Woodworking comes in all shapes, sizes and varieties. But no matter what your woodworking passion might be, eventually you’re going to need to join together two pieces of wood. And that opens up a world of joinery options.
Some prefer the classics like dovetails, lap joints, or mortise and tenon. Pocket-hole joinery is a hot option right now, and of course there’s the old tried-and-true biscuit or domino joinery to consider.
Whatever method you choose, the question is—do you make your joinery by hand or by machine? Here’s what our experts had to say…
THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
Much can be said about the satisfaction of creating something by hand. Hand Tool Coach Rob Cosman says the biggest difference between creating joinery using hand tools and using a machine to help is ownership. “To stand back at the end of the day and look at something you have made is priceless,” he said.
His Purple Heart Project classes introduce traditional hand tool woodworking to combat wounded veterans, and he loves seeing them light up with a sense of accomplishment after completing their firsthand-cut dovetails. This “woodworking therapy,” as he calls it, is perfect for those who suffer from PTSD and a variety of negative physical and mental effects from their time in service. “There's no dust, no danger, no noise,” Rob said. And it can be done in a small space.
“For many, the dovetail is a rite of passage especially when talking about handcut,” states Woodcraft Director of Product Development Darin Lawrence. Echoing what Rob sees with the vets in his class, Darin added, “I find handcut to be therapeutic.”
Tamar Hannah of 3x3 Custom appears in Woodcraft Magazine, Issue 100 in a profile article, “Mother of Invention.”
Tamar Hannah of 3x3 Custom said for her, it all comes down to how much time she has. “If I had all the time in the world to complete my projects (i.e. no deadlines), sitting down with some hand tools would be very relaxing to me.”
But even when she adds in power tools to help her build projects more quickly, she finds that hand tools are great for refinement. “Sometimes the table saw leaves burn marks, so a few quick passes with a hand plane cleans that right up! Cutting tenons on a bandsaw is quicker than a handsaw, but the cuts still need to be cleaned up with a chisel.”
Still, she added, “I do occasionally like to test my skills and learn new joinery techniques with hand tools only, but those practice joints are just for fun and educational purposes.”
Woodcraft Product Manager Kyle Meyer adds that creating hand-cut joinery makes the completed piece more personal for the craftsman, as well as the recipient if it’s a gift.
Depending upon the woodworker’s skill level, a trained eye will notice the quality of the joint and have appreciation for it. This could also be a disadvantage if not executed properly.
Another possible downside is that hand-cut joinery can take longer to produce than with machines.
Joinery Class: Half-Blind Dovetails – Woodcraft Magazine Issue 70
THE NEED FOR SPEED
One of the biggest advantages to machine joinery is the ease in achieving uniformity and repeatability from joint to joint.
Kyle stated that production runs are faster to produce once the machines are set up, which is a great benefit if you are making several pieces of furniture (i.e. dining room chairs or cabinets).
However, woodworking machines traditionally come at a higher cost than hand tools. There is also the issue of space required for using and storing this equipment. In addition, there can be a considerable time investment in setting up the machinery.
A seasoned woodworker will be able to tell if something is machine made, making that a “con” to woodworking purists who may find that as a shortcut to traditional methods.
Often operating under time restraints, Tamar explained, “When it comes to my actual builds, I happily take advantage of modern machinery. I’m so thankful for the power tools that help me build my projects quickly and efficiently.”
Darin notes that while some dovetail jigs are adjustable, most will confine you to a set spacing. Hand-cut dovetails do not have these same limitations.
Darin said that machine-cut joints give him satisfaction when they pop together, though they don’t provide the therapeutic benefit of hand-cut joinery, and there is the noise, the dust and the mess.
Operating the Leigh TD330 Through Dovetail Jig
Both machine and hand-cut joints are incredibly strong. But is one better than the other?
Rob advises if you’re not building furniture for a living, take the time to create with your hands for the ultimate sense of satisfaction. “You’re not a machine operator, you’re a woodworker.”
Darin often makes the call depending on the project: “If I have a few joints to do on a special project, I will generally cut by hand. If there are several, machine cut is the way to go.”
One way Kyle uses the benefits of both hand-cut methods and machine-made processes is what he calls hybrid woodworking. “I use machines to speed things up, but when I want real precision, I use hand tools,” he said.
Tamar echoes the hybrid approach. “My power tools do the heavy lifting, and the hand tools come in to refine it all.”
Now that’s the best of both worlds!