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The best advice I can give, and why hand tools have made a comeback.

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Blog entry by Jorge G. posted 02-20-2013 09:04 PM 1620 reads 0 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Every so often I see this kind of questions on the forums:

”Why is my fostner bit burning the wood”

”I am using cope and stick bits in my router and I get chip out/burning, why?”

So here is the best advice, small increments make for more precise and flawless results.

As wood workers most of us come to a junction where we desire a workbench that is, if not pretty, at least useful and makes our tasks easier to do. The thing is, workbenches are designed in most cases to be used with hand tools. Have you ever tried to route a dado on a stile the length of a door? I don’t care how good is your router table, it will most likely be a nerve wrecking experience. The same task with a tongue and groove plane is not only easier on a work bench, it will most like be more accurate and precise as well as pleasurable.

Which brings us back to the advice, the plane forces you to make many passes in small increments (it is hard to remove 1/4” of wood in a single pass :-) ). Yet with power tools we fall into the wrong belief (specially as beginners) that we can just “hog” the entire piece of wood in one pass. It was not until I realized that power tools are merely a more convenient, and in some cases less strenuous, way of doing the same thing a hand tools does, that my work improved exponentially.

Strangely enough, as you become more proficient with hand tools, power tools become more, and more superfluous. More often than not in the present I find myself reaching for the hand tools instead of the power tool. Will I ever give up my jointer/planer, not in this life time! But I will give up woodworking if I had to use a dovetail jig again as I did when I was starting, mine has been gathering dust for the last 3 years.

PS. This blog is not meant to be a hand tool vs power tool controversy, and it is why I posted it as a blog. It is my experience and my opinion, you are welcome to disagree but lets not turn this into a pissing match.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.



14 comments so far

View Luke's profile

Luke

236 posts in 1353 days


#1 posted 02-20-2013 09:28 PM

I recently had to scribe a cap rail for some wainscoting, I used my #4. After about 20 linear feet, I thought I’ll break out my electric plainer and make short work of this…

Needless to say, a few minutes later of tinkering and trying I took my #4 to go back over what I had just done, it was cleaner, and faster after setup and cleanup.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it ya know? There is a reason that 110 year old plane still works as good as new!

View chrisstef's profile

chrisstef

10930 posts in 1672 days


#2 posted 02-20-2013 09:32 PM

Ive got to agree with you here Jorge. Some things that i still wont do by hand are ripping boards and production stuff, lets say 200’ of rounded over trim, but i do find myself reaching for my hand tools more often than anythign else. Peace and quiet abound and i can fully immerse myself into what im doing at that exact moment forgetting stresses of work and the like without a lot of the fear of losing a finger in a spinning bit or blade.

-- "there aren’t many hand tools as awe-inspiring as the #8 jointer. I mean, it just reeks of cast iron heft and hubris" - Smitty

View JayT's profile (online now)

JayT

2315 posts in 877 days


#3 posted 02-20-2013 09:44 PM

Well said, Jorge.

I will add a couple observations, as well.

It was not until I realized that power tools are merely more a more convenient, and in some cases less strenuous, way of doing the same thing a hand tools does, that my work improved exponentially.

Totally true statement. In some cases a power tool can reduce the learning curve to do the same task as a hand tool. For instance, I struggle cutting a straight, square line with a hand saw. This is partly lack of practice and partly needing to work on saw sharpening. A craftsman that uses handsaws frequently enough to stay in practice has no problem with the same task. I can, however, cut a square, straight line with a circular saw and guide, because it requires less muscle memory and practice. The actual cut doesn’t take less time, but there are fewer hours of practice required.

Where power tools and machinery excel is doing repetitve tasks. That is great for production shops as a time saver, but as a hobbyist, I rarely need that advantage.

My final thought is that one of the greatest advantages of hand tools is that they allow us to engage our hearing and tactile senses so much better. I can immediately hear when the sound of a plane changes and know there is something going on with the tool or the wood and make adjustments. Similarly, it is easy to feel and hear the last part of a handsaw cut and lighten the pressure to ensure a clean exit. With a power tool, you are likely to just plow right through and compound an error.

-- "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money." Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1526 posts in 1141 days


#4 posted 02-20-2013 09:56 PM

Where power tools and machinery excel is doing repetitve tasks.

Yes! On the current job I am doing I made about 1500 sq ft of wood flooring with T/G. Not something I was going to make with hand tools. OTOH it seems there is a lot of time, effort and money spent on making or buying jigs for the power tools for things that could be easily made with hand tools if one took the time to practice how to make them.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View TerryDowning's profile

TerryDowning

1004 posts in 783 days


#5 posted 02-20-2013 10:02 PM

Machines just allow us to make errors faster.

Craftsmanship takes time and skill whether using machines or hand tools.

Use of hand tools teaches patience, knowledge of the materials being worked, and knowledge of the techniques required to achieve the desired outcome. I encourage any wood worker to enhance their hand tool arsenal and skills. It only makes you a better craftsman in the long run.

