What is “Hand Made”?

It’s a hot topic that always manages to ruffle some feathers. There are lots of opinions on what constitutes “hand made”. At one extreme are folks, often deemed the “purists”, who believe that the use of electrons in any way shape or form immediately disqualifies a project from the “hand made” category. At the other extreme are those who believe that anything not “manufactured” on a factory assembly line qualifies as “hand made”, even though the only hand tool to touch the project was the rag used to rub out the final coat of paste wax. Then there are those in the middle (i.e. the majority of us), who work with both kinds of tools. Can’t we all just get along?

Of course everyone has an opinion on the true definition of “hand made”. So who’s right? The answer, at least as far as the hobbiest is concerned, is neither; and both. Got it? No?

Well, in truth, there’s no standard definition as to what constitutes that something is “hand made”. So as with many things, it comes down to interpretation. Even in the world of period reproductions you will have propnents on both sides of the debate. I have two opinions about the subject. One is specific to the commercial world and those advertising their wares as “hand made” in order to entice potential customers. That interpretation, however, is the subject of another post.

Since I do this as a hobby, and since I’m sure 99.9% of the readers of this blog are in the same boat, I want to talk about how I interpret hand made as it applies to the hobbiest. In my opinion, when it comes to the hobbiest, it absolutely doesn’t matter to me one iota how much of your work you do with hand tools and whether or not you consider your projects “hand made” (which I’m sure you probably do). The reason is that it has zero impact on me or the way in which I work. I love hand tools. I love using hand tools. I even like doing the “grunt” work with hand tools (most of the time).

But I also realize that not everyone is like me. Not everybody wants to work the way I do. Not everyone is physically capable of working the way I do. But it doesn’t matter. Your work is your work. Whether or not you surface your stock by hand or machine, rip with a Disston or a Delta, or scroll with a bowsaw or a bandsaw, it matters not to me. What is important is that you enjoy the hobby the way you do it. As a hobbiest, the only person you have to answer to is yourself. If you aren’t happy with the way your current setup is working, you can change it.

I occasionally get an apology from someone building the tea table that always makes me chuckle. They will typically talk about their experiences building the project and how much fun it has been to build, but apologize because they used a bandsaw instead of a bowsaw, or because they ran the rough stock through the planer instead of hand planing. They write this as if I’m somehow going to be disappointed because they didn’t do it just like I did. I have to laugh, but then politely reply that I’m glad that they found a solution that worked for them. That’s what being a hobbiest is about. Finding a way that works for you. I do things the way I do them because that’s what I enjoy. If I didn’t, I’d be podcasting how to use a bandsaw to make cabriole legs instead of a rip saw. If you like my way that’s great. If you have another solution that works better for you, that’s great too. As long as you are having fun.

How much hand tool work went into your projects is irrelevant. In the end, it’s your project. You have to live with it. You have to be happy with it. You have to be satisfied with the process you used to complete it. Whether or not it fits your definition of “hand made” is completely up to you. The definition in this sense really only applies to your work and your interpretation of your work.

Here’s my interpretation as I apply it to my own work. If the final fit, finish and composition is a direct result of the work of my hands, then in my eyes, that piece can be called “hand made”. If the appearance and surfaces are not a direct reflection of the work of my hands, then I do not consider that piece to be hand made.

Here’s a little example I like to use. Consider a turned spindle for a table leg. I could use an electric lathe to turn the spindle and I would still consider the piece hand made. That’s because the shape of that spindle and the crispness of the details are all controlled by the tools that I am manipulating with my own hands. The motor serves only to turn the wood. In contrast, if I were to rig up one of those automatic duplicator things to my spring pole lathe, I would not consider that hand made. Even though there was no electrical power used, my hands did not cut the shape of that spindle. It was cut by a machine (which the duplicator technically is even though it does not have a motor).

In that vein, we can look at some pieces and apply a similar definition. Take a Maloof rocker. Would I consider this hand made? Absolutely! He may have used a die grinder to do the shaping, but it was his hands controlling the tool and ultimately the composition of the final piece. Similarly, a Krenov cabinet has a great deal of hand sculpting to finesse the final composition and appearance. He may have rough cut many of the parts on a table saw and band saw, but it was his hands that turned those boards into a thing of beauty. By contrast, a shaker table that had it’s rough milling done on the jointer, planer and table saw, its joinery cut with a mortising machine and router, and it’s surface hand planed, would not meet my interpretation of hand made as I apply it to my own projects.

So to get back to the original question, “What is hand made?” The answer is, as far as we hobbiests are concerned, whatever you interpret it to be. It’s your work. Call it whatever you like, as long as you have fun with it!

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6 thoughts on “What is “Hand Made”?

  1. Guess when it gets down to it, I’m willing to bet all of our projects are tool made. Rather the tool has a motor or not isn’t what it important, router inlay is certainly handmade IMO. However, when you make a project where every step is pretty much brainless (minus the safety aspect of course) pushing wood through the machine, I would have to say your hobby is more machine set-up than woodworking.

  2. The meaning of “hand made” just doesn’t make a whole lot of difference IMO. In any case, “hand made” is just too vague a term to try to attach a very specific meaning to and doesn’t have a strict meaning in ordinary use by most people. Language evolves.

    I was one of the people “apologizing” for my use of power tools to make the tea table; you may recall that I called my bandsaw a “power bowsaw” for humor’s sake. This is your fault! You are one of the most prominent advocates for the all hand tool approach that I know of. Though I will likely never go all the way, I really appreciate that, learn from it and am strongly influenced by it. (In fact, I am waiting anxiously for you to guide me to my next step after the tea table. I notice that you say a B&C Dressing Table is coming soon. Is that it?) When communicating with you, or on your blog, I think it is appropriate to indicate when power tools are used. That’s your world. This is a good thing, I think, and IMO it should continue.

    • I agree. The meaning of “hand made” is really up to the individual using the term. It’s really irrelevant outside of one’s own world.

      I wasn’t intending to call you out by the way :). But you weren’t the only one. I received several similar emails. I can certainly appreciate the use of a “power bowsaw”. I often wish I had a “power ripsaw”. Ripping 12/4 walnut with a hand saw isn’t a lot of fun. A bandsaw serves both purposes real nicely. It’s the one power saw I would put back into my shop if I had the space.

      As for the next big thing, well, I have to finish the current big thing first :oops:. Someday when that entertainment center is finally done, the B&C dressing table will get finished as well. It’s already started. The legs are all shaped and the mortises are chopped. No point in filming that part since it’s the same as the tea table. Next up is the carving of the B&C foot and the knees (still deciding on the pattern for the knees). Plus, this one will have a different style transition block at the knee (over the apron as opposed to the under the apron style used on the tea table). I was supposed to do some of it over the Christmas holiday. That didn’t happen. Hopefully sometime this summer. The entertainment center bottom cases are just about done.

  3. This is in essence, a David Pye notion. In his book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” he talks about industrial practice “Workmanship of certainty” and the cough::Better!::cough craftsman’s approach, “Workmanship of risk”. In industry a machine is set up, every part coming off of it is identical and as intended, in the studio/workshop, the “oh, F***” moment is averted by skill and practice.

    Skill and practice, so much more gratifying than noise, monotony and automation.

  4. These are my words that I have been saying all along, I am so glad that you have written this it gets tiring trying to explain people the difference. Next time I will save my speech and just refer them to this post.

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