Don’t be Ridiculous

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First-time visitors to the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine, are sometimes bemused by all the machinery used to make handplanes.

“Wait,” I heard one say during a tour, “I thought you made all these tools by hand – no machines. Shouldn’t hand tools be made by hand?”

Similarly, I get asked the following questions almost every time I’m in public.

“You accept credit cards and call yourself an anarchist?”

“Wait, you don’t process all your stock for your woodworking classes by hand?”

“Don’t you think it’s strange to use the Internet to promote the use of non-electrical tools? That’s an electric tool.”

Since we concocted the lever, wheel and other simple machines, we have always sought to harness some sort of mechanical advantage to make the labor easier. We have drawings of sawmills from 1250. Planing machines go back to at least the 18th century.

These technologies supplied hand-tool shops with the stock to make furniture and other household goods (think: “Little House on the Prairie”). I doubt that any woodworker who built a highboy started the process in the forest with an axe and ended with a French polishing rubber.

So yes, I have some machines. I couldn’t build a campaign chest in a reasonable amount of time if I had to start with the tree. And our ancestors who built campaign chests didn’t start with a tree, either. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m doing things in the historically correct and expedient manner: Machines process the stock; hand tools cut the joinery.

And I’m happy to change modes when the work calls for it. Stick chairs are best when they are built from rived – not sawn – wood. So when I build these sorts of objects, it’s best to start with the tree. It’s efficient. Plus it produces a stronger and better-looking chair.

Similarly, if I ever have to build another Eames piece, I’m going to borrow a hydraulic press to mold the plywood sheets. It’s simply the best route from point A to B.

As to the other questions listed above, here’s how I respond:

1. On credit cards. I don’t like them, but we accept them as a convenience to our customers. Know that we use the smallest bank in town. I know all the tellers’ names; they know mine. When it comes to the topic of banking, I think it’s a matter of who is in charge of the relationship. I have no debts, so the bank has no power over my business. As we are on equal footing, it’s just a matter of negotiating their fees and the interest they pay me on my money.

2. On using the Internet. I consider the Internet to be the most decentralized communication system ever devised. It is, compared to all other forms of mass communication, fairly lawless (in a good way) and democratic (with a small “d.”). Lost Art Press wouldn’t exist without it because the Internet has allowed us to avoid working with book distributors, such as Ingram and Amazon, which seek to control our pricing and our business. So once again, it’s a matter of control.

So when I’m ripping out 600 sticks of mahogany for a class on Roorkhee chair class, I am thankful for the machine that granted me an astonishing amount of freedom, both in woodworking and in making a living.

And when I’m cutting 120 dovetails with a dovetail saw, I am again thankful for the saw in my right hand that has granted me an astonishing amount of freedom in how I cut my joinery and in the resulting appearance of my furniture. Same with handplanes and chisels.

Bottom line: Tools (banking, CNC, carcase saws) can enslave or liberate. Take your pick.

— Christopher Schwarz

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About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to Don’t be Ridiculous

  1. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    We don’t have to be complete luddites to be happy luddite…do we?

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  2. Jim Steel says:

    It’s always amazing to me the lengths some will go to find fault with someone else. I applaud your reasonableness!

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  3. I really concur with what you wrote in this blog. I too utilize my power tools for the “grunt” work much like in days of old followed by hand tools and joinery for the finish phase. I’ve given myself the term of Hybrid Woodworker, it’s not a registered term but I do think it’s my original thought! In our local woodworking group (Sin City Woodworkers) I’m considered to be one of the “hand tool guys”. Funny that there is that division, probably holds true everywhere.

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  4. wb8nbs says:

    For me, it comes down to balancing satisfaction and expense. I’ve been working on Roy’s Eleven Grooved Boxes and find it’s immensely satisfying to do one completely with hand tools but it’s a lot cheaper to buy a Dado blade for my table saw than to obtain a moving fillister plane.

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  5. swani56 says:

    Well said Chris. I am amazed how many people will pick at the oddest things, and for what?

