Nov 26 2010

Getting High End Craftsmanship From Hand Tools

In The Craftsmanship of Dick Proenneke, we looked at how Dick took a number of hand tools into the Alaskan wilderness, and used them to homestead and create all the things he needed to live and survive. It was rustic carpentry from available timber that was felled, seasoned and milled by hand on site. We all got to look over Dick’s shoulder as he showed us how these tools could be used to create most of what would be needed to make a comfortable home and live well in a remote area.

Dick wrote that what he had accomplished was good enough for “rural work” but in reality, he was a very talented user of hand operated tooling, and knew what he could accomplish with the woods he had access to and the kind of durability he needed from them. Rural work did not mean he quit refining the quality of his workmanship, it meant he built the way he did so as to provide utility, endure hard use and inclement seasonal conditions.

cwf1.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Hand tools are also very highly regarded as the go to tools for fine work. Work on pieces where tolerances are exacting, or the sizes of the pieces are so small or thin where powered tooling would make it difficult to work safely or accurately.

The biggest misgivings that people who don’t use hand tools have when I have spoken with them about them have been based in what they are unsure about. Not knowing what a tool will do, how to maintain sharpness, and how difficult the application of the tool to the task will be. In other words, to some, hand tools are either Greek to them, or they seem too hard. The philosophy of “seem” is different than the philosophy of “is”.

cwf2.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Other times it’s a production issue, but unless we have commercial obligations, most woodworkers are not having production issues. Most woodworkers have the shop machines they need to handle all the heavy lifting, and for the most part are usually not in a production environment. Never the less, some hand tools are quite productive, and are in some cases the only way to do certain things. Those who eschew machinery, are not concerned with any production issue. I know a few furniture makers who are asked on occasion to build commissioned pieces with hand tools only.

cwf3.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Sometimes we are afraid to try something we are unfamiliar with, or dismiss something because we don’t know much about it. On the other hand, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it never hurts to try. I am saying, try them, you will be pleasantly surprised what they can do! They are much easier to work with than you might have imagined.

cwf4.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Epiphanies often happen for woodworkers who are new to using hand planes when surface qualities that compare to 600-grit sandpaper smoothness happen in one swipe of a plane blade. Better still, the wood is not burnished and will take stains and dyes really well. Other times the ease of using a hand tool shines when a task is accomplished without noise, projectile sawdust, or without complex jigging and fixturing. It is even more impressive when it happens with great ease and in less time than you thought it would. Hand tools offer a lot of premium advantages to woodworkers if they try to learn their ways.

cwf5.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Woodworking is an evolved tradecraft that can trace it’s linage to the use of hand tools. While machines have taken the place of hand tools for many mundane and laborious tasks today, there are still many places where hand tools can shine, and even do the best work possible. We are making a bunch of parts and sub assemblies, then putting them together; we can create them any way we like. Layout for what you want to make, and remove all the material that doesn’t belong to what you are making. Depending on the task, often the hand tool makes an outcome as easy as drawing or pointing. When you look deeply into certain tasks, hand tools offer the most direct way.

cwf6.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

In 1976, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation produced a documentary about how musical instrument making was done in colonial times. It featured the use of hand tools in a cabinetmaker’s shop of the era. It is about the making of a spinet harpsichord and a violin. There are a large number of hand tools, even some very specialized tools used, different timbers and materials used, and woodworking techniques described in the movie.

If you navigate to the following four links, you can watch The Musical Instrument Maker of Williamsburg in it’s entirety on YouTube.

Video 1 of 4

Video 2 of 4

Video 3 of 4

Video 4 of 4

Many woodworkers may not be interested in making musical instruments and that is fine, but the film will show many different techniques which can be employed to do very fine woodwork with hand tools. Nearly any of these techniques are transferrable to any project where hand tools are used to accomplish the work. Are there skills you wish you had? Are there techniques you would like to employ on the work you do? This documentary may offer the right inspiration.

cwf7.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Some of the tools and techniques shown and described in the documentary are:

• Wood bending, using both boiling and steaming methods.

• Properties of various wood species and how reading these variable properties for specific purposes is important.

• Many applications for gluing using hot hide glue.

• Special fixtures for work holding during sawing with fret and coping saws.

• Fixturing for chiseling and carving processes.

• Special techniques for clamping odd shaped items with various forms of joinery.

cwf8.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

• Techniques for clamping curved work.

• Techniques for clamping and molding woods to the contour of shaped forms.

• Techniques for clamping with various shaped cauls.

• Techniques for clamping with go bars. (A wooden bar that fits between the work and the ceiling to provide clamping pressure.)

• Techniques for clamping with string.

• Special fixturing for gluing curved work.

• Layout techniques for various styles of joinery as well as for use with curved work.

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• Sawing veneers by hand.

• Planing with toothing planes to avoid tear out to the wood fibers.

• Planing with violinmaker’s planes for thicknessing and finishing tight areas and creating special contours and radiuses.

• Paring and carving operations with chisels and gouges utilizing many different approaches and techniques.

• Methods for sawing, filing and gluing with ivory.

• Many different views of various scraping scenarios throughout.

• Curved purfling inlay work with ebony and holly.

cwf10.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

• Router plane usage for fixed depth work.

• Shaving curved and straight work with drawknives and spokeshaves.

• Sawing and chamfering the finished edges of holes.

• Layout and planing for fitment to contoured surfaces.

• Marquetry, the lay out, sawing of multiple colors at once, scorching for color toning, and fitment as an inlay.

• Finishing with shellacs, varnishes and polishing out with rottenstone.

• Layout for drilling with awls and various styles of bits, the reaming of holes for proper sizing, and finished edges with chamfers.

Some other things that the film exposes us to, are how different materials are chosen for the specific qualities they have. Strength, appearance and sonic resonance are a few qualities that make the wood adequate for use when none of the other qualities are required.

cwf11.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Of note in the film were the many ways the craftsmen fixtured the various forms of work, so as to be able to work with tools safely, ergonomically and accurately. The sharpness of their tooling made the work look as though it was effortless. In reality, it is as easy as it looks if tooling is sharp. Sharp tooling does make the work happen with a lot less effort than one might imagine, and achieving high levels of sharpness on hand tooling is not hard to learn to accomplish.

cwf12.jpgColonial Williamsburg Photo

Many of us learn by seeing things done, and it helps to have an explanation as we watch. My hopes are that seeing this documentary sparks interest and imagination. Perhaps it will show a path to finer woodworking to those looking for a way. This documentary helps outline many ways we can utilize hand tools, jigs and fixtures to aid in accomplishing fine workmanship that would be otherwise very difficult to do with power tools and shop machines. Have a look at each of the six videos and see if it doesn’t reveal a trick or two of the versatility hand tools can offer!

Were you aware we make woodworking tools? We have a full product line of tools and jigs for use in both hand and power tool woodworking, that help improve your skills and workflow, while improving your speed, accuracy and in many cases, help keep you safe.

We offer a full line of shooting boards and accessories for tackling the most challenging projects, as well as sharpening stations, drilling jigs and benchwork accessories that help keep you sharp and accurate on many tasks!

The list of tools we make is too long to list here! Come to the Evenfall Studios Woodworks Store to see our latest New Tools, or have a look at our entire woodworking tool line!

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© Copyright 2010 by Rob Hanson for All Rights Reserved.

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