Countdown to Simplicity

I like simple tools, and the simpler the better.  One measure of simplicity is the number of discrete parts the tool is made of.  Some relatively simple tools, such as a hand plane or an eggbeater drill, have a lot of parts.  Fully disassemble a typical hand plane, and you will have twenty or more parts, depending on how you count the parts for the frog assembly.  Some eggbeater drills are even more complex.  And I don’t even want to think about how many parts my band saw or my drill press has!

Other tools have very few parts, but even some of the simplest tools often have more parts than we might think.  Quick, how many parts does a handsaw have?  You might say two–the handle and the blade.  True, but what about the nuts and bolts that keep the handle in place?  A big handsaw might have a dozen parts total: a blade, a handle, five bolts, and five nuts.

Counting parts is amusing, I suppose, but it also reveals something about your tools.  The fewer the parts, the less there is to go wrong, and the easier the tool is to repair if it breaks.  So, in honor of simple tools, here are a few of my favorites, in descending order.

Simple Tools 2013 - 1

Five Parts

My wooden jack plane has five parts: the stock, the wedge, and a three-piece cutting assembly (blade, chipbreaker, and screw).  That, at least, is the number of pieces it can ordinarily be broken down into.  Looked at another way, there are two more parts: the tote and the strike button.  From the point of view of the user the tool has five parts, but from the point of view of the manufacturer it has seven, so I admit I’m fudging this one.

Another tool that really does have five parts is one of my axes.  It has a handle, a head, a wooden wedge, and two metal wedges.  In use, of course, it’s a one-piece tool.  You disassemble it only when you replace the handle–which happens a little more often than I’d like to admit.  I need to work on my aim.

Four Parts

My favorite shop-made marking gauges have four discrete parts: the arm, the cutter, the fence, and the wedge.  Normally it can be taken apart into three parts, but the cutter is certainly distinct in function (and material) from the arm.  So I count this as a four-part tool.

Three Parts

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016

Sharpening stones are tools, too.  And my diamond sharpening stone has three parts: the stone, the bottom of box, and the lid.  Each part is functional.  The base allows the stone to be clamped in a vise when I’m sharpening.  The lid protects the stone’s surface, certainly, but it’s also useful for holding small parts like chipbreaker screws while I’m sharpening irons.

hewing-hatchet-with-new-handle-6-10-2

My hewing hatchet also has three parts: the head, the handle, and a single wooden wedge. Like an axe, it is a one-piece tool in daily use, but full disassembly yields three pieces.

Two Parts

Mallet Batch 12-2011 - - 06

My two-part tools are among my favorites–and I have a lot of them.  My joiner’s mallets, for example, are made up of a handle wedged through a tapered mortise in the solid head.  Frequent use keeps the head tight on the handle, though enough pounding on the handle’s end can separate them.

My birdcage awl, my gouges, and many of my chisels are also two-part tools: just a blade and a handle.  Ideally, the handles are fixed permanently in place until they need to be replaced–which I hope is seldom or never.  I have never yet replaced a chisel handle that I made.

One Part

Card Scraper and Ruler

While this ruler is usually used with a combination-square head, it’s useful as a tool in its own right.  The tool is built for accuracy, and a single piece is best.

My favorite one-piece tool is a card scraper.  I must have a dozen or more in several shapes.  They get used on nearly every project I work on, from fine furniture to wooden spoons and spatulas.  Once I learned how to sharpen card scrapers, they became absolutely indispensable tools in my tool chest.

Conclusion

I enjoy using complicated hand tools–my joinery planes, for example–but the real workhorses in the shop tend to be my simplest tools, the ones that get used on every project.  I’d call myself a minimalist, except that I have LOT of simple tools.  (Seventeen handsaws and counting…)  And that, I suppose, is another level of complexity to be addressed another time.

