Ponderings #6: A Romanticized View of Hand Tools?

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Blog entry by Tomcat1066 posted 01-18-2008 11:26 PM 1376 reads 0 times favorited 26 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 5: "Essential" Shop Machines? Part 6 of Ponderings series Part 7: Boundaries »

It happens from time to time, a new woodworker asks the inevitable question. The question is what tools are the bare minimum needed to produce quality work. Depending on the particular forum (i.e. internet forums), he’ll get different answers. Recently, this question was asked in the Neanderthal forum of one of the bigger sites. The person wanted to know about hand tools. Now, normally, the answers are tools like a #4, #5, #7 planes, chisels, etc. This time, however, someone responded about the romanticized view of hand tools many of us have. He has a relative who is a retired cabinet maker who gives the verbal smack down when this person gets a bit to misty-eyed about the past. He advised power tools like a planer and a jointer. Probably $500-$600 worth of machinery to start with, without even finding out if the new woodworker had the budget or space to house such equipment.

You see, as a professional cabinet maker, he had to work quickly and efficiently to maximize his production. He couldn’t spend all day cutting dados with a chisel. He needed a power tool that could knock it out in a couple of hours tops! Of course, to him, romantic notions of working with hand tools seems silly. However, most of us hand tool folks aren’t doing this for a living. This is something many do to relax, and have some really nice furniture in our homes (hopefully). It’s not necessarily something we’re doing to make a profit on.

Further, I don’t think all hand tool users necessarily have a romantic view of woodworking with these tools. There are folks like me who don’t really have the space to house large machinery. There are folks who have to worry about noise for whatever reason. Sure, there are romantics too, but is that a bad thing? Romantics create poetry, music, art, literature…and apparently fine furniture and wonderful wood items as well.

Romanticism about woodworking can probably be found amongst the power tool users too. Perhaps they are all power, but they still use the 1950’s table saw that was their father’s. There’s bigger and better out there, and they can house and afford these beasts. But Dad’s table saw is still their choice, because it was Dad’s.

I guess my point is, who cares if someone’s view of using X type of tools is romantic? Romance is hardly a profane word. I know, I was in the Navy. We’re experts on profane language! Instead, live and let live, and let the work speak for itself.

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

26 comments so far

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4010 days

#1 posted 01-18-2008 11:40 PM

Good points, all.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View Mike Lingenfelter's profile

Mike Lingenfelter

503 posts in 4135 days

#2 posted 01-19-2008 12:48 AM

Yes you will find all types of woodworkers out there. Some that only use power tools and some that only use hand tools. There is a growing number of woodworkers that use both. I think a blend will give you the right mix of speed and quality. Except when it comes to a lot sawing (ripping mostly), I think the idea of hand tools being slow is way off base. There are a lot hand tool operations that can be completed much faster than with a power tool. I think about how much time I spend setting up a cut and test cutting and still not getting it right on.

I’m still working towards completing a project, where I use only hand tools from start to finish. I see it as a test to see how far my hand tools skills have come. I don’t think I will ever get rid of my power tools. I’m trying to use each tool (power or hand) for what it does best.

Through a friend, I was able to read a draft of a book by a local woodworker that only uses hand tools. He has not power tools what-so-ever. He’s already said that he would like me and show me how he does his work. Hopefully in the next few weeks I can plan some time to go see him. It will interesting to see how someone works without any power.

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3817 days

#3 posted 01-19-2008 12:53 AM


I’m jealous! I’d definitely love to see someone work who uses no power! That would be great!

I plan on using some power, much like most folks who use power tools I imagine. However, they’ll be limited due to space restrictions. A circular saw, a jig saw, drill, etc. However, I do plan to do a couple of projects with just hand tools…just to see.

Who knows. I may like it.

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4182 days

#4 posted 01-19-2008 01:15 AM

people walk their own paths and we are all doing it differently… enjoy your power tools.. enjoy your hand tools.. enjoy your carving.. enjoy your cabinet making.. enjoy your pyro…...... gosh just ENJOY!!! :)

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View RickR's profile


19 posts in 3803 days

#5 posted 01-19-2008 01:27 AM

Apropos that this is my first post/comment on LJ.

