A response that might help

Hello Brendan,

Firstly let me apologise for the length of my response. Thank you for taking the time to write. I want to respond to your comments because I think others might find this subject interesting too.

I feel I should make no apologies for my working with hand tools; it’s who I am and what I do. I no longer try to justify myself to others for choices I consciously made in becoming more a lifestyle woodworker than a businessman woodworker.

Being able to readily switch between hand and machine equipment use because I have mastered lifelong skills in hand work is important to me and I want to help others have the same options with equal dexterity. I in no way I have ever shunned the use of machines. Using machines, as I said, needs only minimal skill, but more a working knowledge mostly revolving around personal safety, the safety of others and the probability that if something does go wrong, and periodically, on a somewhat regular basis it does and will, I will ruin my wood.  Understanding this takes only but a few minutes. It’s an unfortunate reality that many often learn mostly by near misses and hits no one wants to really talk about. As I say, machines merely displace skill, but they are good for grunt work and also substituting for developing skill and accuracy that anyone can develop if they want to. For dimensioning stock to size accurately and fast, machines have no equal.

As I said, I want to respond to your comments because I think it’s important for people to understand how and why we think the way we do. You are not the only one that wants to take issue with me and you won’t be the last. As a fulltime lifelong woodworker I don’t occasionally use machines, I use them most days, but not all day as is the case for most of today’s woodworking machinists whether professional or amateur. In the past I have spent many long days, weeks, months and even wasted years using machines all day long. Many years ago I chose to climb down off the conveyor belt and discover a more balanced approach. My time now is to help others to do the same.

My blog is never some kind of embarrassing confession but more what practically works for me as a result of having established skill early on in my woodworking life. I am simply letting my fellow woodworkers know from time to time that if they think I don’t use machines they are misinformed by assumptions and not by me. I have no issues with people using machines, simply that if they don’t master hand tools and the skills and knowledge it takes to use them they are robbing themselves of something very practical and many things they will not be able to do without living behind dust masks, eye protection and so on every time they do work wood. They must live in a sphere of self-protectionism and even isolation all the time and they will never find the levels of fulfilment others have in their mastering hand skills. That, for me, is not a small thing. Healthcare is a major concern throughout machine woodworking and especially to amateurs with minimal time to find recreational fulfilment. This is I think partly your point about the risk of, as you say, “maiming oneself” if they are not “acquiring sufficient prowess with a router or a tablesaw.” I am afraid I take issue when anyone says that “tools ARE machines….machines are tools.” I realise that this is opinion-based, but renaming machines as tools was masterminded in the US 40 years ago. You can never persuade me that they are coequal in value or purpose. If a machine cuts a dovetail with jigs and specially devised bits, then the machine did it not the man pushing it through the slots to take away the risk and guarantee the right angles, slots and spaces fit. The truly creative person in all of this is the engineer who devised the whole machine and jig system.

There is of course much more to both worlds than meets the eye. Most people today, as I said, live in a sort of nether world, avoiding the development of true skill because they are told, “You’ll never master skill; it takes years to learn hand tool woodworking.” For me there is no competition, but I can make choices most others cannot make. I see people very experienced with routers use them to cut dovetails knowing they have never been able to truly master dovetailing by hand for whatever reason, but usually not having been taught proper methods. The process of setting up a router for so simple a task sidesteps the simplicity anyone can have and seems quite retrograde. That is not in any way condemning at all. It’s a shortfall within this present culture promoted by protagonists of the machine-working world.

I ask anyone this. Had I been a machine-only woodworker, would I be able to responsibly put a ten-year-old on a power router and have them make a dovetail joint like these shown here? This is the work of a young boy barely ten years old. On his tenth birthday he was making this dovetailed project following my program. Indeed, these are his first dovetails in a project after some very basic practice to understand the concepts of dovetailing and creating mortise and tenon joints. Had no one the skill to pass this on to him he would have had to wait until he became of age, about 18 years, to begin his woodworking interest. How did this happen? Ten ears ago his grandfather came to a series of hand tool workshops and perfected dovetailing by making the Shaker candle box in my course. He made other projects not the least of which was a Craftsman-style rocking chair. After the course he went back to his hometown and shared his newfound knowledge and skill with his son-in-law and some friends who than adopted hand methods of woodworking too. His son-in-law then taught his own son when he was of an age to receive it. This would now be ten or so years later, and this is the boy that made the tool carrier above. Needless to say none of this would or could have happened had I not taught one man to work wood by hand.

Machine versus hand tool is not merely reduced to choice. It’s now become more a question of damage reversal. Trying to find balanced cohesion, integrity and more in the present world of woodworking can be very difficult, and this is especially so for new woodworkers getting started. Walk into Woodcraft or Rockler and you will always be steered toward a line-up of machines and so-called power tools; screw guns (drill-drivers), routers and such. It’s a question of re-evaluating the value of programs (dare I say it) to reconsider just what the true impact of new Yankee woodworking did with its free reign for so many decades.

I do respect your view and the views of others who feel the coequality of machines and hand tools, but it’s not an apples for apples evaluation. It’s unhelpful for me to be in any way condemning or disparaging, but I do simply stand by what I say and will never be swayed to accept that you need anywhere near the same levels of skill to work wood using machines. Neither would I ever accept that machines are tools. That’s far from true. Without repeating previously posted long-term posts on this issue, I will always maintain that a tool is the extension of a man’s hand, his mind, his energy, guidance and self-controlling power. He alone can master skill.

13 comments on “A response that might help

  1. I must admit that I don’t understand why there seems to be a lot of behind the scenes fuss over your methods. I’ve never read anything by you stating that you shouldn’t use machines at all.

    Like you, Frank Klausz uses both all the time from what I’ve seen on his videos. It all depends on the task in hand. Another similarity between yourselves is neither of you promote that you have to have the most expensive tools to do the job.

    I’d much rather watch either of you than people with “hobbyist” woodwork blogs with thousands of dollars/pounds worth of kit in their shop

  2. Paul,
    I have read your blog for some time. I have been down the machine route, and frankly never really got results that satisfied me, which is why I am giving your suggestions a try. I don’t think there are definite answers to the questions you raise, one thing suits one person but not another depending on motivation, background etc. For the moment your suggestions work for me, and that is what counts.

  3. Hello Paul, 
    many thanks for your detailed response to my fourpenn’th – as you say, it’s an interesting subject. When I say ‘take issue’ with you, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. Let me just say that I am largely with you on this topic, but I do genuinely feel that the ‘machine/skill’ ratio comes down to a matter of perception. Some people will consider being able to use a router or jig successfully is as much skill as they can handle. They may be wrong, and probably are. I have friends who think that my being able to actually use a router, and even knowing what a planer/thicknesser is, is dead clever. Now here I KNOW they’re wrong, but hey, horses for courses.

    We could wrestle endlessly on the ‘Machines as Tools’ subject and never agree, but it doesn’t really matter – it’s a semantic argument that will never produce anything you can sit on…..

    In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy your blog and follow your progress, wishing you well and thanking you for your infectious and stimulating enthusiasm.

    Kind regards, 
    Brendan.

  4. Paul,
    Many thanks on the post. Always pleasant to hear you put into words your thoughts on this subject. I think because any who follow in your instruction have done so for their own reasons. And a reason that has stuck with me more than any other is the choice to be a “lifestyle woodworker.” The choice is not only in what methods or tools you use, or how you choose to dimension the medium, but mainly in how you view it. This effects your approach to the wood itself, and to the act of working wood. Whether you choose to connect yourself to the history of the craft–wondering how our past brethren made such masterpieces using only a select group of hand tools–or align yourself with what feels like a movement toward isolation from the medium. As you’ve said a hundred times, machines have done something wonderful: they’ve taken the back-breaking work from this (and almost all other) trades. But the unfortunate side effect is our now short-term memory, wherein the history of woodworking has become a myth, and our working memory stretches back a lengthy 100 years.

    Apologies if I just basically repeated your post. Just felt the choice of being a lifestyle woodworker was one that helped me see the need for the balance you spoke of.

  5. Amen. I love working with power tools, they are very helpful building anew home or renovating and remodeling an older one.
    I once work for a local cabinet maker. He hired me because I under stood dos programing to run his 20′ long Italian CNC machine. I just stood there placed the wood on the bench, push the suction button and loaded the program that needed to be ran and then loaded the tool program to keep the silly thing from drilling and routering into its work bench. Once the parts were cut & drilled I loaded them on a cart and walk them over to a production area.

    I just stood there beside a 100,000 US dollar machine or tool if you will, and watch it work. It was the most boring job I think I ever had.
    Today, I am working on a 300′ basement work shop. I do not plan on buying any machine tools. No table saws, no band saws, no routers. Just my hands, my mind, and my pencil. I have a few tools from working in construction, and plan on buying second hand tools to keep my cost down and sharpening and restoring them to help me work the wood into a finished and useful product, for myself or someone else.
    Right now my biggest investment is going to be in knowledge. And I am starting with your masters of wood working parts 1 & 2 and 3 when it is available.

  6. I wonder if craftsmen a hundred years ago would have used a few power tools, if they had the chance. To me it is a matter of two concerns: 1. How many of the same operations are you going to have to do? When the quantity is over some personal threshold, a machine can often save time. 2. The second and main concern these days for most woodworkers, is a matter of personal preference and taste. We might want to purposely slow down and enjoy the process of working the wood as much as possible. On the other hand, we might just love using machines to get things done. I find that I currently want to learn/master hand tool skills just because it is fun, and I want a new challenge. I will still use my power tools, but I want the option of doing it by hand if I want to, without feeling frustrated and like I am chewing the wood off with my teeth.

    • I feel sure that they would and in that lifetime wold have had little choice. Today, most woodworkers have a choice as they mostly don’t make their living from it. It’s a funny thing to me that people choose mass-manufacturing methods to do all their leisure woodworking instead of learning new things, skills and such. Machines do dimension materials very well, after that they can be so awkward and slow.

  7. I don’t think that this issue is anything close to personal opinion. I think this can be faced as an objective matter, just as I think Paul faced it. Of course, due to the speed of machines to dimension stock they are desirable for those tasks for the professional who needs to work fast. But the joinery, the shapes, the detail of the furniture is easier to do once you invested some time learning the hand skills. So rather than spending that time creating lots of accurate jigs, why not spending it increasing skill, that is permanent. Is objective to always do the easiest/most efficient way. Efficiency is not only measured in time, but also energy. You have to agree that most rather than being objective, are very subjective in similar way architects failed designing some cities exclusively for automobile thinking it was the present and the future. They where not being objective but being pulled by a very big inertia around the car industry.

    “It’s a funny thing to me that people choose mass-manufacturing methods to do all their leisure woodworking” indeed, funny phenomenon of inertia.

  8. When I started wood work I wanted a table saw,band saw, router etc however I had no money. So I got a few chisels a couple of saws and got on with it. I still don’t have any money because I’ve spent it on wood and slightly better tools. The feeling I get when I’m hand chopping a mortise or dado far out ways using a machine. My profession is that of a chef and use hand tools and high quality ingredients to create my dishes, I touch it, I feel it, I am in complete control of it and I feel the same when I’m working with wood. Thank you Paul you inspire my to push for perfect

  9. For me the most important concern is safety. I am retired but once worked in an industry where safety is paramount. From time to time we would be given a safety bulletin where there would be a specific warning regarding the gruesome content. Machines are amazing things. They have made mass production much less expensive and improved quality no end. The consumer gets a fantastic product at low cost. To get some idea simply compare the quality and price cars of the fifties with those of today.
    Machines are fantastic but oh so deadly. Working by hand is slow and sometimes arduous but, provided a few simple rules are adhered to, safe. It’s hand work for me.
    I find the proof of the pudding the fact that Paul has not had a serious accident in his workshops for all the time he has been running them. I personally know of three people who have lost fingers to machines, one half his hand. I have a good friend who is an ex Casualty nurse who watched a man die after a piece of wood was thrown from a machine into his chest.
    Sorry to be gloomy. Safe working to all.

  10. I seriously appreciate your demonstration of hand methods for doing jobs we usually on see done on machines. It has fired a whole new passion in me. In fact, I’d like to see some demonstrations of how raw timber can be reasonably dimensioned without machines (or a 6-foot trench) – for those of us hobbyists who are resisting buying a band saw.

    I have a lot of fallen timber and rogue gum trees (eucalyptus) that insist on growing where they shouldn’t and the only machine I have is a 12″ chain saw. Beyond that, I have to work with an axe or hatchet to turn small logs into something I can begin to work with. Unfortunately, splitting logs has proved less than successful so far as the grain is usually far from straight.

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