Flexing Your Muscle Power

Someone told me I had to get an impact driver. It was silly really, I felt. He didn’t know me at all. He didn’t know my financial circumstance. He didn’t understand me. He couldn’t know I didn’t want one because he would only be able to see his own perspective. More importantly he couldn’t see that I simply didn’t need one. His assumption was that I was missing something. I’m sure his intentions were more likely kindly but he also presumed that I had never used one and therefore did not know that I needed one. Of course I had, but I think that this is true of machinist woodworkers anyway, no matter how long they’ve worked with them. I think it true to say that I most likely know as much or more about woodworking machinery than most woodworking machinists I’ve met through the years. I grew up with machines, owned them most of my working life. What I did that was different to others was I kept them in their place, never let them take over, never let them usurp what I loved the most. Using them throughout most days of my life from being sixteen I understand them and I do still use them from time to time.

I’ve never had an aversion to machines, I just find it a completely different experience and this sphere is not one I feel to be as immersive as the alternative. Usually antagonism comes from the professional machinists. Mostly men who are woodworkers of a type and use machines for all their working of wood. These are men who never knew the experience of hand working perhaps. Often these are the ones who make accusations of one kind or another. These are the ones that often use terms like Luddite and Neanderthal or nostalgia. These are the ones who can’t understand because they never really experienced the development of inner skill where the levels have been developed to guaranteed outcomes.

When I am working I start conversations when no other is around as if I am indeed talking to someone alongside me… …Perhaps as some have said it is the first sign of madness. If that were true, and it’s not, I’ve been mad since 1963 when I picked up the first plane and spoke to it. It wasn’t a beautiful experience in any way. The plane was mis-set, dull, misaligned and fully maltreated. But I didn’t remain there. I met a man who knew the plane as well as his whole body and mind. I introduced me to his own plane; lifted my arms to the handles and encouraged my placement and the first push. A gossamer of silverskin curled upwards as a ribbon and the shaving emerged as a result of my own effort and energy. The shaving was a result of my effort, the smoothed surface to came from the same energy. Two birds with one stroke. When I compare a machined surface to the surface of one hand planed I do not feel such things. I can’t because it was not the result of my own efforts. The surface is rippled not level. The atmosphere contains noise and dust caused by the machine. It’s different. To survive I must wear protection. All the time I must wear protection. I must switch on the added noise of extractive equipment. All of these efforts separate me from the experience planing gives me. In my earliest experience of hand planing is saw the truth of it before my eyes. This experience alone formed in me a perspective I have always loved. I knew the truth of it by a positive experience. What I did not know at that point was that three things had to be in synchrony. The cutting edge had to be sharp, it had to be governed and it had to be aligned. Additionally I came to know something I now refer to as ‘flex’. I feel for flex, search for it, adjust for it, allow it, rely on it. The human body is designed for flex even in its most rigid stance and positioning. Were it not for flex the human body would simply collapse under pressure. So whereas I see that it is not rigidity and inflexibility I need, I understand that in its measured resistance muscle opposes effort by exertion, it also absorbs opposing effort by some measure and degree. So too the human mind and the brain to flexes the muscle they rely constantly on as well. Flex in all attitude is the physical and emotional extension of muscle. Muscles of every kind adjust effort in response to resistance with that microscopic perfection to provide measured controllability of effort. My muscles absorb all measure of resistance and I understand the theories of physics my work gives to me multidimensionally. Newton’s third law becomes my personal reality as I work back and forth exerting my body and delivering the power to the task: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction meaning that in every interaction, there are paired forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the forces on the first object equals the size of the force on the second.

If I were to lose the type of immersive quality I enjoyably rely on in using my hand tools I would lose the real value of working with my hands. Firstly I had to work through the resistance of my mind’s logic to arrive at place where my spirit accepted certain hitherto unknown values. Whereas I can understand the setting up of finely tuned machines and the quality they too provide, what I cannot substitute using the machine is the intrinsic value in working totally reliant on working with my own energies. If this were untrue then no one would run but all would ride a car. No one would climb but take the ski lift. It is inherent to us all to want to pitch our bodies against opposition. Why should it be any different when a man or a woman or a child chooses to pit themselves against opposition in working wood? It does not of course mean that we cannot ride the bus now and then, use a bandsaw for resawing, a drill-driver to drive screws, but keeping control for our wellbeing always involves effort. Opposition always comes from professional machinist quarters. Rarely do they understand why anyone wants to work wood by hand. Not all of them, just most!

 

I hope that this will help some to understand that I am not at all opposed to machines any more than I am to driving my car or having the choice between an eggbeater hand drill and drill-driver. It’s all a question of balance and, and, recognising that not all peoples live with the excess of money and access to luxury items others do. Not judging, just saying!

 

43 comments on “Flexing Your Muscle Power

  1. An impact wrench?! What’s wrong with the humble brace ?

    Ah…. I see…. no little white LED on it. Can’t see what you’re doing without a LED to light your way. Nor does it have a LASER to guide one’s path.

    (it took me a while to understand the remark about the impact wrench; was thinking about an impact driver at first (handheld, to be whacked with a hammer).

    As to the rest of your post, perhaps the analogy with driving an automatic vs. stick-shift car applies: it’s trivial for someone who drives stick-shift (a hand woodworker) to switch to an automatic (machine woodworking); the reverse is far from trivial. The hardest route is obviously the hardest, but usually also the most rewarding. The things in my life I’m most proud of are not the things that were easy to do or came naturally to me.

    About a year ago I bought a Makita handheld circle-saw. From the moment I first used it I knew it would never become my favourite tool. It’s useful (in fact, used it this morning to saw plywood stock to size), but far from pleasant to use. Eye protection, hearing protection (and I should also be using dust protection, but since I’m working outside I don’t). I consider it a necessary evil.

    On the other hand, my home-made handrouter that I used this morning to route the pockets for two hinges…. Now *that* is a sheer joy to use, not even mentioning the end-result in the wood.

    Perhaps the Theory of Relativity is relevant to woodworking too; 5 minutes of using a screaming machine seems like eternity, 5 minutes of handrouting seems to be over in the blink of an eye. Not what Einstein had in mind, perhaps, but since you mentioned Newton, I couldn’t resist. Time dilation. And length contraction (it’s what happens occasionally after I cut something too small). I always blame my measuring stick and Hendrik Lorentz.

    • I think that you are right here reference time dialation and woodworking . Time in my garage workshop seems to pass at a different rate to time in our kitchen! When I say to my wife that I’ll be in in 5 minutes, it seems that that 5 minutes of garage time is equal to about 20 minutes (or sometimes more!) in the kitchen… She now refers to it as ” Be in in 5 minutes Garage time!”

  2. I was reading through a last year issue of Wood magazine and observed an advert for a mini table saw sled….to cut small pieces….on a full size table saw. The picture showed a man cutting 1” long by 1/4” T by 1/4” W pieces using this sled…on a table saw! Did I mention table saw?
    A poor man miter box and not even two strokes with a tenon saw would achieve even better results in shorter time…and so much less efforts. And to think someone would pay the $70 to have this silly thing. and the hold down clamp used was an extra $10! It did make me laugh, though, as this is the antithesis of balance.

    • Hi Kurt. Although I tend to agree with your sentiment, to be fair you would need to compare the end result from the table saw to that of a combination of a miter box and a shooting board. I my experience (granted, only about 5 years) you need a guided plane to achieve table saw accuracy in terms of dimensional repeatability and surface finish with hand tools. Naturally this comment assumes that such accuracy is required for the parts in question.

      • Not at all true, Johan. You discount skilled hands altogether it seems. The right guide box and the right saw can achieve perfection within one to three full length forward thrust strokes in this size of material and in almost any wood. Not saying that chop-saws and tablesaws with sleds aren’t good at all, they are very good for dead-on crosscutting. It is a sledgehammer to crack a very, very small cut though. Imagine 3,000 cuts to cut through so small a section. You see that’s where machine only woodworking gets you every time. For even such small work you crank up a tablesaw, switch on the dust extractor, don safety face shields, dust mask, ear defenders…Uhuh! not me and not all of us.

