The Right Tool for the Job

As a child growing up in the 80s, my main exposure to woodworking came from watching “The New Yankee Workshop” on public television (our local afflilate never carried “The Woodwright’s Shop”; come to think of it, they still don’t). Norm Abrams was the only woodworker I had access to, so naturally, my early education in the craft came with a heavy dose of electron power. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this.

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The one thing I remember about Norm was that he had a tool, gizmo or gadget for everything. The walls of the shop were lined with jigs, the cabinets and drawers stuffed full of routers, drills, bits and blades. There wasn’t a single task that he didn’t have a specialized tool for. It was awe inspiring and intimidating at the same time. I mean how could I build this stuff if I didn’t have all of those tools?

Fast forward to high school shop class. This was my first real exposure to a working shop. Our high school had a pretty impressive wood shop. It was pretty much a commercial shop, with a huge cyclone on the outside of the building, top of the line (at the time) stationary machinery from Delta/Rockwell, all the hand held power tools you could possibly need, and a floor standing cabinet stocked with the few hand tools that might be required (are we really going to use those?). With a high school shop like this, and Norm, being my only real exposure to woodworking at the time, I was now certain, that all of these tools were necessary in order to be a good woodworker.

My interest in hand tools really wasn’t sparked until about 10 years ago. I was working the night shift, so in the slow hours of late evening, I had the chance to do a little internet surfing to pass the time. I was really into woodworking at the time and had most of the power tools one might expect a home shop to have, so I was simply surfing random woodworking sites when I ran across an internet forum called Badger Pond. Part of this forum was the Neadnerthal Heaven hand tool only section. After reading the new posts and the archives for several nights, I was intrigued. This “unplugged” style of woodworking really appealed to the minimalist in me. The rest, as they say, is history. Ten years later, here I am.

When I started working with hand tools, I did so with a minimalist mindset. In fact, I still believe that one can do a lot more on a limited budget and with a limited tool kit by using hand tools instead of power tools. I tried to demonstrate this using a fairly limited tool kit while building the tea table for the podcast. However, as I’ve become more engrossed in the traditional aspect of the craft, I’ve come to the realization that even in the hand tool world, minimalism has its limitations.

When most people first start getting interested in hand tools, their first experience is typically with a hand plane. To be more specific, a bench plane, likely a smooth plane, as a substitute for the tedious sanding that we all love so much. However, while the bench planes seem to be the most popular of the hand tools today, when we really start to look at the hand tools historically used in this craft, the bench planes are only a very small part of the traditional tool kit. Look at many period inventories of cabinet shops and you’ll likely find over 60 planes. You really only need 3 bench planes, so what are all the other planes for?

Planes aren’t the only tool you’ll often see listed in large numbers in these old inventories. Chisels are typically numerous as well. While a modern woodworker might have a set of 6 or 8 chisels, it wasn’t uncommon for a period inventory to have 40 or 50 chisels listed. Likewise, there might be 15 to 20 saws listed. Why so many seemingly similar tools? The answer is quite simple actually. Just like today’s woodworkers who might have a large collection of router bits, saw blades and sanding belts, period woodworkers had the right tool for the job.

Think about it in this sense. In a modern production shop, you might have several options for making a dado across a board’s width. You could build a special jig for a router; you could saw the sides of the dado on a table saw with your regular thin kerf blade and a panel sled, removing the waste in between with several more passes; or you could use a dado stack in a dedicated radial arm saw and do it in one pass. If time was money, what would you choose?

Period hand tool shops were no different. Time was indeed money. So they had specialized tools set up to do specific jobs easily and quickly. Sure, they could have sawed the sides of the dado with a hand saw, removed the waste with a chisel, then cleaned up the bottom of the joint with a router plane. But it’s very slow to do it this way. If you have several dados to make in a large case piece, it could take a significant amount of time. It’s much faster to simply nail on a fence and use a dedicated dado plane.

Saws were no different. You might think that a hand tool only shop needs only two long hand saws; one crosscut saw and one rip saw. You certainly could get by with only these two (I have for years), but would it be effecient using the same rip saw you use to rip 3/4″ thick pine to rip 12/4 maple? I can tell you from experience, it’s not. My experience using a 5½ point rip saw to rip 12/4 maple can be equated to using a dovetail saw to rip 4/4. Slow and sweaty doesn’t even begin to describe the event.

