Hand Tools vs Power Tools for Beginners | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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11150910_890299227699601_1969902140969695678_nDo you start a kid (or kid at heart) down the woodworking rabbit hole via hand tools, power tools or both? The more time I spend teaching woodworking, observing students learning and contemplating the woodworking teaching process, the more I’m leaning toward the idea that power-tools should be eliminated, or drastically reduced – particularly for young woodworkers.

I am not against power tools at all. In fact, I’ll only give up my band saw when you pry it from my cold dead hands. Dimensioning all the parts for my project without burning electrons? A waking nightmare. You don’t get a figure like mine as a regular wood turner if you’re stepping on a lever over and over. There are some power tools I’m not overly fond of – I’m talking to you router and table saw – but I depend on them when doing large production runs.

Last week I was in production mode as I raced to complete a display in the few days before my woodworking school’s open house. The build started as 2×12’s (a theme at the school) and ended up as simple modular frame that can be locked together via shelving, yet it’s easily adjusted for different-sized artwork. It involved a lot of repetitive, production-style woodworking – the type of work where you set up the jig, turn on the tool, and don’t turn it off or change settings for hours at a time. Work machinery is designed for. Solid design, meet boring production.

While working, I was thinking on how I could turn this into a lesson. When I was in the public school sector, it was this type of worker the local shops were saying they wanted from school programs. Conceptually, I could see making a one- or two-class series covering safety and basic uses, but after that… I couldn’t see a whole course on how to stand in front of a band saw and cut tenons. Power tools really are assembly line machinery.

Then something occurred to me. What kind of employer wants a turnkey entry-level employee in a cabinet shop? I couldn’t see anyone having a teen sign a 1099, handing them plans, pointing to the tools and saying ‘get busy’. Realistically, there’d be a training period. Shoot… even McD’s makes their employees go though a week of training. So even if kids came out of a K-12 program fluent in power tools, they’d still be going though retraining, which would likely go into much more detail due to the machines specific to the shop.

Then I began imagining what a K-12 woodshop teacher’s class must be like due to facility and budget limitations. I was a technology teacher during my K-12 career and didn’t take shop classes myself in school. But one of my better acquaintances at the campus was the 30+ years shop teacher. The school had the best of the Delta/Rockwell industrial equipment line available. Granted, most was three decades old, but in fantastic working condition and in a facility with all the best dust collection, power, sprinklers, noise cancelling and lighting that could be acquired at its launch. This gentleman typically divided the classes up into teams with chores at the beginning and end of class. Even with a double block (a class that spans two class periods but meets half as often), this would mean they really only had an hour of realistic work time in each class.

So with those limitations, I could only imagine what kind of projects the kids got to participate in. Generally something small and fast, but done as a group. So each team would rotate between the machines accomplishing a step (module), then moving on. Each student theoretically would participate, but realistically, one or two would get most of the hands-on experience.

Eighteen weeks is a semester; you spend the majority of them learning about machinery, safety, design and production cycles, then make one or two group projects. Upon graduation they’d have the impression that until they acquired like machinery, they’d not be able to accomplish similar work.

At that, something clicked in my mind that has just about pushed me over the edge in this power/hand tool in education debate.

You see, before I even taught my first web mastering, digital media, business computing or comp science class, I knew all the technology lessons I taught would be worthless to these ninth graders by the time they graduated college. Where was technology eight years ago? We were just getting into HTML 4.0 and were still JavaScript dependent for interactivity. YouTube, Mobile, Facebook, wireless, biometrics, Twitter and such weren’t around. Most of us online still used dial-up (some had upgraded to 56k!). The programs we used in webmastering no longer exist or have morphed so much to become unrecognizable!

So if I’d focused the course on that specific technology it would be disposable ed. Fun for a while, but filling the figurative landfill shortly. Teaching kids to use specific woodworking machines to accomplish a specific project all of a sudden felt exactly like me teaching a WYSIWYG program (What You See Is What You Get) to create web sites. Once that specific point and click program to make a web page program went off market, the kids would be lost.

This influenced my oddball teaching style in the classroom as I tried to use the class to teach critical thinking and analysis, and to reinforce academia (something I do today in the woodworking school). We stuck with notepad (the programming equivalent of hand tools). We did stuff like dissect eye balls to show the reasoning behind web page design, deconstruct the Blue Man Group’s act to improve animation flow, and prove math is sexy (the marketing of Diet Coke was proof).

I wanted my students to understand what and how technology was working so that no matter what program you put in front of them or how rules changed, they could figure it out. I wanted them to know that they could force the stupid computer to bend to their will and get the work done the way they wanted. They got its root motivation. WYSIWYG be damned.

Maybe they’d also take that “there’s always a way” mentality into other realms of their life too.

Which brought me back to woodworking. No matter how I analyzed the situation, teaching machinery-based woodworking to the kids seemed to lock them into the machines’ limitations. Hand tools could allow the kids to more easily understand what is happening in the interaction with the cutting edge and wood – the students would as a result better raw material for employers to mold into their businesses best interest.

Then I stepped back again and imagined myself as the student. Hand tools in a classroom environment lend themselves to smaller projects. More individualized projects. Yes, all the students might be building a box. But every student could be building his or her own, modified from a general design, to serve a personal need – something truly theirs. And we all know building small is generally quicker and many times more technical than building big. Tolerances on a 1/4″ mortise and tenon in a box are less forgiving than a 4″ timber framing joint. Knowledge can easily scale up but it’s generally harder to scale down.

Plus I imagine it’d be more efficient in an educational environment. Get 12 kids in a classroom all needing to rip a 3’ board in half. In a machine shop that’ would be a line at the table saw with unplugging, making blade adjustments, setting the fence, plugging back in and making the cut (if having each kid experience the work was a priority). But with rip saws, every kid could work simultaneously and at his or her own pace. This just seems like it would progress the class as a whole more quickly.

Now there is lots of dogma out there about hand tools vs power tools and safety from both sides. I’m not going to bore you with that. But I do want to touch one last topic: the financial costs.

Call me cheap, call me frugal, call me an idiot – but during my time in the public school sector I saw a lot of financial waste. Money tossed away that didn’t really influence the bottom line of education. I worked in a computer lab. One that generally got updated every three to four years. Thirty students meant 30 computers plus requisite software, printers, scanners, cameras, accessories and such.

One of the reasons schools say they’re eliminating shop classes is cost. For the price of a shop they could outfit three to four computer labs. So the cost/benefit in their minds lean toward the computer lab. (Off topic, but to me this is a short-term benefit because replacement costs of even a single computer lab is much higher than maintenance cost of a shop lab.)

Now let’s take that same mentality school boards are using to get rid of shops and flip it. With the capital investment a district puts into one computer lab, in how many schools could a hand-tool woodworking shop be created? And I’d bet that with the capital normally set aside for the building of one traditional industrial arts lab, every high school and middle school in the large district I worked could set up a hand tool shop. What’s more, it wouldn’t require constant upgrading and would need only inexpensive maintenance. You wouldn’t have to put it in a special room, therefore the classroom could be relocated or expanded with ease. For the most part, once the investment was made it could be used for decades.

Plus, the idea of being able to send kids home with a little kit of tools to do some homework or catch up on their own is appealing to me as a teacher.

There are some major flaws in this concept – for one, who’d teach this type of class? Finding qualified hand-tool centric instructors for every middle and high school would be problematic. Which is why I above that I was leaning hard in this direction … but haven’t jumped over the cliff yet.

What are your thoughts? What benefit would our current machinery centric K-12 woodworking education system have over what I described above? What would be other hang-ups that I haven’t discussed? Can you pull me back from the edge of this cliff, or should I jump?

— Shawn Graham


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Showing 23 comments
  • Potomacker

    Q: What is the nickname for a High School woodworking teacher?
    A: Coach

    My high school would have dropped woodshop to save a dime in a heartbeat but then how could they have kept the football program funded? I can’t say that I learned anything from the man. I didn’t play football so he had nothing to talk to me about. The escape time in the woodshop, though, did keep me sane for 4 years. I eventually discovered Underhill’s books and started relearning everything anyway.

  • SteveM

    Public schools can be rather dumb about money and programs that they didn’t think up on their own so you might be better off testing it at a private school or some sort of after school program. For example, my small private high school used donated computers that were obsolete before we even got our hands on them, but yet somehow I learned basic computer and programming literacy. If someone walked up and offered to help them start a test shop class for little or no cost to the school they’d be hungry to sit down and talk to you about it.

    However, an after hours or weekend class in your own workshop might be the easiest and least expensive way to start since you control everything and have only to convince people to bring their children to you for a few hours. I’m not of the opinion that a school is responsible for teaching my son everything he needs to know and would gladly pay for instruction that I am not able to provide myself.

  • oneeyelid

    Good article.
    You seem to be having the same problems as there are in the UK.
    School workshops were hand tool based when I started teaching in 1969 and Health and Safety laws mean that children are not allowed to use commercial machinery so apart from Computer Aided Manufacturing children still use hand tools in school today.
    The kids love CAM at first but soon return to the bench and the tools to get the personal satisfaction of something that they have done themselves.
    The reality is that school teachers are there to teach kids stuff so that they can learn how to learn. Doesn’t matter what but if they enjoy it they will remember and then be able to learn what they need to progress in life but the development of psychomotor skills gives you a capability for the rest of your life
    Here is a link that makes a bold statement of what is needed to develop craft education.

  • 1chipmaker

    Good article Shawn. I received my Industrial Arts teaching degree from UW-Stout back in 1980 when we were taught the basics so I am “old school” on some of my thoughts. Having been out of teaching for many years I reentered the Industrial Arts/Tech Ed teaching field and was surprised by the lack of basic tool knowledge, hand or power tool. My goal was or is to educate the students in the basic tool use and construction techniques so they are able to build on that knowledge to think creatively to design a project and then construct it. From my experience a student that knows the basics of mechanical drafting and basic woodworking skills is better at using CAD to design a product than the student that just has CAD experience. Knowing how to draw by hand helps the student better understand what he is having the computer draw and why the CAD program does it the way it does. I think this same concept holds true for woodworking.

  • Kilroy

    I COMPLETELY agree.

    We’re (Kilroy’s Workshop is not affiliated with any public school) teaching kids all hand tools for the reasons you mentioned, plus insurance. Insurance providers are deathly afraid of power tools and kids. Insurance and cost aside though, we’d still be working on hand tool training. I always tell them that there isn’t anything you can do with a power tool that you can’t do with a hand tool – except move fast. Nothing that they are working on right now is a race. On the flip side, there are lots of things that can only reasonably done by hand. The kids understand the wood better, the point of looking at grain, and design possibilities without being constrained by machine limits…and they fall in love with the craft of it rather than just the production of it.

    We have power tools for other production work we’re doing, but the kids learn … hand tools. We do point out how the power tools can be used to speed things along and what hand tools translate into which power tools, and for kids who have those tools at home, they’ve appreciated it.

    Btw – we added blacksmithing basics and they absolutely love it.

  • navajosh

    First let me say Shawn, that your articles have been of the quality I’m used to reading in development and academic texts. It’s been really welcome to stumble into depth on a “shop blog”. I had to stop my work and respond to this it was so good.

    What’s most striking is the goal. It’s woodworking, but woodworking as a vehicle for character development, and ethics. That’s the kind of education I wish I had growing up and the kind of education I hope is available for my kids.

    If the goal is to develop people in the holistic sense, then hand tools would be the route easiest to obtain financially. As you said, lesson’s taught in the contexts of current technology change fast and only really gain traction within the contexts where they will actually play out (which is why language is difficult to learn without immersion). So regardless of the speed at which the kids work, it’s the training of their minds and hearts that is most important. The challenge there is finding competent teachers. Not just ones with the skills to use the tools, but also the insight, motivation and communication skills necessary to highlight the lessons emerging in the process. That’s kind of rare to begin with.

