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.

The ecosystem of the kitchen

Following on my previous post thinking about the workshop as an ecosystem, here’s an example perhaps familiar to more people: baking.

If you bake, you may have run across traditional formulas for cakes. A pound cake is made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. A 1-2-3-4 cake has 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Both are easy to remember, and neither depends heavily on exact measurements. If your scale is a little off, your pound cake will just be a little bigger or smaller. Any old cup will do for a 1-2-3-4 cake; you may have to adjust the eggs a bit, but since eggs vary in size (at least if your chickens are as traditional as your teacups), you’d have to do that anyway. No special instructions, no special tools required — only skill, which costs only time and bears ample fruit.

Now along comes this newfangled magical thing called baking powder, which is supposed to ensure a consistent result, no matter your skill level. Wonderful! Baking made easy! Ah, but baking powder is measured in teaspoons, and has a big impact on the final product, so that an error of half a teaspoon either way may yield a very different cake. Now you need, not just any old teaspoon, but a modern factory-made industrially calibrated teaspoon, which you have to buy from, say, Sears-Roebuck. And your teaspoons have to be calibrated to your cups, as well, so it’s back to the mail-order catalog for measuring cups. The first chemical leaveners came into use by about 1790, and their successors were widely used by the mid-nineteenth century, but only after about 1880 did they really become respectable, because only then did they become really reliable — because only then did the first calibrated measuring cups and spoons appear to measure them reliably. And then, within a generation, it became almost unthinkable to bake a cake without baking powder.

But now instead of eyeballing, which always worked well enough before, you have to learn to do level measurements. And you can’t easily experiment with the proportions of your cake, because you’ll throw off those tiny little measurements, and you’re relying now on processes you don’t fully understand. You’ve yoked yourself to a whole system of store-bought tools, which are not only made by industrially precise processes but demand new, industrially precise methods of work — and to a system of set, test-kitchen approved recipes which had better be followed with equal precision. Your whole approach to baking a cake has changed. The skilled baker now becomes just another factory worker, a kind of subsidiary of the industrial system that made the baking powder and the measuring cups. All because of one little ingredient!

There’s a book in that story, and my two-paragraph history oversimplifies things, but you get the idea, I hope. The workshop of the kitchen is also a kind of ecosystem, in which tools, ingredients, techniques, tastes all have to mesh. Cooking evolves, the kitchen changes — but not all changes are gradual or benign. Every once in a while, an invasive species can show up and cause a mass extinction. And it can be hard to know what little changes will turn into cataclysms before they’ve done it.

The ecosystem of the workshop

As I have spent more time in the workshop the past couple of years I have been thinking more and more about what I do and why I do what I do — that is, work wood with what are commonly called “hand tools.” Certain tasks (like cutting dovetails) take all my concentration, some (ripping 8/4 stock for chair legs) take enough bodily energy that I can’t sustain a complicated conversation with myself, but others (sanding, carving spoons) leave good space for thought, and in that space I find myself asking questions that I am not always able to answer. Questions like: what is a “hand tool,” anyway?

I want to use this blog, in part, to explore those questions, if not necessarily to answer them to anybody’s satisfaction. Rather than starting with what seems like an easy one — what is a hand tool? — I’m going to start in media res, with something I was mulling yesterday: the interconnectedness of tools, materials, methods of work, and the broader economy and culture — what I think of as the “ecosystem” of the workshop. That means starting deep “in the weeds” of the craft and working my way out again. I’ll try to write in a way that gives non-specialists the gist of things without boring woodworkers. That’s a narrow target; forgive me if I don’t quite hit it in a blog post.

So, to begin, a bit of background.

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.

splay legged coffee table

Building a splay-legged table with hand tools

This is not a project blog, meaning that I don’t want to write a lot of photo-heavy step-by-step posts about how to build things. There are enough of those out there already. Some of them are very good. It isn’t my thing, and the bases, mostly, are covered.

Occasionally, though, a project requires my working through a process that I have not seen explained elsewhere, and I’d like to write it down for my own understanding and reference… and if I’m going to do that much, I figure someone else may benefit from my experience.

This table is one such project:

splay legged coffee table

While there are some good articles available on building a table with splayed legs, they’re written for machine work. Since I work almost entirely with hand tools—I don’t own a drill press or table saw—most of the advice, and indeed even the process, in such articles is useless to me. Here, then, are ten things I learned from designing and building a splay-legged coffee table.

First, I am assuming that you can build a basic four-legged square table with straight aprons. I’m not going to explain mortise and tenon joints. Nor did I photo-document every stage of the process; I was too busy trying to build the thing. If Fine Woodworking wants to pay me to build it again and write it up (ha!) we’ll talk.

Ready? Here we go.

splay legged coffee table, in finishing

Small arcs of large circles: A calculator for cheaters and engineers

splay legged coffee table, in finishing

This week I am finishing my splay-legged coffee table… in the dining room, because the humidity is such that I don’t trust oil to dry in the workshop. I will have more to say about (and better photos of) this piece, which posed several, ah, interesting challenges, but for now let’s talk about this one, which I’ve faced before and will face again: constructing small arcs of large circles.

There are three long arcs of circles on this table, at the ends of the top and on the undersides of the aprons. The longest has a lengths of 23 inches and height of 1 inch — a radius of some five feet, so actually constructing the circle was straight out. I could probably have drawn the shortest one freehand to within sawing and shaving tolerances, but the longest moves so slowly that I didn’t trust myself. I’ve been known to use Affinity Designer (Adobe Illustrator for people without corporate budgets) to draw ogees when I couldn’t get what I wanted with French curves, but I can’t print something 23" long. What to do?

The hidden cost of convenience

Stopping at the grocery store today to pick up something for lunch1It was an unplanned trip, else I might have brought along one of my approximately two dozen reusable grocery bags. Emphasis on might: just as likely I’d have forgotten. I don’t claim not to be part of the problem. I was reminded that whatever our intentions, not to mention our policies and our laws, humanity will continue to screw itself. To wit: When the young man (I am now old enough to use that term) bagging groceries was about to pile everything into one paper bag, the clerk pulled out another bag and started helping him, with polite but pointed verbal correction. Everything would fit, yes, but it would make the bag too heavy, and lifted by its handles it would tear. “I’ll lift it from the bottom,” I said, “don’t waste a bag.”

Of course I got the groceries home just as well as I would have done before someone thought to put handles on paper grocery bags. So I started wondering how much more paper we now use bagging groceries because we thought they needed handles, or, rather, that we needed handles, either by splitting the groceries into smaller parcels or double bagging the larger ones. This is why although I am not opposed, in principle, to banning plastic shopping bags, I’m not enthusiastically for it, either: we’ll just find other ways of wasting resources.

Convenience costs, in other words — if not us then someone else or, more commonly, “the environment.” Of course it isn’t like anybody ever decided, yes, I want handles on my damn bags and I’ll cut down twice as many trees to get them. That we use more bags is the kind of thing that might have been foreseen but wasn’t and seldom is. Cost-benefit analysis might be a cure, but it won’t prevent further stupidity, because we can’t foresee all the consequences of our choices even if we were inclined to. What’s needed is a different ethic: to say, when confronted with a new convenience, I don’t need that. Not that all conveniences are ipso facto bad, but that our default ought to be to reject them; you can always change your mind later. Instead, our default is to accept without question any and all convenience. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep destroying everything around us.

art box

Those old guys really nailed it.

Back in the early summer of 2013 I built this box to store my drawing and art supplies:

art box

It’s the 19th-century schoolbox from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, made with circa-1830 methods, resized and with a till for pencils. It’s functional and attractive sitting beside my desk, and the yellow pine has aged nicely, but it’s essentially a student project, without unnecessary adornment. The exposed dovetails aren’t contemporary ornament but evidence that the original wasn’t worth the effort of fancy moulding or veneer. The simple moulding around the top is simply nailed on, with historically accurate cut nails (headless brads, actually). Here’s what the top looked like when it was first built:

advertisement for Niagara Corn Starch

1855: Cornstarch cake

advertisement for Niagara Corn Starch
Years before cornstarch was marketed for culinary use, housewives baked it into weirdly industrial cakes.

If any cake baked from scratch ever looked like the product of food industry marketing, it’s the cornstarch cake, a plain white cake in which a third or more of the flour is replaced by cornstarch. It seems so obviously a gimmick to get you to use up that ancient box of cornstarch in your pantry—it’s not just for pudding anymore! You might expect to find such a recipe sponsored by the Cornstarch Council, or perhaps in an ad for Argo brand. What’s more, I have never baked anything from scratch that so strongly resembled, in flavor, appearance, and texture, a packaged snack cake. But cornstarch cake was neither factory made nor even factory invented. It appeared in the 1850s, decades before cornstarch was branded and sold in boxes and before manufacturers marketed their products with recipes and cookbooks. Cornstarch cake was the product of ordinary women experimenting at home, looking for shortcuts—hacking their cakes, you might say — and that fact ought to make us rethink some of our assumptions about why Americans started eating “processed” food.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

1904: Convenience becomes fashionable

Why do people buy industrial “convenience foods”? Because they’re convenient, of course. We’re busy, and we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Or, rather, we think we’re busy, and we think we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Sometimes that’s the case. More often, the needs we don’t have time to fill by our own labor weren’t really needs in the first place.

Take, for example, Campbell’s Condensed Soup. When that product was introduced in the 1890s, canned soup had been around for a couple of decades; what was new was the process by which the soup was condensed and the size of the can cut in half, which made the end product cheaper. The earliest ads, placed on streetcars, aimed at the working mothers who rode them, simply showed the can, gave basic instructions (“Just add hot water and serve”), and noted “6 plates for 10¢.” Some of the first magazine ads for condensed soup were placed in the American Federationist, a union magazine. A 1901 ad featured oxtail soup, which, like early soups, was intended as the backbone of a meal.1 For families with little time and little money, then, yes, canned soup seems to have been an obvious convenience.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

But that’s only half the story. The other half is that home economists eagerly accepted the new convenience and sold it to middle-class women through the monthly magazines they edited. Not only did general-purpose women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping promote “progressive” cooking, but a few turn-of-the-century magazines devoted themselves entirely to cookery. These magazines offered not only recipes and in-depth discussions of culinary techniques and new products but also gave a month’s worth of daily menus in each issue. By 1904, Table Talk was specifically recommending Campbell’s soups in its menus as replacements for homemade—not every day, but once or twice a week. They didn’t suggest making a meal out of canned soup, even for lunch, but rather serving it as a first course. Here, for example, is Table Talk‘s dinner menu for Tuesday, February 23, 1904: