Lifting Your Spirits – Working With Your Own Hands!

IMG_6298I find my interests shift between places where hand work and craft lift my spirits and machines seem less at home. I suppose machines always have seemed so invasive; an intrusion into the world where few men I ever met saw them as necessary but more forced onto them and they forced into using them. The two World Wars changed craft work and made it more a compulsion to drop standards and reshape shapes into a utilitarianism that was supposed to be a temporary lapsing of standards but ultimately replaced loveliness in the same way loveliness no longer exists when a tool is stamped out with moulded blue or red or yellow and black handles. My spirits lift when I see a brass back on a saw and then they fall when I see a resin moulded handle or spline because something inside me seems to break.PICT0006

Seldom do we realise how easily our craft lives have been invaded by plastics in all their different forms and it’s all the harder when we know that wood grows with such loveliness to replace itself. I must admit that plastic rarely seems rightly looking in my workshop. In my photographs I tend to hide the plastic containers that hold my Stevia extract and so too the occasional plastic handled chisels I use for some of my research and testing. PICT0044I haven’t found a chisel hammer that betters my Thorex 712 with its nylon handle and screw-in replacement heads and so I accept it in photographs, but my old mallet made from cedar elm in Texas looks always to be in place. It’s a bit like a slot-headed screw always seems right but the cross headed ones invade with the machines to interrupt the view somehow and obtrude my whole environment like a black plastic bag hanging from a naked oak waiting for the spring leaf to come.P1020409

When I’m working I’m always searching for the right place to keep things in harmony and so I fight constantly against the disorder that comes through the invasion of plastics. I find myself fighting the invasion of its colours too. In many ways I like black and white in my photographs because there seems such a greatness of harmony.PICT0082_2 PICT0012 PICT0145 But I like colour. I love it. You know, there is a dislike for what is now referred to as “brown” furniture. Do you know what I mean? The mahoganies and the darkly stained oaks. I understand that, but then I also see what people do to “redo” it with splashes of antiquing and my heart seems to stop when I see something lovely engulfed by mindlessness. Did you ever see a young deer hanging dead in a barbed wire fence and wonder the agony, or one running wildly between the headlights ahead of your car? This is what I mean by invasiveness; a disharmony of content.

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Some things we do invade our workplace and so our creativity and the spheres in which we design and make what we make. We should dwell more on the whys and the invasiveness when a router screams for hours to make what was simply developed with a chisels and a saw. In times past I stood for eight and more hours in a given day at a router and a bandsaw. Yes, it’s true. In Britain we use a term I didn’t hear in the US in all my 23 years there. It was the term ‘soul-destroying work’. That’s what we called the type of work I was doing for a season to feed my family and pay my bills, but I had a vision for becoming a free man one day.

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Feeding the machine’s incessant demand for more and more and more slowed down as I grew older and regained control. My skills grew and the ease of work came from my hands more readily. I was able to dismantle the intrusion piece by piece you see, as I understood what was soul-destroying and saw what the invasion was. PICT0024 PICT0174The quest for success was no longer how much I made but how I made and what I made and with what I made. Here I found peace as I sliced my handsaw down a long board and made rails for a clock. Here I found peace as I sharpened my chisels and carved wood until a tenon quietly emerged from chips on my benchtop. I understood the harmony of marriage when the tenon slid inside its mortise and the dovetails interlocked to marry for life.PICT0150 I began to understand what dedication meant. That the parts to a piece become dedicated, formed to fill an exact place and inextricable from the whole. I understood at last that my hands were forming things intended and fitly framed and formed in loveliness. PICT0238At last I knew I had become an artisan in love with his work and a man who saw his work not as something he deserved to have but a privilege. This was the point of transition into a world where my spirits would lift each time I placed the saw on the elm board and severed away the waste with each hard stroke. I no longer cursed the work, and the plane seemed to move with great sweetness to smooth out the kerf marks the saw left. My hands traced the surface I made a thousand times in a day and more and the machine no longer drives me to destroy the soul of my working.

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I once watched my son make a violin where no machine blade touched the wood. PICT0380_2 Making a Cello 2 (70) PICT0006_18For weeks he worked and I watched him as he shaped each part. This was a reward to me to see. I like to watch the craftsman work his wood, to carve out a voice. The demands for cheap instruments came from the West and machines makes them in Asia to sell for £150. This is soul-destroying work. The violin made this way has no soul and the eyes and the hands and the mind are filled only with sadness I think.

16 comments on “Lifting Your Spirits – Working With Your Own Hands!

  1. I do enjoy working with my hand tools, but I disagree that machines are soul destroying. I take great joy from seeing my machines in my small garage workshop (though at 30m2 it’s bigger than most UK people are used to).

    Machines that are at the youngest 40 years old. My bandsaw is maybe even up to 70 years old, I don’t really know, no younger than 60 I think. This great swedish colossos is 1000lbs+ of beatifully machined and worn cast iron that I’ve restored and it fills me with the same pleasure as my restored metal bodied hand planes and other old handtools I’ve acquired. And it holds a prominent place in my workshop and I look forward to turning it on and using it as much as I can.

  2. Hello Paul,

    Handwork brings the most satisfaction to a woodworker. I was always amazed how my dad used to make me a sword from the top of the Christmas tree using an axe and a knife. I did the same for my son and he loves it.

    Each project I finish contains a part of me. That is because while working I develop a relationship with the tools and the wood. Probably that’s why it is a bit hard for me to let the result go every time.

    I also have a bandsaw and a drill. These are the only power tools I own. I must admit I “hate” my bandsaw because I do not have enough space to have a proper dust extraction unit but also because it is so noisy. Watching your videos inspired me and gave the courage to saw by hand. Yes, it is hard and I do not always saw in straight line. But I guess this will correct with practice and in time.

    I would not say my bandsaw /power drill are a soul destroyer. But I tend to use them only when I really have to. But on a larger scale, I guess you are right. I doubt that a person who’s working with machines all day long, for years, will have skills to work wood by hand or have a “personal” relationship with the wood he/she is working. Because he/she is not working the wood. Machine does.

    It is true a machine can do a job 10x or 100x faster than a human. We should not deny that. But the soul is happy when you build it with your hands. When you get the appreciation for what you were able to do. Somehow, people I get in touch with start smiling and seem happy when they hear that I built an object with my hands. And that is because they see the work and maybe the bit of soul I put in that piece.

    Black & white photos have something classic in them. They seem to be more forgiving with the subject (I look younger in B&W). But I like colours. For my toys colours are mandatory. I love the contrast in the wood and I use it for each toy I make.

    All the best and I hope to meet you one day,
    Bogdan

  3. Hi Paul – Inspiring stories tell you always…lol, anyway, I know what you mean when you say soul destroying, Ive been there….

    Firstly, Im not very good at writing and trying to get my point across so please excuse my ranting and raving.

    When the spark re-ignited my passion to work wood, after many years of sitting behind a desk, I found myself wanting to buy Bandsaws, Routers, Table Saws and set up my humble little shop with all these marvellous electric machines and plastic that would help me create beautiful pieces I could be proud of and show off to the world….well guess what, I don’t want all those machines and returned to my roots, where I was taught HOW to use a Spokeshave and a Plane, HOW to saw a piece of wood, HOW to hold a chisel and pair the cheeks of a beautiful tenon. These skills are slowly being lost if not for souls such as us. Now, I am more proud to show off my works, knowing that they have been completely crafted by hand, a sense of satisfaction (for me anyway) you just don’t get when doing it all by machine. I have you to thank for that.

