Why is hand tool woodworking garnering so much attention worldwide?
There are more and more websites, woodworking schools and woodworkers going back (and forward) to utilising hand tools. There have to be many reasons for this.
Is it simply a romantic notion of being able to work in the ways that the craftsmen of yesteryear did, is it a fad that will soon disappear, is it cheaper because it takes up less space to practice your craft, is it because it is less dangerous and we as a species are becoming more safety conscious, or is it simply easier because people feel that they don't need training (of course, everyone knows how to use a chisel!) and the skills that they learned at school will suffice, or is it maybe because it is a huge amount of fun and remarkably satisfying?
In my own opinion and experience, all of the above hold water, to varying degrees.
Woodworking as a recreational pastime has most definitely made a resurgence over the past 35 years or so.
Simply maintaining a home requires one to own a few basic woodworking hand tools (although many husbands will try to convince their wives that a plethora of ingenious power tools are completely essential to get her house featured in "Garden & Home" magazine!
There has been a revived interest in solid wood & well made furniture for the home, as more and more people continue to discover that mass produced, stapled together synthetic board furniture becomes incredibly expensive over time as it simply does not survive more than a few years and thus constantly needs to be replaced.
There is also a strong case for making things with your own hands for your children and family, and there are an ever increasing number of professional people doing hand tool woodworking to simply change gears, be productively creative and recharge their batteries. Here in South Africa, I am constantly amazed at the rapidly growing numbers of surgeons, general practitioners, pharmacists, attorneys, accountants, engineers and IT specialists that practice woodworking for pure pleasure.
So... What sets us apart as "Hand Tool Woodworkers"?
In essence, even the most hardened power tool addict is a hand tool woodworker. He has to measure, mark, layout and draw, and he uses pretty much the same pencils, squares, gauges, dividers, compasses and mathematical protraction devices that have been in use for hundreds of years.
The Try Square is no different in function today than in Moxon, Roubo or Lu Ban's time. The Marking Knife, Cutting Gauge, Mortise Gauge, Sliding Bevel Gauge, Chisel, Pencil and so many other tools of the woodworker have not fundamentally changed over centuries.
Our fathers and grandfathers all had hand planes, chisels, a brace and at least a hand saw or two in their garages. These items were not too expensive, did not take up much room, did not use electricity and could always be trusted to work anywhere and anytime.
With a hand tool, is it so much easier to take the tool to the wood and not have to carry the wood to the tool. A sharp well tuned hand tool, be it a chisel, plane, rasp, file, spokeshave, scraper or saw is easier to control and guide, and their most obvious benefits are safety, the speed of the cutting edge and the relative quietness of concentration. Nothing flies into your eyes as you cut the wood, there are no high speed spinning devices with razor sharp tungsten alloy edges just waiting to remove vital parts of your anatomy, and your ears are not subject to the auditory onslaught of screaming motors and blades.
With a hand saw, you don't have a fence for one side of the plank while you cut the other side parallel to it. Your only guide is the steadiness of your hand and eye in your ability to follow a line as you guide your saw through the cut. (This is assuming that you have a reasonably good quality saw with well set and sharpened teeth, the right amount of weight, correct TPI for the type of cut and a comfortable handle). Good, accurate sawing takes a little practice, but is actually dead easy to master.
During the Rare Woods Annual Sale in Epping, Cape Town a week or so ago, I marvelled at an unassuming young man on the Toolcraft Demonstration Stand.
Pierre Hansen is one of the new breed of South African hand tool woodworkers. he cut dovetails on his hand built Moxon Vise quickly and without fanfare.
His tools are kept in hand made trays in beautiful condition, are tuned to perfection and are all razor sharp.
To watch Pierre at the workbench is akin to watching a wonderful ballet. He handles his tools with care and love, and wields them with the precision of a surgeon.
This is a man who does not need a vast workshop. He does not need five routers, battery operated circular saws, jig saws, reciprocating saws, table saws, thicknessers and dust extraction spaghetti. He is simply at home with his hand tools, not annoying his neighbours, consistently honing his craft.
Pierre simply "Gets It"!
Hand tools are simple, easy to use, easy to sharpen yourself, take up less space than power tools and, most importantly for me, they are fun and incredibly satisfying to use. (Just ask anyone who jumped at the chance to try Pierre's Lie-Nielsen #7 Low Angle Jointer Plane on Rock Maple on that Saturday at Rare Woods!)
Hand tool woodworkers are not a different breed, hand tools woodworkers are normal people who have discovered a very special pleasure in the act of creating something beautiful.
So in answer to the above question: Nothing sets Hand Tool Woodworkers apart, we simply take a different approach, that's all.
If you are interested in Hand Tool Woodworking, take a look at the following YouTube channels:
- Doucette & Wolfe (To watch Matthew Wolfe at work is like watching ballet)
- Paul Sellers (Incredible knowledge. His furniture sits in the White House)
- Matt Estlea (Young, energetic and knowledgable)
- David Barron (A true gentleman and fine furniture maker)
- Tom Fidgen - The Unplugged Woodshop (Somewhat Bohemian, most interesting)
- Fine Woodworking Magazine Channel
From these very few excellent channels, you will see other channels with amazing content, such as Fine Woodworking editor Mike Pekovitch and his Japanese Kumiko woodwork, chaps like Rob Cosman, Marc Spagnolo, Pat Edwards, Patrice Lejeune and many many more.
In closing, thanks to Henk Venter for the images, Pierre Hansen for sharing his talent and enthusiasm, and hand tool woodworkers everywhere for keeping our craft growing from strength to strength.
Until next time, let's make shaving, not dust!