Meet My Dumb Apprentices

When I began working wood in earnest more than 15 years ago, I was working almost exclusively with hand tools, by choice but also by necessity. Most operations–smoothing boards and joining them together–were fun and even efficient with a fairly small set of well-tuned hand tools. But others were not. When it came to thicknessing wood, or sawing thick pieces of wood into thinner ones, I was frustrated.

Back in the days of pre-industrial woodworking (before the 20th century, more or less), professional joiners seem not to have done those operations very much. While they were certainly capable of thicknessing a board by hand or sawing their own veneer out of a board, they mostly bought their wood in standard thicknesses (1/2″, 1″, 2″, etc.) from professional sawyers. But I have been working largely with construction-grade lumber (which comes in standard 1 1/2″ thickness) as well as wood I’ve cut from the log myself, all of which takes a lot of muscle power to dimension by hand.

So over the years, I have integrated a few machines into my workflow. Although I don’t enjoy working with the machines nearly as much as I enjoy working with my hand tools, I do appreciate the way in which they do so much of the necessary grunt-work, freeing me to focus more on doing joinery by hand.

They are my dumb apprentices in the strict sense of the term–inarticulate helpers that serve a humble but necessary purpose.

Bandsaws

My bandsaws are probably the most important power tools I have, and the ones I use the most. I have two: a 14″ Steel City saw and an older 12″ Craftsman saw.

The bigger saw is just right for resawing thick stock into thinner pieces, as well as for breaking sections of logs down into rough boards. I keep a wide resaw blade in it permanently, and some time ago I attached a shop-made outfeed table to the table, greatly increasing the saw’s usefulness.

The smaller Craftsman bandsaw was my first bandsaw, and it continued to earn its keep even after I got the bigger one. I use the Craftsman to rough out blanks for spoons and spatulas. It’s not a powerful saw, but it’s simply-constructed and is fairly easy to keep in working order.

Both of these saws came to me as fixer-uppers, and they have both challenged me to become a troupleshooter/mechanic, replacing or even fabricating worn parts as well as keeping everything adjusted properly. Of all my power tools, my bandsaws are the ones with the most finicky adjustment.

Planer

I do not use my electric planer very often, but when I do need it I am very glad I have it. DeWalt makes two homeowner-grade planers, and this is the larger (13″) one.

As soon as I acquired this planer, I built a wheeled stand for it. Because it is very loud and spews a large amount of wood chips, it is a strictly outdoor tool. I wheel it out into the yard and set it up wherever I think the grass could stand to have a bit of mulch (often near a bare patch). I put in my earplugs, and I start feeding boards into it.

I have been very pleased with how much physical work this tool has saved me. While it won’t make boards straight like a proper jointer would, it does have a long enough bed that minor irregularities can be planed out, resulting in surprisingly straight workpieces that need only smooth planing by hand. And being able to quickly bring several boards down to precisely the same thickness has been very gratifying.

The planer is one of those tools that I emphatically don’t enjoy using. It’s heavy, loud, and messy. But I like the results. So I keep it around.

Drill Press

My drill press might be the only power tool that I actually enjoy using. This floor-standing drill press was made for Craftsman by King Seeley, probably back in the 1950s.

This machine is a workhorse. It purrs like a kitten and has required absolutely no maintenance since I replaced the power cord and switch a few years ago. I also love the art-deco styling, and I wish I could shine it up and keep it in a climate-controlled environment.

I don’t use a drill press all that often in the course of my regular joinery work, so this tool often sits idle. I have, however, been known to drill out large mortises with a Forsner bit before squaring them up with a chisel. With a wire wheel chucked into it, I can gently clean rust off of hand tools I have acquired second-hand.

I use my drill press mainly for pipe-making. Drilling a pipe accurately requires very precise boring, especially of the airway. While I could theoretically do that by hand, the drill press makes such operations predictably accurate.

Bench Grinder

The bench grinder is a dirty, utilitarian tool that I would not be without.

I inherited this grinder from my grandfather. My grandmother remembers him using it to sharpen kitchen knives. It still runs perfectly. On one side I keep a good Norton wheel with a Veritas tool rest, which I use to re-grind chisels and plane irons as necessary. On the other side is a very worn wheel (which was on the grinder when I received it) that I use for rough shaping tasks. I always keep a tub of water nearby for regularly cooling the metal I’m grinding.

While all my other dumb apprentices make direct contact with wood, this one doesn’t. Instead, the grinder keeps other tools in working order. While the vast majority of my sharpening is done at my workbench with traditional whetstones, sometimes an edge gets damaged and needs to be re-ground. That is where the grinder comes into its own. This grinder has saved me a lot of time–and I would rather spend my limited time working wood than trying to hone a chip out of an edge on a whetstone.

Chainsaw

All of the other dumb apprentices you’ve met have been able to stand up on their own, but this last one needs to be carried.

My chainsaw has proved to be an invaluable tool time and again. Not only have I been able to help neighbors clear downed trees after hurricanes, but I’ve used it as I collect wood for spoons and other items as well. When I get a call from a friend who has had a tree come down, whether an oak or a cherry or some other species, I can carry my chainsaw over, cut the log into manageable lengths, and split the log with my sledge and wedges. It’s a perfect balance of modern machine-power and pre-modern muscle-power.

My saw is a Stihl 250 with an 18″ bar, which means that with care I can cut up a log that is over two feet in diameter (as in the picture above). Kept sharp, it cuts quite effectively. It is a dangerous tool, and I never pick it up without a little trepidation. Of all my dumb apprentices, it is the one that could do me the most damage if something went wrong.

I Promise I’m Not Amish

I’m afraid that sometimes I give the impression that I’m dedicated to 100%-unplugged woodworking, maybe out of some weird fascination with Amish ways of life. But that’s not true. I love my hand tools, and perhaps I go on using them partly out of a stubborn desire to resist the corruptions of the modern world–and still more to feel independent. But I do depend on these and other machines to get my work done.

Even though I don’t talk about these machines much on this blog, I would be hard-pressed to identify a project I’ve built in the last five years that hasn’t involved at least one of these machines. So I thought it appropriate introduce my dumb apprentices to you and express my gratitude for all the labor they save me.

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5 Responses to Meet My Dumb Apprentices

  1. Steve – Similar here as to my powered tools – drill press, DeWalt planer, and a Delta 14″ bandsaw with a 6″ riser block and 1.5 hp motor upgrade. Had a 8″ jointer and table saw prior to our move to WV but I feel that I don’t miss them. Have taken to handsaws with a particular preference to Simonds. Haven’t gone the chainsaw route but I recently converted a sweet gum log to lumber to make a wall shelf unit. Don’t really have the space, though for too much lumber. BTW, was wondering where you get your spalted pecan.

    • The pecan comes to me un-spalted. There are lots of old pecan orchards nearby, so the logs can be found pretty easily. I’ve had the best success letting them sit in my yard for a month or two and then splitting them up. If I let the split sections sit under cover for a couple months more, they often spalt nicely. But you have to be careful because the pecan will get soft before you know it. It’s been hard to catch it at just the right time.

  2. Joe says:

    I am a passionate hobby woodworker. I like working with hand tools. I am currently saving up for a bandsaw. As you mentioned, getting a board to proper thickness is by far the last fun thing to do with hand tools. May or may not get a planer (possibly with a combo jointer) down the road. Want to see how well I do with the bandsaw.

    • Good plan! That’s exactly how I started. There are lots of good-quality used bandsaws on the second-hand market. As machines go, they’re pretty easy to repair and keep up. If I didn’t already have my bandsaws set up and in place, I’d be shopping for an old Delta from the 1950s-1970s. A good one will often sell for about half what a comparable new model will cost.

  3. Brian Ward says:

    I think the trio of bandsaw, thickness planer, and drill press is pretty common among those of us who do stuff primarily by hand. (I actually sort of enjoy using the bandsaw, as it seems like there’s much more of a connection to the work itself than with the other ones.)

    Regarding the thickness planer not flattening boards: I highly encourage you to check out the planer sled design that I posted earlier this summer; I developed it especially for the hand-tool oriented type who has a thickness planer.

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