Saturday, 4 January 2014

Hand Tools vs. Power Tools - The Age Old Debate

At Furniture School we're big fans of using hand tools for much of our work. We have a well equipped machine shop and more portable power tools than we have space for, and yet there's nothing more satisfying than the quiet enjoyment to be found in using sharp hand tools.

Our everyday work is mainly painted MDF, which lends itself to working with machine tools very well, but there is little reason to break out a chisel, plane or any other hand tool, other than perhaps to scrape off a bit of glue. Most of the time they languish on their shelves under a layer of fine dust from the last routing session. Dust masks, and ear defenders are a must; listening to the radio - impossible.

Then there are the nice days, the ones where we have no need to plug in the router, because we're engaged in hand cutting dovetails, or planing a choice piece of walnut. These are the rare days that this woodworking malarky is everything it is cracked up to be. These are the days that remind us why we chose this career in the first place.

The Case For Machines 

Machines were developed to make the tedious and arduous work of converting logs into useable timber quicker and less labour intensive than doing it by hand. They were designed also to speed up production in industrial settings and to produce finished quickly and cheaply with little variation. As furniture production moved away from using solid timber and towards manufactured boards, the necessity for machines to do most of the work came to the fore. They certainly were not trying to mimic the natural variations that occur in handworked timber.

At our workshop we use large fixed woodworking machines to rip, crosscut, plane and thickness rough sawn boards in a fraction of the time it would take by hand, but after that we revert to using hand tools as much as possible. We make liberal use of portable and table mounted routers for running grooves, rebates and template work because it's fast, accurate and it makes little sense to do those things any other way. Besides, those kinds of operations are boring and the sooner they're done, the sooner we can get on with the stuff we like. Machines certainly have an important role to play in a professional and amateur workshop but they cannot do everything, especially if you work in solid timber.

The Case For Handwork

When it comes to work that needs finesse; sensitive work like paring joints and planing subtle chamfers and details on to an edge, hand tools give much more feedback than power tools. A plane can take a shaving of less than 0.1mm which allows us to work a surface with complete confidence or take off a bit more here than there. This in its turn gives us freedom to make our work more personal and free of the rigid constraints of the machine. For us, it is the difference between handmade and machine made.

Working wood by hand is usually a fairly peaceful process; though if you've ever been in a woodworking class where ten students are all hand cutting mortices at once, you'll know that by hand isn't always quiet. Still, the process isn't accompanied by the relentless high pitched whine associated with the router, or the continuous hum of the random orbit sander. Working by hand allows you to chat with a colleague without shouting or having to stop what you're doing. There is also something very down to earth about making things happen with just the power of your own body, and your own natural or learned dexterity.  Machines take you away from the immediacy of the experience and dictate how the end result be.

Good machines are expensive and take up valuable workshop space. By way of a contrast, a decent set of hand tools needn't cost the earth takes up very little space. Your hand tools can live quite happily in a 3'x 4'x 3' chest or on a set of shallow shelves. You would be hard pushed to get much more than a drill and a router in the same space.

The ultimate in the hand tools only approach is epitomised by those dedicated to the art of green woodworking. Unseasoned wood works more readily than dry timber and can be cut and carved by very simple tools like knives for example. Take inspiration from Barn The Spoon who can be seen most days in his workshop whittling spoons and other utensils.

Aren't Machines Better?

Well, for somethings yes they are, but for things like final surface preparation they're not; a hand plane is more efficient at producing a beautiful surface than an electric sander. If your only experience of planing is with a dull poorly set up plane, then you'll find the previous statement hard to believe.

Woodworking machines are inherently dangerous, and to mitigate the chances of doing yourself a serious mischief with them, proper training is necessary. Wood machining is a skill that needs to be learned in much the same way that hand skills need time to develop. It wouldn't be outrageous to suggest that there are more hobbyists that end up losing a finger or an eye, than properly trained professionals. We tend to know when we're about to do something stupid and so modify our approach just in case it all goes horribly wrong. It is hard for the beginner to know when he or she is on the wrong side of safe until after the fact.

The Bottom Line

It is true that when time is money and the customer isn't particularly interested in a beautifully hand planed surface then it makes sense to unleash the machines and get the work done as quickly a possible. It isn't enjoyable but it pays the bills. The amateur maker has the advantage of being able to take his or her time without the constraints of running a business, and meeting customer demand and therefore doesn't need to invest in so many power tools.

If you're a hobbyist then invest most of your budget in hand tools and an electric drill but only buy power tools if you have the space to keep them and you're sure you'll make use of them. If you live in London, then the chances are slim that you wont make a nuisance of yourself with your neighbours when you decide to do a spot of midnight routing. On the flip side, you're unlikely to keep anyone awake while getting knee deep in plane shavings. Ultimately, you need to decide what kind of woodwork you want to do and then set up your workshop accordingly, but you shouldn't feel pressured to buy expensive tools until you know what that is.

Further Reading

A book that echoes my sentiments on the subject is Jim Toplin's The New Traditional Woodworker: From Tool Set to Skill Set to Mind Set (Popular Woodworking)He argues the case for hand tools very well and has a really good set of things you can make to help make handwork easier to do.

For a more general discussion on setting up a workshop Jim Kingshott's The Workshop is a good place to start. It is a British book and unlike most American books which assume you have a garage big enough to house two SUVs, Kingshott's book is geared towards the more modest spaces that we have in Britain.