Old ways of working wood

  • Advertise with us
Blog entry by Stevinmarin posted 11-04-2010 06:37 AM 2524 reads 0 times favorited 18 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’d like to recommend a fascinating book I picked up at the library last week: Old Ways of Working Wood, by Alex W. Bealer. The author clearly states his position on modern woodworking in the opening chapter:

”The machine, not the craftsman, dominates woodworking today. The result has been an artistic tragedy.”

Those are some pretty strong statements. Are we, as power tool enthusiasts fooling ourselves into believing that we are actually creative, let alone artistic? Are we merely button pushers and no longer craftsmen? Sadly, as a confirmed power tool user, I agree with Bealer — to a point.

Continue article...

-- Entertainment for mere mortal woodworkers.

18 comments so far

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18580 posts in 4072 days

#1 posted 11-04-2010 09:38 AM

One reason there were fewer with hobbies prior to WWII is it took 12 hours a day to make enough to survive in the agrarian society. A good many people live on subsistence farms with very little cash.

I don’t know if I would agree that artistry went out with the push button power machine, but skill levels are certainly lower; ie, ever rip with a hand saw ;-((

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Jamie Speirs's profile

Jamie Speirs

4168 posts in 3252 days

#2 posted 11-04-2010 01:03 PM

I’ve done a lot of restoration work and good quality is not always evident in older pieces.
I think that older pieces that have survived are perhaps the exceptions.
Making items without machines…........
We would still be grilling dinosaur on the outdoor pit.
Yes, my Faither did not believe in power tools.
I was in my final year of my apprenticeship when he bought an electric drill. :)

A mixture of hand and machine and microwaved dinosaur.

-- Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own. --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

View rance's profile


4271 posts in 3556 days

#3 posted 11-04-2010 02:11 PM

I can see that it may have affected artistry. But a tragedy? I think not. On the other hand, power tools have allowed some to express their artistic thoughts whereas they otherwise would not (or could not) have done it with h.. ha.. ha.. han.., uhemm… hand tools. There, I knew I could that word out. Ideas of hand-tools vs power tools is so relative.

Alternatively, some would argue that having the availability of power tools has opened up our imagination from having to think about the grain and having to ‘be one with the wood’ to being able to focus more on the design of our creative ideas, our artistry. I’m not against doing things the old way, but do I want to bogg myself down with EVERY woodworking project I do? I think not.

Oh, and I’ll take some fries with my Brontosaurus burger. :)

-- Backer boards, stop blocks, build oversized, and never buy a hand plane--

View helluvawreck's profile


32086 posts in 3262 days

#4 posted 11-04-2010 02:26 PM

I love my hand tools but I don’t see anything wrong with using power tools as well. I would tend to say that it takes more skill to use hand tools well than it does to use power tools. An obvious example is cutting dovetails. Say you’re using a 14 degree router bit to cut your tails. One pass through the wood and you have cut a nearly perfect slot with 7 degrees on either side. Now cut it with a dovetail saw and then clean out the waste with a chisel. etc. etc. etc. You get the point. However, people should use whatever combination of hand and power tools that makes them comfortable. There are obviously many people on Lumberjocks that make beautiful things and rely mostly on power tools. I still admire their work. This is the way I feel.

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View Maveric777's profile


2694 posts in 3472 days

#5 posted 11-04-2010 02:31 PM

Good discussion and question Steve. We can sit here all day discussing everyone’s personal thoughts on what is lost and what isn’t. I kind of think that goes as a matter of taste and interpretation of the work.

I look at some of the folks we have here on Lumberjocks like Triumph1, Andy, Shipwright, Darrell Peart, Blake, (just to name a few) and find myself hard pressed to say we have lost our artis touch in wood working in this modern age. Granted the means in which we get from point A to point B is different than it was in the time of Ole, but I put quality at the same level (I may be so bold to even say possibly better)

I’ll end this with a little story a super cool older coworker told me years ago I still think of today….

My friend (who was close to 60 when he told me this) was sitting at a family reunion when his great Uncle walked into a conversation they where having about “The Good Ole Days”.... They went on and on about how things where so much better than they where today. My friend said his great uncle never said a word during the whole little discussion until he was asked if he missed the good ole days. My friends uncle sat up in his chair and returned the question with a question of his own by asking them….. “Have you ever had to take a dump at 2 am in an outhouse in Montana in the middle of January? Trust me…. These are the good ole days”… I know it is kind of off course from the discussion, but some of it is actually quite relevant…

Just my 2 cants and good discussion Steve….

-- Dan ~ Texarkana, Tx.

View Don Butler's profile

Don Butler

1092 posts in 3791 days

#6 posted 11-04-2010 02:54 PM

An Artist (please note the intentional use of the upper case A) will always find the artistic way of expression, regardless of the tools he/she uses.
I, personally, find no extra value in crosscutting, ripping and planing with hand tools.
Even when working with my “Push button” CarveWright, I am the one whose artistic design is carved out. I don’t buy and use the designs of others, although I may find good use for a design element or two in my own designs.
I don’t want to fell my own trees in the forest with a hand axe.
I don’t want to cut it into boards with a pitsaw.
I’m happy to be able to use modern tools so I can get on with the business of expressing my Art.
I’m especially happy to be using modern tools when I have to build something I wouldn’t call Art, like a kitchen cabinet.

Don “Electron Burner” Butler

-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

View hairy's profile


2853 posts in 3928 days

#7 posted 11-04-2010 03:14 PM

I am definitely on the fence in this. I enjoy using hand tools for certain tasks. Those old timers were using the best available technology at the time.

I saw an item someone made, I wish I could remember where. Raw wood (think firewood) was fed into a machine, and furniture came out the other end. Until that happens, all tools require skill.

-- My reality check bounced...

View a1Jim's profile


117627 posts in 3973 days

#8 posted 11-04-2010 03:29 PM

Interesting ,Thanks for the book info steve

View docholladay's profile


1287 posts in 3455 days

#9 posted 11-04-2010 03:44 PM

I have been a fan of Norm Abrams for years. One of the reasons is that Norm did a great deal to take the mystery out of building furniture. His shows brought a lot of people into the woodworking hobby by showing them that working with wood is not exactly brain surgery. However, I would not consider Norm to be an “artist.” Mostly, norm simply copied other designs. He is a craftsman and his work (at least on TV) appears to be high quality. Also, if you look at the older shows compared to the later shows, he progressed tremendously over the years. Still, in my mind, I would not consider him an “artist.” For my own work, I don’t think of myself as an artist. I mostly build items either, a) I liked the way something looked and wanted to build it (copied) or b) I had a need and built something to solve a problem (tools, tool storage – look at my projects). However, I don’t think that I have ever really done anything that would considered to be truly “creative” or “artiistic.” However, some of the items have been built with some nice degree of “crafstmanship.” As for power vs. hand tools. If you go back to the days of the Shakers, they used power tools. They invented the basic concepts of many of the power tools that we use today such as the table saw. However, their tools might not have been powered by electricity. They could have been powered by water via a water wheel or by steam and a steam engine using a series of belts. I am certain most people would consider the Shaker furniture tradition to be of lasting, classic value and that much of it was built with great craftsmanship, artistry and quality. I heard it said that it is not the tools, but the artist that makes art. In translation, an artist will find a way for the art to come out and be expressed, through whatever medium they may choose. Me, I’m more like an engineer where I look for the most efficient and practical way to get something done. My wife, is more artistic in that she will conceive of a way to express something, but isn’t so concerned about the how to do it part or even the practicality of actually doing it, or even if it will work or not. She comes up with some great ideas that I then have to try and figure out a way to actually do it. It gets fun sometimes.


-- Hey, woodworking ain't brain surgery. Just do something and keep trying till you get it. Doc

View Bovine's profile


114 posts in 3724 days

#10 posted 11-04-2010 05:08 PM

I’m of a similar mind as docholladay. There are really two aspects to woodworking: Artistic and Craftsmanship. Artistic is the design and “how it looks” while Craftsmanship is the actual mechanics of functionality and building it. Yes there is quite a bit of overlap.

I have a very hard time believing that power tools have affected the Artistic component of woodworking in a negative way. Art comes from within and whether the medium to express that art is hand tools, power tools, song, dance, or paint; it’s still art and still has the power to move us. So from this perspective, Hand vs. Power tools is merely a choice in how the artist wants to express him/her self.

