A few years ago I wanted to take a woodworking class on using hand tools. The Des Moines Woodworkers Association had just hosted a weekend seminar by Marc Adams at the Woodsmith Store in Des Moines and he got me really psyched up about taking a class at his school. Unfortunately, his hand tool classes were already filled up. So I did a seach online and found out about a woodworking school in Texas. It turned out to be a great experience and I’ve become good friends with Paul Sellers, the director of the School of Woodworking at the Homestead Heritage Craft Village, near Waco.
Paul is also a published woodworking author and is working on a book about hand tools and how to use them. He builds custom furniture for sale and some of his most distinctive pieces, like this Rocking Chair, sell for thousands of dollars.
Paul trained as an apprentice in England as a young man. He gained valuable experience using a combination of hand tools and power machinery, that he feels is sorely lacking today. In fact, Paul feels so strongly about the lack of educational opportunities for young people, especially in the woodworking field, that he thinks it has had an adverse effect on our lives. As he says, “… we’ve reached a crisis point in woodworking for children that sometimes I think it is irreversible.”
I used hand tools exclusively during my class at the John C. Campbell Folk School, and firmly believe that without the week-long hand tool foundational class that I took a few years ago at Homestead Heritage, I would not have gotten nearly as much from the chairmaking class as I did.
Paul and I were trading emails recently and got to talking about how most woodworking schools are all about power tools. I asked him why he felt that laying a foundation for learning to use hand tools was so important? He has strong feelings about hand tools that go beyond his desire to teach their usage, or his ability to attract students to his woodworking school. The following is his thoughtful response to my question:
Hand Tools Versus Machines
First, let me say that I was trained in a well-balanced apprenticing workplace for five years using hand tools and power machines. I’d never seen an all-power woodworking facility until I came to the US.
Here I discovered that almost all of the woodworkers I came into contact with worked with machines only, albeit scaled-down versions of industrial models. I was shocked when I saw the mental and physical contortions woodworkers went through to develop and use jigs and guides to perform even the simplest woodworking tasks, like recessing a door hinge or cutting a dovetail, and when I considered the hazardous effects commonly associated with long term exposure to machine use; personal injury, wood-related diseases caused by machine dust and the physical discomfort of wearing protective equipment for ear, eye, nose, throat and lung protection, and also hours of wasted shop time.
I found this type of woodworking to be the norm rather than the exception, yet I’ve met thousands of fellow woodworkers who, had they had the opportunity to apprentice in some way, would have developed more substantive skills of craftsmanship working with hand tools. With no one to teach them the basic fundamentals of using hand tools the only remaining option was to embrace machine woodworking. Most woodworkers that I have met, whether amateur, semi-professional or professional, love working with wood, no matter what skill level they have attained. I then saw that, in the years that changed the face and the dynamic of woodworking, each successive generation knew less about true hand craftsmanship and more about the industrialized methods.
Even in public schools machine-only methods took over, and so the latter then lost all connection with the former. Incremental changes over several successive decades, so-called advances in technology, led to a complete disconnect, severing those unique relationships intrinsic to mentoring craftsmanship. With no context to engender the kind of care it takes to produce accurate and fine handwork, many of the methods craftsmen once relied on to create masterpieces must now be relearned and even rediscovered.
Most of those interested in woodworking today would naturally believe that all of the traditional methods, skills and techniques were improved on by better engineering and therefore that the machine replaced those methods with something better, but that’s not the case. Hand tool methods were never abandoned because they didn’t work; they work extremely well. They were abandoned because they didn’t keep pace with the whole process of mass-market technology industrializing a society. In that process there was no place for developing the creative, intuitive aspects of true and substantive craftsmanship.
Hand tool woodworking demands a relational, experiential approach to gain the essential knowledge a person needs to work with wood successfully. I find that inspiration comes through personal discovery. Yet, in the wake of this industrial “evolution,” such forgotten knowledge now lies buried under successive layers of so-called industrial progress. Yet for the main part, at least ninety-five percent of the over two thousand woodworkers I have personally taught, who I believe represent a good cross-section of the woodworking populous, had never successfully sharpened a chisel or used a hand plane until they learned it here at Homestead Heritage. Once they did, it was like a fresh awakening, and a whole new and expansive world of woodworking possibilities opened up before them.
Children and Machines
An unfortunate byproduct of this whole development, one of the things we fail to balance in the equation, is the reality that woodworking has now become an adult craft. Children must now wait until they are more mature physically and mentally to cope with the industrial substitute and its mass of related equipment. No one can responsibly put a child between the ages of 6 and 16 on most modern-day woodworking machines. No matter how many safety guards you place and procedures you enforce, children do not belong in an industrial shop, even if it’s now disguised in a domestic situation like the garage or home shop.
