Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why Use Hand Tools?

Last year, Chris Schwarz pondered this question in a blog post entitled Why Do This Crap By Hand?, and recently someone jokingly mentioned my "vow of hand tools". It's not that I mean to be militant about it.

There are plenty of vague, impractical reasons why to use hand tools: it keeps the tradition alive, it brings you closer to the wood, it's more satisfying, it's fun. Poetic perhaps, but not very convincing for some, who would just as soon skip the hand tools for power tools.

But there is one very practical reason: you don't have to use power tools. Part of my goal here is to escape limitations.

How are power tools a limitation? For those who can't afford them or don't have space for them, typically hobbyists rather than professionals, the assumption that you need them is a limitation. It limits your thinking about where you can work. It makes you believe that without them, you can't work.

We're overwhelmingly programmed by school shop class, TV shows, magazines, and marketing to assume that we can't live without power tools. Most messages about working with hand tools get drowned out.

I can remember when I was in middle and junior high school taking wood shop, wanting to make stuff at home. But we always lived in apartments or rented houses, with neither the space nor the money for the big tools I was learning to use. It was frustrating. When I was older, even though I was starting to earn some money, I still didn't have the space I thought I needed for that real woodworker's shop.

Yet, for most of that time, we had basement space, a few empty square feet, or a small spare room. I could have set up a modest hand tool workshop almost from the beginning. I could have gotten by with as little as 4' x 6' of floor space.

Granted, it's debatable whether I as a teenager would have been receptive to working with hand tools. Perhaps in the arrogance of youth I would have viewed them as useless relics. But certainly once I was in my twenties, I would have been willing.

Had I started as a kid, I would now have nearly 40 years of experience with them. That's a lot of missed opportunity. Don't let that happen to you. All it takes is a little space and a few hundred dollars, and you can get started now. Don't wait decades.

Let's take a look at what I could have done in that time:
  • Up to junior high, we lived in an apartment that didn't really have any spare space. But I did know a guy who rented a two-bedroom townhouse unit and used the extra room to build museum ship models.
  • For the rest of the time until I graduated from high school, we lived in several rented houses with small basements. These would have been perfect, plenty of room for a small bench, toolchest, and sawing space.
  • After college, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Since all the furniture I had was a bed, a folding chair, and a dinette with two chairs, I could have put a canvas drop cloth down and used part of the living room for a work area.
  • After I got married, we lived first in a studio apartment with a big space under the stairs, then in a two-bedroom apartment where I used the extra room as an office. Again, room for a bench and tool chest on a drop cloth.
  • Our first house was a ranch style. I bought a Shopsmith and tried to work in the garage. In Texas. Where in the summer time (all but two months of the year) a garage is just a giant solar oven. I didn't get much done. Meanwhile, it had a small extra bedroom with a linoleum floor. That would have been an ideal shop, comfortably air-conditioned.
  • When we moved to Massachusetts, we spent a few years in rented houses with basement space, then bought a 1910 house with a divided  basement. While the tiny designated workshop area was cramped even for the Shopsmith, it would have been just fine for a hand tool shop.
  • When we bought our current house, I staked claim on a quarter of the basement. But I still had to keep the noise down for the rest of the family. Then I "took my vow" and worked toward the shop you've seen here.
So even in the most constrained space, like an apartment, you can work on a small bench and store all your hand tools in one or two small tool chests. A dropcloth protects carpeting and catches the mess for easy cleanup. If the bench is collapsible, you can put it all aside easily. People have even turned tiny yard and garden sheds into fully-functional hand tool shops.

You can work without the noise and clouds of sawdust that power tools produce. The only thing that might disturb the neighbors is pounding on chisels with a mallet for dovetails and mortises, but there are techniques that don't require heavy pounding. Saw or drill out the bulk of the waste, then pare the rest.

You might have to work at a smaller scale, maybe small cabinets and boxes instead of full dressers and highboys. You might only be able to keep the lumber on hand for the current project, and have to break it down into manageable pieces outside. But you can still work at the highest level of craftsmanship.

Hand tools are also fully portable. You can work anywhere, indoors or out. Yes, there are portable power tools, but what do you when there's no power (and you're batteries have run out)? Hand tools work just the same under third-world conditions as under first-world conditions.

