Hand-tool Woodworking's Hidden Benefits

Double entÃ?©ndres (if that’s the right term for it) continue in this series and on this blog. The post below is really about some of the often-overlooked benefits of hand-tool usage.

My tiny, simple, hand-tools only shop (oft viewed as a disadvantage by some for its size), has proven itself repeatedly to be flexible and accommodating. It’s easy to keep clean and can survive floods and relocations, and be picture-perfect for the next photo shoot.

When I began woodworking by hand (I’ve never really worked with machines), I had no idea how many different and rewarding opportunities would result. Whether spending a morning with children from Philadelphia’s inner city, chit-chatting with my neighbors, or struggling to communicate with folks from literally around the world, woodworking with hand tools has enriched my life in ways I can’t describe.

But if I can’t describe it, I sure can recommend it. Not a week goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from someone who has unplugged their shop and feels the better for it. I know it takes longer to rip your stock, and cutting mortises by hand is no picnic, but the benefits aren’t always clear from the outset.

– Adam Cherubini

10 thoughts on “Hand-tool Woodworking's Hidden Benefits

  1. Furniture store

    There is nothing more interesting that entering a furniture store filled with hand made furniture pieces. In my opinion, such pieces are most appreciated and worth all the money. Such stores are hard to find though…

  2. Pedro Lanhas

    Bom dia,

    I am writing from Porto in northern Portugal, where I have lived all my life, which means 42 years. I have been a reader of Popular Woodworking for 3 or 4 years and I always look forward for your article in the magazine.

    I am hesitating towards the buy of a combination jointer/planer for around 1000€, but after reading the comments above I am even more inclined towards spending that amount on very good hand planes than I was before. I would like to make some furniture and boxes with lots of attention to detail. I suppose machines don’t let me think so well while working…
    I don’t know if I’m supposed to ask things here, but would you rather reccomend wooden planes or good iron ones like Lie-Nielsen? I like iron ones because they seem easier to adjust: how do you overcome this in wooden planes? And finnaly, if you think I should make my wooden planes, can you reccomend a good book or two on the subject?

    Thank you so much.

    Pedro Lanhas

  3. andrew rutz

    I took a week-long hand-tools class a few months ago (after having used my power tools sporadically over 3 years). It was like I was "born again". I looked at Wood in a whole new way. As others have stated, I started to Think more about what I was doing… I actualy could Feel the wood…. as compared to feeling the *machine* feel the wood… i hardly wear a dust mask now… i am not "playing defense" the minute I get in the shop (eg, I’m not "rehearsing cuts on my table-saw") and wearing hearing and eye and face proctection… and… what occurred to me lastly of all: my mistakes are SMALLER ! Eg, I don’t think I’ve had a "handtool-caused mistake" in the last 3 months that i couldn’t correct by card-scraping or planing or sanding. When my router slipped on me a year ago, within one second it had gouged a 4-inch long gash in my quartersawn white oak. so…. power-tools might allegedly *cut* faster… but they also make BIG mistakes faster also…

    i actually go out *during the week* and do woodworking ! with powert tools, either the noise or setup time would keep me from working during the week; i could only work on weekends. my recent project allowed me to go out for 1-2 hrs on some nights and hand-cut a stopped-dado…. or hand-cut a blind-mortise/tenon joint. I took a few tools out to my bench.. i got my wood… i cut my wood… i turned out the light.. then i went back inside. it just blows me away. i look at my table-saw and jointer/bandsaw with guilt 🙂

    long live hand-tools !

  4. Ron Banks

    Adam,

    Just a quick note to say how much I appreciate your articles in PW and the "Arts and Mysteries" blog. I’m a part-time luthier who specializes in early stringed instruments, and have recently begun to backdate all of my building methods to hand-tool only methods. Your articles (along with the works of Christoper Schwartz, Roy Underhill, Mack Headley, and others) are important resources that are helping me embrace a quieter, more enjoyable, and sustainable way of working. As a luthier and musician, the added benefit of keeping what’s left of my hearing and a full set of fingers is an added plus. Thanks especially for your emphasis on two important elements of early woodworking — namely layout methods, and the character of early handwork.

    Becoming less reliant on the grid, and removing the care and feeding needs of my power tools has been an important change in my woodworking life. While most of my luthiery work has always been done by hand, I now am more apt to pick up a brace or handsaw than make a trip to the Drill Press, Bandsaw or Tablesaw, and I’ve found it a very freeing experience. I’m also as accurate with the hand tools as I am with their powered equivalents now, so I spend much of my woodworking time wondering what would better fit in the power tool’s spaces.

    Please keep up the good work — many modern woodworkers need to know that good things can come from small spaces and simple tools.

  5. Karl Rookey

    Adam, I continue to enjoy your column and your blog. Thanks.

    You are so right about the hidden benefits to using hand tools. I enjoy the chance to hear bird song or my playing children while working with wood (neither of which can overpower a table saw, router, or jig saw, and as my wife points out: sawing off an entire appendage by hand is just too much work (though huge gashes and gouges are still within reach).

  6. Jerry Palmer

    The tailed apprentices will always, I think, remain a part of my woodwork, but they do get less and less use (as well as attention) as time goes by. The work done on the machines is to get to the handwork that is much more enjoyable to me.

  7. John W. Barrett

    I’ve very much enjoyed reading your articles. I still use a lot of power in my shop because i need to overcome some physical limitations (i.e., a handicap). but I’ve found a great deal of pleasure not only in using hand tools, but in building and tuning/maintaining them. It gives me a greater appreciation for the artistry involved in designing and building even the simplest of projects. Please keep up the good work.

  8. Marc

    Adam,

    I sold all the machines for more than three years now. I jointed three finger tips on the planer. I for them bought lots of planes I heard were good tools. I had to "conquer" each plane and what a world to discover. Unplugging my shop was the best thing I ever did concerning my woodworking.

    During the last summer I allowed one tailed monster to come back – a thicknesser. I will add a bandsaw and a lathe later on. But this only to use more of my enjoyable hand tools. I will reach a balance between the tools – tailed or cordless -in order to have an acceptable speed of work and a good workflow.

    Adam, please keep up with your writing, it is always enjoyable to look what goes beyond pure woodworking – mysteries then.

    I wish you no floods anymore,

    Marc

  9. Elo

    Unplugging the shop was the greatest thing I could ever do (regarding woodwork). I can’t even begin to resume all the benefits. It prompted me to think more about what I was doing and why. I had to read more and became increasingly interested in the old ways, an interest that spilled out into historical interest. It has enhanced my love of the craft. I believe the greatest moment I had was when I understood how my views about the old ways were biased by modern standards.

    The more I read and practiced, the more I found that it was my modern understanding of working that were often arbitrary and often made no sense at all. Thinking 18th century, things started to make sense and became much more enjoyable. I even found myself practicing techniques for hours just to develop more skills… I never did that with the machines. Funnily enough, my wife was never interested in my tools nor my shop. As soon as the machines started to disappear, the shop started to look cleaner and friendlier. She started to come in and ask me about what I was doing. It became fun and interesting even to her!

    Long live the Renaissance men and women! I can’t thank Adam enough for sharing. I can’t wait to be back in Canada , crack more books open and work in the shop. I built a version of the Seaton Chest with hand tools and techniques before I left and deposited all my planes and saws into it. The greatest fun I ever had in the shop! It is now bravely standing guard and waiting for my return!

  10. David Herzig

    I started down that road about a year ago. Six months ago sold everything but the table saw and the band saw. I am actually finding it faster to do it all by hand. Since I only do one of a kind, it is faster to mark it, cut it and trim by a plane. I did an apprenticeship with someone who trained as an engineer. We spent so much time tweeking the saws and routers at each step in a project before actually getting down to the wood. Plus now I can listen to my operas and not breathe the dust when working.

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