The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Do clothes make the man?

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If you’ve ever played team sports, or have been in the armed forces, you may remember the brief but strange period when you first begin when nobody has gotten a uniform yet. For those first few days, especially in the military, you don’t really feel like a soldier, but a group of guys in sweat pants, sort of pretending… Then comes that magical day when you get issued your uniforms and suddenly it’s no longer a mob, but an army working in unison, or at least that’s the theory.

When it comes to woodworking, there is no official uniform, but there does seem to be a transition from “pretend to serious” and for me that transition started when I obtained my first high-quality woodworking tools. For whatever reason, when I got my first good table saw, my first hand plane, and my first set of woodworking chisels, and I began to use them, there was a shift in the way I approached the hobby of woodworking. I’m not saying that you cannot woodwork without “real tools”, my first few projects were done at first without a table saw, and then with a portable tabletop version, and a set of three Craftsman butt chisels. As my desire to woodwork grew, so too did my desire to work with higher quality tools. And when I got those tools and began to use them they made me want to improve. In short, they inspired me.

In a (very friendly) exchange I had with a commenter, I made the assertion that high quality tools make me a better woodworker. As I said in other posts, there may be many woodworkers who can go to your typical home center (of course there is a group of woodworkers out there that advocate only high end tools, and I’ve had my run-ins with them several times) and purchase a set of jobsite butt chisels, a basic handsaw, and a circular saw and make some very nice furniture, but I’m not one of those guys. How do I know? Because when I walk into a Lowes, I don’t get inspired to create, but when I attend a tool show like I did last weekend, seeing all of those world class tools made me want to make world class furniture. And that desire didn’t stem from wanting to own all of those tools, not in the least. It came from seeing high level craftsmanship.

As a former musician, I can remember like it was yesterday purchasing my first good quality guitar. Anybody who has ever played music whether as a hobby or a profession will tell you that there is a world of difference between playing a good instrument and a cheap instrument. A cheap instrument can easily hold you back, when a good instrument can easily propel you forward and make your playing improve dramatically. Why then should it be any different with woodworking tools? As I’ve mentioned many times before, when it comes to woodworking tools, there is a group of woodworkers (growing larger every day it seems) which feels that buying a high quality plane, or chisel, or what have you, is somehow cheating, or doing some sort of disservice to woodworking as an entity. Why? If making furniture with the most inexpensive tools you can find is your thing then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that in the least. But if you are like me, and when you see a well-crafted, well-tuned, and beautifully designed tool, and that tool inspires you to improve, and create, and enjoy the hobby, what in the world can be wrong with that scenario?

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20 Comments

  1. Spot on! So much more effort to get sound from old strings, worn frets, plywood soundboards. I love the resonance that sustains when I finish playing a piece, particularly with the guitar or mandolin, and the way the instrument brings the singing voice to pitch…and that Victorian-attic fragrance that comes from a vintage instrument after it’s been well-played. There’s a cello restoration on my winter list.

    • billlattpa says:

      I had an old Martin guitar that was just about as nice as anything you will ever play. Like a fool, I sold it around 12 years ago and have regretted it ever since. At that, though it was old, the only thing it needed was a light cleaning when I got it.
      Thanks
      Bill

  2. Alex A. says:

    Could not agree more. My first chisels were a cheap set of modern Buck Brothers and my first plane was a modern Stanley #4. They worked but once I started using pre-war planes, modern replacement blades, and Narex chisels it was amazing how much easier it was to learn. Less time sharpening, less time fiddling, and more time learning.

    • billlattpa says:

      For me, having “better” tools made a world of difference. This post was not meant to be some sort of call to arms. I am only speaking for myself and my attitude towards woodworking. If getting the most out of an inexpensive tool is what makes you happy, or if restoring an old tool from the brink of death is what you enjoy, then let nothing stop you. While I’ve found that I enjoy rehabbing old tools, I’d much rather be working wood that tinkering with tools until they are able to work wood.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  3. dzj9 says:

    One needs to reach a certain level of competence before your premise might hold. It’s one of the reasons they don’t give del Gesus to beginners. But I’m not sure that the beauty of resonance and tone an old instrument possess can be compared to a WW tool.
    After all, if the blade is sharp and the sole is flat the rest depends on the craftsman.
    All too often not having the ‘perfect’ tool for the job is a handy cop out for not making anything. A phenomenon tool makers are happy to exploit.

