Chris Schwarz's Blog

Why Do This Crap By Hand?

QUESTION: Although I am not in the woodworking trades, my son is. And last year I offered to pay his tuition at Peter Follansbee’s workshop in North Carolina on riven-oak wood boxes. I showed him all the purty pictures on Peter’s blog chattering all the while about “how cool is this? Boards are split, not sawn, the wood is green, blah blah blah.”

He looked at me like I had a third eye in the middle of my head and said, “Are you F!@#$%^ crazy? Why would anyone do all that with hand tools when power tools are available?” I muttered something lame about how learning traditional woodworking could help one in the power tool area, but he wasn’t buying it at all.

So the question is: Why is traditional woodworking important?

ANSWER: Wow. This is going to require both a Scottish ale and a separate blog entry.

It’s a valid question, inasmuch as I work in a shop with an embarrassing array of power tools and machinery. The stuff we have is expensive, accurate, well-made and all that. Yet I still find myself doing more and more by hand every year. Why?

Senior Editor Glen D. Huey and I have talked about this a lot. He considers himself a power-tool woodworker and posits that most power-tool woodworkers are interested in results (completed projects) whereas the hand-tool people are more interested in process (cutting everything by hand).

I don’t disagree. Working by hand is a far more enjoyable process for me. I like every stage of building when it involves my hand tools.

But that doesn’t capture it entirely for me. For me, I think the difference between machine and hand woodworking is the hunger for pure skill. Let me explain.

In the summers I drive a 1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. Yes, it looks like a sports car, but underneath its steel skin is a flat-four 53-horsepower air-cooled pokey thing. I think that some grocery carts could outrun me on a track.

Yet, while driving that car I am difficult to pass on the interstate, and I regularly smoke Mustangs, Camaros and even a few Porsches (take that, Ferdinand). When driving in congested areas, it’s not so much your engine, but understanding the road ahead. You must know your vehicle as intimately as your spouse. And you must look far ahead to see trouble and opportunity in the traffic patterns.

It took me years to become that sort of driver.

Same goes with hand tools. When building one-off projects, I’m not particularly slow compared to the power-tool people I work with. Hand tools let me take short cuts (no jigs or test cuts) that give me an edge (like a manual transmission, really). And hand work is different than power tool work. There is no “sanding stage” where you drop everything and spend a day refining all your surfaces.

With hand tools, if you’ve done things in the correct order, you’re ready to finish as soon as you assemble. And that is very cool.

Most of all, I am proud of the skills I’ve had to develop to do this. And I’m amazed at how easy they come. The first few skills are a bear to acquire (sharpening, flattening a board, sawing to a line). But after that, the skills tend to feed on each other and you find that nothing , really, nothing , is outside your grasp.

And you don’t need to buy a jig to do it. And you don’t need to spend a week working up the courage to try making banding or grounding a carving. The next skill is just one little step away.

So are traditional skills important? Yes, to those who understand traditional skill. Because it competes with modern skills, it’s a bit hard to demonstrate or explain to the unwashed public. Both traditionalists and modernists can build nice stuff that (to the public) looks about the same.

So for me it just comes down to my favorite quote of all time:

“The things I make may be for others, but how I make them is for me.”

, Tony Konovaloff

- Christopher Schwarz

35 thoughts on “Why Do This Crap By Hand?

  1. Bob Rozaieski

    "He looked at me like I had a third eye in the middle of my head and said, "Are you F!@#$%^ crazy? Why would anyone do all that with hand tools when power tools are available?" I muttered something lame about how learning traditional woodworking could help one in the power tool area, but he wasn’t buying it at all."

    Obviously, he has never tried to build anything his power tools are not capable of doing. Ask him to make a tombstone rasied panel door or a ball and claw cabriole leg and let’s see him come up with a way to do that with only power tools ;). There are plenty of things that simply cannot be done completely with power tools, but I’ve yet to see a piece that cannot be built completely with hand tools (though I admit, that certain things one would not want to do with hand tools).

    I think part of his son’s response might have to do with the fact that woodworking is his profession. His reasons for doing it are not the same as those of us who work wood as a hobby. Sure, he may like his job, plenty of people do, but it’s still his job. So when he is woodworking, he has a job to do, he’s not doing it for the pure enjoyment of woodworking. His goal is to get the job done, so his mentality is that power tools are less effort and hand tools are more work.

    I work in a position that has me sitting at a desk and using a computer all day. Sure, I could hand write all of my memos and do all of the statistics and calculations I need to do with a calculator, but I certainly wouldn’t want to. I like my job ok, but I don’t want to take a class on technical writing or advanced statistical modeling on the weekends. To me, it’s a job, and I leave that life at work at 4:00.

    Interpreters (e.g. Cherubini, Follansbee, etc.) and magazine writers aside, I don’t know any woodworking trades persons (carpenter, finish carpenter, furniture maker, etc.) who would ever consider doing everything by hand. I think most of us who are more interested in the traditional aspect of the craft are hobbiests who choose to work this way because it allows us to step out of our everyday, CNN, dot com lives. When I go into my shop, it’s not just about the woodworking; it’s the simplicity, the quiet, the contemplation, the relaxation. I did not get this kind of satisfaction when I worked with machines. Hand tools give me that.

    But at the same time, it’s not an occupation for me. I don’t have to do it; I don’t get paid to do it. There are no expectations that I deliver X by Y. It’s my choice and I do it for me. If I had to do it to put food on the table and a roof over my family’s head, I’m not so sure I would feel the same way.

  2. Ethan

    Chris,

    If you can’t get Schlafly’s Scotch Ale in your area, let me know. I’ll set a 6-pack aside. Then, we just need to get you to teach a class at the St. Louis Woodcraft and you can enjoy one of the finest Scotch Ales in the land!

  3. Joe Barry

    I was trained as an Industrial Arts teacher and spent several years teaching followed by several more as a commercial cabinetmaker doing high end corporate and residential work. This was machine woodworking at its pinnacle. At one job the foreman looked at my toolbox on the first day and told me to take it home. "If you can’t do it with a router and a belt sander then you shouldn’t be doing it!" I was fortunate to also do an internship at The Apprenticeshop in which I was taught to use hand tools. I have always done "blended" work but I find myself doing more and more hand work. I used to rely on machinery for the precision but found that I was also designing around the limitations of what the machine does well. I have found that hand tools are sometimes faster and more precise. Rather than spending hours designing, building and fine tuning a jig I can cut a tenon and fine tune the fit much faster with a handsaw and plane. I can listen to the boom box as I work rather than encased in a facesheild, mickey mouse ears and dust mask and my shop isn’t covered in dust. The experience is much more pleasant and the work is better for it. I have not seen a sanded surface that is the equal to a planed surface.
    I’m still not giving up my table saw and planer though. I’d rather do the rough milling with power than to rip maple and cherry by hand.

  4. Barry

    I’m a blended type of guy… even in the way I see the comments above. I think the question that has to be asked first is "What are we making"?

    I usually prefer hand tools for non-production type of work, like fitting, smoothing as I assemble, etc… on one-off furniture.

    However, when I’m building a kitchen, or something else with lots of identical parts, I’ll take the table saw, mortiser, pocket hole jig and power drill, thicknesser, etc… and be very, very happy! I still might cut hinge mortises by hand, or I might jig a trim router.

    As for comments like "if you can’t do it by hand, you can’t do it right by machine…", I’ll respectfully disagree.

    I have seen lots of fantastic work done by folks who had gained knowledge of what the highest quality results needed to be, and who had taken the time to fully understand the machine and materials The best results require a full understanding of what a beautifully made item needs to look and feel like, regardless of what tool is used to make it. Once we have this understanding, we will usually reach the conclusion that hand skills are necessary or better for specific operations.

    My experience is that folks who may have started out by four squaring board after board by hand were simply taught differently. This is especially true for students in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, who weren’t being trained to create, but to work in a factory. There are currently lots of schools that can teach a woodworker to create a fantastically fine finished product using machines for the repetition, and hand tools when they’re best.

    This is a great discussion with lots of excellent comments!

  5. Scott

    Hi,
    The Japanese have an aesthetic appreciation for made objects that is summed up in the phrase ‘born, not made’.
    A highly valued object has a uniqueness and character all it’s own. It comes out of the artisan. You can feel and see the maker in it. Machines are wonderful. They are effectively duplicators and serve as that-reducing time eaten up by redundant processes. But few machines can effect the laying on of hands to a work.
    I am in the midst of the birthing of what must now be the 10,000th roubo a la schwarz. I cannot even begin to tell you the number of errors in this project. But the hand-made dowels for the drawbore, handplaned surfacing and some carved details (to come) and a really sore back from throwing it around are all mine and in it. Every stiff step I take I think of the making of the bench and love my effort.

  6. Gye Greene

    Coming from a slightly different perspective: I feel that using mostly (or all) hand tools means that **you** are doing the crafting, not the machine.

    It’s kinda like telling a quilter "Why are you bothering to make that quilt? You can buy one at K-Mart for fifty bucks…" Or telling someone who paints landscapes, "You know — they have this invention called a ‘camera’…"

    It’s about the crafting and handling and **do**-ing.

    –GG

  7. Chuck Bender

    Chris,

    Here at the school I teach blended woodworking. I was taught that, as a professional, you do it by machine until the only way to do it better is by hand. For me this means I plane or scrape all my surfaces and I hand cut all my dovetails but I’m not chopping all my mortises by hand. It just isn’t an efficient use of my time.

    Learning the hand tool method of doing any process gives the woodworker a complete understanding of what the machine is doing. When I teach students to flatten a rough sawn board with a hand plane, they actually understand a power jointer and planer better. Consequently, they use them more efficiently and effectively.

    When I demonstrate a technique by hand, invariably one of the students says "ok, now how can I do that on a machine?" That’s the person who isn’t sure they have the hand tool skills to pull off the operation. A little encouragement and some personal observation of their technique and they usually come to realize their biggest obstacle wasn’t the skill it was their fear.

    Taking what I was taught about hand work versus power tool work in a slightly different direction, the hand tool work is the skill driven part of the project. I don’t know anyone who uses a dovetail jig who opens a drawer and says “Look at those dovetails. I have a great router jig, don’t I?” but every single person I’ve taught to cut dovetails by hand proudly shows off their dovetails (and like typical woodworkers they then proceed to point out every minute error on the entire piece…bit I digress). It’s the artistic nature that’s fed by the use of hand tools.

    Glen’s right (just don’t tell him I said so). There are two types of people out there, those that are project driven and those that are process driven. They don’t necessarily have to fall into the hand tool versus the power tool categories. I don’t think Peter Follansbee is more about process than he is about product when he makes a piece completely by hand. He’s not agonizing of the details so much that it takes him months to make a box. He’s very productive. Likewise, Glen rolls through his projects very productively using his power tools. In either case the woodworker could easily become bogged down in the details and the fear of proceeding which would easily affect their productivity as well as their product. For Peter and Glen, it’s more about their artistic intent and how they use their tools to achieve that goal.

    So, is there a place for traditional skills out there? I certainly think so. It’s how I’ve made a living for the last thirty years or so. Much like the pins versus tails debate, it’s irrelevant as long as you get out there and do it.

  8. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnVV_twSx2Xl05IzaoALGMxEIvoLxs_3G8

    I neglected to add one more thing… the whole damn reason for that first year "Machine and Mechanics" school (in Norway… for the record) was simply that as an agricultural mechanic (which is what I went on to become) there would be times when you would be sent to the middle of nowhere, and there would not be any parts available to repair whatever machine you were working on, and yet, time was money with the poor farmer having precious little of it (money) and yet needs to get the harvest done before whatever calamity was just about to occur. For the mechanic to say "I can’t get parts and I don’t have a machine shop available" was just NOT an option. If I could access a machine shop then great, if not… perhaps I could find a blacksmiths shop or even fashion a forge out of scraps to get me going but the bottom line was getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible….

    Someone who works only with machines is lost when things break… a skilled hand tool wielder will shrug his or her shoulders, grab a hand tool suitable and carry on as if nothing were wrong. THAT is the difference….. For amateurs, it’s not that big a deal (honey, I have to fix the saw but I’ll have the cupboard ready the week after I get the new parts), but if you are a pro, one who makes his/her living with woodworking…… being able to carry on, without missing a beat, when the time crunch hits, is the difference between a PRO and an AMATEUR.

  9. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnVV_twSx2Xl05IzaoALGMxEIvoLxs_3G8

    If you can’t do it right, by hand…. how the h*ll could you tell if it was done right by machine?

    The assumption is that machines are incapable of inaccuracies….. which they are not. Only when you can produce premium accuracy by hand can you truly judge if the machine is meeting the standards YOU set for quality work…. And so, if you can’t produce quality work by hand, you can’t judge the work done by a machine.

    And just because it’s easier to work, using a machine, it does not make the result you get, better but rather you can produce crappy work faster!

    In a previous life…. far far away, in a foreign land, I went to what was called a "Machine and Mechanics" school, first year. We were given a vice, bench space, a tool roll with a hammer, chisel, hacksaw and 5 files. We were then told if we needed anything else, we would have to make it from raw steel. I sweated for 6 months in the sun, filing steel of all kinds, making clamps, hammer heads, hacksaw frames, machinist squares and the like…… and THEN, but only then, did we get to use the machine shop…. It was only after all that handwork that we could judge and appreciate what the machines were capable of doing….. And even, after all that…. when something came out of the mill or the lathe…. hand filing, sanding or some other sort of hand work would be applied to the machine work to meet our (at that point) high standards.

    So if I need to rip a 3 foot piece of oak, I’ll grab my frame saw and do it in my basement workshop… But if I need to rip 30′ of oak for a project……. I’ll head out to my other shop where the General 10" table saw sits…. It can rip 30′ of oak faster than I can…. not better, just faster.

    Regards

    Christian

  10. John Cashman

    I agree in part about the results vs process argument. When I was younger I needed to build furniture, because I had none. I really don’t have that need any longer, and I do things simply because I like doing things. I recently needed a canvas roll for a growing number of carving tools, so I spent a couple of days learning to use a sewing machine and made some. It’s a new skill, and I like that a lot.

    I like fresh challenges, and learning new skills. I no longer see much skill or challenge in using a random orbit sander, though if I was doing this for a living, I’m sure I would look at it differently. But I also have an eventual result in mind. One day I would like to build one or two pieces of Goddard-Townsend furniture. To me, that style is the epitome of American furniture, and possessing the skills to produce such a piece is something I would be immensely proud of. It’s a challenge, and a whole host of skills.

    To take Chris’ car analogy a step further, I can never see the value that some people place in outrageously expensive automobiles. Some folks come by large sums of money through no particular skill or talent of their own. But someone who can design, build, restore, etc., has every right, in my value system, to be proud of their vehicle.

    Of course, your mileage may vary.

  11. Ryan S

    I’ll reserve my opinions about hand tool versus power tool woodworking (okay, I’m firmly a knuckle-dragging galoot), but I have to make a hearty recommendation for Three Floyds Robert the Bruce Scottish Ale – you can buy it Party Source right now, for the first time in several years.

    And if you’re into stouts, their Black Sun stout is well worth the extra bucks.

  12. Bill Harris

    Thank you answering the question I wanted to ask… How do you build a bench with handtools. I have your article about the LVL bench and now your workbenches book, yet I was trubled because I didn’t have a planer and a table saw, which is what I saw you use in the PopWood article.

    My experience level is very low and I my only powertools are a circular saw, a never used benchtop (ironic – no bench – perhaps benchtopless?) planer and small drill press. But, since November I have collected a nice Mark Harrell Back Saw, a Harrell tuned Disston #12, a few excellent A2 chisels (3/8, 1/2, 3/4), a mallet, a TiteMark gauge, a Drake WW Dovetail Saw, garage sale smoother, a Hock wooden plane, a brace, an egg beater, a straightedge and a couple of squares.

    ‘And the desire. ‘Just need some direction. So, thanks Chris for helping me get serious with your latest blogfest. Oh, and I can sharpen. BTW, I went to High School in Ark and my family was originally from Hoxie! Woo Pig Sooee. New Mexico now.

  13. david brown

    I agree that it’s not simply a matter of power-tools-for-results vs hand-tools-for-feel. I think part of the problem is the misconception that newer is better and power must be faster. Also, novice woodworkers tend to assume that new power tools and jigs will buy you satisfying results. In actuality, the only way to become proficient in anything is repetition.

    We see these misconceptions challenged in real life and lampooned through art-imitating-life. In real life, there’s Chris in the air-cooled-antique driving more efficiently and fluidly than more "advanced" machines driven by disengaged drivers. In art, witness fast but arrogant Lightning McQueen humbled by the Hudson Hornet and a dirt-track. What about Mr. Miyagi vs the Cobra Kai sensei? Exaggerated examples, but you get the point.

    It’s not the well-engineered tool and $$$ that builds an heirloom from a stack of lumber. It is the artisan’s esprit de corps with his tools and familiarity that crafts the masterpiece.

  14. Ryan Prochaska

    When I started out in carpentry & cabinetmaking, I remember having to cut mortises for doors by hand. I cut hundreds of mortises that way. Either I didn’t have the power tools, or they were being used by someone else with seniority. As I stood over countless doors, with chisel in hand, I would contemplate the day I could afford my own router, jigs, and everything else I "needed" to get the job done faster and better. There came the day, years later, when I was doing a new construction finish job, and a custom front door needed to be mortised.

    I set the door up in a fancy jig. I pulled out the router and chucked the bit. I set the depth. I installed the routing jig on the door. I unrolled the extension cord, and plugged in the router. I ran the other end to the only outlet set up in the house. I donned my earmuffs. I put on the safety glasses. I pulled up the dust mask. I turned on the router and did the hinges, then flipped it around to finish the latch plate.

    When the dust had cleared, and I had removed the jig, earmuffs, safety glasses, and dust mask, I came to a realization. All those years dreaming of this day, and I had found that it would have been faster by hand.

  15. David B.

    I don’t agree with Glen’s assertion that power tool woodworkers are more interested in results and hand tool woodworkers are more interested in the process. Like most I am part of the Norm generation. Every week you would find me watching Norm and muttering, "If I had all those tools I could build all that stuff too." Years later I had all those tools and yet felt that somewhere along the way I had missed something. Overall, it just felt everything was overly complicated.

    With hand tools I feel I can give the furniture more of my attention. When designing my furniture I no longer have to figure out how to construct jigs to pull off my design. Now I find designs more creative and have more complicated joinery. When I’m making a cut I don’t worry about cutting off a finger or blowing out the back side of the cut. Now I can focus on the work. I no longer dread the hours of trying to sand away planer/joiner/router marks.

    I find that people who use only power tools are afraid they don’t have skill set to use hand tools. For years I was afraid to even try to cut a dovetail. I thought I needed $400 jigs to cut a joint that has been cut by hand for thousands of years. Once I got over my fear I found that it takes more skill to set up the complicated jigs and routers than it did to just cut the joint by hand.

  16. Darnell Hagen

    I was just thinking about this today. My shop is blended, for me it’s less about speed, tradition, or romantic notion and more about choosing the correct method of work for the task at hand. Precision and efficiency are born of skill and knowledge, and traditional techniques are a large part of that.

    Sweet vehicle. I love a car that’s symmetrical both left to right and front to back.

  17. David Chidester

    Great explanation! I’ve worked in a modern cabinet shop for over a decade, but have become more interested in traditional woodworking these past few years. For work, I’ll do it with power tools. But for myself, I’m learning to use hand tools and traditional methods. It’s so much more enjoyable!

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