    There is something about working with hand tools, in the dead of night, when the air is thick and everyone else is asleep and all you can hear is the sound of your 200 year old wooden plane taking of that slither of timber to reveal that lovely golden grain, the smell of linseed oil and wax, cedar, pine and oak fills your shop and you just don’t want to leave, and if you do, its only to make another cuppa as you wade through the shavings on the floor.

    I am now slowly building my tool collection with vintage, serviceable tools and always look forward to the next one to buy and learning the skills to use them properly.

    I mentioned in a You Tube video of yours at one stage that you reminded me of one of my high school woodworking teachers, the more of your videos I watch, the more I’m reminiscent of those days and the more of what I had forgotten for so many years comes back to me and I am happier and more satisfied than ever when Im in my workshop. I truly thank you for all your videos and sharing all your knowledge with us.

    I really hope you can come downunder one day so I can shake your hand and buy you a coffee!

    Kindest regards
    Anton

  4. I concur with what’s said above about using hand tools. I’ve come to find it’s similar to the satisfaction of baking your own loaf of bread versus picking one up from the grocery store. Although they are at times expedient, where is the skill, the craftsmanship in using machines?

    I like your black and white photographs above. Black and white can create a mood that color just can’t match. Consider the photographs of the great Ansel Adams, e.g. Moon over Halfdome, etc.

  5. Soul-destroying is a good description for some kinds of work, sometimes by machine, sometimes by hand, although in the US it might be called mind-numbing. I’ve run injection molders, run thousands of arm rests through a band saw and then shaped them on a form with a pneumatic router, etc. There was a sense of accomplishment from being highly productive, but that’s just to say a sense of accomplishment in turning myself into part of the machine. On the other hand, this was a small shop, so I would sometimes setup a production, and that can be addictive, like programming a computer- Figuring out how to set stops with bits of scrap, clamps, and tape on the machine table, transferred from a pattern. But, of course, then you had to grind through the run…

    I think if I had to drag through too much surfacing by hand or doing dozens of dovetailed drawers by hand, one after another, by rote, even if with skill, it could get mind numbing as well. Maybe not. There’s much more to experience and attend to during the hand work. But I think being able to imagine and create without being constrained by setting fences or fabricating guides and knowing that your skill make the cut does change everything, like you say.

    This was an enjoyable article. Very inspiring.

  6. Some 30 years ago I worked in a shop that built ” sate of the art” European cabinets, 32 mm system. Standing in front of a 10′ German panel saw for 8 or more hours cutting melamine sheets was mind numbing labor. The saw was, indeed, a wonderful piece of engineering, but there was no place for my brain to interact with the work. I went home exhausted. I believe machines have a place or are a must, in the US anyway, for production work if profitability is the goal. On the other hand 10 hours with hand work is so much more enjoyable. I am still tired, but it’s a different kind of tired. I’m tired and at the same time sort of exhilarated. Just my thoughts, like noses everyone has one!

  7. Paul,

    There are a few machines which I have been able to evict from my shop. They truly were soul destroying tools. Routers and Power Sanders are gone.

    I still look to my Band Saw, Table Saw and Power Planers as if thew were my shop helpers. They aid me in preparing rough timbers before they are stored in reserve for future projects.

    Since I do not have timber merchants nearby who cater to retail customers, for now those Machines serve a purpose although, I do detest the noise of the dust extractor (we call the Dust Collectors here in USA) but I have yet to find one that does not just move fine dust all over the place.

    Here too is a Drill Press and a Power Mortiser for repetitive tasks which require the same settings over and over. They are relatively quiet tools and they do not make much dust.

    The one tool I have yet to resolve how to replace is my Lathe. For personal reason a treadle or Pole lathe would not be a suitable replacement. My lathe brings me great joy when I see the shapes emerge out of a block of wood. Some are pleasing because the wood came alive in the process, other are just utilitarian.

    I continue to strive to move back to my first love of Hand tool woodworking after getting distracted and making compromises for many of my 44 years in the shop.

    Thank you for leading the way back.