    If the hope is that by providing projects within a classroom setting, students would absorb life skills through exposure, then a full power-tool shop might do that as long its actually happening, and, someone is actively maintaining the vision. The main issues there is by having projects meet the requirements of curriculum, the students could potentially make stools, bats, tables, etc., and walk away without the intended lessons. Which is easy to do if the amount of students grows too large, or the teacher’s enthusiasm wanes. Or worse, if the microscope of school budgets focus on that classroom and find that the lessons intending to be taught could be done more efficiently through another more relevant mode (sports for instance?).

    The program that you are suggesting would need to exist within an educational environment where students are taught first, and curricula second. I’m by no means saying that something couldn’t be developed for the public school sector, but the quality and depth of it might be sucked out after awhile. It would really depend on the teacher, and that teacher being supported to ply their craft in whatever concrete form it would take.

    It might really depend, to mix metaphors, on the garden in which it grows.

    I had a longer response to this, but I’m already getting much deeper than I intended. Seriously great stuff Shawn, keep it coming.

  • jim childress

    Jim McCoy and pmac must have mind reading abilities, for I am in complete agreement. I only wish I had had the opportunity to experience the shop classes they talked about. I went to the now closed Waco High School in Texas from 1949 through 1951; our shop class was in a confined basement with only power tools; and the teacher found me as a willing student to finish three projects others had not finished milling, joinery, glue up, or other chores. It was fun, but it was not until 2001 that I built my own shop after retirement from a technical career as an engineer an father of four children. Since then I re-educated my skills to more hand tools from power, but I subscribe to Chris Schwarz’s approach of both power and hand tools. I have never taught anyone to develop woodworking skills. My projects include many book cases with blind dadoes for shelving, a five foot diameter round mahogany table with six chairs, small end tables, 10 drawer chest, 4 drawer chest with shelves for linens and towels, and several portable book racks and magazine stands for my tutoring wife. At 81 I have to slow down a bit.

    Shawn keep up the good work!

  • Peter_McLaughlin

    There is a pedagogy and a school “system” that often has a woodworking hand tool class for it’s students. That would be the Waldorf Schools, also known as Steiner Schools, after their founder Rudolf Steiner. “System” is in quotes because they are a loose confederacy, without a central authority that dictates exactly what or exactly how they teach. On the other hand, I believe they have convocations/associations where they share experiences and ideas. They are world wide in scope, but may be difficult to find, especially in the high school versions, which are mostly found in large urban situations. I speak as a former Waldorf School parent. Although my son didn’t go beyond 8th grade with them, (he transferred to an arts academy), we in large part have positive memories of the whole experience. “Hand work” is part of their core pedagogy from the first grade on.
    One of your co-PWM bloggers, Yoav Liberman, teaches woodworking at the Manhattan Steiner School. Maybe you guys could talk?
    Best wishes, Peter

  • hmerkle

    Thank you Shawn…
    For always making us think.

    The question in my mind is not the how or what but who and when. We know we learn better when we engage more of our senses. The shop can simply be a place to do that. Math, english, geography, a sensitivity to eco-friendliness. It is all there. (Or can be if we choose) we have chosen or rather someone has chosen for us that we do not need or want “shop class.”

    I learned to make a slanted bookshelf from one board. cut the three pieces to length, saw the dado, chisel thw waste, router plane (hags tooth) the bottom of the groove and glue and screw it together… when someone else’s was left behind I took the base. Cut it to length put two dado’s on the bottom, made two legs and 35+ years later I still us that stepstool in my shop!
    I had GREAT shop teachers. I am 50 and still remember Terrance O’Neil and
    Mike Deutcher (sp) who threatened me with bodily injury if I (only) went to school to be a shop teacher. (You see, I wanted to do what they did) and they knew how the movie was going to turn out!
    Now back to the who and when. The question we must ask ourselves is what am I doing to get more people (young and old) interested and involved in this craft. I am part of a group that does outeach evens and have created projects that can be completed quickly and maintain the interest or young people. It is rewarding to see some of them still involved in the craft year after year!