        • You see them on sites hunting for a lead then an electric saw to cut a bit of 2×1 softwood, then there’s Billy Bodget with all the gear (or what he thinks he needs) continually with screaming motors and burning timber, drives me crackers.

        • Paul,
          My perspective on this type of thing is that it’s a marketing ploy. Newcomers lack the skill to achieve the desired outcome without the sled, so they figure they need a sled.
          I fell into this trap when I first started. I soon realized I was going to bankrupt my family. I’ve since discarded most of my machines save for an old early 1960’s Dewalt Radial Arm Saw I picked up on Craigslist for about $100. I use it to do all my heavy cutting, rips and resawing included (gasp)!

          Thanks to the info you’ve been sharing with us, my hand tool collection is growing rapidly, and for little cost. My wife has also noticed the improvement in the overall quality of the work and I’m having more fun and making a lot less dust.

  3. When I look for a video in YouTube to learn how to make something (woodworking things normally) I always avoid those in wich everything or almost everything is done with machines. “How to make this” or “making that”, and in a 15-minute video half a dozen machines appear. It seems to be that a lot of people have a circular saw, a band saw, a jointer-thicker plane, a router table, a column press drill and a sanding machine in the garage. Perhaps that is normal in the USA, but not where I live. I look for videos where the work is made mainly with hand tools. It is not a purity-of-soul question, it’s only I don’t have that machines and a video with them is absolutely unuseful for me. If I need pre-cut stock, buying it in a wood dealer is the only option for me. I live in a house, not in an industrial installation.

  4. I have to disagree with Johan. One can, with some practice , easily cut those pieces straight off the saw. Using a 11TPI dovetail or tenon saw will leave a very clean cut. It is also ten times faster than fooling around with the gizmos and gadgets to cut it on a table saw. It amazes me the amount of trouble some people will go through to not exert a little elbow grease.

  5. I agree that this works for some. But for others, machines work for some part or all of their work. It doesn’t diminish their work in any way. I suspect they’re just as proud of their work. I have seen posts here that criticize others for not doing it their way or realizing the zen like feeling of a finely tuned tool. I seen criticisms about celebrity woodworkers who have done nothing more than do it their way and have never said a cross word about alternative methods. It is disheartening and disrespectful. I like what paul teaches and believes but there are alternative methods that are just as rewarding and that produce well built projects. Anything less than an open mind to different methods or practices sounds like a cult. I hope that we preach to others to make something, anything and enjoy the process and result. I, like paul have been woodworking for more than 50 years. Not at his level but just as rewarding. I use whatever works best for the task at hand. I have completed project with just hand tools, only machines and a combination of both. It’s not the end of the world if someone crosscut a 12 on a table saw.

    • I think encouraging woodworkers to pursue their passion and search for experience that only comes by rote practice is commending them not to fall short in their pursuit of skilful working. Drawing a comparison between those who only ever experience machine work seems an acceptable way to say machine work is not the same as hand work and the two can in no way be compared except as two very different methods of processing wood. In my view you cannot experience the fullness of hand work in the same way you can machine work because hand work necessitates the building of skills over a lengthy period whereas anyone in reasonable health and a modicum of strength can push wood into machines or pull down a chop-saw onto wood once they’ve had a few minutes rudimentary safety instructionals.

  6. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I have multiple tablesaws and bandsaws to use. It is using the right tool to quickly and efficiently get the job done. Many times hand tools are the best answer. Sure, I have been near a tablesaw when I needed to make a small cut and just swung around and used the tablesaw. But, I would never choose the tablesaw for a small (1/4×1/4×1) piece. The reason I come here is to get better and quicker with the hand tool methods so I don’t need to make noise and dust. I really enjoy using handtools to make the final cuts and joinery. No Zen or religious experiences here.

