Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why Use Power Tools?

As much as I go on about using hand tools, there are excellent reasons to use power tools. I like to use hand tools for the sheer fun of it, because I'm fascinated by how they got work done 200 or 300 years ago and I want to preserve the skills. But that doesn't mean I think power tools are evil. Hand and power tools work very well together.

People jokingly refer to power tools as "tailed apprentices", but that's actually an excellent analogy. The most rational argument I've heard for mixing hand and power tools is that those master craftsmen 200 or 300 years ago had apprentices to do the bulk labor such as roughing out boards and thicknessing stock. The master would concentrate on the finer, highly skilled work.

Today, lacking human apprentices, we have the power tools to do those tasks. Given limited shop time, why spend it on the grunt work when you can spend it on the skilled work? This maximizes productivity, meaning hobbyists are able to do more projects, and professionals are able to improve their effective hourly rate.

You can see multiple examples of this. Chris Schwarz talks about coarse, medium, and fine operations, where he uses power tools such as a bandsaw for the coarse work, doing the bulk stock removal, then shifts over to hand tools for the medium and fine work.

Phil Lowe, in his excellent videos Measuring Furniture for Reproduction: with Phil Lowe and Carve a Ball and Claw Foot [VHS] (both of which are actually more like complete mini-courses in building period pieces), shows how his shop is divided into machine room and bench room. He roughs out the work in the machine room, then takes it to the bench room where he uses hand tools for final shaping and joinery. So for cabriole legs, he cuts them on the bandsaw, then refines them with spokeshave and rasp. For chair frames, he cuts them to rough dimension on the tablesaw, then planes them down with handplanes and cuts the joinery with fine handsaws, fitting them with chisels and fine joinery planes.

Likewise, on hand tool woodworking forums, you'll see people say they would never give up their tablesaw or bandsaw.

The key is to use the appropriate tools at the appropriate steps. Of course, that's a judgement call. Everyone will have their own opinion of what's appropriate, colored by the tools they have available and their skill levels.

I think where we tend to get carried away with power tools is trying to make them do every task. That starts to lead to a proliferation of jigs and time-consuming setups. If you're doing a lot of the same operation in production-line fashion, those special jigs and setups can be a worthwhile investment. But if you're only doing a few of them, I think a better balance is to use power tools in a simpler manner requiring minimal setup, then switch over to the hand tools.

Hand tools can provide an incredible degree of precision, giving you a high degree of satisfaction. People focus on power tools because they assume hand tools can't do precise work or are too difficult to use. But with practice to develop the skills, you realize that operations that seem complex aren't all that difficult. Instead of being intimidated by them, you learn to pick up the hand tools and just do them, no fuss.

So if you have the room for them and can afford them, power tools can be great time savers. Then you can switch to the hand tools for the joyful work.


  1. My old man was a product of post war carpentry, those that came out of the service in 1945 who got jobs in the building trade. When he started, he had to learn how to work with hand tools as the only power tool he could afford was a cast iron 8" Beaver tablesaw. In the late 50's, when the price of power tools dropped, he embraced them with all his might.

    My reason for explaining all of this is so I can make the statement; there are power tool users and there are (or were) power tool craftsmen. My old man could resaw an 8' length of oak on his tablesaw and have it come out the other side without a single burn mark. He could shape molding by hand on his jointer, and make crown molding all day long on his radial arm saw.

    While almost any fool can cut a board with a power tool, some of the mid-20th century woodworkers spent more time perfecting their knowledge and touch on their basic machines than we do learning the same with a jack plane.

  2. Nice article Steve! My only addition would be that it is not a bad idea to learn how to do the grunt work by hand just as a good skill to have before switching to power tools. Remember, all of those master craftsmen of old were once apprentices who had to do the grunt work before they were masters who could have apprentices do the grunt work for them. For many people getting started in woodworking, it may be a while before they can afford, or have the space for, big power tool workhorses and this is the perfect time to learn to do it by hand so that you can appreciate and decide what you would rather have power tools do for you.

  3. Excellent points from both of you. Mitchell, once again that goes to show there's no substitute for putting in the time to develop the skill, hand or power. My attempts at machine resawing were not nearly as successful.

    Which then points out an unrealistic expectation: too often we expect to match the results of an experienced woodworker on the first attempt, looking for instant gratification without paying our dues. Disciplining myself to learn hand tool techniques has definitely taught me a lot more patience.

  4. I agree on many points. I use almost 100% hand tools, but sometimes getting items to the same thickness is a bit of drudgery. I do have a bandsaw which I use for curved cuts or any ripping, but if I was to get another tailed apprentice, it would be a power planer.

    One of my local lumberyards will run your stock through a huge thickness planer as part of their service. When I purchase lumber there, I take advantage of this and leave a bit of meat on the stock so I can take any wind out as needed. Often their wood is in such good shape, this is hardly needed.