Most hand tool skills taken individually can be learned easily with a bit of practice. It just takes a little time and patience, which will be richly rewarded. It's true there are many skills to master, and the total can be intimidating, but it's really no different with power tools. Either way, you have to learn how to do a variety of operations at rough and fine levels. Some of them require quite complicated setups and jigs with power tools.

The place where power tools really shine is for repetition, which is much more the domain of professionals in production mode. When you have hundreds of board feet to process or need to make 50 pieces all the same, power tools are worthwhile. Time invested in building and setting up custom jigs is amortized over many pieces. That's where power tools truly are labor-saving devices, and it's perfectly sensible to use them if you have access to them.

But that's not the scale that hobbyists work at. They're usually making one thing at a time, or at most, a small set. Any repetition is limited to a small number. So the labor-saving argument is less compelling; combined with a lack of access to power tools, hand tools make a lot of sense.

The reason I've "taken my vow of hand tools" is that I want to learn to do all the different operations by hand, so that nothing will be out of bounds. I remember the frustration I felt as a kid. If I keep opting for the power tool methods, I'll never learn the hand tool methods.

So escape your limits. Free your mind, and your skills will follow.


  1. So right. Years lost and the wrong impression from school wood shop. A lot of schools have wood shops with broken down equipment and the insurance is costly. You could outfit a class with a lot of basic hand tools for the cost of a ten thousand dollar planer. Low chance of injury.
    Best of all the students can get some physical activity. A small project has a much better chance of being completed during class time.
    Keep up your vows

  2. I like your attitude, Steve.
    Although I am a member of the generation just before yours, I see that from reading your profile you and I have many things in common.
    I have power woodworking tools that I find myself using less and less. I have a basement workshop which with the noise and sawdust that come along with power tools have some undesirable side effects.
    As I have become older, the process has become more important than the product. I don't care much for deadlines any more. At the risk of sounding terribly Yoda -esque, being one-with-the-wood has become very fulfilling. Using hand tools has eliminated some levels of detachment with my projects that are inherent with power tool use.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Regards- Jim, Orem UT

  3. Steve,

    The idea behind this post is what got me started with hand tools. I wanted to make furniture and always dreamed of power tool shops. However, I am relatively young, 25, recently married, and live in an apartment. My wife and I are trying to save for a house so needless to say, money is tight. But my desire to get into the hobby couldn't be denied. So, I started looking into hand tools. I found Tom Fidgen's book, blogs like yours, and Chris Schwarz. I have been building up a nest of tools and have a workbench in our second bedroom (along with a queen bed, bookcase, and my desk). I still don't have any big saws so I break down lumber at a friends house with his portable table saw, but I do (with some success) all the planing and joinery in my small "workshop." I have been fortunate enough to get into this hobby during what seems to be a resurgence in hand tool usage. Thanks to you and the many others, I have been learning and applying these techniques and ideas to wood. I practice on scraps, have made a small end table and am currently working on a bookcase. I've got a long way to go, but hopefully have plenty of years ahead of me to practice. This just makes me realize how lucky I am to have gotten into it now, and not lost time waiting for that power tool shop.

    Thanks for the inspiration, Andrew

  4. Thanks, guys!

    Andrew, you're exactly the kind of person I had in mind. You're at a perfect age, old enough to appreciate what can be done, young enough to have years of enjoyment to look forward to. I'll enjoy seeing the results on your new blog. Then you can inspire the next group of woodworkers!

  5. Very poignant post Steve. While I haven't "wasted" as many years as you, I often wonder where I would be with my skills if I had not only discovered woodworking earlier, but discovered the joy of hand tool working. I'm right there with you on the vow, but one thing that really make it stick is when you start to get rid of your power tools so you can't fall back on them when things get tough. The project I'm working on right now has had it's moments when I have been tempted to use the band saw or table saw to quickly dimension my stock. I force myself to stay away and end up learning so much more by toughing through it. The practice element is so key, but the reality is that the volume of practice required for your body to "get it" is really quite small. Force your self to mill and dimension all the pieces for a chest of drawers then dovetail everything and you will repeat each of those tasks so many time that there will be a noticeable difference in speed and quality of your first cut to your last. Don't give up, it just keeps getting better I guess is the moral of the story. Thanks for this post.

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