Why Use Hand Tools?

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Why Use Hand Tools?

With chisel and mallet at the ready, I paused, knowing that soon there would be no turning back. In that moment, I also became aware that the painter working on the landing nearby was watching with puzzled curiosity. His curiosity turned to shock as I struck the chisel with the first mallet blow.

The previous afternoon, while sanding the continuous three-story custom handrail, I had discovered a small but deep area of blowout. In many situations, it might not have warranted such a radical repair, but this would be quite visible and was part of an elliptical stairway that was one of the focal points of this high-end house. Additionally, I knew the site manager to be extremely detail oriented, and unlikely to tolerate a "paint and putty" approach in such a critical place. 

Though I knew there was some risk of making matters worse, I had reluctantly decided that the best solution was a patch, executed in a neat and workmanlike manner. The goal was to match the color and figure well enough that, at worst, it would blend into the surrounding material. At best, it would be “invisible.” Accordingly, I had selected the most likely candidate from three or four blanks I’d prepared in the shop, and I proceeded to chop out the mortise to accept the patch. 

The work was fairly straightforward. My blank had been prepared to match the width of the chisel I was using. And with the use of a sharp, finely set block plane (and a couple of jigs to guide my tools), I obtained a tight fit of the "ever-so-slightly" wedge-shaped patch in the mortise. I then continued to do some additional cleanup work in the area while the glue dried, then carved the patch down to match the surrounding profile, and finished sanding the area. I was pleased to discover that I’d been extraordinarily lucky in finding a scrap that matched the figure, color and chatoyancy (the gleam) of the surrounding material almost perfectly. The patch all but “disappeared." 

Why Use Hand Tools?

An Act of Madness 

At that point, I went back out to the van for additional tools and supplies. When I returned, I was taken aback to find the painter kneeling on the stairs and peering intently at the handrail. Startled, he looked up somewhat sheepishly and said, with a bit of wonderment in his voice: “Where is it? I can’t find it.” Now this painter worked around accomplished finish carpenters every day. So he was accustomed to seeing high quality wood work being carried out. Yet he was shocked and astonished by this simple, straightforward bit of work. Why?

I believe the primary reason was that the work he typically observed was carried out almost exclusively with power tools and machinery. And, based on that experience, he shared an assumption that is common on construction sites (and in woodworking circles), that critical and quality work cannot be effectively accomplished using hand tools. For him to see someone deliberately drive a chisel into a completely installed and all but completed, curved, custom handrail, must have seemed an act of madness. 

Hostility and Camaraderie 

In a way, I was not surprised by his reaction. Typically, when I show up on a job site with my carving tools, a roll of chisels, a plane or two and possibly a small back saw, I can tell that my presence creates a stir. There are a variety of reactions. Sometimes it’s mild hostility (“Hey, don’t you know they’ve invented routers?”), most often from those in other woodworking trades. Sometimes it’s simple curiosity. And, sometimes it’s instant camaraderie with other trades people whom I’ve never met before. These latter, I’ve observed, are often accomplished in an unusual trade, and may also feel anomalous on many job sites. 

My purpose in relating this anecdote is to illustrate there is a widely shared perception that exclusive use of power tools and machinery is the only “sensible” route to take in woodworking. To offset this, advocates of using at least some traditional hand tools often argue that hand tools are safer, quieter, less polluting and less expensive. Additionally, there is often the (sometimes implied) message that it’s easier than it looks. 

While there is a good deal of validity to these arguments, I think they fail to address the fact that many power tool woodworkers (vocational or avocational) do not consider hand tools to be safe, easy or effective. 

Why Use Hand Tools?

They may have, in fact, attempted to use hand tools at one point or another, only to be utterly frustrated. Or, worse yet, they’ve spoilt the work. 

This could be for any number of reasons, including an inadequately sharpened or tuned tool, an inappropriate tool for the job, and/or lack of experience, skill and knowledge needed for success. Whatever the reason, for these woodworkers, the “safe” course of action seems that of continuing along the path they’re already on. 

Risky but Rewarding 

Truth is, there is risk involved in deciding to use hand tools. Risk, if nothing else, in the form of a real, and sometimes steep, learning curve. There will be failures and frustrations. It takes time and effort to learn about the tools, how to sharpen them, when, where and how to use them, along with the equipment and appliances needed to use them effectively. Without the appropriate sharp chisel and the necessary skill, I would have been “mad” to use it on the handrail. 

Despite this, I believe there are a variety of valid reasons to consider the possibility of making some use of hand tools. For example, you may have some historic interest in what it was like to work in some bygone era. Or, you might simply desire to explore some design and construction details which don’t readily lend themselves to a machine only approach to woodworking. 

It is not the purpose of this column to convince every woodworker to use hand tools. Rather, it is to encourage those with such an interest to “live dangerously” and begin, or advance, along the lines of that interest. In a sense, the existence of this column is based on the presumption that many woodworkers have such an interest. Though, in today’s woodworking climate, they may not have acknowledged that interest, even to themselves. 

The good news is that the knowledge, skills and techniques are eminently learnable by anyone with average motor skills and abilities. And it is the primary purpose of this column to help that learning process by discussing the tools, trade techniques and applications in a manner which I hope will be informative and provocative.

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