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.
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.