    • Completely agree. Paul’s comment above illustrates an explanation of factory machine work and I could not agree more. It in no way explains custom small shop machine or project work. His comments ignores outcome and only focuses on process. I agree that in order to improve hand skills you should practice hand skills. That’s a given. But to reduce the defintion of a skilled craftsman to something only defined here seems silly to me. Skilled craftsmen use a variety of tools to produce product.

      • It doesn’t describe factory work but machine work, the methods machine-only woodworkers use. Those methods just happen to be identical to the way factory producers process work except that the factories employ different people at different workstations to pull and shove the wood into the cutter heads and make sure things don’t get misaligned along the way. Home machinists do each step themselves using the same methods and the same safety protocols. In other words they switch hats at each change of machine and then become assembly workers. However, that shifts when they combine hand work with machines: usually using the machines for the donkey work and hand skills to develop other aspects of the work, hinge recessing, dovetails, surface planing the machine marks out and so on. So, nothing was ignored. Not sure why you throw these things in here and there.

  7. I bought an impact driver about 4 or 5 years ago. I had two months off from work and I wanted to completely remodel the garage. For that specific remodel, I was driving lots of 3″ long screws and appreciated the tool. Since then I have had no need for it. I can’t imagine using it at all for traditional woodworking applications.

    At the time I was remodeling I was 100% certain my shop was going to look like Norm’s as I really didn’t know any other way. Fortunately I didn’t borrow money to do the remodel as I cash flowed it. As such, I had no money left to buy tools. I decided to take a year to decide which tools I needed. Almost at the same time I bought the Anarchist’s Tool Book (thinking it was about machine tools) and discovered you Paul on YouTube. Between those two things, it was like the blindfold was lifted. I’m not one to make rash decisions but I was never so certain my life that I wanted to be a hand tool only shop. I still waited a year, then bought the hand tools I needed and over a two year period built to a comfortable tool list (but not a collector of tools). Thank you.

    • Had I a few hundred 3″ screw to drive I would borrow an impact driver from a mate. If I knew I would be driving thousands of screws over the next year or so I would most likely buy one if I had the money. I can make sensible decisions like this like anyone else, but what we were originally talking about was me driving eight 2″ long 5mm hex-head screws and a little exaggeration on the part of the one encouraging me to get an impact driver to ‘drive’ his point… or in this case my point (screws) home.

    • Anyone who has ever driven a screw with an electric drill will quickly appreciate the utility of a small electric impact screwdriver. They are an instant winner for mobile use, and in the shop. If mine ever breaks I will be getting another very quickly. I have tried drilling with my impact driver and can quickly see that any hand or electric drill is better, but for screws and small bolted joints the impact tool is better suited.

      Impact DRIVER = good for driving. Better control and torque at low speeds. .Electric DRILL = good for drilling. Better control and available speeds , but not at slow speeds. Just as with most tools, these have optimal applications and suboptimal ones.

      • I think that you have truly missed the whole point, as have others, Michael. The point being if you have no money, how do you buy one? If you live in a country where such would be a total luxury over the necessities of life how could justify one. Coming from a richer country and a richer background is different than for those who have no such access. If a man like myself drives eight heavier screws a year can he justify spending a £100 on something he may never use again when he has three perfectly good drill-drivers that are noire than adequate. In the rich western world of many you just throw the three non impact models in the landfill and buy two or three impact drivers.
        My drill drivers are moire than up to the task of my work. Personally I think people should consider being more accepting and tolerant of those who are perfectly contented with what they have.

  8. I have a wee 18v DeWalt drill and it’s great, wouldn’t live without it. I’ve found that I back off the power on it, and turn down the torque/rachet yoke so I can feel what’s happening as I’m drilling and putting in screws. I never would have learnt to work that way if it wasn’t for Paul and learning hand tools. I never strip heads on screws or force things that aren’t going in with relative ease. I also have a corded sds hammer drill for when I was insulating the house. Man that thing was a God send when drilling the cinderblock walls to put in mushrooms for the insulation slabs. Now she sits there for the next heavy handed job. There’s nothing that compares to the pure joy I get from my brace and bit though, anyone who says they don’t work don’t know what they’re doing (and I’ve had a few people think I was bananas for using one)

  9. I use machines in work every day (metalworking machines – I’m a toolmaker by trade). It’s great to get away from machines and spend some time in my shed using hand tools. When I produce something myself, I like that I made it, not the machine.

