There are three basic types of woodworkers: hobbyists, part-timers, and professionals. Each has his or her own needs, and different levels of investment in the craft and quality tools are justified. Do you work at making things by hand out of respect for the craft? Or do you use power tools to speed up your production? Maybe you’re somewhere in between on this spectrum? Understanding what type of woodworker you are will help you figure out how best to shop for your handmade tools as well as your power tools.
Hand Tools Can Create Special Effects
Hand tools can create effects that power tools cannot. I’m not suggesting that you never use a power tool, but there are some things it is best to do with hand tools and some things that only a powered machine can do. So rather than avoiding power tools, embrace them to their greatest extent and know when they should be used and why. They can really open up new worlds for you in your woodworking craft, making possible projects that otherwise would be cost-prohibitive or labor-intensive.
Power Tools Give You Flexibility
Using hand tools can be a boon to your creativity and help you craft a handmade product, but it also limits you. A table saw or jointer takes care of a lot of work that must be done with hand tools in its own way, which is then easier and faster than doing it by hand. Using power tools means you’re not limited by how many hours your arms can hold up – or how steady they are in their old age. It also means you’re not limited to making items only within reach. If you use hand tools exclusively, working on any project will require setup and disassembly time with every cut. Consider what kind of flexibility your woodworking style needs if you’re trying to figure out whether power tools should be part of your process as well.
Hand Tools Have Their Place
Hand tools are more intimate with wood than power tools can ever be. Handtools also allow you to make a handmade product that is expensive to replicate by machine. Hand-tool work requires more time, but it delivers results that no power tool can match. Plus, hand tools typically do not produce waste during construction like electric saws and drills do.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
If you want to get through a large job in a short amount of time, you’ll want a mix of both power and hand tools. If you enjoy making things with your hands, use power tools. It’s that simple. There are many wonderful machines out there to help us speed up our work and make beautiful projects quickly and efficiently. However, I have seen way too many woodworkers spend all their money on power tools but do not know how to use them properly or effectively. A better way is to start small: buy one or two hand tools first and see if that takes care of your needs before jumping right into power tools.
Sometimes Neither Approach Works Well
I’m going to be very honest here: I’ve learned over time that neither approach is always appropriate. Just because a woodworker uses hand tools doesn’t mean they’re any better, or holy; and just because they use power tools doesn’t mean they’re worse, or unholy. It just depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, and what your objectives are as a woodworker. Do you want to make a hobby out of it, or are you doing it for business? If it’s purely a hobby, then sure, use whatever tools make you happy.
Let the Materials Decide
The purpose of woodworking is to create objects that are useful or beautiful. If you’re serious about learning how to use hand tools, learn them well. Just don’t assume that you have to use only hand tools. If your work will be decorative or not structurally sound (for example, a cutting board or jewelry box), there’s no reason why power tools can’t be used as well. It depends on what you want out of your woodworking and your budget.
“Manufacture of Risk” and the “Manufacture of Certainty”
That’s a phrase from Hand Tools vs. Power Tools, an essay by George Nakashima, a renowned 20th-century woodworker and designer of his namesake furniture company. In it, he argued that real woodworking is about manufacture of risk rather than manufacture of certainty. He meant that when you design a piece of furniture with power tools or factory machines, you are almost guaranteed that it will be identical to what you have in mind, but you have manufactured certainty. On the other hand, when you design by hand—whether using hand tools or powered ones—the final result will probably be different from what you envisioned, but at least there is a chance that it might also be better.
The big misconception today is that everyone thinks they can get perfect results every time, says Bruce Hoadley, author of The Perfect Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Sharpening for Woodworkers (Taunton Press). But anyone who has worked with any sort of machine knows that no matter how much you try to get everything exactly right, something always goes wrong. A handmade object isn’t perfect; it’s just not as far off as one made on a machine.
If you’re doing it for a living, go with power tools. They are faster and make it easier to crank out product while maintaining consistency. This is especially important when working on larger projects. If your aim is a hobby or pastime, or if you’re relatively new to woodworking, choose hand tools. With them, you will have more control over each tool and overall project, which will mean a better finished product. Additionally, hand tools force you to get intimate with your work—you can’t rip through them without getting just as sweaty and dirty as a guy in an engine shop would be. There’s something really liberating about that type of hands-on experience!