Do hand tools have a place in today’s shop?

handtoolsJim Krenov was a hand tools guy. In his waning years, despite macular degeneration, he spent a lot of time building bench planes. With his sight failing, he enjoyed the tactile nature of the exercise.

Sam Maloof liked his band saw. He was scary to watch as he free-formed chair parts with the blade guard tucked out of the way. But Maloof used rasps and files to sculpt and round and ease wood and meld parts into a whole.

Maybe it’s a generational thing.

Older woodworkers seem to like hand tools, perhaps because they are reminded of a life that was a little simpler. When young artisans discover them, they enjoy the challenge and finesse — the sense of craft. But most of us in the middle are trying to get work out the door as fast as possible to pay the bills and hand tools just don’t seem to cut it.

Artists like Darrell Peart and David Marks simply couldn’t perform their magic without hand tools. But those guys produce one piece at a time. They’re not building kitchens and bank lobbies.

So why would a production woodworker trade in a belt sander for a smoothing plane? Well, hand tools complement power tools. They have their place, even if it’s limited. Running a panel through a wide belt sander is obviously far more efficient than flattening it with a series of planes. But grabbing a sharp block plane is quicker than setting up a router to ease chamfers on table legs.

Industrial revolution?

About the time we brought dishwashers and vacuum cleaners into our homes, we brought electric drills and sanders into our shops. While nobody in their right mind would go back to doing domestic tasks by hand, the same isn’t true of woodworking. Our fascination with the ease and speed of power tools — and subsequent reliance on them — has not been as exclusive as the domestic revolution. People get emotional about secondary bevels in a way they never did about washing diapers by hand. And while scrubbing the kitchen floor on your hands and knees is about as much work as using a scrub plane to flatten a tabletop, only one of these is a labor of love.

The biggest conceptual problem with hand tools is that they need sharpening. A dull belt sander just needs a new belt, but a dull rabbeting plane needs to be disassembled, ground, honed and then reset. And if you’re not good at sharpening, then the results are disheartening. If all your plane iron does is chatter, why on earth would you bother reaching for it? The key is to get a good edge. Most standard set planes (jacks, jointers and smoothers — Nos. 3 through 8) need a 25 degree primary bevel and a 2- or 3-degree secondary bevel.

handtools2Um, what was that?

Well, plane irons and bench chisels are usually sharpened in two stages. The first, a primary bevel, is ground using coarser stones or even mechanical means like a slow bench grinder. This is generally in the 25- to 28-degree range. Then, a short series of fine stones is used to hone a small secondary bevel that’s another couple of degrees sharper. When the tool gets a little dull, it takes just a minute or two to hone the very short secondary bevel and you’re back in business. It would take half an hour to regrind the primary properly, so that task is only done when the secondary has been touched up dozens of times and is no longer a micro-bevel.

Some specialty planes don’t even need to be disassembled to be touched up. Take, for example, the router plane. This is a flat oval-shaped piece of steel with two round handles on it and a small L-shaped blade (which in planes is called an iron). If you use a table saw to nibble a dado or rabbet and the blade leaves a few small ripples that won’t allow a panel to seat properly, a couple of quick passes with a router plane will clean out the bottom of the groove a lot faster than setting up a portable router and a clamped-on fence. If a groove needs to be dressed on a job site and Fred forgot to pack a 1/4” straight bit, this little tool can be a lifesaver. It’ll reach into places that a plunge router base can’t handle, too. And touching up a router plane can be as simple as rubbing a stone across the bottom of the cutter a couple of times.

Benchmarks

While a router plane is a bit specialized, there were lots of standard items in our grandfathers’ toolboxes that still make sense today. They used chisels a lot, most of which haven’t changed in a century. You can still buy a decent 3/4” butt chisel at the local hardware store for about the price of a fast-food lunch and it’ll last longer than the indigestion. Very inexpensive chisels usually have either coarse, soft steel that won’t hold an edge or the metal is too hard and brittle to take an edge. But move up a notch to the less expensive name-brand versions like Stanley and Ace, and they’re are generally well-made with tool steel that might have a little chrome or vanadium hardener. These are the chisels to use in a production shop for cleaning glue out of face-frame corners or chopping a small hole for a plumbing pipe during an install. If you’re going to be performing fine surgery such as hand-cut dovetails, they won’t hold up. Their edge will be dull to start — and duller in seconds. If you’re not ready to invest in a full set of better quality bench chisels, at least get a 1/4” and a 1/2” one. These two will allow you to do the vast majority of simple benchtop tasks.

handtools3If your production works involves mortise-and-tenon joinery, a Domino from Festool is hard to resist. Not only is it accurate and fast, but it’s also portable. However, there are times when chopping a mortise by hand is a better choice, such as when the joinery is visible or in very small picture frames or perhaps in furniture repair where an original is being matched. Grandpa had special chisels for this job, and they’re still widely available. While a bench chisel is generally kind of short so that the woodworker has more control over the direction it’s taking, a dedicated mortising chisel is long and thick, so it can be driven deep into the wood and used to leverage out the waste. Bench chisels usually have bevels running down the edges of their top faces, so they can reach into tight spots like dovetails without jamming. The handle can be wood (use a mallet) or plastic with a steel cap (hammers are OK). Mortising chisels have only one bevel (the cutting one) and almost invariably come with wooden handles.

Power vs. hand tools

High-volume production means that time is of the essence, so perhaps the only occasions where a hand tool beats a power tool are when the former doesn’t need sharpening or the latter can’t reach. Hand tools require practice — and lots of it — to become proficient. But once you’re there, a hand tool can often be quicker and is almost always more accurate and controllable than a power tool.

handtools4Another aspect of hand tools is that they require time and muscle commitment, so they force you to think more about what you’re doing. If a shop has dedicated a lot of time, materials and expertise to a job, and it’s now being installed on site, then using hand tools to slow down this phase a little and be precise isn’t such a bad idea. For example, a cabinet that has been scribed could be modified to fit the wall using a belt sander, but one small slip and the part can be ruined. Using a small plane to gently sneak up to the line and pare it perfectly is an enticing option.

The bottom line seems to be this (and please send a letter to the editor if you disagree; this can be an interesting discussion): for repetitive processes such as sawing sheet goods into cabinet sides, power tools are the answer. For one-off tasks, it could pay to consider hand tools not because they save time (which they might or might not do), but because they offer extra control. Being able to do the task once and get the optimum result is perhaps more efficient than doing it faster every time, getting away with that most of the time, but occasionally having to redo work because a belt sander or a router bit was a little too efficient.

Either way, hand tools do seem to connect us to the work in a way that motors don’t. Perhaps that alone is a good enough reason to include them in training and introduce a new generation of woodworkers to grandpa’s toolbox.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.

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