    There is my challenge – do something! The Boy scouts have to make their wood badge. If ylthe scout master in your area is not a woodworker he would probably welcome the help and ideas for his troup!

  • jerryolson19

    I was fortunate to participate in a High School woodshop class during my freshman and sophomore years. The curriculum required time behind a drafting board and an initial “hand tool” project (a step stool). Without exception all of us students worked ceaselessly to free ourselves from the hand tools. For example surreptitiously using a disk sander to square up the ends of parts. I can’t fault the instructor, rather a 15 year old needs that immediate feedback.
    As to the idea that the class provided limited opportunity for producing projects, I must disagree. In two years during which “shop class” was broken into half wood shop and half metal shop I was able to produce no less than 7 projects. These ranged from a small jewelery box to an 8 drawer bureau. I admittedly spent many hours before and after school in the shop.
    Unfortunately in order to continue along a “college track” I had to forgoe shop class for Physics and Chemestry in my Junior and Senior years. However some 50 years later I continue to enjoy a wonderful hobby the seed of which was planted in that HS shop class.

  • DoctorJ

    Here’s a link to a 2004 article by Doug Stowe who set up a school program called Wisdom of the Hands based on the program called Slojd – http://dougstowe.com/educator_resources/w88sloyd.pdf

    Here’s a link to an 1892 book “The Teacher’s handbook of Slojd” – http://www.archive.org/stream/teachershandbookslojd00saloiala#page/n5/mode/2up

    I’m hoping to incorporate some of these ideas in teaching woodworking to my 6 year old grandson.

  • Jim McCoy

    I think a hand tool class could work as long as it were taught right. The kit of tools would need to include a few jigs as well, like a bench hook and a shooting board. The first nine weeks should be about learning fundamentals like sawing, chisels, planing, and sharpening. To start out it could be about learning to saw to a line and then fine tune that cut with a plane and a shooting board. Then learn the three classes of saw cuts and how to mark out with a knife. As they progress through these fundamentals and practice them you can start adding joinery to the mix, with dovetails and eventually mortise and tenons. As they practice these they use the previously learned skills to prep the wood and get it square. For a mid term perhaps make a simple box or tray to hold small items.

    The second 9 weeks could be projects, starting with small and easy and progressing to a larger, but still manageable with what they’ve learned, semester final project. The key is building on what they’ve learned with new challenges to keep them engaged while improving skills with constant practice. You would also need to instill in them the importance of keeping their tools in good order and sharp. Besides the obvious a good teacher would need to be skilled at helping the students stay motivated by not taking on a project they aren’t ready for but still keeping them challenged.

    As you say, finding good teachers that could fill these positions would be a real challenge in this day and age but if you could I bet there would be a lot of kids who, later in life, would look back on an experience like that and feel it had a huge impact on their life, wether they chose a career in the craft or just continued on as a hobby. I wish I’d have had access to a class like that when I was that age.

  • pmac

    Putting on my teaching hat, basic woodworking can be broken down into
    1) Taking rough lumber and making it square.
    2) Shaping it and cutting to size. (Including joints.)
    (I’m purposely leaving out finishing)
    So for number 1, Machines win. I can’t imagine making students square up their own lumber with hand tools. Work around: Purchase S4S or Shop teacher preps lumber prior to class. Down side of these, kids don’t learn to square up rough stock.
    2) Shaping and cutting with hand tools. These are beginners, think about cutting dados or grooves by hand and corresponding pieces, Mortise and tenons, tails and pins, finger joints, rabbets, etc. The fit may or may not be good. This may encourage or discourage. Machines allow a precision that can be met by anyone that can use a ruler to layout the joint or set up the machine.

    One other thought is to create a four year program around both hand and power. Get them hooked and teach them the basics on the machines and then as they progress, move into handtools so that by year four they are proficient in both and can get by very well with just a handtool set. But that defeats the keep it inexpensive idea.

    Also, I could see the “handtool only” idea working with adults, but the kids want instant feedback.

    My two cents (and I know it doesn’t help at all).


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