Are you a woodworker or a tool setter upper?

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Forum topic by Newage Neanderthal posted 06-11-2011 02:08 AM 3159 views 0 times favorited 42 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Newage Neanderthal

190 posts in 3089 days

06-11-2011 02:08 AM

Topic tags/keywords: question

To start out I own and use power tools, I just regulate them to the DIY side of life now. I used to use them in my hobby woodworking. But I found a problem, I didn’t really enjoy them, you see I didn’t think of it as wood working. I thought of it as machine set up. My hobby then was setting up machines. If you carefully set up your tablesaw, have the right blade and the right settings, and set that fence to .397” You can push that piece of wood through pretty much brainlessly (minus the safety issues) and have a rip that leaves a .397” wide piece of stock. Did you work the wood or the machine in that scenario?

To further push the point, how many questions on woodworking forums have to do with the actual working the wood part (eg. pushing the wood through the saw) and how many have to do with machine acquisition and set-up (eg. which TS blade, how to set out feed tables, etc)

So, are you a woodworker or a machine setter-upper?

I am adding this here since I know people don’t read through the post. And three points I have tried to make in the comments section seem to be still taken the wrong way based on the original post

1. I read what I wrote and realize how everyone seems to be taking it different than how I meant. But as I have added from the second comment, this is not about handtools vs powertools. Bandsaw boxes are more about woodworking than machine set up. Some (ok, maybe alot) of people make handplanes all about set up. They rehab and tweak the machine (the plane) and try to get it set up to take that magical .001” shaving.

2. If you are a pro, this doesn’t apply to you, you are doing a job putting food on the table making the best product possible as efficiently as possible, I’m talking about the hobbiest.

3.I am not implying that one hobby is better or superior. Do whatever you want, its a hobby, have fun. And while I know its both, which wins out as your favorite part of the hobby, working the wood, or setting up machines? Be the a tablesaw or a handplane. (trust me, I know of plenty handtool “woodworkers” where it is all about the old tools. And that’s great.

-- . @NANeanderthal on twitter

42 replies so far

View WayneC's profile


14358 posts in 4636 days

#1 posted 06-11-2011 02:12 AM

I belive there was a reference in Tolpin’s new book that compared working wood with machining wood. It was part of explaining his move towards hand tools. I have been considering some aspects of this.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

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Newage Neanderthal

190 posts in 3089 days

#2 posted 06-11-2011 02:17 AM

Bringing up handtools, I should have mentioned this is not about handtools vs powertools. Maloof rockers and bandsaw boxes are powertool driven, but wood working instead of machining in my opinion.

-- . @NANeanderthal on twitter

View Don W's profile

Don W

19368 posts in 3106 days

#3 posted 06-11-2011 02:21 AM

ahhhh, but I think it takes both to be either. Anyone can buy all the right paint, the right brushes, and a piece of canvas, and they can paint. It may make them a painter, but not necessarily and artist. I, like wayne, have recently moved toward the hand tool mindset. I do however still think it takes a good craftsman to turn out fine woodworking, even with power tools.

Do what you enjoy.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View WayneC's profile


14358 posts in 4636 days

#4 posted 06-11-2011 02:23 AM

I may need to go back and look up the section. It was more about setup and repetitive cuts vs. making and fitting the project piece by piece and the experience of feeling the wood as you work with it.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View EEngineer's profile


1120 posts in 4152 days

#5 posted 06-11-2011 02:55 AM

Well, yes!

It does take both. And it takes both whether you work with handtools or powertools. Why even use handtools? You could just chew the wood :) Debating what tools you use runs the risk of ignoring what you do with those tools.

Your complaint really just indicates how much more efficient powertools are; you feel like you are just setting up tools only because they make the actual task of shaping wood sooo much faster that it has become the smallest part of woodworking. I’lll take that; I only got a short time here.

-- "Find out what you cannot do and then go do it!"

View WayneC's profile


14358 posts in 4636 days

#6 posted 06-11-2011 03:07 AM

EEngineer, assuming that power tools are really more efficient for the specific task….

Don, said another way, “a fool with a tool is still a fool.” : ^ )

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

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Dave Pearce

108 posts in 4211 days

#7 posted 06-11-2011 03:22 AM

Nice point. And well taken, NaN. Consider this as well: Your neighbor can set his saw up to cut .397” as well. Not only that, if he follows the same woodworking plans you do from the latest issue of whatever magazines you both have, his product will look exactly like yours, and vice versa. Or at least close enough it would be hard to distinguish between the two unless they were side by side. Might be something to think about the next time you build from a published plan.

