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. Greg Nehls

    Having been without a shop the last six months and soon to be getting my own shop here at the house. Has given me the time to re-evaluate my woodworking skills and methods of work. The use of hand tools has taken a fore front in this thought process. While I have a mix of tools both hand and power. I find that many times I incorporate the two because of the tools I have on hand for the task. Since my new shop will be half of what I’m accustom to, buying more machines will be limited. I have decided it is time to upgrade my hand tools and to slow down in my craft and learn new methods of work. I also start kids out with hand tools so that they know how to use these tools when the time comes that they aren’t able to use a machine to get the job done. For instance if your tenon is to tight using a plane or chisel to pare down the tenon for a good fit. In this case the hand tool becomes the tool of choice because of the quickness to do the job, as opposed to re-setting the machine to pare down the tenon. For me woodworking is a lifetime of learning different aspects of woodworking, and learning to use all of my tools as proficiently as possible. Your only as good as knowing how to use the tool your using.
    Greg,

  2. imdrmarshall.myopenid.com

    i too find the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment when working with hand tools instead of power tools. and like Mr. Schwarz was saying, i think by doing and learning to do by way of hand tools, also teaches you things/steps of the process of completing a project that you would never learn or even notice when using strictly power tools. another way to look at it is, if you are not at least knowledgeable in the individual steps that need to be accomplished during a project, what are you gonna do if your half way through a project and one of your tools "poop the bed" and you have a deadline to meet, and no money to repair/replace your tool. (and lets say your a hermit and dont have a friend that can loan you the tool or $…lol)…
    i am 32 but i am one of those who seem to have been born in the wrong time in history…and it is so nice to hear when someone else (especially one as talented and gifted, and also has a prominent voice in the woodworking community) has the attraction to the more traditional ways of woodworking. i am not saying that items made with power tools are "inferior" in any way, but there is just something comforting about knowing an item has been crafted by hand. there is definitely still something to say for the craftsmanship and love for your work and love for the actual materials that go into a "hand made" piece. power tool lovers please dont fret, i still am astonished, impressed, and have an incredible amount of respect for your years of dedication, hard work and shear skill..look at it as a good thing that we have these differences in the way we do things…otherwise we might as well stand on an assembly line and slap a mass producer label on our work…
    thank you all for your posts

  3. Shannon Brown

    I’ve tried to give this time so I could properly write my views down, add something of note, not sound like a jerk in the process. I’ll be surprised if I do any of the above, but here goes.

    One of the benefits of having multiple interests is the ability to compare and contrast various trends and attitudes that take place within those interest. the hand tool v. power tool debate in woodworking reminds me of the free weight v machine weight debate from the late 70’s in the body building/ power lifting circles and the acoustic drum v electronic drum debate in drumming circles.

    Mostly the debates broke along generational lines (as most do). With the lifting debate many of the old guard saw the new machines as being for wimps, posers, and women (it was a tad sexist back then. Was too young to witness it first hand, but some of the books and articles wrote during that time defiantly raised my eyebrows.); while the younger guys saw free weights as dangerous and inefficient. With drums, the old guard said electronic drums were for people who couldn’t play while the younger guys saw acoustic drums as primitive and limiting.

    So what does this have to do with hand tool v power tools? Well, once again there is a generational divide. But here it get’s a little interesting. Most of the hand tool enthusiast, as I can tell, tend to be ageing baby boomers and young, neo hippies. In both cases there is a strong does of psychology going on here. With the baby boomers, these tend to be older men, many who came from working class backgrounds, and who went to college and got white collar jobs. These might be men (and they are mostly men) who either rejected all tools together or at least hand tools in specific. And by embracing hand tools, they are, by proxy, embracing fathers they might have spent the whole of their early adulthood trying to rebel against or escape from. For the neo hippies, they see hand tool work as a carbon neutral, environmentally friendly way of working.

    So, what am I saying? Well what was the question? “Why should someone work wood with hand tools when power tools are available?” Well the true answer, the real answer, the only answer is, there isn’t. Plain and simple. But there’s no reason not to. In fact if one think this has anything to do with woodworking (or drumming or weightlifting) is missing the point. The real question is, “What is the psychological and emotional benefit of using this product, engaging in this activity, and doing so in this way?” Wood doesn’t care if it’s ripped with a 100 year old Disston saw or a brand new Grizzly table. Those only matter to the person doing the ripping and only the individual can answer that. We can say why WE work wood that way, but that’s it.

    When I started working wood, I was a power tool only guy. Then after I couple years, I sold all my power tools and machines and went hand tool only. Five years and several thousand dollars later, I’ve just about replaced everything I sold off. What I found is I didn’t like using one approach over the other, I liked both equally. I like having both the ability and freedom to pursue both. But that’s me and only me.

  4. Steve Branam

    I’ve just completed building my Roubo. After running my stock through a benchtop planer, I did all the rest by hand. I documented the whole process on a blog, with a video at the end demonstrating the features of the bench. Click on my name to see it.

