The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Are hand tools holding me back?


Like many new woodworkers who started within the past ten years, I began woodworking using hand tools. My choice of implements had a lot less to do with tradition and a lot more to do with practicality. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy the tradition of hand tools and what it stands for, but as many of you heard me say many times before, my garage is just far too small to house a power tool woodworking shop.

Of course I have a table saw and a router, and with a few jigs you can make a lot of things out of wood with just those two tools. But because I don’t really care for routers all that much, the table saw is the only power tool that I use on a regular basis while woodworking. To me, a power-tool-centric woodworking shop needs to have the aforementioned router and table saw, as well as a jointer table, and oscillating sanding station of some type, and most importantly: a band saw. Of course there are other tools I could mention, but those to me are among the most important.

As I said before, I barely have enough room in my garage for what I have now, let alone two or three more stand alone machines; so hand tools are what I work with. Of course I like working with hand tools, and I have my favorites, one of those being the moving fillister plane. Of all the hand planes out there, and there are a plethora of them, the moving fillister for some reason to me looks the most like a woodworking tool (the coffin smoother is a close second). However, my favorite plane also caused me to rethink a few things, and it prompted me to write this post.

My favorite plane

My favorite plane

Today was a rare day for me, as I actually had a few hours to myself this morning to use at my leisure, so I decided to get in a little woodworking. Because I am not starting a new furniture project, I planned on finally finishing my infamous little chisel rack, as well as doing what most hand tool users do during downtime and perform a little PM on a my fillister plane.

Since I’ve had this plane I spent a lot of time with it. The plane has been disassembled, cleaned, flattened, and tuned many times. For its age it is in fantastic shape except in the most important place, the iron. When I received the plane the iron was looking pretty rough, as in whomever owned the plane before me didn’t know a thing about sharpening. And though I managed to get an edge on the iron, I couldn’t get it to hold one. So I did something that I do not like doing and used a power grinder to reshape the bevel.

A clean flllister

A clean fillister

I took my time, reground the bevel, and then went to the sharpening stones to finish the job. Once I got an edge that looked satisfactory, I did a few test fillisters, cleaned and waxed the plane, and called it finished. The iron held up okay, though I will need to hone it again before I put it to use. All in all it took me around an hour, which does not include flattening my water stones after I used them. After that was over I turned my attention to the chisel rack I had made a few weeks ago. The only thing needed to be done on that front was attaching the cleats, coating the rack with linseed oil, and installing it over the bench. I can’t say that rack represents my best work, but it puts my chisels and other hand tools right at eye-level and arms reach where I want them to be.

tool rack installed.

tool rack installed.

Once the rack was installed I got the garage cleaned up, reality set in, and I had places to go and things to do. I spent a shade over two hours woodworking, if what I did today can be considered woodworking. It occurred to me that more than half of the time I spent woodworking was tool maintenance. By its very nature hand tool work requires maintenance of tools, and that can be a real problem for someone like me considering that my current situation will allow me only a few hours per week to spend on woodworking. In other words, days like today will be the norm around here for the foreseeable future. Had I my theoretical small power tool shop in place I could have easily started a new project and made a decent amount of progress in just a few hours. Hand tools are unforgiving in that aspect, because they take time to properly maintain. So I’m wondering if a woodworker like myself, with a very limited timeframe to woodwork, would be better served by switching to power tools? I know that is easier said than done, as I’ve mentioned many times, my garage layout is not power tool friendly.

On the other hand, what else am I doing? At this pace I won’t be building any real furniture any time soon. Maybe a good idea would be to figure out a way to incorporate some power tools into my garage. The bottom line is that I want to make furniture, I miss making furniture, and what I’m doing now isn’t working. And if what I’m doing isn’t working, it’s getting near past the time to try something else.



  1. orepass says:

    Always an interesting subject to contemplate. I’ve mostly performed hand work over the past few years. I prefer the pace, the silence and the opportunity to let my mind wander. My children and wife often sit with me and I enjoy their company. With power tools that never happened, they bolted for the nearest exit. I only use two power tools now, table saw and 13″ planer. I flatten one side of a board by hand and use the plane to finish the other.They allow me to speed up some of the hand operations that take the most time. Also they allow me to use more lumber types and better quality lumber.All of the joinery I do by hand, it’s the part that I enjoy most. These choices seem to work well in my world and allow me to complete several projects a year in reasonable time, enjoy my families company ( one of the most important choices for me) and enjoy the challenges of hand tools. I also finish only with hand planes and a little hand sanding. I can’t stand the noise, dust and vibration of sanders. As you have pointed out in other blogs each choice has advantages and disadvantages and those choices are totally individual. It’s fun observing how everyone else works and I enjoy learning from their choices.

    • billlattpa says:

      My biggest issue with power tools, other than the space they take up, is the mess. Hand tools also make a mess, but it’s a different kind of mess. I love my table saw, and I think it is one of the most versatile power tools ever made, but I try to use it only when completely necessary because I hate the fact that it throws dust all over the place.

      At the same time, I’ve found myself running out of time lately almost every time I woodwork. It seems that I am just getting started when I have to stop. It’s a frustrating way to work at times.

      I am pretty good at sharpening and general tool maintenance, but certain aspects of hand tool woodworking are by nature slower than other methods. With my time so short lately it hasn’t been all that fun. But I’m trying.

  2. Greg Merritt says:

    I can be of no help as to the power tools. I use hand tools for everything out necessity as well as preference. It sounds like you are well on your way to having your shop setup and running though. I estimate that I spend less than twenty minutes a week on tool maintenance/sharpening. It wasn’t always that way though. Much more time was spent on the initial setup and tuning. Once that was done the maintenance time fell well off. Mostly all I do is sharpen and wipe everything down with an oily rag.

    Developing a flow is important when time in the shop is limited. Little things make a big difference. Your tool rack is a good example. Tools in easy reach and at the ready. Once you get the flow down, it becomes second nature. I’ll bet I could find every tool in my shop blindfolded. Sounds silly, but it makes my time in the shop much more productive. Simply grab the tool that I need. No hunting or digging, just reach out and pick it up.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’m pretty good at sharpening, and I generally have little trouble with getting an edge on chisels and irons. I’m getting better with saws, but I still can’t find that “flow”. It seems that something always crops up, even if that something is minor, it becomes major when time is such a factor.

      This has been the major reason for my attempts at reorganization over the past few months. I have to say that my layout has improved dramatically, and I hope that will hope with the flow. I was particularly frustrated with reaching into the tool chest every time I needed a chisel. As much as I hated building that chisel rack, I think it might help. Next step will be a wall mounted plane rack.

      Believe me, I don’t have the time, space, or money to go about switching the entire way I woodwork, but at the same time I miss making furniture. So I’m nearly at the point of desperation, and I’m open to considering other options if need be.

  3. rnatomagan says:

    I made only two furniture pieces since I started a year ago, a cheesy screw and glue step stool and a nicer dovetailed bathroom organizer. Most of my time has been shop setup and organization. I can smell the end of that though and it’s exciting, just a tool cabinet to finish.

    • billlattpa says:

      Setting up a workshop and getting it organized can be very frustrating and time consuming depending on your workspace and your free time. Unfortunately, reading books/magazines will only take you so far, as it really comes down to a trial and error process.

      Take me for example, I’ve been woodworking for 5+ years and I still haven’t settled on a workshop layout. I think I finally have it down to where I want it now, but only time will tell.

      There are some people who really enjoy the aspect of shop set-up. For me, it is more of a means to an end. Thanks

      • Randall says:

        Think I’m getting to where you are, almost organized enough to start building furniture with out the frustration of looking for the needed tool

  4. forbeskm says:

    I don’t think power tools speed much up past what you have. I use my bandsaw and surface planer the most followed by a bosch contractor saw, a benchtop drill press and a bench top rigid sander. I do find I can destroy wood much faster with the power tools :). I found most of the time I was building jigs or tables for my power tools to do what I can now with my hand tools in half the time.

    Sharpening comes in time as Greg stated, it hasn’t come to me fully yet, but my sharpening is passable on my chisels and great on my plane irons.

    • billlattpa says:

      Fortunately for me, I’m pretty decent at sharpening. I’ve worked out my system and I get consistent results most of the time. Unfortunately I rely on older tools at times, which obviously require more maintenance. At that, I like older tools for the most part, they just require a bigger investment in time.

      Currently, the only power tool I use on a regular basis is the table saw. As I was saying, the space I work in doesn’t really allow for much else in that respect. I think a bandsaw would be the biggest power tool asset I could add, as it would allow me to make cuts that I normally have to do using a coping/hand saw along with a plane and chisels, such as notches and tenons.