I have a fair number of power tools, not nearly as many as others here, but enough. I use them when I’m in a hurry to get past some stage in a project, but I’ve found I get little enjoyment out of them. I do prefer to work with hand tools, but sometimes it’s just easier to use a machine.

On the other side though, you might be amused to hear, I disassembled my finger-eatin’, wood wreckin’ bench-top table saw last summer. Kept the motor and the switch, tossed the rest. I haven’t missed it yet. It really was “bottom of the line” bad, so it deserved it’s fate.

For me, I kinda like spending time shaping the wood by hand. The finished product is icing on the cake.


View TechRedneck's profile


770 posts in 3396 days

#8 posted 06-11-2011 03:24 AM

I’ve only been at this hobby seriously now for a couple years. I have power tools and actually like to tune and tweak them to get them running their best. Typically, once they are setup correctly they stay that way.

TIME is important to me. I love to use the few hand tools I own and love the feel of a nicely sharpened plane or scraper. I am not a purist (yet) and can’t imagine hand planing a rough 4/4 board when I can run it through the planer and then the drum sander and get it to the point where I can make something with it.

For me, power tools to near finish then use hand tools afterwards. Since I started using scrapers, I am using a lot less sandpaper. It’s a lot quicker to plane some imperfections out than it is to put it through a machine IMHO.

I love power tools, hand tools, wood and learning how to combine all them to make something I am not afraid to give as a gift or put in my home. If I used only hand tools I am using too much of my TIME. Working too much with the power tools and you loose that connection with the wood.

I do think that Newage makes a good point however… we do talk a lot about tools but call ourselves “woodworkers.”

-- Mike.... West Virginia. "Man is a tool using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.". T Carlyle

View EEngineer's profile


1120 posts in 4152 days

#9 posted 06-11-2011 03:28 AM

Yep! WayneC, thought I said that… here it is:

“Debating what tools you use runs the risk of ignoring what you do with those tools.”

-- "Find out what you cannot do and then go do it!"

View Newage Neanderthal's profile

Newage Neanderthal

190 posts in 3089 days

#10 posted 06-11-2011 03:44 AM

It is not about what tools, it is about what you do with those tools and what your mindset is. As I mentioned, Maloof rockers and bandsawn boxes I think is wood working. You are using a tool to work the wood. Ripping on a table saw is machine setup and then mindless activity. As far as handtools taking too long,this is a hobby to most of us, at least to whom I am asking the question. If the end product is all that matters then why not just buy it from a store or some other woodworker?
Also, I am NOT trying to say that doing it all by machine is some how bad or of lesser quality than by hand. I can assure that many powetool guys make much better end products that I do by hand.
All I am getting at is if 95% of your hobby time is setting up machines, and the topics you frequent are tool set up, then is it working wood really your hobby, or the machines? Time and the end product are irrelevant if its a hobby. (I fully understand why those are important to the pro)

-- . @NANeanderthal on twitter

View shipwright's profile (online now)


8399 posts in 3336 days

#11 posted 06-11-2011 05:25 AM

It has nothing to do with the tools you’re using and everything to do with how you use them.
They all have their place.
Tools, hand or power, won’t make anyone a craftsman, it’s just not that easy.

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View BobTheFish's profile


361 posts in 3091 days

#12 posted 06-11-2011 05:37 AM

I don’t own any powertools. I borrow and use them when necessary, but I guess I’m not even really a woodworker per se. I get my kicks designing a project and in finishing/refinishing. Repair is also nice, and I’ll use power tools for rough cuts, but hell, I don’t even have a hand plane. I rely on mainly sandpaper and a hacksaw, or use a dremel for cutting/shaping.

Years ago in HS woodshop, I wanted to learn how to do everything by hand. I did dovetails by hand (they were god awful, but damn it, it was hand done, and that alone was rewarding), sanded my tables flat with a sanding block, and so on.

I raise the ante on your “powertools vs. handtools”. Is it really woodworking if you’re just using someone else’s plans and ideas?

Granted, handwork is a valuable and hard earned skill, but if you’re building a table for the sake of building a table, (tops and legs, maybe an apron if it seems necessary), or making a chair according to plans you bought, or if you turn pens or make cuttings boards (even if they’re pretty), are you really learning about the materials? are you really understanding and talking to the wood?

When you use a joint, are you doing it because it looks pretty, or because it’s necessary for a joint of that particular strength to be used there?

Do you rely on the same mission style elements, or do you step back and try to add variation? Do you sit down and build your furniture before you build it?

Do you just use woods because they’re pretty, or do you plan out how your piece will age (The worst abuse is padauk for its vibrant color which inevitably fades. In fact, I bought bloodwood instead of padauk for an upcoming table project just for that reason.)

Do you take into account that your wood has unique characteristics beyond “indoor/outdoor” uses, and do you utilizes stronger woods fore thinner lighter designs where less strong woods might not be able to handle?

Do you mix media? I’ve seen recently some elements of brass incorporated in turnings that really rocked.

When it comes to finishes, do you just have one standby finish or do you take into consideration the use of the piece: a jewelry box might be fine with just a hand oiled finish, since it’s not going to get much abuse, but a dining table would really benefit from a much more durable finish. Do you consider stains as a way of dyeing the wood or enhancing?

I’m not saying that if you don’t you’re not a woodworker. In fact, These things are what draw me to the work, rather than the working of the wood itself, and why I don’t exactly claim to be a woodworker in the traditional sense.

But these ARE considerations that can bring a whole new level to how you “work wood”.

Back to the original question though: I have much more respect for the handmade method, but I think to each their own with their methods. Each person, like myself, is drawn to the working of wood for different reasons. Someone who works with machines may just get their kicks some other way.

View reggiek's profile


2240 posts in 3809 days

#13 posted 06-11-2011 06:11 AM

Having had the experience of the purists and as a machine “setter upper” I do not see what the argument is? Using a machine – or using a handtool both require skill….a different skillset mind you…but a skill nonetheless. I enjoy using both…and my enjoyment is not lessened if I use a bandsaw to cut a curve then if I spend a bit of time with rasp and scrapers. I do this hobby for my own peace of mind anyway and I find that both methods satisfy me in this regard. This does not mean that a machine can take away the need for using my hand tools….or vice versa….I just try to get the best from both and I use both regularly.

I work the wood to see the beauty inside….I also enjoy the problem solving…the project coming to fruition as it takes shape….The sad thing now a days is the folks that do not have any knowledge of woodworking could not tell you the difference between a hand made/fitted joint…and a machine made/fitted joint – how many times have we seen discussions of comissioned work that a customer feels they do not get value from a crafted object versus a cheapo from the local bargain store?

This just means that the commercial woodworker would be out of business without powertools….or else be relegated to making specialty pieces for a small market…..There are true artists of both hand made items….and machine made items. For example….take a look at the American Wood Turner… could make these turned items by hand….but would they be any more beautiful?

-- Woodworking.....My small slice of heaven!

View Gregn's profile


1642 posts in 3522 days

#14 posted 06-11-2011 06:38 AM

You realize, I have to play devils advocate here. Since this is neither a one v.s. the other deal, let me ask this question. If you set up the table saw for a cut and you set up or adjust your hand plane for a cut are you not in essence setting up a tool for use? Is not a router plane also a tool that needs to be adjusted for depth of cut? Before using a hand saw we make sure the set is right and the teeth are filed just right so that the saw cuts true. So in effect both hand and power tools require some type of set up to work properly. I agree there is a lot more talk on forums about tools and how to set them up and use them. In my opinion its not so much the tool you are using that would make you a woodworker or a tool setter upper, but the kind of joinery one uses in their woodworking that would define if your an assembler or a joiner in your woodworking. One joint that I wouldn’t care to hand cut would be the box joint, this I would prefer to cut with a machine, where as with dovetails I would rather cut by hand. Knowing which tool to use and when to use it for different joinery would be more defining to me as to the skill level of a woodworker.

-- I don't make mistakes, I have great learning lessons, Greg

View rsdowdy's profile


105 posts in 3734 days

#15 posted 06-11-2011 08:04 AM

Man…I wish I could set up tools right. I think I’m more of the mad artist! Ok. Lets try this setting…. hey not so bad….bet those people with perfectly set up tools cant get this result! Ha!

Actually I work 70+ hours a week, so my spare time is important to me. If I had real skill, I’d love to do everything by hand and turn out a museum quality piece, but, no…and there is so much I want to build and I want to make it. I don’t mind being tagged as a machine setter upper….who knows…maybe as time goes on I’ll gain a few real skills.


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