The Value of Hand Skills

In March of 2001 there was a thread on the modeleng-list. Someone wanted to remove a boss from their milling machine, and was asking for advice on what kind of machine setup should be used. A couple of people pointed that perhaps a plain old cold chisel and a file was the the easiest way to do the work.

A portion of one reply set me off a bit:

I'd often try to find a way to use a power tool to make a job easier and faster. And many times I've found that in the time I've spent thinking about it, I could have finished the project using good ol' manual labor.

And so, I wrote something to contribute. I'd actually been thinking about just this issue for quite some time, and the reply and the thread gelled a lot of my thoughts together into something concrete ....

My Reply

I couldn't agree more. I have a little tale that isn't exactly metalworking, but it illustrates the point:

A couple of years ago, before I got my (woodworking) bandsaw, a friend brought over a chunk of wood. He didn't have any saws himself and wanted me to cut a few mitres on the piece for him. At that point, the tablesaw was the only saw in my shop. And I used it for most everything.

For easily 10-20 minutes I kept on coming up with different methods of cutting what I wanted. Then I looked at the proximity of my fingers to the blade and said no. So I tried coming up with a good jig to hold the piece. However, building the jig would require similar cuts and getting my fingers too close to the blade.

Finally, I said that, although my tablesaw is a great saw, it just wasn't the thing for the task. I pulled out my cross-cut saw and my home-made 8" mitre-box. It took about 2 or 3 minutes to make all the mitres. No missing fingers. Oh, and I used another of those old-manual-gadgets, a clamp, to hold the part in place for the non-standard-angle mitres. If I had more confidence in my hand-sawing capability I wouldn't have used the mitre box. These days, with my Japanese Dozuki saw, I wouldn't even think twice about doing the cut freehand. I wouldn't even turn my bandsaw on for it.

I've noticed something over the years... I think a lot of *my* lack of use of hand tools is because I never had anyone teach me to use them. The "traditional" methods can be quite frustrating to someone who is trying to do something, and keeps on getting bad results. While at the same it is so simple to go use the machine tool and achieve excellent results *now*. Learning to use hand tools well requires time and the development of skill. And to have someone to point out to you what you are doing wrong when you are beating your head on the wall. Looking back at my education, I would have really preferred that the woodworking and metalworking classes concentrated on basic hand skills, instead of the machine-tool-oriented approach which they took. I think the hand-tool skills would have been a far more valuable thing that they could have taught me for the long run. Rather than to build a simple project with machine tools.

A more recent example

I have a small Japanese Dozuki saw that I picked up to try that style of saw. I really like it, I saw much better with it than I do with my western style saws. I've even got to the point of drawing a square line and trying to follow it, instead of just hacking stuff to length. The results still aren't great, but at least I try to do some hand-oriented work. With that in mind ...

Just before I wrote this WWW page, I was ripping some 3/4 in. pine on my tablesaw. It was old dry wood that I have had for 10 years or so. Problem was that a long time ago, probably before it was kiln-dried, an insect had gotten into it and shredded quite a bit of material. I was salvaging the good wood for later use. So there I am ripping along with my saw, and before I even get a saw's depth into the board it is twisting badly. It doesn't stop my 3 HP cabinet saw, but it just isn't going well. I pull it out and try again, to widen the closed kerf a bit, but it just keeps on getting worse, the kerf closing more and more. Finally I shut off the saw, wait for the blade to stop, then pull the work off the blade.

Hmmm ... This doesn't really need to be done, but I'd like to do it. I could use my bandsaw, but it doesn't seem worth the effort to pull it out. I look at my Japanese Dozuki saw; however, it won't work for ripping as it is a back saw. I've been meaning to get a larger non-joinery Japanese style saw for larger cuts, but I don't have one yet. Then I look at my Sandvik carpenter's saw...

A bit of thought, and I decide what the heck let's go for it. Worse case is I screw up a board that is close to scrap anyway. So off I go. Drag out the marking gauge and mark a cut line the whole length of the board, and then darken the line with a carpenter's pencil. Set the board up on my workmate, and off I go. A short time later, I am rather amazed, it went really well! I'm So amazed that I rough-cut all the other pieces of good wood with my hand saw. Including several other long rips, among them ripping a piece about 1.5 in. in width into two almost equal-width portions.

