If They’d Had a Biscuit Joiner…

… then they would have had joints that failed suddenly instead of slowly and gradually – like a mortise-and-tenon does. I know this after dropping an anvil on a lot of joints.

If they’d had a router, they would have used it – unless they didn’t want to sand out all the machine marks on the mouldings.

If they’d had a dovetail jig, they would have used it – unless they didn’t want the jig to dictate the height of their drawers.

If they’d had a random-orbit sander, they would have used it – unless they were skilled with a handplane, which would make them faster than the sander. And they might not wanted to spend the money on sandpaper, which has always been expensive.

If they’d had PVA, they would have used it – unless they wanted their joints to be reversible and unless they wanted to dial in the gram strength and open time of their adhesive.

If they’d had dowels, they would have used them – unless they preferred a joint that wasn’t mostly end grain.

If they’d had a table saw, they would have used it – unless they wanted zero grain runout on their stock (which is what you get when you rive your wood) so it was as strong as possible.

If they’d had a drill press they would have used it – unless they wanted to drill a hole at any other angle than 90°.

If they’d had a chop saw they would have used it – unless they wanted to saw something angled or compound.

OK, I’m sure you’re sick of this line of thought. I am. Truth is, I dislike talking about this sort of stuff. Work wood the way you want to. But when you get assaulted by people who say that power tools would rule if they were sent back in time through some wormhole, I have to laugh.

I have access to a CNC machine. I would never use it for building furniture.

I have access to fancy word processors that will correct my grammar, spelling and punctuation, but I never use them. They slow me down, try to correct things I don’t want to correct and generally get in the way of good writing.

I could buy a car with an automatic transmission, but it would interfere with the amount of control I want when I drive.

I prefer vinyl over digital music. Et cetera.

We all make choices about the technology we employ in every task we do. So why would we assume that the people of the past would like to do things the way we do? I sure as heck don’t want to “print” a piece of furniture using a 3D printer. Trust me, that’s coming.

When that day arrives, then maybe all woodworkers will stand united. Until then, let’s allow the woodworkers of the past rest in peace.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Be sure to read Peter Follansbee’s take on this topic on his blog.

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121 Responses to If They’d Had a Biscuit Joiner…

  1. Seamus says:

    If I had a rocket launcher…

    you just infected me with
    an earwig

  2. Stuart says:

    Reblogged this on Stu's Shed and commented:
    This is a really interesting topic – and from Chris’ perspective really points out the potential design limitations caused by the use of modern machines in their basic setup. That is not to say that in some instances you can’t use a powered machine in a more sophisticated way than just at 90 degrees. But even so, it does (correctly) suggest a lot of designs accept and adopt these limitations, rather than attempt to pursue the freedom of traditional methods. On the other hand, there is a different way to look at all this. Someone in the 17th century may or may not have used a biscuit joiner if they had it, but in the modern age we have the luxury of having the choice. So choose the best tool for the job each time, rather than accepting the limitations of one, or other. You may prefer handtools/traditional methods for personal reasons – no problem. You may prefer powered tools because you are time-poor (not necessarily that the tool is faster or slower to use, but there is a longer learning curve to master traditional techniques, and many of us don’t have the time to dedicate, as much as we’d love to). Use the tool that is right for the job, and right for you. And look across the fence (in both directions) – you might be surprised to find a better solution on the other side!

    • Rich says:

      Stuart has got me thinking about tools and their effect on design. I agree that tools can limit design choices. I have often thought that one of the causes for so much of our design being composed of straight lines and flat surfaces is the nature of our tool kit, both hand and power. After all, one of our most sacred and cherished hand tools is the bench plane, whose primary use is creating straight lines and flat surfaces. And the big three power tools, the table saw, the joiner and the surface planer, serve the same function as the bench plane: they make wood straight and flat. Or, think about the wood lathe. Talk about a tool that dictates design. Unless one takes heroic measures, everything that comes off a lathe is symmetrical about a single axis. (Obviously, the same is true of the potters wheel, one our most ancient of tools) One could go on and on. How come so much of our designed wood world uses 3/4 inch as a standard measurement? Surely it is because so much of our manufactured raw material is 3/4 inch. I have been guilty of using 3/4 inch as a default dimension more times than I care to admit, even when using another dimension would have been just as easy, and perhaps better from an aesthetic or functional standpoint. Contrast the limits imposed by a table saw or a lathe, with the work that results from an axe. I guess where this is leading is this: All tools dictate design to one degree or another, be they hand or power, ancient or modern, knapped from stone or produced on the latest German CNC equipment. Well, I am getting out onto ever thinner ice. Better shut up before I fall through.

      • David D from IN says:

        ” I have been guilty of using 3/4 inch as a default dimension more times than I care to admit, even when using another dimension would have been just as easy, and perhaps better from an aesthetic or functional standpoint.”

        Indeed – without implying criticism, when I observe pictures of the ‘school box’ project I think ‘a box that size should be assembled with 5/8″ or 9/16″ thick stock – maybe even 1/2″ if out of something robust like oak – 3/4″ doesn’t please my eye – YMMV –

        It would be ‘drudgery’ (as mentioned further down the replies) to thickness that wood with hand tools, a couple of hours that could be spent on dovetails or details –

        conversely, the most common dimension on a lot of 19th century ‘furniture of necessity’ like tool chests is 7/8″ to 15/16″, so often modern interpretations out of 3/4″ stock look odd to my eye – – there was an article many years ago in Fine Homebuilding magazine of a reproduction/recreation of a porch on a historic house – exemplary craftsmanship and attention to detail, but as I studied the pictures something just didn’t look right – I finally figured it out that the materials were of modern dimensions – 3/4″ – 1-1/2″ – 3-1/4″ etc, instead of what originally would have been 7/8″ – 1-7/8″ – 3-3/4″ – etc – the sum of the discrepancies was that composition looked reduced against the details of the original house –

        anyway – carry on –

  3. Jonas Jensen says:

    I got to think of a quote in WWM: “By all means read what the experts have to say, just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking”. (I can’t remember who said it).

    I use all kinds of different tools, power tools and hand tools. I would love to have a Veritas skewed rabbet plane, but I haven’t got one. So instead I use my vertical industrial shaper that I picked up for 200$. It is slower when I only need to make a few rabbets, but once it is tuned in, I can make rabbets for 30 drawers in no time.

    Whats important to me, is that I like to use the tools. I like to learn how to improve my skills on all the different tools that I use, power tools or hand tools. I like the luxury it is to be able to have a hobby, that I don’t have to make a living out of my woodworking, so basically I try to have a good time in the workshop.
    Since we can’t change the past, I feel that it is kind of wasted energy to discuss if they would have used bisquit joiners in the 17th century. Afterall, they didn’t have them.

  4. Dave says:

    I like doing things the old way. But if we didn’t have a space program we would not be having this conversation. Ways of doing things use to follow the process as people got to know them and their workings. Now they follow the speed of Wall St and we know nothing about them. Yet when we have problems we are expected ,thanks to Bill Gates, to explain them to the people who created them. Go figure

    Depending on ones “makeup” and circumstance we must also choose between enjoyment and satisfaction or production. Sometimes production by your own hands still prodcuces a better product than you can buy..

  5. Thomas says:

    Very well put, I feel the exact same way, same reason I grind my own coffee, straight razor shave, handwash my car and still love the feeling of reading a real book. Technology may be faster for something’s but it also takes out the learning, the experience and to me the tradition. I’ll take wood, brass, bronze, steel, leather and good quality American made products over plastic quick money makers any day.

  6. Rich says:

    I had occasion once, over thirty-five years ago, to rebuild Osprey, a heavy wooden salmon troller, originally built in 1918. The guy who took me under his wing, Dave Ullin, was, and still is, the Billy Graham of working wood by hand. He had me buy a big Diston rip saw, the kind that came with a cast metal handle. We replaced that handle with an antique wooden handle off an old two man timber falling saw. (to see Dave, in his 60’s, cut down a large tree by hand, using such a saw, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK0U3oxya84). Then Dave went to work resharpening the saw according to some new ideas he had. Then he left me to rip a twenty foot length of two inch fir, the first hull plank for Osprey. Well, that was a piece of work, for sure. After I had finished, I got in my old VW bug and went directly to the closest industrial supply house and bought a worm drive Skilsaw. The next day, when I met Dave, I excitedly said, “Dave, I made a great improvement to our rip saw.” A grin spread across his face and his eyes lit up, and then I pulled that Skilsaw out from behind my back. Well, some joke. Dave’s face fell instantly and he looked so sad I thought he might cry. He said not a word, just turned around and walked back down to his tug boat. I’ll never forget that. I felt more lowly than a teredo. So, what’s the lesson to this tale? Don’t know.

  7. Marhk says:

    You’ve got to be kidding!
    These guys were not making art – they were not hobby woodworkers – they were trying to feed families! They would have used anything that made the job more productive – just as factories do today. Not romantic, just progress.

    • Mark Dorman says:

      there is a guy in Jefferson Iowa making furniture by hand and feeding his family.
      he has some treadle power lathes and scrollsaws but the rest even felling the trees is done by hand. if he bought a table saw he would have to do more work so he could pay for the saw and still feed his family. problem is since the saw wouldn’t increase his sales this would be a set back that would not be worth the expense that cut into his ability to feed his family. This may be the same scenario years ago. for me today I would have to build a building to put my shop in if I used power tools instead of happily working in my basement shop.

  8. Jason D says:

    Awesome post, Chris.

    If I’m guessing correctly, this is indirectly in response to a thread on a popular woodworking forum earlier this week and (if so), you hit the nail on the head and answered every question / refuted every argument made in that particular thread.

    If I’m wrong, then thanks for addressing the subject perfectly.

  9. Peter Ross says:

    I used to hear this line all the time also. It’s an easy answer- of course “they” would have used a biscuit joiner, or a skilsaw or what have you, just like today. On the other hand, if they had those tools then, they would have been making the same machine made stuff we’re all rebelling against today. Since they didn’t have tools we now have they had to use the characteristics of the wood to advantage. Old joinery methods and principles of construction developed to the high level they did precisely because workmen were at the mercy of the material and their hand skills. Their “lack of technology” forced the incredible development we look back on with admiration.
    Our modern tools machine the wood almost without regard for it’s flaws which is one reason so much modern furniture looks the way it does. It could be made of almost anything and perform as well. New tools are great for what they do, but they are a trade-off. If they had been around 400 years ago we might never have had a golden age of woodworking.

  10. If they had a biscuit joiner back in the olden days, maybe they would have invented something better by now, like a mortiser/tennor tool.

  11. Rich says:

    I agree with Peter Ross, that power tools allow anyone, no matter how green, to plow through a piece of timber, with no regard for its characteristics. Such insensitivity inevitably shows up in the finished product. Trouble is, there are times when I really really need to plow through a piece of wood, for a million different reasons. A compromise that I have often thought might work, is to have people learn to work wood with hand tools and then, after a thorough indoctrination in all things hand, introduce them to power. Then, at least, they would know the consequences of choosing hand over power, or visa versa. I draw an analogy with those sailors who grew up in the age of sail, and then made a successful transition to steam (my great great grandfather, Captain William H Talbot, born 1819, was such a man); I think they were some of the best, most versatile seamen ever. They knew what to do when the coal ran out.

  12. Rob says:

    Add to the list: ‘If they’d had SketchUp…’ which has given woodwork illustration across magazines and the web a dull sameness. Bring back proper drawings and sketches on the backs of envelopes!

  13. A blacksmith friend claims that if they’d needed any of these modern tools, they would have invented them.

    • David Pickett says:

      They did. That’s why we have them. But they had to invent electricity, large scale generation and distribution first, which slowed them down a bit.

  14. Chris, As always another insightful piece. I use hand tools because I want to avoid mountains of dust, I don’t want to wear a respirator, smock, and ear protection, My studio neighbors would never tolerate the dust and noise. Most of all I like the sound of sharp tools slicing through wood and hearing the chips or shavings fall to the ground like light snow.
    But as a certified watch hound what is on wrist. It appears to be a GMT watch with a large face?

  15. Graham Burbank says:

    And the same is true in reverse, chris. If every piece of wood is selected on the basis of how easy it is to work with hand tools than much of the species used today would be passed over for building. Why do you think so much mahogany was used? Cuts like cheese. Secondary woods? Typically chosen for their ease of use as compared to the show wood. That is why 18th century tiger maple secretaries are rare. The extra skill and work involved made them expensive. The simplistic, rustic style of common furniture of that era was rendered by the less skilled craftsman at a lower “price point”. We have the power tools today to do the drudgery, even in woods that would defy hand tool users. The problem with this, however, is that we have allowed ourselves to lose the skills and knowledge to make the choice between when to use which. I would gladly hire your “average” 18th century craftsman and show him how to use power equipment in my shop, as his knowledge base of wood’s charictaristics and how best to employ it would be far broader than today’s “average” employee. Learn all you can, from every approach, and incorporate the best of each in your decision making process. There are 50 ways to cut a tenon. Which one is best?

    • David D from IN says:

      “drudgery” – the crux of the debate –

      I’d take either position on a pit saw for a day, for the experience, but I am not interested in having to acquire all my stock thru that method –

      OK, half a day, and I’d have to have strong drink –

  16. Chester says:

    Its like my Pappy said, “you can plow that 800 acre field walking behind a single horse, with a single plow, or you can ride a tractor and pull a multi-bottom plow, both will do the job, one will just get it done a lot faster”. Pap was both a Farmer and a Master Cabinet maker.

    • David Pickett says:

      Very true. But if you only had one acre to plough, would you invest in the tractor and multi-furrow plough?

  17. billlattpa says:

    I agree with this blog to a certain extent. I have one minor issue with it however. I’ve heard many people say that using power tools is somehow easier than using hand tools. I for one don’t see how. I personally cut most of my joinery with hand tools because it is easier for me, but I use a table saw for ripping and some crosscuts, and a jigsaw for cutting curves and arches. Last time I checked, both of those tools, if not used properly, could just as easily ruin your work as using a ripsaw or coping saw, both methods take accuracy and proper layout. Using certain power tools takes just as much skill as using certain hand tools. Power tool joinery is a different matter.
    And I guarantee you that if they had aspirin, they would have taken it.

  18. Gavrillo Princip says:

    Typical reactionary horseshit from the fake anarchist.

    You can rive stock then saw it on a table saw. I know because I have done it.

    Your post is a text book example of false dichotomies and phony posturing.

  19. Gavrillo Princip says:

    The preening, it burns!

    Rob nailed it in an earlier comment.

    Without modern communication and design tools we would not be reading this self-serving baloney on our computers, we would be waiting for the clay tablets to dry in the sun.

    Chris profits mightily from modern electronics then uses them to rail against modernity.

    Irony much?

    • David Pickett says:

      I don’t think Chris rails against modernity, I think he rails against certain aspects of modernity. Like many of us, he’s searching for his personal balance; if your personal balance is different, I think he’d be cool with that.

      That’s my interpretation of his writings, anyway.

  20. Sean says:

    Where’s the one about I prefer cheap threadboxes that cut crappy threads that don’t work smoothly to using a trim router and Beall’s system to quickly and inexpensively make excellent wood threads?

    Seriously, if something works better or gets to the same result with less time or effort – as per your examples – use it. Ripping long and/or thick boards – handsaw or tablesaw? Slicing veneer or inlay – bowsaw or bandsaw? Double bevel marquetry – hand fretsaw or powered scrollsaw? Etc.

    In the end, the furniture is the thing, and speaks for itself. It’s either good or it isn’t, not matter what tools were brought to bear in getting there.

    • pfollansbee says:

      In the end, the furniture is the thing? For me, the furniture is part of it, but the process is the principal element. I need to enjoy the time spent making it. If the process is not to my liking, neither will the product be. Life is short. dig it.

      • Sean says:

        I’m not saying that there is no value to the painter in loving to paint. Or in loving to paint with certain paints and tools in a certain studio or the open air, etc.. Fair enough. But great painters aren’t simply looking to pass the time pleasantly; they hope to make great work – serious ones shoot for masterpieces that will stand up quality wise to the best of past generations. In short, we don’t judge painters by whether they enjoyed themselves, unless we are judging a fingerpainting kindergarten class or dabbling retiree. We judge the work. If a chair sucks in some way, it is not redeemed because it was made of riven wood or the maker had a blast making it.

      • Dave from IN says:

        Peter, that’s the best reason I have ever heard for doing anything! Enjoy the process and the product becomes a secondary consideration. Making something nice becomes the consolation prize you get when the process is done. 🙂

      • billlattpa says:

        I have to disagree a little here. “process oriented woodworking” That phrase makes me want to give up the craft. If I want to enjoy the process of an act my wife and I will…nevermind…but when I’m making furniture I want several things: I want to enjoy it, I want it go forward at a steady pace, and mostly I want a nice piece of furniture at the end. And hopefully my enjoyment, pace, and furniture quality improves with each project. Nearly every woodworker that I’ve heard utter the phrase “process oriented woodworking” or something similar, is a retired or semi retired pro, or a hobbyist with a great deal of shop time at his/her disposal. For a guy like me, 39, with a family and hopefully 2-3 hours in the shop per week, the “process” is only a small part of the experience.

      • Rich says:

        I was once taught, in an art history class, that medieval monks illustrated the bible as a form of meditation, as a way of knowing God. The glorious work that resulted was but a by product.

  21. pfollansbee says:

    “If Ifs and Buts were candied nuts, we’d all have a hell of a Christmas.”
    Eddie Kasko, Boston Red Sox, early 1970s.

  22. Auguste Gusteau says:

    I fail to see where is the problem in drilling an hole at any angle other then 90 sexagesimal degrees with a drill press.

  23. Dave from IN says:

    How does someone like Sam Maloof who made exquisite furniture while extensively using electrically powered tools fit into the conversation?

  24. pfollansbee says:

    And another thing…the whole premise is silly, really. “If they had a tablesaw they would have used it…” – so what? That’s not the point of someone wanting to make furniture these days. We have choices, and for the hobbyist (which I figure is the bulk of woodworking blog readers, LN customers, Lost Art Press customers, etc) hand tools can get you both a better result and a better time in doing it. I don’t know anyone who really revels in using their electric tools. They might appreciate the production values, the repetitive capabilities, but will people pore over ancient tablesaws someday the way we appreciate the patina on old planes?

    I remember a guy watching me rip a long board for a door I was making once…saying “I tried that once, I couldn’t do it.” I told him if he could do it on his first try, I’d be discouraged.

    • Rich says:

      Well, yes. People will, and do, pore over ancient tablesaws, and all manner of other antique machinery. I am one of them. I am just as pleased with the look and sound of an old Washington Estep marine diesel as I am proud of the look of my old Record foreplane, bought new in 1976 and now showing the tell tale patina of my own sweat and neglect.

    • Dave from IN says:

      Peter, I’m one of those people who dote over power tools as well as hand tools. I love my old Stanley hand planes, I love using my table saw, I love running my chain saw (I get a huge kick out of milling my own lumber!). For me (definitely a hobbyist), using power tools is a huge part of the process that I enjoy.

      There are a number of folks who have gotten a ton of enjoyment out of restoring an old Unisaw, so I believe that there is indeed a good chance that people will pore over ancient tablesaws someday the way we pore over old planes. I’m not psychic, but I do see the parallels and the historical cycles that suggest whatever tools we use today will be of amazing nostalgic interest to the hipsters of 75 years from now. I’m guessing that the tools of the future will be based on lasers (just because lasers are awesome), so anything that uses something as nostalgic and simplistic as a magneto-roto-gyro thingie to drive a (gasp!) metal blade to cut wood will be of great interest. Instead of arguing about cambers, people will be arguing about rewinding their own 3 hp motors.

      Who knows. . .

      • Rich says:

        You may be right Dave. I am continually amazed at what my thirty something friends think is cool. Pick up trucks from 60’s and 70’s for instance. When I was thirty, my standard for a good looking pickup truck was anything from a ’28 Model AA Ford to a ’49 Chev. So perhaps an element of the standard for coolness is just as you suggest: whatever was built some arbitrary number of years before one was born.

  25. Kevin Costa says:

    New vinyl or old? I can buy good used records, run them through my nitty gritty and have dynamics and a deep sound stage way better than 0’s and 1’s. Much like my flea market tools.
    kevin costa

  26. Jay Oyster says:

    I’ll buy the argument, with the exceptions of PVA, the table saw and the drill press. But, as you said, everyone makes decisions about the technology they use. That seems to be the line for me: PVA, table saw, drill press. The listed benefits of the old way in these areas don’t overcome the hassle or expense of using the old techniques. I guess that that’s my ‘Hybrid Line’.

  27. Derek Lyons says:

    “So why would we assume that the people of the past would like to do things the way we do?”

    Because most people, past or present, aren’t you. (Or the even the minority represented by most readers of this blog.) They don’t do things in difficult and idiosyncratic ways for philosophical and idealistic reasons and come up with complex justifications for doing so. (That’s not to put a negative spin on such things, just to put them in perspective. Even us Normites are a minority in the modern world, just a bigger one than the Neanders.) They were folks much like the rest of us… they wanted to put food on the table and maybe put a little money aside. And their customers were generally of the same mindset. (If these things weren’t true, then labor saving devices would never have gained traction in the first place.) Human nature has changed very little over the centuries.

    What many people don’t realize is that master craftsmen of yore did have “power tools”, they just called them “apprentices”. When flesh and blood apprentices got to be too expensive (as the cost of labor has steadily increased in cost over the last couple of centuries), they were simply replaced with steel ones. The fictional “noble craftsman” (created out of whole cloth by gentlemen with enough leisure to consider working and sweating just for fun and enlightenment) may have shed a tear over this, but the real life craftsmen just bent over his table saw the way he once did over his chisels and hoped he’d sell enough this week to feed his family.

  28. Rich says:

    As a friend used to say, woodworking is a big word. And though it has shrunk in size from its previous glory, it still encompasses more then fussy pieces of furniture. I’ve had a hand in the construction or repair of commercial fishing boats, wooden docks, old wooden pipe mains, houses, cabinets, furniture, and wooden boat models. It is the relatively small fussy nature of furniture making, when compared to something like a timber truss bridge, that allows us the luxury of a passionate debate over whether hand or power tools are the best way to go. While we can discuss, with merit on all sides, whether a table maker from the 18th century might have benefited from a table saw, I have no doubt that the vast majority of those who ever had to cut a long fair curve along the length of a 10 foot piece of 10 by 15 inch timber, would, if given the choice, opt for a monster bandsaw to do the job, rather then get the work out with broad axe and adze. Sure, this is an extreme example from the shipwright trade of a century ago. But then, at what size of work does power suddenly become evil and hand work sacred? Seems like each of us will have his or her own answer. Though either job can be done by hand or power, I myself prefer to cut dovetails by hand and bore 3/4 inch holes through three feet of deadwood timber with a two handed drill motor.

    • Rich says:

      And while I’m at it, before the present debate exhausts itself, let me congratulate Chris Schwarz for starting a stimulating conversation. I’m new to this online discussion business and know none of you guys, either personally or through the Internet, but if this current thread is any indication, all of you seem like opinionated cusses, just the sort of people I enjoy

    • Graham Burbank says:

      that would have to be a Porter double-beveling ship saw. 42″ wheels, hole in the floor to accomodate the left hand tilt, perhaps with geared feed rolls to change the tilt with the advancing timber…

      • Rich says:

        Yeah! Thirty or forty years ago I watched a six man crew from the Fishing Vessel Owners Ship Yard, in Ballard, Seattle, wrestle a huge piece of gumwood through such a saw while the lead man called out bevel changes and another man tilted the carriage accordingly, while everyone else just tried to keep the wood feeding at a steady rate and flat on the table. The wood was a replacement forefoot for some big wooden fishing vessel sitting in the drydock next to the saw. Sadly, that yard, while still operating, no longer has that shipsaw on its dock. Even if it did, everything is surrounded now by a metal fence, preventing young rubber necks, as I was then, from getting anywhere near.

  29. Board chair man says:

    Give me a Stihl to fell a tree. Do you strap a rock to a stick to fell your trees? If not you are falling short of your own purity test. For that matter, do you mine your own ore to make the metal you use to make your own tools? If not, why not?

    • cmhawkins says:

      “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – Emerson

      • Chris Hall says:

        That is a misrepresentation of what Emerson was talking about in that quote, and an incomplete quote at that. Emerson was talking about the individual bending themselves to the norms of society, and that forming such patterns of conformity violates the individual spirit – nothing to do with the points raised by Board chair man.

      • Board chair man says:

        And your junior high quote is relevant how?

      • Jay C. White Cloud says:

        It’s relevant because we should all try and keep open minds and when we fail to, our awareness shrivels…

    • raney says:

      I missed the purity test. What I heard was a point/counterpoint of some of the reasons that handtools are not irrelevant or outdated. There are differences.

      I use the best tool for whatever job. But the criteria is incredibly variable. Depends on the work, the person, the wood, whether it’s for profit or pleasure….

      The point, though, is that there is more going on than simply ‘if they’d had them, they’d have used them.’ And there is infinitely more going on than simply a bunch of closeted society for creative anachronism wonks acting like purists. Unfortunately, to really understand the possibilities of handtools, you have to devote a pretty good amount of time and energy to learning the skills they require. So anyone who decides there’s no reason to devote that energy will never ever be able to find out if they’re wrong.

      I have plenty of power tools and plenty of hand tools, and I find every tool in my shop at least occasionally quite useful.. If I didn’t, they’d have been purged by now. Many tools have over the years…

      I think the screams of ‘ideological purist’ are coming from people who are yelling at someone other than Schwarz. They seem to have latched onto the opportunity to scream at their holier-than-thou brother-in-law, or neighbor, or the handtool purist that mocked them on a forum somewhere.

      But this entry was none of those people. And whatever they said that’s causing the screams of ‘you annoying purist, false prophet, heretic, and bastard’, it certainly wasn’t the blog post.

  30. Barnowl says:

    My brother is an editor at a woodworking magazine. A few years back he encouraged me to start using hand tools more. Since then I have enjoyed woodworking more. I feel like I am closer to the wood and to what I am making. The mistakes that I make are usually a deeper than necessary chisel mark or tear out from a plane. I like that there is less noise and less fine dust. I hate sanding and I am doing it less than before. I like that I can have a conversation while hand sawing and that I can listen to music and smoke a pipe while handplaning. I have been able to buy more tools for less money and I am better at using them. I feel that the sins that are truly oppressing our country are materialism and consumerism. I feel that by using old tools I am standing against those sins. I’ve owed 3 cordless drills and only one died, the Tim Allen series from K-Mart. The others were covetess. I do want to get a nice band saw some day. But the short of it is that I worship more while handplaning and hand sawing than when I’m singing. We worship through art and this is my art.

    That being said. I’m not going to try and get everyone to give up their electric tools. If that’s what they like to use, cool. If they have the money to spend on power tools fine. I think one of the problems with our culture is that if someone does something different then we do we want to convert them. It makes us feel better about the way we are doing it. It’s even true of Gospel Evangelism. I’ve seen missionaries yell at each other because of “technique” differences. What happen to “there is more than one way to skin a cat”?

  31. Patrick says:

    OK. I’m stepping in it but here goes:

    Three woodworkers and three rough boards. The first woodworker sends his board through a surface planer and thens applies a finish. The second woodworker sends his through the same surface planer, then as an added step, a smoothing plane is run over the board to remove tool marks and then the finish is applied. The third board is planed completely by hand and then finished.

    The first board looks very nice but the finish does bring out the tool marks left by the planer; but, it is a trade off the first woodworker is willing to take because of the speed and ease of completing the board.

    The second board looks nicer finished because all the tool marks were removed and yes it did take an extra step, but it was a step he was willing to take because he like the finished results.

    The third board looks exactly like the second and yes it took a lot longer, but the third woodworker didn’t care about the time it took he enjoyed the process and was very satisfied with the results.
    Who’s right? They all are. Each woodwooker decided on a trade off and that is exactly what Chris’ post says. “They would have used a ….. UNLESS…(they were after a specific outcome.) The wood doesn’t care what tool is used and whether there are electons pushing it or muscle. It’s the finished product that we are all discussing here and the trade offs we make.

  32. Board chair man says:

    Yeah, I think the pedantic proselytizing is annoying in the extreme. Do it my way or die!

    I am a full time woodworker who makes his living making things which I then sell. Maybe you have all day to drag a plane over a board you have hand sawed out of a log, which was hand felled by ax and dragged out of the woods by a horse, but I don’t.

    Oh, right – you make your living telling us how we are supposed to make a living, not actually producing products. Excuse me if I ignore you and get back to work making wooden objects the way I see fit.

    • David D from IN says:

      “you make your living telling us how we are supposed to make a living”

      I don’t judge that a fair characterization of Chris’ occupation –

      ‘Provocateur’, maybe?

      He’s getting better –

    • cmhawkins says:

      You have misunderstood or missated his post. Your last sentence makes it appear you missed this sentence in his post “Work wood the way you want to.”

      Also, have you seen his body of body of finished projects? Beautfiul. You may have produced 1000 X more projects than Chris and had better quality. Good for you. That isn’t the point of the post.

  33. Thomas says:

    It’s funny when you read the comments all at once it’s basically a long version of the same thing that was originally posted. To each there own, some do for love what others do for money, in the end as long as “YOU” get out of it what you sought then nothing else matters!

  34. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    I’m going to pull from some of my other comments and add them here. I think they are applicable.

    Considering Luthier and most guild craftspeople of the past had such ridged mandates of style down to only using wood from trees of certain forests, or tools made by certain Smiths of a chosen guild, I doubt very much that they would have changed very much if you offered them our modern array of tools. The process meant too much to them.

