Cheating vs. Training Wheels vs. Efficiency?

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Forum topic by ColonelTravis posted 10-15-2017 08:26 PM 3726 views 0 times favorited 59 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1976 posts in 2666 days

10-15-2017 08:26 PM

Topic tags/keywords: dovetail training wheels cnc hand tools efficiency

Sharpening jig? Nah, you need to freehand it.
Magnetic dovetail guide? Pffft, you need to saw freehand.
Jointer plane fence? Kidding me? You need to freehand.
CNC? Cheater, please….

There are some people who look down on the above things (and more not listed). I can understand it. Because I use hand tools primarily, I have to admit that I frown on dovetails cut with a router jig. But why? There’s no logical reason for me to think this way. I consider myself a decent person, not a jerk unnecessarily to anyone. But why am I a jerk when it comes to dovetails? It’s not a trait I like about me. Dovetails turn out great with the jig – and you can get a billion of them done in no time. If I’m looking at modern furniture with dovetail drawers I cannot tell if it’s done by hand or machine. Anything modern in a store I assume it’s machined. It’s funny how sometimes hand tool people want their hand cut dovetails to look perfectly machined, while the machine people sometimes want them to look imperfectly hand cut.

I bring this up because I bought the David Barron dovetail guide. It works great. But I bought it with reluctance. It’s the only tool I’ve ever bought with such hesitation. Why? I think it was because I’ve never used a saw guide. I can cut a straight line. I could cut dovetails well enough without a guide. So why did I get the guide? I’ve known about it for a long time but never pulled the trigger because I thought it was cheating. Then after cutting many dovetails I thought – wonder if I could make this go faster. I looked at the guide again and said what the heck, let’s try it. Lo and behold, I can do them faster with the guide. Before, I’d have to, ah, fix some small things every now and then. Now they always come out great. Why the heck is this a net negative instead of a net positive?

Why is a shooting board not a crutch? If one thinks a dovetail guide is, it makes no sense that a shooting board is not. I’m not super skilled but love my shooting board. Skilled people use shooting boards. Why can’t they cut the end of a board freehand perfectly then? Many can. Well, it really comes in handy for miters. Why can’t you cut every single miter freehand perfectly? Well, look, it’s just not a crutch.

I joint and plane all my boards by hand. All. I don’t have a power planer or jointer. I don’t use a jointer fence with my Stanley #8, but after years of jointing by hand, I have never been able to use my 8 to joint an edge perfectly perpendicular to a face. Never. I won’t buy a jointer fence because I can fix it easily. But why do people think a jointer fence is a crutch? It’s just stupid. Some people (like me) either can’t joint by hand perfectly, or they don’t want to learn. Explain why a power jointer isn’t the ultimate training wheel?

Is a depth stop on a moving fillister a crutch? Is a straight edge a crutch if you need to draw a line? You can’t draw a 3 foot straight line freehand? Where does the crutch end and the efficiency begin?

Most everyone who is on the receiving end of what we make, I’ve noticed, doesn’t care how it’s made. That’s not the same as wanting to know how it’s made. I’ve been asked, “how did you do that?” And I tell them and they say – oh neat. Then move on to some other subject. I think to myself – you have no idea what amount of skill (or lack of skill) that took. They could be amazed by something that’s easy to do, or something that’s hard to do. But their interest has a stopping point. It’s usually only the maker who cares and fully understands. Again, I get that. I do the same thing with stuff I cannot make. “How did the car maker come up with the high-tech braking system? You know what? Never mind. What’s the radio sound like?”

Why do we care so much about how other wood makers do what they do? Is it because of pride? Is it because of a sense of purity (I’m doing everything the proper way but you are not)? I do not put myself above the fray. I have these thoughts myself, as I’ve said. But we’re all different. We all have different skills, different objectives about what we want to get out of our work, different ways to work. Because there are so many ways now to cut a piece of wood – lots of high tech and low tech choices – we find a way we like and then develop habits and prejudices and when someone does something in a way we had consciously turned down we think, “Ugh, you are doing it all wrong, sir.”

It’s dumb.

59 replies so far

View ChuckV's profile


3307 posts in 4299 days

#1 posted 10-15-2017 08:45 PM

You bring up many great points here. I really enjoyed reading what your wrote. And I have to agree with your conclusion that “it’s dumb.”

-- “Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are.” ― R. Waters

View ksSlim's profile


1304 posts in 3662 days

#2 posted 10-15-2017 09:00 PM

Pretty much agree with you. I do have a Tormek wet wheel system, I used to do commercial sharpening.
Run chisels and other irons across the Tormek, finish out on 8000 DMT stones followed by a 50 yr old strop.
Easy enough to “touch up” irons or chisels or knives freehand, followed by strop.
Dovetail layout, use chisel to determine smallest spacing. Use “shop made” marking tool.
Starts life as a 2×2x6 inch piece of straight grained hardwood. layout tail angles on one side, other adjacent side,
mark pin angles, saw the middle out leaving 3/8” or so on each tail and pin side. Must be made square inside.


-- Sawdust and shavings are therapeutic

View TaySC's profile


270 posts in 1105 days

#3 posted 10-15-2017 09:08 PM

I agree.

99% of the people you make things for really don’t care about the details. I’m working on a keepsake box for my mother for Christmas and she won’t care about the details of how I made it.

People in all forms of crafts and jobs get stuck in one way of doing something being the correct way. Try working for the Federal government and doing something one way for 20 years, then having a new system put into place forcing you to change your way of operating.

View Woodknack's profile


13386 posts in 3152 days

#4 posted 10-15-2017 09:44 PM

I’ve told this before but I’ll mention again that I sometimes read woodworking journals from the 19th century (they had them). And people would carry out these same arguments about what is or isn’t woodworking, or cheating, or what is craftsmanship, through letters to the editor that would take months to play out. Pretty funny actually. People would also ask questions and have to wait a month or two for the answer. Woodworking required a lot patience back then, even to argue.

-- Rick M,

View duckmilk's profile


4180 posts in 2096 days

#5 posted 10-15-2017 10:02 PM

I have a really good friend who is now 89 years old. He did woodworking for many years. Early in our friendship, I would sometimes be watching him make something and offer a suggestion of an easier way. He would glare at me and tell me that he knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. His methods were different than mine and he didn’t want my advice.
There are many ways to accomplish a given task and we can’t expect everyone to follow the same process that we would choose.

-- "Duck and Bob would be out doin some farming with funny hats on." chrisstef

View Dwain's profile


614 posts in 4631 days

#6 posted 10-15-2017 10:10 PM

You can judge the result and you can judge the process. I choose to enjoy the result and ignore the process. It helps keep the bitterness quota down in my life.

-- When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there is no end to what you CAN'T do

View duckmilk's profile


4180 posts in 2096 days

#7 posted 10-15-2017 10:37 PM

I’ll bet beer forums are all full of snobbery :-)

-- "Duck and Bob would be out doin some farming with funny hats on." chrisstef

View Combo Prof's profile

Combo Prof

4249 posts in 2049 days

#8 posted 10-15-2017 11:27 PM

There is a difference between what is made and how it is made and we should not conflate the two.

I can admire the item and its construction without knowing how it was made. I can also admire how the craftsman does his work. This does not mean I disparage one craft method over another. I myself find that I do use power tools, but prefer hand tools. Not because hand tools produce a superior product, or because of pride or a sense of purity, I simply do not like the dust, noise and vibration of power tools. I also think the science and innovation of hand tools is extraordinarily interesting. They bring me great pleasure.

But really are there such snobs who seriously insist their way is the only way and that your way is wrong. I haven’t heard from them. What motivates this epistle?

-- Don K, (Holland, Michigan)

View ksSlim's profile


1304 posts in 3662 days

#9 posted 10-15-2017 11:54 PM

Pride Ridden In Devisive Elements! PRIDE
Results not process.

-- Sawdust and shavings are therapeutic

View AllenD's profile


31 posts in 1142 days

#10 posted 10-15-2017 11:59 PM

I think most people who actually make stuff are only looking to answer the “Is such and such cheating” debate for themselves. It’s only the armchair theoretical makers that are looking to dictate the “right” way to others. What other people think doesn’t really matter if you respect yourself when you look in the mirror.