In my opinion, Crafstmanship is where the discussion gets interesting. I think all will agree that both power and hand tools require a certain level of skill to make something that looks nice. I would argue that hand tools require more skill to get similar results as power tools. Because hand tools require more skill, that also means it requires more of a commitment to the process than power tools—it takes more of your time to learn the skill.

So there you have it. I feel power tools have allowed more Artists to express themselves with wood without requiring the years of investment in developing a skill with hand tools. Notice that I didn’t say that craftsmanship is any less with power tools—if you’re not good with hand tools, the craftsmanship can be much better.

-- Kansas City, KS "Nothing is as permanent as a temporary solution"

View Bluepine38's profile


3380 posts in 3481 days

#11 posted 11-04-2010 06:43 PM

Steve, Roy Underhill (THE WOODWRIGHT’S SHOP) uses only hand tools for most of his work because he
enjoys it, and he sharing that with us. Artistic and artisans are often misused works by many. Craftmanship
and workmanship I think better express what most of strive for first, followed by utility, then as we gain
experience some of get what others start out with, making something beautiful to the beholder. Concerning
taste there can be no dispute (De gustibus non disputandem est) and I think that is what we are getting
into here. Let us each enjoy our own tastes, share what friends share, and let the differences be.

As ever,Gus the 71 yr old laborer, trying to become a carpenters apprentice.

-- As ever, Gus-the 80 yr young apprentice carpenter

View David Craig's profile

David Craig

2137 posts in 3504 days

#12 posted 11-04-2010 09:15 PM

Interesting topic Steve. I would like to know where one can get those great machines that do it all for you though, mine don’t seem to have that feature ;)

Sounds like an interesting read and one that I would add to my book list. There is a place for both power and hand tools in the modern world and I think neither makes or breaks a craftsman. As one that made his start with all power tools, I find myself gravitating toward hand tools, not because I want to feel like a craftsman, but because they are sometimes more efficient than a power tool. And I realized my intimidation of them were only hurting myself as a woodworker.

Sometimes boards are really to slim or short to be safely handled by the jointer/planer and while it is true that one can create work arounds, is that really more efficient or speedy than just grabbing a hand plane to take care of it? Machine marks on the edges of boards can take awhile to sand off, even with a power sander. A few quick swipes of a good block plane and the edge is clean and doesn’t even require sanding. If I need to trim off a quarter inch, no problem with a tablesaw. .003 inches, however, is a whole different story. I have used a handsaw to cut a board real quick without sacrificing time. Would I want to mill 300 board feet of lumber by hand? Not on your life. But, if I experienced a little tear out or some unsightly marks, would I want to spend all day building a jig to fix it or spend half an hour sanding it away? No to that as well.

Thanks for bringing this up Steve.


-- There is little that is simple when it comes to making a simple box.

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18580 posts in 4072 days

#13 posted 11-05-2010 05:07 AM

IMO, something like Carve Wright is cheating in the eyes of a hand carver. But with that said, it is merely a different art making the designs or programming CNC programs. One thing we know for sure, if CNC stone carvers had been avialble in ancient Rome, they would have been used :-))

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Bob Kollman's profile

Bob Kollman

1798 posts in 3587 days

#14 posted 11-05-2010 06:50 AM

Purist are an artistic tragedy, to say hand made is better than machine made is the statement of a closed minded
rigid thinking personality. A great carving can be made by hand or by a machine. It is the person behind the chisel or machine that makes the carving great. The attention to detail, the design elements, and the understanding of the medium in which you work have more to do with the person, then the way to accomplish the goal. As I see it, machines level the playing field so that more people can express their creativity, it would be a more accurate statement to say that: An elitist mind set, bent on limiting the freedom of others would have you think that machines dominate woodworking as opposed to craftsman mastering the machines and techniques of their craft.

-- Bob Kenosha Wi.

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18580 posts in 4072 days

#15 posted 11-05-2010 07:39 AM

That is true unless one takes a pattern or picture, feeds it into a scanner and the carving pops out the other end. There is nothing artistist or original, simply a mechanical process. The same would be true for mass production vs. hand carved.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

showing 1 through 15 of 18 comments

Have your say...

You must be signed in to post the comments.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics