How I became a Hand Tool Guru

I began woodworking in my thirties with the specific intention of making period reproductions. But I initially intended to “power up” my shop. When I started, I hadn’t made the connection between tools and final forms. I read the magazines and made a list of “required” tools. I think the tally was somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000. I recall selecting a Jet cabinetsaw as the “heart” of my shop and a Delta dust collection system. I don’t know where I thought I was going to get the money. Not only didn’t I have the money, I didn’t have the floor space for half of the tools on my list. But I was not dissuaded.

Before purchasing the tools on my list, I took what would become a life changing decision; I decided to learn to work by hand before purchasing any power tools. Even then, it wasn’t a decision informed by “form follows process”. It was simply a decision to choose skill over consumerism. I didn’t want to buy my way into a craft so many members of my family had spent a lifetime mastering. It just didn’t feel right to me.

I bought an old stanley #4 and (being an engineer) set measurable goals. When I could plane a board flat, then I would have “earned” a surface planer. When I could saw true with a hand saw, then I would buy a table saw. When I could square an edge, then I would buy a jointer and so on. I figured the whole learning process would take about 6 months! (I was a little off.) As my skills increased, I starting crossing tools off my list. My hand tools were becoming what I felt were practical alternatives to the power tools on my list.

Years later, I got to use a table saw for the first time. By then, I had already become a proficient sawyer. I found the fence restrictive and annoying. The band saw seemed a better fit with the way I approached woodworking. I work by eye. I work to pencil lines or gauged lines. But I was surprised at how slow the tool cut. From my perspective, it was a little like sitting in traffic. Taking back roads may take just as long, but at least you’re doing something. Woodworking for me is an active process. Never do I stand watchfully and wait for something to happen. When I’m in a hurry, I can work harder, and stuff gets done faster.

I didn’t set out to become a hand tool guru. I wasn’t searching for a method of woodworking entirely different from Norm’s. It just happened. I like to think that I went where the tools and the period furniture I was reproducing led me. This is why we need to encourage our schools to offer shop classes (mine didn’t). Early exposure to large stationary woodworking machinery will stop kids from turning out like me. Do you want your son to look like this someday?

20 thoughts on “How I became a Hand Tool Guru

  1. Howard Lobb

    I have had the rare pleasure of recreating history at a living museum where I demonstrated 1870′s woodworking methods. I worked in Barkerville Historic Park in central BC., Canada,,, From 1996-2002 Waring the clothing and working with the tools and machines of the period. The work was done in a little shop open to the public. I created small pieces from stools, boxes, small cabinets, small turnings, carved spoons and bowls and my new born daughter’s cradle…At the time I started I only had therory and very little experience. I learned on the job infrount of the public. Sometimes I got a lesson from some of the veiwers. Like the time a fellow from Germany( who without any english and I had no German ) showed me how to set up my plane properly and showed me how to plane. Very humbling and very funny at the time, much to the delight of everyone. I have since had the priveledge of formal schooling at the Inside Passage School of Fine Woodworking. I now have a shop of my own where I have both machines and an assortment of some very fine hand tools. I still use locally harvested green wood and my shaving horse drawknives and spokeshaves as well as imported woods from around the world. My aproach to woodworking is unconvetional as I prefer to let the wood determine to a lage part, what it will eventualy become as in a carving or a piece of furniture or what shape it will take. Hand working is by far my favorite process. The machines do help sometimes to get me to the point where the hand work takes over and there is no finish by machines that will equal a hand planed surface or a hand carved texture,,, close maybe at times but no cigar … For me it is the process as much as the final outcome that is paramount and hand tools get me there.

  2. Ryan Lee

    You have done exactly what I have been wanting to do for quite some time now. I have always wanted to learn and master hand tools. I have worked in a cabinet shop that had craftsmen who truly could work wonders with hand tools. It was while working in the shop I have decided that I would also like to learn and develop the same skills as these craftsmen had with handtools. Please offer some advice to help me get started on the right track.

  3. Vernon DePauw

    Adam; What a timly article for me because I too have been making my list of power tools for my shop. I have been woodcarving for nearly 40 years,(I started in 7th grade shop class), and have done all my carvings with hand tools. I am getting set to do it full time and was thinking about what tools I would need to make items like boxes to carve on. Your article reminds me of all the old hand tools I have around and of how much I enjoy woodcarving because I do it by hand. (I also do historic demonstrations of woodcarving and coopering and enjoy the feel of the hand tools.)You have inspired me to rethink my list and to give wood working hand tools a try first.

  4. Vernon DePauw

    Adam; What a timly article for me because I too have been making my list of power tools for my shop. I have been woodcarving for nearly 40 years,(I started in 7th grade shop class), and have done all my carvings with hand tools. I am getting set to do it full time and was thinking about what tools I would need to make items like boxes to carve on. Your article reminds me of all the old hand tools I have around and of how much I enjoy woodcarving because I do it by hand. (I also do historic demonstrations of woodcarving and coopering and enjoy the feel of the hand tools.)You have inspired me to rethink my list and to give wood working hand tools a try first.

  5. Vernon DePauw

    Adam; What a timly article for me because I too have been making my list of power tools for my shop. I have been woodcarving for nearly 40 years,(I started in 7th grade shop class), and have done all my carvings with hand tools. I am getting set to do it full time and was thinking about what tools I would need to make items like boxes to carve on. Your article reminds me of all the old hand tools I have around and of how much I enjoy woodcarving because I do it by hand. (I also do historic demonstrations of woodcarving and coopering and enjoy the feel of the hand tools.)You have inspired me to rethink my list and to give wood working hand tools a try first.

  6. Eldad

    Adam, I enjoyed very much reading your column.
    It is very similar to my experience.
    I live in Israel, which has no history or culture of woodworking (I guess the last woodworker was Jesus’ father …). So power tools rule here …
    I’m in my 40′s, living in a city appartment with no place for power tools. I took on woodworking as an hobby after living in the U.S for one year, back in 2005. My decision to use only hand tools was only natural, not having the right floor space to establish a fully equipped power tools shop. However, as time went by not only that I learned to love hand tools, and old tool makers, I don’t think I’ll ever turn to power tools.
    It also brings me a lot of satisfaction to create my own tools and use them in my "shop". I can work late at night, without disturning the neigbours, and I enjoy feeling like I’m continuing an old tradition, soon to be forgotten.
    I have a mix of both Western and Japanese woodworking tools, trying to make the best of both worlds. Your columns and articles encourage me to continue with this and I hope many people will follow to keep this tradition alive. Thank you for your inspiration.

  7. Eldad

    Adam, I enjoyed very much reading your column.
    It is very similar to my experience.
    I live in Israel, which has no history or culture of woodworking (I guess the last woodworker was Jesus’ father …). So power tools rule here …
    I’m in my 40′s, living in a city appartment with no place for power tools. I took on woodworking as an hobby after living in the U.S for one year, back in 2005. My decision to use only hand tools was only natural, not having the right floor space to establish a fully equipped power tools shop. However, as time went by not only that I learned to love hand tools, and old tool makers, I don’t think I’ll ever turn to power tools.
    It also brings me a lot of satisfaction to create my own tools and use them in my "shop". I can work late at night, without disturning the neigbours, and I enjoy feeling like I’m continuing an old tradition, soon to be forgotten.
    I have a mix of both Western and Japanese woodworking tools, trying to make the best of both worlds. Your columns and articles encourage me to continue with this and I hope many people will follow to keep this tradition alive. Thank you for your inspiration.

  8. Chris Henderson

    Adam is the LUCKIEST man in the world. I’d love to be able to work in period clothes doing something I love. I run a small shop in north Georgia turning out period reproduction boxes, furniture, and pikes from the mid 19th century and I would be like a pig in slop if I could do it full time in period dress in a period shop. To be in those shoes….. Keep up the good work Adam!

    Chris Henderson

  9. Chris Henderson

    Adam is the LUCKIEST man in the world. I’d love to be able to work in period clothes doing something I love. I run a small shop in north Georgia turning out period reproduction boxes, furniture, and pikes from the mid 19th century and I would be like a pig in slop if I could do it full time in period dress in a period shop. To be in those shoes….. Keep up the good work Adam!

    Chris Henderson

  10. Jerry Palmer

    I remember seeing a big ol #6 in my granddad’s "shop", though shed was a much better description of the little outbuilding he worked out of. The LOML will be washing my mouth out with soap over my leaving that "of" dangling a the end of the last sentence, but she doesn’t read woodworking blogs so I think I’ll be alright. Over the years I had accumulated a decent array of power tools. One tailed tool I didn’t have was a jointer. I got by edge jointing useing a router table set-up, and a sled in my planer for face jointing. I didn’t have room, nor the money to get an 8" or larger joiner, the minimum size I felt I needed for semi-wide stock. So one day I found a Stanley #7 on ebay and decided that it might be a better way of jointing edges, so I bid and won.

    Reading and asking questions got me able to do a halfway decent job of tuning the number 7, but I also discovered that I’d likely NEED a couple more planes if I wanted to do it right. A couple turned into a bunch, metal bodies and transitionals of various sizes along with a few block planes and special purpose ones and …well, you probably get the drift.

    As a lad I was into real intense woodwork like tearing apart pallets and wounden ammo boxes and the like, saving screws and nails and what have you to make things like tree houses. Part of that involved using hand saws and I don’t recall ever having a whole lot of trouble using the old ones available to me, so I didn’t understand why those big box handsaws now seemed so difficult to work with, so I steered clear of handsaws and continued using my tailed monsters.

    Then one day I stumbled on a pair of old saws at an antique mall. The price was right, less than $15 for the pair, one of which was an early 1900s Disston D-8 thumbhole. Of course I didn’t know that till I got home and did some research. By the time I had gotten middlin good at sharpening handsaws, I had a bunch of those, too.

    And then it was chisels and spokeshaves and drawknives and a ton of other stuff. While there is a learning curve with this stuff, I didn’t find it that steep of a curve once I understood hat sharp steel cuts wood much better than dull steel. I still have my power tools and will continue to use them, but I’ve pretty much figured out that if it takes much more than the rip fence and miter gauge to make a cut on the table saw, I’m much quicker laying it out and doing it by hand. If the proper size roundover bit is not already installed in the router, I can get a number of edges rounded quicker with a shave than I can change the bit in the router. I’m not nearly so quick doing grooves and dados by hand as I can knock them out with tailed stuff, but I enjoy the much quiter voopaw of the backsaw and swish of the chisels and router plane than the roar of the ‘lectric stuff, so unless I’m pressed for time, I’ll do most of the joinery by hand.

  11. John W Barrett

    Adam, I very much enjoy your column and look forward to it every issue. If you could use some (semi) skilled help when you volunteer at Pennsbury Manor, I’d enjoy the opportunity to work with and learn from you. My schedule is very flexible. I got shoved into retirement for medical reasons (at a very young age) and have lots of free time. I live in Montgomery County PA just north of the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.

    I began woodworking before retirement and had a great time with it on weekends. Given my schedule then, my focus was on using power tools. Since then, though, I’ve come to enjoy working with hand tools a lot more than power tools, although I still use the power stuff.

    At any rate, feel free to call/e-mail. We could even have a Yard beer or two while I try to pick your brain.

  12. John W Barrett

    Adam, I very much enjoy your column and look forward to it every issue. If you could use some (semi) skilled help when you volunteer at Pennsbury Manor, I’d enjoy the opportunity to work with and learn from you. My schedule is very flexible. I got shoved into retirement for medical reasons (at a very young age) and have lots of free time. I live in Montgomery County PA just north of the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.

    I began woodworking before retirement and had a great time with it on weekends. Given my schedule then, my focus was on using power tools. Since then, though, I’ve come to enjoy working with hand tools a lot more than power tools, although I still use the power stuff.

    At any rate, feel free to call/e-mail. We could even have a Yard beer or two while I try to pick your brain.

  13. Al Rossi

    HA! Can’t believe I’m following in your footsteps. Almost exactly – (I’m even an engineer in my 30′s)

    I always liked carpentry work and then I became interested in antiques and history. Then I bought an Old house (216 years old) and it even had a small barn with some extra stalls that I was going to turn into a wood shop. some idea as you – except I was going to buy a General contractors saw with the bisenmeyer fence. Then I realized that I could do the same work with a $2 flea market saw. Left tilt or right tilt – didn’t matter.

    Then I realized that the spot I had set aside for my wood shop wasn’t heated, couldn’t easily be heatedd and was quickly being filled up with other equipment needed to take care of the property. so I staked out a 10 x 8 space in the basement, built Bob Key’s Quick cheap bench and settled in.

    So far I’ve produced several small items like pipe boxes, etc. turned out 400-500 sq ft of hand planed tongued and grooved flooring to match the original flooring and did a couple of tabletops on this bench in this small space. All while listening to music and working early in the morning without waking my wife.

    It has proven to be very fulfilling, and as a bonus I was able to give up my gym membership. Now if I could figure out how to make a living doing this sort of thing I’d be all set, but it’s a long life, so there’s no hurry to get to that point yet – This old house still has a ton of work left to be done.

    Thanks for taking the time to create this blog and your column in Pop Wood. It’s made me a much more skilled craftsman.

    Maybe I’ll get to see you sometime when we’re out at Pennsbury manor.

    Al Rossi

  14. Chris C.

    Adam,

    The all hand tool approach is proven to be completely
    viable; several hundred years of fine furniture have proven
    it to be a perfectly fine way to work.

    I think many modern hobbyist woodworkers are looking to strike
    a balance between enjoying their time in the shop and
    creating usable furniture and projects for themselves.

    If spending time in the shop was the only reason for
    learning the craft, surely every woodworker would
    work solely by hand lovingly cutting dovetails and other
    joinery. And some do just that.

    But, like I said, we also want to make something interesting
    and usable too and move to the next project to learn
    even more.

    To me, that’s why many modern shops are power driven: to
    allow that balance of speed and shop time.

    I am a great advocate of hand tools, and am incorporating
    them more and more into my own work. There is no doubt
    that they offer a fine degree of control with little
    fuss over many power tool operations. And, yes, they
    can even be faster in some operations as hard as
    some people find that to believe.

    However, let’s not get carried away. I have a table saw
    and a band saw. They are well tuned, and I have spent
    a lot of time on them. You would not be able to make
    most cuts faster by hand then I could on either of those
    machines. Some cuts, yes, but most no. The trick is
    knowing which cuts the hand tools excel at, and which ones
    they don’t.

    Do I want to pare down tenons to 1/1000" by adjusting
    dado stack height on a table saw? No, a shoulder plane
    is much faster and far more precise.

    Do I want to 4-square 150 board feet of various stock
    down with hand saws and planes? Maybe. But I generally
    will take care of this with the table saw, jointer and
    thickness planer. If I am organized I can probably knock
    out 150 board feet in 15 minutes.

    Chris

  15. Tim Brown

    The approach to wood working that you took is a marvelous road. I used to teach drafting, in the back of the room we had our CAD lab. Before the students were allowed to use CAD, they were required to understand the fundamentals of drawing by hand. This, I believe, allowed them to understand the constructions that were used to create the drawing on a computer; allowed the students to develop the hand-eye coordination that is lacking when one ‘draws’
    on a computer; allows the student to draw something that is very hard and complex on the CAD systems and having the knowledge and skill to do it ‘manually’. It is also my experience that the original creation on the CAD often takes longer than doing the same work on the board; the speed is in the changes. I think it is the same in wood working.

    The biggest benefit in hand tool woodworking is safety. I have used both and I have to agree with the post before that those spinning blades are intimidating.

    As far as shop classes go. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but in our area there are no drafting, wood shop, metal shop, or electronic shop classes taught at the high school level. Auto mechanics seems to survive if for no other purpose than as a dumping ground for students who do not have an academic leaning. I think that this is a great loss and the long term impacts of such short term thinking will have a detrimental effect on society at large. We may be training them to think, but we leave them with nothing to think about.

    Thanks for letting me vent. I love the articles and read Pop Wood lots of times just for these type of articles. Please keep them coming.

    Tim Brown

  16. James Mittlefehldt

    My personal journey started first with a love of trees in general, and antiques. I became curious about how the old guys did all that furniture with hand tools, so from the start, about eight years ago in my mid forties, hand tools were my means of choice.

    I have had several revelations along the way, ie Roy Underhill who I earlier thought of as a raging nutbar, but who has now become a guru of sorts. Another thing was that contrary to popular belief with the right tools well maintained many jobs were not only possible but actually nowhere near as hard as I assumed.

    I did take courses at a local community college one of which dealt with staionery power tools, and frankly they scare the hell out of me. In a shop where you only build a few pieces a year, why would you need a cabinet saw, unless you work with sheet goods mainly.

    Another revelation was a video I watched somewhere ahowing the working cabinet shop in Williamsburg Virginia, not only by hand but I was surprised at how few tools were actually about. That and your columns regarding rethinking precision in woodworking have been inspirational to say the least.

    Sorry for the ramble but I feel so much better having confessed my sins.

    James Mittlefehldt

  17. Eric Seidlitz

    What an inspiring post – thanks for writing it! I picked up woodworking "in my thirties" as well – though that was only a few years ago. Like you, I thought power tools would be the way to go, except that I lived in Southeast Asia so power tools were very hard to come by.

    During my time in the States (I’m returning to Asia next month), I’ve picked up some hand tools skills and look forward to trying them out when I get back there. I also plan on starting a blog to document my journey, and will be sure to have you on my blogroll!

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