It Takes Effort to Change

When I arrived in the USA the first thing I did was purchase a shop full of power equipment. Like most in the trade, woodworking was mostly about efficiency and efficiency comes by using machines for every cut. Though I too relied on power to expedite my work, in some ways I am likely one of a dying and disappearing generation. I was trained in hand tools alongside machines. Colleges at that time still taught and allowed only hand tool methods and no machine shops were in sight or on site in the curriculum. It was not that we received instruction from the lecturers, most of not all of them were papered experts not practical makers. They simply taught about not from. Even with just a year under our belts we probably knew more about handwork with chisels and planes than they did. It could be different today but I don’t know. Do things improve with each generation?

The first home we built in Reagan Wells, Texas. Google map it and see how remote it was! Behind is where I had my workshop.

Pocket calculators and computers were still somewhere far on the distant horizon. The www was yet to be invented and delivered and we faced all kinds of political unrest with three-day workweeks and the threat of nuclear war twixt the then world powers. What’s changed? I was glad though for one thing–my craft of woodworking and making furniture seemed to me the sanest thing. I was in the throes of becoming skilled. I was launching my boat and destined for a career as a maker designer. One day I would have my own business and then I would be free. In the USA, my machine shop was 30 feet by 30 feet, but where my treasured hand tools and my hand tool workbench were kept was but the size of my present single-car garage. I quickly and readily established myself as a furniture maker in the USA and it was in the garage shop part where I did 95% of my work which achieved more and more with hand tools.

My third USA Texas home on the Willow City Loop Texas. Google this too to see some very lovely Texas countryside. The car port was a six-car carport for my mesquite wood and just to the right was my garage workshop and behind that the machine shop.

My furniture seemed different than most everyone’s I knew somehow. At first, I wondered why but then I realised pieces from power equipment replicated the US 2×4 with its eased corners for comfort-use in construction. In 1985 in the UK, 2x4s still had squared off and sharp corners–built in splinter carriers. I saw that without hand tools most sections got routed with a power router to mould the edges or were rounded over with a random orbit sander and surfaces were always belt sanded and then finished with a random orbit sander. This alone muddies the water for me, even though I do also use sanders,

I can make a box like this in under an hour and complete with hand cut roundovers and recessed hinges. Not everyone can do this but most can get close even if they never need the speed. Of course that is not the objective. Working efficiently is not to be the fastest but to make every cut count.

My dovetail joinery has always been hand cut. I never used power equipment to cut a dovetail and for good reason. In competitions I entered I never took second place. Why? I think mostly it was because there is a quality in hand work that stands out from the rest somehow; handwork speaks for itself. It’s important to see that no one could ever look at a machine-made dovetail and say it was hand-made and, conversely, you could never look at a hand-cut dovetail and say it was machine-made. Other things affected the outcome of an overall finish and appearance. That crisp bevel on every corner of every stick of wood never became rounded by abrasive as no abrasive was needed. You couldn’t get these subtle differences from a machine. The plane gives the work a crispness that sanding can never achieve. It identifies the maker as hand tool user and maker. It was the scraper and the plane, the chisel and the spokeshave that separated the work of the machine from the work of the hand toolist.

I did use a bandsaw for a little of the shaping but then I used the hand tools to keep me in good shape physically and mentally.

Being raised with machines alongside my hand skills for me meant choices. I could choose delivery using one or the other or a combination of both. In my apprentice days I worked with a dozen men who could create a dovetail in a few minutes by sight and with no more than three or four hand tools. I was taught the basics by them, yes, but the skills I then developed had little if anything to do with them. It was after I left them and my apprenticeship that I entered the sphere of creativity that demands investment and investigation. The questioning of how and why this or that made me think critically about what craftwork meant for me. I didn’t want the easy path, I wanted to understand why I worked and what I worked for. It was not money I sought but a whole life existence. What did I value the most? Just how could I engineer my way of living and live what I believed in to be the best for me and my family. Soon I developed my own ideas and skills. I became at least as fast as others were using their machines and my neatness in execution continued to grow and grow. Skill takes time but then the satisfaction is incomparable. It was in my mid to late 30s where I needed to decide my future. I needed to ask myself whether my enjoyment creating with my hands could indeed parallel what I could produce in my machine shop where I had found myself mass making and being driven by machines. With four boys behind me, I did not want them to push stuff into machines. I trained them to work only with hand tools until they were out of their 20s. They all have a hand skill and a belief that they can make anything from wood with their own hands. My apprentices have all, all, been treated the same way. No power equipment until hand tool mastery is fully established. I think it is fair to say that in many woodworking businesses, using the machines would be seen as a mark of maturity in the same way young people might see driving a car in their teen years. Somehow such things seem apt to validate when in many if not most cases they substitute for maturity. Give someone a chainsaw and they will never drop a tree with an ax or a two-man saw. So it is with professional woodworkers. I found myself more isolated in the early days in the USA than I did at any other time in my life. When people saw me use a tenon saw they somehow turned away. That is at first! But then I got a call from a woodworker’s guild in Mesquite, Texas where a small shop owner asked me if I would like to come and “show and tell” why hand tools work. Twenty men in belts and braces (suspenders US) stood in a circle around a very poor-quality workbench as I cut my twin dovetails in just shy of two minutes. There was a show of hands as several of them reached for the dovetail in unbelief. From that point, unintentionally, they were eating my sawdust. We each stood at the bench and cut a first dovetail. By the end of the morning, every man had cut his first dovetail and every man believed in himself from that point on.

