I sometimes hear dedicated hand-tool woodworkers praise the way that woodworkers of yore built splendid pieces of furniture without the aid of power tools, with the implication that we, too, should work in that totally “unplugged” way.
I used to say things like that back in my 20s. I worked 100% with hand tools for several years out of sheer necessity. I enjoyed the work and took too much pride in my hand-tool-only methods. I was in my 30s when I was offered a couple of good, used stationary power tools (a band saw and drill press among them), and I welcomed them into my shop and into my workflow.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t do all my work by hand. But I was getting tired of it. Physically tired of it.
What we forget about those unplugged woodworkers of yore is that a lot of them also worked themselves into early graves. In England in 1800, the average life expectancy for male nobles was only 54. We can only imagine that it was somewhat lower for joiners, cabinet makers, and other people who made their living by the sweat of their brows.
I’m currently in my early 40s. If I were a full-time joiner working in pre-industrial England, I would already be nearing the end of my career–especially if I had been apprenticed at 13 or 14 and attained journeyman status by 20 or 21. While I might get lucky and remain healthy enough to work into my early 60s, I could reasonably expect to see no more than another decade before I bit the (saw)dust.
But I don’t live in pre-industrial England. I live in post-industrial America, where my life expectancy is upwards of 80 (based on family history). I started working wood about 15 years ago, and I would really like to still be able to work wood when I’m in my 70s. But if I want to do that, I’ve got to take care of my body.
I was thinking about all this recently as I was experimenting with making wooden bowls. I had some sections of a poplar log that I thought would make some nice vessels, and I thought a long time about how I would hollow them out. Long ago, an adze would have been used for the bulk of the stock removal. But I don’t own an adze, nor do I really have the energy to hollow out a log by hand anymore.
Instead, I used my biggest Forstner bit in my drill press to bore out about half the waste. It took me about five minutes and very little physical effort, leaving me plenty of energy for the hand-work that followed.
I had already used my bandsaw to split the log in half, which both removed the pith and left a relatively level surface on which to draw out my bowl.
I followed the machine work with some simple hand tools, mostly a gouge and mallet. Because the wood was still very wet, it cut easily with sharp tools.
The finished product retains no sign of power-tool use. Every surface has been finished by hand, but because I used my power tools to do the initial, rough work, my hands still had energy to do the rest of the work.
I have had to be realistic about my physical limitations. As early as college, I sustained a repetitive-stress injury to my wrist by playing a musical instrument. And now I sometimes feel similar things happening to my hands and wrists if I spend too many days in a row doing the same kind of work over and over at the workbench, whether that is sawing or planing or sanding. Having a variety of things to make helps some, but I have slowly transitioned to relying on my power tools to do the bulk of the repetitive work, leaving me freer to focus on doing the really precise work (joinery, carving) by hand.
We should respect those pre-industrial woodworkers who accomplished so much working only by hand, but we shouldn’t idealize them. It seems that many of them welcomed the introduction of machinery into their shops as soon as it became available. By the end of the 19th century, English activists were decrying the inhuman conditions of fully mechanized workshops, yet the average life expectancy had risen demonstrably over the course of the century. Was that partly because workers were doing less physically-demanding work than they had a century ago? Perhaps, though there were a lot of other factors (improved sewage and medicine) in play.
Regardless of the causes of increased lifespans, the practical result is that we can reasonably expect (though are by no means guaranteed) to spend decades beyond middle age, during which we will want to do meaningful work with our bodies. Physical work can be good for the body, but it can also take its toll. After all, your body is the one tool you own that is impossible to replace. And, as a colleague of mine says, replacement parts are very expensive, if they can be found at all!
By all means use your physical abilities to create things, but don’t destroy your body for the sake of creation.