How I (Wood) Work

Corner desk I made for the kids.

I’ve probably done more woodworking in my hobby time than any other type of making. Unless you count software, I guess. But in the physical realm, wood has been my primarily medium until fairly recently. Along the way, I’ve developed a way of working that’s a bit different than the standard. This is a fairly long post, but even still it doesn’t capture all my thoughts on what is a fairly important topic, so expect to hear more at some point.

Most woodworkers today have a shop filled with machine tools. Central to all of these is the table saw, but it’s not at all uncommon to see hobbyist shops that have a SawStop table saw, an eight inch jointer, multiple sanders, a router table, and maybe even something more exotic, like a shaper. With the exception of a sander or two, I don’t have any of those, and I don’t find it limiting at all.

Obviously, I must use hand tools. I have a set of hand planes and hand saws that see use on just about every project. But I’m not dogmatic about it. I have a band saw and I’m not shy about using it. I’ve got a power planer out in the garage and for my money it beats the pants off of hand thicknessing when you have more than a few square feet to deal with. But I have no intention ever to own a table saw. Maybe some day I’ll pick up a powered jointer when I have the space to put it somewhere, but even there I’m in no hurry.

Why work this way? Isn’t it slower? Less accurate? Well, “not necessarily” for the former, and “definitely not” for the latter. Indeed, for many operations, I find working by hand to be far more accurate than what I can achieve given my level of skill and the machines I’ve had available. But it’s not just about accuracy. The real answer is more involved, and the full story requires going back before I was born, to the aftermath of World War II.

In the US, in the years after WWII, there was a lot of thought given to training people up for the factory workforce it was thought we would need. This, combined with the relatively sudden availability of cheap induction motors led to Industrial Arts Education, the classic shop class of the mid twentieth century. It held on long enough for me to be required to take a version of it in middle school, and our high school had a shop, although I never took shop in high school.

It makes sense that school shops would focus on power tools, if the thought was that they were providing skills to be used in a factory job. Cranking out a thousand windows a day in a factory setting was never going to be a job for hand tool workers in the modern era. But of course that’s NOT what most hobbyists are doing. We’re generally working to make single pieces, sometimes of unique design of our own creation.

There is a professional discipline that you could argue is more like this – pattern making. Here’s one description:

Patternmakers are skilled technicians who create templates that are used to mass-produce products such as clothing, shoes, furniture, or plasticware. Their job is to translate blueprints and design models into factory patterns using drafting software or freehand measurement techniques

And it’s interesting to note that patternmakers often work by hand, although it’s becoming increasingly common to use a combination of software and software-driven manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing and small-scale CNC routing and machining.

So that’s the context as we arrive in the new millenium – this country had educated two entire generations of young people in fabrication techniques using a vocabulary from industrial production. It’s no wonder that the average hobbyist woodworker therefore aspired to a shop that was some version of Norm Abrams on The New Yankee Workshop, filled with every power tool imaginable, for creating anything at factory speeds, with factory precision.

Allow me to switch focus back to my personal story. In 2001, I had a pretty significant table saw accident. I was being a total idiot, and, not to put too fine a point on it, shoved my thumb into the spinning blade. I’ll spare you pictures of the aftermath, but suffice it to say that at the ER the nurse gave me a seven on a scale of one to ten. You might think that that’s where I swore off power tools, but no, I went back to using tools pretty much as I always had. I was lucky in that I wound up only with a scar and some slight loss of feeling, but I was still certainly apprehensive when approaching the table saw, “But hey,” I thought, “being a little scared of these is a good thing.” I even carried on after nearly breaking my hand when ill-advisedly feeding two pieces of wood through the planer at the same time caused one of them to kick back.

Fast-forward to 2014. My very good friend Tim Ewald gave this outstanding talk at a programming conference. Entitled “Programming With Hand Tools,” it remains one of the best conference talks I’ve ever seen. Don’t let the fact that it’s nominally about a programming language called Clojure, my main tool in my day job, and a fascinating topic in its own right. Really what the talk is about is the notion that your tools affect not just your work, but the way you think about your work.

Really, I can’t do it justice here. It’s excellent. Just watch it:

Tim’s talk made me realize that I had been looking for a different way to work. Without going into the exact timeline, over the next few years, I built a workbench, bought a bunch of hand planes and saws, learned to sharpen, sold my table saw and jointer, and embarked on a journey of learning to make things using more traditional tools.

It has been great. Some of the obvious benefits I’ve realized include less dust and less noise – my shop is in our basement, and I can work when my family are sleeping without disturbing them – but there are others. For instance, my hand tool setup allows me to work in FAR less space than the equivalent power tool suite would. Working with six foot long material on a table saw requires at least twelve feet of space due to infeed and outfeed requirements, and really, probably more like fourteen feet. Well, I don’t have fourteen feet in my shop. But that same six foot board requires, well, six feet, since the hand tools move over the work rather than the reverse.

Oh, and planing beats sanding. Planing, for me, is fun. Sanding is fun for approximately no one. But if you learn to sharpen and use a smoothing plane, you will cut your need to sand down dramatically. To nothing in some cases, particularly if you can let go of the need to make piano-finish, flat, mirrored surfaces on everything. A little texture is okay, really.

Trivets. Miter joints by hand on a shooting board.

One other result that surprised me was how much faster hand tools can be in certain circumstances. Cross cutting, for instance, is the work of moments for all but the largest pieces. Certainly faster than setting up a miter saw. After a little practice even I can get it to come off the saw more than square enough for carpentry, and getting it square enough for joinery is the work of only a few moments more at a shooting board, where accuracy of just a few thousandths of an inch is easy to achieve. Yes, if I were making twenty identical cuts, the miter saw would win in speed (although not in accuracy). But I am rarely making twenty of anything.

Really though, it’s not about the speed. Overall, I’m probably slower than I would be if I had a fully-powered shop. The space and dust advantages are really great, but again, not the full story. What it comes down to is that the work is just different. It’s quieter, it’s more contemplative. I can listen to music. I can pause in the middle of an operation and think, “Am I doing this right?” and adjust. It progresses at a more human pace.

Do I still use power tools? Absolutely. I have a band saw, and love it. My lathe is powered, (although I did build a spring pole lathe of my own design when first learning to turn). I sometimes use powered sanders for larger projects, even though hand planing surfaces beforehand means I need to do a lot less of it. I have a drill press. I own a router that I use on occasion. All good – I’m no purist.

These are a lot of words that, even as I read them myself, I realize are not especially convincing. And that’s okay. A big part of what I’ve come to realize is that what I was doing was finding what works FOR ME. They’re a function of my history and my inclinations and preferences. It may not work for you. All I can say is, you should still try it. Even if you love your table saw, you should learn to crosscut by hand, and to sharpen. You should build a shooting board. You should buy some planes and joint an edge by hand. It will make you a better woodworker.

Anyway, go watch Tim’s video and decide for yourself. It will make you smarter. Then go make stuff and use that to get smarter, too.

2 thoughts on “How I (Wood) Work

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