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  6. Christopher
    You have got tht right. Yes you can make a stick chair from a tree.
    To travel from tree to sitting down is, as my friend Danny Barker used to say ,
    “A real primatve deal.”
    Jennie

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  7. Marhk says:

    Interestingly from the 18th century slave’s point of view electric motors are the greatest thing since … ! But, slavery no longer exists (thankfully !), so the perspective is moot.

    From the Woodworking Master’s point of view electricity has no effect – he didn’t do the prep work then and he still doesn’t today.

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  8. Joel says:

    This reminds of the misconceptions that many folks have about the Amish. They don’t reject ALL technology, but they don’t accept any new technology into their lives without first thinking about how it will affect them and what it will do to their carefully tended community. I have a lot of respect for that viewpoint. Sometimes newer and faster is better, sometimes it’s not. But at least they stop to think about it first. Can’t say that I agree with their lifestyle 100%… but I can still learn something from them.

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    • jonathanszczepanski says:

      There was a great podcast about how the Amish still produce things in a viable way, but maintain there tradition. It’s not the technology is bad, it’s how a certain technology impacts the family and community life that is important to them:
      http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/03/05/173561926/episode-441-business-secrets-of-the-amish

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    • tsstahl says:

      Agreed. My misconceptions of the Amish/Mennonites were legion. I was quite happy to learn how wrong I was.

      I learned of an Amish carpenter. He drove a pickup truck full of the most modern battery and electric tools you could think of to his jobs in tract housing developments. At night the truck would be parked in a small barn on the edge of his small farm, well away from the house and main barns.

      My biggest shock was running across an Amish woodworking business that made everything from pallets to fine furniture. They had a large metal pole barn full of high quality yellow woodworking machinery. The electricity was supplied by a diesel generator. Their phone, fax, and email terminal were in a small guardpost like shed right next to the telephone poll (very common sight). The place was like any other light industrial shop from 7-3.

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    • steveschafer says:

      For the Amish, it’s not about technology per se, but rather “worldliness,” which you can think of as connectedness to the outside world. Each church group sets its own rules, so there is a lot of variability, but in general it explains the reluctance to use things like electricity, for example (connected to the grid), but the acceptance of gas or diesel power in its place (and I’ve seen quite a few Amish farmhouses with solar panels on the roof, since they can provide electricity without being connected to anything).

      There are nevertheless a lot of weird contradictions that I’ve never been able to figure out. I know a number of Amish birders, and I can’t quite square “living simply” with owning a pair of $2500 Swarovski binoculars…

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  9. Jim Maher says:

    For me, it’s NEVER about “doing things in the historically correct … manner”; it’s ALWAYS about “the best route from point A to B”.

    But “best” is a function of several factors. Time, convenience and accuracy are some, but so are a sense of satisfaction and tactile feedback. The reality is that my skills ain’t that good (yet), so in practice it comes down to which way achieves acceptable results in the least time. Since I’m usually only building one or two pieces at a time, machine set up (and test cuts) often take longer than my poor initial hand tools results plus the time to make it “nice”. And as time goes by, the hand tools approach becomes more and more effective. But I’m never gonna be able to square up and thickness twelve 4×4 leg blanks faster by hand than I can with a powered jointer and planer.

    Another technological exception might be gardening; I’d rather use my back and hands than roto-tillers and pesticides.

    Outside of woodworking and gardening, I tend to favor technology more. That’s probably because many of those pusuits lack physicality. Yea, I draw by hand – but finish with Sketchup. I actually CAN use a pencil and paper, but prefer my ‘puter for writing and math. If technology offers a tool that really works, I’ll take all the help I can get.

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  10. paul6000000 says:

    My woodworking education came from 70s era Time/Life home improvement books and the most liberating realization I’ve gained from Roy and Chris is that power tools are only an option -not a REQUIREMENT. When finally let go of all my dad’s crappy old power tools, it was like busting up a log jam in the tiny basement space I have available.

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  11. Woodworking is a hobby for me, so its all about the most enjoyable rout from point A to point B. Folks should spend more time making it enjoyable for themselves, and less time worrying about how someone else does it!

