Learn to use your Tool

I’m a huge fan of pod casts. I spend most of my time in the shop listening to then while I work. One of my favorites is woodtalk online. Three guys from three different types of shop setups and work methodology, spend a hr. each week, educating, entertaining, and debating the world of woodworking.

One of the debates they go back and forth on is hand tools only vs. Power tools only vs. a hybrid of the two. While none of the three are exclusive power tool users, it seems to come up often as if they feel there are a lot of power tool only users out there, or maybe they get this idea from their listener input. Who knows there could be a large portion of the woodworking community that only use power tools. Now I have never met any of these people, but I have found myself trying to figure out how to do a complex operation accurately with a power tool instead of a hand tool. This got me thinking, would I prefer to use only power tools, if so why? I had started out learning the art of woodworking using hand tools only.

When I first started woodworking, it was probably before I was 10 years old. I would watch Roy Underhill from the “Woodwright’s shop” TV show build a variety of projects using only period hand tools. After watching Roy Underhill for the past 30+ years, I can understand the nostalgia of the hand tool only woodworker. There is great satisfaction from building something under your own power. There is also a great feeling to build something the way your grandfather or great grandfather would have built it, not to mention learning the history behind woodworking. The show, the history, and the nostalgia are awe-inspiring.

After each show, I would be inspired to go out to the garage pick up my father’s tools and attempt to build what Roy built. Now at the ripe young age of 10 and my not so massive amount of woodworking experience, most projects ended in frustration.

If I only knew then what I know now, I may have had better success. Yes, my lack of woodworking experience made it more difficult, there is a lot to be said for experience. What I didn’t know at the time was the importance of keeping your tools sharp. My father had left the carpentry trade, to pursue a career in bridge building. This left his tools to set idle and dull from my attempted use. At my young age, I did not fully appreciate how much better a sharp tool would perform. Lesson one I would tell my younger self, “Don’t touch the tool to the wood until you have sharpened it.” At the time, even if I did know I should sharpen the chisel, I was probably too impatient to do it, now don’t lie, I know you have done it to. The excitement of starting a new project causes many of us to throw preparation out the window, and just dive in.

Now that the excitement has worn off, and the frustration has set in, I was still determined to become a woodworker. Logically the next step was to go watch Norm Abram from the New Yankee Workshop.

Norms shop was equipped with the latest power tools and he had no qualms about using them. He was able to cut faster than my dad’s hand saw, chop out a mortise faster than the dull chisel I had been using, and cut a dado cleaner than anything I could find to use in the garage. At a young impressionable age, clearly this was the way to go.

Now my only problem was my mother, she always reminded me (I’m sure she said it politely, however from a kid’s perspective it sounded more contrary) “You can’t use your father’s power tools without him being home!” A good safety measure for sure, however ironic, a hand powered chisel was my first major woodworking injury resulting in a trip to the emergency room.

I think I was a sixth grader when it happened. I had just finished watching the latest “Woodwright Shop” episode, explaining sharpening techniques. I sharpened up that thing like it hand never been before. Went to work with it and with one fast slip jabbed it into the base of my left thumb, slicing down to the bone.

Several stitches later and back in the shop, I was frustrated from using dull hand tools and scared from using sharp ones, I turned my attention to power tools. I loved how fast it made every operation and how clean a new sharp blade would cut.

I believe this instant gratification is why I first think to myself “how can I do this operation with a power tool”, before I reach for a hand tool.

My experience may be similar to other woodworkers that only use power tools. To do basic operations with a power tool, there is a much short learning curve to get good results compared to using hand tools. I think many woodworkers are discouraged early on with hand tools, not understanding the importance of a sharp tool, or how to properly sharpen them.

Wood Slicer resaw bandsaw blade

Not having developed the proper technique, or having someone to show them the proper technique to be successful, using hand tools can be discourage as well to the most determined new woodworker. These things have contributed to my lack of confidence in using hand tools and I’m sure are the same reason other woodworkers reach for their power tools over hand tools.

I found this lack of confidence in using hand tools to be an obstacle, preventing me from taking my woodworking projects to a higher level of craftsmanship. Now that I have taken some time to develop my hand tool skills I am much more confident in using them over my power tools. I am now on track to a higher level of craftsmanship and able to tackle projects with much more complicated joinery that I was before.

I’m not say I’m going all hand tools, I am trying to make a living, and in many cases, power tools will be much faster for many operations and time is money. However developing my hand tools skills have gotten me out of many jambs. How many times have you test fitted a joint and it was too tight. Therefore, you went back to the table saw and just tapped the fence over just a smidge to recut the joint only to discover that now the joint is too loose. A slice with a hand plane such as a shoulder plane could have fixed the joint with little effort preventing over cutting the joint.

I can ramble on with more examples of how hand tools can get you out of a jamb, but I think this post has gone on long enough. With all that said, if you are a hand tool only user that is great. I have a lot of respect for your dedication to the history and nostalgia of the craft. If you are a power tool only user, be honest with yourself, is it because of a lack of confidence in your hand tool skills? If so, make it a point to build those skills. You will never know when they will save your project or at least your wallet if you have to go back to the lumberyard to buy a replacement board of that expensive exotic wood you just messed up the joinery on.

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I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.

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