“If Roubo Had a Table Saw…”

I hear some iteration of this phrase more often than I’d like to admit. Typically, it’s when I’m someplace demonstrating a technique and someone feels that they have to make a joke. It’s all good natured fun, I know, at least for the first few hundred times. It gets old though. It typically doesn’t bother me. However, it can be frustrating when the pundits chime in when the subject is specifically about period tools or techniques. This happens more often online than in person, but it has happen plenty of times during my live demonstrations as well. A genuinely curious person specifically asks how a particular task was done before power tools, and it’s inevitable that someone (or several someones) has to chime in to point out (as if it’s never been said before) that if the old guys had a [insert tailed tool of choice here], they would have used it. This really does nothing to help the discussion, and really only serves primarily to let the naysayer’s opinion about these “antiquated techniques” be heard, and make it clear that they think doing certain things by hand is simply too much work, and a complete waste of time. It certainly does nothing to provide the person who asked the question any insight to what they really wanted to know in the first place.

Roubo Table Saw
The very rarely seen table saw plate from Roubo.

I often think about these statements later, while I’m working on a project, and wonder, WWRD (what would Roubo do)? The more I think about it, and the more I do this kind of work, the more I think they actually would not have bothered with a lot of the tools and machines that are typically in use today. In some cases, sure, the machine would certainly have been an asset to their work. But in other cases, I think that the kinds of things they were building and the processes that they used would have made some of our modern machinery more of a hindrance than a help. Here are some examples of how my mind works with regard to the usefulness of some of our modern machines and gadgets when it comes to the amateur woodworker’s shop.

If the old guys had a table saw…

The table saw is frequently cited as the center of the shop and the first tool that any woodworker should get. I had one. I used it when I had it. It was also the very first machine that I got rid of when I started my journey to learn “the old ways”. In my opinion, the table saw is a lousy tool for an amateur home wood shop, unless you plan to use nothing but plywood for everything you make. Table saws take up a ton of space, requiring a lot of open area on at least three sides. Decent ones are extremely expensive (I could equip a shop with an entire basic hand tool kit to build just about anything for the cost of a single cabinet saw). And they practically require one to become a full time jig maker, because other than straight line ripping, they more or less require a new jig in order to safely complete just about every other operation. I so tired of making and adjusting jigs that I was thrilled to be rid of my table saw when I finally sold it.

In my opinion, table saws really were never designed for the home shop. They were designed for a production shop, that makes multiples of the same thing, over, and over, and over. Kitchen cabinets come to mind. If all you want to do is make plywood kitchen cabinets, you should get a table saw. However, if your project interests vary, then a table saw is a really big expense that I think you should avoid. They don’t save a lot of time for one off projects. In this regard, today’s amateur woodworkers are much more similar to period woodworkers than they are to modern production shops. Period shops took orders for custom pieces. They didn’t have warehouses, they didn’t have multiple showroom locations, and they weren’t typically building pieces to spec. As amateurs, most of our work habits are similar. In my own experience, I could crosscut or rip the few boards that I needed for a project in the same or less time than I was spending making jigs and adjusting the setting on the table saw. So it was an easy choice. Bye bye table saw.

If the old guys had a jointer…

I love this one. I think this is absolutely a tool where “the old guys” would have looked at it and just walked away. Most amateur shops today are working with a 6″ jointer. So this limits safe use of the tool to 6″ wide boards and less. However, “the old guys” had access to, and routinely worked with, boards much much wider than this. And for good reason. Wide boards are so much easier to work with than narrow boards. I can hand plane an 18″ wide board flat in the same amount of time it takes me to plane a 6″ wide board flat. However, when the 18″ wide board is done, it becomes a case side. When the 6″ board is done, I still have 2 more to go, then I have to glue up the panel, then I have to plane the panel. So it’s actually way more work for me to use narrower stock than it is for me to use wide stock. The “old guys” would never had used narrower stock to save hand planing at the expense of adding two to three times more time to the process. It would be a waste of glue, it would require more time and it would cost them more money. Nope, don’t think they’d have bothered with this one.

If the old guys had a router…

Several years ago, a gentleman walked up to me while I was chopping out a mortise at a woodworking show and suggested that a router would do the job much faster. I politely smiled, continued working while I chatted with him, and finished the mortise I was working on, and a second one, before he nodded approvingly and walked away. I think he’d have still been setting up his router in the time it took me to chop those two mortises.

Routers to me are like table saws. If you have dozens of mortises to cut (think Morris chair), hundreds of feet of molding to stick (an entire house full of baseboard maybe), or a kitchen full of plywood drawers to dovetail, you might find a router beneficial. But for typical furniture projects, I don’t think they’re that useful. Chopping 8 mortises for a typical table really doesn’t take me that long. Maybe 5 minutes or so per mortise after they’re all laid out. Sticking a furniture length piece of a simple molding with a complex molding plane takes mere minutes; with hollows and rounds, a few more minutes (not to mention hand planed moldings almost ALWAYS have nicer looking profiles than routed moldings). Dovetails for a drawer or two can be hand cut in an hour or less. So thanks, but I’ll skip the router unless I open a custom kitchen business.

