As a boy I peered into tool chests filled with some of the most beautiful tools ever made in the history of tool making. They were all hand made, of course! They usually remained just under the bench aprons and at the ends of workbenches and on the rare occasion that they were left open I drank in the sights of ultimatum braces stood alongside a series of handsaws where the plates had worn so thin through use, the back edges were like knife edges and the nibs were all but gone.

The writer said something along the lines of, “With tool making having reached such an advanced level, and steels becoming so superior to what once existed in the earlier centuries, just how did craftsmen of old achieve such high standards of workmanship without having what we have today?”

I confess to having a chuckle to myself. I think that I understand what his assumptions are. Every day I look at the fineness of my injection needles and marvel at how finely they are made. I inject myself with twice a day and each time I am grateful for this alone. Go back over the past 70 years and woodworking standards have fallen to the lowest levels ever in the history of woodworking. We can, of course, blame many things. What we are most reluctant to admit is that woodworking, carpentry, joinery, furniture making and such, is more skilless occupation. You decide the reasons. Lack of time, time is money, fierce competition, lack of good materials, machine-only methods, unskilled labour. The list can go on.

I think it is an unchallenged reality that the finest periods of making revolved just about anything and everything comes from the pre-machine era or an era when machines were emerging but the finest work came from hand tool woodworking. Antonio Stradivarius had his golden era in the 1700s, starting when he was around 50 years of age. He made a departure from both his own early style and then too the Amati style instruments so prevalent at that time and established his own through research and experimentation. Most instruments made today remain faithful to the patterns he stablished some 300 years ago. I could if course walk you through the various periods of furniture making to show the finest pieces came from that era too. But they are there as living examples for us all to see and though, well flamboyant, expressive and luxurious beyond belief in many cases, the reality of fine workmanship remains as I said, unchallenged. For nit was not just the finished pieces that exemplified the craftsmanship of old, hut the way things were made and the lengths the wealthy people went to to express their power, position and wealth too.

The very finest tools made then were all hand-filed, hand-planed, hand-cast, and hand-shaped. They were the extension of the men who made them and reflected their integrity. It is an unfortunate thing that in today’s age the official guidance ruling commercial entities is that if the wood is handed into a machine to be cut by that machine by human hands it can be deemed ‘hand made“. You and I know that it is not and that the spirit of declaring something to be hand made is that hands and skills guided hand tools and in some cases hand-held machines to make them. And I am not saying that there’s is no skilled machine work either, of course there is. Much machine work is highly skilled as is the programming that takes technical knowledge to send the machine onto the wood or the wood onto the cutter head automatically. But we should recognise and admit that much machine work takes the hands off the materials so that human touch and skill is taken off the table. I am simply saying we must look at things to see just what skill is. If I push a power-router along an edge of wood to steer it and keep it to the fence then my main task is to keep it moving and to prevent even the slightest tilt that would otherwise result in a burn mark or a step-down. It’s a skilless task. If I take a moulding plane to do the same work it takes many types of skills to set it up and make it work and then too the skill to achieve the work itself. It is not just different in part, but different in the whole and much more a high-demand task altogether.

So we must yet again see that we have indeed lost the standards of fine workmanship to the machine era which didn’t ever substitute with the same quality but displaced the other and left it as a redundant reality we will never see again.

53 Comments

  1. Jurandyr on 22 May 2020 at 1:34 pm

    Paul, a curiosity: are glues of today and of old are similar in quality? Thank you.

    • Matt McGrane on 22 May 2020 at 5:47 pm

      To Jurandyr – you should read some of what W. Patrick Edwards has to say about glues of old. Bottom line is that today’s glues are as strong as the “hide” glues of old (and of today), but don’t have some of the other qualities. For example, hide glue is reversible – if the furniture needs to be repaired in the future, one can apply heat and moisture and pull the joint apart without breaking the joint. You can’t do that with PVA or other plastic glues. Search Google and YouTube for “Old Brown Glue” or “Patrick Edwards” and look at his blog and videos for much more info.

    • John on 23 May 2020 at 10:15 pm

      Ancient glues were typically produced from either animal or plat sources. “Hide glues” were commonly made of many different kinds including, fish, hide, as well as hooves, teeth, and horns. The glues are made of collagen boiled out the parent material, and just considering the source and method, you can imagine that many glues were discovered as “kitchen accidents.” Many are still made. If you used a “mucilage” glue in school, that was almost certainly a plant product, although IIRC, the original LePage’s Mucilage Glue was a fish glue. School boards like them because they are non-toxic.

      In woodworking most glues are comparable in strength to the woods they are used on.

      • Vidar Fagerjord Harboe on 28 May 2020 at 7:20 am

        John stated earlier that old glue might have been discovered by accident in the kitchen (probably very true!). This reminded me of a Seinfeld bit: Who made the connection that a horse could be glue? Someone once looked at a horse and thought “I can make glue out of you! See the one over there raving about and acting up? He can be crazy glue!” 😀

  2. Hank Merkle on 22 May 2020 at 2:03 pm

    Many people ask why would you want to learn, much less spend time doing woodworking with hand tools, when there are perfectlly good machines that make it easier. (“easier” is another subject for another time…)
    Paul you write:
    “It is not just different in part, but different in the whole and much more a high-demand task altogether.”

    I think this “difference” is part of the Renaissance or “movement” of so many people returning to “hand-tool” or “unplugged” woodworking – It is different – completely different. Not just the lack of noise, but the challenge – so many (I know you hate the term) hobbyist woodworkers have a “thinking” day job – computers, programmers, engineers etc.
    Their output tends to be something less than tangible – many times nothing physical but still critically important to a finished product since an un-programmed “whatsit” wouldn’t work and without drawings a product could not be manufactured, so-on and so-on. I submit, this person’s make-up means that they want a challenge, or want to learn something and finally they want to do something that culminates in a tangible item, whether that be a finished product or simply a well-made “dovetail corner”

    • Joe on 22 May 2020 at 11:33 pm

      You are describing me perfectly and why I went the hand tool only route.

      One of my colleagues at work about 6 years got back into playing a musical instrument. He now plays once a month in a band at clubs. Over several lunches we talked about it. The why really had to do with he didn’t want to look up 30 years from now and realize he spend his,life just watching tv. Many of the reasons I worked with wood and he played music weeper the same at a high level. These were wonderful conversations.

  3. Thomas Doherty on 22 May 2020 at 4:50 pm

    In my case for over 45 years I’ve used a mix of hand tools, machines and power tools as a carpenter a joiner and woodworker, but was all part of the journey! I’ve always looked after and treasured my hand tools and they are the ones I like to use more so now because I have more time to enjoy making the things that I want to make while enjoying the process and the rewarding satisfaction of working with hand tools.

  4. Danny, Roberts on 22 May 2020 at 5:39 pm

    To link your comments on the injection needle with the quality of the steel in fine old tools, many from Sheffield.
    You may or may not know about an interesting Sheffield firm of today – Swann Morton – a worker-owned company which makes handles and blades for a high proportion of the world’s medical scalpel use as well as craft and hobby use.
    The company has it’s own tool shop which makes nearly all the production machines used, but still much of the skill is in the hand and eye of the women and men employed.
    This is your column so I won’t go on but some readers may find it interesting to find more about this unique workplace and business. I have done the factory tour a couple of times and was most impressed by their dedication to quality, craft and the true value of their product.
    Apart from living in the same city, I have no connection with the business.

    • Florian on 23 May 2020 at 9:20 pm

      Hi Danny, I think the red knife Paul uses occasionally is made by that company, too. I don’t know if they still do, but a while back they offered a set of 50 replacement blades that fit very well in Paul’s stanley knife for a fraction of the cost of the stanley blades.

  5. Artur Darmofal on 22 May 2020 at 9:20 pm

    I think there are still „Stradivariuses” in woodworking these days. Excellence is rare so they are not seen so easily but they are still there. And so are high standard of workmanship.

    • Paul Sellers on 22 May 2020 at 10:05 pm

      Did anyone say that they weren’t there, and that there wasn’t fine craftsmanship? I think not. I doubt that the quantity of such skilled workers is there though, not more than one percent. I even think that I might see it decline to even lesser percentages despite my efforts to change it.

      • Artur Darmofal on 24 May 2020 at 7:28 am

        I think your efforts have big impact, bigger than anyone else but the thing is it is very long term impact. Especially for weekend warriors and there is many of us here. I counted that if I spend part time following masterclasses like now it would take me at least 10 years to achieve master/expert level. There is an acceleration due to following your projects so maybe 6-7 years but still long time. I will be teaching my son and daughter as well so it will be spreading over time and hopefully reverse the trend of „technology madness” as I call it. It destroyed crafts, environment, food etc.

      • Russell on 25 May 2020 at 6:42 pm

        A bit depressing John – but you might be right – but importantly there is a desire to maintain the art you speak of and that is better than nothing – and moreover it is why we are here commenting on your blog. And if vast numbers of people were doing it, I for one would not necessarily be inclined to follow suit. Your efforts to rekindle the skills you possess and love so much amongst the masses have not gone to waste, and you can rest easy that they have not been in vain.

      • Stephen Tyrrell on 26 May 2020 at 1:52 am

        It may be true that your efforts will not influence the mass producers Paul, but you have encouraged, tutored and trained thousands of “lifestyle” woodworkers in a craft that they now love as you do. Will we create what the masters of decades past produced? I think somewhere out there, in your legion of students, there will be master craftsmen (and craftswomen) emerging. You won’t find their wares in the big name furniture stores, but they will succeed nonetheless, and perhaps, some will then be able to teach others too.

  6. Kate Adamson on 23 May 2020 at 9:55 am

    I really enjoyed this article Paul as it brings to light some very good points of the quality of how craftsmen, artisans and tradespeople of past generations have achieved such fine work. I see it from the point of view that tool makers like Disston were making handsaws for use by tradespeople and craftsmen who where using them at a professional level. Just like a modern Carpenter, Joiner or Cabinetmaker use a powered circular saw today. Oddly enough one would expect a saw made by Disston at the time to be of the highest quality due to their market demands as well as it being the technology at the time. Just as modern hand tool and power tool companies make tools to meet the needs of the modern tradespeople and craftsman today. As a professional Cabinetmaker I value both the use of hand tools and machinery in a modern workshop as both have their place. One must also remember that the knowledge to select the best method or execution of a task is also one of the skills of the woodworker. I would never cut all the panels of a built in kitchen made with laminated particle board with a hand saw when a sliding table panel saw is a machine designed for that task. At the same time I will always reach for my hand saw when I need to cut tenons and dovetails as well as other joints on timber joinery and fine furniture. For myself it all comes down to application. I reach for my hand tools for most bench work tasks in timber as they are simply faster and more accurate than setting up a power tool. Another consideration your writer should look at is the fact that tradespeople and craftsman of both past generations and today dedicated themselves for years if not decades to become the “Stradivariuses” that you refer to. As the understanding of time required to achieve such a level of skill is something that lacks in today’s culture.