I’m in much the same boat. I’ve got a ton of mechanic’s tools, and numerous tools for home improvement (think electrical, plumbing, framing, etc.) But stuff that I would use to build nice things out of wood.. not so much. My first inclination is to get a table saw, and a router w/ table, and a drill press, and a band saw, and jointer, and a planer… you get the picture.

After I recover from the sticker shock, I start thinking about getting some nice hand tools – nice chisel set, some good planes, etc.

And once I again recover from sticker shock I begin thinking about what I would really build given the time, and what I really needed to do an acceptable job. Will I be building a highboy? No… But can I build something acceptable with some really basic stuff? Absolutely…

The question of “what tools do I need” is a loaded one. As Tomcat1066 implied – answering such a question without regard to the asker’s budget, space limitations, skill level, and most importantly intentions is really a disservice. I’ve decided that in lieu of asking such questions I should first answer some of the others (what I want to spend, what do I want to create, where would I do such work) and look at what others have built with similar limitations and intentions. That’s where I think LJ is a great resource for that. Whether it’s a romantic notion or not is not really relevant. Respecting the askers situation and what they want to do without judging is likely the best response one can give.

-- - living vicariously through lumberjocks

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3817 days

#6 posted 01-19-2008 01:46 AM


I’m still a newbie, so I can completely relate. As for the sticker shock, I find myself sliding down the slippery slope of old tools. Everything I buy, I plan on using. However, I get quality saws for about $8.00 a pop that just require a little work on my part. Same thing with planes. Unfortunately, there’s just no stopping now! ;)

Thanks for making this thread your first post! ;)

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4121 days

#7 posted 01-19-2008 01:50 AM

My background and approach to woodworking is from remodeling. Therefore power tools are the mode of operation. I have some basic planes and I haven’t used them in 2 years. I use my hand chisels and card scraper in addition to my power tools endlessly and without shame.

Many believe that somehow power tools are rough and can’t be tamed like a handplane. You must have mastery over your power tools just as any hand tool. I constantly strive to achieve technical perfection, but I need to make money. Power tools get me there.

My work speaks for itself.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3817 days

#8 posted 01-19-2008 01:57 AM

Good point Todd. Mastery is needed for either type of tool.

As a professional though, you have needs that must take priority over anything else, and that’s putting food on your table. However, it sounds like you have a somewhat romantic view of woodworking in general, be it with power tools or hand tools. I have to admit…I like it :D

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4121 days

#9 posted 01-19-2008 02:33 AM

I can’t help it, I still have a very romantic view of woodworking. It is just tempered with harsh reality.

I do believe that you can become quite proficient and skilled at running a hand plane and dovetail saw. I don’t have the time for that mastery. If you are forced to use it then I imagine you could get pretty quick at it.

I don’t believe there should be such a dichotomous view of hand and power tools. There is always more than one way to perform any given task in the shop.

I give my views and techniques for others to ponder and decide for themselves.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 3896 days

#10 posted 01-19-2008 03:10 AM

Interesting topic. Most of my tools were handed down to me by my father-in-law. He was so much of a “tool romantic” that he enjoys spending an entire day “properly” sharpening a chisel and learning the entire history of chisels more than actually using the tool to produce something. He knows more about traditional and contemporary woodworking tools and methods than almost anybody I know but he has produced very little in his life and has little desire to do so anyway. He just likes and appreciates the craft of it.

He and I both love tools but in some ways we are very different. Although I have a deep appreciation for the history and the old methods of woodworking, my goal is to produce woodwork, not to romanticize with the tool. Even he admits that I have a very practical approach.

I am open to new or old ways of doing things and try to learn as many different methods as I can. I try to incorporate hand tool use into my woodworking as I learn more about them. And the more I learn, the more uses I find for hand tools which actually outperform power tools in time and effort. But power tools, like Todd said, get the job done.

On the other hand, I must admit, I am very romantic about my radial arm saw. Here is an example of one tool which is probably used more because of it’s “character” than it’s practicality. I just really like it. But other than that, most of my romance is hanging on the wall (just out of reach) in the form of my small antique tool collection.

-- Happy woodworking!

View Tomcat1066's profile


942 posts in 3817 days

#11 posted 01-19-2008 03:22 AM


I just read the post on your radial arm saw. I’d be a romantic about that bad boy too! A cool tool with a cool story! It just doesn’t get any better than that, now does it? ;)

I’ll be honest…I’m a fair amount jealous of that bad boy! I don’t care HOW much power it has!


I think we’re in complete agreement. Different strokes for different folks, but the result can be great either way :D.

-- "Give me your poor tools, your tired steel, your huddled masses of rust." Yep, I ripped off the Statue of Liberty. That's how I roll!

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 3984 days

#12 posted 01-19-2008 04:11 AM

I would say that the best bet is to learn to use what you have to the best of your ability. If you only have hand tools use them. The artistry is not in the tool but in the mind and translated to the hands. I once bought a ranch and didn’t have much leftover. I asked myself what I HAD to have to run cows on this place. I had grass and water. I needed good horses, lots of catch ropes and salt. Some barbed wire and some staples rounded it out. All that and a lot of thinking and tough. I guess it worked. I tripled my money on the place in three years.
I make no distiction between power tools and hand tools, I use what will work best. Many times I can do it with a hand plane in less time than it would take to set up a power tool.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4121 days

#13 posted 01-19-2008 05:21 AM

Just what I love about LJ, the diversity.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View 's profile

593 posts in 3993 days

#14 posted 01-19-2008 05:57 AM

Horses for courses I’d say. As I see it, either views are perfectly fine, you just need to know what are your priorities and which approach would you like to take on the craft. As some have said above, there are people who enjoy as much, or even more, tuning a chisel or flattening a sharpening stone than using that same tool to produce a fine piece of furniture. Those are the romantics who do it for the sake of their own pleasure, relaxation or whatever you wanna call it. Then there are the pros or, simply, the pragmatic ones who want to produce something beautiful that demands to be looked at and touched. Those would often privilege the end product, the goal over the process in itself and will be perfectly happy working with either power tools of a mix of them and hand tools. I guess I rather fall on this last category but this doesn’t mean I despise the former. Is the same approach I take on computing. I use Macs because they just work and are transparent. I don’t want to spend hours tweaking a Win machine to get it doing the job I need the way I want, I just want it to make my life easier. Been there, done that (for more than twenty years) and got the T-shirt. And I don’t want another one, thanks. Then, if you like to tweak and fiddle around with the machine itself pass the Mac, got a PC. And this is equally fine if this is what you wanna do.

Don’t forget one thing though: power tools weren’t created only for speed but also—and specially—for easing the burden of some repetitive tasks AND for accuracy and repeatability of results.

As many of you know I have no proper shop nowadays so I have done things like cutting and trimming long sliding dovetails by hand with a dozuki saw, a couple of chisels and no workbench or clamps whatsoever (other than my feet!). I can tell you, not only is this a freaking boring repetitively long task but the results would never be neither the same nor as good as with a router and 5 minutes to spare. Not to talk about the unavoidable bunch of small injuries related to the chisels and the no-clamping technique. It is not in vain that the telltale sign of a great handcrafted piece are the slight imperfections it contains. You can look at them in a romantic way with your pink spectacles on but they ARE imperfections anyway… and some customers are not that romantic when holding the checkbook in one hand and the blue tape on the other!

As I started saying: horses for courses. I do love the “imperfect” handmade pieces and admire the guys of the 17th that were able to produce a Highboy with no power at all—don’t forget that the craftsman weren’t alone either, a small army of apprentices had to swallow the worse tasks that the master was just “too good” to do, as any famous chef does nowadays inside the kitchen—. I think those imperfections add character to SOME pieces but I wouldn’t accept them in a contemporary-styled piece of furniture.

My take on this is plain and pragmatic: use the best tool for each task at hand and don’t bother to think whether it has a cord behind or not. I bet this same debate has been—and will be—going on for centuries and it has no definite answer to it. Sure enough lots of those same craftsman we idealize today for their fine mastering of hand tools were thrilled when Sister Tabitha came with the circular saw and turned around the minds of the Shaker community. Heresy for some, Heaven’s gift for others… who cares? If you like them use them, otherwise forget them.

Live and let live I guess. And I’m happy to see so many respectful opinions among us LumberJocks, I didn’t expect anything else frankly.

Now let’s make some saw dust. Gentlemen, start your engines… err… or sharpen your chisels, whatever! ;o)

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4121 days

#15 posted 01-19-2008 07:25 AM

Whoa there! The respect for one another is getting out of control here! How about a little intolerance?

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

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