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Enabling the craftsman

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In his Aug. 17 blog, David DeCristoforo asks, “Do tools make the craftsman?” His answer was no, and taking his question literally I fully agree.

But if his question was, “Do tools enable the craftsman?” I can give a resounding yes. A totally unskilled and incompetent woodworker with a shop full of good equipment won’t make good stuff; he’ll still make bad stuff, just more quickly and efficiently. As David points out, on close inspection you’ll see that this guy’s cuts are straight, but lacking knowledge and skill the cuts might be in the wrong place, the wrong size, the wrong angle and simply unattractive.

The same tools in the hands of a craftsman enable him to create works that show off both his skills and talents. But could that craftsman turn out quality work without those tools? Maybe, and then again maybe not.

Please indulge me a bit of bragging when I say that I’m a good woodworker. I know what I’m doing, and working efficiently and neatly I regularly turn out some pretty nice stuff. But could I do it without my tools? In most cases and for most things, absolutely. But not in all cases. Not, for example, for handcut dovetails.

I’ve mentioned here before that I don’t do very good handcut dovetails. I know how, I know all the rules, I know all the methods, but my dovetails just aren’t very good and I’ve practiced making them for years. Sure, given several hours (and a lot of sandpaper), I can turn out a decent, single dovetailed drawer joint. But make an entire dresser full of them? I wouldn’t attempt it. On the other hand, give me a router and dovetail jig and I can be a dovetailing wizard.

The point is that when it comes to good dovetails, the quality of the tools isn’t what makes me able to make them; it’s the fact that the tools are available to me at all. Left with a dovetail saw and marking knife, I just don’t have the innate eye/hand ability to do this with any reliability. More importantly, I’ve come to accept that I never will. Some people have talent in eye/hand skills which can be honed – sculptors, carvers, painters, calligraphers – but while someone without those innate talents can maybe make them marginally better with practice, they’ll never be good at it. I’m one of those people.

I’m satisfied that in most areas of my own woodworking I can honestly answer David’s original question the same way he did – tools don’t make this craftsman; my own skills, experience and talents do. But for those few areas where I lack the talent, a good enabling tool combined with my knowledge and experience certainly makes all the difference.

Till next time,


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