    Sure, it was a lot of work, taking over four months of a few hours here and there. But the satisfaction of knowing it was me doing all the work, and not my machines, is immense. I feel like I really accomplished something. It grew my skill set tremendously and gives me the confidence to do more ambitious projects. No more fears about awkward setups. Just do it.

    Why do it by hand? For the pure joy of it.

    Certainly that’s the hobbyist’s viewpoint, where I can afford to spend any amount of time, but that joy is the reason it’s a hobby.

  5. tms

    Hey Chris,

    My wife accompanied me to a wood working show one day, and while walking by the ShopBot booth, I commented that there seemed to be more of that type of woodworking presented than in the past. She replied,
    "That’s not woodworking, that’s wood machining."

    I gave her a big hug, and told her I love her.

  6. Ray

    RE: "…hmmm, I drive a Morgan…probably should be using hand tools exclusively…"

    I drive a 1931 Model A Ford truck almost exclusively, with a home-made bumper sticker on it that says "What would the Woodwright do?" I guess that plants me squarely in the handtools-only camp as well (though I do have an early-50’s Shopsmith hidden away in the back of my barn for use on those days when my joints are hurtin’…).

    Ray

  7. Bruce Jackson

    Curiously, I’m reminded of the Ballad of John Henry – gonna die with my Disston in my hand, Lord, Lord, gonna die with my Disston in my hand. Or gonna die with my chisel in my hand, Lord, Lord, gonna die with my chisel in my hand (if the context was cutting mortises).

  8. Chris C

    This philosophical thread has been pulled a number of times on
    these blogs. It’s always an interesting conversation. I think
    a lot of the choice has to do with why you are in the shop.

    If you are getting paid to make furniture you likely work for speed. I would guess, especially if you are making multiples, that
    means mostly power tool work. There are likely some operations
    that are faster with hand tools, and it probably would not take
    a pro long to figure out which ones. Thus, Glenn Huey’s opinion.

    But if you are in the shop for pleasure most woodworkers are likely to pontificate over the following:

    1. Loving the time spent in the shop, they try to strike a
    balance between doing the woodwork and actually turning out
    something useful.

    2. Being inherently curious and resourceful, they slowly take
    to hand tools which are harder to master but also more
    satisfying in a lot of ways. This is true of almost anything: the
    harder it is to do and learn, the more you are likely to appreciate it.

    3. Realizing that some operations are quite fast with hand tools,
    but others painful, they compromise with #1 above and blend
    both.

    For me, I almost never flatten or square any appreciable amount
    of stock by hand. It is a slow and tedious process, even for those that are good at it. On the other hand, if it is just one
    or two nice wide boards…

    Let’s face it, we can get all Marshall McLuhan here and suggest
    that the general use of machines to replace human labor dehumanizes and eventually atrophies the individuals original
    faculties. Who can argue this is not the case?

    Chris

  9. Sean

    The resulting piece is different when made by hand. The touch and focused attention of the maker comes through in a way that tends to give peices more soul – more expressiveness and individuality.

    Raffan has a book with a turned chess set in it. His caption notes that the hand turned set has a life that is unmistakable – where a machine turned set would be cold and dead and a less proficiently turned set (i.e., too much variation) would be amateurish and unpleasing. Handtool woodwork is like that to me – a way to produce things that have that life in them.

  10. Adrian

    A professional is going to be concerned about how much time something takes. Power tools are usually faster than hand tools at actually cutting the wood, which might give someone the impression that they are always faster at getting the job done.

    As noted above, this may not be the case when you take everything into account. I got an inkling about this when I did a task that took about 1 minute of cutting with the router. But I spent 45 minutes setting up to make that cut and probably another hour building a special router baseplate. That particular task could have been done with hand planes in probably 15 minutes. Fifteen times slower than the power tool…except for that darn setup time.

    So when you see the chips flying there can be an illusion that power tools are faster when they aren’t really because you forget about the time spent on setup, test cuts and so on. But if you’re a professional then the situation gets more complicated, because if you do production work where you make many of the same part, the time to build the jig and your setup may be insignificant. And even if you don’t do production work as such, if you build fairly generally useful jigs then you may be able to reuse them on the next project.

    Working as a hobbyist where you make just a few pieces you’re less likely to make the same (or a similar) one again. Certainly my outlook is not to make another one just like that but rather, now for something completely different. So I’d be less likely to be able to reuse jigs. (I have never used the special router baseplate again.)

    One of my other conclusions from the experience above is that I personally find making jigs and devising ways to guide and control power tools kind of boring. I didn’t enjoy the 45 minutes I spent setting up to make the cut. There’s something pleasing to me about being able to just mark the wood and then go straight to work. I like how direct that process is. (Of course, this is a hobbyist perspective.)

    I disagree that you need to use hand tools to be able to tell if the job is done right. I think it’s possible to evaluate the job without being able to cut it on either hand or power tools. Does it fit together? Are there gaps?

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