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.”
– Christopher Schwarz