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Working Wood – Hand Tool Power for Beginners

Understanding the past

Years ago I discovered something key to my future teaching and training woodworkers. I discovered that those who worked wood only by machine methods for more than a few years considered themselves intermediate level woodworkers. There are many problems to this not the least of which are the false assumptions that machine woodworking was merely a more advanced and modern form of working wood and that this technical advancement was as rewarding as working wood by hand. Having worked wood using both methods equally for almost 50 years, I can tell you that though both methods are important, the two methods are as different as chalk and cheese. Without developing hand tool skills, machine woodworkers rarely achieve those levels of craftsmanship that lead to true fulfillment.

Dismantling the myths and imbalanced perspectives

The first difficult step in dismantling the myth that machines brought superior methods to working wood is to prove that hand tools are not intended to compete with machine methods but enhance and compliment them. In general, I found that almost all machine woodworkers hang their hat on the fact that machines cut wood quickly, efficiently and accurately and therefor are the most economical way to work wood. Whereas machines do cut wood efficiently, they also carry a a great deal of extra baggage not the least of which is safety, space and support equipment. The unfortunate dimension of this belief is that it eliminated all children under the age of 18 and the majority of women from working wood. For at least five decades, responsible parents wanting to train their children in the best of woodworking didn’t know how to get started. Sales outlets such as Woodcraft and Rockler promoted machines as the best way to work wood. They created the same imbalances most woodworking magazines did and it’s this distortion that left not just children and women out of the world of working wood, but a large percentage of men too. Combine that with the fact that teachers, grandparents, guardians and friends too could no longer responsibly teach young people the safer hand methods because many of the skills were now no longer practiced competently and you begin to see the dilemma further. Add to that the fact that those without physical strength and knowledge of machines are most likely to be intimidated by machines, and rightly so, you better understand just how we almost lost hand tool woodworking to the machine giants. My challenge in striving to help others discover the art of hand tool woodworking for themselves,, and pass it on to their children became a major investment of time, effort and money, but, now, like me, thousands of others too can master skills and teach their own children and grandchildren that real woodworking is not drudgery but rewarding and fun.

Working with young people

I recently heard from one of our Online Broadcast members that she was working with her children carving spoons and spatulas for Christmas gifts as a result of following my curriculum but now wanted to make things with joints as they had bought all of the tools they needed to work with and had not yet tackled a jointed project. The basis for much of my foundational series came 20 years ago when 15 parents stood in line to cut out spoon blanks for the young children standing with them. Several things were indeed wrong with the image you now have in your mind. Yes, the parents cared about their children, but some things are fundamentally misunderstood when it comes to children and machines. The fundamentals of health and safety are of course what people must understand early on and though these safety elements were missing, my concerns were more the subliminal message that now mesmerized the children in the spinning bandsaw teeth that the bandsaw was somehow something they should aspire to. That it would be a mark of maturity if they too could one day stand at the bandsaw and cut out their parts using a machine.

The shortfall

In another situation someone recently told me of a local carpenter who was teaching a woodworking class for some boy scouts. The whole time was spent talking about power tools such as chop saws, jigsaws and other related equipment. The observer felt troubled but somewhat powerless by what was taking place because years ago he had been through my course and knew there was so much more that could be achieved to get kids into real woodworking.

I think that sometimes we have lost connection with our rootedness in creative hand work, the materials we use, and of course the tools that are not in any way machines. Did you know that a whole spoon can be readily carved without touching any power equipment at all by a five-year-old young person? Well, an integral aspect of this blog and all the other things we do is to teach and equip you with methods that truly work through our hands-on workshops, books, blogs and Online Broadcast.

Making changes that work

Since 1990 I have taught hundreds of children and parents to work together and enjoy working wood with hand tools. Most of the parents keep the air clean and resolved not to use power equipment for one hour before the children enter the workshop and unplug all of the machines, which is a very wise decision. One of our upcoming projects to close this year is a handy carrier designed for children to make their first joints and a fully jointed project. This is a great prelude to the wall clock project we are close to completing on our online broadcast and this series will be a series of articles here on my blog as soon as it’s done. This is an ideal project for young children supervised by a responsible adult who has also started establishing hand tool skills and can guide them as they work. In making this project, the kids learn to use a handsaw and a hand plane. They may need help and hands-on-hands for extra oomph but the will chisel out housing dadoes and bore holes for handles and dowels. It’s a fairly simple project that takes half a day to day in the woodshop. After that we have other areas we want to pass on so stay connected here to find out what’s going on.

The shots you see here are of my own children who started my work two decades ago and are now accomplished woodworkers in their own right. It all started with a piece of wood and a few simple hand tools. Join them and me on the journey and soon you will discover what real woodworking is really all about.

4 comments

  1. Trevor Anderson says:

    Hi Paul,

    I want to thank you for all you do and put out into this new world of whizzing electrons. I have been following along for a while now and find your thoughts and guidance to be a great help. I think that I would like to send along some encouragement or put in a hearty amen to the above. I have a soon to be three year old that I am introducing to the world of working wood. It is going well and I am in the process of building a small bench for him to work at in the shop. He is quite proficient at drilling with an eggbeater, sawing with guidance at a vise and of course hammering (which seems innate). So any pointers or general guidance as to a good course to follow as a child matures would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again and hopefully some day I can attend a course or two of yours. All the best.
    Trevor

    • Paul Sellers says:

      I was a little more than sad when my youngest son left home last September as I had ni more sons to teach, but I do have several grandchildren of age to work with now and so thats my consolation.My youngest is apprenticing at Rolls Royce in Derby so I was happy to see him take that step. They had 1600 applicants for 25 apprenticeships. I would that we could see more work for woodworkers that woodworking could be a person’s occupation again just as ot has been for me for five decades now. Perhaps we really are seeing the tide turn and people can see the value of working with your hands and then support it.

  2. Mark Jones says:

    As a working trim carpenter of 35 years who also dabbles in handwork. Your comments are right on. The discipline of handwork is much harder to apply. We get spoiled with our miter saws and nail guns. The interesting part is hand tools are not much slower. Faster to my grab my hand plane to edge bevel a door. I find it more rewarding to run a sharpened hand plane down a door than plugging in my porter plane. Guess as I get older speeder machines don’t feel the same.
    I do plan on teaching the Grandchildren!
    Great Blog Paul

    • Paul Sellers says:

      Thanks for this Mark. You have opportunities to do just that. I am determined to pass my skills down to any of my grandchildren as they grow up into young adults. I think granddads can really impact their grandchildren in truly positive ways, but working with them when they make their first cutting board or spoon and spatula has to be the icing on the cake.

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