My mind is made up on the hand tool debate

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John English

John English

I’ve been working wood professionally for 30-some years and editing woodshop writers for almost as long. One common thread has been woven through the decades – the romantic nature of hand tools. Now, I say the following based on having taught sharpening and hand tool use for hundreds of hours: The romance is a load of old poppycock.

A block plane in the apron pocket is one thing; it’s a dab hand when faced with very minor tasks on a build or install. But flattening boards or jointing edges by hand in the 21st century is verging on insanity. If you have that much time available, you need to spend some of it drumming up more business.

I can see where a hobbyist might reap joy from creating the ultimate secondary bevel on a chisel or salvaging a rusty old No. 5 that belonged to a dead relative. Those are actions associated with tool collection and preservation. But once the plane is sharp and true, put it on a shelf and don’t let it waste any actual shop time.

When students used to ask me about the most important part of setting up shop, I always had the same answer: Buy the most jointer you can afford. You can’t run a bowed edge against a table saw fence, but if the board is straight and flat, it will behave well on shapers, saws and router tables. I never once told anyone to buy a scrub plane.

The woodworking profession is based on selling a service that customers are incapable of providing themselves. They have neither the tools nor the training. The service is usually measured in time – a shop charges so much an hour. If a jointer and thickness planer can render a board in less than a minute, why in the name of all that is holy would anyone spend a whole hour dressing and shaving with a 19th century remnant of pre-industrial apprenticeship?

For as long as I can remember, hand tool aficionados have been telling me that the finish looks different. And for years I bought into the myth that planes and scrapers cut across cells, while sanders merely abrade them and fill the voids with dust. Well, aside from the fact that wood cellular structure is pretty much beyond our range of vision, what professional doesn’t vacuum or blow the surface for dust before applying coatings? The depth of a finish, in my experience, comes not from mechanics but rather from the chosen coating. Oils that penetrate will usually deliver a richer result than plastics that merely lie on the surface.

I’ve sanded and planed boards to see if people can spot the difference, and the results are inconclusive at best. Some species and cuts, such as the flaked ribbons in quartersawn white oak, seem to look exactly the same either way. A few richer species such as Claro may evince a very slight tonal difference, but certainly not enough to justify the enormous time commitment involved in, say, hand planing an entire dining table top.

The other argument put forward by hand tool fans is that the shop is quiet and peaceful without the intrusion of electric motors. My response is that a woodshop is no place for yoga, and if you need therapy that badly, you probably shouldn’t be around sharp objects.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.

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