Left Versus Right

In last week’s class I asked how many of the 11 students were left handed and five left hands went up. Hannah was there too so she made it an equal six and six and my being right and periodically left handed made for a perfect if not unusual balance. That being so, it made me aware that finding some level of balance is always critically important. More typically the ratio should have been nearer to 1:10 so no more than 2 at best.

It was when I realised how very imbalanced woodworking had become on my arrival in the US that I began to investigate what went so very wrong. Every woodworking workshop I went into back in 1987 was basically a machine set up and I never met anyone that used hand tools, even chisels. Always there was a token tool sitting on the top shelf gathering dust somewhere, but these seemed more to be abandoned and in disused disrepair rather than functioning versions; a Stanley plane, an old Disston handsaw. To me it was the sad malaise of decades and very much the new norm resulting from the new Norm era, but that was indeed how it was back in the late 80s. It was my introduction to the USA but it was here that I discovered there were masses of people that though they only did woodworking by machine at that time, had a true penchant to discover the techniques of hand tool methods I was accustomed to using in the every day of my life.

There were powerful influences that drove the empire of machine-only so-called power woodworking over hand methods not the least of which was the essentiality of dumbing down the skill levels and the need for skilled hand work within the woodworking industry in general. Could we in private realms outside the empires live without machines? The question might more be why would we? Well, to see things for what they really are we need to see that we are not comparing apples with apples. The needs in industry are nothing like that of private sector woodworkers nor is it altogether what they really need although access to them can be handy for a section of woodworking. When you run out of sales for an industrial sector it is not unusual for the producer to consider plying its trade into any other sector. In this area it was perhaps more accidental than actually targeted and planned. Norm Abrams did more for the sales of machines and so-called power equipment than he ever did for the improvement of woodworking. His dextrous manoeuvrability with machines paid off in the industry. Whereas he did show that DIY could be had by anyone, he also sent the clear message that machines were the progressive way into the future. To someone like me, someone who knows machines as well as he knows his hand tools, it seemed to create more of a monumental imbalance. Whereas machines do have their place, in my work I can reduce the need and invasiveness for so-called power equipment like belt sanders and others by about 95% just by my mastery of a simple-to-use hand plane. This then gave me a clearly defined message for the enduing decades. Today I revel in the idea that we have changed the face of woodworking and clawed back some of the important things we had through centuries of proven technology. In my now not so small way I see people embracing left-handed, right-brained thinking more and more. By this we have generally changed the face of woodworking and challenged the status quo to the point that using the old and the new technologies of various types we have indeed shifted many long term biases.

31 thoughts on “Left Versus Right”

  1. Growing up I saw Norm on the local PBS station all of the time and found the show very entertaining. I never understood why my grandfather preferred the Roy Underhill program that aired just before Norm, but now I do. They were both entertaining, but Norm presented something you could buy the plans for and build at home while Roy was more of a historical documentary of sorts. Thanks to Paul we now have the best of both.

  2. The moment I turned on the cheap, electric router and the ryobi chop saw, I knew woodworking with machines was not for me. I could list lots of reasons why I like handtools but I think this one sums it up for me: If I watch and listen to wood being worked with hand tools I completely lose myself. My mind my enters a zone which feels like I’M the one actually pushing the plane…or sawing a dovetail…or striking a chisel with a mallet. I can’t explain it but I feel it. That feeling over the years has changed me into something that I long and strive to become. A woodworker. A craftsman. An artisan.

  3. If you speak with any left-handed person, you will discover what we already know. At least 30% of people you encounter, and very possibly more like 40%, are actually lefties. This nonsense that only 10% of the population is sinister has been perpetuated by myth for generations and it is time to set the record straight.

    1. Alexander Simonov

      I think the 10% myth is being kept alive because only 10% or so of all people write with their left hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean the other 90% are right-handed. People write the way they were taught to (or the way they learned it themselves, watching adults do it), it doesn’t imply anything else.

    2. Can’t altogether agree here, Mitch because in most classes it has seemed to be the odd one or possibly two out of 12 to 16 who are left handed rather than what we experienced in this one event. Thankfully too, working with woodworking hand tools there are only a couple of hand tools that handedness makes something of a difference to but working with Hannah we have a worked out a perfectly practical ways to work those that are.

      1. Fortunately, in the new woodworking world where there are some good new hand tool makers trying to make a living, it is possible to get some of these kinds of tools. Of course, as such, they are a little bit pricey. I got a beginner’s set of hollow and rounds that are left-handed, and they make all the difference in the world for me compared to using conventional right-handed ones. There are other tools also being made which are a big help. Just think, in another few years, some of these will start showing up on ebay. By then they might be more affordable.
        Keep looking around you, Paul. We lefties are sneaking up on you all of the time.

      2. Being a lefty myself, I agree. I watch for this. I think the world-wide ratio is about 1 to 7. When I made my workbench, I reversed everything. Too bad none of my kids are left-handed. I’ll have to wait for grandkids to pass this bench to.

        1. As somebody who is dyslexic, I am always curious about how the brains of others work. Many dyslexics I know gravitate toward the arts and crafts as the workings of our brains are attuned to visualizing how things fit together and work. Many are also left-handed, although I am somewhat like Paul in that I can do some things with either hand. I am tempted to believe that has something do with the unusual percentage of lefties in the class.

          1. Ah! But that doesn’t explain why previous classes reflect a near 10% or even less as in general classes when `i’ve tried this question.

          2. We are still only 10% of the population. So the even distribution is probably random chance. It may still have something to say about how some of them got there.

  4. I built my wood shop from what I learned in high school. That’s why it was all power tools the first 30 years.
    I watched one episode with Norm and didn’t like the cheap shortcuts he was making with furniture.
    Everything I knew about woodworking was from the magazine Fine Woodworking and I followed their advice on power tools.
    Anyone want a free Biscut Jointer? How about a Bosch Orbital sander?
    I need to Ebay some of that junk.

    I came from an age where if you were left handed it was considered to be a disability. Even school desks were all right handed! A lot of lefties I know golf or write right handed today. I think the number of lefties might be a bit higher but let’s not encourage another multi billion dollar study from the government to find out.

  5. An interesting article. I am a recently retired Tool and Die maker who also loved working with wood. When I first got into Tool & Die, the small shop where I worked had 13 employees. 12 of us were left handed. The standard joke was if you are not left handed don’t bother applying for a job. 🙂 I always thought somehow it meant that left handed people were more inclined to be in an industry where you ‘made something’ as it seemed to me that was what we were doing by turning steel and carbide blanks into intricate final pieces.

    That is what keeps me interested in woodworking, turning ‘raw’ wood into something (hopefully) beautiful and functional.

    Looking back, the fact that there were so many left handed people at that workplace was most likely just a random event. Who knows, I suppose.

  6. I have become aware that I am developing a left-handedness, or at least a left-hand awareness as I grow older. Perhaps this is primarily because, although I struggle to write intelligibly with my left hand, I chord a guitar just fine! I wonder, why do “lefties” want a left-handed guitar? Now that’s the question! Is fingering less demanding than picking and strumming? How about the piano? Is the left hand any less capable than the right for an accomplished pianist? I have yet to see a “left-handed piano”! I also play saxophone and flute; my left hand meets a far greater demand in having to work the octave key and more complicated fingering positions than the right. I sand, chisel, and paint routinely with both hands (arthritis will force this on you, believe me!). Could it be that we are actually more ambidextrous than we really think?

    1. I write left-handed but throw right-handed (and kick right-footed). I swing a bat right-handed but hold a pool cue left-handed. As a signwriter, I learnt to paint long straight lines by swapping hands mid-stroke.

      With tools I am often ambidextrous. In fact, I have long said that, with a handsaw, I get equally-bad results no matter which hand I use. Thankfully that is changing and I’m now getting acceptable results with either hand.

    2. Joel – don’t know the answer to many of your questions, but as a careful piano listener (and far less careful player), I can suggest that if you listen to Brahms’s transcription of Bach’s chaconne for violin (BWV 1004 – V.) you’ll have at least one answer. I particularly like Danil Trifonov’s interpretation (available on YouTube). Enjoy!