  8. Hand tool woodworking is like meditation. All your senses are on what you are doing, there is nothing outside, are you and your work. When I work with machines, also I put all my senses, but I can not feel the same peace. Definitely hand tool woodworking is something spiritual.
    Thank Paul.

  9. Well that sums it up. Reading that feels like my own heart being poured onto a page. Machines weren’t really an option to me, as they were the only choice given. I remember being teased for not liking to use pneumatic nail guns when I worked framing houses. After i shook the rust of winter and early spring off i could drive an 18D nail with two swings, the sections of walls i was responsible for went together just as quickly as anyone else’s. To me it was then when i really noticed i enjoyed the hand work slightly more than the machine work (something as simple as pounding nails). That’s not to say i followed along with the idea. I didn’t get to learn how to sharpen an iron or chisel or saw or slick. There were machines that did the work of those tools. For the most part no one in my life could teach me anyhow. I’ve carried on that way for about the past 10 years or so. I’m only 29, I’ll say i didn’t know anything about anything from birth to 18, and certainly couldn’t conceive anything about myself until at least 26. Self realization i guess… Anyway, enough of that…Schedules to be met, time is money. That’s how i had to work, not focusing on whats at hand, always looking toward the next project, cramming the the next board into the next whirring bit or blade. After my job spun off into a million completely non-wood related things and i became fed up with not being me, not doing what i loved, i quit! Liberated really! 8 months ago I decided I’d make whatever money i could using what skills i had. And never again sit behind a desk for cash ever! That’s where i come to hand tools. I didn’t know what those were, i knew their names and what power tool did their job. And that’s were Paul Seller’s enters my life, what only a few months ago now. A video about sharpening chisels…which lead to planes, which lead to a completely new and growing collection of rusty old things that i fix and learn how to use. Which is now leading to actually being able to work to my own standard. Not accepting the machine flaws as fine or normal. I’m no pro, hardly even a novice in the realm of hand tools. but I’m learning. I’m much happier with my work. I think it shows in every board i lay tool steel against. So thank you Paul Sellers, and crew!

    DAMN SOUL DESTROYING WORK

  10. I am always looking forward to making a 8 foot or so rip cut in 8/4 lumber.No,not with my table saw,my No.7 3TPI Disston.The challenge to stay on the line,to cut square and to complete the rip without resting.That’s just me.

  11. Paul,

    I have gone through the power tool portion of my life and now am a convert. I fully agree with your description of the sensation of forming something from the tree on.

    I do have a question regarding my keeping one’s senses when hand routing maple burl for a box lids… this has turned had me about batty.
    Any suggestions other than changing tool direction every inch or so?

    Thank you for giving so freely.

    • Hard to fully understand what you are routing. Are you talking a routed mould on the edge or a routed dado housing? The thing about more dense-grained hardwoods is to take very shallow passes rather than a heavy one, no more than say 1/32″ or 1mm. Then go down in increments the same depth adjustment until the final depth. Also, keep a good sharp edge the whole time.

  12. Thank you for the reply, Paul,

    It is a dado. I have done as suggested and knifed where the dado stops in an attempt to eliminate tearout. What are your thoughts on increasing router blade angle?

  13. Do musical instruments have souls? I don’t know about that but certainly some instruments send a shudder through my body and make my hair stand on end. They say you should buy the instrument when that happens. Much used instruments often have more “feel”/character than a new intrument but, to my surprise, it can be faked. I once tried a Fender Relic stratocaster – a brand new instrument made by a Fender Mastercraftsman and made to look and feel old, worn in and a bit battered – and it really had “mojo”. It felt and played great; lots of character and feel, no hard edges. Perhaps it is just all the extra, expert attention lavished on it (it cost more than $2000 compared to $99 grey Asian models, nice $350 Mexican period versions and desirable $650 American made versions) but it was wonderful, really special. (And I’m more of “a Gibson man”! :D).

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