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree. Just like I wouldn’t have dropped $2500 on a guitar until I knew how to play, I wouldn’t go out and buy a high end table saw until I knew at least the basics of woodworking joinery.
      But I do think there is a level of woodworking tool, with table saws, hand saws, and chisels being the most obvious, and planes to a lesser extent. And I would definitely include both old and new tools in the equation. My point being that a well made tool can inspire you to become better, and I mean that not in the physical sense, but psychologically.
      Thanks
      Bill

  4. Greg Merritt says:

    All old tools were once someone’s brand new treasure and inspiration. I thought the idea was to buy the best that you could afford. The old/used tool market was a way for some of us to acquire tools at a reasonable cost. Buying used tools and restoring them has become a hobby all of its own. Many of those restored tools never actually get put to work though. Just trophies. Driving up the cost in the used market and again creating a cost barrier for those trying to get started.

    Most of us are learning in a vacuum. No amount of reading or video watching will convey the feeling of a properly sharpened and tuned tool. The only way for most of us to experience that is to buy a tool that is in that state from the start. Then use that example to add used tools that need restoring.

    Wether you buy new or old is between you and your budget. It’s the woodworking that matters, at least to me.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think the idea is still to get the best you can afford and make stuff. But what am referring to is the mindset I encountered when I first began woodworking and what I am seeing now.
      When I first started, it was basically implied if you didn’t have the LN bench planes #1 thru #7 then you would never be any good. Now, it is almost the complete opposite, and if you aren’t using a 200 year old tool you paid a dollar for that took months or longer to rehab then you aren’t a “real woodworker”, and that coming from both pros and amateurs, though I won’t name names otherwise I am a “troll”.
      My point being, a good tool (old or new) can be an inspiration, and in some cases also improve your work physically (not just your mind set).
      When I went to that tool show last weekend, I was inspired to woodwork plain and simple. I’ve never walked out of a Lowes or a Sears feeling that same way.
      Thanks.
      Bill

      • Greg Merritt says:

        Trends in woodworking come and go and are typically driven by commerce or the “flavor” of the day. Power vs. hand tools, new vs. vintage tools, push vs. pull…you know what I’m talking about. I say ignore all of that and focus on the skills and the doing. Lord knows I don’t follow the current conventional line. Pine, plywood and unfamiliar designs…yet I still manage to build quality(IMHO) stuff and have a good bit of fun while doing it!

        I think it’s great that you found inspiration in the tool show and were able to bring part of that home with you by way of a couple of new tools. Every time you use them you’ll be reminded of the way you felt at the tool show and it will show in the pieces that you create.

      • billlattpa says:

        Nowadays I’ve avoid trends to the point where I won’t follow them even if I agree. 🙂 But 5 years ago I was just as confused as any new woodworker (I’m only slightly confused now). But it didn’t take long to see through the “experts” and their sales pitch. Even so, I appreciate everything I read even if it was a thinly veiled shill, otherwise I may not have ever been introduced some of the great tools, both old and new, that I am talking about.
        Thanks.
        Bill

  5. For me it’s not the tool but the hands using it that matter. The skill of the user can make up for deficiencies in the tools. Look at what the old masters made and the tools they used.

    • billlattpa says:

      In my case, that only goes so far. When I first began woodworking I had a circular saw, a set of 3 Craftsman butt chisels (1/2, 3/4, and 1 inch) a combination square, a hand saw, and an old Stanley handyman smooth plane. I made a few pieces of furniture with that stuff that have held up just fine. I’ll be completely truthful and say that I didn’t know one chisel from the other, or hand plane, or table saw, or whatever. It wasn’t until I took a woodworking class and got to use tools specifically made for woodworking that I saw the difference that a good quality tool can make both in the physical product and your mental approach.
      I’ve said before that I’m sure there are many woodworkers out there that can make anything from that very same set of tools that I started out with, and if they can do that, and it makes them happy, then God bless them. I’m just not one of those guys. Having nice tools, both old and new, makes me enjoy woodworking more, and that makes me a better woodworker.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  6. Kinderhook88 says:

    I spent a lot of time in the pool hall when I was younger. It was never good to walk through the door with your own cue. The sharks would pounce. You should be able to play well with a house cue to avoid this. Hence the expression “it’s not the stick, it’s the shot”. Having a nice cue certainly made my game better, but the ability to play well with the cue at hand was more important. Woodworking is just the same.