  7. Samuel on 23 May 2020 at 11:43 am

    The world is heading downwards, it’s true in everything except evolution I think they say? Entropy. I think that there was like a cultural revolution or something aided by the two world wars that changed peoples perspectives on life and we also lost continuity of crafts. For instance my grandparents spoke a different language to me, lived in another part of the world and had much greater practical and creative abilities than me, and in this case it’s not all my fault…
    If I had developed skills in carving, painting or fine joinery, I wonder if I would keep using them Unless I could make more money from utilising them?
    Hmm it must be bigger.
    My mum loved beautiful things and wild life. She admired design, quality, endeavour. U need self discipline, empathy, knowledge, humour etc to craft I’m thinking — and that doesn’t sound like a job that exists much,
    Both the maker and the audience have to have an appreciation in them that makes them Do it.

  8. Ken Dalgleish on 23 May 2020 at 12:45 pm

    I’m often struck by the rampant misuse of phrases like hand made or hand crafted in promotional material or on TV programmes and wondered how on earth they get away with it. I hadn’t considered that lobbying by commercial interests to change legal definitions of such simple words would lie behind these deceptions. How depressing.

    Still on the bright side at least this tells us that the public still value traditional skills. Perhaps we should be making an effort to educate the public and the media about authenticity and the difference between fake (but legal!) hand made claims and truthfully hand made objects. And press to for a return to honest legal definitions viz a viz the Trades Descriptions Act.

  9. Paul on 23 May 2020 at 1:58 pm

    This goes hand in hand with our generation’s disposable culture. Has anyone ever tried to repair a mobile phone themselves? They are made to throw away, which infuriates me when you consider the cost. Buying a good quality handtool will last multiple lifetimes. A phone will give you 3 or 4 years if you are lucky.

  10. Thomas on 23 May 2020 at 3:23 pm

    Interesting that working with hand tools, a slow way, seems to make the day go by in flash. Having done way more of the fast way in my job, I can say that wasn’t always the case while going through lift upon lift of material.

  11. Stephen McGonigle on 23 May 2020 at 3:32 pm

    While it may seem a pessimistic outlook regarding hand made items, I think we reached the bottom a few years ago, however thankfully craftsmanship and quality has not died out. There is a recognition concerning tools and hand made items, and I really believe that Paul’s voice crying in the wilderness has not gone unherd. The problem is cost. To adequately pay a skilled craftsman or woman what their work has entailed means that the resultant market is small.

    There is a company in the UK who advertise heavily on the TV regarding their solid oak furniture. I looked at some a year or so ago, and as a product they were perfectly acceptable and actually well made. To the uninitiated this seems fine, however when you look at the oak, it consisted of hundreds (literally) of small pieces laminated together. It is solid oak strictly speaking, but oh dear…
    The furniture produced is generic, boring and universal but will suit most people especially cost wise. Look at how a whole generation have been sold the Scandanavian dream, when the reality is mass produced tat with a limited lifespan. I payed less for Georgian handmade furniture of oak, walnut and mahogany, and it will all outlive me. I struggle to understand why people value fashion rather than quality.

    As regards tools, whenever Paul highlights something on his videos, the demand and price on fleabay goes up exponentially. That said, at least these tools are recognized for their value. I know some collect tools for their aesthetic value, but I think most people collect them to use as a result of the inherent quality of these tools. I for one now have a ridiculous number of saws, planes, chisels etc, mostly bought to save them when found languishing in a box under the table at car boot fairs. I just can’t help it, they’re so good.

    • Gary on 28 May 2020 at 5:12 pm

      That “No veneer in here” “Solid oak” company had to withdraw their advert when their table legs were discovered to be veneered egg-box rubbish.
      Paul covered this a couple of years ago.

  12. Jay Gill on 23 May 2020 at 3:46 pm

    Once again Paul, spot on, and thought provoking. So here’s a question… I wonder if items from past era’s are so good because the only the good ones lasted! Another thought, the “fine furniture” we see from the 1700’s was paid for by the wealthy who could afford “the best”, just like today where the wealthy can still afford to fund high quality craftsmanship.

    Could it be that cheap, short lived furniture and tools were churned out by people who were hired just to get it done?

    With this in mind, do you see a difference between being a solo craftsman vs. working in a shop like the one where you started. Am I correct in thinking that in a commercial cabinet shop success depended not only on skill, but on speed/efficiency as well? Were there times where stuff was just churned out with minimal time spent on “optional” craftsmanship?

    • Jim on 25 May 2020 at 12:51 pm

      As a reply to Jay Gill (I’m not sure this reply will be placed in line to his comment) I would agree.
      The pieces we admire and are fascinated by today and that have survived the test of time are the ones that were made by superior craftsmen, paid for by rich people who could (and wanted) to pay the craftsmen for the quality of material/workmanship and time spent to create them. There are of course surviving furniture pieces of lower quality in terms of material and workmanship that we can see and use but we are less impressed by.

