Who Is A Hand Tool Woodworker?
The late Tage Frid wrote, in his 1979 book Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking, “I don’t care how it is made – he [the craftsman] can make it with his teeth or a machine – it is still the final product that counts.”
Sure, tools and methodology are essentially means to an end. However, the way we accomplish things and the nature of our work life are important too. This is particularly true for the avocational woodworker who is under less production pressure than a full-time professional and thus has the luxury of choice as to how he feels while he is working. In general, I feel better when I’m using my hand tools than when I’m using my power tools, and so there’s one point in favor of hand tools. I also feel good when I see steady progress through the stock preparation phase of a project along with the repeatable precision of machine work, and so score a couple for electricity.
Yet, there’s more to this issue. Hand tool woodworking is a mentality, an approach, almost a philosophy. It does not mean the absence of power machinery. Rather, I believe the hand tool woodworker is one who recognizes that he can impart degrees of quality and personalization to his work with hand tools that are unlikely or impossible with machinery.
This applies to two aspects of woodworking:
The first is methodology. The hand tool worker thinks and plans work differently than those ruled by machines. Processes are incremental. For example, relying only on the table saw to crosscut a drawer front is not likely to produce as excellent a fit as shooting with a hand plane, where fitting can be done in increments of just a couple thousandths of an inch. This level of control builds a relaxed confidence.
Hand tools also allow for error compensation and avoid error build up. For example, in making tenons on the table saw, a machine woodworker is likely to measure stock thickness and assume a sort of perfection, even though the slightest inconsistency in stock thickness can create poor fitting tenons. A hand tool woodworker would work from one reference face of the stock, cancelling small imperfections in stock thickness. If he did use the table saw to make the tenons, he would adjust the machine with a one-sided tolerance, mindful that he can later remove a shaving or two with a plane if necessary to produce an ideal fit. Machines, yes, but on your own terms.
The second aspect of hand tool work has to do with the aesthetics it engenders. Interesting joinery, resplendent surfaces, subtly treated edges, and satisfying contours are some of the distinguishing personalized features we are at ease producing with hand tools. One may use a bandsaw to do most of the work of creating a pleasing contour on a table leg, but a spokeshave and rasps will refine it to a quality that a power sander alone is not likely to achieve. Maybe a round-over router bit gets an edge close to what you want, but a plane gradually alters the mathematically produced edge to something that is less readily definable, but is just what you want. The vision, the work, and the product are personal.
It’s nice to drive to the mountains and even drive through the mountains, but it’s not as nice as hiking them. Power tools drive you there, but hand tools walk you through.
Hone your hand tool technique with these classic Fine Woodworking articles and videos.
Hand Tool Tech from the FWW Archive
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