14 June, 2014

Electricity and Muscle

You see titles of blogs and magazine articles that are some variation of "Hand tools vs. Power tools" quite often.  It should not be "versus" anything.  These titles should be "Hand tools AND Power tools."  The tools you use to produce furniture and cabinetry should suit your situation.  That's all there is to it.  Sure, I have my own opinions on the subject, which I will get to later on, but let's concentrate on the real goal.  Giving mass-produced furniture the middle finger by building your own furniture.  I've rambled on (and on) about school districts across the US eliminating shop classes, so I won't go over that again.  What I am going to do is describe some situations and then state my reasons for the tool kit you might consider having.  Ready?  Go!

The beginning woodworker.  Think of the beginning woodworker as someone who didn't have the benefit of prior training.  No Cub Scouts/Boy Scouts, no shop classes in school (either due to no shop classes or choosing not to take a shop class), Dad wasn't around or simply wasn't a DIY kind of guy.  This type of person does not have the benefit of prior training to start with.  So, where do they start?  Well, if they have decided they want to try woodworking they have, most likely, seen a TV show or helped some friends with a project.  Deck building seems to be a common entry into woodworking.  Don't knock the deck building.  There's a lot of that going on and it's usually completed in a weekend with the help of many people.  This type of project is so common that there's an unspoken kit of tools for the job.  A chop saw, a cordless drill (or two), a post hole digger (usually a powered rental) and a hammer.  There's no joinery to speak of as everything is just screwed together and the required skill level is pretty low.  Design ideas usually come from some sort of "DIY" magazine or a "Home & Garden" show on TV.  These deck projects usually have, at least, one guy like me who has some experience.  I keep my mouth shut and do my best to help things along.  I've had some strange looks showing up to these things with my own tool box filled with *gasp* hand tools.  Power tools are much better suited to this particular type of project, but with so many people involved, electrical outlets are scarce.  I can set up somewhere out of the way on my saw benches and cross cut boards with impunity.  I'm no hand saw master but I can saw more than square enough for a deck project.  Inevitably, a few people will start talking to me about the tools I'm using.  I'm happy to explain what each tool is and what it is used for.  A lot of beginning woodworkers are spawned at these deck building parties.  Decks are a common "gateway" project into other things.  The newbie will probably pick up a woodworking magazine or two, watch some DIY videos or, rarely, pick up a book about woodworking.  The common route for these people when it comes to tool purchases usually start with a power tool kit, the tools they saw being used during the deck project.  Chop saw, cordless drill, hammer, tape measure (usually one that's way too long) and maybe a speed square.  It's a good tool kit to start with as a lot of things can be built with those tools.  The downside is that it is expensive.  Not having much experience, the new woodworker will probably go to a box store and purchase the cheapest power tools.  I see two big problems with that path.  Cheap power tools aren't going to last very long (inefficiency) and the user, usually, doesn't have any training (safety issue).  So, for a beginning woodworker, I would recommend the same tool kit, but that they replace the chop saw with a hand saw.  I know that sounds strange to recommend a tool that will require MORE effort, but let me explain.  When I'm talking to people about cars, one of the things I tell them often is that they're not as complicated as they seem.  Each electronic part on an engine replaces something mechanical.  A throttle position sensor (TPS) replaces a carburetor's accelerator pump.  Crankshaft and camshaft position sensors replace a distributor, a throttle body and fuel injectors replace a carburetor.  Now remember, I'm an old SOB.  I started in my career when carburetor's still existed on cars and fuel injection was still a "new" thing.  I've trained a lot of mechanics of my age and have learned that these old guys learn better when comparing new stuff to old stuff.  It's the same with woodworking.  A chop saw replaces a cross cut saw.  A table saw (in normal use) replaces a rip saw.  Powered jointer = try plane, powered thickness planer = jack plane, random orbit sanders = smoothing plane, routers = molding planes etc, etc.  A new woodworker with a chop saw assumes that when they set the saw to to 90 degree stop that their cuts will be square.  Well, you all know what happens when we assume.  It makes an ASS out off U and ME.  So, we've covered exposure to woodworking, exposure to tools and the desire to dive deeper into the craft.  What's next?