I started out with machines, one day I restored and then used a hand tool… It was enjoyable and way more effective than I had thought hand tools were. So I started using more and more hand tools, started thinking like a purist right up until I did a project using lumber I had dimensioned from Firewood. I learned an incredible amount from my firewood project, but my biggest take away is that I’d enjoy my hobby more if I just focused on being “pure” on the things I enjoyed, and let myself cheat at the things I don’t.

I do think a lot of “cheating” guilt makers feel is rooted in the fact that outsourcing certain tasks to a jig or machine can rob the maker out of developing a particular skill, or an experience. If your hand jointing a board with a fence are you robbing yourself of developing mastery over the plane? If you don’t care why not just use a machine jointer? Is the dovetail router jig going to prevent you from ever learning to lay them out or cut them by hand? Does having that ability matter if you have no handtool know how but need to finish a dresser by a deadline.

The right answer depends on the tools at hand and the goals of the person doing the making. Often when I consider setup time vs shaping time – Hand tools seem to excel at fabricating one-offs parts, and machines for batch part fabrication.

If you miss out on a project because you only use tree’s you’ve felled with an axe and none of the lumber is dry enough to work you’ve gone too far in one direction… If you didn’t enjoy a project because your effort consisted of asking a star trek replicater to make you something you’ve gone too far in the other.

-- - Allen (Marietta, GA) In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

View woodbutcherbynight's profile


6069 posts in 3181 days

#11 posted 10-16-2017 12:19 AM

Interesting post, I enjoyed it and the comments. Myself I enjoy the process of making something, followed by the look of amazement and joy in my wife or kids eyes when it is given to them. They know nothing of the trials and errors, nor do they see them. They just see another project from the magical place known as the shop.

I do think if you learn to do it by hand you have a better understanding of what it is you are doing. So when you use power tools you have that knowledge now adding the ability (if so desired) to move the process along slightly faster than Glacial Speed.


-- Live to tell the stories, they sound better that way.

View ColonelTravis's profile


1976 posts in 2666 days

#12 posted 10-16-2017 12:46 AM

What drives me nuts is I cannot explain my biases. They are not rational whatsoever. I’ve used the Veritas sharpening jig for years. I love it. I freehand chisels. I freehand the one skewed plane blade I have. But I do not freehand normal plane blades. I can’t get a consistent edge on plane blades freehanding. Well, moron, maybe if you practiced more then you could. Most likely true. But here’s the thing – I don’t want to practice more. I don’t care. I LIT-trally do not care to practice more with normal plane blades, and when I sharpen them I don’t find that it takes up much of my time using the jig. It obviously takes up more time than without a jig, but how much? Seriously, a couple minutes? All I care about is a consistent, sharp edge. How I get it doesn’t matter to me. If I find myself on a desert island with all my blades and waterstones but without out a jig I guess I’m screwed and would have to learn. Until that day, I’m using the jig.

When I bought the sharpening jig my first thought was – cool, this will help me. When I bought the Barron dovetail guide my first thought was – are you sure you really want to do this?

It makes no sense!

View MickNM's profile


8 posts in 1031 days

#13 posted 10-16-2017 12:58 AM

I agree wholeheartedly. Who am I to frown upon the methods that give you the satisfaction you look for in this or any other hobby, craft or pastime? Do it in whatever way puts a smile on your face!

View Combo Prof's profile

Combo Prof

4249 posts in 2049 days

#14 posted 10-16-2017 01:50 AM

So Colonel this is an internal struggle and you have come to us for therapy. I think you should do what makes you happy and be happy with what you do. Don’t worry what others may think and don’t second guess yourself.

As concerns the sharpening jig versus the dovetail guide, I suspect you found the sharpening jig necessary to get a keen edge, but the dovetail guide was an extravagance. You didn’t need it, but it makes cutting dovetails easier for you. WIth practice you might not need the jig either, but you just have other interests. I think it makes sense.

By the way the magnetic dovetail guide is easy to make. See these instructions

-- Don K, (Holland, Michigan)

View Aj2's profile


3079 posts in 2570 days

#15 posted 10-16-2017 01:54 AM

I use guides for some precision sawing and chisel work. I also free hand saw and sharpen. When I need to change my bevel angle on my expensive Japaneese chisels I use a honing guide called the sharp skate. I like saving as much of the steel as possible.
So I agree Colonel T.

-- Aj

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