the glue or the joint is contaminated somehow. All of those tools can be made or bought for very little money.

Of course there are other applications for dominos – or loose tenons, which is all they are – but classical joinery can easily replace all of them. And in most cases, exceed. Even after 150 years. That being said – if Festool (or anybody else) want to gift me a Domino, I’ll take it, love it and you can bet your sweet patootie I’ll use it. Who wouldn’t?

This is why I love hand tools. By learning techniques, I replace the need for expensive and complicated tools. Good hand tools are not cheap in any way – I paid NOK 1200,- for my no. 80 cabinet scraper – but they will usually outlast you. If cared for, my tool kit will still work long after the good Lord has taken me home. So will the furniture I make, as I use methods that has stood the test for thousands of years such as the through dovetails in the cosmetic box of the royal butler Kemeni.

Cosmetic Box of the Royal Butler Kemeni ca. 1805 B.C.

How long will a Domino’ed piece of furniture last? Not hundreds of years, I’ll bet. From my childhood I can remember kitchen chairs width Windsor chair -like construction, fail in the joints in the legs after being used for a decade or two. The glue failed. Easy to fix, if you did the fix in time with the correct method. If you tried to re-glue without cleaning old glue and sand the surfaces, the repair would fail in short time. I wonder what glue the craftsman who made the box for Kemeni used…

So therefore I do celebrate a simple life. I use hand tools because in most cases, they are much more effective for one-offs. I do not make batches of anything. Machines are good for repeatability, or they could do the donkey-work for us. I do know how to take a rough-sawn board to a 4S piece of useful wood, but I do not want to spend the time doing it. Hence my combo planer/thicknesser.

The LBoxx stack in the back reveals that I do own power tools too. Shame!

Do not get me wrong, though. If you choose to buy machines, by all means do so! I applaud your decisions as long as you are making something and you are happy. That is the important thing. But I’ll say this though: by feeding a piece of wood into a machine and picking up a finished part on the other side does NOT make you a woodworker! To replace skills with machines is not a thing to be celebrated. Machines replaces humans in too many places. Sure, it is more effective and reliable to use a robot in stead of a person. For the person being replaced, on the other hand…

What I find troubling, is that people seems to think that they need to buy this doohickey or that thingamabob in order to make the things they want. I were in that camp. I thought I would need a 50 m2 workshop filled with expensive machines in order to be a woodworker. I thought I would need an aircraft carrier of a planer in order to be able to make furniture. Today, I have a workshop with most of the tools I craved back then – although they are vastly scaled back. But I find the most pleasure working with my hand tools. They are what I reach for, over the power tools, for most work that I do. Quiet, no dust – just me, a piece of wood and some hand tools.

There are of course times when power tools are the solution. Ripping a board in two? Let’s go to the band saw. Initial prep on boards that have any cup or twist, or needs to have the thickness adjusted by a certain amount? The planer / thicknesser! Donkey work. If I am going to use a power tool, I consider if a hand tool would be easier, faster or both. When I made the top for my support table, I used the track saw to adjust the width and to square off the ends. I could’ve used a hand plane to adjust the width in a minute or so, so it would not make sense to set up the track saw just for that. But since I had it out and about for chopping the ends, it made sense to just zip it along the front while at it.

So let me come clean:

Hi, my name is Vidar and I am a hybrid woodworker with emphasis on hand tools.

For me, being able to glue two 2×8” boards together, planing them flat and smoothing them without needing any power tools is hugely satisfying. And it is necessary. My planer is 25cm wide. The table top is 38. How to flatten? My Stanley 5 1/2 did it within 5 minutes. The Stanley no. 7 removed the marks left by the 5 1/2 and ensured the top was dead flat. I used my no. 80 cabinet scraper for the smoothing. The following pictures was taken 30 minutes apart, and that included a breather and a wipe of the forehead:

From rippled and splintered to glassy smooth. No noise. No dust (but to tell the truth, a crapload of shavings though…). A bit of sweat. Feeling good about myself and my skills. Simple, yet powerful things.

Now, I could’ve grabbed my router sled. It would’ve taken ages. I think the largest router bit I have is 22mm in diameter. Of course, I could order a bit made for such things that would speed it up (but why? There’s no deadline, really..). Which means forking out more cash. And I still would need to work on the surface to get it smooth. Forget that shiny finish showed above. No amount of sanding would produce that in any reasonable way.
Hand tools fixed everything for me in 30 minutes, including a break. No complicated setup. Two planing stops, a bit of gash to bridge the vise, a hand plane and the cabinet scraper. I could’ve omitted the cabinet scraper too. The plane would produce the same surface.

Simple. It can be a vastly positive thing, even though most people probably think less of it. “It’s so simple” can have completely different meanings.

Becoming ever more skillful with my hand tools, the quote from Lord of the rings resounds even more:

And yes, no doubt, to others our ways seem quaint. But today, of all days, it is brought home to me, it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.

My prrrrrreciousssssssssssssss(es?)!!!

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