Hand Tools, the Hybrid Shop, and Making the Best

Up until the past few months I owned a home in Maryland and had my own dedicated shop space. I was also doing a fair bit of subcontracting work with a cabinetry shop in Baltimore which allowed me access to a much larger workspace and a fair number of shop tools that were beyond my means and space allocation as a one-man operation. Being a “fully modern” cabinet shop, there were a lot of tools that the guys I was subcontracting for didn’t have on hand. Both of them have a couple decades in the industry, and their shop was designed for 1980’s era production. And as I said to one of them when looking over the very fine set of Japanese chisels I found in a drawer one day “You treat your chisels like a contractor.”

What that really meant was they bought good quality, fine grade tools and equipment and used them with brute force and minimal maintenance. The chisels in question were dull, had significant amounts of glue and paint on them, and the 1/4″ chisel had a broken corner at the tip that went back about 1/2″ up the shank. It would take days of work to get that chisel back into serviceable condition. I once spent two days tearing down, cleaning, and tuning the thickness planer in the shop because one of the two owners put an edge-joined panel through the planer while the glue was still wet. No, I wasn’t paid for the maintenance work. Probably should have offered a them a bill though, it did set me back 15 hours on the casework job I was being paid for. I was told that the planer never worked as well before I tuned it as after.

There were a few hand tools that I would cart in with me every time I went up to the Baltimore Shop: Dividers, two sectors (small and large), six and sixteen inch adjustable squares, a roundhead mallet, a short set of my own bench and mortise chisels, marking gauges, cabinet scraper, card scrapers, and a Stanley 4 1/2 affectionately named “Norm” (not after Mr. Abrams, but rather my father, from whom I inherited it). Other tools might be brought in based on what other work I was doing, either for them or one of my own commissions. I don’t mean it as a slight when I say the standard procedures of that shop were very much stuck in the 1970’s. To the operators of the shop more power tools meant better, faster, cleaner results. Those hobbyists and professionals who have kept up with the times see that having a hand tools available can greatly improve on the quality, speed, and ease of manufacture.

I don’t think it is conceited of me to say that my few months working with them opened up many new methods and procedures by incorporating hand tools into several work processes. In one instance, a miscommunication on a stain color led to a 20 unit kitchen needing to be stripped to bare wood and refinished. I watched Mr. Jonnsen (not his real name) spend an hour sanding back to the veneer on a plywood door front. He was being especially careful not to burn through the veneer with 220 paper on an orbital sander, but the job would have taken weeks at his rate. I grabbed my card scrapers from my tool bag and walked over to him, asking for him to brace the far end of the panel.
As I brandished my scraper he looked at me saying “You can’t use those on plywood.”

I raised an eyebrow and told him you can, then proceeded to clear the panel down to bare wood in about 30 seconds. I repeated this on two other panels before handing the card scraper over to him to finish the rest. He bought a set the next week.

Now I in Kansas City, MO. I have immediate access to a “workspace” but it is far from optimal. Matter of fact, it’s pretty bad. There are a couple of power tools in the shop, but they are in very poor states of repair. For Woodworking Safety Week, I’ll do a walkthrough and point of the safety issues created by poor tool maintenance and shop set up as evidenced in this shop. Almost all of my tools are in storage, though I do have a fair number of hand tools that I keep around, as well as those I’ve built since I’ve been staying here. Having the experience of running a production shop using a hybrid of hand and power tools has given me the experience and confidence to continue working with wood without the power assist. It sucks, in some cases, but I can get the job done. I never have been a fan of hand thicknessing or ripping 8/4 stock by hand. But I have experience doing it and no compunctions against making the best use of the limited resources that are at my disposal.

As a reproduction woodworker, it also helps to have the experience of doing the work using the traditional tools. I find it brings a better understanding of the how’s and why’s of certain techniques… Not to mention just a little bit of pride in knowing that I am able to meet the same quality as my forebearers while using nothing fancier than the tools they had to work with.

When it comes down to it, having already learned “the hard way” to work wood has gone a long way to buoying my spirits during this period of my life. I think if I had been working completely with power tools until these last few months, and just now learning to use hand tools for woodworking, I would likely be more disturbed and upset with my situation.

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