Since I started working wood, I have become something of an evangelist for hand tools. Whether I am talking with my woodworking buddies in person or on line, I am always promoting the use of hand tools over machines. I suppose I get the polite, smile-and-nod response a lot. I used to use hand tools exclusively.
Now I have a belt sander (used only for sharpening) and a band saw, which is useful on occasion. I also have a drill press, which I use almost exclusively for metal. The machines are on semi-permanent loan from a friend, so they didn’t cost me anything. When I first got them, I thought that I would speed up my woodwork if I used them for rough stock preparation. However, I found that the machines have a learning curve, and affordable and/or used machines take a lot of fettling to make them work properly. So despite the availability of a few basic machines, I still use my hand tools almost exclusively.
My reasons for using hand tools rather than machines come down to three factors:
1. Personal skill set. I began working wood in earnest when I took a couple classes in hand-tool joinery at Homestead Heritage. After a lot of practice, I figured out how to get good results from my hand tools. But I haven’t (yet) learned the machines effectively, nor do I currently have the time to acquire a whole new set of skills and techniques. So I continue to do what gets good results in my shop.
2. Shop layout. Most of my work is done indoors at a big bench. If I want to use the machines, I have to carry the lumber through a narrow entryway, down a full flight of stairs, go outside to unlock the shed (which has NO climate control!), turn on the lights and the machines, do my work, and then carry everything back upstairs. Usually I can do the work more efficiently by hand, once I factor in time-in-transit. Plus, I enjoy being able to have my family close to me while I work, and I think it is important for my children to see me at work without their being in constant danger of death or dismemberment.
3. Cost. I started woodworking as a student, and I had to find the cheapest way to do it, even if it took time. That was okay, because I had more free time than I had disposable income. I don’t know what a good jointer costs these days, but even a used one can be pricey. What about a good planer? And a good table saw? And a good router with the bits? That’s a big, up-front cash outlay just to be able to build a simple bookshelf, not to mention something more complicated. Add on the inevitable belt sander, drill press, dust collection system, as well as the joinery jigs and accessories, and you are looking at thousands of dollars to outfit even a basic shop. On the other hand, I built my first projects with about $150 worth of hand tools. My current arsenal, which includes mainly vintage tools bought used, probably cost me under a thousand dollars total. Still not enough to buy a really good table saw. Of course, you can spend an obscene amount of money on high-end hand tools too. It’s just that you don’t have to spend big money to get good hand tools.
As I have continued to work, I have also realized that working primarily with hand tools allows me to easily do certain tasks that a lot of woodworkers find incredibly difficult with their machines. For example, how do you square up a small piece of wood that’s maybe 4″ long? For me, it’s easy. I use my hand plane and a try square. But if all you have are large machines, putting that little piece on a big jointer poses a safety problem and probably requires some kind of jig. What a pain. Buy yourself a good block plane and get on with your life. Or, how do you make a 35 degree cut in a thick piece of wood? If the cut exceeds the capacity of your table saw, band saw, or chop saw, you are stuck. But if you think to grab a hand saw and go at it, it’s a quick, easy job.
I’m not saying there aren’t operations that are easier with power tools. There have been days I wished I had a table saw with a dado stack. But those days don’t come often.
I often wonder why most hobby woodworkers seem to prefer machines to hand tools. I suppose there is a testosterone rush involved in using a big, powerful machine. And entry-level machines are widely available at home improvement centers, whereas good hand tools are not. I suspect, though, that another factor is involved. A lot of hobby woodworkers learn their craft from guys who were trained in and work in large, commercial shops, where furniture is built by the lot, parts are interchangeable, and machines do almost all of the work. Those shops use expensive equipment, but mass production makes the equipment cost-effective. So when the hobby woodworker looks at such a shop, he gets the idea that he, too, has to have a large shop full of expensive equipment in order to make even simple furniture. And many professionals will agree with him, since that’s the only way they know how to work.
However, what is economical on a large scale is often grossly uneconomical on a small scale. I, for one, will never have enough money to outfit a home shop with even basic powered equipment. But that won’t stop me from making furniture for myself, which I could not afford to pay anyone else to make for me. Have I saved money by building my own furniture? I’m not sure yet. I have spent some money on tools and materials. I could certainly have paid bottom-dollar for shoddy furniture rather than build sturdy furniture. I could also have gone bargain-hunting for well-made, antique furniture. I do know that I could not afford to buy most of what I make. And I have the pleasure of making it myself.