What sets us apart as Hand Tool Woodworkers?

Posted by Tobias Lochner on

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!

 

 

 


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6 comments

  • Hi Hentie
    Thanks very much for your valuable comment. Well done for wanting to expose your boys to our wonderful world of working wood! They are very lucky to have you as their dad.
    Your donated chisels and woodworking books are on their way! Please keep us all posted on your boys’ progress. (with pictures as well!)

    Tobias Lochner on
  • Thanks for your excellent comment, Johan. There is most definitely a certain pleasure and satisfaction in using a well tuned hand tool. Whether it is an old and loved hand plane or a brand new & finely set low angle spokeshave, the feeling is the same. Shaping a beautiful piece of figured wood and immersing yourself in this simple pleasurable act of creating is one of life’s greatest rewards.

    Tobias Lochner on
  • Very inspirational – The enjoyment comes from holding and using a superbly made and finely tuned hand tool, being a Chisel or Lie-Nielson Plane. These become instruments which are used with sensitivity in what one is creating with the wood. It is so rare in this country to find a shop like BPM Toolcraft and the passion for excellence in Fine wood working by Brian, Guy and all the other Craftsman that are part of the team!

    Johan Pieterse on
  • Fortunately we have people like Brian here to bring in quality tools, and for the most, you can still get decent secondhand ones as well inexpensively(that might need some work)

    So after watching Paul Sellers, I want to try getting the kids to do woodwork – so that it can become a family bonding exercise. But now where to get a decent gouge chisel (or two, because there are two kids)?

    Was this one but a gouge chisel, I would have snapped it up : https://www.toolcraft.co.za/products/narex-bevel-edge-chisel-20mm-premium-811620

    I’ll be happy to pay this price, for this quality, gouge chisel, but it seems the only ones you can buy, are either small ones, meant for carving. long ones meant for turning, or horribly expensive ones.

    Brian, please help!

    Hentie on
  • Thanks Brian. I agree with you on so many levels.
    With people like Thomas Lie-Nielsen, the folks at Thomas Flinn/Pax, Veritas, Luban, Incra, etc, the bar is constantly raised. This can only benefit all woodworkers, from newcomers and students, right through to seasoned professionals. I have a couple of early Henry Disston saws, but I find that my sawing results are more even and consistent with my Pax 1776 and my Lie-Nielsen tenon saw.

    If I had learned on really good tools, I would definitely be a much better woodworker today.

    I wish someone would open a proper woodworking school in Cape Town or surrounds that is kitted with quality tools; students will learn fast, gain confidence fast and this will allow them to competently grow as woodworkers from a properly grounded base.

    Imagine a woodworking class where each student has high quality brass backed tenon and dovetail saws, hefty mortise chisels, dedicated dovetail chisels, dovetail markers, magnetic saw guides, proper marking knives, wheel marking gauges, Incra rulers, story sticks, winding sticks, holdfasts, bench dogs, and a heavy FLAT bench…….what a fantastic way to start to learn the craft!

    Tobias Lochner on

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