Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again.

By traditional I likely mean one of two things. I may mean, literally, a continual passing down of practices, skills, and habits of mind from one generation to the next. Since I learned most of what I know about woodworking from books, television, and the internet, and since an awful lot of hand-tool practice was lost and had to be re-learned at some point, I can’t lay much claim to tradition in a literal sense. But it’s still true that what I do has some continuity with past practice. My work and my workshop would be readable, you might say, by a cabinetmaker of 1700, in a way that a machine shop would not be.

So I might clarify #3 by saying:

3a. Hand tools provide continuity with past practice.

That continuity, and the sense of rootedness it offers, is valuable. It gives me additional enjoyment (which does matter; why would you do work like this in 2021 if you don’t enjoy it?). I’m a (very, very small) part of something long and important, not just a hobbyist screwing around in his garage. It means that I have centuries of practice to learn from, centuries in which bad practice has largely been sifted out. (Compare that to relying on manufacturers’ instructions and a handful of crummy YouTube videos from which bad practice most definitely has not been sifted.) And it makes me take my work more seriously: I feel I owe something to the workmen of the past, for all they have (albeit unwittingly) handed down to me.

But traditional woodworking may also mean, specifically, pre-industrial woodworking. That feels more specific, but what’s industrial? Industry, in former centuries, meant merely hard work, a virtue recommended to workmen. Now it has other connotations: big, complicated, noisy, dirty, efficient; factories, interchangeable parts, assembly lines. But there’s a spectrum of “industrial” operations, which might include a 17th-century gristmill, an 18th-century cabinetmaking shop in which workers with various and specialized skills perform specific tasks, the Stanley Tool Works circa 1880, and a Tesla factory.1Assuming Teslas are made in factories and don’t grow fully formed from Elon Musk’s head. I haven’t looked into it. Usually “pre-industrial” means before the Industrial Revolution, but that too was a gradual process, one that unfolded over a hundred years or more rather than an event that occurred at, say, 3pm GMT on June 26, 1805.

For the moment, though, let’s just go with

3b. Hand tools reflect pre-industrial practice.

This suggests that the tool in its present form originated before the rise of factory production, which means that it is designed to be used in a non-factory context, and is therefore likely to be appropriate to a single workman in a small shop with limited space and means. That’s a reasonable starting point for evaluating tools: if a tool was used in 1750, I could probably fit it fairly easily into my own practice (or into what I have called the “ecosystem of my workshop”).

But I can as easily fit a Stanley-Bailey plane with metal body and adjustment knobs into my practice; whether you use a wooden plane or a metal one does not fundamentally change the way you work (in the way that buying a power planer would do). Metal planes are a product of the Industrial Revolution. The 19th century also brought improvements in tool steel that made traditional tools in various ways better without changing their use. And while it’s nice to imagine the neighborhood blacksmith making me a new chisel, that’s not where chisels came from even in 1750, and it’s hard for me to imagine iron mining and smelting as anything other than industrial processes — or at least proto-industrial ones.

In terms of their design, tools fall on a continuum, which I might demarcate this way:

  1. tools still exactly as they existed in 1750.
  2. tools designed exactly as in 1750 but with improved materials (e.g. harder steel).
  3. tools with design changes that do not essentially alter methods of use, e.g. metal-bodied planes with adjustment screws.
  4. tools with new designs that slip easily into old methods of working, e.g. the low-angle jack plane.
  5. tools with new designs that require entirely new methods of working.

The first four stages maintain or extend traditional practice and are still “hand tools.” The break comes with stage five. By this way of thinking, it is changing the method of work, the way the workman approaches his work, that would make the tool not a “hand tool.” This matter of methods of work is important, but I’ll have to save it for another post.

I might also observe that hand tools were originally designed by actual workmen for their own use, and still remain close to those designs, whereas the router and tablesaw were invented or engineered by people who meant to sell them to workers. So I might demarcate the historical development of tools this way:

  1. a tool made by the workman who intends to use it. Such tools will evolve, gradually, as they are passed from one generation to the next and modified to meet specific needs and preferences.
  2. a tool made by a professional toolmaker on a pattern of shop-made tools and using identical methods.
  3. a tool made by a professional toolmaker on a pattern of shop-made tools and using industrial methods.
  4. a tool made by a professional toolmaker on a pattern of shop-made tools and using identical methods, but with some design improvements made possible by those industrial processes.
  5. a tool made to a pattern never possibly shop-made and not originally designed by its end user, at which point we have, from the perspective of using the tool, a clear break with tradition.

This evolutionary change in technology seems important (it fits my idea of the workshop as ecosystem), but that, too, will have to wait for another post.

For now, I’ll observe that placing tools on a scale or continuum from “traditional” to “industrial” suggests that instead of evaluating tools on whether they belong in categories, we ought to evaluate them based on how well they meet certain criteria. A tool is either a hand tool or it is not; a tool may be more or less appropriate to a workshop or a task. That’s obvious, yes? But I’m not reverting to a “get ‘er done” approach; I want to identify the qualities that make hand tools appealing.

Note that tools in stages 1–4 of both scales are perhaps built or replicated by the worker. More important, they are easily and regularly maintained, and perhaps also modified, by the worker. I can sharpen my handsaws and my chisels. When I found a well-made old handsaw with a cracked handle, I made a new handle for it. If I want to camber my plane blades or change their cutting angles, I can regrind them. I can even turn a ripsaw into a crosscut saw, if I want to. Ease of maintenance makes the worker more self-reliant, increases efficiency and sustainability. If, by contrast, the blade of my circular saw dulls, I have to throw it out and buy a new one; if I want a different cutting profile I have to buy it. This also means that hand tools, properly cared for, are durable.

These qualities are, I think, more important than the mere matter of whether something is or is not a “hand tool.” Surely a handsaw from a big-box hardware store is a hand tool. But its blade is made of impulse-hardened steel that cannot be sharpened by hand. It is therefore effectively disposable, though it may last a few years of regular use. It’s at stage 4 of my first scale and stage 3 of the second. It’s a hand tool. But it lacks the spirit of the thing.

So I’ve identified two qualities of tools that I believe to be valuable — and neither necessarily limited to nor inherent to “hand tools.” I’ll state them as principles:

  • Principle 1. A tool should be durable (i.e. it should last indefinitely with proper maintenance).
  • Principle 2. A tool should be easily maintained and perhaps modified by the worker.

Now this rambling exploration is starting to bear fruit, in the form of standards by which I can evaluate tools for actual use. Huzzah!

More next time.