Friday, April 29, 2016

A visit to the dark side

After an intense time working on the FDR chair, I wanted to kick back and do some easy projects using the white oak scraps I had left over.  I have a trip to visit my granddaughters coming up very shortly and I wanted to make a stool for the youngest one. I also wanted to make a footstool to go with the FDR chair so I could get it upholstered at the same time as the chair.

For a variety of reasons, curiosity mostly, I decided that I would use some of my power tools that haven't seen much use for quite a while, if there seemed there might be an advantage to doing so.

First, my granddaughter's stool.  Little would have been gained by making the top with power tools, so I didn't bother, but attaching the legs seemed like power tools might have an advantage.  I wanted them to be angled out to the corners as they normally are and I wanted the legs to be square in cross-section for aesthetic reasons.  I angled the tops and bottoms of the legs at 10 degrees with the miter saw then I decided I would drill vertical holes in the top with the drill press and make a quick jig to drill angled holes in the tops of the legs, again with the drill press:

This worked fairly well, though it would have been better if I had put more care into making the jig.

Here is the result:

I like the way it looks.  The 1" tenons are overkill obviously, but I think they look nice for a kid.  Was it an advantage to use power tools?  Not really.  If I were making ten of these stools it would be, but I think I could have done just as well rounding the tops of the legs with a spokeshave and boring angled holes with a brace and bit.  This is the method Paul Sellers teaches, I have done it in the past and it works.  I could have angled the legs almost as quickly with my miter box.  Another option would be to use one of these Veritas tenon cutters in a brace.

Now for the footstool.  Years ago, I made a three-axis vertical router table, sort of a poor man's multi-router, and it has been collecting dust for at least the last four years:

After spending a few minutes attaching the router and setting it up, it made quick work of routing the mortises.  I then made the tenons on my standard router table, leaving them just a bit oversize so I could trim them to fit with a shoulder plane.  Again, I'm pleased with the result.  This is just a dry fit skeleton for now:

Was it an advantage to use power tools?  Actually, yes.  You can whip out plain vanilla mortises and tenons lickety-split like this and they will be very accurate.  I would imagine that a very accomplished hand tool woodworker would be almost as fast making just one stool, but I am just not that fast.  Machines would be much faster if more than one stool was being made.  Was it as much fun or as fulfilling as making them by hand?  No.  Would I get faster if I practiced more?  Yes.

This is not just any footstool; it's a footstool for a FDR chair.  It obviously has to have Timberline arches on the sides, so that means eight pieces, like cabriole leg knee blocks, had to be made.  Could I make them with a template and a pattern bit in a router?  Yup.  Would it have been faster?  Maybe for one stool, but just a little.  Would they have been more uniform than the ones I made by hand?  Yup, by about 1/32" here and there, less when I am done refining them:


These two projects took advantage of power tool strengths and still didn't demonstrate a strong advantage to using them for one-offs.  Faster in one case, probably not in the other.  A better result?  No.  There would have been more of an advantage if I had been making multiple copies of each project, obviously.

I had a lot of power tools before I got into hand tool woodworking and, except for the table saw, I still have most of them.  They are useful for carpentry and aren't worth much.  If I didn't have them, I wouldn't buy them.  The one exception is my bandsaw, but I am pretty sure it will outlast me.

I disagree with those who rail against power tools as some sort of soul crushing evil, which I find silly.  As far as I am concerned, there are five main reasons that I prefer hand tools:

  1. I like using them;
  2. There is little advantage to using power tools if you have the requisite hand tools and the skill to use them, assuming you primarily make one-offs.  The exception is rough stock preparation;
  3.  This is a hobby for me so speed is not a priority;
  4. Hand tools open up a whole world of curves and shapes that can be made easily without a lot of jigs and fixtures;
  5. I have enjoyed the process of acquiring, restoring and using vintage hand tools.  I also like the amazing new hand tools being made by top notch suppliers.  In both cases, many of the designs are so well thought out and executed, a welcome contrast to most of the products available in today's markets.


  1. Andy,

    "..The 1" tenons are overkill obviously, but I think they look nice for a kid". There ain't no such thing as overkill for a kid. :-)

    Both projects look nice.

    I'm no purest, the machines get work on almost every project. If a machine brings a real advantage to the table it will be the tool used. If it is a wash out come the hand tools. That said, hand tools win most of the time.

    I'm with you on the bandsaw, I've been looking at the 18" Powermatic bandsaw for a couple of years with lust in my heart. I expect if one will fit in my shop it will follow me home. I haven't asked the size question for that reason.


    1. The footprint of a bandsaw is extremely small. Go buy it.

  2. I love that comment "Was it as much fun or as fulfilling as making them by hand? No. " I absolutely agree. Oh yeah, I agree with your five reasons to go with hand tools over power, but how about reason #6: the noise level is so much nicer!