Passing it on and paying it forward. John’s toolbox dovetails are perfect.

Over the following years, I relied less and less on power equipment and more and more on my skills and abilities. The wood I worked offered me the greatest challenges and I had to work out how to transform wood from its rough state into a finished piece of beauty using the hand tools I owned. Using hand tools demands that you come to know your materials and your tools differently than when relying only or mostly on machines. You relate to the wood differently and you of course rely on all of your senses to make choices as you move through your projects. To compare machining wood with handwork is a silly thing to do. It would be like comparing a car driver to a runner. It was this that led me to believe that everyone could do the same as I did if I could short circuit the learning curve for them with a foundation course in hand tool woodworking. Six thousand five hundred students attended my classes over a period of nearly three decades. I proved my courses through them. Why? Not one of them ever used a machine for any part of their training. It was all handwork.

I have a special blog coming up to reflect some very recent developments and this blog post is to prepare you for that. Stay with me and we will travel a new path together.

26 thoughts on “It Takes Effort to Change”

  1. I’ve just recently started woodworking at 46 and I can’t tell you how happy I am that I found you and your videos early in my new hobby. Thanks so much for all that you do! Keto it up!

  2. Ronald Kowalewski

    Thank you. My work, my teaching, my life, and my way of of living have gotten better since I have been training with you!


  3. Stephen McGonigle

    A new blog? Excellent, we’ll all eagerly look forward to it.

    Having read your work, watched the videos and blogs/vlogs, I have enjoyed your unfailingly positive attitude towards your passion. Maybe it’s because you impart this passion in a matter of fact manner rather than being breathlessly over-animated. I always feel as though your a friend sharing your knowledge rather than a teacher.

    I have also developed an admiration for the risks you must have taken. From being an apprentice, and then a police officer in a town in the North of England, it’s hard to envisage moving half way across the world to a distant land and starting a business whereby you sold what you made rather then simply just selling things. Not only that but you had to support a growing family, you have my utmost respect.

    Most of all I respect your willingness to share that knowledge with the world. I’ve learnt to sharpen and set saws, refurbish planes and chieels, not to mention construction techniques. so much from you for which many thanks.

    ( I still struggle to master spokeshaves though! )

  4. Charles Bradshaw

    Paul, I am now 80. I retired from a fulfilling career in medicine and moved into woodworking, starting with wood-turning and am now into general woodwork. Your videos and demonstrations are immensely helpful and I now cut and create more accurately. I am in no way an apprentice but an enthusiastic user of all the techniques and skills you have either shown in your writings or videos. For me, and many others too, by remote control you have become the teacher that George was to you.
    Yes, I have a few power tools but they are there to speed up processes like preparing boards for hand planing, drilling, and driving screws into a piece. The joy of making by hand still predominates and your projects show techniques that reach into all sorts of other ideas. I have, for instance, made a sturdy bench for my lathe using your design and process for the sawing horse. I am about to do the same for a shaving horse to prepare billets for turning.
    Power tools are useful and I am unlikely to buy more. They are but tools. For me hand skills using time honoured tools still predominate. Thank you for making this possible.

  5. When I went to grammar school they only let us use hand tools except for a scroll saw which was power driven. The problem was the planes were all dull along with the chisels and saws. The teachers at the time didn’t know much about making anything and certainly couldn’t teach us how to sharpen anything.
    My older brother was a shop teacher at the time and he told me that when he went to college to be an “industrial arts” teacher it was more about how to teach children than anything about woodworking.
    In high school they let us use machines and of course we could make straight cuts on a table saw or curved cuts on a band saw. One student cut his thumb off on the jointer however and in later years they went to power feeders for safety reasons. To make things worse the classes were for “troubled “ students, those in danger of dropping out of school. Many of them were future criminals and dropped out of school anyway or were expelled for bad behavior. This was not an inner city school, in fact it was considered a very good school but the emphasis was on getting you to college because that was how it was perceived to become successful.
    Today I use more hand tools, yes I use power tools. I feel justified using my thickness planer as I run 40 board feet of oak to reduce the thickness from 1” to 3/4 as I make breadboard ends for my wife’s new kitchen cabinets in an afternoon. I can’t say the horrendous noise makes anyone happy however. I have to wait for the wife to go shopping and the weather has to be nice enough to put the dog out. I use scrapers and planes to get the mill marks out and to get the finish I need. I haven’t used a power sander in years and in fact gave them away. Same with the power routers, I don’t use them and I’ve never made a dovetail with one, all my dovetails are hand cut because it’s just faster. So there is a balance, depends on what your doing.

  6. I started woodworking many years ago in Fleetwood Lancashire, I was training in bench joinery and I enjoyed it very much. My instructor like you would only allow us to use hand tools, as young men we were biting at the bit to go into the machine shop and use the top of the range machines but we were told in no uncertain terms that when we can cut all the joints by hand and to a high degree of expertise we would not be getting near the machines. Even though I left before my time was done (for more money), I still had these skills with me for life, I might not cut the best dovetails you will ever see but this past while it has kept me sane. I was diagnosed with lung cancer and going out to my little workshop has meant a great deal to me while I go through this bad time in my life. Your online content has given me a lot of ideas and helped me find the love for wood that I had as a young man, thank you for that.

  7. I think we’ve got to move on. I’ve given up the old unwieldy vintage bow saw they taught me to use at school. I wouldn’t go for a bodger’s lathe over a nice clean modern electric lathe.

    My electric table saw has allowed me to recycle huge lengths of old wood, which I would not have the time and energy to cut by hand. Set carefully I’m impressed with its accuracy. On the other hand, I wouldn’t give up my varied collection of old Sheffield steel chisels, even though a few supermarket chisels have blended in with them.

    So I favour a mix and match approach, cherry-picking from the old and new to select tools fit for purpose.

    One other point about education, is that it is mostly about history, not today or tomorrow. Higher education taught me knowledge and skills which related to past industry. Most I could not use (directly) today, because it isn’t done any more. I’m glad I moved on.

  8. Hi Paul: just wanted to let you know that I’m still making my workbench. I just finished the leg frames and, I’m sawing the shims today, then preparing the aprons tonight. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way but I’m still determined to finish. I purchased a Stanley #4 plane, spoke shave, and cleaned up and sharpened some old Craftsman chisels I’ve had bought many moons ago. Your books, videos and blogs are very helpful. I look forward to your warm hearted advice and personal stories. Your friend Robert Lenart from Brunswick, Ohio USA. Have a nice day Paul.

  9. My confidence as a woodworker has changed drastically since using hand tools. Previously, I never knew if I was good enough a craftsman to make this or that. After having completed a few projects under Paul’s video tutelage, I am convinced I could make whatever furniture I wanted.

  10. Hi Paul. Logan Wells and Willow Creek Loop still look pretty remote. The satellite view on Google maps shows only two buildings on the whole of Willow Creek Loop. Good think your hobby wasn’t fishing! Sand Creek might be more appropriately called Sand Creek Bed. How do you get Mesquite now. Shipped from TX?

    Really enjoy and appreciate your work and your philosophy; a remote apprenticeship

    Regards, JT

  11. The other thing about changing (this is broadening physical realities to our brains that drive them) is that there is period of transition that may not be comfortable and you will have to face new or old problems again. People call it liminal space (they may be influenced by a religious bent I don’t know), but I like the idea that you make a decision you believe is good and will be good, you make plans and set things going, and then you observe with curiosity how it unfolds and keep your end goal in mind with the full knowledge,,,you don’t know how everything will pan out but the change is for the best.

  12. Thank you for this insight into your life. I am nearing my seventies and I have been an avid woodworker for almost 50 years – as hobby, not a profession – but nevertheless with a passion somewhat equal to your own. I never received formal training for either hand or power tools as I was self-taught. My passion for the craft drove me to learn more, as I continue to do today. Over the years I gradually left the power tools aside and migrated to hand tools. I traded the deafening sound of whirring blades and the chocking sawdust of power for the scent of freshly planed wood and the beauty of delicate wood curls and chips produced by hand. My satisfaction and pride in my woodworking achievements has grown since switching to hand tools as well as the fact that I now use hand tools that were held in my grandfather’s hands almost a century ago and with loving care will they will continue to do so for possibly another century by one of my descendants. Thank you Paul for all you have done and all that I have learned from you, Be well.

  13. This comment has nothing to do with the foregoing post by Paul but as I have not received any reply nor acknowledgement to my two emails to “Rokesmith” as a last resort as I can find nowhere else to post this request, I have posted it here. In December 2020 recently purchased the updated edition of Paul’s Essential Woodworking book (Order #9139] December 11, 2020), and accompanying DVD’s and have been enjoying the book very much. That said when I attempted to play the DVD’s because of their format – .BUP I am unable to play them on either of my two laptop computers that have DVD players nor on my individual DVD players. They do not recognize the file type and can not open/read or play the files.

    I am wondering if you can send me the files electronically in a more usual format, so that I can download them onto my shop laptop and use them there? Despite 2 emails to “Rokesmith” I have had no reply. Can someone here help me? Thanks, Brian

    1. Brian, I will attend to it in the morning. Trust me! For some reason, your complaint has escaped us.

  14. I had the pleasure of meeting you several years ago at a wood show in Tulsa. You were cutting dovetails. I did not time you but I recall that you cut them very quickly. I enjoy all you websites and blogs. Thank you.

  15. I wonder what this new thing is, it’s exciting and positive. How hard must it be for you in England with all the restrictions. I’m guessing classes are cancelled? I’m looking forward to see what you got lined up next.

  16. Raphaël Bordaberry

    I dream of becoming a hand tool cabinetmaker. I am 18 years old and I will start my apprenticeship next year and I know that I will use machines, especially if I want to make a living from it (it is very hard to make a living from hand tool work in France). In the meantime I am learning woodworking with only hand tools and that thanks to youtube channels such as yours. So I would like to thank you for all the work you offer us.

  17. I have Paul’s book and recommend it to you all. I’m still working on the best arrangement of the 4 x 2.4 m (about 13 x 7.5 feet for North Americans); my present approach is to move all power tools bar the table saw to the garage. This will make the shed a predominantly hand tool space. I’m sure it will be an ongoing process and I’d be interested to know others’ views and practices.

  18. Paul, what a wonderful article. self revealing, reflective, inspiring and practical. In the past year of the pandemic I have found sanity in my basement hand tool shop. I have built a saw bench, a “milk man’s style” portable bench, an English style joiners work bench (I won a prize on Instructables for the project), a tool box, large and small frame saw, a turning saw, two mallets, a sharpening station, a chisel rack, refurbished three Stanley planes, created a bench-top mini bench, refurbished my grandfather’s hand saws, created a “pistol” handle for a German dovetail saw blade I found in a junk store, a handle for an old Disston saw, built a saw vise, learned to file saws, hung a hatchet on a shop made handle. Hand tool wood work has truly help me maintain a centered, creative, calm perspective. Thank you. David B in Pennsylvania

  19. Simon Orchard

    Re: Dovetails. I understand that Mr. Sellers is a very busy man but could he shed some light on why the bit I’m chiselling out of my dovetail always snaps off, either leaving a hole like a tooth from a gum or a ridge?

    Definitely technique and probably a lack of sharpness, but some hints would be nice. Maybe a video on when joints go wrong and how to deal with out of square boxes 😉

    Many thanks,

  20. What can I say. Your the man. I love reading your blogs and watching the videos. It’s refreshing and scary to see a time honored skill set that struggles to exist in the current society here in America and I’m sure across the pond.
    I have always had a passion for hand tooling many materials ( not just wood) since the age of 13. KEEP up the good work and god bless you and your family.

  21. I started an apprenticship as a carpenter in 1965. I must say that all of the instructors at the local tech were al, ex tradesmen. The head of department a kind mann by the name of Jess Atkinson. At this time he was just a few years away from his retirement. He gave me a set of drawings over 100 years old. They were for the pews in the church he attended. I used them to make my final exam piece at 20 yrs old. What a priveledge to work under men who knew what they were doing. We never used the machinery at the technical school

    1. The US or Texas? Once I arrived in the Hill Country of Texas I saw no reason to go anywhere else. The Hill Country has what seems to be an endless breeze. I never had air conditioning there and was contented without it. Not bad for a moaning, wingeing Brit! I did like the summers and floating, fishing and swimming the Frio River in Concan and also the colder spring-fed Dry Frio River which flowed year-round but went beneath the rock bed for a period in different spots, hence its name. There was always a sense of pioneering when I lived there, went into the wild to harvest mesquite, walk places no human foot had tread– even in the late 1980s it had that feeling. I once found an abandoned wooden garage on some private land owned by a Houston oilman who reportedly never once set foot on the place. I squeezed inside and found a vintage black van from around the 1840s beneath a canvass cover. It was blocked up and ready for the long-term stowage. Arrowheads were frequent finds too, of you had the eyes for it. Hmm!
      “I saw no reason to go anywhere else.” Well, I don’t take vacations and never have. Other states in the union? Yep! Just that Texas was a big state. I did travel later but I must say, there is no place like Texas. It’s its own people! Was I welcomed there? Like no other place on earth!

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