Why we work with hand tools

The left hand never denies the right.

They are a true team. Though one’s strength is greater than the other, neither can live without the other. The two have strengths. One is strong and muscular, can wield the hammer and push the saw and plane with great skill and power, but the other has no such great strength, it simply holds the nail and the wood perfectly. Change the work of either and reverse the roles, neither will ever fulfil the role of the other with the same strengths, no matter how hard each tries.

I’ve worked with hand tools as much, no, longer than I have with machines. It was a choice for me. Most woodworkers don’t understand my choice, but they are not woodworkers so much as machinists. That’s what I find when I ask a few questions anyway.

I made this box at The Woodworking Shows show in Tulsa Oklahoma in 2000. My then 12 year old worked with me as part of my woodworking demonstrations on woodworking with children. He did as much of the work as I did.

The real challenge is this. When a man chooses to use only solid wood for his drawer bottoms and cupboard backs; I mean instead of plywood. Those that use only plywood have no concept of feeling and concern for beauty. “The back is against the wall. Who will see it?” they say. And of course the drawer bottom is obscured with content so, again, who will see it? I recall a time when I felt and voiced such things also. My friend Kevin explained and I understood. It would be as alien for me to fly to the moon as use plywood for such things now.

When the hand and eye cooperate, coordinate, the hand finds its use in creating beauty.

Going the extra mile is worth the result but we often cannot see it until we do it. The satisfaction of creating panels from real wood cannot be measured for the look and feel translate the piece into much higher spheres.

Hand tools for me do the same. I have minimal need for a router and in 47 years I have never used one to cut dovetails in my work. Another friend could boast the same until one day he used a dovetail jig and a router to make a multiple-drawered chest. I watched as he set up for the work. It took about a day to do so because all the drawers were differently sized. When the work was finally completed the time was comparable to hand cutting the joints, though marginally faster. I watched him as he stood back and looked at the completed chest with the drawers closed and fitted. He seemed content. He opened the drawers as we craftsmen often do to see all the drawer dovetails in each drawer together. He shook his head a little from side to side and closed the drawers one by one, sadly. He felt compromised by that decision. It has gnawed at him ever since. Saddened really. He has moved on from that now, but he always regretted this choice that he made.

Life as an artisan craftsman is often about choices. The choices can be hard, for no one understands his choices. His life has become individualistic in that he chooses the harder path. He, by his life, challenges those working nine-to-five with nothing creative or lovely and little to express what he filled his eight-hour-day with.

Weigh the work of your hands. Consider well the choices you make, the thoughts you have. Your doubts. Such things are indelibly impressed in the minds of those who care and slip.


Two very different woods cooperate from time to time. Joinery creates harmony and two parts marry inseparably for ever.

2 thoughts on “Why we work with hand tools”

  1. I think you’ve perfectly summed up why I want to quit my 9-5 job and am looking to re-train as a furniture maker, I might fail or only make it half way, but even that would be better than spending another 20 yrs working in a souless job achieving to my mind not a lot other than the pursuit or financial reward.

    You need to be able to stand back and be proud of what you’ve achieved in life.

    1. I have been there too. Thank you for replying to this.
      In times past, when I worked for others. I transitioned into working for myself by being creative and creating a second job…at home…in the evenings…in my home workshop. I built up stock and then went to a craft show to present honest work to a new public. It works!
      I hope that you can make the transition. 47 wonderful years in woodworking and still loving it. Yes you have to make some lifestyle decisions along the way. You have family to consider perhaps, but life’s more than money.

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