It’s experiences like these that have prompted me to rethink my minimalist approach to the craft, and seek out other, more specialized tools as I try to further my understanding of traditional woodworking. I do still believe that if you’re just starting out, you can get further with a far smaller budget and far fewer tools by going the hand tool route. However, as you begin to tackle more complex projects using only hand tools, the minimalist approach begins to reveal its limitations. Even in the hand tool world, there is a right tool for every job.

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10 thoughts on “The Right Tool for the Job

  1. Hear here Bob! You’re so right. A lot can be accomplished with a minimal tool set, as I discovered when using my son-in-law’s workshop / basement recently. Yet, it’s so much nicer having the right tools for the job.

    My set of hand tools is still quite small, but I bought 2 new saws yesterday. 🙂

    I think there’s a chisel buy coming on too. How often can a rat tail file be used to mimic the cuts left by a #8 sweep?

    Great article!

    • Bob,
      Thanks! I am planning on adding a few more saws to my nest as well. I’ve been making do for awhile, but I think the time has come to add some dedicated saws to the family. My first is going to be a 20″ Wenzloff panel saw kit; a little treat to myself.

  2. Love this post. I was interested in North Bennet Street School awhile back and just to get a feel for what they teach, and what it would cost me, I asked to see the list of tools that students must have. I was told that info was only available to accepted students. I didn’t like the attitude and did not pursue it.

    But the question remains. Just getting into the hand tool world, how do I know when I’m supposed to be sweaty? I try to buy tools as I go. Fewer is better for me right now, although I take your general point. I’ve often wished I had more options. Sometimes I just don’t know if it’s me or the tool that’s the problem.

    The forums are helpful, and there’s more info than ever available. I’m just wondering which sites you think would be most helpful in learning about the best saw for 12/4 maple and dressing that scrap tiger maple I’m afraid to touch with my three Stanley bench planes.

    Thanks again for your generosity.

    • Dan,
      I’m really surprised that NBSS wouldn’t share the tool list as a prospective student since the tools really do need to be considered as part of the tuition, even though they stay with you long after.

      How do you know when you’re supposed to be sweaty? Well, that’s hard to say. What kind of shape are you currently in ;)!? Seriously though, I don’t really get that physically taxed unless I’m fore planing some really gnarly stuff, very quickly (at workout pace)…..or using my 5½ point rip saw to rip 12/4 maple :). Very rarely am I sweating profusely. I work at a comfortable pace. After all, I’m trying to enjoy this, I don’t want to think of it as work.

      Regarding specific sites for learning this stuff, unfortunately, I don’t have any specific recommendations that are going to give you all the answers. I don’t think any of us have them all. All I can say is that it’s hard to learn by just visiting sites, reading books/magazines and watching videos. The best advise I can give you is to experiment, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Most of what I learned was by going out in the shop and doing. Sure, I read a lot, but that only gets you so far. You really need to try for yourself as what works for me may not be the best solution for you. As for the best saw for 12/4 maple, well that depends on who you ask. Most folks will tell you a bandsaw :D, but as you know, that’s not my style ;). I’ll be looking for a very coarse pitched hand saw. My 5½ point ripper is set up perfectly for things like 4/4-6/4 pine and poplar. For thicker stuff, I think something like a 3 point saw would work better. But I can’t say for sure until I try it for myself. When I find one, you can bet I’ll try it out and report back here. As for your figured maple, just make your irons really sharp, and give it a go. If you are afraid to try, you’ll never find out now will you ;). If you try it and have trouble, shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help you out. But I’ll need to know what problems you are having. Right now, it sounds like the problem is getting the courage to get started ;). Just try it. I can’t tell you what the grain is gong to do because I’m not looking at the boards (and even then I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you; figured stuff is hard to read). The worst that happens is that you make a little firewood, learn something about using hand planes, and have a little fun in the process. That doesn’t sound too bad to me. Your Stanley planes are certainly capable of handling the wood. You just have to learn to set them up to do it ;). I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, but really, you have to try it and experiment until you get the result you want. Internet and magazines and videos can help, but ultimately, you have to be able to do it, and the only way to really learn it is to do it, make mistakes, and make adjustments until you get it. Keep my email handy and I’ll do my best to help!

      • Bob: Just to clarify, in fairness to NBSS, they do publish an estimated budget for the hand tools required. If I recall it was around $3000 back 10 years ago. I just wanted the list to see which tools I’d still have to buy and to get a sense of their methods.

        Thanks again for your offer to assist in my experimentation. When I can get back to my shop, you’ll know it.

  3. Great post, Bob. I couldn’t agree more that you can accomplish much with a minimalist tool set but that more is better, IF you’ve mastered, or are at least accomplished with that minimalist tool set.

    I think too often people get spooled up in tool acquisition mode (hand tools and/or power tools)always chasing the “right” tool that will accomplish a task they can’t make happen with the tools they have. In many ways this is a simple extension of the fact that we all watched Norm show us yet another $200 set of router bits to do a single task.

    There is much to be said for what one can learn by using few tools to accomplish much..at least I tell myself that as I lust after this or that tool I don’t own 🙂

    • Larry,
      You make an excellent point. Simply going out and buying every hand tool you can lay your hands on is just as bad as not having the right tools. If you don’t have the skills to use them, the tools do you no good. That is precisely why I always recommend newcomers pick a project first before buying any tools at all. Then let the project dictate their first tool purchases so they have exactly what they need to complete their project, and can master their use before moving on. While having the right tools to do a job effeciently makes tasks faster and potentially more pleasurable to do, one should master the basic tools and skills before moving on to more complex projects and more specialized tools. Only as we gain experience with the basic tools can we understand what their limitations truly are and therefore see the benefit of the more specialized tools.

  4. I know what you mean, but consider this. I spent a lot of time, effort, and money buying used power tools because I didn’t know any better. I’m not sure how I got on the hand tools path, but having seen your sawing techniques video, I looked on my table saw with disgust. A good rip saw (easily sharpened, by the way) along with a plain old jack plane can do pretty much everything I could do with that table saw. Oh it’s slower. But that table saw is messy, expensive, and dangerous. Honestly, it scares the hell out of me and if yours doesn’t scare the hell out of you, you’ve become too familiar with it. If I were working in a production shop, the table saw, jointer, etc. etc., would be not only justifiable, but necessary. But I don’t make things out of wood for a living, and the hand tools are more than adequate, make mistakes slower, and are not nearly as dangerous as the powerized versions. One thing I think I’ll keep is a circular saw. Plywood is a useful material for many applications, and I don’t like what it does to hand saws. Other than that, I’m giving serious thought to getting rid of most of the other stuff.

    • Jay,
      Thank you for the comment! Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating anyone go out and get a tablesaw (or bandsaw or whatever power tool, unless that’s what you want). I don’t own a tablesaw, bandsaw or any other woodworking power tool for that matter. My main point in using the router/tablesaw/dado stack analogy was to demonstrate that having a specialized tool (the dado stack in a radial arm saw in my analogy) can make a job faster and more effecient. This same rationale applies to hand tools as well. To use your jack plane as an example, you could certainly take rough lumber to finished just using the jack plane alone. But the more you start doing this by hand, the more you realize that there is a lot of benefit to having dedicated bench planes, jack, try and smoother, set up for different parts of the task.

  5. Bob,

    This post has interesting timing. I was in my shop last night breaking down some Walnut into table parts. My nest of saws really came through for me. Going from 8 foot boards into shorter lengths was done quickly and cleanly with an 8 point crosscut. Ripping them to close width was done with my 5.5 point rip and that roughed out the parts for the top and legs. As my stock started to get tight and I needed to navigate around sapwood to eek out the parts for the aprons and drawer front I needed more precision so I switch over to a pair of rip and crosscut panel saws in 10 and 12 tpi pitches. This slowed down the cut but saved a lot of planing time to try the edges and allowed me to split my layout lines. I haven’t even gotten to joinery yet, but ended up using 4 different saws to maximize the stock yield. Tools are great, but lets make sure we use them right?

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