-- - Terry

View stefang's profile

stefang

13101 posts in 2000 days


#6 posted 02-20-2013 10:39 PM

All true and I also find myself reaching for handtools more and more as my skills in using them progress. On the other hand, I am pretty old and need the help of machines. Today I was jointing and planing some 4” square beams about a yard long. If I had used my handplane it would have taken me a lot longer and with a whole lot more backbreaking labour. So there is definitely room for both types of tools, even though using machine tools isn’t very much fun.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View ksSlim's profile

ksSlim

984 posts in 1556 days


#7 posted 02-21-2013 03:11 AM

Agree with all before stated.
I don’t mind ripping a 6 fot board with any of the rip saws I own,
if I need to rip 6, 8 foot 2×4s, I’ll clean off the table saw.

Even though I own a good thickness planner, I still sweeten the surfaces with an old smoother.

-- Sawdust and shavings are therapeutic

View Manitario's profile

Manitario

2351 posts in 1549 days


#8 posted 02-21-2013 03:32 AM

Great post Jorge. I am slowly learning that I can be a fast woodworker or a good woodworker. Often using machines is fast, but not the best. I am trying to learn patience to use hand tools consistently, the more time and effort I put into the deliberate actions with hand tools, the better my project results are.

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View Dakkar's profile

Dakkar

297 posts in 593 days


#9 posted 02-21-2013 03:44 AM

More often than not in the present I find myself reaching for the hand tools instead of the power tool.

This is so true. Nine times out of ten I find it much easier to simply grab my bow or dovetail saw than deal with an electric saw.

I think there’s another strong reason for a return to hand tools—value of craftsmanship. In our mass manufactured culture, anything made entirely by hand is a creation of fine art and worth more because of it. I’m a full out techno-geek, but working with my hands offers a great balance from the virtual to the tactile. Most people never learn to make anything with their hands after kindergarten. They often will pay plenty for the creations of those of us who do. No robot is going to replace a handtool-skilled woodworker.

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1526 posts in 1141 days


#10 posted 02-21-2013 04:11 AM

anything made entirely by hand is a creation of fine art and worth more because of it.

Have you checked the thread “Is it Art? Or bland tasteless CNC carving?”? Some might disagree with your statement. I do not know if people really give more value to a hand made piece as opposed to a beautiful piece piece made with a CNC. What I do know is that the act of doing is far more pleasurable to me than sitting in front of a computer.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View Dakkar's profile

Dakkar

297 posts in 593 days


#11 posted 02-21-2013 04:54 AM

Well, Jorge, the hedge is to do something not many CNC machines are doing yet—interact with your market. The big thing in business these days is the idea that you’re only as valuable as the extent of your influence. I think an important component of craftsmanship is letting people get to know you and connecting your craftsmanship with yourself as a person. Lots of people can imitate a Sam Maloof chair, but one made by Sam will always be worth far more.

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1526 posts in 1141 days


#12 posted 02-21-2013 05:30 AM

I think an important component of craftsmanship is letting people get to know you and connecting your craftsmanship with yourself as a person.

Well, this seems to be a good topic for another blog. But for the sake of argument, wouldn’t this be true as well for someone doing beautiful or interest work with a CNC? Some of the things that can be done with a CNC would be very difficult to make by hand. A knowledgeable person might see the artificiality, for example mirror images replicated many times, and identify them as such. Lets face it, aside from woodworkers, no one gives a rats ass about dovetails, perfectly joined M&T, compound miter joints, etc. All they care about is that it is “pretty” and if they are rich that it is pretty and expensive so they can brag.

As you say, people love a good story, which I believe was in great part the success Sam Maloof had. He was a very personable guy who could spin a good yarn as well as being passionate about his work. In either case, hand made or machine made, being passionate and personable is not in conflict with how the piece was made.

In the end I feel as you do, that there is a greater value for something hand made, but I think this is confined to those of us who make these things. IMO there is a rigidity of fore thought when working with digital that excludes serendipity. I have had to make “design changes” while making a piece (obviously because I messed up) sometimes messing up results in a better piece, sometimes it results in firewood… :-)

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View Dakkar's profile

Dakkar

297 posts in 593 days


#13 posted 02-21-2013 03:52 PM

In the end I feel as you do, that there is a greater value for something hand made, but I think this is confined to those of us who make these things.

I can safely say the appreciation of handmade work extends we well beyond those of us who do it. I don’t know if you watch the Antiques Roadshow on TV. I’ve seen most every episode and even attended the show here in Dallas once. One consistent thing I see on it is that well made handmade goods have a premium of value—even for things made relatively recently. And the personality of the craftspersons and the stories of the makers always increase that value.

I’ve even noticed an interesting thing in eBay sales of some things I’ve made myself. Even though I list the items in the handmade section and explain that they are, I found bidding prices seem to increase if I include a photo of myself actually making the very item that’s for sale. Maybe I’m reaching there, but I like to think people appreciate handmade things and the verification that they are.

View Natalie 's profile

Natalie

366 posts in 632 days


#14 posted 02-22-2013 05:17 AM

Jorge, I love hand tools and I love my machines, and I think you have covered it well when you said that machine tools and I would add complicated jigs, are invaluable when you are making many of something. However, I used to chuckle to myself when I was in my furniture building program and I would watch the guys spend hours building a jig or setting up stops and gizmos on a machine, when I had made the cut, the groove, the dado, or whatever and already moved on to the next step before they were done getting ready to do it.

I made a concerted effort to learn how to use hand tools and gain a certain level of proficiency when using them.
It’s a good reminder now that I am in the process of setting up my shop, buying and tuning my machines.

-- Natalie - My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I don't like to go there alone.

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