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Do tools make the craftsman?

This is one of those questions that is guaranteed to spark a lively debate; sometimes also known as an argument. My position on this, to put it simply, is no. I will absolutely concede the point that "better" tools – whether hand tools or machines – will make it possible for a craftsman to do more work, more efficiently. But putting an inept craftsman in a shop equipped with the best tools and equipment will not make that person a better craftsman.

It's true that anyone with a good table saw will probably be able to make a straight cut, while that same person with the best handsaw in the world probably would not be able to do so. But that does not make the person a better craftsman, just someone that can operate a machine.

There a number of companies offering very nicely carved pieces: table legs, corbels, etc. These are produced on very complex high tech carving machines. No, they would not hold up under a close inspection when looked at side by side with equivalent pieces made by a master carver. But they are not bad. However, this is not craftsmanship unless you are talking about the mastery of CNC technology and machine engineering.

I did a lot of work for a guy who envisioned himself as a maker. He was a lawyer of substantial means and, over the years, he assembled a shop that would put mine to shame. Everything in it was "the best" and in pristine condition. Looking at his shop one might easily conclude that this was the shop of, if not a master, at least a very competent woodworker. But, in truth, the guy was ... well, I just have to be blunt ... the guy was inept. It didn't really matter because he rarely worked in this fabulous shop anyway. But with all of that high end equipment, and all of his top quality hand tools (he had everything), the guy was incapable of producing a piece of quality woodwork.

On the other hand, I had a good friend whose tools were completely unimpressive. A cheap table saw, and some other old, lightweight machines set up in his garage. His chisels were of particular interest because they were inexpensive "hardware store" tools with plastic handles. But if you looked closely, the edges were always razor sharp. And with this ragtag collection of hand me down equipment and hand tools acquired mostly at garage sales, this guy did the most amazing work I have ever seen.

There is no doubt that a fine tool is a joy to use, regardless of one's level of skill. It feels good in the hand and there is a definite sense of satisfaction to be had from using it. However, this does not translate into better craftsmanship. A woodworker of little skill can get just as much satisfaction out of owning and using something like a fine table saw or an expensive hand plane as a master.


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