In Shop Blog, Techniques

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This weekend I put the finishing touches on two Stickley tabourets; and while the little tables turned out to my satisfaction, the construction process proved quite vexing considering there are only nine pieces of wood in each.

The theme of Issue 9 is sawing , understanding sawtooth technology and how to use that knowledge in your work with both hand and power tools. So when I started building these tables I resolved to build one table with the joints sawn by hand and the other with the joints cut by machine.

And that turned out to be harder than I expected.

Though I am comfortable doing all of the necessary operations by both hand and machine, I kept running into situations where sticking to the hand tools or sticking to the power tools was a dumb choice.

For example: The cross stretchers beneath the tabletops are joined to the legs with a single lap dovetail joint. This is an easy joint to cut by hand: Saw the tail, saw out the socket, then remove the waste with a chisel and a router plane.

But when it came to doing this operation by machine it just ticked me off. I cut the shoulders of the dovetail with a dado stack in my table saw at the same time I cut the tenons. That was fairly efficient. Then I cut the dovetail shape on the band saw. Still OK. Then it came time to waste away the dovetail socket in the top of the 1-1/2″-square leg. I picked up the shop’s trim router and contemplated the platform jig I was going to have to build to do this with the router. I shook my head, put the router down and got my dovetail saw. I was done in 10 minutes.

Similarly, when it came time to mortise the legs I used my hollow-chisel mortiser for the power-tool version of the table. My mortiser is always set up with a 1/4″ chisel that’s perfectly parallel to the machine’s fence. So when it came time to mortise the legs by hand I faced the same struggle. My mortiser was all set up and I could be done in five minutes. Or I could mortise the legs by hand, which would take a little longer and had the risk of me splitting the leg or wandering left or right. So I used the machine.

These little struggles reminded me of how I don’t understand how some people can work exclusively with hand tools or with machines. I know it can be done and done quite well, but just not by me.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 12 comments
  • AAAndrew

    I’m currently in a situation where I have no place for power tools beyond a circular saw and cordless drill. What I do have available is a spare bedroom, so my work is all hand tools. That said, I also tend to not work from rough lumber. I usually get at least s2s, and now that I’m building a Ruobo bench, I got s4s material because I want to spend my very limited time creating the piece and not dimensioning it from rough.

    So, I do use a hybrid shop, I just outsource much of my dimensioning to the lumber store. This is more expensive, and limits what I can do, but it allows me to focus more on developing my hand tool skills. Because in the end, I’d like to have the skills to do these things, so that I do have the choice when it comes to it. In order to get to the point where you CAN make a choice, you have to do the work in the first place, a lot. So, as I learn, I use my hand tools, learn about them and about how I work best with them for what they do best. And I get to keep all of my fingers and what’s left of my hearing. 🙂


  • Tom Myers

    Robert Bringhurst, in his magnificent book titled The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.1), published by Hartley & Marks, ISBN 0-88179-206-3 (paperback), on page 189 refers to David Pye’s discussion of the threshold of visibility in Pye’s book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship.

    Bringhurst then provides his own interpretation of the hand-machine consequences we have been discussing here:

    "…Another kind of random variation involves the interaction of the craftsman’s skill and the texture of materials. The letterforms of Griffo and Colines were cut with immense care. But the letters they cut were struck by hand in brass, then cast and dressed and set by hand, inked by hand with handmade ink and printed by hand in a handmade wooden press on handmade paper. Every step along the way introduced small variations planned by no one. In the world of the finely honed machine, those human-scale textures are erased. A sterile sameness supervenes."

    Still, it is a tough call, the precision of a machine or the uniqueness of the handwork.

    In addition to discussing typography from its earliest history, all the way through to prowling current type specimen books, Bringhurst includes a unique study of organic, mechanical, and musical proportion as a foundation for determining the proportions of pages and the text blocks on those pages.

    That proportion study should also be valuable in all your creative work.

    If you need to add a valuable but not expensive book to your wish list, Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is my recommendation.

    And you really should not cut incised letters into your fine wood without looking at it first.

    Best regards,

    Tom Myers

  • Gary Roberts


    What stands out is your internal fight between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. Both Stickley and the Stickley Bros used both hand work and machines to make their stuff. Even the glorious Shakers did the same. As so many have noted, it’s all in the planning of how to accomplish the task, not the number of blisters or fossil fuel used to get there.


