Friday, September 12, 2008

Hand tools: and the fear they strike in the heart of the modern day woodworker...

While in the Woodwhisperer chat room today the topic got on to hand planes. Clint and Meister had just bought a few each on ebay, and Jeff was salivating over the new Veritas Skew Rabbet Planes. I, of course, was egging them all on (especially Jeff - he needs to redirect his frustration with Lie-Neilson's impending price increases anyway). We talked about hand plane choices, what you need compared to what you want, and rehabilitating the used ones. As the topic rolled along I got into a side chat with Dave about hand tool skills, our lack of confidence in their use, and good web sites to learn from. Naturally, all that talk about hand tools got me a-ponderin'. Why all the apprehension? I mean, really - why do we get so anxious and fanatical about using hand tools? Hell, I know so many fellow woodworkers that feel more comfortable mortising a hinge with a roto-zip then with a chisel. How come we feel so unworthy - as if using a non-powered tool is somehow harder and requires more skill then a powered one?

The more I thought about it, the more hungry I got so I ordered some lunch. Thank God for delivery. And it was a really good burger, too.

After lunch my thoughts turned once more to the hand tool thing, but this time I had an epiphany. I started thinking about my childhood, and the woodworking I did with my grandfather. And the woodworking I did in shop class. And all the lame projects that followed. And I realized that it came down to a matter of trusting myself. Now, I don't know how many of you started woodworking at an early age, but I can truly say that I sucked as a woodworker when I was young. It started with grandpa, but it wasn't his fault. Since I was 5 years old, who could blame him for his hesitation in letting me use the table saw? Still, my shop teachers probably could've spent some time helping us kids build up our confidence with hand tools. The only project that I can remember early on was a candle stick holder made with wood and wraught iron. I think we spent more time bending the iron then we did cutting wood.

Then came 9th grade. Mom and I moved down to Dallas from Syracuse and I was a lost, little yankee among all those good 'ole boys. Thankfully, I managed to find a couple of Texans who didn't want to run me out of town - one of which was my shop teacher. Finally, real projects on big power tools! I made a table top writing desk and got to turn some cool things on the lathe for extra credit. I even won the "Most Improved in Shop" award for the 1982-83 school year (you can look it up). But the desk and the lathe projects and the award weren't the biggest thing I took away from that school year. It was the realization that only the best projects are made with big, expensive power tools. This notion was unfortunately confirmed by such shows as The New Yankee Workshop. I would watch in awe as Norm managed to pull out special power tool after special power tool. I came to the obvious conclusion that those beautiful projects were way out of my reach to build. How could they be? I didn't have the space or money to build such a shop nor the time or freedom to study under such a master. So, I abandoned the dream of making guitars and grandfather clocks, and resigned myself to a life of DiY projects.

Now, I'm not blaming my shop teachers, Norm, or certainly not my grandfather for my lack of confidence with hand tools over the years. But I think I can see how it happened. My examples of how to make nice things were from guys that learned on hand tools when they were young and graduated up to power tools in their life times. Marc (the Wood Whisperer)once mentioned that he thought most of our generation learned it backwards, and I couldn't agree more. Our fathers and grandfathers and shop teachers were just going with the most efficient tools of the trade, but they had a firm rooting in the basics already. By the time we came along, all we saw were power tools being the tools of choice. they were the most accurate and efficient, right? But I must've screwed up plenty of circular saw cuts in my day. And I didn't pick up a router and rout a perfect dado right off the bat. And I don't think I've ever cut a straight line with a jig saw. And I don't think I've drilled more than a couple dozen holes perfectly straight in my lifetime. Yet, why should I be so nervious to pick up a chisel and cut a mortise by hand? Why can't I cut that tenon with a hand saw? I know why. Because some where in the back of my mind is a gnawing thought that my hands can't do the job as well as a power tool can. That's what I learned, after all these years. That principle has imprinted so deep for many of us, that the measure of quality is directly associated with the amount of hand tool use employed in a given project. To a great extent it's true. But where we handicap ourselves as woodworkers is in thinking that such skills are barely obtainable, when they take just as much practice (or as little, for that matter) as you spent learning to use that router.

There was a great post in the Wood Whisperer Town Square Forum the other day about being a "galoot" - a.k.a. hand tool lover. I added a post about a very recent encounter I had over remortising a door catch that wouldn't latch properly for my father. I had a number of power tools at my disposal (including two Dremmels and a Roto-zip with all the fixings). But when it came time to do the job, I grabbed the chisel, sharpened it right there with some sand paper, and refit the catch in a minute or two with just that chisel. A warmth of satisfaction came over me. It felt comfortable. I felt comfortable with that chisel. Confident. It wasn't just a feeling of trust in the tool... I finally trusted myself.

Mike

5 comments:

Vic Hubbard said...

Great post Mike!! I'm really glad you took the bait and started your blog. Also, thank you for the words of wisdom regarding the purchases I've made, and finally thank you for introducing me to the wonderful world of tool buying on ebay!!!

I'm pretty sure my wife's gonna hate you!

Michael Marzullo said...

now Vic, you need to make it clear to your wife how much you're SAVING by buying all those planes you NEED from ebay instead of new. Show her a new LN #7 corrugated for $460. Then explain what a good deal you got for both of your #7s (and #8 now, too). then, relate it to shoe buying or clothes shopping. they can relate to that kind of logic...

Charger1966 said...

Mike, Great job on this blog. I hope that you will get many comments on your adventures in woodworking. Have fun is the main objective.
Thanks for putting a link to mine on here.. I'll think about doing more with it.
Lance AKA Charger1966

Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Marzullo said...

you ever find that ACE Hardware is the only shop still around that actually FEELS like a hardware store and not a "home center"?