What is a “hand tool,” anyway?

When I describe my work I usually say that I do “hand-tool woodworking,” or that I work primarily or exclusively with hand tools. Nobody has ever asked me what I mean by “hand tools,” so presumably everyone has a clear idea in his or her head what I mean… or rather what they think I mean. What do I mean? What’s a hand tool, anyway? And why do I use them, as opposed to… whatever hand tools are opposed to?

Maybe this seems like a facile question. I don’t believe it is. Nor an unimportant one. If I’m only using the term for introductions at parties and taglines on business cards, then I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I mean, but if I’m trying to make serious decisions about work, then it matters a great deal. It matters in conversations with other woodworkers who use machines, and who are apt to see a hand-tool-first or hand-tool-only approach as stupidity or snobbery—opinions that I can’t refute if I can’t clearly define what I’m doing and why.

Most important, it matters in making decisions about what tool to use for a job. We all have standards by which we evaluate and adopt (or decline to adopt) technology, but few of us actually know what they are — or have considered what they should be.

But it’s also the kind of question a guy with advanced degrees who has written cultural history starts thinking about while he’s in his second hour of sawing and planing 8/4 oak. Not just why don’t I buy a freaking bandsaw? but no, really, why don’t I? This need to define my terms was made rather more urgent, if ironically also more quixotic, by my experience teaching homeschool environmental science last spring. When my daughter suggested writing her final paper on means of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, I told her she had better start by defining what a “single-use plastic” was. She spent three months, wrote nearly five thousand words, and still never quite managed a precise definition, but by the end she knew a hell of a lot more about what she didn’t know. She grew wisely ignorant, you might say, as opposed to being merely a clever fool. Which I believe to be an improvement.

So let me see if I can become at least more wisely ignorant. This will take awhile to suss out; I’ll only get started today, and I’ll post new ideas as I think of them, revising my thinking as I go. Consider this an invitation to think along with me.

I can think of several qualities that might qualify a tool as a “hand tool,” but none of them is sufficient as a definition. Let’s start with two.

1. You hold it in, and operate it with, your hand(s).

This is the most literal definition. A plane, a chisel, a drawknife, a (hand)saw all fit. But so does a cordless electric drill or a random orbit sander. Conversely (and perversely) a vise does not fit, because (although it has a hand screw) it’s mounted.

Why might this quality be a good thing? A hand-held tool is smaller; it takes up less space, which is good for anyone working on a budget, out of one’s home, in a city. That’s actually the biggest practical reason I don’t own free-standing power tools; I don’t really have room for them. It’s also the single biggest reason I don’t have a lathe (on which one certainly uses hand tools).

Why might it be bad? Well, sometimes you really need three hands. Hence the vise. Or the cordless drill, whose motor frees up one of my hands for workholding. There used to be things called “apprentices,” but I don’t have one. Mounted tools also permit a level of replicable precision that is, if not impossible, at least far more difficult to achieve with hand-held tools. (Note it isn’t the machine that makes gives you replicable precision, but the mounting: a hand-cranked drill press makes just as reliably vertical a hole as an electric one.)

2. It is powered by the hands, with no external power source.

This excludes the electric drill and the random orbit sander but permits the vise. Must the tool be powered by one’s hands, specifically, or can one use other parts of the body? What about a shaving horse (foot clamp) or a spring pole lathe (foot treadle)? The former is only for workholding, but the latter really does most of the work. Human-powered would seem to be a better description, or perhaps non-electric, but presumably steam-powered machines are out, too. As would be (fairly enough) a water-powered sawmill or a machine turned by oxen at a treadmill.

Why might such a thing be good? A tool that requires no electricity can be used where there is none, and permits the workman a measure of independence. Electric motors tend to be louder and more persistently loud than hand tools. (Hand tool woodworking is not what I’d call quiet, but even banging away with mallet and chisel can’t compete with a table saw.)

It’s also presumably more sustainable, all else being equal. But claiming sustainability as a reason for using non-electric tools would be a bit of a stretch, at least in my case. My workshop contains electric lights, a space heater, a fan, a radio, a hot plate, and an electric kettle. My house is full of electric appliances; it’s also air-conditioned. I half-joke about how my workshop is solar-powered, but I’m not to be taken seriously. If that’s why I use hand tools, I’m fooling myself.

Why might it be bad? Ask me when I’m in the second hour of ripping and planing 8/4 oak. And, as I noted above, using a motor to replace one of your hands is often, well, handy, as when using a grinder or a cordless electric drill.

Those are the two most obvious and literal qualities of “hand tools.” Each tells me that a chisel is a hand tool and a table saw is not, but I knew that already; they raise more questions than they answer. There are other, less literal qualities implied by “hand tool,” but I’ll save them for the next post.