Hand Tool Skills #1: My Journey Towards Proficiency

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Blog entry by Jeff posted 01-20-2008 08:31 PM 7614 reads 0 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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“My Journey Towards Proficiency.” That’s a lofty statement, isn’t it? Let’s just say it’s a goal I have the intention of reaching at some level, some day.

There seems to be a lot of chatter about hand tools in the world of woodworking lately and I am glad it is occurring. As most of you probably know, this can be a decidedly partisan discussion. I don’t want to get into that type of discussion because a person’s tool choice really comes down to what makes them happy and gets them from Start to Finish in the manner that suits their needs. I’m not a zealot. This is just where I’m at right now.

I recently became inspired to start this seires by Tomcat1066’s Ponderings blog (a good discussion). It reinforced my ideas about working with hand tools as an intentionally therapeutic experience that could also improve craftsmanship.

Flashback to about 2 years ago. I researched and purchased older hand tools almost as much as I researched power tools. However, when I actually started putting tool to wood, I became enamored with the immediacy, the power, the jigs you can make (which I still get excited about), and other things inherently associated with “power” tools. What woodworker new to the craft wouldn’t? My 30-something generation typically doesn’t have access to muscle cars to fiddle with (I have long since parted with my 1966 GTO; one of the more foolish things I’ve done in my life.) I couldn’t care less about a “hot rod” gaming system. You can have them. What’s left? There is not much for us to put our hands on that allows us to tinker, refine, modify and just generally “make our own” that also has a power or speed factor associated with it. Except for our tools and the castles in which we do said tinkering that is.

Fortunately for me, I think I’m coming full-circle on my need for speed and power. It’s more about finesse. I want to truly get to the point of being able to accomplish complex projects without needing power tools. The ultimate goal though is to combine the two schools of thought and make smart decisions on tool usage. For now, the focus is on building the basic hand skills needed to effectively use both skill sets. My ‘tinkering’ is going to be tuning my tools. My ‘refining’ is going to be about sharpening (with and without jigs) as well as developing the muscle control and muscle memory to use the hand tools with a beneficial outcome. As far as making it my own, I will be able to take the skills wherever my tool bag and I go. You can’t beat that!

At a philosophical level, my own selfish hope is that hand tools continue to make inroads back into the everyday woodworker’s tool chests and strategies for solving woodworking problems. I feel the craft as a whole would benefit. After all, we have the perfect place – – to share the information.

Selfishness and personal opinion aside, I think our own Thos. Angle sums it up nicely when he says, “The worm forgives the plow and doesn’t care what pulls it. The wood doesn’t care how it was shaped, only the quality counts.”

Next: Milling stock for a simple box design by Gary Rogowski

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

9 comments so far

View gizmodyne's profile


1785 posts in 5302 days

#1 posted 01-20-2008 08:49 PM

Great post. I know the box!

-- -John "Do I have to keep typing a smiley? Just assume it's a joke."

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 5512 days

#2 posted 01-20-2008 10:07 PM

An interesting subject Jeff

I still enjoy handtools, like hand saws, you don’t have to wait for a battery to charge, or a place to plug it in.

For woodcarving, I haven’t found any kind of power carver that I’d be satisfied with.

Lately I’ve been sanding things by hand, with less dust flying around, no noise, & vibration.

Besides, hand sanding does a better job.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View Douglas Bordner's profile

Douglas Bordner

4074 posts in 5276 days

#3 posted 01-20-2008 10:34 PM

Excellent start, Jeff. Somehow I missed Tom’s poetic quote in the on-rushing information boom that is Lumberjocks today. I think the hybridized approach to shaping and jointing wood is indeed the thing to do. It is decidedly beneficial to learn to read the wood and have hand tool skills, as it will improve your work with the power jointer, planer and saw as well. I’ll be subscribing to your ongoing series here, and looking forward to the next chapters.

-- "Bordnerizing" perfectly good lumber for over two decades.

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 5174 days

#4 posted 01-20-2008 11:58 PM

I have to continue with my thoughts, although I doubt they are poetic.. I don’t see the choice of tools as “either or” but rather “what I have and what will work. I grew up on a farm and plowed from the time I was big enough to drive a tractor(about 8). However I never really understood how a plow works until we gave up tractors and farmed with horses for 9 years. I learned how a plow sounds and how to tune it to make it pull it’s easiest. I came to actually understand the plow and how it operates instead of just adding more horsepower and dropping a gear. Because of this experience, when I did go back to tractors, I was able to set the plow up so that it used less fuel and did a better job of plowing. By taking a step backwards I was able to move into the future much better.

I feel the same holds true of woodworking. After you work wood with hand tools, you will have a better understanding of how to get the best from your power tools and the wood you work with.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View ToddE's profile


143 posts in 5147 days

#5 posted 01-21-2008 06:19 AM

Hey Jeff, Great article!

I have to be honest with you, after years of building, siding, roofing and finish interior woodworking, I figured
that I could just take normal building skills and twist them around to “start doing woodworking”. I should first say that I am in the process of leaving behind my waffle-head hammer and converting my tools over to woodworking tools. As you know, you can’t finesse a tenon like a 2×4. Anyway, my first gut instinct before I start anything new is to seek professional trade literature on the subject. I began reading (intently) every wood working, skill development article I could find to develop my knowledge of the skill. I make a habit out of learning first and buying second. I saw the writing on the wall while learning about fine wood workers and didn’t want to get into buying all those “gotta have it, certain blue metal jigs, if I was to ever make that cut!” My friend puts it this way, “Bigger, Better, Faster, MORE!”

But, as I continue to make my tool change, I felt that I had to make a decision at the onset:

Was I going to use every power tool under the sun and pound my way through it (factory style)? OR
Was I going to develop a skill that will evolve into an art?

I chose the later. As a matter of fact, I even took a 1200 mile trip to Goshen, Indiana, to visit an Amish Craftsman. I loved his cabinet work and I wanted to see his techniques first hand. What I appreciated most was that he used a hammer, a few nails, a rock, a piece of 2” x 2” shaved piece of steel welded to a pipe and a small razor blade. That’s the difference between Wal-mart and handcrafted.

My first purchase (as I attempt to revamp my tools) was a collection of card scrapers, a burnishing rod and a file. Then three Stanley hand planes and some diamond stones and water stones. My next purchase is going to be my 6 piece set of Two Cherries chisels, but now that I know how to sharpen the Stanleys, they will have to do for now. At some point you have to stop spending money on tools and actually start buying wood to build something!

I am finishing up my first real wood working project right now. I say real because I think we have all made necessary boxes, book cases, etc. I did finish wood working for years in houses, but I want to make individual pieces. I am doing a replica table for our living room set that we purchased from Broyhill Furniture, Artisan series. I say replica because I went to go buy this sofa table instead of making it, because I haven’t got the shop totally setup yet. But I found that the “made with real wood” tag that was hanging on the table must have referred to the tag itself. The more I looked, the more I felt and saw laminated particle board. That irritates me to no end. So I told my wife that I am going to make it exactly to their specs and going to use real wood. I also came to realize one very important paradigm: I will never have everything ”totally set up in the shop” and if I was going to to wait for that to happen, I would probably be too old to see a rule. So, I decided to just start building.

It was going great until I came to the table top. Suddenly, I had an 18” piece of wood that was not going to fit into a 13” planer. Actually, I was overjoyed because this forced me to break in my new Stanley smoothing plane. It was a great feeling when I clamped that 18” x 54” table top down to the assembly table and started planing. You know the feeling as you roll up your sleeves and look at that beautiful hunk of wood…Me man, you wood, me shave. I tell ya, it was the best feeling ever! And when I was done, it was like glass. I then took the lower shelf of the table (12” x 48”) and ran it through the thickness planer. I called my wife out to the shop over the pa system (she hates when I do this by the way) and asked her to tell me, by feel and sight, which one I did by hand and which one I machine planed. Needless to say she was shocked when I told her that she was wrong and the smoothest one was the one I just did with the Stanley No 4. That made it all the better.