    • billlattpa says:

      I would never advocate using one tool over another because it really is none of my business. A woodworker should only use what he can afford and what makes him happy. I can only speak for myself, and I’ve found that supposed high quality tools have made woodworking more enjoyable for me. And that being said, I’m not necessarily saying that all of those tools necessarily need to be brand new. For instance, when I first learned to saw dovetails I was using a $7 Craftsman backsaw that I purchased at Sears hardware along with a plastic miter box. When I eventually purchased a Veritas dovetail saw (I believe it was $60) I saw my work instantly improve dramatically. Maybe it was part mental, and part tool quality. Either way, it worked. Now maybe I could have sharpened, and filed, and reset that Craftsman saw to the point that it would cut much better, but that just isn’t something that I enjoy doing, at least not with every tool I own.
      There are many woodworkers out there who enjoy taking the most inexpensive tools they can find and tuning them to work at a higher level. I see nothing wrong with that at all, and I’ve done it myself on occasion, but I’ve found that I enjoy woodworking more with supposed “higher quality” tools than I do with the basics.
      Thanks
      Bill

  7. Polly Becton says:

    Seeking our “the best tool you can afford” is a moving target.
    First thing, the “affordable” issue varies quite a lot, particularly for hobby woodworkers and even for the small one-man or two-man pro shop.
    After that, you’ve got to come to grips with defining what’s the best tool (within your price range). And boy is that a variable. Depends a lot on who you listen to or read, or maybe on your available time for rehab of an old user tool (which may be a lot of work, a lot of searching for parts, and sometimes big surprises at the prices of some parts) and even the type of work you plan to do with the tool you choose, and evaluating the variables among the candidates – new and old – to suit your needs and preferences.
    But there’s yet another issue, particularly for the less experienced among us that often gets missed: are you inspired by the beauty of a tool or are you inspired by the work of the tool.
    There are lots of examples of boutique toolmakers who offer “tools as art” that are truly beautiful. And most of them work just fine. And these are priced accordingly.
    On the other hand, a butt-ugly, inexpensive shop-made tool can equal the performance of the artwork if made with care. A case of “pretty is as pretty does” and with the added cache of “I made it myself.” That too can be rather inspiring.

    • billlattpa says:

      Yeah, affordable is definitely a very relative term, and affordable may or may not equal “good”. Unfortunately for most of us that is a live and learn process, and I’ll admit I’ve purchased a few clunkers in my time.

      For me, I am inspired by both the look and performance of the tools. At the same time, one of the first hand planes I made (of which there is a photo at the head of my blog) is hardly a looker, but it works just fine, and it does feel good in the hand.

      I’ve never used any boutique tools, so I can’t really comment on them. I have to say they look great, and I’m sure they work great as well. But most are so far out of my price range that I don’t really even bother considering them. That being said, I don’t think I would even purchase a tool just because it looks great even if I were swimming in money, not at least when I could purchase a high quality tool that does just as good a job for a quarter of the cost, and that meaning no offense to the high end makers. I like a nice looking tool as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t have to be a work of art for me to enjoy it.

      In the end it all varies from person to person. As much as I enjoy some of the high end stuff, and as much as it inspires me to woodwork, I would never be the guy to tell another woodworker to go out and buy it just because. When it comes down to it, I think that it’s something we all have to figure out for ourselves.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  8. I like pre war tools. They are well made for the most part. I have found I can build with them just as well as the new kids on the block. What I look for are tools that stayed with the same craftsman. They show the wear but no damage from being mistreated. They where well love by their owners. I miss woodworking now. I’m out of the game for another few months. But when I return I will be looking for that old pre war tool… I do enjoy your blog keep it going my friend …

    • billlattpa says:

      My favorite pre-war tool has to be my Stanley #7, which is a type 11, and a Disston crosscut saw I have, though I don’t know the model # on that. Of course my moulding planes are prewar too, and of those the moving fillister is my favorite.
      Of my new tools the LN Jack is my favorite.
      I’m glad you like the blog. Now that I’ve been woodworking again it has also been fun to blog about it. I’ll keep them coming.
      Thanks!
      Bill

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