If the old guys had a band saw…

OK. Now we might be on to something. There are several sawing tasks that are kind of tedious and time consuming to do by hand: long rips in thick stock; long rips in really hard stock; resawing. These jobs are not simply done in the hand tool shop. Give me a 4′ length of 4/4 pine and I’ll blow through it in a minute or two with my rip saw. Change that wood to 12/4 cherry and things get exponentially harder. Maple, harder still. Sawing veneer or resawing thick stock into thinner? Doable by hand, but still time consuming, hard work, and not a whole lot of fun when there’s a lot to do. So I think “the old guys” would have gladly plunked down the cash for a band saw. A band saw would fit right in with the work flow and processes of a traditional shop.

If the old guys had a planer…

Another tool that I think would have been happily put into use in a period shop, as long as it was wide enough. The benchtop models we have today are typically limited to about 12″ wide. This is probably fine for the average amateur today. However, in my experience, if I were going to plunk down the cash for a planer, I think I’d save my pennies for a few more months, bite the bullet, and go for a 20″ wide model. This would allow planing of all but the widest case sides. When working on a piece that requires 150-200 board feet of lumber, well, a wide planer would save some time.

Of course, today, we have more choices in tools and methods that there ever have been. So we’re not faced with having to do everything the hard way if we don’t want to. We’re all free to work in whatever way makes this craft enjoyable to us and fits in with our own ideals and desires. There is no right or wrong way to do this stuff (as long as it’s safe). That’s what makes it so great. As amateurs, we’re not under time constraints (other than those we place on ourselves), and we don’t have to do things a certain way because that’s just how you do it. We’re free to experiment with different tools and methods and find what works for us and provides us with the most enjoyment.

And that’s a good thing. Because if it’s not fun, then you’re doing something wrong.

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24 thoughts on ““If Roubo Had a Table Saw…”

  1. Bandsaw: Agreed! Planer: maybe, there are more physical limits than w/ a band saw. Table saw: Well, would Roubo use sheet goods? But I traded mine in on a good track saw when sheet goods are necessitated.

  2. I can see the traveling salesman trying to sell a table saw to Roubo. “Yes sir, it costs more than you make in a month. Yes sir, you would need to bump out that wall over there and expand your shop. Yes sir, you would need to power the saw at great additional cost. Yes sir, everyone in the shop well need to cover their ears and eyes and the operator can loose a finger in the blink of an eye if he’s not careful. But think of the advantages Mr. Roubo! Your apprentices wouldn’t sweat nearly as much!”

  3. I believe that we need to look no further than folks like Gimson an Barnsley in the late 19th century to know how someone who philosophically preferred and valued hand work and who depended on their work for their livelihood…would react to the availability of power tools.

  4. Since you challenged me to go cold turkey from my power tools, I have used a jig saw twice to break down some really long stock (Ash and Red Oak), my planer twice to get red oak down from 6 ” square down to 4″ square for my bench legs ( I started with the hand planes but….) and I did cut the mortises in the red oak with my drill press. Oaks really a bear using auger bits or it was for me. Everything else so far has been using hand tools and methods I have seen here or over Shannon’s site. I admit not owning a band saw and seeing the real advantage of it makes me ponder. But I have so enjoyed the hand work. Its no longer mindless use of the router. And I can listen to music as I work.

    Our forefathers were a lot smarter than we give them credit for I think. So Bob, I think you hit it dead on!!!

    Thanks again for what you do!

    • Well, I don’t remember issuing any kind of challenge, but I’ll always encourage the acquisition of hand skills. So if that’s see as a challenge, then for sure I’m throwing down the gauntlet 🙂 .

      • I felt the “challenge” when I watched the first few pod casts. Once I began, it just seemed the natural thing to do. Less noise, stress and the kids can work with me!!

  5. Great article Bob. I think people who wonder why hand tool craftsmen don’t use power tools is that they don’t understand the joy of really working the wood and enjoying the experience. To them, woodworking is a labor or task to complete. Wood working, to me, is a release from a fast paced world that I enjoy, much like someone who plays a favorite sport or just relaxes to read a good book.

  6. The Table Saw was the first tool I stopped using when I went hand tool. The combination of learning proper technique and a proper saw bench rocked my world. Being able to give up that screaming finger hungry machine was the biggest blessing. Less dust, less noise, more music I can hear.

    I do use a Drill press now and then, but most for prepping pen blanks for the other power tool in the shop, my lathe. Everything else is hand tool now.

  7. Spot on Bob. I work in a shop that has a million dollar CNC machine, still it has capacities, and when a customer orders something too tall or too long for the CNC we have to find other ways to do it. Today I was hand chopping some small mortices, 5mm wide, smaller than even my 1/4″ chisel. On this job I did a whole bunch of them with a jig and a bushing guide collar and a small bit. Of course, after a bunch of them the bit disintegrated. I was left to chop the rest out by hand. Came out pretty good, too.

    So, the moral is that hand tool skills are well worth developing even if you have access to the most expensive high end machines. Guaranteed there are going to be those times when you need your hand skills.

  8. The most logical, well thought out and delightfully presented writing on this subject I’ve ever read. Thanks

  9. Bob, I would argue with you on two accounts,1st you didn’t go far enough ( ten water stones ), 2nd there are still a few professionals that rely primarily on hand tools especially in repair. Great post thanks.

    • “…there are still a few professionals that rely primarily on hand tools…”

      Can’t argue with you there, Tom. It seems the best ones always do. Hell, I’d like to just sit in your shop and watch you work for a few weeks just to pick up whatever I could on how you manage to color match the repairs you do. Between yourself, Don Williams and Stephen Shepherd, I could spend years traveling between the three of you just to watch your finishing methods. Never mind the rest of the work you guys do.

  10. Bob,
    this topic has been raised prior (many times), and it always intrigues me as too why. There are no set rules regarding how to work wood, it’s up to the woodworker or craftsman to use what ever method or tools he or she desires. I know what I choose to use, and I’m happy with my results, and others are free to do the same.
    The only rule I’m certain of is that if I choose to use my wife’s wooden spoon as a push stick, like Mr. Roubo is doing in the picture above, I’ll definitely regret it!

  11. Wonderfully provocative post. I think it is mostly a matter of scale, which you summarized excellently. I still have a teeny table saw and find it suits my needs perfectly, and used my Unisaw three tinmes in the past two years only because I was too lazy to uncover the little table saw. the Unisaw is now residing in the basement of the barn where it is destined to remain in perpetuity. Planer and jointer? Only when I have a tone of millwork, which is only for my own needs of trimming out a load of windows. Bandsaw? Definite YES! Otherwise for most of my work working with sharp had tools is literally faster, quieter, and cleaner.

    Well done sir.

  12. When I am demonstrating hand work at an event there is always (as you stated) some wag that has a (insert stationary power tool here) that can do that. I just ask them if they would bring it in so I could see it work.

  13. Amazing almost word for word have I been saying the same things since I first churned over to hand tools or should I say went back to hand tools and that’s another story in itself. It all makes sense to a hand tool user gone power then back to hand tools, this will never make any sense to a power tool user who has never worked with hand tools. Sometimes hand tool users don’t make much sense either like the foot powered lathe or pedal powered scroll saw user but don’t let me start on the foot powered tablesaw I saw on Roy underhills show.. Let’s just look at the the first two, they’re both hands on meaning hand work one has a current going through it the other is foot powered. Still in my books they are both machines whether electricity is going through it or not because they both operate the same with or without current but too me it’s your hands that shape that wood or scroll. It’s like the grinder whether you turn it by hand or turn it on the principle is still the same. Yet hand tool only woodworkers will get into heated arguments saying powered lathes are not hand work only non powered lathes are where is the logic in that.

    When my grandfather had his shop it was a large shop with many workers the only two machines he had was a planer and bandsaw. Why because it made sense. Did it slow him down ? He exported his furniture all over Europe.

  14. Bob,
    You have a very thoughtful and encouraging way of expressing yourself. I have learned alot and have acquired a bunch of hand tool skills from you and with your encouragement. But….. There absolutely is no but. I still have my very expensive tablesaw (SawStop) and thoroughly agree with everything you say. I happen to like making jigs. Hand tools do many jobs better than power tools and are quieter. The thing I have found is the sharper your chisels and plane blades are the better they work. I am finishing my first project with very little sanding and wow is that great. Better finish and no dust. Work wood the best way you can, See the beauty in the natural grain and form. Make things and bring Joy to yourself and those around you.

  15. Hello Bob,
    I’m sorry this will be totally off topic but i write it where i see it.
    I really love your blog and your work, follow it since about tree years now. But reading it is now a real pain because of this “what i’m reading” thing on the right constantly moving on the side taking your attention out of the text every second and no way to stop it. I know website clinging like Christmas tree is now the norm but it’s a pain for reader really.
    I hope you won’t get grip on me for telling you that, it’s not to criticize the really great work you do on this blog, just giving some feedback on this concern.

    Regards,
    Sam

  16. I was inspired by Mike Dunbar and Roy to use hand tools and it took me seconds to discover the joy of working wood with hand tools. I soon sold my table saw and Inca router set up to a friend very cheap. Mike Dunbar always said if you were to have one power tool bandsaw would be it. Later I discovered that a wide planer would be a useful addition. I now have a band saw and I am saving my pennies for a wide thickness planer. Aside from dimensioning wide boards (which is time consuming but still fun and good exercise to do with bench planes) and re sawing large pieces everything else is more fun to do with hand tools. I’m really happy that someone like you feels the same way as I do about power tools that could be practical for a hand tool woodworker. It makes me feel better that I’m thinking in the right direction. Thanks for another great article Bob. Cheers!

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