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  12. Ron Greenman says:

    I don’t even care about what tool you use, I use, anyone uses to get the job done. Just the right tool at the right time. I used o write tool reviews for Fine Homebuilding on occasion and one had a tool but was ostentatiously about the topic of using hand tolls when that made sense and poer tools when the that made sense. But the real reason I’m responding to your comments is the sub-text theme in your post of leading a thoughtful life, or not going about your business because it is the most convenient, or popular, or most accepted. That you have answers for the questions (questions selected by you to be sure so one would presume you would have an answer) shows consideration for the questions. Where I might shrug nonsensical questions questions like these off with an explicative deleted you have the answers to the common questions, probably many to the least common, are probably considering those you haven’t as yet answered to your own satisfaction, and are prepared for the ones not yet posed. Kudos.

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  13. Ron Greenman says:

    Two days subscribed and four postings all worth reading. Well worth the price of admission, even though it’s a little steep since it isn’t covered by mere money.

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  14. fitz says:

    I absolutely prefer to do the grunt work by machine (though I did lose a couple pounds in the last two days, during which I had to surface a wide workpiece by hand and do a lot of other hand work…so I may change my mind solely for the reason of fitting more comfortably into my jeans…)

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  15. jborgschulte says:

    Exudes relevance: http://tinyurl.com/asnbha8

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  16. I agree with Megan’s comment about the physical benefits of hand tools. Working with hand tools doesn’t only provide good mental challenges and an understanding of the subtle quality of the craft, it also provides an excellent workout program! To get the most out of woodworking maybe we should all be pulling out that jack plane from time to time. Mind, body, and art. With machines, you only get 2 of 3.

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  17. Lin Niqiu says:

    It seems that the simplest way of explaining such inanely based question is that they reveal so ignorant many of our citizens are. The first one about the Lie Nielsen foundry can only come from those who have no understanding of what machines tools are, and the second is due to how weighted and misconstrued the definition of anarchy is.

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    • paul6000000 says:

      As usual, the simplest explanation is the best.

      I work in animation and the most common comment I’d get from people, from about 1995 and on, was “So I guess it’s all done by computers now. That must make your life a lot easier.” They imagined that once you loaded the locations and characters into the computer, the machine would be able to “work everything out” somehow.

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  18. bloksav says:

    I am one of the people who normally start every project with a tree. But When I cut down the tree and mill it, I don’t always have a definite project or goal for it. Drying the boards normally take about 2-3 years and I am not that good at planning ahead.
    I don’t do it because I am a purist. I do it because I like it and have got the time and space for doing it like that.

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  19. nathand496 says:

    Hold on; you glossed over something important, Chris.

    You did an Eames piece? Is there an article? Photos?

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  20. Niels Cosman says:

    My next project is to craft my next credit card from scratch. I would have done this years sooner except I’ve been having trouble finding local source of crude oil up here in the north east.
    ps. wow.

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  21. Hydraulic presses are used to press most of the things like wood, metal, and other materials. Plywood sheets can be efficiently made by pressing and molding the wood.
    http://www.precisehydraulic.com/hydraulic-press.htm

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  22. npcarey says:

    Very well put Chris! Do you suppose those who ask such ‘strange’ questions really get the whole Anarchist thing? I’m not so sure. I loved the book BTW.

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  23. scribe6 says:

    “Nothing is as peevish and pedantic as men’s judgements of one another.” – Desiderius Erasmus

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  24. nwtoolworks says:

    I make hand tools, and use machines for much of the work. The fine details are accomplished by hand. About a 60/40 ratio. I see no problem with this. It in fact allows me to focus more on the small details. Hand tools can certainly be made entirely without power tools, but the price would reflect the effort involved. Aesthetically, I would prefer to work in this way, but aesthetics do not always rule.
    Hand work is both highly valued and greatly under valued in modern society. A compromise is appropriate, even when building replicas from centuries past. An exception may be made for archeology, where the process of making a tool may be just as important as the finished tool, or a replica made as closely to the original is desired.

    As for the nit pickers, I think that is a hobby in it’s own right.

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