Leaving children out of the shop until they attain the necessary maturity is to the miss the narrow window of opportunity that for most of them may only come once. The best years to learn any craft are between the ages of 10 and 20 years. That’s when all of the synapses come together. That’s when the senses are the most acutely aware and children are the most receptive. It’s through this type of exposure that vocational calling becomes a reality. Vocation, from the word vocal or voice, originally meant to answer a calling. Few young people today will find such a calling in woodworking, and to me it’s no wonder since most children today will never work with wood in any real way.
Simple skills and hand tools once commonly used in home and school workshops are all but gone. Yet the very methods that I’m talking about, the pre-machine era methods, were ideal for training young people to strengthen their character and work with their hands.
Touching the Senses—Communication
Unlike machine woodworking, hand tool woodworking methods touch all of the five senses. They demand your complete attention but in the most positive sense of the word. By its very nature, woodworking with hand tools by necessity requires that you fully engage in the whole process because you now supply all of the power, give direction to the course of the tool and, by what you see, feel and hear, determine all the necessary micro-adjustments to use the tool to its optimal level according to those senses. That’s what the senses are for. The machine, on the other hand, also needs focused attention, but it’s a different kind of attention in that now your main focus is on personal safety and concern for your material. One slip and a finger or even a whole limb can be lost or at best your board may be kicked across the shop by one of those 3hp motors.
Power equipment relies on two things: speed and force. High revolutions to drive the teeth or cutting edge of the blade and the fact that you are always pushing directly in towards those cutting edges mean that there is the constant risk of injury. Two dangers exist that accompany machine use. One, when you do it long enough, admittedly you gain confidence, but then you also run the risk of becoming complacent. Two, all too often new woodworkers are self-taught when it comes to using woodworking machinery, they have no experience and no relational working knowledge of the inherent dangers associated with machines to relate to. I’ve learned a hundred times more from the minor injuries and near misses I’ve had than I ever did from someone telling me of the possible dangers or simply reading about them.
When a man works with machines, much of his thought time revolves around personal safety on every level. On the other hand, when he works primarily with hand tools, he rarely thinks about it.
As I said earlier, unfortunately it’s the young people of this present-day culture that have lost the valuable links to the past. Dust masks, ear and eye protection, sensors, guards and fences, dust extraction and so the list goes on are now the norm and of course all are necessary by-products of industrialism. They are essential to the personal and public safety of others and the well-being of modern-day woodworkers the world over, regardless of age. For me though, because I’ve mastered certain basic hand skills, wearing such safety equipment is only necessary for a few hours per week. But the machine-dominated woodworker must wear such equipment throughout most of his working day if he wants to minimize potential health risks and hazards that may well be long-term and even irreversible.
In the final analysis, you see it’s not simply a question of efficiency and economy, but more a matter of fulfillment and quality of life. I want to encourage others to preserve the best of the past and combine it with the good things of today, so that they complement one another. I have found that hand-tool skill is so intrinsic to fine woodworking that much of the finest woodworking ever accomplished was done so without the use of any machine. Stradivarius violins and cellos are still considered the finest ever made, and timbered intereriors of massive cathedral roofs with dozens of yards of finely crafted decoration to the most exacting of standards were carved centuries ago.
Another key issue with machine woodworking is the reality that all too often machine woodworkers never fully experience the personal relational knowledge only possible through using hand tool methods. Not only are all species of woods different, but so too the grains within the species vary from one board to the next, and even within each board. By working so closely with the grain and fiber of the wood, a certain understanding of the wood begins to develop that cannot be gained any other way. Working the wood with hand tools gives the most direct contact, and by working the wood this way, feeling the response of the tool to the wood through the tool as an extension of your hand, you gain the knowledge and understanding I am talking about.
As you work the wood fibers with hand tools, you find yourself in a constant state of awareness, yet at the same time unconsciously micro-adjusting the course and direction of the tool’s cutting edge in a minute-by-minute symbiosis only possible by the discipline of using hand tools.
Having said all of this, many might say that I advocate hand tool woodworking only and that machines should be abandoned for the old ways. That’s far from true. In my shop I use power equipment, particularly for dimensioning the wood, ripping, surface-planing and so on. Yet, most of the actual crafting of a piece of furniture is done by hand, and because I can use hand tools, planes, scrapers and so on, I no longer need to sand with coarse-grit papers, which then reduces my sanding by about 80%.
Furthermore, because I hand planed and scraped my surfaces to be free from machine saw and planer marks, I can hand sand without using any mechanical sander. I no longer have to wear a dust mask, ear protection, eye protection and so on. If you never learn to master sharpening and using a handful of tools, you have only one option. I am thankful that I can make the choice most woodworkers don’t have.