Tools of the trade

Finishing means beginning again. I take wood from stacks and racks, search the small offcuts kept in case for suitable sections that might work for this rail or that stile and soon my rough-sawn stock leans standing by my bench. I begin truing up the first face of each one, the wide face, get rid of cups, bows and twists for a good reference and registration face. Do I resent the physical work? Not at all, it’s my daily exercise regime. I just do it. Working out for a day with scant intermissions keeps me healthy in body and mind and I like the tiredness at the end of day when sleep comes and I lie thinking of the wood I prepped for tomorrows joinery to begin.

My hand planing work over a few hours leaves with the satisfaction I was highly productive as well as efficient, effective and revolutionary in my age.

My planes are at the ready, my scrub planes, converted from a Stanley #78 and a #4; these two workhorses take down the highs and raise the lows to a level plain. Following on with a jack and a smoothing plane makes it easy to get the wood ready for joinery. I’m not saying it’s always easy but mostly it is. It depends on the wood I pick. Some woods work well and some tear testily to test your patience. Some hybridize the two characteristics in a single board, side by side at that, but it question how well we read the grain to reduce the opposition. Make sure you learn to plane with the grain straight off by seeing what’s in the texture of grain before the plane touches the wood. So many of techniques to draw on when we practice the art of grain-reading — knowing when and if to plane directly across the grain, at a tangent to it and, dare I say, even belt sanding it if we own a decent belt sander. That is a last resort as there is almost no wood that cannot ultimately be planed and scraped with a card or cabinet scraper to near perfection. But should we be using belt sanders and random orbit sanders? Well, contrary to what you might think, I think that we should but that we should minimise the use of them. I see good reasons not to use them and especially if it benumbs the development of skilled workmanship. I also see why we shouldn’t consider them as some kind of cheat. If we have taken the time to develop good planing skills we will minimise the dependency on abrading to get surfaces trued because no matter how good you are with a belt sander you will never get the surface as true as you can with a hand plane, even if ot looks as though it is at first glance. It’s the plane that gets you within thousands of square and straight if that is what’s needed and that is what is mostly needed. Best that we rely on such methods as more marginally necessary rather than the only method we reach for.

The beltsander can be useful from time to time but can never give me the trueness a hand plane gives me. But I also understand that machinist woodworkers must rely on beltsanders like this and that is the difference.

So, let’s try and put some perspective on this. To do that we have to look at the history and development of woodworking through the last century. In my workshop I own Dewalt drill-drivers, a 4″ Makita belt sander, a Bosch jigsaw I’ve had for many years, a Dewalt 5″ random orbit sander, a Dewalt router and a Dewalt circular saw, that’s it as far as hand power equipment goes. The router has been in its black plastic box gathering for ten years to date and it’s been used twice for a total of two hours for running some moulding on something I cannot recall what. The circular saw came out for an extended period of an hour’s work during a day two years ago when I downsized a glut of rough-sawn boards that were just too big and unruly to be lifted, sorted and stacked neatly. The stack was ten feet long and four feet wide by three feet high. Even with the help of the saw, it was a day’s work. I like to use it for sheet materials such as plywood, OSB and so on though. It works perfectly for these materials and of course others too. I also use such a saw when I am doing carpentry. If I were to do as I have when I built the last two sheds at Sellers’ home I would indeed use a circular saw and the jigsaw together with a speed square, but that doesn’t mean I reach for it for every cut, I have a hardpoint handsaw for outdoor, on-the-ground working. I don’t like my regular handsaws to be outdoors too much and for the amount of outdoor work that I do a hardpoint seems to last me about five years.

The jigsaw I use from time to time

I find the Bosch jigsaw to be a very handy addition and especially when I have limited space to maneuver the wood around or set up for cutting. the jigsaw rips and crosscuts very well. It’s a compact powerhouse for localised crosscutting. I might use it for tasks like recessing the vise into a bench apron but there are other places too, scribing a skirting board to an uneven meeting line at the floor, circular cuts, things like that. That said, I might not too. Producing videos takes two and three times longer to make just because to get the videos takes that extra time to set up and get the footage needed for the clarity we strive for. If I have many boards to downsize for handling I might occasionally than majorly reach for the jigsaw. I bought my first Bosch jigsaw back in the early 1980s and liked the way it worked for me, but not as much as my regular handsaws. In recent years Spear & Jackson reintroduced traditional handsaws into the world of hand tool woodworking and they really hit the mark. The saw is made in Taiwan and can currently be had from Amazon for a mere £15 including tax and free delivery but that’s here in the UK. The saw plate is the perfect weight and thickness with good tensility and a perfect resharpenable hardness. It has a comfortable wooden handle in beech that can readily be reshaped to a classic when you have an odd afternoon free. Sometimes, at the end of a day, I might have been sawing and planing for six hours straight. At 72, the jigsaw gives me an extra nudge if I need it. But it gives me zero exercise and at 72 I need more and more exercise not less. It is too easy to say “At my age blah, blah, blah!” To get my work done in my usual workday means being sensible and practical. having said all of that, I think that it is fine to use corded and battery driven kit and some of us actually need it for variety of reasons. let’s not pretend that these will develop the skills we need to use hand tools and gain mastery in depth. They won’t.

My new panels were hand planed, edge jointed with a jack plane only and scraped where needed with either a #80 cabinet scraper or a card scraper.

My hand planing stock for my projects didn’t necessarily come easy to me. In my early days I had become reliant on machines for downsizing my stock for a production run of projects. At one time I produced thousands of walking canes a year, thousands of other products too. This was mass-making and a day came when `i said enough, no more. But then I still had the machines as part of my making and I would need to plane 500 pieces for a week-long class too. I worked full time as a maker and then additionally as a teacher at weekends and evening. It was a no-brainer. But if I were to use such power equipment to teach my now global audience online I would be telling them to go out and buy a tablesaw, a planer, thicknesser, mortise machine, chopsaw, bandsaw and more. Alongside all of that, there would be dust extraction systems and other support equipment like outfeed tables and so on. That means a dedicated building too, and justbto make a bookcase, a coffee table, a spice rack. I went back to a more positive sphere knowing that handwork would be the goal of most people wanting to muse their hands to make with. The concept of machining was more an American influence of woodworking. In my 23 years living and working full time in the USA I never met a woodworker that didn’t have a fairly sophisticated setup of machines and zero hand tools. That developed over a century of time and ultimately displaced handwork almost entirely for well over half a century and more. Thankfully we have been able, more than able, to turn the tide by reminding everyone that woodworking magazines and the editors of said magazines were in the employ of machine manufacturers and still are. The internet made a huge difference even though it is getting all the more difficult to find genuine teachers and trainers living the dream and passing on their skills from their background as a maker.

This is Hannah’s work. All hand work, hand planed with hand cut joinery. It’s impeccable workmanship! She has skills that will enable her for a lifetime of woodworking that includes the challenges we hand toolists want and are never forced to use.

The belt sander has been around for many decades and so too the random orbit sander that leaves a swirl-free finish on your wood. You must remember that most planing machines leave a surface that looks and feels good to the touch. But it’s when you apply the finish that all flaws show up (please, those of you privileged to own spiral cutterhead planers, no comment). Paint and varnish alike highlight the circular cuts achine-planed surfaces leave. With a hand-planed surface the surface is generally left clear and flawless unless, of course, you meet some rising grain opposing your strokes. 95% of my planing results in a pristine finish and especially is this so on narrow sections regardless of the wood. I usually buy wood six inches wide or less for that reason. Six inches wide (no more than 8″) is a great width for hand planing and the wood is generally in better condition and less prone to post-machine-sawn, post drying distortion. It’s perfect for panels such as tabletops and carcasses and also for all frame types such as doors, etc. So what does the belt sander offer me? Every surface I create is done so with a bench plane. It takes the twist, cup and bow out in a couple of minutes and especially so when I use my #78 scrub plane as the first level of distortion removal.

The workshop has no space for more so-called power equipment beyond my bandsaw and this is my advancement in woodworking.

I like it for knotty areas too. less wear and tear on my second-level #4 scrub and subsequent bench planes. When I have created panels there may be a slight thickness difference along the joint lines, I am talking small fractions of a millimeter so it won’t be much. Running the belt sander over the whole surface evens out the surface to a very nice evenness. Another benefit is that any sanding creates ‘tooth‘ for the finish to cling to, hence we usually apply what we call a sanding/sealer coat thinned down that raises the grain after belt sanding and this doesn’t happen with hand planing because planing is non-abrasive. Hence my use of hand sanding everything as needed anyway is rarely to smooth but to create tooth for the finish to ‘cling‘ to. My six dining chairs were hand-sanded throughout but when time was running out I did reach for the random orbit sander on my prototype to get me ahead a little. You must remember that if I create downtime it is not just my time but the videographers and editors too.

A random orbit sander like this 5″ works well to remove scratch marks left by a belt sander.

What you might notice if you know me at all is that I have choices, that I am not always looking for ease, not speed and not a substitute for skilled working. This is the key difference for me. A chisel in my pouch is not there as a just-in-case and neither is the handsaw. In my case, I want the physical work in the same way a runner runs or a weightlifter lifts. I respect the need for physical exercise, I just choose not to waste energies running or weightlifting when and if I can do it productively being creative and making. This all factors into the modern term, wellbeing. In any product I make my power sanding and using power equipment will be less then 2% with many projects having no power equipment anywhere near.

Bandsaw for ripping and some shaping, otherwise 96% handwork, hand planing, sawing, scraping and such. almost no other power equipment.

24 thoughts on “Tools of the trade”

    1. Nice to see a wood shop messy with wood shavings for once. Gives me hope and inspiration for a little perspiration. WoodRicks

      1. Please don’t anyone think that this is a general condition I would live and work in. I certainly would not. This happens three times a day when you work with hand tools and at the end of the day, everyone working here cleans up and puts up. Anything less than that is just plain untidiness and probably tantamount to laziness too.

        1. I work in a shop building anaroondakk chairs and I sweep at least twice a day. And all we usually have is fine saw dust. It is a work shop for disabled like myself but clean means safe and longer lasting tools.

  1. Dear Paul
    Your post struck a chord with me. I have just retired at the relatively early age of 57. Forty years as a railway engineer from the age of 16.
    I have sold my band saw and am about to sell my chop saw. In 2014 I had cancer surgery. A massive part of the recovery involved a complete switch to hand tools alone. I used lockdown to learn how to sharpen saws and make new handles. This is a new beginning. Reading your blogs and watching your videos on YouTube has had a massive impact. So I want to say a big thank you.

    All the very best


  2. Thank you Paul. I have only recently discovered your videos and articles and have found them very clear and that they provide information that would take many years to figure out (if ever) on my own. Now in my 30s I have built everything from boats, houses, cabins, campers – allsorts, but always with modern tools without really any great honing of technique. I am enjoying spend the time and labour just trying to get the technique right and your article strikes a clear chord with me, so a big thank you for all the information and ideas that you have shared!
    All the best,

  3. Pete LaMendola

    Now in my 80s and still learning! You are the best teacher of woodworking skills!

  4. gerald anania

    I have been a fan of yours for a number of years now. I just read this blog and had to write to you. I use to be a power tool user and sell some limited furniture.
    But I have been dedicated hand tool user for about 10 years now. More enjoyable and way less dust. But as I looked at your blog and pictures I was happily surprised to see that both of us use the same belt sander, random orbital sander and the same scroll saw until I ‘loaned’ my scroll saw to a friend( returned with busted casing and missing blade guide that are now out of stock never again).
    I now feel a further connection even though neither of us use these tools very much.

  5. Thanks Paul. Makes sense to me what you explained. I am facing a similar dilemma in that I want to reface my kitchen cabinets. It’s a fair bit of work and I’m not sure how long I want to spend doing it given the next homeowner will likely want a different style a just rip out all of this.

  6. Paul Walton

    Hi Paul, I have one power tool in my workshop and that is a drill press. All my work is by hand from planing the stock to hand sanding the finished product. I’ll go out of my way not to use power tools, it’s like being on a mission to avoid them. The satisfaction and the physical work out is great, I’ve had a multitude of machines in previous times, the noise and The dust , and don’t forget the eye protection, also the chance of cutting your fingers off or worse. But overall it’s the traditional way, that’s the important part. It’s now a way of life to do all my woodworking by hand, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And the more I work by hand the easy it becomes. And the results are so rewarding. I can understand the frustration of some one trying to make a living from woodworking and I’m lucky that I don’t, but the quality of making things from wood by hand is far superior to than using power tools. But the most important issue is to keep the traditional methods of woodworking alive, or they will be lost for ever.

    1. I’ve gone one step purer and acquired a hand cranked drill press! I’m joking about purity of course, but I did really love the idea of the hand crank, even though it’ll likely take me 6 months to get round to restoring it. I also have a hand cranked grinding wheel, which isn’t that great. It interests me to watch the rocketing costs of fuel and electricity, and I wonder the impact that will have on the smaller maker. Whether we’ll see a time soon where hand work will become the cheaper option, be it through price of electricity or even a rationing of that resource. It strikes me that the generation(s) of fossil fuels that we’ve grown accustomed to has created a way of life that is dwindling itself into obseletion. Almost like, by applying the power of X number of horses via petroleum, we’ve cheated for a while. I can’t help but think that hand tools are the future as well as the past.

  7. Paul, I have just received the router kit. I now understand what you mean by “sharp”. It’s a whole level of sharpness beyond what I have ever achieved. It must make things so much easier. Back to school for me, I reckon. Cheers!

  8. I have been following you for over a year. I have taken many of your videos to heart and learned how to sharpen my plane irons and chisels to a barely working condition.
    I started attempting to work the wood after watching you at length. I am 71 and am frustrated by the ease with which you move the wood. I realize that it has been your life for over fifty some odd years but it is hard to transfer the knowledge and skills you have to offer to someone “new” to the art with limited tooling. My lack of a true, dedicated woodworking designed bench is a major handicap.
    I will continue to be an avid “fan”, for lack of a better word, with the hope of building a work bench in the near future.

    1. Don’t wait. Make your workbench as soon as possible. It doesn’t need to be pretty. I have made mine with knotty recycled wood inspired (not the same dimensions) by the 2012 videos of P.S. making a workbench in the garden. My skills were more limited at that time, so it would look better if I was making it today; but it is only a workbench and it is perfectly functional.
      My only regret is having procrastinated too long.

      1. I second your advice Sylvain. Better building ‘a’ functional bench and start practicing, maybe then use this bench to build ‘the’ bench.
        I have a SERIOUS space limitation at what I call my workshop (aka the laundry, aka under the house – storage is at the crawling spaces, separated from the soil by a sheet of plastic and airflow)

        I’ve built my first (and current) bench at the best place at hand: near the door for light, and so I can manoeuvre wood through it if I need.
        The ‘business end’ of the top is a 5x160x30cm piece of treated wood I’ve got from a skip – structural grade so knot/twist/cup free… the back of the benchtop has a well not because it is traditional, but because I couldn’t find any more thick wood, so but a plank from a demolished kitchen cupboard
        I’ve built it just before discovering Mr. Sellers’ videos, and but a few weeks after discovering my passion for working wood 🙂

        The legs I connected the way I thought right (very wobbly tenons!), then I kept bracing until it stopped moving …so much bracing, and me storing loads of tools underneath it made for a rock solid bench!

        I realise my post came out as a novel, but Mr. Laird, I hope you find inspiration in it. That tiny ugly workbench is where I’ve learned most of what I know, and my tenons are true, my dovetails come right 90% of the time, and I built pieces twice over 2m long …

        “How soon is now?” 😉

        Ka nui te mihi,

  9. leslie john macquire

    Hi Paul
    I am a time served carpenter/joiner,seeing your work shop reminds me of the place where I started serving my time as an apprentice, cleaning up after a days work with all the shaving and saw dust was just part of a days work,we did not have any machine tools only a drill all the rest was hand tools,we made door frame/windows frames/stairs and even painted them before going out of the joinery shop to fit them,I am now 78 and have all the mechanical tools a /planer drops saw/bandsaw/ jigsaw/ router all the handsaws but most of all a lathe which I spend most of my time working with wood,never lost the interest in wood or working with it. But just seeing your workshop brings back very good memories so please keep writing about your times in the workshop,planning wood was my first job on the bench,good times. Les

  10. I loved my hand tools and use them every time they are the best choice. That said, I could not do woodwork without the use of power tools. I have severe physical limitations and power tools have enabled me to return to my hobby / side hustle. I years past I was a full time cabinet / furniture builder. As soon as I retire it will become my main income. Looking forward to that!!!

  11. Dear Paul – could you please consider doing an article on good ways to end join boards or pieces of wood? This is sometimes necessary for cost/ decorative/ stock/ error reasons, and I can’t find anything by you on it?
    (For example how would you end joint a board if you had to when making a table top? Also I have seen for decorative purposes, a stool with a rectangular top made of 4 equal quarters of wood, where the joints were immaculate, but I don’t understand how the end jointing was done so as to be safe to stand on?) Thanks for considering, Paul

  12. thanks paulo. the video link (which is good) is for jointing the long EDGE of the board, whereas i am looking for how to join the END of the board (ie end grain to end grain), when this is essential. I havent seen Paul write anything on this, and there must be a satisafctory ‘hand tool’ way vs a domino or other modern technique?

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