    The “spirit,” that many say is missing today from items of use, is gone because we have lost contact with the process. 建築士 or 大工 (Architects or Carpenter,) of Japan and China today routinely refuse to use modern tools, in many cases, for just that reason, and have a much different view of respect for a craft than Westerners.

    Remember, most of the modern age of power driven, mass produced tools, grew out of the need for large Industry to make lots of product, with unskilled labor. That culture of mass production, consumption and “through it away” is now a normative cultural truth. Some of us are trying to bring the spirit back to our work, and the respect for the material it is made out of. Do I use power tools? Of course I do, but I am very mindful of their application, when I do use them.

    • Board chair man says:

      Forty years ago a man taught me how to build houses. In his youth he had to saw boards using only a hand saw. Why? Process? Purity? Adhering to tradition? Respect for craft?

      No – the union forbade the use of circular saws because it made the work go too fast and resulted in lower paychecks for the workers which translated to less paid into the corrupt union.

      Guilds were similarly corrupt and exclusionary. I am glad they are gone.

      And mindfulness is wonderful when applied to the right thing, which should include English.

      • cmhawkins says:

        I think nearly everyone agrees with your first two paragraphs. You seem to be creating a strawman to attack. Why? And why the vitriol in your last paragraph?

      • billlattpa says:

        Unions also got people better pay checks, vacation time, retirements, workplace safety, 8 hour work days, 40 hour work weeks, over time pay, weekends, job training, and job security. You built houses for a living? I bet that at least some of those houses were sold to guys who could afford them because they had good paying union jobs. You’re entitled to your opinion but I would check my history before I blasted every union as corrupt and harmful. Unions kept 10 year old kids out of mines and sweatshops, unions kept women out of 20 hour a day factory jobs for a dollar a week. Whatever they may have become later, they did a lot of good things.

      • Jay C. White Cloud says:

        Well, oddly enough, forty years ago 3 men taught me how to build a barn, three very wise, mindful, Amish men. They took a 14-year-old boy, and by 23 made him a reasonably accomplished Barn Wright. They didn’t use power tools for a much different reason and what they passed onto me has made me the person I am today. I try everyday to honor their teachings and pass it on to my students.

        You really must reexamine your history. Yes, some Unions have evolved into corrupt entities, but not all. The Guilds I speak of, (some still exist today, such a the Timber Framers Guild and Dry Laid Stone Foundation,) are either family Guilds or true Crafters Guilds. They may have had some harsh standards in their history but there intent was purity of craft and practice. Many of the Unions that branched from them did much more good than harm, until recent times.

        I’m not clear about your comment on English? I hope that wasn’t a criticism of my writing because “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” “Hand saw,” should be one word, “workers which” should have a coma between the words”; paid” should read pay or paid to, and you shouldn’t start sentences with “And” it is considered poor English. Please not the content of my writing is much more important to me than if I, perhaps, mess up my grammar or misspell something.

      • Paul B says:

        So,..the 70’s is when you heard this? Sounds like you’re a baby boomer; the first generation to see their parents enjoy the right to a safe workplace with recourse to wrongful dismissal, with expanded free public education for you kids and a social security/public healthcare system that would reduce any financial burden your parents might eventually place on you. It’s amazing how many older boomers now like to act as if they were raised in the 20’s.

      • billlattpa says:

        I agree with you Paul B. I’ve written about it in my blog several times. The baby boomer generation, in my experience in dealing with them on a regular basis, is cheap, for lack of a better word, for no apparent reason. They incessantly complain about the government yet have reaped the benefits of government programs more than any generation in American history ever has or ever will. Yet everybody else is a Communist (when they really mean Socialist) if they happen to agree with anything the Federal Government does, or happened to be in a union, or happen to be a democrat. Does this include soldiers too? Because I was one of those as well.
        What really bothers me is that woodworking writers and editors basically cater to them. Every woodworking show and event is geared towards them. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against any person in any age group, especially if they are woodworking, and I understand why it happens. They have most of the loose cash in this country at the moment, according to many statistics at least. But I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “saving the craft” for future generations while your woodworking events look like a Saturday night at a retirement community. If any group is going to leave a woodworking legacy in a broad sense it’s not going to be the boomer generation.
        And just to be clear, I’m not trying to offend everybody over the age of 55. I am speaking broadly though, and I am speaking from much personal experience.

  35. John Hippe says:

    Another great post Chris. As you rightly state, “Work wood the way you want to.” We all approach woodworking for different reasons and hopefully develop the skills that support those reasons. I am a beginning hobbiest and I want to enjoy the process. For those reasons, I am trying to build my hand tool skills. I like the interaction with the wood. The quiet. The cleaner air. Sometimes, however, I want that process to go faster so that I can have a finished product so I grab the power tools.

  36. Dan says:

    I used to demo a bow lathe and tell people power is no substitute for craftsmanship. I never had a disagreement. When I was a young man I used to travel to fairs and Horse shows and router wooden signs for people. I got talked into doing a 8 foot sign for a friend and then got talked into using a CNC machine to make it. Took me 3 times longer than routing it by hand. It’s not the power or the tool it’s the experience and skill.
    Pic 001

  37. John Cashman says:

    Wow. Thanks Chris. Open the door, toss in a grenade, and then jump in your car and drive across country while the shrapnel settles. There’s anarchy for you.

  38. Rich says:

    I’m with Barnowl; I am gradually getting back to hand tools, for a number of reasons: I can consider process more than I once was able to, as my need for the income from product declines; I hate the noise, dust and expense of power tools; I foresee a smaller shop in my future; I need the exercise; and I am more and more able to choose projects and materials that lend themselves to hand work.

  39. blowery says:

    Why are we picking sides again?

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      It helps me to form answers to students when they challenge me on similar subjects. If we can maintain a civil tone, it is good to debate such subjects and rethink things from another’s perspectives.

      Plus, it’s just fun, to “toss about,” after CS drops a “Nuke.”

      • blowery says:

        The answer for each person is their own. There is nothing here to debate. Go make something. Find out.

