Hand Tool Trends: Where Is This Hobby Going?

About a year ago, I posted an essay on this blog about why I choose to use hand tools primarily.  What I said there still applies to my work.  However, I’m still relatively young, and I hope to be working wood for several decades to come.  That gets me wondering. What will this hobby look like in ten, twenty, or thirty years?

At the moment, I see the following trends:

– Fewer cheap, vintage hand tools. An old Stanley hand plane will probably never cost as much as a new Lie Nielsen of the same type, unless the quality of the later really plummets.  But at some point the demand for vintage tools will catch up with supply, and prices will rise.  We may already be seeing this happen.  On the other hand, I’m just waiting for the day when I snag a used Lie Nielsen hand plane at a garage sale for $10. I might just live long enough to see it happen.

– A wider variety of new, high-quality hand tools. Especially if vintage hand-tools get pricey, it may once again become profitable for larger companies to manufacture excellent tools, or even just mid-grade tools. Stanley and Woodriver are already at this point. I’m hoping to see more emerging boutique tool makers become flourishing companies. Naturally, there will be a lot of failed startups, which is always sad. But there will be success stories too, I expect.

– More part-time-professional woodworkers.  I think that more and more hobbyists will begin doing at least some work for profit, usually on commission.  They will not market their products, and they will not do large production runs.  Because they have a relatively low-overhead, some will be able to make basic furniture and under-sell some higher-end production shops.  Others will shoot for an ultra-high-end boutique market, where custom work on commission is the norm.  Most will rely on word-of-mouth to get jobs, which they will do while maintaining full-time or part-time employment elsewhere.  That will present tax and liability problems for some, unfortunately, so if you’re thinking of going this route, check with your accountant and your insurance agent first.  Still, I expect that more woodworkers will start looking at their well-equipped shops not only as a place to relax, but also as a place to generate some extra income.

– More women and children working wood. In the past, a woman in a cabinet shop was a rarity. Very few shop classes remain in conventional schools. But I expect more women to get interested in woodworking, and especially in hand tools, partly because women tend to have more patience for the detail work, and partly because they have no interest in the testosterone rush that comes from plowing a circular saw through 3/4″ plywood. (I have no interest in it either, but that’s another story.) [Edit to add: toolmakers are just beginning to notice this trend.] And I think that many kids will begin learning the craft from their parents. The home school movement will probably lead the way, though we may eventually see parents seeking out woodworking lessons for their children just like they now seek out dance or piano lessons.

Heck, my parents did that for one of my brothers when I was growing up. (Obviously, they guessed wrong on which of us would become the woodworker!) That does mean that tool makers will have to adjust their designs for the emerging market. For example, they will have to think about a wider range of hand sizes when designing handles and totes, and they may also need to make stationary tools adjust lower for shorter users. And how about some layout tools in pink and lavender?

– Online sources displacing conventional TV shows as the primary source of information. From Norm Abrams to Roy Underhill, from ShopNotes to Fine Woodworking, what we traditionally call “the media” has had a virtual monopoly on transmitting the knowledge of the craft.  I, for one, am incredibly grateful that a few TV personalities, as well as a few hobby magazines, took it upon themselves to promote the craft.  However, online forums and blogs are a growing part of that media. So while TV shows will continue to turn people on to woodworking, their monopoly on information is gone. Hobby woodworkers will be getting more and more of their information, not to mention their tools, from online sources. I expect we will also see more online instruction, as people in areas without a good woodworking school seek out education, both for themselves and for their children.

What does all this add up to?  I think we will see a big an increase in hybrid woodworking in the future. Although more folks are learning to do joinery by hand, most continue to rely on their machines for basic stock dimensioning jobs.  I don’t see a lot of guys ditching their jointers and planers just yet, especially when they can get cheap used ones, but the table saw may eventually be relegated to the “optional” list once people figure out how much a good set of hand tools plus a few machines can accomplish.  Hand saws, hand planes, mallets, and chisels will once again be on the “must-have” list for a basic toolkit.

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2 Responses to Hand Tool Trends: Where Is This Hobby Going?

  1. I would generally concur with your thoughts here. While I’m extremely negative on the US economy in general, I’m also fairly bullish on the future of hand tools. One thing you mentioned, that I don’t really see coming, at least in the next 10 years or so is significantly greater involvement of minors. I agree though, that if it is going to come, it will likely be the home schoolers who will be first in line. I think the demand for classes may be there also. I’m just not seeing anyone stepping up to do the teaching.

    That said, I do think if manual arts ever did really get going in the home school community, it could be a really big deal and hand tool woodworking is one of the more practical crafts to do at home.

  2. Have you seen the little building sessions for kids that Lowes and Home Depot put on? They have parents bring in their kids, who are given basic tools to assemble a kit, usually a toy truck or something like that. The kits are generally good-quality, and as a marketing tool, it serves a double purpose. Not only does it get adults into the store, who inevitably “pick up a few things” while they’re there, but the kids get used to being there and (the owners hope) eventually become customers in their own right as they get older. Some of those kids will discover hand tools, I think, and will discover them early if someone can introduce them.

    While trolling forums, I often see pictures of fathers and even grandfathers working in their shops with their kids, which is so encouraging on several levels. Quality-time with grown-ups is invaluable for kids, and if they can learn something useful in the process, all the better. Granted, that young interest may peter out as the kids get more involved in school, sports, and the inevitable video games. For myself, I chopped my first mortise with a screwdriver when I was in high school. It was an ugly affair, but I was working completely without guidance, and I wanted to join two pieces of wood. Had someone been there to teach me, I would have started into this hobby much earlier.

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