  10. Your thoughts remind me of other instants of life. Those who buy an RV park it in a fully serviced lot for a week and come home saying they’ve been camping. Or those who get a week’s euro rail pass and claim to have seen Europe. I don’t think four years have been long enough to get to know my current neighborhood let alone places like Rome, Paris or London (I live in a small city in Western Newfoundland, Canada. You’ve got to stop and smell the roses. How many of those pure machinists ever stop to smell a freshly sanded wood (probably couldn’t over the smell of oil and ozone). I use machines because have health constraints. I work with wood because I really enjoy the process of making something. While earning something at the end is nice at times. It is the process and effort put in that’s most satisfying. Just as for true hiker its the walking that satisfies not the amount of ground covered.

  11. Great post! I’m getting back into working with wood after 20 years of being too busy to open the door to my little shop space in my basement – I affectionately call it my cr***y little shop. I rediscovered the joy of working with wood and it has been my passion ever since. I use both hand and power tools but as time goes on I find myself drawn to the hand saws, hand planes and chisels. there is nothing quite like the satisfaction I get from sliding a plane along a board and watching the shavings curl up. There is a place for both in my shop but I know that personally I prefer working with the hand tools (handsaws, chisels, planes especially)
    Also I’ve set limits for myself
    I only buy a new tool when it becomes a necessity
    I compare the power tool vs. the hand tool alternative – there is almost always a hand tool that will do the same job.
    I try to determine which one is going to give me the most pleasure before i make my decision
    Thank you Paul – you are an inspiration to me

  12. “The journey is more important than the destination”…

    This is what I tell people when asked why I use hand tools.

    I do own a lot of machines (metal working and wood working) but choose to use hand tools for more and more projects (yes, even metal working with hand tools, a hand file leaves a far better finish than a grinder does). Sometimes the right tool for the job. Sometimes just for the pleasure of working with my hands.

    I heard a long time ago that handwork needed to be learned before machine work was learned. But this day and age most people skip the hand work and go straight to machines. They are missing out and shorting themselves on learning (the truly ignorant man is one that thinks he has nothing left to learn).

    Most people just want “stuff” and don’t care how it gets there or how it’s accomplished. Pride in work and workmanship is being lost and the “journey” is forgotten.

  13. My view on all this is that every tool and technique has its place. When I’m framing a building then it’s machines for cutting and a nail gun and impact driver for fixing. That’s because the pleasure (and money) comes from the outcome which mostly is an erected building in the shortest time possible. When I’m making a piece of cabinet furniture from MDF or ply again its mostly machines because it’s outcome driven. However I make the MDF cabinet is of no interest to anyone: all they want is the thing built and me to be gone. When it’s a box, table or something made from nice looking timber then it’s mostly but not exclusively hand tools because the recipient wants to see not only the delicate outcome but also the skill used to make it. I’d say that anyone who does general timber work for a living can’t be limited to either power or hand tools. That sort of purism is for the hobbyist and maybe a handful of niche craftsmen and women. The real world of woodwork requires the worker to be prepared to use both and that brings me back to the point that every tool and technique has its place.

    • I think that everyone knows this really, Tony. In fact they know it really well I think. You would however do well to try to note differences between the `usa and then the rest of the world. Your work would not do well in the `uk for instance because there is no stick-frame building as you describe where everything is nailers and sheet goods. And I should point out here that no one said not to use appropriate equipment except, in my perception of things, those looking for arguments or judging and criticising others? You yourself made a few judgements there my friend, a handful of niche craftsmen and women‘ , ‘the real world of woodworking‘, ‘That sort of purism is for the hobbyist‘ and such. Is that not discriminatory? Like I’m the professional or something. In my view and wide experience there are many amateur woodworkers producing more exemplary work than the so-called professionals. Jus’ sayin’.

      Also you state that, “That’s because the pleasure (and money) comes from the outcome which mostly is an erected building in the shortest time possible.” I built two houses in the USA to live in and I enjoyed the whole process from beginning to end, even more than the conclusion I think. You also say, “When I’m (meaning you) making a piece of cabinet furniture from MDF or ply again its mostly machines because it’s outcome driven.” You see again you are assuming that everyone is just like you when that may well not be the case at all. It’s not for me. Most Brits and then Europeans too don’t have gobs of machinery just hanging around waiting to be used, certainly not my audience anyway, do you see? You see things are different from the rest of the world outside of your building construction and such.
      I would still take you and others back the reality that no one has said you should not use or buy an impact driver. This gets exploded because people are a little offended I think. These are the ones that actually do the most criticising perhaps.

  14. I see this post as a profound insight into the Stoic virtue of “working according to nature,” and a great reminder that homo sapiens sapiens’ evolutionary success has much to do with adaptability… with flexibility.

    Well said, Paul.

  15. I appreciate Paul’s comment that if he had serious numbers of screws to drive he’d get an impact driver. My comment is just to say that the threshold for needing machine assistance can differ due to age or injury.
    My elbow is held together with metal plates after an accident. I enjoy using my hand planes and can bang and hammer at mortices but torque or twisting is more difficult and a brace is a two handed tool. My impact driver is a godsend for me, letting me drive screws without any effort.

  16. Driving screws? Ever stop to consider a Yankee? In that you, the operator, provides the “Impact” to drive the screws……Some even had a spring return….you push the red handle down, the spring returns the handle back to the start point, and you push again…..Maybe use that Yankee No. 130 to drive those 3″ screws?

    • We used them in some joinery all the time but not in furniture making as one slip, and even with experience they do slip, and a gouge can shoot across the top of a table or into an edge where you drive the screw for a hinge and such. The boss ended up banning them.

  17. For me, the burn marks on timber made from a table saw( which i own) or the unsatisfactory edge a machine sander supplies to say, a bench top,( which was asked of me yesterday) ,make my creative impulses wither and the overbearing and often over inflated view, that machines are superior in every way to hand tools, when in ‘reality’ that is just not true.
    My only wish is that i had learned this from the start.

  18. I have an occasion to still use my scroll saw but my radial arm saw has been idle for many years. Even my belt sander and palm sander have not been used since I learned how to properly sharpen a card scraper and use a cabinet scraper. Gone are the table saw, jointer and dust extraction unit and my wife loves the relative silence coming from the garage. Since my “conversion”, I’ve been very happy with taking the time with my tools rather than feeding “the beast”.

  19. Machines enable those of us with debilitating illnesses (or disbabilities) to remain active woodworkers! I’m not a huge fanboy but necesiity is the mother of invention.

  20. I work in a stair company woodshop and use machines for most of my work. Of the 8 guys on the fabrication side, I’m the only one who occasionally uses a hand plane. I’ve found times where a hand tool can do the same task quicker and safer. With the exception of improper use of the chisel and axe, hand tools rarely pose a threat to my body. By contrast, there are a couple of machines that I always say a prayer before using.

  21. I looked for these “hand working” methods for working wood for over 40 years … until I discovered Mr. Paul Sellers – a unique man with unique skills and a very different outlook than I had ever seen in the states. I worked wood with machine because that was basically the accepted standard, all the while wondering if it could still be done by hand. The biggest regrets I have is from feeling I was in the dark all those years and wishing I had ALL of the time I spent setting up power equipment and making jigs just to get one or two pieces made. Sure took so much extra work and time to use the machines than it ever showed getting real, quickly gained results! Thanks as always.

    • You’re welcome. It was me that was accused by my peers of keeping people in the dark ages at one time because I didn’t show machine use in my vids or I didn’t show a dozen alternate ways to cut this or that. What these guys didn’t realise is that I tried all of their ways and found them lacking in some measure so I present what I know and kept it simple and clean.

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