      • Jay C. White Cloud says:

        “The answer for each person is their own” and, some of us, like to discuss what that answer is. Then debate it to see if there is another sound perspective on the subject, different ways to do something or a perception of it. As far as, “Go make something, Find out.” I have found it much more productive to think about, study, listen to, watch another, remember, and then “Go make something.”

        When I have a class of students and I have those that just want to start the process without thinking about it, though they maybe very creative, they often struggle more than others.

    • joecrafted says:

      Navel-gazing. I agree, go make something. I need to take my own advice more often as well. Making stuff is fun, whether I use a router, a hand plane or a sharp chisel. I prefer hand tools, but I use both.

  40. bsrlee says:

    Quite a few of those techniques WERE around ‘back then’, and were used to a greater or lesser degree.

    Domino loose tennons – at least the 5th Century BC, warships (triremes etc) were made with pinned loose tennon joints. Strong? Archeologist have found a couple that were hit by something BIG and driven into the sea bed end like a nail for most of their length. And the planks were still soundly connected. The mortises have round ends & the tennons are made ot match, so it lookslike they drilled the ends of the mortises. Also, most seem to have been ‘pre-fabs’ knocked together out of sub-assemblies, by the hundred in some cases – early production line anyone?

    Dowel joints – surviving 16-17th Century furniture with dowel joints between boards – the boards have strunk or broken away from each other a bit (which is how we can see the dowels) but the dowels are still sound. With only basic hand drills (Archimedes bow drill, simple brace) that would be a lot more work than lap joints, tounge & groove or splines, all of which appear in pre-industrial furniture and appear to be original features.

    Seriously, I ‘d love to see Chris do his thing with a book on Pharonic Egyptian furniture with x-rays and close-up photos of the joinery – serious hand tool furniture, pre iron in a lot of cases. The basics of most ‘modern’ furniture were present from a millenium BC – drawers, M&T joints, really complex board joints (Egypt imported most of her wood for millenia in small bits which had to be re-joined into useful sizes), knock-down assemblies – all sorts of things we see as ‘modern’ for good or bad. And it survived 2-3000 years in near new condition – better than the 18th Century ‘modern’ stuff you see in ‘antique’ stores.

  41. David D from IN says:

    “I prefer vinyl over digital music”

    OK – but we have live music here regularly –

  42. Board chair man says:

    Public employee unions vote themselves raises paid for with our dollars. The UAW stole billions of our dollars. Keep defending unions and I might think you are corrupt or a communist.

    But back to the subject at hand. I use power tools, a CNC, hand tools such as planes and chisels, chainsaws, hand saws, back saws, Japanese saws and so on. I have carved a djembe out of a walnut log using a gouge, and turned others on a lathe. As with units, I use what’s appropriate to the task – microns and nanometers for IC design, decimal inches on the CNC and fractional inches for construction.

    Chris got us goin’, and like freakin’ Energizer bunnies we just keep on keepin’ on.

    And at the end of a hard week the fire is right out of me – if I didn’t have to get up in a few hours to start again I would have a shot of whiskey.

    • cmhawkins says:

      You got smoked half a dozen different ways. Yea, I think it is time for you to go to bed.

    • John Cashman says:

      Board chair man, what a doo-doo head.

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      We should always try a stay on point with our responses to post topics. When we get off track and start to attack personally, it detracts from the benefit of the discussion. If a topic is not something you can see “over the fence on,” one should make their point and move on, unless they can contribute beneficially more to the conversation. When you call someone a “communist,” or attack a belief system they may have to incite a reaction, it detracts.

      I’m not a communist, but I do believe in socialistic principles as my forbears have for thousands of years, and the Barn Wrights that taught me what they could.

  43. Graham Burbank says:

    confession time: it was my second “Fat Squirrel” (New Glarus Brewing Co.) that prompted this post…While grilling my t-bone , a nod here to Michael Pollan, (grass fed, from the local butcher, with portabellas from river valley ranch) I realized I had lit the flame with a splinter of riven white oak (a nod here to peter, who’s book I am very much enjoying), and I thought to myself, why should chris have all the fun? And so I ask you, Gas or Charcoal?

    • David D from IN says:

      Oh, come on, Graham – remember where you’re at –

      wood chunks, rived only –

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      My God Man, get a hold of yourself. David is right; you already know the answer to your question. Now, go get another “squirrel,” kick back, and finish reading that magnificent book. Later, you will make something amazing… after the appropriate amount of “navel gazing.” 🙂

  44. Ron Dennis says:

    My approach to working wood is to do it the that I feel will yield the level of craftsmanship required and like everything else in life, if it feels right, do a lot of it. Otherwise, find another way to do it.

  45. joecrafted says:

    Vinyl? That implies a recording studio between you and the music. If you aren’t making the music yourself on a instrument you built yourself, you are a worm. Mozart didn’t listen to music on vinyl. Neither did Handel. Van Morrison did, so maybe vinyl gets a pass. IMO live music still rules all. Of course I use my digital music when needed. And my darn car radio won’t take vinyl records (smiley face) 🙂 .

    Love reading your thought-provoking posts. I work mostly with hand tools, but use a router, bandsaw or circular saw when it makes sense. If I had a table saw and planer, I’d probably use them when it made sense (runs of molding stock, for example).

    • Graham Burbank says:

      clearly you haven’t finished mr. Bickford’s treastise on hollows and rounds

      • joecrafted says:

        I just received it Friday. I took a class with Matt where we made a picture frame, bought 5 of his planes, have been to his shop and talked with him for a good long while (he lives about 20 minutes from me, and did all the antique work in my hometown). If you like ripping molding stock with a hand saw to that precise a width, have at it. Notice I said molding *stock*. Not the actual molding itself. And every piece of molding stock Matt brought to class? Ripped on a table saw.