      I hate to make it sound like I’m in a rush, because I’m not. If I had some more time to woodwork with none of this would be an issue. I’m just trying to figure out a way to keep moving forward and build furniture in any way possible by keeping my options open.

      • forbeskm says:

        I must have misread I though you had a bandsaw. By all means build one from (i have one on my blog) or buy one! I love my bandsaw!! I prefer it to my tablesaw (less like to take a finger or hand with it), its quieter and its easier to setup.

        I use old tools as well, I bough a lie nielsen #4 then found a #4 from craigs for 20 bucks, I prefer the old stanley as its lighter. I did find them to be a lot of work to get to working order and have since procured several old planes from jim bode and from ebay that were in a bit better condition.

        If you ever are in colorado maybe you can school me on my crappy sharpening technique, for the life of me I cannot get my chisels super sharp :(.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’d like a bandsaw, and last autumn I almost purchased a used one, but it wouldn’t fit where I needed it to go, and it didn’t have a portable base, so I had to pass on it.

      I absolutely hate making jigs, and I have very few of them. Jigs are one of the main reasons I never got heavily into using power tools. Still, I’m open to any method that will allow me to woodwork and build furniture.

      As far as sharpening, I use a Diasharp along with 1000g and 8000g water stones and I sharpen free hand. Once I did that, and stopped worrying about the secondary bevel looking absolutely perfect, I’ve managed to get very sharp edges on both my chisels and plane irons. The funny thing is that I started sharpening free hand because I have a few carving chisels and I really had no other choice. But now that I’ve gone to sharpening everything free hand, it is faster and seems to produce better results.

      • forbeskm says:

        I made the fence for the bandsaw, the bandsaw, and then the box joint jig. Very nice and not as hard as they look. But table saw wise I don’t have many other jigs though I could use them if I didn’t have the handtools. And to be fair I have a festool panel saw and a domino that are very handy so I am a mix.

        Diasharp, will have to look at that. How polished are the backs of your chisels? mirror esque? I agree on the freehand, great on the plane irons and spokeshaves, i haven’t mastered the chisels.

      • billlattpa says:

        I shoot for a pretty high polish, though I’m not completely convinced that it’s necessary. On average it takes about ten minutes: coarse/fine diasharp, 1000/8000 water stone, then a charged leather strop. It actually is pretty easy. I sharpen the bevel the same way except I don’t use the coarse diasharp after the first honing. In fact, I usually hone with just the water stones and the strop. It seems to work pretty well.

      • forbeskm says:

        I just got the stuff for the strop, just need to grab some veg tan. I have 1k/4k/8k waterstones, slow speed grinder with the norton cool wheels. Must be I am going fine too soon. Plane irons I seem to have down, ten minutes sounds about right.

      • billlattpa says:

        I have a Norton “cool” wheel as well, but I rarely use it. It’s not that it’s a bad product, but I don’t power grind because I’m afraid to mess up my tools (my woodworking tools at least-I power grind other stuff all the time).

        I’m not one of those people who feels the need to do every single little thing by hand because it makes me feel better about myself, but in this instance I would love to find a hand cranked grinder, I just can’t seem to get my hands on one, but I’m looking.

      • forbeskm says:

        I wouldn’t mind a hand cranked grinder, I am glad I bought the slow speed one :). I’d burn through stuff with the regular.

        Well I made a strop today and loaded it up, ran some chisels and plane irons across it. I think I found what i may have been missing. Getting closer to damn sharp. I guess its time in.

  5. Alex A. says:

    On the flip side, hand tools allow me to work at times when noisy power tools would be a problem such as 11pm or during nap time. I live in a small city house so that may not be an issue for most people.

    The only power tools I am considering are a band saw (to speed up ripping and resawing) and a planer to speed up stock preparation. I’m planning on waiting until I am good at it by hand first.

    • billlattpa says:

      I prefer hand tools for most operations for the same reasons as you. And like you, I would love to have a band saw. I do have a surface planer, though it is actually my dad’s and not mine, but because it is in my garage I can use it whenever I need it. The funny thing is that I rarely use it.

      Right now, I’m trying to leave myself open to all options, and that includes a possible switch to power tools. While it may not happen, I at least want to consider it. In the end, I only want to make furniture, and with my time to dedicate to woodworking being limited at the moment, I’m simply trying to figure out the best methods to allow me to continue to make furniture. So I’m open for any suggestions at the moment.

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