using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

What we talk about when we talk about hand tools

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

In the spring of 2021 I started writing, elsewhere, a series of think-pieces about technology in the woodshop, beginning with the question What is a hand tool, anyway?, continuing through the effects of tools and tool use on the worker and the world, and working towards, as I found, a sort of rubric for evaluating tools for wise and responsible use. As I mean to pick up this thread, I have moved the pieces here and am linking to them below, in the order written, and will link new pieces here as I write them. I am also tagging them with work and the worker, which opens a few more doors and will likely range a little further.

A couple of things to note. First, I mean this to be a practical discussion, not a purely philosophical one. Second, although my particular interest is woodworking, I believe the discussion and tentative conclusions are applicable far more widely. In fact, I think there’s real value, at this point in time, to come at the problem of technology use from a perspective other than that of the digital — i.e., other than that unique to this point in time. We’ll see if it bears fruit.

  1. What is a “hand tool,” anyway?
  2. Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”
  3. Tools and externalities

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

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.

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.

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?

7. Tools

For the tool that shapes the maker and the made. We see its marks upon the craft, the kerf of saw teeth or the grace of a nib, the fine dice of an onion or the coarse hewing of logs. We see its owner’s marks upon it: the wooden handle of an ancient tool, its grip worn smooth, valleyed soft by one man’s fingers, shaped by one man’s hand. But what of the hand that shaped it? How was it shaped in turn? Not the scars that surely hatch its skin—mere leftovers of temporary hurts, forgotten like frost in May. To take a tool into your hand is peril, not from its edge but from its handle, and to the hand that takes it. I mean its shape — the fingers cramped around the knife, the saw, the axe, the pen, that wield it in their sleep, that hold it invisible, that move it unbidden as if conscious. And what of the arm and the shoulder that move the hand? What of the old man’s heart and mind that after endless practice learned to desire what the tool desires, what its subject needs? When the mind’s own paths are worn and valleyed soft, when will cedes the work to hard-won habit, who then is the maker, and who the made? Who is in whose grip? The man’s is quick and firm but easily released: the tool’s is slow but loth to let him go. Handle it with care, and not too lightly.