  46. Sue J says:

    Needed two cups of tea to read through this thread – lots of interesting debate. I have sold a lot of machines and replaced them with hand tools because I have a lot more fun and (for me) better results that way (and I have a bit of a “thing” for hand tools). The best effect of this has been that my two children are now in the workshop with me much more and they have a collection of tools they can use (egg-whisk drills etc). They now enjoy being in the workshop whereas before not only was it too dangerous they didn’t want to be in there anyway (“too noisy mummy”). Tony Knonovaloff has some great pictures of his children in the workshop with him in his book “Chisel, Mallet, Plane and Saw”. Workbench as toddler-bed one of my favourite photos. Time for another cuppa.

  47. Patrick says:

    Anybody else think this horse has been beaten enough and is ready for the glue factory? If you are sing with me.
    Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya.
    (OK now the hand-toolers in the back.) Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya.
    (Now the just the power toolers.) Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya
    (Everybody all together) Oh Lord Kumbaya.

    • Rich says:

      I’m singing as I write. Maybe Chris will get back soon and toss another hand grenade.

      • Jay C. White Cloud says:

        Oh, I do hope so!!! This one has provided great information, (and entertainment.) My talking points on this subject have grown exponentially. Thanks to all that participated. BIG, thank you to Chris. Please don’t stop. 🙂

  48. Scribe says:

    “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.”

    – Opening statement from the Unabomber’s Manifesto.

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      My God Man, what is your point…

      Many of those things maybe true and just because some emotional disturbed sociopath decided to write them down doesn’t change their validity,

      Besides, what in hell does that have to do with a conversation about power vs. hand tools application to woodworking?

      • Jay Oyster says:

        I *think* he’s implying that just because you’re a Luddite doesn’t necessarily make you wise.

      • Jay C. White Cloud says:

        Sorry, comparing someone to a terrorist, luddite or not, just doesn’t seem germane to the subject of this thread. I don’t find it amusing either, not in this day and age. Poor taste.

  49. GregM says:

    Lots of people with lots to say here; thought I may as well add my two cents:

    Chuck Bender, Glen Huey, Jeff Miller, Michael Fortune, David Marks, Sam Maloof, Frank Klaus, Tag Frid, Christian Bekkesvoort, even James Krenov (and the list goes on …). Just a random selection of some of the leading names in modern woodworking – they all use(d) power tools because they have them – and I’d give pretty much anything to even in spitting distance of this illustrious list. The truth is, “they” (the woodworker’s of old) DID use table saws, planers, etc just as soon as they were invented (can anyone say “Thomas Day”?).

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      I can’t help think that you kind of made the whole point of this thread’s premise in a certain way, especially referencing Thomas Day, one of the first prominent Black Industrialist of his time. Yes, with out a doubt, his furniture was stunning, and the “Hand Work,”(done by the Master Craftsman in his shop, not the laborers,) that each piece saw before it left his facility is to be admired.

      However, stating, once again, that any of your referenced woodworkers used power tools, “because they had them,” is a false interpretation of their reasoning. The industrial revolution, (globally,) that is still occurring today, is the primary reason for power tool development. It allowed for manufactures the ability to mass-produce product and the use of more unskilled labor to work assembly line style manufacturing components. As time went on, less and less skilled hand tool use was employed, to the point of even changing the design approach of many styles.

      Please, don’t get me wrong, as a professional timber framer; I have incorporated the use of technology where applicable, as did many of your reference woodworkers. Sam Maloof, is a perfect example. He developed a free style approach to his design that relied heavily on “rotary pneumatic sanders,” using them as a carving tool free hand.

      Cultural modernity has only grown and spread because of the “industrial revolution.” It has grossly affected our skill sets and bastardized many of our approach methodologies, many to the point that we are having this debate. Many of today’s designs for just about anything, are adjusted to fit power tool capabilities, because as a culture we no longer think about, or approach, our work from the more intimate and skilled methods of employing the fine motor control our bodies are gifted with. I still routinely pass over the power tools at my disposal for all the same reasons sited here and as I heard from craftsman around the world, “they cost to much to own-operate, they aren’t always that much faster, and they are very dangerous.” These are real reasons, shared by real crafts people around the glob. So no, just because they have it DOES NOT MEAN THEY WILL USE IT.

      • Board chair man says:

        Thomas Day owned slaves. They were his power tools.

      • Jay C. White Cloud says:

        Yes some antebellum African Americans of his time, particularly successful ones, presented the ruse of slave ownership. This subterfuge was a necessity of life, as distasteful as many of the day-to-day atrocities my own family faced in their history dealing with the white culture that spread over our ancestral lands. To survive that time period of this country often meant choosing the lesser of two evils.

        His “power tools,” were steam engines, not slaves. Please note, written records and his own family oral history clearly indicates he only owned approximately 15 slaves, having bought them as a family to protect them from being sold off separately, displacing them. At their peak, he had a lot more unskilled labor in his factory than 15 people. He had both artisan craftsman and unskilled labor, as stated earlier; he was one of the forbearers of the industrial revolution. Which is germane to the thread of this discussion about hand tool craftsmanship verses the use and implementation of power tools and their necessity, not a discussion about Thomas Day.

  50. Board chair man says:

    With your people’s history of obesity and diabetes, you really need to cut back on your consumption of Koolaid.

    Yeah, it was a ruse, right. Actually, they were his property, nothing more, nothing less. How did he treat them?

    In any case, you have learned to play the victim card well.

  51. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Could you please, stay on topic. It would seem that whenever someone else in this discussion has a view counter to yours you become sardonic and malicious; it certainly is not humorous. I will not, nor have I ever drunk “Kool-Aid,” actual or metaphoric. I prefer logic and facts.

    If the facts are debatably or have other facets to their nature, then I enjoy clear, concise, and logical discourse of those facts, not sarcasm. Your general contribution to this line of dialogue has, more often than not, been obtuse. I do wish you would either be removed from this forum or would learn to contribute meaning dialogue. “Say something intelligent!”

    As for the “FACTS” about Thomas Day, and his ownership of slaves, anyone can just do a little research and determine the truth for themselves, about him and realities of the antebellum South.

    As far as the “victim card” I have never considered myself personally a victim of anything. I am a son of First Nation People, Celtic, Negro, and Slavic origin and if any four groups in history would have the right to take a victim stance, THEY DO.

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