  • andrew rutz

    I’m a convert to cutting mortises w/ a chisel and mallet. I bought the dedicated mortising chisel, but, again, the *setup* is extremely important, and is not emotionally satisfying: eg, I don’t feel like i’m "working w/ wood" when setting up a machine. Also, once it’s setup, and I’d batch-cut a bunch of stuff, *I* then felt like a Machine… or at least a cog in a machine in an assembly line. I can cut mortises by hand in a similar-enough amount of time that is more than offset by the pleasure I have while doing it.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    David Pye’s maxims are always echoing in my ears when I do stuff like this. I thinkPye is 100 percent correct. However, it’s also important to remember that there is furniture that lends itself to handwork and furniture that lends itself to machine work.

    Perhaps this is obvious. But it wasn’t always to me.

    For example, building an 18th century Creole-style table last year, I was shocked at how simple every operation was when I chose the hand-tool route. Conversely, when I built a reproduction of an Eames coffee table, hand tools were always the wrong choice.

    Arts & Crafts is an odd duck. It straddles the line between mass-production and hand-made. It’s the style where I struggle the most with my tool set.


  • Tom Myers

    In reading the posting and comments, I thought of David Pye’s two books, The Nature and Art of Workmanship and The Nature and Aesthetics of Design, especially the first one that discusses the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty and how those two approaches influence our results and our perception of quality and uniqueness. I have found that the two books add interesting perspectives and insights to our work.

    For example, using the router and compass to true up your previously handcut table top gave the look of workmanship of certainty (the perfect circle), but did you eliminate some of the unique expressiveness of the handwork that could have become an important part of the table’s character (not the same as sloppy, of course)?


  • Mike Siemsen

    An honest effort! I think it is important for people to know how few tools they REALLY need to get a job done. Too many times I have heard the old saw, "I just don’t have the tools to do it". What they lacked was the knowledge and skill to use the tools they had.
    My parents started their married life with a wood stove. My mother agitated for an electric stove, later a gas model. My father said the food was the same on all three. I must assume the cooking was more pleasant to perform, or at least easier on the newer models.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    In many cases with these projects, I started down the path and then turned back.

    Example: Cutting and shaping the round top. I used a bow saw on one and a Band saw on the other. Finished one with a router and compass. Then I worked the other with rasps, shaves and scrapers. Then the round looked like heck (perfectly round is hard with hand tools). So I grabbed the compass.

    Then, when preparing the edges of the tabletop I used scrapers on one and an edge sander on the other. The edge sander is fairly coarse in our shop, so I resorted to scrapers to get it looking good.

    So it was a back-and-forth. And so it took longer than it should.

    To answer your question about stock prep, I started with S4S prepped stock. So there wasn’t much fore planing.

    And Louis, if I were doing one table and chopping four mortises, I would have used the mortise chisel and done it by hand. I generally use the "central-V" method of mortising, so it doesn’t require boring out waste.

    Good questions. The answers kinda stink, I know.


  • Louis Bois

    …as regards the mortise operation…would you still have chosen the power option if it hadn’t already been set up and ready to go?!?

  • Samson

    I would think chopping mortises would have been the least of it, especially if you used a brace and bit to hog out most of the waste and establish the depth. It seems like stock prep of rough lumber; cutting and shaping the round top with a hand saw and spokeshave instead of the bandsaw outfitted with a circle jig; and ripping all the legs and stretchers to width and planing those edges, as opposed to using a table saw and jointer, would have been much more time consuming. But wasn’t that part of the point of the exercise? — to find out the places where one way was cumbersome and the other efficient? More importantly, wasn’t the idea to find out if the resulting tables were the same aesthetically — i.e., would the use of hand tools on things like cutting the curves or applying the chamfer to the bottom of the table top, etc. make for a significantly different "feel" to the machined version with its potentially more precise and regular aspects? In other words, does less efficiency in performing certain tasks have a payoff that makes the extra time or effort worth it?

    Tangentially, did you carry over the hand/power dichotomy to smoothing – e.g., random orbit/belt sanders on the machined version and planes on the hand?

    An interesting experiment, I look forward to the article.


  • The Village Carpenter

    We’re fortunate to have options in which tools to use (hand or power or both). I imagine our forefathers would have liked to have had the same options. My guess is, if given the opportunity, they, too, would have had blended shops.

  • dave brown

    After having a blended shop for a few years, it’s just second nature for me to grab whichever tool makes the most sense to use.

    I can’t imagine purposefully limiting my choices by having a power or hand tool only shop.

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