Sunday, October 30, 2016

A rant (sort of)

I want to write about something that keeps coming up.  Periodically, prominent hand tool woodworkers will write about what they see as the utter, soul-destroying depravity of using power tools for woodworking.  I exaggerate only a little.  It is a shame that they can't confine themselves to extolling the virtues of hand tool woodworking and teaching the techniques, but this sort of thing is a sign of the times.  The best option is certainly to ignore this nonsense, but the subject bears discussion.

Only a few of us are going to go out into the woods with a crosscut saw, cut down a tree, skid it out with a team of horses, saw it into planks by hand and stack it up to dry, thereafter to resaw and foursquare it for our projects.  For the rest of us, either we will use machines somewhere along the way or someone else will use them for us before we take over.  You can't convince me that if someone else uses the machine for me, my soul will thereby be preserved.  Moreover, most of us who enjoy hand tool woodworking do use machines, at least on occasion, and that includes most hand tool professionals.  What is the right balance?

I came to hand tool woodworking from power tool woodworking, I still have quite a few power tools and I still use them, both for carpentry and in the workshop.  Nevertheless, I often think about this question and, over time, have been decreasing my use of them.  Like many, I prefer the experience of using hand tools and building my skills.

Some years ago, I sold my tablesaw at a big loss and I haven't regretted it for one single minute.  That was the break from power tool woodworking that I badly needed.  I rewarded myself with a very high quality bandsaw and I haven't regretted doing that either.  I enjoy using the new one very much and I doubt my soul would improve if I got rid of it.  In a way that I can't explain, it just seems to go with hand tool woodworking.

I have kept the other power tools I already owned prior to getting into hand tool woodworking, in part because they wouldn't sell for a lot, and I sometimes use them.  Over time, I use them less and less.  They are tucked away in the corner, the large ones on mobile bases, and don't take up much space.  I often ask myself which ones I really want to own.  After considerable thought, my answer is this.  In addition to the bandsaw, I would keep the drill press and the lunchbox planer but get rid of the router/router table and the jointer.  If I wasn't doing carpentry, I would also get rid of the chopsaw and the tracksaw.  Stored, the three remaining large power tools would take up about 6 square feet of floor space.

Why these three?  A bandsaw is the swiss army knife of saws, great for cutting curves, ripping, resawing.  It's quiet, relatively safe and doesn't take up much floor space.  The lunchbox planer saves labor and lets me use roughsawn lumber easily.  It is the power tool that I am least comfortable retaining, but I'm just not prepared to surface large amounts of lumber by hand.  The drill press is harder to explain.  I just find it handy and use it in quirky ways that I will be describing in a number of future posts.  Basically, what is happening is that I sometimes use the power tools first if there is a lot of material to process and then turn to my hand tools.  I rarely use them on small projects.

You do something different and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I do not fear for your soul, whatever you choose.  There is no right and wrong here.  I gain a lot from reading about how others strike the balance, including those that use hand tools almost exclusively.

Several years ago, I bought a very nice little book called The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin, which is about working primarily with hand tools.  Though hand tool centric, his shop contains a bandsaw, a dust collector, a lathe and a drill press.  This is the balance he has struck.  It is somewhat different from mine but reflects the same attitude.  Another example is the Renaissance Woodworker's shop.  Shannon works with hand tools almost exclusively, but in the corner of his workshop is a heavy duty planer and a dust collector.  As an aside, he also has a manual drill press.  I have a great old miter box.  These are machines, but they are hand operated and are a nice middle ground.

The point I am making is this.  Despite what some expert may say, there is no reason any of us should feel defensive about using power tools.  We should do what we enjoy.  To help make this point, I am going to start being more explicit about when and why I use power tools.


  1. You shouldn't have to explain why and what tools you use to anyone.

  2. I agree. I'm choosing to do it as a response to the nonsense I allude to. Someone who uses hand tools should be encouraged and not made to feel defensive or inferior if they sometimes use power tools. Insistence on purity is not the way to promote hand tool woodworking.

  3. Andy,
    It all depends on the work you do. For sheet goods a tablesaw is king. Repetitive cuts on a crosscut sled the tablesaw is king again. If you want to flatten a piece that weighs 5 oz. or 500 lb, then the hand plane will be the tool of choice. If you want to true a 12 foot board in a 15 foot room, you better grab a hand plane.

    I have some version of the main power tools and have developed a preference for hand tools. I like the quiet of hand tools and the relative cleanliness and safety but see the place for larger tools. There are plenty of woodworkers whose work I admire or not. Usually their choice of power source is not part of the equation.

    The current woodworking world has a lot of people looking for eyeballs to look at their blogs so they have to say something to get attention. You don't hear ridiculous comments out of accomplished woodworkers like Garrett Hack, Chris Becksvoort, or Phil Lowe because they want to show how they do something, not how you should do it. There is no one way. It's not a religion.

    Learn and enjoy
    Steve D