I don’t know what the rules are for saying things about trade mags or videos on this site, but I think that I would be in error if I didn’t share this with all of you. I have learned so much from Fine Wood Working magazine online, by Tauton Press. I say online because their videos, their editors and their professionals are beyond measure. If you plan to spend $35 on any tool this year, don’t! Subscribe to this online resource and use the tools you have. You will be amazed! Best $35 bucks I have ever spent on any tool in my life. It is like you are right there with them and they are demonstrating invaluable techniques that you would literally pay hundreds of dollars to get from the schools.

So Jeff, I agree…take the time, use the hand tools and develop an art instead of hurrying through another piece of furniture. Believe me, I am not saying dump the machines, I just agree with you that you can’t leave the traditional techniques behind and expect to have the same out come as the artisans. I live in a small town and people tell me that there is no market here for “real” furniture. They are right. You have to be willing to travel and sell your product, or pay to have a well viewed website. So if you plan on driving to sell a table…first plan on driving to find a skilled artisan that you can learn from. I camp a lot in the summer and I always try and find someone in that area to hang out with and learn from. I was in Homedepot (ugg) last night getting a frig and I was talking with a guy just standing there. I found out that he loved wood working, played bass guitar and had the same job I have. How cool is that?

I can’t say how important reading and sharing knowledge can be. That’s why I was thrilled to see this site develop. It is also one of those great resources out there that we should be supporting and telling our friends about. I hang on here for hours, looking at peoples’ shop pics, their projects and reading blogs. Just ask my wife…she tells me to put the lap top down all the time. I could probably get more done if I would. Thanks Jeff for your pics and your writings. Most of all thanks Lumber Jocks for this site!!!


-- Allegheny Woodshop

View rikkor's profile


11295 posts in 5087 days

#6 posted 01-21-2008 11:20 AM

Lots of sage advice and commentary here. One must do what (s)he finds self-satisfaction in. I am happy using a blend of power and hand tools.

View Jeff's profile


1010 posts in 5306 days

#7 posted 01-21-2008 04:49 PM

Thanks for reading along. I hope it doesn’t get too dull because this might be less than exciting in terms of tasks but I’m gonna give it a go.

Dick, I just won an auction on ebay this week for a couple of saw sets, sharpening vice, and a filing jig. I’ve been trying to research saw sharpening as well. I have a ‘50s era Disston that has not be tuned but I was surprised how clean and straight the line was I cut with it. I don’t know what ‘tuned’ is for a saw yet. Suggestions?

Tom, I appreciate your added perspective. That is a great analogy. I sometimes wish my family had stayed in farming longer than we did but then I recall the tough times in the ‘70s. I did get a work ethic out of it though.

ToddE, that is an interesting story. I’m glad to hear of someone putting aside the slap-it-together for the this-will-last-100yrs mindset. It seems we have a few similar approaches. I read a great deal too. Not only in print but on LJ, FWW, and others. I agree that the electronic subscription to FWW is one of the best tool purchases I’ve ever made. I think I put 2 pages of links in the new Favorites section the first day I started using that feature. I’m really glad they added it. You might also consider the blog(s) of Christopher Schwarz. His name has come up in a lot of chatter lately too. It’s for good reason though I think. He has a logical approach backed by research and personal experimentation so his commentary counts in my book.

You might consider blogging your experiences of ‘converting’ to a woodworker for others. I think they would be interested and it might spark some good conversation. If nothing else, I think an entry or two about your trip to the Amish craftsman sounds really interesting. A rock? Do more with what you have at your disposal is the lesson I’m sure.

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 5373 days

#8 posted 01-21-2008 05:08 PM

interesting comparison to the GTO. And a really good point—what do you our young men have to fill that … that… “need for ..” ???

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View Jeff's profile


1010 posts in 5306 days

#9 posted 01-21-2008 05:45 PM

Hi, Debbie. I’m glad you understand. It was a realization I made with friends of mine some years back. I don’t want to seem trite but I really don’t know of much, of substance, that Gen-Xers have to hold on to. Not that hot rods are something to boast about since they guzzle gas and tend to invite risky behavior. At least the average garage mechanic could figure them out if he really wanted. It doesn’t even have to be a hot rod. Just something to tinker with and be proud of later. I should be happy though. I might not have ever taken up woodworking…

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

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