By Cody Lamens
Over time power tools have changed woodworking, so much so that new woodworkers go right to power tools despite some of the advantages hand tools present. That’s not bad, but as CNCs, lasers, and 3d printers push the craft forward in one direction, it leaves hand tools behind, which are not to be forgotten. Even for the power tool woodworker, hand tools offer benefits and advantages that all woodworkers should have in the bag. Power tools aren’t going anywhere, they have revolutionized woodworking, and this article is not knocking power tools. My shop is full of power tools, and I love them. Instead, this article will lay out the advantages and benefits of hand tools to help the power tool woodworker. You can decide how to incorporate hand tools into your shop from there. Or, maybe you won’t and will go the path of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, More Power! Argh, argh, argh.
Everyone knows power tools are dangerous. They come with many safety warnings, and any afternoon scroll through Instagram will reveal a near miss that almost resulted in someone having a story to tell their grandkids about how they lost a finger. While still sharp and able to inflict nasty cuts, hand tools are generally safer than power tools. This is because hand tools don’t have multiple sharp cutters spinning at high RPMs. With hand tools, you’re working with one tool at a time that is not spinning and controlled by the user. Of course, common sense still has to prevail, but overall, hand tools will be much safer than power tools. I’ve been surprised by how many long-time woodworkers have told me that the longer they are in woodworking, the more they try to stay away from the table saw. Safety is a top priority for all woodworkers, and bringing hand tools into the shop is one way to make woodworking safer.
We can all agree that woodworking is an expensive hobby. A new Lie-Nielsen smoothing plane can set you back $400, but hand tools will be less costly than outfitting a shop with power tools. Hand tools will also hold up better than power tools and, if maintained properly, can be passed down from generation to generation. Get yourself one good set of chisels, and you’ll never buy another set. With power tools, it’s not uncommon to buy an entry-level tool, quickly outgrow it, and then buy a second higher-end model. It happens all the time, and the total cost of ownership is high. Looking for hand tools to supplement your existing power tools is a great way to continue expanding your woodworking capabilities on a budget.
It’s a no-brainer that hand tools take up a lot less space than power tools. If you’re working out of a small shop, a workbench outfitted with hand tools might be the way to go. Complemented by a few staple power tools or not, you can complete any project you want. In an age where everyone’s dream is a 40×60 heated shop (or is that just my dream,) there is something peaceful about a smaller and quieter shop with only the sound of shavings coming off a hand plane. There is not much more to say on this one. If you’re short on space, consider hand tools.
It may be controversial, and I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments, but power tools have become so precise that you don’t need a lot of skill to achieve the desired result. Personally, that is where I have a love-and-hate relationship with power tools. I love that I can reach a level of precision beyond my skill with power tools. However, whenever I crank out a finished project with crispy miters and flawless glue lines, I ask myself if I got any better at the craft. Did I push my skills to a new level? Sometimes the answer is yes. Often the answer is no. Completing a woodworking task by hand requires more skill, and that skill takes time to develop, but it is also gratifying.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that we all enjoy the craft differently. Some of us want to acquire skills and enjoy the journey of all the steps completing a project takes. And some enjoy cranking out a project, admiring the finished product, and moving on to the next. Both of those mindsets are 100% okay. That’s the beauty of woodworking, there are multiple ways to enjoy woodworking, and it’s different for everyone. I enjoy the journey and process of completing a project, from rough lumber to part selection and laying out joinery to assembly and finish. On the other hand, my dad’s all about the completed project. He’s the consummate measure once, cut-twice type of woodworker. There’s no right or wrong here. You do you!
Admittedly, I’m getting fluffy here, but bear with me. When working with hand tools, you develop a connection to the material you’re working with. You can feel the texture and grain direction to understand how it’s behaving. It also allows you to slow down and appreciate the process of woodworking. It can also have significant effects on mood and stress. It’s cathartic. I’ve often grabbed a hand plane and scrap wood for no reason other than to feel a smooth full-length shaving come off the iron. It’s pure happiness. You should try it. Another great feeling? When you take that last cleanup pass with a chisel that brings a hand-cut mortise and tenon together for a perfect fit. For me, this is one area power tools can’t compete.
I could go on, but I’ve highlighted a few advantages and benefits of hand tools. If you’re just starting in woodworking, consider hand tools in your journey early on. If you’re a power tool woodworker, consider incorporating hand tools into your woodworking. Start by getting a few hand tools and practicing with them. You can add more to your collection as you get more comfortable with them and see where they fit into your process. By using hand tools alongside power tools, you can develop skills and push your craft far beyond what you can using power tools alone.
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