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38 Responses to Countdown to Simplicity

  1. Maxime says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, I had never thought about my tools like this before. They were just there for me to use and that was that. Now I’m going to look at my planer in a very different way thanks to you. Since I started at school I have always liked my hand tools more than the power tools. For some reason I feel more in control with my hand tools and I like the more personal feeling that you get working on a piece of wood with hand tools. I hope to expand my collection of hand tools throughout my life and know how to use them properly as well.

    ~ Maxime ~

  2. Floris van Gulik says:

    “Counting parts is amusing,” that made me giggle a bit. It’s something new for me, a new way of looking at hand tools. I have worked with chisels, planes, handsaws, hammers and other kinds of tools, but I have never noticed how some have fewer parts than others. When making a part for a piece of furniture I only think about the use of, and in which order to use the tools at my disposal. Furthermore I think you are a very interesting person and I think your blogs are quite entertaining to read. You give me new perspectives on our craftsmanship.

    Have a terrific day!

  3. jacco van der Hoek says:

    Hi,
    I liked reading your blog, I do not really think about the tools I’m using, especially not about the number of parts it contains. Sespite the fact that it’s fun to think about it once again, I think I wouldn’t think much about it, who knows in the future when I buy a new piece of tools that I think about the number of parts it contains and how it’s build and works. It let you see how simple or complicated a tool can be and that’s actualy quite nice.

    Kind regards,
    Jacco

    • Thanks for the compliments. You never really think about the parts of a tool until you (a) take one apart to clean or repair it, or (b) try to build it. I’ve done both, and it’s renewed my appreciation for how my tools are constructed.

  4. Merijn van Dongen says:

    Hey,

    Interesting story did you wrote. I think you are totally right about the fact that the simple things in woodworking are equally and maybe even more beautiful than the complexing machines you can use. The fact is that lots of people forget that the base of their complicated machines always can be found at hand tools. This makes that there are woodworkers now a days who name themselves a woodworker but they cannot even use a handsaw. I think it is very important never forget the base whatever your profession is. So thank you very much to let the people remember that.

    • Speaking aesthetically, I’ve always preferred simplicity to complexity. I realize that’s a personal preference–mostly–though I especially like pieces that appear fairly simple but have a surprising amount of complexity when you take a closer look. I think the handsaw is an excellent example. It looks like such a simple too, and it is. Until you take one apart, or better, try to make one yourself. Then the complexity of the design really becomes clear: everything from the hang of the handle to the rake of the teeth to the placement of the saw nuts. I have come to appreciate the gracefulness of the tool all the more.

  5. Janique says:

    Hi!

    I never look the way you look to my tools. It made me giggle a bit. But I am definitely going to look different to my tools the next I will use them and going to count the parts haha. And you are totally right about the fewer parts, the less there is to go wrong. Sometimes the tools with the most parts are difficult to use and repair if it breaks. But on the other hand, they come in very handy and are useful and I could not do it without. Thank you for sharing some your simple but favorites tools.

    Janique

  6. Kath says:

    Dear Steve,

    What an interesting way to look at your tools. I wish I had the space at home to make some of my own, and of course the money to buy this beautiful zebra wood. I’m a student from the wood and furniture college in the Netherlands and I got the assignment from my English teacher to read some blogs and comment on them. So it was funny to me to read that you’re also a English teacher working at a creative school. I liked your post, keep up the good work!

    Cheerio,

    Kath

    • Having space at home is definitely a challenge, though when I lived in a much smaller space, I used my kitchen as a workshop. I kept all my tools in a small chest behind my easy chair. I couldn’t build a lot, but I surprised myself with how much I really could build in that small space.

  7. Madelief says:

    Good evening,

    I really liked to read your story about how something that small can be so needful. When you think about it we can’t even do the work without the little hand tools. Ofcourse we use more bigger and more complicated hand tools but it is just as easy when you work with the less complicated hand tools.
    I am now at the third year of my furniture education in The Netherlands, but in the first year the first thing they learned us was to work with the hand tools, we also made some hand tools ourself so you notice how easy some hand tools are sticking together.
    Thankyou for sharing this with us!

