Faster! More efficient! Git’r done so you can relax! Efficiency in our hobby activities could be a bit of a paradox – make the things you like to do go faster so you can get bored again?
“If you use (insert arbitrary expensive machinery here), you’ll get the job done faster!” Hogswallop, I say! Not that things will go faster, but the notion that they need to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do understand where this usually comes from – ignorance. Ignorance is not really a bad thing; it does not say anything about the person other than the fact that the person lacks knowledge, awareness or is not educated in the matter. Thus, ignorance should NOT be confused with stupidity. Being stupid means that you have knowledge, you just don’t act upon it. My own definition, but I think it is a good’un.
When we’re in the woodworking milieu, such statements comes from people who have very little knowledge of hand tool use. Machinists, I (and other hand tool users) call them. We don’t do so to belittle machine users. Not by any means! No, use machines all you want – it’s perfectly fine! I do too. For some tasks, I really prefer to use machines over hand tools. If your interest lies in the machine world, have at it! But understand this: putting a piece of wood into the thicknesser or the thickness sander does not make you a woodworker. The machine works the wood, you just feed it.
The thing is – if you spend a little time learning the basics, you will discover that hand tools are really easy – and really, really fast! To a certain point. At some point, angry pixies should take over the donkey work. The jointer (or planer) / thicknesser is such a tool. You can flatten a board with hand planes, but cleaning up a long one from rough sawn takes a bit of time. I prefer to do that on the planer, then do further refinement with the hand plane. Bulk with power, details with hands. No sanding needed.
Thanks to Youtube, social media and – over the last years – content factories, most people are being introduced to woodworking as something we do with machines. The end product is the most important aspect, not the process itself. Thus, a rookie woodworker usually is headed towards the machine world from the get go. We see the blinking lights, anodized aluminium and impressive looking contraptions while the presenter toots on about how easy this and that. TV shop style: “can YOUR knife cut through a shoe?”. I have never needed to slice a shoe in my life. Metaphorically or otherwise.
A digression: I know several farmers. Two of them have completely different approaches to farming. Both have milking cows and sheep as their main “product”. One of them owns lots of machines and equipment. This farmer is in it for the machines, not so much for the animals – which the farmer do care a lot about, but the use of machines. While the other – who reluctantly owns a tractor and some implements – is really only interested in the animals. Ask yourself: what am I interested in? The process or the end product? Or maybe both?
Back to woodworking. We hand tool users gets a lot of flak for choosing hand tools over machines. Are we really elitists, snobs, backwards facing, old fashioned, outdated and/or romantic? Because I’ve seen comments to those effects more than once!
“Not every person has the means to buy those fancy hand tools and all the equipment needed”.
I’d subscribe to the last one. Hand tools are definitively not cheap. Way more affordable than machines, though. My table saw costs about the same as my sharpening station plus my Ashley Iles butt chisel set combined, and it really isn’t a high-end model. It is a Bosch PTS-10. My high end band saw costs over five times as much (the Record Power BS400). Cheap power tools are generally not worth buying; you’ll end up replacing with better models. Don’t ask me how I know.
There are cheap alternatives for many hand tools that will work just as well as premium ones. For example, my panel saws are dirt cheap – they costs just as much as a throw-away, but they can be resharpened and will outlast me and possibly two or three generations after me if they are cared for. No need for expensive and fancy ones from Lie-Nielsen or Bad Axe, although those are very nice tools of a very high quality.
An alternative to my not-very-cheap-but-still-affordable Ashley Iles chisels would be Narex. Even some big box store own brand chisels has proven to be perfectly good. Paul Sellers goes on about his Aldi chisels being lifetime tools. I bet he is right about that, but I also think higher end tools should be bought at some point. Not all tools, but the core ones such as chisels. The refinements and performance we get from high quality tools improves our work, but is lost to the novice. It’s like giving a Martin D-41 guitar to someone that knows a few chords and sings about the hanging head of a guy named Tom. It’ll sound nice and play nice, but it won’t really reveal its qualities until an experienced guitarist plays it. Not that I am against giving high end pieces to rookies – I do own a Strat myself! By all means, but until you know what you really need – stay away from some of the high end stuff for now.
Adam Savage said something like “buy cheap tools, and when they break – buy good ones”. What he means, as I understands it, is that you should put your money into the tools you use the most. A tool you use once per year does not need to be professional grade, really.
And this brings us back to the main topic of speed and efficiency. I spend time in my shop to make stuff, but for me it is the time I spend in the shop that matters. The feeling I got placing a table I’ve made in our living room is awesome, but the time I spent at the workbench building it matters more to me personally.
I think that the notion of speed and efficiency comes from the industrialized world we live in. Information is available instantly, we can get stuff delivered within hours or days – even from the other side of the planet! Faster! More!
Food for though: we find hobbies we enjoy doing to pass time. If we do not have hobbies, we’ll become bored. Why should we rush to the finish line then? “I need to hurry up and finish this bookcase so that I can sit in my chair looking at it – bored out of my mind”. That sort of thing. When I see those “it saves time” comments, Joe Cocker starts playing “standing knee deep in a river“.
For production work, I get it. Serial production? The machine is king! However, for a hobbyist there’s a difference. A hobbyist won’t manufacture hundreds of the same item on a regular basis, so it makes no sense setting up a shop for it. Trust me on this one: for one-off’s and small production runs, hand tools can – very often – be more efficient than machines.
In stead of setting up your router in the router table to round off edges on those three dozen parts, grab your hand plane. It is just as fast, way less dangerous, a LOT more quiet and the cleanup is done with a few sweeps of the broom. Pro tip: put the plane in the vise upside down, then run your parts over it. As a bonus, you get better control of the end result. Using a router, and you’ll know it after the fact (and the screw ups usually becomes hheeuuuuge ones).
You can be a farmer for the machines or the animals, but I’d suggest being a hybrid one. Use the machines that enables you to spend time with the animals you love. I hate prepping wood from rough sawn into boards with a passion! It is boring, tedious and takes way too much time of the precious hours I as a father of small children get in the shop. My planer/thicknesser solves that. From there, I love using hand tools for the rest of the process, save the occasional band saw cut.
All this being said: If you enjoy the process of setting up a machine, solving a problem on how to utilize the table saw in a certain way – then by all means enjoy yourself! I do not want to take anything from you. However: if you suggest building a router jig to level off a stump, I’ll have some select words for ya. Yes, I actually did see that suggestion come up once. I suggested slapping a line around the thing then grab a hand saw. Worked out grreat!
But if you are concerned about your efficiency in the shop, please stop! You are not a worker at Henry Ford’s factory!
Do not try to be Schrödinger’s woodworker – being in the shop, both bored and not bored at the same time.