      A lot of furniture and everyday items were made in numbers by woodworkers and/or the user themselves but they have been used and abused and discarded along the way just as I’m certain many of todays lesser quality items will be.

      This gives us a scewed image of the quality of workmanship in “days of yore” in contrast to today. Of course there were many more very skilled woodworkers then and also many of moderately skilled woodworkers as that was the only production methods available. An everyday item was also more expensive back then and taken more care of as it was made by hand (and in the end you paid for the workers time) and not a cheap disposable item as a machine made item of today.

      If you have the means, you can get very high quality things today that will still be there in 2-300 years given that they are taken care of made by highly skilled craftspersons but few people woud pay a master craftsperson 2-3 months wages to make a chest of drawers, which is not an unusual amount of time spent to make some of the period pieces we can see in museums today.
      Today most people are getting cheaper furniture that will not stand up to the use for centuries.

      Just the other day my girlfriend bought a cupboard, designed by a famous Swedish designer, made of oak in a “good” workshop in the sixties for just a bit more than it would cost to get a similar sized cupboard at IKEA and I know it will serve us until we die and then our children if they keep it. When it was made and originally sold it cost the equivalent of two months pay for a “normal” worker. If I got a craftsperson to make it for me today, with the same care, quality material and craftmanship it would cost 5-10 times more than we paid.
      That shows you what good quality furniture is valued at today.

  13. Merlin W Phillips, Jr. on 23 May 2020 at 5:14 pm

    Not to go Zen on this subject, but I feel that using Hand tools leads to a better understanding of the medium I work in. Wood is a complex and wonderful material, and having a closer connection to it, helps in creating the best product. Many machine tools have such a large amount of power, that no consideration of the characteristics of the piece of wood you are working with is necessary. When I am using my hand saw, planes and chisels, I closely look at each piece to determine where and how it should go into my project. Such a great column Paul!

  14. Mark D. Baker on 23 May 2020 at 7:34 pm

    Aloha Paul,
    Hoping this post is to be of many more to come and that we both can be safe during this pandemic.
    Since coming to Hawaii 51 years ago, I’ve picked up studying the woods of Hawaii, many of these woods came from all over the world , for one reason or another. Kiawe, known of mesquite elsewhere, came to Hawaii as a food for cattle, its pods were fed to the beef on board ship and as soon as they reached Hawaii, the cattle were thrown over board to swim to shore. Once ashore, they ‘planted’ the first Kiawe trees by pooping the seeds. But the new forests were not to work without a ‘Pollinator’ to pollinate the flowers, Honeybees were needed. After 33 years of no pods, the new ranchers finally asked what was wrong and Bees were brought to Hawaii and we not only got a new beef source in Hawaii but a Rock Hard Wood that was used as a road surface in the early days of road making in the southwestern Texas area, due to its great hardness. My Dad , not knowing of its great hardness, was chopping up some wood to roast some steaks, took a swing at a piece . It sunk it in, but on the next swing it just bounced. Undeterred , he took the other side of the double ax to the wood and the same thing happened. He that looked at the both edges of the ax to find the sharp edges broken right off! So hard was the Kiawe, it was like you hit iron!

  15. Jeff ROgeers on 23 May 2020 at 8:04 pm

    Paul,
    I too think it is sad that for the most part people have put aside the hand skills for the sake of speed and greed. My son and I use many of your techniques and have learned valuable lessons from your videos. In the state where we live there are no such apprenticeships that you were blessed to be a part of so we rely on your videos to improve our skills.

    Is there a point/level in your lessons that you would say a person has reached the standards of fine workmanship that you speak highly of? Could you please elaborate more on how to achieve this? Will there be a time you can grade our work?

  16. Matt Sims on 23 May 2020 at 8:15 pm

    Paul, you say;
    ” If I push a power-router along an edge of wood to steer it and keep it to the fence then my main task is to keep it moving and to prevent even the slightest tilt that would otherwise result in a burn mark or a step-down. It’s a skilless task.”…

    It’s not skillless! It may not be a skill to the extent that is otherwise needed. But it is a skill to be able to do this well! To suggest it’s skilless is to do an injustice to those than can, and do, do it well.

    If a powered machine can be easily used wrongly/badly, I suggest that, in general,, it takes skill to use it correctly/well.

    I am not saying that the skill levels are of the same magnitude to that which you and we strive for in our hand tool work… but using powered machines can require skill!

    Regards,

    Matt

    • Adam on 26 May 2020 at 4:15 am

      Really interesting discussion here.

      Could be just semantics, but I think machine woodworking is more of an ability. Something that pretty much all humans have – to be able to feed a piece of wood, hold it against a fence etc. These aren’t really learnt through practice. Humans can just do this. They require some knowledge on how to operate the machine, how to set it up – but that doesn’t take much learning.

      Whereas hand tool woodworking requires skill/competency, something that isn’t innate in humans. It takes time and, just as importantly, knowledge to develop.

      Just my $0.02.