    Greetings from The Netherlands

    • Glad you learned to work with hand tools first. I did, too. I now find that, because I know how to use hand tools, using machines is pretty easy. I can predict how the wood will react to each cut. But if you learn on the machines first, it’s no help when you start learning to use hand tools. It sounds like your school has established a very effective curriculum, and that makes me happy.

  8. Romy says:

    What an different way of looking at the tools. Most of the time people think that the tools we use are really complex, or simple in concept. Like the example, the handsaw has more parts than you would think if it would break.

    My favourite tool is my Japanse handsaw. I use this tool in the most creations I create. It is also easy to replace the sawblade. The tool I also share your opinion with is the wooden jack plane. Nothing is more satisfying like the curls on the ground after using it on a nice piece of wood.

    Kind regards,

    Romy Muller

    • I’ve never taken to the Japanese saws, though I know many woodworkers who find them very effective. I grew up using Western-style handsaws. They were very dull and difficult to use, but they got me used to pushing a saw. Now the force of habit makes it nearly impossible for me to use a saw that cuts on the pull-stroke.

  9. Imke says:

    Dear Steve,

    I really liked to read your blog. I never looked at it in that way. Also, what you explain. People don’t think about a tool like that and will probably haven’t any idea about how many part a tool have. I am now following the study furnituremaker and the first thing we learned how to work with hand tools. We also make a hammer from two parts and some people also make a four-part tool (Sorry, I don’t know the translation).
    Thank you for this story!

    Kind regards,
    Imke

  10. Richard says:

    Dear Steve,

    I like the tools you use for your woodworking projects. Where I study woodworking, we don’t use these basic tools very often. We mostly use stationary machines to complete furniture etc. It’s not often that we use basic/simple tools to work on our projects. Which is a shame, I think. Because when we have no access to these modern machinery we are pretty much useless in a way. Everyone should know the basics of toolmaking to become a true woodworker and must know how to handle them in order to get the best handmade results. I actually dream of a woodworkers shed where I don’t need to compete with other woodworkers and just go with my own flow. Got to keep dreaming right!

    Thanks for reminding me what’s truly important.

    Kind regards,
    Richard van Geest

    • Oh, if I had space for some high-quality machines, I would use them all. (Well, maybe not a table saw, but definitely a jointer, planer, and maybe a shaper.) For production work, they are the way to go. However, it is important to learn to use these hand tools if you want to do high-quality work in a small space. They are especially efficient for what we call one-off projects: things that I will build only once.

  11. Bas Duvé says:

    Hey,
    Thank you for sharing your blog and your opinion! I had never considered by the fact that hand tools are actually important as the electric hand tools. Sometimes even more important! I just look at my hand tools with another mindset than before reading your blog. But working with hand tools is a job which you can learn only by using it. I like it to grinding my chisels and some other tools. But I am currently a lover by using electric tools. Sometimes I need to get some more with my hand tools.
    Good luck!
    Kind regards,
    Bas Duvé

  12. Bob Ansink says:

    Hi,

    You have wrote an interesting piece of blog. I have never looked at the tools as you. It is very interesting because the modern tools are way more complicated than way back. I never use very old tools because in the Netherlands where I live is woodworking a very modern business and it is very rare to use those tools because time is money. I agree with you that how more parts a tool has how easier it is to break it. But the new tools are more luxury I think. But it is nice to see your way of thinking about tools

    Nice blog,
    Bob Ansink

  13. Jesse says:

    Hello Steve,

    You have written an interesting blog about hand tools. You describe the tool parts in such detail, which I have never thought about it. I am doing a woodworking education and we sadly do not use a lot hand tools. Even at companies, I have not used much hand tools. We use more machines because it is faster and it looks better. In my opinion, it is a pity because if you can use hand tools you can do nearly everything even if you are at customer and have to fix something, as you do not have the machines you need. I think we should learn both. However, I do hope to do an internship at a company, who makes furniture’s the old-fashioned way.

    Kind regards,
    Jesse

  14. Paul Melief says:

    i never looked at my hand tools this way. first of all i enjoyed reading your blog. these days most woodworkers use machines to fabricate furniture. but if you take a look at those machines they are all based on hand tools. and even those hand tools are made of different parts like you told. the less parts a hand tool has the easier it is to repair if a part failed. this works the same with machines in my opinion. thank you for sharing your experiences on your blog. i hope you will continue sharing your experiences.

    kind regards,

    Paul Melief

  15. Willem says:

    “Countdown to Simplicity” was fun to read, because I have not really thought of simplicity of hand tools that much before. It is really true that when a machine or an hand tool is very complex, it is not easy to fix. But for example when the wood of the handle of a chisel is broken you just can fix it. In contrast to an sander when something in the motor is broken, myself and I think the most people could not fix it. The cool thing about those simplistic hand tools is that they are so sort of simple to make, but so useful.
    Kind regards,
    Willem

  16. Floor Veldkamp says:

    Dear Steve,
    Thank you for giving me another perspective on tools. I would never think about it in that way because I always forgot the bolts and the nuts. Also I really like the read what kind of tool you like because these are not electric tools and I had never considered by the fact that hand tools are actually important as the electric hand tools .My favourite tool is a chisel it’s a two part tool but I use it often. And you are totally right about the fewer parts, the less there is to go wrong. Sometimes the tools with the most parts are difficult to use and repair if it breaks. Thank you for sharing your story and your opinion.

    Kind regards,

    Floor Veldkamp

  17. Mika says:

    Dear steve

    I really liked reading your store and your perspective about hand tools. I rarely think about my hand tools and i try to make it myself as easy as possible to use power tools. I got a lot of hand tools of my grand father but i don’t really use them as much. The only things i use are screwdrivers, chisels and my wrench the rest i work with are power tools. But when i buy my power tools or hand tools i will never be cheap on my tools the machines i got are from Makita and Festool.

    Kind regards

    Mika Groen

  18. Luka says:

    Dear Steve,

    Your story amused me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean it in a patronizing way. It’s just that I have never thought about my tools like that. I guess that looking at tools from the manufacturer’s point of view creates an entirely different perspective. It makes the tools seem even more complex, but at the same time it helps understanding why the tool works the way it does. So the next time I mess up a piece of wood by misusing my hand tools I will look at it your way and try to figure out where it went wrong.

    Kind regards,

    Luka

  19. ove dhooghe says:

    Hi steve,

    I like to see there are still real woodworkers out there who appreciate real old-school simple tools. I’m a student of the HMC college in Rotterdam, it’s a wood and furniture college in the Netherlands. In the first year of my education we had to build a simple hammer but you have to take into account a lot of things when you make such a “simple” tool and I like that about it. It looks simple but it actually isn’t.

    Greets,
    Ove d’Hooghe

  20. Richard S says:

    Hey Steve, I’m a woodworking student from the Netherlands at the HMC Rotterdam. Your blog about counting parts in tools was very interesting to read. When I make something, I choose to use power tools and machines to make the product I wanted to make because this gives me more satisfaction then working with hand tools. Maybe this is a weird thing to say but the use of simple tools and hand tools doesn’t bring me more pleasure than working with power tools and machines. Maybe it is because I don’t use them that much and my project always have a death line so I don’t want to waste my time goofing around with hand tools because I don’t trust myself with the quality of the end result then.
    With kind regards Richard Somers

  21. Timothy Moor says:

    He Steve,

    What a great blog to read, and I can clearly see your passion about the hand tools. It gave me a different perspective to hand tools, and there simplicity. I thinks that we sometimes forget the implementations off hand tools and often tend to use power tools. Hand tools are a bit underrated, but when you think about the purpose an efficiency they become a greater deal.
    Off course for production work you need machines, it is a bit tedious to make an entire kitchen with a handsaw and a hand plane. But for a small workspace hand tools are great an can give a great result.

    Kind regards,
    Timothy Moor

  22. Rhys says:

    Hey Steve,
    Truly a fascinating way of viewing your tools. People often forget that the more modern/complex tools could do the job but the older/ more simple tools could do just the same and often make the process so much more rewarding. The most simple tools I posses right know would be my chisel and marking knife and I absolutely love them. They just give me this feeling of really doing all the work. Perhaps I could work faster and yes, maybe it would be more accurate but with skill I will gradually overcome that gap and it certainly makes it more fun to do my work.

    Keep up the good work,
    Rhys

  23. Geert P. says:

    Hi Steve,

    the way you look at your tools is intriguing. I also can find the joy in using tools that are as minimalistic as possible. i think it is beautiful if you think about all the possebility’s there are when you are using a simple tool like a chisel, only if you are willing to see them. on the other hand, i also find is mesmerising to watch some tools which are really complex do their job. to think of all the parts that have to fit together and do their job just right so that the end result is perfect. lets not forget that although traditional woodworking is in my opinion one of the most beautiful things, there is a whole world of new possebilitys with all the development in tools that is happening right now. keep on the good work and good luck with any further projects.

    Geert

  24. Tanya says:

    Dear Steve,

    After reading your blog I took a look at my own toolbox and to my surprise I looked at my tools in a different way.
    I did not look at them in one piece but saw them in many different parts.
    It’s kind of funny how tools that you almost use every day suddenly looks so different.
    I never thought about it that way but I think you are right when you say that when a tool has less parts, the less can go wrong. And it is easier to fix it when it breaks.

    Kind regards
    Tanya

  25. Jack says:

    Hi Steve,

    What a nice vision of hand tools do you have. I have never looked to hand tools like you, because I use at school mostly machines and sometimes hand tools. We can make some nice things at school with machines, but it’s even better to make it with hand tools like they did hundred years ago. At school we made in the first class our own wooden hammer. That’s was a nice project. And we also learned how our block plane is assembled and which parts it consists of. Maybe next year I want to do my internship by a company who work like the old-fashioned way, because I want to be all-round and not only with machines, but also with hand tools.

    Kind regards,

    Jack

  26. Rainier says:

    Dear Steve
    I just love simple tools. I teach myself to become a bowyer. There is nothing so reliable as simple tools. In my standard kit has for example a drawknife, axe, chisels and a planer of course. With those tools I am able to make every bow I want to. Of course power tools makes everything go all lot faster. But in the and you can always rely on you basic tools. Especially the sharpening stones are very important. Without those almost al the sharp tool become useless. I hope you can visited us in the Netherlands someday to teach the student hire to see the value of these basic tools.
    Rainier

  27. Denzel Bruinsma says:

    Dear steve,
    I like how you have a whole different perspective on tools. I personally would not look at my tools the way you do, I just use them for my projects and that’s it, before reading this blog all my tools were just my tools with no special thinking involved, but after reading your blog I have a whole different view on my tools. the upcoming times that I will buy tools, I will remember that simplicity is sometimes worth more than complexity, especially when a tool breaks down. Thank you for sharing your story with us and keep up the good work.
    Greetings from the Netherlands,
    Denzel Bruinsma

  28. Koen says:

    Dear Steve,

    What a great blog to read, counting parts is something I have heard of before. ‘’The fewer parts, the less there is to go wrong’’, that is true but I think that doesn’t mean that the tool actually breaks less. There are less ways of how it can break but I don’t think it has a lower chance of breaking. Now that I read the quote again, it doesn’t actually say that a tool has a lower chance of breaking, it just has less ways to break. Anyway, maybe I misunderstood the quote … or think to much. Let me know.

    By the way could you tell me what kind of wood the hammers and chisels are made of? They look terrific!

    Kind regards,
    Koen

  29. olivier de klerk says:

    Dear Steve,
    In a way it is fun to count parts of the tools, if i had the time 😉
    I never thought simple tools like that had so many parts and it is fun that just a small text can change my perspective like that.
    It was fun to read your blog and i hope you dont get to annoyed by al the students commenting on your blog.
    Have a good day,

    Olivier

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