  7. Michael - Michael J Ostrander

    Being fairly new to “Paul Sellers” community, I’m frankly a little surprised at how often the woodworkers who came to the craft through the teaching and support of The New Yankee Woodworker series and Norm Abrams appear to be demonized in one form or another. I think what’s being overlooked here is that, over the course of 20 years or so, Norm convinced thousands of us to get off our couch’s and go to our garages or basements and learn the art of furniture crafting.

    Prior to Norm and his PBS show, you could, very likely, have fit all of the active amateur home furniture makers in America into his studio and had room left over to dance. The vast majority of us watched the show for it’s entertainment value only. Over time, Norm convinced us that we really could build high quality furniture, on our own, for our homes, our friends, our families, and even as a trade.

    Most of the skills I learned in watching Norm work are still very applicable in the hand work I’m trying to master today. These include skills like reading grain, Respecting and maintaining tools properly, working safely, proper joint selection and fitting, and respecting the resource by using materials efficiently.

    I Think it would be very hard to dispute that the woodworking brotherhood of today would be a small fraction of what it is without Norm and The New Yankee Workshop series. Today I’m a proud member of the Masterclass community but I’m just as proud of the foundational training I received as an equally proud ‘Normite”.

    That said, I also have 4 or 5 routers, a plate joiner, and 8 or 9 power sanders that I really should get up on eBay…

    1. I certainly hope that no one in any way “dermonized Norm” as you say. As I understand it he primarily present the world with so-called power-tool carpentry and then stopped. We came on board with a completely different dynamic to encourage a rethink of what had become the status quo presented through Norm. I never watched any of what he presented but I did see the result of what he brought to the machine world.

    2. I see what you are saying, based on some of the comments made. This is an exclusive hand-tool community, using the most exquisitely machined hand tools that only powerful shop machinery can make (tongue-in-cheek, that’s all!).

      I agree with you that Norm has inspired generations of woodworkers, along with generating a lot of sales for interesting power equipment.

      If I had all the time in the world, I would be strip-building kayaks along with Nick Schade; I don’t–I have to work for a living. I would also hand-tool every piece of furniture I make; I can’t. The precious little time that I have for tinkering in the shop will either produce little with hand tools, or decent and useful products with power tools. As I have more time, I will definitely use my hand tool collection far more.

      The fact simply is that, if I am to compete, I don’t see how I can eliminate power tools from the process. Sure, I would much prefer to cut dovetail joints by hand, but if I plan to custom build a set of kitchen cabinets, a dovetail template and power router permits me to speed up the process considerably. The customer is hardly concerned whether my joints are hand made, except when having to pay extra for them both in time delayed and money spent.

      This is one of the more perplexing issues I have faced. The true artisan working with hand tools must either have an established customer base that demands hand-made perfection, or else live off mom and dad or government subsidies. As for the rest of us, we can only dream of the day that we can make a living selling single hand-constructed pieces for $10,000.

  8. Hi I think the thought that 10% are left handed stems from the attitude in my fathers time, I am know 67, that left hander people were an aberration, and made at school to write with their right hand and eat right handed as well.
    My youngest son-32-writes with his left hand and we have never attempted to change it, somethings he does automatically left handed and some like tennis he plays with either hand.
    I can use chisels and planes both handed, but I had to find that out later in life when renovating our first house, as in woodwork class at school right handed was the only way allowed, fortunately this means I can use turning chisels with either hand, I think left handed people these days are allowed to use whichever hand they want to, and long may this continue

  9. My introduction was 8th grade ,1956, in a new school. Robert Sedgwick was the instructors name. There is now a park named after him in La Grange, Illinois. He was influential.

    The only power tool was a table saw of some sort and we were not allowed to touch it. Freshman HS I elected another class. So so experience.

    Bought my first house in 1971 , got a radial arm saw, belt sander, router, jointer. All were from local Sears. Now I know why they are going broke. Made a few things and now it died until 2017 when a Woodcraft moved into area. i went to check things out as I had seen a few of Paul Sellers videos on the internet. They ask me what I was interested in and I answered I had power tools but want to “graduate” to hand tools.

    Now I own some basic stuff including a small bench , but I will replace that with a homemade one. So here I am 75 years old picking up something I let die 40 some years ago.

    Thank you Paul Sellers

    1. While the topic is suppose to be left and right I see a lot of comments about power tools versus hand tools. I was involved in woodworking for 40 years. Some as a sideline but mostly for my pleasure. I had and still have lots of power tools. I slowed up on my woodworking because I disliked the noise and dust for health and esthetic reasons.
      Finding Pauls site put me back on track. What caused me to comment on this discussion was that I notice that Paul frequently refers to the wood he works with as being milled. He occasionally mentions removing undulations and how the milled cutting expose the direction of grain. I believe this references machine planning and table saw work
      I believe there is a place for power tools. Especially jointers , band saws , planers and table saws for rough sizing.
      I think ‘ rough’ planning to thickness is almost a necessity for work requiring a significant amount of material. I am now 71 and can not conceive of thicknessing a large quantity of rough planks to size. I do love planeing wood to final size and squareness .

      I realize this is off topic but since I saw several comments about power tools I felt it was appropriate to reply.

      Thank you paul for reviving my interests and improving my skills with my hand tools.

  10. My grandfather was truly ambidextrous. He would use hammers and saws with whichever hand was closest to the tool when he selected it. My father was right-handed, but was pretty dexterous with his left and could, for example, write and paint with it.
    I have always been right handed but my 3 boys seemed to cover all bases.

    My youngest son, Ben, is left-handed.
    My middle son, Daniel is right-handed.
    My eldest son, Jack was ambidextrous. He could hold a pencil in each hand and draw using both simultaneously. However, when he went to school he was encouraged to favour one hand in order to focus on his handwriting skills. By the time he reached secondary school he was right-handed. I now regret not encouraging him to retain his ability to use both.

    1. Ian-here’s how you can help Jack. Next time you see him, carefully and lovingly break the right hand index finger. While his finger is splinted, he will be forced back to writing with his left hand. Physical therapy will get the finger working normally in a short time. (With apologies to Tom Lehrer, who taught us that base 8 is just like base 10-if you’re missing two fingers. He must have been a proponent of table saws who later influenced Norm.)

  11. I have come across a perhaps unusually high percentage of left-handers in creative fields, and I do wonder if there is something to the perceived connection between handedness and creativity.

    As for Norm – the interesting thing is that (from memory; it’s been a few years since I watched) the early seasons showed a fair bit of use of hand tools, but he also openly admitted to loving to find a way of doing a job with power tools as he is a self-confessed power tool junkie.

    In hindsight (and now as a regular user of both power and hand methods) it’s obvious that the 30 second segment (where he would quickly mortise a hinge with a router and a jig) left out the 10 minutes required to create the jig; in which time of course you could have likely cut the mortises on one door with a knife, chisel, and hand router.

    IRC Paul’s made that very point in a video: if you’re in production (i.e. making tens of doors) the power approach has merit. For the home hobbyist, the hand tool method is often not just quieter, but also quicker (and far more enjoyable).

  12. It’s not often I feel compelled to comment on a blog post or on much, really. This edition was about balance and I can understand why Norm Abram was mentioned. I also agree with Paul’s comment further up the page that he hasn’t ‘demonised’ the man at all, but I’ll also observe here that this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Norm Abram referenced by Paul in the pages of his blog with what comes across as a disparaging tone towards the man.

    Paul, I love what you do, what you’ve shown us all, I hugely respect your skills, experience and that for 50+ years you’re a man who’s gotten of his behind to put a shift in every single day. So I mean no disrespect in what I’m inspired to write because it is going to be a bit critical. I think we all understand where you’re coming from and what it is you’re achieving by offering this wonderful training to people all over the world in what I now realise is ‘proper’ woodworking. You’re reaching thousands of people across the globe and maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the scale of your success in this regard would not have been so rapid had it not been for Norm Abram.

    Since you say you’ve never watched anything he put out, I ask you to have a look at one of his episodes. Just one. It’ll cost you 20-odd minutes on youtube. Because you’ll find yourself watching a humble, hard-working man who taught both himself and millions how to build furniture and inspired many of those millions to rise up from the couch and produce. He’s a nice man, an old-school gentleman, a man who has a love and appreciation for antiques and an enormous regard for how those pieces were made by men like yourselves who own those skills as a part of their nature.

    He is not a time-served joiner. He was a general contractor building structures from start to finish. He fell in with PBS and Russ Morash by accident (right place at the right time) and things simply evolved from there. At a point in his life he was no different from me and many others in that he didn’t know anything about building furniture, indeed he sometimes voiced a self-doubt about his ability to reproduce certain elements of an antique, humble in acknowledging his limitations. To get the job done he embraced the world of machines and the rest is history.

    As I say, I get where you’re coming from… the enormous imbalance between machines and the ability to use hand tools. Is Norm responsible? Sure, if we want to attach a name to that ‘problem’, if that’s what we are to call it, then Norm Abram’s is the one that fits. The driving forces, though, were technology, corporations, a TV station with a threadbare budget for everything including filming, 1/2 hour episodes to build everything, etc, etc. I don’t like seeing this man’s name mentioned in these pages and feeling his value to the community you now thrive in, have become a leader in, should be devalued. I’m confident to restate what I said before… The speed of your own success in reaching so many thousands of us to both share or sell your skills and experience would not have been anywhere near as rapid had it not been for The New Yankee Workshop.

    I’m thankful for what he has done. I didn’t know a dado from a dovetail before I first saw his show. I learned about joinery, accuracy, various styles of furniture, species of wood, safety, finishing, bad puns. His output is what got me thinking about building things in my spare time, got that creative part of my brain engaged for the first time in my life. All those people who go to woodworking shows over a certain age… He is likely the reason most of them would ever have considered attending such a thing. You have become this beautiful gateway for so many of us to see this journey go full-circle and return to people having a thirst to acquire traditional skills and methods of doing the very same things. But without Norm Abram, so many thousands of us simply would not be here.

    I read your blog post a few weeks ago about ‘IMHO’. This is very much my humble opinion. Woodworking seems to me a realm where I meet no one but truly decent people. I don’t like to see a man who opened this door to so many slighted (intentionally or not) by a man who will potentially open it up to so many more. Please continue to bang the drum loudly about these conflicting methods. Please watch an episode of the NYW and see that there’s an admirable man there who’s efforts served as a rag in a can to your own.

  13. Left or right handed was a very interesting for me because I use both hands equakky well.. I never have to reposition my work, because I just change hands. Why U have this unusual ability is unknown but it has been a decided advantage for a woodworkrt who is still wotking at 86 and inspite of Parkison;s health problems.

  14. Last year I learned that I am right-handed but left-eye dominant. (This came to my attention from following Paul’s blog and youtube videos.)

    It turns out that’s why I couldn’t saw straight for the life of me. I know some say to “adjust your stance”. That didn’t work for me. I just switched to sawing left-handed. Awkward at first, but my cuts stay on line much better now.

  15. Speaking as a left hander I find that machines are made by the right handed majority for use by the right handed majority. Most importantly so are the safety mechanisms built into the machines. I made the decision a long time ago after several near misses that I either use them right handed or don’t use them at all. ( pick up a skill saw in your left hand and offer it to a piece of wood and see where your right hand naturally goes). I am a leather worker that does a bit of wood work. I mostly make lasts to make bags around and a few boxes. Since I stopped using the majority of right handed machines I have found it so liberating on many levels. I am more relaxed I don’t have to question everything I am about to do in case my left handedness is putting my right hand in harms way. I am used to hand work in as much as I don’t own a sewing machine I hand sew saddle stitch and woodworking feels more natural and safer to me with tools in my hands rather than pushing wood into a machine. Things have changed in education for left handers, I am 64 my brother is 18 months older, we went to the same school and had the same teacher in our first year. If my brother was caught using his left hand he was made to bite a bar of soap. I was taught to write using my left hand and write from below the line not wrap my arm around the page as a lot of lefties do. Same teacher different years, I can only think she must have been on a training course in the intervening year between my brother and me.

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