A kit of hand tools.  That's what I recommend.  As with car parts, modern power tools are nothing more than replacements for traditional hand tools.  And in order to understand your power tools, you need to understand the hand tools they replace.  A new woodworker isn't going to know what a quality hand tool is.  I certainly didn't.  And here's a wake-up call.  You won't find many good hand tools in the box stores or hardware stores.  There are some good tools, but not as many as there was 50 years ago.  Here's what I recommend, and these can be had from a box store.  Time to use the list function (I'm part German and love organized lists)

  • Hand saw.  Get a 20-ish inch "sharp tooth" saw.  They will get dull and can't be resharpened, but they will be a good starting point.
  • 12' tape measure.  You don't need anything longer and you don't need the "Fat Max" either.
  • 12" combination square.  About the best you'll find in the box store is from Johnson Level.  Don't skimp on this.
  • Framing square or large "speed square".  The potential of these tools is something you'll grow into.  Again, get the best that is available. The framing square can also do duty as a straight edge.
  • A decent cordless drill.  Think Milwaukee, DeWalt or Bosch.  Don't buy the cheap stuff.
  • Brad point drill bits.  1/8th inch to 1/2 inch set will do.  Montana Brand is a good choice (if available).
  • Coping saw and spare blades.
  • Set of chisels.  3/8" to 1" is a good start.  Again, get the best available.  Irwin/Marples is common in the box stores and are of decent quality
  • Sharpening stone.  You will find a coarse/fine Norton stone in most box stores.  Not  the greatest, but it will suffice.  You will quickly learn what a sharp tool can do.  Don't purchase the "cutting oil" displayed next to the stones.  ANY oil will be fine.  Even olive oil.
  • Block plane.  I normally wouldn't recommend a block plane, but the so-called jack planes in the box stores are complete garbage.  You should be able to find a decent Stanley block plane (get the adjustable mouth version) at these stores.
  • 16oz. claw hammer.  You won't find a decent hammer at the box stores but, at least, get one with a wood handle.  If you can get on E-Bay, you'll find old, good hammers all day long.  Regardless of your source, get a wood handle.  They can be shaped to your liking.
  • Counter sink bits for screws.  At the minimum, get one for #8 screws.  
  • Nail set.  If you're using nails, you'll need a way to set the heads below the surface of the boards.
  • Awl.  This will work for marking holes or (in a pinch) scribing lines.\
  • Workmate "bench".  As hand tool benches are concerned, these are horrible.  But, you need a work surface and a Workmate style contraption will do in a pinch.
Some of these tools are the predecessors to power tools.  Some of the tools have no "modern" equivalent.  There is so much you can do with the above-mentioned tool kit that I can't begin to list it all.  Would some of the operations performed by the listed tools be easier with power tools?  You bet your ass!  So, why am I recommending these hand tools over their electrical powered equivalents?  The kit of tools I've recommended can be had for much less than a powered chop saw or router.  They're also not dependent on electricity.  If the power goes out, I'm not in a bind except where light is concerned.  They're also more portable.  You don't need a power source other than your muscles.  The cordless drill could be replaced by a brace and bits, but you'll have to scour E-Bay or flea markets to find that stuff.  The tools I've put on that list can do a lot of woodworking.  They could build a tool box to house those tools.  Most importantly, at least in my view, those hand tools will show you how wood works in a way you would never get from power tools.  Woodworking is all about exploiting its weakness to get to its strength.  This small kit of hand tools is also portable and quiet.  A great benefit for people living in apartments with no dedicated shop space.  You need to start with this tool kit before moving on to power tools.

Now, what about power tools?  Power tools, for me, eliminate the drudgery of some hand tool operations.  I have no plans to get rid of my table saw.  My table saw is used for ripping boards to width, mainly, and for a few other operations.  A small case project, for me, isn't worth firing up the table saw.  However, if I'm making a large project that requires a lot of repeat operations, the table saw will be used often.  Especially if that project is being built out of plywood.  I guess I would say that you shouldn't think of power tools as tools.  Think of them as an apprentice.  An apprentice would be doing the rudimentary tasks of sizing boards to length, width and thickness.  Still, I think you should spend time learning to size your stock with hand tools.  When you do, you will be able to appreciate what the craftsmen of old accomplished and also how easy power tools have made things.  Again, when the power goes out, how is that thickness planer going to help you?  It won't.  A jack plane will.

You should start woodworking with the basic kit and go from there.  Your interests, available time and skill development will show you which path to follow.  It doesn't matter if  you turn into a power tool woodworker or a hand tool woodworker.  Your start should be with simple hand tools.  Just continue on with your craft and build your own furniture, your own cabinets, your own spoons and bowls... Whether by electron or muscle, each thing you build is, as Christoper Schwarz writes in his book "The Anachist's Tool Chest", "Woodworkers generally labor alone, producing objects that are the result of just our tools, our minds and our hands.  And the objects that we build are a slap in the face of the chipboard crap that is forced down our throats at every turn."

Go get some tools and start building stuff!

No comments: