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A New and Alternative Reality – That’s Hand Tool Woodworking

DSC_0041It’s been good to watch John grow. I have lost track of the number of apprentices I’ve worked with through the past 50 years but it’s always been my greatest reward watching them come, work hard and then become their own man as it were. The shop will feel empty for a few weeks even if a new apprentice arrived. No apprentice ever replaces a former one because they are always of course unique beings and therefore irreplaceable when you live your work in an alternative life-changing reality.DSC_0582 I talked with a friend today who may be the new trainee. She tells me of people in her spheres of woodworking who repeatedly advise her that hand woodworking with hand tools won’t pay the bills because you can’t compete. Of course they can’t really advise her because they wouldn’t understand lifestyle woodworking using alternative methods and systems to the traditions of machines. If she comes she won’t replace John because she isn’t supposed to.DSC_0592

You see hand tools isn’t just old but very new and, to those new to it, innovative. That’s what makes what we do so ultra fascinating and new. Not many woodworking machinists know hand tools or know about them at all, and especially is that the case in commerce. It’s funny how that they always feel so equipped and informed to advise people like Lea that methods used by people like me don’t work too well and you can’t make your living from it using those methods. Don’t you think that that’s, well, somewhat biased. Machine woodworking using machines is really not new at all but old, very old even. DSC_0015The Shakers at Hancock, Massachusetts date back to the late 1700’s and they used machines throughout their work including circular bench saws, bandsaws, planers, thicknessers and indeed mortise machines. Most were driven by water and they used water turbines to drive the shafts and they took the power off a central line to drive the individual machines. They were highly productive. But they also ran hand tools alongside their machines and the evidence of hand work is always in every piece they made. So tell me why hand tools and machine work can’t work or hand work alone can’t work? Whether the machines are driven by waterwheel, water turbine, steam, air or an electric motor, the machine is now and has been for two hundred years and more a traditional method of working wood.DSC_0038

The interesting thing for me is to see just how many woodworkers are becoming increasingly more fascinated by the methods we teach. Most of what I teach I have developed through trying to find out. Every day I find things out that are new to me Things I suspect others knew but never passed on. I teach the future to new woodworkers emerging who will carry on the awe-inspiring work that I do and may well make a living from what I teach in the future years when things become local again and communities start making things with their hands and enjoy it.

Go on, tell me that these guys aren’t fascinated with a stick of wood and few hand tools!DSC_0040


  1. waltnutt on 3 December 2014 at 10:58 pm

    They are extremely interested. One of the most fascinating things I have ever seen is an Amish rocking chair… all, or mostly done with hand tools. I think they actually have started using some electric tools so they can bid on jobs more competitively but the workmanship is admirable and the work done by hand is so evident. It is without question of higher quality than anything produced by a machine.

  2. David Shepard on 3 December 2014 at 11:12 pm

    I am a timber framer working almost exclusively with hand tools. I have a sawmill to reduce the logs to timbers, but after that it is all hand tools. I use a Millers-Falls boring machine, like the one from the Hancock Shaker Village photo above, a hand saw, a chisel, and a mallet, to cut my joinery. Too often I see joinery design dictated by the power tools that will be used to cut the joinery, rather than tradition or aesthetics. I enjoyed seeing the photo of the HSV carpenters shop, it is less than 20 minutes from me, and I’ve spent many enjoyable hours working in the basement blacksmith shop.

    • John on 14 December 2014 at 12:24 pm

      There you go David. That’s one of the drawbacks of working with some machines. It’s down to the craftsman to design a piece, and only then decide how to work it. Although, in some instances, a mortice and tenon is jointed; esp a blind one, who knows how it was cut; for sure the wood doesn’t care. I do care though, and that’s why I like my hand-tools!

  3. David Cowen on 4 December 2014 at 12:52 am

    Really love what you are doing, wish I had found you or someone like you when I was a younger person. Thanks again Moochie

  4. Steve Massie on 4 December 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Paul I to wish I had met some one like yourself years ago even though I went to College I still love wood working and doing things with my hands. I really enjoy what you do and as long as I am physically able will continue to use hand tools in lieu of powered tools.

    I hope your new person works out for you like John did, I think it is great to see Women progress in this industry as well. I have had alot of people work for me over the years and it is my opinion in a lot of case’s Women are more detailed orienated. Oh this is not a diss to us Men by no means so not trying to start something here.

  5. Brian Lowery on 4 December 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Not only traditional woodworking skills are not being passed on, but many other traditional skills, like preparing foods and hand sewing, are being passed over in preference to letting machines do the work.
    I’m certainly not the smartest guy on the planet, but after living 70 years, I do know how to do certain things pretty well, and I too would like to pass them on to younger people.
    Today, we need to get back to multi-generational living, where the youngsters can watch grandma and grandpa and learn skills developed in the past. I hate to see those skills fade away, because they may become important again.

  6. Rick on 12 December 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Great blog Mr.Sellers.I am a amateur joiner and woodworker using hand powered hand tools.What might seem bizarre is I am also a armwrestler now in the seniors grand master class(60+).I have quit using the weights and train with vintage Atkins,Disston panel saws,jointer plane,slicks and a big mallet much like David Shepard does I bet.
    I still have to train my non-dominant arm to maintain some balance. Honestly my hand and forearm strength is as good or better than when I trained with weights and one arm chins plus it’s satisfying to build projects out of wood..

    • Paul Sellers on 12 December 2014 at 5:23 pm

      Wow! When we get together we should try a bout or two???

  7. Rick on 12 December 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Well,if you promise to take it easy on me we have a match.

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