Handtools – the joy of using them

Handtools are slow.  Handtools need to be sharpened frequently.  Handtools, in amateur hands, are inaccurate at best, incredibly frustrating and potentially incomprehesible, at worse.  Horsepower, horsepower is the answer, isn’t it?

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A 26" Jointer - 100 years old and "as good as new"

Fifty years ago, everyone (who went to public school) was introduced to the use of handtools.  Of course trademen were using power tools in order to make work easier and boost profitability.  And there was enough of the old apprentice system in place that many of us used handtools on a daily basis.  My Grandfather was insistent that I learn the trade with handtools.  He believed that mastery of handtools would make any tradesman better and I agree with him completely. 

Over the years, I’ve recognized several other distinct advantages that come from using handtools. 

First, handtools (specifically handsaws, planes and scrapers) generate considerably less dust than their motorized counterparts.  There is, of course, the benefit of not coating everything in you shop with a layer of fine dust that takes up precious time to remove.  And in recent years, medical scientists have demonstrated that wood dust can be responsible for a number of serious health problems.

Second, using handtools to dimension and shape lumber typically offers better yield than power tools.  Snipe is not a factor when using handplanes and scrapers.  One should note that it isn’t uncommon to loose as much as six (6) linear inches to snipe on a planer.  If you’re planing a twelve inch wide board you’ve just added one half of a board foot to your lumber requirement.  This isn’t a catastrophe is you’re planing red oak or ash, but if you’re planing old growth mahogany or fiddleback maple, it could get to be rather expersive in short order.  Handtools may enable us to use wood that would be considered too difficult to work with power tools due to “high figure”.

Third, Quiet!  No, not be quiet.  Listen to the quiet.  I like to hear what’s going on when I’m working.  As a consequence, I may not be as careful about hearing protection when operating power tools, as I should be.  Hearing loss is a large problem amongst woodworkers.  Stand next to a planer, shaper, large joiner or any number of other bits of woodworking machinery for several minutes and it becomes evident that many power tools excede the recommendations for safe noise levels.  Many of us live in urban areas where neighborly consideration may require operation of power tools to be limited to certain hours.  Using handtools can actually lengthen your workday (something that I no longer attempt to do).

Four, Skill.  Simply put, using handtools successfully requires more skill.  For me this is the most important reason to use tools without plugs.  I achieve my very best work with handtools.  Carve a “ball and claw” foot or an acanthus leaf  – gotta use handtools.  Shape the rear posts on a bentwood chair- gotta use’ em.  Do I need to belabor this point?  I don’t think so.  And we all know that if a woodworker wants to be recognized as “worth his salt”, he better know how to cut dovetails by hand.  (See my earlier article for a contrarian point of view.)

I finish a project.  I’ve worked hard and recieve compliments for my efforts.  I thank both the unitiated and those who know and love the mysteries of the craft.  And then, disinterested, I walk away from the completed thing, the manifestation of my creativity.  It is the process I love, not the product.  I’m in good company.  Proponents of the craft like Roy Underhill and Peter Follansbee have demonstrated to nationwide audiences that handtool use retains its importance to all of us who seek to maintain the highest levels of workmanship.

I polish up the iron of a long jointer and clamp up a bit in the vise.  Drop in the iron, tap the wedge, a few lateral adjustments and the plane is ready.  Straight ahead, not down.  The iron is sharp and produces a shaving that rolls out of the throat in a tight curly-kew.  I straighten out the shaving.  It is the thickness of onion skin and in this shaving I can read much of the history of the tree that gave me this board.  Another stroke and the “whisk” of the plane.  I am surrounded by those who before were entrusted with the gifts that they have passed to me.

There is no plug here, no circuit breaker.  The power source is deep within us, the harmony of the universe around us.  This is the joy, the Zen, the moment of being one with all that you have been given, all that you have learned and all that you know.  This is reason enough.

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One Comment on “Handtools – the joy of using them”

  1. Paul Kemner Says:

    Actually this is Mrs. Paul. Dennis, I think you nailed it (pardon the pun), when you said it is the process that you love. You and just about every other woodworker. Unfortunately for most of them, by the time the final steps toward completion of a project roll around the hobbyists have already lost interest. Sanding is too much trouble. Taking the time to choose and use a good finishing method is too much trouble. So, it is often in these final steps we discover who has pride of workmanship. More than anything else this sets one person’s work apart from another’s. For some reason this is a subtlty that seems to be lost on a lot of people. — Peggy


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