Friday, December 28, 2012

Why I use only hand tools

I use hand tools. I eschew the use of power tools at every turn, even for something as simple as drilling a pilot hole. I hate the dust. I hate the noise. I hate the danger.  All of these things can be mitigated, of course, but I work wood to enjoy myself, not to be suited up like a diver on an extended deep sea expedition.

But I do what I do for a more profound reason than simple comfort. I do what I do because that is how it was done 250 years ago.  In my hobby work (the things I make for me), I try to replicate 18th c. style pieces as closely as my skills allow.  This means doing the work with the "proper" tools.  I'm not judging power tools as "improper" in every case, but they are improper for the work I enjoy, where period accuracy is desired above all else.

18th. Century woodwork is full of what we would today term "flaws".  Surfaces, even show surfaces, show tearout.  Boards are thicknessed unevenly. Sometimes the marks from the saw pit or the tell-tale marks of riving are left untouched. Boards cup and tear out hinges because the original builder didn't take into account seasonal movement (at least to the extent we would consider necessary). Drawer runners get nailed on to case sides across the grain, what many would consider a major structural flaw.

It's more than just surface quality. Designing and building with hand tools, when properly done, yields a piece that looks handmade because of the overall composition of these "flaws" and design decisions based on the existing material specifications.  You don't design a piece to an exact dimension, you make it work with the wood you have.  You don't plane 7/8 down to 3/4, just because this is the dimension you see in the plan, you make 7/8 work.

This cannot be done with power tools, no matter if you have the latest Nurffurr 5000 variably-spaced dovetail jig. Those machine cut joints stand out like sore thumbs. So do router-made moldings. They are too perfect and look terrible on period work.

Since my goal is to make things look as much like the original as possible, I do not worry about the modern definition of "flaw".  Sure, my surfaces sometimes show a little tearout, which usually goes away, visually, under shellac. My turnings are not identical and often show tool marks from my skew. My moldings show a little "movement" and are not identical from one foot to the next. My boards aren't perfectly flat (not hard to see why, my straightedge is Stick-of-Cherry, not Starrett). They are wavy, undulating, tactile, warm surfaces that show the pieces was made by hand, something that a machine cannot do. They are just flat enough to do what I need them to do. No more, no less.

That, my friends, is why I use hand tools. In no way should anything I ever say, anywhere, be taken to mean that I hate power tools, or that I somehow consider power tool work as less than hand tool work. It is just different. If my goal were different, I might very well put on the apron, safety glasses, hearing protection and fire up a Sawstop or a lunch-box planer.


  1. Hi Zach,

    Nice post. I don't disagree with anything you say here, but I'll play devil's adcovate just a little. What if you use hand tools, but 18th century reproduction work isn't your frame of reference? I understand that era of woodworking is always linked to hand tool woodworking, because, well, that's all they had. But many woodworkers since then have been using only hand tools. If I was to build an Arts and Crafts piece, or maybe a Craftsman, Greene and Greene, or even a modern piece, would my definition of "flaws" be different? I think each of us should develop their own set of standards for what is "good enough", and not necessarily fall back on those from an unnamed 18th century craftsman. Personally, I haven't build enough to know exactly what that is for myself yet.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I don't make 18th century furniture so I can work with hand tools. I work with hand tools so I can make 18th century furniture. If I were interested in Arts and Crafts (full disclosure: I do make a fair number of these pieces for customers, but I don't enjoy the work or the end result in most cases, boring work to me), I'd probably use machines, since that is how those pieces were made. Not that they can't be made with hand tools; I'm just more interested in fidelity to the way things were.

      Some flaws are clearly flaws but I recreate them, not out of ignorance of "acceptable practices", but out of fidelity to the original piece. I certainly could work to a modern machine standard with hand tools and ignore the way the pieces I like were made. That isn't my interest. I want my pieces to be confused for antiques by knowledgeable people. That defines my goal. I never think "good enough", only "is it what it should be?". If this means a cross-grained drawer runner, so be it. If the wood cracks, I will be thrilled, as this will add true age to the piece.

      What is acceptable, flaw-wise, in period work wouldn't be acceptable in A&C simply because machine work doesn't produce those "flaws", outside of tearout. Thicknesses are close to uniform, table saws and planers make it easy to work to a plan, not fit piece by piece.

      I do agree that every craftsman must set, and work, to his own standards. Mine are mine and I expect no one else to agree with me or share them. If you do, fantastic, join SAPFM. If you choose to work wood by hand, but to a machine tool standard or with modern design sensibilities, that's fine too. I'm just not interested in that.

    2. To be clear, any type of furniture can be made with hand tools, period or not.

  2. Hi Zach

    I myself prefer hand tools not because of any period work or reproduction work just because it is what I like to do and it feels right to me. I go so far as to make my own tools if possible as soon as I can get warm place to work I will be making a st of hollows and rounds and someother planes I just can not afford to buydue to inome level. Bu with that said using poweror hand tools is a choice every woodworker makes and t is a personl choice as to why. I appaulde your deffination as o flawed I ie it and will try to keep it in mind when I do somethng.

    1. Stephen, thanks. If it feels right for you to work with hand tools, then it is. I love making my own tools. I've not attempted hollows and rounds, simply because I already have a good set, but if I didn't I'd definitely make them. Share pictures when you have them!!

  3. Great post! I started with hand tools out of the necessity of not being able to have machines in my workspace. At the time I had no idea it would open up so many more choices. Hand tools to me are liberating. Try using a biscuit jointer on planks not thicknessed perfectly. With hand tools, "perfect" is about the end result.

  4. It's as if you are speaking what I've always felt but didn't know how to put it into words. As a woman, (mostly guys) people seem to think I'm afraid of power tools (even though I took 2 years of woodshop classes and still hated power tools). It's amazing how painful it is for other people to watch me use hand tools (when it can be done faster with a power tool).