Canadian Woodworking

Mystique of hand tools

Author: Clive Smith
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: August September 2005
Mystique of Handtools
Mystique of Handtools

Probably everyone involved with woodworking has noticed the expanded interest in hand tools.

Probably everyone involved with woodworking has noticed the expanded interest in hand tools. Almost all manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers have caught onto this very unexpected, rapidly expanding market. I say ‘unexpected’ because, after all, we are in the 21st century, and sophisticated cordless power tools and computer controlled production machinery seem to have taken over the work place.


So, why is there a growing interest in hand tools? In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to look at the virtue or benefit of using hand tools. One of the most outstanding features of using a hand tool is the direct involvement between the person, the tool and the wood. Whereas older hand tools may be collected for their historical or increasing value, new handtools are most likely being purchased to use.

The general increase in the complexity of our daily lives may be driving people to activities that feature more personal control. In using a hand tool the sense of control is both immediate and direct.

Picture the personal control required to use, for example, a hand plane. When you press down on the front of a plane and push it with sufficient force from behind, you will get an instant result. A shaving appears from the plane and you see a smooth surface on the wood. There is no delay in receiving feedback. We could have achieved a similar result in half the time and with considerably less energy, if we had used a hand held electric planer, passed the piece of wood across a joiner or used a thickness planer. This indicates that part of the attraction of using hand tools is the involvement of physical exertion.

Another example will help to unravel this part of the mystery. I have two sons in their 20s who enjoy rock climbing, one of the many extreme sports that is becoming popular these days. In order to keep in shape, to be able to climb the rocks, they rigidly govern their diet and train four times a week. They then drive tremendous distances to have the opportunity to climb natural walls of rock, some reaching 3,000 feet in height. They wear a safety harness and rope, which is clipped into anchors on the rock face. The strength of their fingers and toes and the agility of their bodies propel them to the top. They often wear the skin off their finger tips and callous their hands from pulling on the rock so aggressively. Such behaviour only makes sense when you realize they are not climbing simply to get to the top. If that were their goal they could certainly get there more quickly and efficiently without climbing. No, their desired experience is the climbing itself. When they get to the top, their desire has been fulfilled. It’s obvious when they return, satisfied, relieved, relaxed and looking forward to the next climb.

If we apply this example to planing a piece of wood, it might suggest that part of the goal of hand planing is the deliberate intent to expend energy, rather than singularly trying to achieve a planed surface on the board. If part of our motivation is to expend energy, using the joiner or the planer defeats the purpose. It is the physical exertion required in using hand tools that allows an opportunity to shed feelings of stress and anxiety.

When I was I young boy, I went through a particularly difficult time at school. I came home one day, bored, depressed and angry. My mother gave me a hatchet and a large block of wood and suggested that I hack away. The result was a lot of perspiration, a few chips, and a much more relaxed me. Maybe a similar process is at work when you chop out a mortise with a chisel and mallet or engage in a similar task.

By using hand tools we not only become more involved in the creative process, we also benefit from the rejuvenating effects of relieving frustration and stress. In this rapidly changing world, with all its stresses and tensions, hand tools offer us a way to let go of all the concerns and turmoils of everyday life. They also give us a way to be more actively involved in, and rewarded by, the creative process.

If you are not already doing so, try incorporating hand tools into your woodworking. You will soon find that you are not just using a tool to effect wood. Rather you will discover that you are working with the tool to the benefit of both your project and your self.

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