The cuts aren't anything to be really proud about; they weren't laser straight or anything. I took the rough-cut lumber to my tablesaw to put a really straight and finished edge on my handwork. But .. I was there doing it with a handtool! That was amazing to me, considering my machine-tool based personality and preference.

What it all means?

I'm good at using machines, whether they are a tablesaw or a forklift. If I had tried re-equipping my shop with hand tools, I probably wouldn't be doing woodworking any longer: I would never have gotten past the point of being frustrated with trying to use the hand tools and failing. Without a instructor to help me figure out what I am doing wrong, it would be a real mess to analyze. There is also the problem that you need to learn a lot of things just to start the more complex things. Before you can start joinery, you need to have square material. The basics of making 4 square stock; face and edge jointing a board, planing to thickness, and cutting a straight line take time to learn. All those skills are at the most basic level of woodworking, but the lumber they produce is absolutely essential to joinery. It can put a big obstacle into the path of building things.

Another thing to consider is that, traditionally, the hand skills have been developed in shop environments. That means that there is at least one, if not several, people who can show you what you are doing wrong. That same shop is full of tools, such as workbenches and sharp tools that are quite necessary for working by hand. But the "lone gunman" in a home shop doesn't have any of this infrastructure. No bench already built to work on until he builds his own. He or she has to start out completely from scratch; not even as good as an apprentice in bygone days. You need the bench to build the skills, but you need the skills to build the bench. Sharpening skills are another that fall in this range; most hand tools require sharpening to be used. Yet, you have to learn how to sharpen them before you can use them. And sharpening is another acquired skill. Tuning hand tools falls into this area too; many tools out of the box this day need to be tuned so that they work right. Sure, the power tools need to be tuned too, but that is typically a straight-forward and non-destructive process that can be iterated until it is "good enough". Compare that to, say, flattening the bottom of a plane or a blade and never (apparently) making any progress on it. But you are wearing away more and more of the material and you can no longer take it back to get a new one.

When you develop rudimentary (better skills come through practice) hand skills by yourself, thereis still the obstacle of time. Using handtools takes a "long" time to get results, especially when the skills for them are not well developed. Even when the skills are developed there is a certain latency that using the hand tools adds to your work. If you don't have a lot of time or patience in the first place, that can be a big deal.

So, instead I use my machine tools and build things and am happy with my workshop. My machine tools even give me the time and the backup to try developing hand tool skills. I can do "rough" cuts, and finish them on a power tool if they aren't good enough. Heck, after finishing the rip cuts I was thinking that all I need now is a nice plane to straighten the cut up with ... while standing next to my jointer.

I do think hand tool skills are important. But people shouldn't need to focus on those skills alone, unless developing hand tool skills is their goal. People often want to build things, and perhaps the right thing to do is to start building things whichever which way works for you. Without instructors and teachers to teach hand skills, it can take an awfully long time before people can actually develop skills to build what they want to. Perhaps the subtlety of hand tools can wait for later.

It all goes in a circle. I think the last paragraph of my posting is right on target. If hand tool use was taught, more people would use hand tools because they had the skill to do so. Without the skill, people can't easily build things by hand. If they don't build things, then they aren't satisfied and they will be unhappy. The straight fences and mitre gauges of power tools can provide a substitute for some hand skills, to get people building things. They can also provide the time savings needed to allow learning the use of hand tools.

Note, though, that machine-tools are not a panacea. A hand tool can be just the thing to shave something off here or make a difficult cut. That same task, with a machine tool, can take a lot of time just to setup and jig the task so it can cut the tiny amount that is needed, accurately. The two things, hand tools and machine tools, they are both useful in the shop. It isn't a matter of hand tool versus machine-tool; it is a matter of choosing the better tool for the job you are doing, and for your skill level.

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Last Modified: Sat Mar 31 22:28:27 CST 2001
Bolo (Josef Burger) <>