Chris Schwarz's Blog

New Book: Combining Hand Tools & Power Tools




Editor’s note: This May, our company will be publishing a book that’s tentatively titled “Hand Tools for Power Woodworkers,” a 192-page hardback that will combine our best writings from Woodworking Magazine and Popular Woodworking magazine on the topic. Stay tuned here for more information in the coming months. Meanwhile, here is a taste from the introduction to the book.

For me, working wood without hand tools is like trying to write a story without using adjectives.

Power tools and machinery are the nouns and verbs. They do the heavy lifting of reducing rough stock to useful sizes, for roughing out joints, for getting things done. But power tools can take you only so far when it comes to the fine details.

Hand tools are the difference between a flat carcase side and a shimmering, ready-to-finish carcase side. They turn a dovetail into a London-pattern dovetail, with tails that are too close together to accomplish with any router. They turn a mortise-and-tenon joint into a piston-fit joint.

I’m not saying you can’t do woodworking without hand tools , lots of people make lots of beautiful objects using electrical tools only. But hand tools are the secret weapon that frees you from the limitations of your machinery.

Have you ever been frustrated by adjusting the fence of your table saw in small increments? Say, less than 1/64″? Adjusting your stock to thickness, width and length with a handplane allows you to tweak your stock in increments as small as .001″. This is child’s play for a handplane, not something you have to practice at for years to master.

Do you get frustrated by the endless series of test cuts when setting a miter saw or table saw for a compound miter? I do. And I used to despair at the amount of decent wood I wasted with these test cuts. Learning to work a backsaw allows you to draw any line at any angle on any piece of wood and cut to exactly that line. It doesn’t mater if it’s 90Ã?° or 23.75Ã?°. A handsaw will do both with the same ease.

Do you dislike spending hours building single-use jigs to make a simple cut, such as notching out the corners of the base in a post-and-frame carcase? A saw and chisel will allow you to make any size or shape notch. Even if every notch is a little different, your hand tools don’t care. If you can mark it on the wood, they can cut it to that shape.

And do you wish you could add curves to your work without having to invest the time in making lots of router templates or spending money on a spindle sander? A saw and a decent rasp can shape any curve you can think of, and you aren’t limited by the depth of a router bit. If you can think it and draw it, a rasp can shape it.

I’m sure that all of this sounds somewhat appealing. Why else would you have picked up this book? But I’m also certain that you have fears and apprehensions about hand work. It seems difficult to master. The tools are foreign. And most woodworker’s first experiences with hand tools are frustrating.

I’m not going to lie to you, you need to learn to sharpen before you will have any success with chisels, planes or scrapers. But if you will learn this small skill (there are lots of valid ways to sharpen a tool, and some of our favorite are in this book), the rewards will far exceed the time you spent learning to put a keen edge on a piece of steel.

And, as a bonus, you will find that learning to sharpen a chisel will open up wide vistas of woodworking that might have seemed closed to you: turning, carving, marquetry. Sharpening is the gateway skill to a wider world of woodworking.

Once you start down this path, I promise you that the distinctions between power tools and hand tools will start to blur. In fact, the adjectives “hand” and “power” will have a lot less meaning for you than the word that they modify: tool.

You will find yourself cutting tenons with a dado stack and adjusting them to perfection with a shoulder plane. You will cut a cabriole leg to shape with a band saw and smooth its sinuous curves with a rasp and file. You will raise a door panel on your router table and fit it so it never rattles with a block plane.

You will work faster without meaning to. The crispness of your work will surprise you. You won’t dread sanding because you’ll be doing much less of it. You will hunger to get back into the shop more than you ever did before.

Whether you know it or not, we live in a new golden age of woodworking that has never occurred before. Machinery is less expensive in inflation-adjusted dollars since the Industrial Revolution birthed the industry. Almost any household of any income can afford a table saw, planer and jointer that can turn rough wood into furniture-ready boards.

And hand tools are now of a better quality than at any time since World War II. For almost 50 years, the best hand tools were old hand tools from the late 19th and early 20th century. And to get those old-timers to work you had to learn about tool restoration , removing rust, flattening warped cast iron, regrinding hopelessly damaged chisels.

But no more.

Modern manufacturers such as Veritas, Lie-Nielsen, Clifton, Auriou and Ashley Iles now make tools that actually exceed the quality of the old-time tools. These tools take minutes to set up for use, instead of days. They are properly designed and use modern manufacturing and steels to compete against the other premium tools flooding the market. They are, like our machines, a joy to use.

The book you are holding in your hands is the missing link between the world of hand work and machine work. The skills and tools discussed herein are all you need start incorporating hand tools into your power-tool shop. We’ve carefully selected each of these chapters to provide this crash course in how to turn your woodworking into fine woodworking. Now let’s get to work.

– Christopher Schwarz

P.S. The bowsaw shown in the photo above is the new one from Gramercy Tools. I just finished writing a review of the saw for our December issue of Popular Woodworking. Here’s the much-condensed version of the review: Get one.