      Regards

  17. charlie dickinson on 23 May 2020 at 8:50 pm

    Hand crafts and the skillset associated with them have been lost and many are at risk of becoming extinct as shown here https://heritagecrafts.org.uk/redlist/categories-of-risk/

    Keep sharing knowledge and keep encouraging people (particularly younger generations) to take up the challenge of working and creating with their hands and few tools.

  18. Paul Dray on 23 May 2020 at 9:52 pm

    What a great discussion! I notice push back in today’s young families and everything old is new again! While I am a small time operation I wonder if time isn’t to branch out with classes to teach these vanishing skills.

  19. John on 23 May 2020 at 10:31 pm

    I’m going to chime in here because I spent my career as a professional archaeologist, and that same question or very similar ones have been directed at me numerous times. My response has occasionally been rather irritated because I see a disconnect in reasoning that is a very frustrating issue. Most “work” however we accomplish it, is really “head work” rather than hand or machine work. The whats, how’s, and withs are all decide in our heads. Machine tools and new materials were mainly adopted not so much to accomplish “new” things, to do “old things” more easily. Bronze holds a better edge than copper, iron a better edge than bronze, and various steels, better edges than iron. Stone tools can be made that accomplish very same ends, and were.

    The very oldest known rectangular mortises known in archaeology are from around 13,000 years ago, from the far southern end of South America. You will be very unlikely to see them mentioned in professional or popular literature because the finder referred to them as “needle-eye holes,.” They are not in needles of course but thick timbers and a good-sized rope could be run through them. They are rectangular mortises and they were made with stone and bone tools.

    Human beings have been solving construction and manufacturing problems with their heads and a little geometry for a very long time. Our modern technology makes things easier, that’s all.

    • charlie dickinson on 23 May 2020 at 11:40 pm

      I would say modern technology makes the process of production quicker John

      Take the flattening, smoothing of wood. In centuries past it was done with axe, adze, maybe drawknife, then someone came up with the idea of putting a flat blade in a wooden box and invented the hand plane making the process of flattening and smoothing quicker.

  20. Darwood on 24 May 2020 at 1:04 am

    For me personally the loss of apprenticeships and the need for speed on sites has led to the decline in “real”carpentry,most young carpenters seem bemused if I pull out certain hand tools from the bag,even the trusty oil stone is out of favour,I embrace new tools and some methods but shoddy materials will always be just that,I enjoyed your article and the comments it provoked, thank you

  21. Tim on 24 May 2020 at 10:39 am

    I watched a you tube video yesterday where a man cut half blind dovetails. He managed to employ a bandsaw (with jig) a table saw (with jig) an electric router (with jig) and finally, a chisel. Now, I would have used a saw and a chisel to accomplish the same task. It would have taken me 3 times longer. I have to say that the end result would have looked more or less the same (actually his may have looked neater). It made me happy to feel that I could accomplish a similar result using my own hands and probably around 1/1000th of the financial outlay.

    • Paul Sellers on 24 May 2020 at 12:12 pm

      Additionally, you don’t talk about the setup time for such equipment which is no small amount. I doubt that anyone could cut a half-lap dovetail from scratch and with both entities starting with a drawing faster than a skilled vintage woodworker from the 1700 or then again faster than some of us today who have mastered the art. The learning curve is not 55 years but just a few hours. And…the reality yet again is that all the man did was dial in distances and heights and push wood into blades or vice versa. Again, not too skillful working at all I think.

      • charlie dickinson on 25 May 2020 at 8:22 am

        Paul

        Don’t think dialling in distances is much difference to measuring, both require the use of the brain and hand/ eye coordination to achieve accuracy. The ‘skill’ is reduced when preparing stock for assembly because there is less hand/eye coordination required in the machining process( the use of fences and jigs) As you say, you push.

        You could argue a person using a pairing chisel to tidy up joints is more skilful than the person using a router plane because the router plane has a sole plate and depth adjustment allowing you to dial in and push.

        • Paul Sellers on 25 May 2020 at 9:17 am

          Semantics in three dimensions. Obviously you don’t understand the multitude of differences between skilled hand work and all that that demands beyond dialling in and presenting a distance with mechanical and digital depth and setting stops rigidly fixed on machines for parallel passes. whereas we do use fences on planes and guides for saws this is the most minute amount compared to all of the other tasks we do with planes and saws. Yes, the thickness of the shaving is governed by the depth of set to the cutting iron but we don’t rely on this alone. I take half shavings by the pressure I apply to the plane, the lifting of the heel of the plane, feathering out a cut and indeed feathering in a cut too. So very many things we creative artists do to make minute variances by flex. Not so with machines. They totally rely on no flex and not straying and of course the total elimination of highly skilled handwork as much as possible. That way you can replace an operator with a dozen more if human issues kick in. t all began with the industrial revolution and has now permeated the high tech industry where no operator is irreplaceable except perhaps those at the very top…but even then???

          • charlie dickinson on 25 May 2020 at 11:57 am

            Having used hand tools and power tools for a large part of my working life in construction industry i understand the differences quite well actually Paul.



  22. Trevor Allan Davies on 24 May 2020 at 5:45 pm

    We do we really mean by ‘skill’? Paul, am I on the right track if I say:

    1) that your definition of skill describes the level of subtle, embodied, kineasthetic relationship between the craftsperson’s mind/nerves and muscles, the tools she/he uses, and the wood he/she works?
    Shorthand – Skill is a deep neuromuscular means whereby a human evolves a deep, rich inner life, expressed externally in beautiful work.

    2) that a properly refined hand tool is an instrument (an extension of our neuromuscular apparatus) through which we’re able to receive minute sensations that trigger finely articulated conscious responses, expressing our intentions with the wood?

    In fact, a deep-rooted extension of our neuromuscular system.

    3) that machine work is an externalised means to produce a product, reducing error/inaccuracy by largely sidestepping the human neuromuscular system?

    As you’ve often said, Paul, you’ve used both and don’t necessarily reject the machine in all circumstances. It’s “horses for courses’.

    But the two ideas of ‘skill’ are worlds apart.

    My two cents worth…
    ************************
    “An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image” – Ivan Illich

    “Means condition ends” – FM Alexander

  23. David Wood on 24 May 2020 at 6:10 pm

    Had a blackout today. My tools kept working though

  24. Loxmyth on 25 May 2020 at 3:57 pm

    Just a thought/nitpick:

    Couldn’t someone whose work had been done with nothing more complicated than simple handled blades — axe, hatchet, chisel, knife, maybe carving gouges — voice similar complaints about planes and saws automating the task of sizing and surfacing? “All you have to do is push it. And the emphasis on straight and flat discourages woodworkers from attempting the complex organic shaping and working with the grain that comes so naturally when one is using the older tools. Oh, sure, it’s faster and easier, but is it craftsmanship? And don’t even get me started on treadle lathes.”

    Please note that I am NOT challenging Paul’s assertion that for many tasks, if mass replication isn’t required, the older tools are not just competitive in efficiency but have a great deal to teach us, and may be more fun besides. I’m just cautioning against taking that argument much farther beyond that point.

    I’m willing to grant that a piece made by hand-guided machines is hand-crafted (while noting that the quality of the craftsmanship still matters). And I can respect those who use the machines to let them shift their focus to design, or to build things they could not otherwise achieve.

    I understand wanting to reserve “hand made” for muscle powered.. We do need a term for what Paul advocates. But I’m just not sure “hand made” is the right battle line to stake out. I think I’d be happier if we could find an equally catchy adjectival form for “traditional woodworking.” Musicians have a few more terms than we do for describing the N-dimensional intersection of agree of musical style, age of performance practices,, age of instrument design, age of the particular instruments, etc. I presume “fine’ artists do too. Maybe we can synthesize something from those systems that would be more precise while staying recognizable to the general public.

    As I say, this is more a nitpick than anything else. But black-and-white definitions always trouble me. The real world is all intermediate shades and fractal edges.

    • charlie dickinson on 25 May 2020 at 6:27 pm

      Interesting points Loxmyth

      Furniture design throughout the centuries moves from simple to extravagant. This owes itself in large part to progress made in tool design. Instead of axe, drawknife of say the 1600 hundreds the joiner, carpenter of the 1700’s could use a saw plane, chisel etc. This allowed him to be more precise and create a tight fighting tenon, a tight fighting dovetail. It also allowed him to carve intricate design on the legs of furniture (Chippendale). Today because of modern technology and design, machines can do the intricate. All it need is a skilled person to create a 3d model, programme the machine and a trained person to feed components into the machine.

      These modern techniques though skilful in their own right do not involve the pushing, pulling of a saw to cut wood, the sculpting of a piece of wood by human effort.

      Although i have used my brain, my hands to reply, You would probably never say this post has been handwritten.

  25. charlie dickinson on 25 May 2020 at 6:35 pm

    Fighting ? Should be fitting. That will learn me to proofread before hitting submit.

  26. Daniel Atkeson on 25 May 2020 at 7:09 pm

    Paul, I personally believe that you are absolutely correct. Standards have lowered over time and especially in today’s age with the throw-away culture, in my eyes it’s rather pathetic.
    I’m a professional woodworker, it’s how I make my living and support my family yet according to your definition, I fall into the professional amateur category as I’d be doing this even if I wasn’t being paid for it because I purely love it. I don’t plan to ever stop advancing my skills and creating as many pieces that I’m able that will last the test of time. I am however, a hybrid woodworker out of necessity which I’ve noticed puts a stigma to what I have to say. I have physical limitations due to a genetic disability and even then, I do more than 50% of my work with hand tools and that number is rising as my four year old son is now spending more time with me in my shop. When he’s in the shop with me, it’s hand tool only with no exceptions. I won’t even use my power hand drill as I’m teaching him safety first and then the work ethic to do things better, not easier. I do find it amusing though that my four year old little boy is able to use a spokeshave, rasp and coping saw better than the majority of adults on the planet and he’s only been learning for the past few months (he’s obsessed with my Japanese ryoba but that scares my wife).
    I won’t give up my table saw, power router or my thickness planer because of my personal limitations however, all of my joinery is hand cut and every board is finish planed, scraped and edge jointed by hand. I prefer crosscutting with a hand saw to my miter saw when my hands are playing nice and time permits. Yes, time is a factor in my work, just not usually the most important factor. If I can do something better by hand, I almost always will. I can fix a twisted board with my thickness planer with shims and a jig but it’s usually faster to just hand plane it and true it with winding sticks (thank you very much for that information Paul, it’s been invaluable). Even the design phase, I sketch and draft everything by hand first and then go to my computer to draw up a model which I honestly wouldn’t do if it were not for my customers enjoying to see 3D model as well as my drawings.
    I guess my point is that while I don’t personally believe that everything should be done by hand, I do believe that anything that can be done better by hand, should be learned and utilized at every opportunity. My son is growing up with a fully stocked woodworking shop in his home. He’s able to learn hand tools now and power tools when he’s old enough to be responsible with them. It’s the work ethic behind the choice of tools that’s most important to me as a craftsman and I’ve personally seen that it shows in the finished piece.

    Thank you again Mr. Sellers, you truly have impacted my life and my work in the best of ways as I’m able to spend more time with my son now than I would have if I hadn’t learned to use hand planes and chisels properly.

    • Paul Sellers on 26 May 2020 at 2:03 pm

      Thank you. I don’t think that anyone should give up their machines because I or anyone else gives the impression that they should. I doubt that I have ever said to anyone don’t use them, but, and it is a big but, those who get offended by my simply not having machines present all over my shop do say that I say such things. All I say is do you need to make dovetails and housing dadoes with a screaming router simply because you never mastered the art and speed of doing them by hand. It is mostly that. The other thing is this. My bandsaw gets me as close as I need to dead size. A few wisks with the plane removed the need for thicknesser, jointer, tablesaw, and so on. I no longer need router tables, router bits, routers, and fences and then to the inevitable router dovetail jig. Most of this I never had or used. For instance I have never used nor would I ever use a router to cut a dovetail of any kind. It’s far too slow, primitive and boring. that is not to say that I am not in admiration of its inventor, the same way I am of sewing machine inventors and those who invented helicopters or guns. Do I like the murder they help others to accomplish, or the pollution the leave behind? Nope, not at all.
      Disability of any kind necessitates a change of tactic and better to route a dovetail joint with a router than not make at all and indeed this is not cheating, just a solution. On the other hand if a 10-year-old stands in the corner while dad spends three hours on machines he will walk away and never come back. Machines are dangerous for everyone, and a father watching his 18-year-old son slice of his fingers or his hand on a tablesaw has to be the most horrific thing to watch. Worse things have happened.

      • Daniel Atkeson on 1 June 2020 at 4:30 pm

        Once again I completely agree with you. Machines add a level of danger that you simply do not get in a hand tool only shop and my son being in my shop, I ran my bandsaw once and the noise (even with hearing protection on) scared him so I unplugged it and only use hand tools when he’s with me. My own personal safety is a massive part of my working day but it’s something else entirely when my son is the one at risk.
        Dovetails, right before I found your teachings, I was researching into all of the different dovetail jigs that can be purchased or made in the shop and I was seriously considering buying one… I never did though. I found it easier and faster to cut my own by hand because I learned to use a handsaw more efficiently. I have several friends in my local woodworker’s guild that use a jig with their router and we had a meeting right before Corona hit and I showed them the speed and accuracy that I currently have (thanks to the confidence I received from your efforts) and they couldn’t believe it. Yes, their machined dovetails are tighter and cleaner, yet mine are able to be more unique, just as effective and they get better every time I cut a new set. I also don’t have to worry about a thin pin or tail shooting across the room because it split off at over 10,000 rpm from the bit.

  27. Dave on 25 May 2020 at 9:21 pm

    I found David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” interesting when I first read it over 20 years ago, and it still has resonance and gives pause for thought.

    I think perhaps a question of balance and purpose.

    I do find hope for the future.

    I learnt from my Father (a toolmaker), my mother (a men’s tailor) and various uncles. (My Grandfather was a coach painter, but he unfortunately died when I was 10). With age I’m more and more aware of the skills they had.

    I made my tool chest 30 something years ago (and made some of my living from building and repairing small wooden boats for several years). Some of my hand tools came from my father & uncles, the rest were mostly bought secondhand or “surplus” (Anyone else remember the “Bygones” catalogue that Tilgear had in the 1980’s?)

    My power tools are more “transient”. Used, worn out, discarded, replaced.

    I claim no great skill, and arthritis increasingly diminishes that I had. But I have, on and off, built boats, houses and furniture (along with the odd hen house, deep bed and shed) for some 50 years.

    My six year old god-daughter (with me several days each week) has “explored” my workshop, and “had a go” since before she was able to walk. She asks questions, can tell me the purpose of tools, and has an opinion on how things should be done (no “bodge jobs”).

    She sees both hand and power tools, and knows that our horse-logger friend uses a chainsaw to cut trees, before his horse extracts from the forest, for us to mill with our (“pongy petrol”) bandsaw mill, and smooth with our planer.

    She knows I use a chainsaw to cut firewood (all our heating and cooking is from a woodstove), but that I choose to split by hand exclusively with wedges and maul (although we own a log-splitter).

    The trick is perhaps to recognise the value of both, and be deliberate in selection. I think she may well learn to use this to her benefit.

    Today I found her not just “peering” into my toolchest, but the hands were exploring as well.

    She had a go with a Footprint “egg beater” drill, and told me it was more “environmental” than my battery drills.

    She will inherit the tools. And I suspect she might also grow up with much better hand skills than mine to go with them.

  28. Will Georgiadis on 25 May 2020 at 9:33 pm

    As a novice woodworker you’re videos and posts have helped me immensely in cultivating skills for working word, with hand tools. The many nuances and often frustrations associated with starting out, tuning your tools to be up to the task, knowing the material you are working with, learning little tricks(often the hard way), for me, often lead to a more rewarding result, and are worth it, for the feeling of successfully making a square cut, a perfect mortise, a tight joint, after many failed attempts, trumps any that could be had from simply using a machine. I know that over time and with the assistance of people like you I will develop these skills so that they may be passed on, lest they be forgotten to time. Thank you Mr. Sellers.

  29. Michael McGinnis on 26 May 2020 at 1:28 am

    The book “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World”, by Simon Winchester, describes very well how we ended up the way we are today; without the skilled craftspeople that previously built the world one piece at a time. For example, there used to be hundreds or even thousands of skilled tradesmen – yes, at the time, they were essentially only men – each making wooden ship pulleys one-by-one. A need to produce these pulleys in massive quantities for war ships pushed the machine age into high gear, eliminating those livelihoods literally overnight. The manufacture of pulleys, cannons and guns ushered in the Industrial Age. One can surmise that greed and a desire to dominate others contributed to the inexorable move away from truly hand-made works by artisans.

    Still, human beings need creative endeavors and to use our hands. We are biologically built for fine manipulation of the world around us, and there is great satisfaction in finesse. I think this is why people connect to quiet woodworking.

  30. Stuart Woodcock on 26 May 2020 at 4:12 am

    Having just started my first large project, a 3.5m x 0.85m outdoor table. I have watched a lot of Paul’s videos to gain knowledge and inspiration. I can tell you from a novice perspective the finish of my old wood block jack plane compared to my electric plane compared to my 80 grit belt sander is like comparing a mirror to a concrete road to a cobbled laneway.

  31. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe on 28 May 2020 at 8:59 am

    To say that using a power router is skilless is provoking to say the least! Not to me, but for a great number of people – or so it seems. For me, this is proof that Paul is hitting the nail dead square on the head. And we do need that kind of “putting a match to a gas can” argumentation; to stir the discussion to bring down “established truths” that are wrong, misleading, confusing and / or preventing. For me, it would’ve been VERY preventing if I _had_ to buy a table saw. I really do not have that kind of money for just one machine, considering I will need at least a planer/thicknesser as well – and then all the other tools needed, both the power and muscle kind.

    In my experience, hand tool work gives me much more control, accuracy and is way cheaper. I do not have to spend time building jigs or do complicated setups. If something is about to go wrong, I can stop before the piece is ruined beyond acceptable repair. A hand tool “whoopsie” differs from a power tool one in that the first mean “this is about to go wrong” while the latter usually means “what in the name of old Mr. Bailey happened now???”. Perhaps with different colored words.
    Efficiency and speed are other areas where I find myself wondering. Why do I need to make a dresser in a weekend? How many dressers – or other pieces of furniture – can I possibly cram into our home? Why should I spend, say a year, building all the furniture we need, just to find myself without projects (for the home at least) a year later? If I need a dresser in such a hurry, I’ll just swoop by IKEA. You can put those in the paper recycling bin when they have outlived their purpose…

    All this being said, I am a hybrid woodworker. I will invest in a 10-inch planer/thicknesser because I do not want to spend too much time 4S rough sawn boards into useful material. I’ll do it for smaller stock and for boards wider than the planer, or when I just want to do a project hand tools only. There is nothing wrong with that. Similarly, there is nothing wrong making your own wooden, foot-driven lathe if that is your cup of tea. I won’t be oogling you if you return the favour. 😉 I think we need to focus on sharing a wonderful hobby, not pay too much attention on the methods other people choose. Paul provides a great example: he repeatedly has stated that there’s nothing wrong with power tools – or buying expensive chisels or other tools – , but you do not _need_ to spend a lot of money to make wonderful things.
    That being said: I’ll admit to looking a bit down the nose on projects where people have used pocket holes, Domino or the build reaks of “power tool user without woodworking knowledge”. Usually, furniture made from oak block panels screwed together will not look nice. I will applaud them for making in stead of buying, but I consider their product to be of a lesser quality, barely better than IKEA. I need to work on that. Speck of sawdust in my brother’s eye versus a couple of board feet in my own, I guess. 🙂

    Y’all have a wonderful day! I am thankful for each and every one of you out there! I love that we share a common interest, yet we have never met. If we should meet, our common ground is the seed of a friendship (sort of like kids with the same shoes meeting for the first time, becoming instant best friends because of the shoes). Isn’t that a wonderful thought?

  32. David Dale on 29 May 2020 at 8:25 am

    Paul, you will not make me a cabinet maker or a jointer but you have in a few short months raised my level of woodworking beyond anything I imagined. I’ve had miniature versions of some of the tools you use for decades in the form of a glass filled nylon razor plane and X-Acto razor saws for my model airplane building. I started using a razor blade to mark my cut and “sand to” lines before I knew anyone else did such things, bit that was all for R/C models. Today I use a mix of power tools and a few hand tools. The education you provide has me using sharp old Stanley and Craftsman planes to finish what the table saw started. I use squares constantly, keep my old Disston saw sharpened and maintain Sheffield steel chisels finely honed. I even have a little idea of how to use them now, all thanks to you. You HAVE raised the bar for me.

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