For several months now, all my woodworking power tools (with the exception of my bandsaw and lathe) have been crammed into the back corner of my shop to make more room for my new passion, hand tool woodwork.
I am a member of the instant generation. I want to do things and I want them done fast. I like things to be easy and to work right the first time I try them. If I’m in a hurry on a home improvement project, of course I am going to pull out my table saw and my power drills and get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible — so I can get back to my “real woodworking.”
Over the past two years, as I’ve delved deeper into the proper use of hand tool in my quest to build fine furniture, my impatience to finish a project as quickly as possible has been replaced for a desire to build things the right way: to build things that will last. Restoring and using antique hand tools has been a huge part of that: old tools are well made and beautifully constructed. One of my favorite craftsmen says “beautiful tools inspire beautiful work,” and I wholeheartedly agree.
This dovetailed chest was built with the tools inside it and, not only is it a beautiful way to store them, it will last for generations to come.
Pairing power and hand tools
I have been accused by a few people of being a “power tool hater,” however, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I have all the major woodworking machinery, and frequently use it in conjunction with my hand tools.
I surface two sides with my hand planes, then I use my power planer and jointer to dimension my wood. If I have more than one long rip cut to make, or a succession of crosscuts to make, I will use my table saw or chop saw and clean up the cut with a hand plane. If I have more than one mortise and tenon to cut, I’ll cut the tenons by hand then I’ll use my power mortiser and clean it up with a nice sharp chisel. When using those tools in conjunction with hand tools, I can produce clean, quality work.
Limitations of power tools
Power tools have limitations. For example, dimensioning lumber solely with power tools wastes a lot more wood and it is often very difficult to get the same precise results you can when you flatten two sides first with a hand plane and then use the power planer and jointer to dimension your lumber.
Power tools work quickly, so it is a lot easier to make big mistakes when using power tools than hand tools simply due to the amount of time invested. If I draw a line and rip it down on my table saw, the operation is done before I’ve had a chance to second guess my measurement. If I’m sawing down a board by hand, I’m spending several minutes looking at it as I saw down my line, and, more often than not, I’ll catch myself making a mistake before I’ve ruined an entire board.
There are essential woodworking functions that can’t be done well or even at all using power tools.
While a router and a jig can make strong dovetails, at the end of the day, dovetails are triangles, and router bits are round. There will always be space within the joint of a routered half-blind dovetail that will allow for movement and the inevitable weakening of the joint over time.
Fine furniture often features fine pins within their dovetails (tiny, thin triangles cut at a steep angle), and the width of routed pins is limited by the required thickness of the bit to allow for strength. Chisels, handsaws and hand planes can often get into small spaces and cut at angles power tools can’t. Sometimes it just takes less time to grab a hand tool than to mess around with blade heights, jigs or special fixtures to get a power tool to do what a hand tool can easily accomplish, such as paring down tenons with a chisel, quickly easing an edge with a hand plane, or cleaning out the hair of waste the table saw blade left inside a rebate.
Safety and quality of life
There are also the safety and quality of life aspects to consider. Hand tools can be very dangerous because they are (or at least should be) razor sharp. My brother-in-law almost lost his thumb trying to catch a chisel when it rolled off the bench. I cut my hand very deeply when my blade slipped while carving a spoon.That said though, it is a lot harder to accidentally saw off a finger with a hand saw than a table saw because you’d probably notice the pain before it was too late.
With handtools you don’t have the torque or possibility for kickback that you do with power tools. Power tools make microscopic dust and throw it all around your shop and into the air that you breathe. With many wood dusts being known carcinogens, that alone is a big pro-handtool argument for me. Handtools make minimal dust and shavings and said dust is basically stationary to the immediate area where you are working.
Noise is also a factor: I never need to wear earplugs when I am working with hand tools, and I am confident that I will still be able to hear my grandchildren speak in 40 years because I usethem on a regular basis. My neighbors also never call and complain about noise from my shop at all hours of the day and night (except that one pesky neighbor who has a problem with me blasting Christmas music at 5 a.m. in July).
The hand tool area of my woodshop, shown above, contains a tool capable of doing nearly every woodworking job quietly, safely, and virtually dust free.
Why not hand tools?
So whether you have a whole arsenal of hand tools performing a bevy of jobs in your shop, or just a few, I love to encourage my fellow woodworkers to give hand tools a chance.
Many people have been turned off by hand tools that were not tuned well or properly sharpened. If that has been you, please give them a second chance! Stop by your local Woodcraft, Rockler Hardware, Highland Woodworking, Lee Valley, Lie Nielsen or any store that sells fine tools and take a few for a test drive. You could also visit a friend who uses hand tools in his shop or read one of the many articles online about sharpening and tuning vintage tools.
Hand tool woodwork has changed my approach to woodwork, improved the quality of my work and taught me patience and an appreciation for skill and craft I would have otherwise never discovered.