When my son was in Cub Scouts, we went on field trips on Saturday mornings. One week we went to the woodshop of one of the kid’s grandfathers. It was a nice two-car-garage-sized building behind his real garage; in other words, a dedicated well-equipped shop. The boys went to work on a simple shelf, and after herding the group from the band saw to the oscillating spindle sander, Grandpa decided it was time to impart some wisdom. “If you want to get anything done, use power tools. There isn’t any reason to use hand tools any more. It will take you longer, and won’t turn out as good.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but on the way home I said to my son “you realize that man is a fool don’t you?” Hunter replied, “I was wondering when you were going to say something.”
When he was four or five we started making stuff together: toy guns and rubber-band powered boats for the bathtub. Our main tools were a coping saw and a spokeshave , tools he could handle safely without scaring his mother half to death. One of my proudest moments as a father came when we were at a festival watching a guy build a canoe. When the demonstrator held up a spokeshave and asked if anyone knew what it was called, Hunter shouted out the name and asked the guy if he wanted him to show him how to use it. He stepped up to the bench and, reaching up almost over his head, thrilled the crowd by quickly producing a pile of shavings and a fair curve.
I’ve never been able to understand why people try to divide woodworkers into two opposing camps, Normites versus Neanderthals. And I can’t understand why anyone would buy into that and only work with one method to the exclusion of the other , power-tool users who will spend hours building jigs and setting up machines to avoid making one simple cut with a backsaw, or hand-tools users who claim some sort of moral superiority by chopping the waste from a dozen mortises by hand. I work with wood because I enjoy making things as well as I can. I don’t have as much time in the shop available as I would like so I want to work efficiently, but I don’t want to compromise the finished product. I consider myself fortunate that the men who taught me how to work with wood had a well-developed sense of when to pick up a router and when to pick up a plane.
The project I’m working on, a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley “Poppy” table is an excellent example of what our publisher, Steve Shanesy, calls “blended woodworking” , using power tools and hand tools together. This is a curious little table. It has five legs, which makes it an interesting engineering problem as legs and stretchers, a shelf and a top all need to solidly connect. At the same time it’s an artistic expression. Every edge of the finished piece is curved, and the flat surfaces of the top and shelf are interrupted by sweeping carved curves. One of the parts, a pentagon-shaped hub that connects the legs and supports the top, is very small, but getting it the exact size and shape and fitting the joints is the keystone that holds the whole table together. This little block of wood will make the table straight and solid if it is right , or wobbly and twisted if it is less than perfect.
Because of its small size, I chose to cut the shape on the bandsaw, shoot the edges with a plane, and cut the dovetail sockets by hand. It is just too small to safely cut on the table saw and I couldn’t come up with a way to clamp it down and move a router in. I removed much of the waste in the sockets with a Forstner bit on the drill press. I could safely hold it to the drill-press table, and this made a flat reference surface at the bottom to guide the chisel. There are also dovetail sockets at the top of each leg. There, I used a small router with a fence to establish a straight back and flat bottom, and a few quick chisel cuts defined the acute corners where the circular router bit wouldn’t reach.
I spent a few hours over the weekend refining the curves of the top and shelf with some rasps followed by a cabinet scraper. It was a lot of fun. I worked out on the patio, enjoying some fresh air and not annoying the neighbors (at least with my woodworking). The band-saw marks disappeared rather quickly, I recognized that many of the curves matched the profile of the rounded side of the rasp, and the scraper left a very nice surface. I thought about the old man who thought power tools were the answer to everything, and wondered how he would shape this edge. Later today, I’ll be shaping the legs. They’ve been rough cut on the band saw, and I’ll use a template (shaped and refined with my rasps) and a router to make them all symmetrical and identical.
Then, I’ll finish carving the top by hand, scrape the flat surfaces smooth and gently round all the edges. I’m still up in the air about that last step; I might use a router and I might use a rasp. Woodworking is like solving a puzzle. Between the raw material and a finished piece, it’s all about choices: how to do this, why do that, what will create the best result in the least amount of time. If you eliminate half the options before you start, you eliminate half the fun.