I’ve been doing quite a bit of woodworking over the last few months trying to improve my furniture building skills. I have more recently begun migrating away from power tools more towards hand tools to help with a few things. With a new daughter that I look after full time, I needed to create a safer, cleaner, and more pleasant workshop. I can now work on a project with her in the next room and keep an ear and eye on her without the unpleasant noise, dust, and danger of my power tools.
Hand tools are a much quieter and pleasant way of working wood. You can work on a project with other people in the room without needing hearing and eye protection or with that pained look on your face as the tools wreak thundering havoc on the wood.
Another thing I really like about hand tools is the relative absence of airborne dust in the house. My shop is much cleaner since I ditched the router table and power sanders. The sawdust, chips, and shavings that I produce now settle quickly to the floor and can be vacuumed or swept up with minimal mess. There is still a small bit of dust to be sure, but mostly produced from hand sanding.
This leads directly to the third thing I like about hand tools: the craft of the process. In order to use hand tools effectively, you have to get in tune with your tools through maintaining them. Unlike power tools that come with disposable cutting edges for the most part, hand tools allow you to easily (with a bit of practice) produce a razor sharp edge with relatively simple tools. I adoped Japanese water stones from my kitchen knife sharpening kit and use a honing guide for my chisels and hand plane irons. It’s amazing how quickly you can learn to produce a perfect cutting edge with a minimum of fuss.
I’ve just about completed all of the projects in Jim Topin’s fantastic The New Traditional Woodworker and am about to try my hand at my first hand tool-only project. I am eager to see how I’ve progressed with my sawing, planing, and joinery. It will be a simple first project but should put my skills to the test.
Tolpin’s book does a great job of helping the modern reader decipher the various hand tools out there and select those needed to build your toolkit. He goes on to present various projects to create those devices needed in a hand tools shop to work wood safely and efficiently, including a bench hook for crosscutting boards to length and square, a shooting board which helps square an edge of a board, a wooden try square that you can use in place of a purchased one, which I have been doing, along with many other projects. Because I enjoyed the process so much, I ended up creating three different try squares, two normal try squares and a third dovetail gauge, and find myself using them for marking almost all of my board ends and edges.
I’ve also been scouring the online retailers for vintage hand planes. The Stanley hand planes have the reputation as the best built and most dependable made and fortunately they’re fairly easy to pick them up for very reasonable prices, depending on the model. Based on recommendations from Jim Tolpin’s book as well as Christopher Schwarz from Lost Press Art (formerly the editor for Popular Woodworking Magazine). They recommended a starting trio of a No. 5 Jack Plane, a No. 7 Jointer plane and a No. 4 Smoothing plane. I picked up the first two on eBay and purchased the third from Lie-Nielsen. I am almost scared to use the Smoothing plane as it’s simply beautiful and I’m still a bit afraid of putting the first scratch on it. Needless to say, this will eventually pass but it’s still nice to have a work of art in my workshop.
I also purchased a Stanley No. 45 Combination Plane, primarily for cutting grooves, dados, and rabbets. I find that it works remarkably well and is doing a rather nice job of replacing my powered router and router table for most tasks. I am waiting to see how it does at more complicated tasks like edge molding and compound profiles, but there are always the wooden molding planes if it doesn’t quite fit the bill.
I’ve picked up a few additional tools like a hand drill, braces, bits, etc., and am quickly weaning myself off of power tools and only occasionally use a cordless hand drill for quick drilling tasks. I also still use a drill press for creating perpendicular holes in my projects since it can be quite frustrating to misdrill a critical hole.
Hand saws are the next round for me. I’ve picked up some saw files and a saw set to bend the teeth correctly on dulled saws. It’s a rather involved process to do well, but I’ve ordered a DVD to help with the process. I also have two vintage saws on their way and will complete my needed set soon. I’ll post more details as I make more progress…