Versatility or Specialization

Based on period invntories available for 18th and 19th century cabinet shops, one can get a good idea of the common tools that may have been found in a cabinet shop of the time. Further reading of period texts like Joseph Moxon’s Mechanik Exercises or Peter Nicholson’s Mechanic’s Companion gives us some clues as to how period cabinetmakers worked with their tools. One thing that is apparent from both the period inventories and texts is that these shops typically had a good number of tools for specialized tasks.

This brings me to the subject line of this post. In the modern day, it seems we are constantly looking for bigger and better. We want one stop shopping, universal remotes and hybrid SUVs (I still don’t understand this one). In our shops, many of us are looking for more versatile tools, hoping to avoid the purchase of multiple specialized tools that can perform fewer tasks. I too once subscribed to this camp of thinking. However, as my skills continue to develop, I’m finding that more versatile usually does not mean better. Even worse, it usually means more effort and time to complete a task.

Versatility can be a good thing is some cases, but there are also drawbacks. When something becomes more versatile and less specialized, it usually means that you give something up that made the specialized version…well special, and usually better. I do like being able to go to the local big box home improvement store to get all of my plumbing, lumber, electrical and landscape supplies for the weekend’s projects in one trip. However, have you ever needed help in one of these stores? If you need to talk to someone who actually knows something about plumbing, electrical or roofing, you’re SOL. When I need to talk to someone knowledgable, I still go to the specialty store.

The same can be said for our tools. One of the most common questions that comes up for new woodworkers is what plane to buy first. Without hesitation a slew of recommendations will be made for a tool with the most versatility. There is a problem with this approach, however. In my experience (yes I have used them), while these planes can be made to perform a lot of different tasks, they typically don’t do any one thing particularly well. They are too short to be a good jointer or try plane, and they are unnecessarily long and heavy for smoothing work (though they do smooth just as well as a good smoother if set up properly).

Can one of these tools perform all of these tasks, sure, but it requires a lot of additional effort and time, as well as constant changes to the tool’s setup. If you do most of your work with machines and want a plane just for general smoothing and trimming, a smooth plane will serve you better. If you want to hand flatten panels or joint edges, a jointer or try plane will server you much better. Our ancestors knew this and therefore had tools set up for specific tasks that they could just pick up and use. This was an absolute necessity for them to be able to get a piece done quickly and done well.

I liken it to a modern shop with job specific machines. You could joint your boards with your planer with some ingenuity and a few jigs, but would you want to? Is the additional time required worth it? Probably not. You could size a board to width with your jointer or planer, but would you want to? A table or band saw makes this super fast and effecient. The way I see it, your hand tools should follow suit. Anyone who has tried to face a board with only a jack plane should be able to attest. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute to having the right tool for the job.

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2 thoughts on “Versatility or Specialization

  1. Bob,

    I have to agree with your excellent analysis of specialization, there just isn’t one wonder tool to get all jobs done efficiently.

    When asked ‘which plane to buy?’, I say a joiner, jack or fore plane, smoother, rabbit and toothing plane. ‘But that is 5 planes?’, to which I say that is a good starting place. You can’t properly or easily plane boards flat without at least 3 planes. Of course you could but it wouldn’t be efficient.

    Thanks for the post.

    Stephen

    • Thanks Stephen! I understand the concept and desire for a more versatile tool, but most of the time it just doesn’t work out. What really surprises me though is how many folks who do their stock prep by machine opt for a jack/fore plane. I never understood this choice. Back when I used to do stock prep with machines, before selling them, I never used my jack plane. The jointer was used for final flattening or jointing after the machines and the smoother was used for smoothing. The jack plane was just not as good at performing these tasks as the task specific planes. Once I started using hand tools to do stock prep, the jack plane became invaluable. For machine users wanting a plane for final truing and smoothing, I say skip the jack plane and get yourself a jointer and smoother. They will be the workhorses in a modern hybrid hand tool/machine shop.

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