Power Tools vs. Hand Tools

For as long as I can remember, woodworkers have fallen into two different categories. It seems you were either a modern high-tech gadget power tools guy or a nostalgic traditionalist hand tool person. In the beginning, I believed this was to be true. But these days my thoughts are changing and I think I am becoming an enlightened woodworker.

The stereotype of these two different groups started for me in the 7th grade. We had a woodworking shop class. This was where I was first exposed to woodworking. Now it’s been a while since then, and my memory has become foggy, but I do recall I was drawn to the power tools. The large belt sander and bandsaw were the two I recall. In fact, it was such an impression on me, that summer was when I first started my woodworking business. But that’s another story for another day.

As I got a little older, I started watching the PBS shows on TV. First was the New Yankee Workshop. The host, Norm Abram, dressed in lumberjack-style clothing and would speak in an almost monotone voice. It could be said, he wasn’t the most electrifying person on camera, but he really has some impressive woodworking skills. Whether it was a simple rustic country style or a very involved period piece of furniture, he could do it all. 

I would turn in every week and watch what it was he was going to make. Even one time I was inspired to order one of his plans thinking that I might be ambitious enough to make it myself. (If you might be wondering, it was the plans for his router table. I did get the plans, but I never did anything with it) Perhaps I never made it because at the time I felt I couldn’t. I would sometimes watch the show and say to myself, “Oh sure, if I had all those power tools, I could make that too!” I assumed the tools did all the work and Norm was just an “operator” and not a woodworker at all.  I found out later, some others had the same impression of Norm that I did.

A little bit after Norm’s show was the Woodwright shop with the host Roy Underhill. Now Roy was completely different from Norm. Not only did Roy look different but his style was completely opposite of that of Norm’s. 

Roy wore a worn-out paddy cap and red suspenders. He had a high energy level and had an enthusiasm that was just ready to explode on camera. Besides looking different, he approached woodworking differently. He did everything with old hand tools.

 Roy would build projects and also give the history of the tools and woodworking in days gone by. I used to watch and somewhat laugh at him. His antics bordered on zany and I would say to myself, “Get with the times. No one would ever use those tools today. How ridiculous.”

How times have changed. Back then I would definitely say I was a “power tool guy”. But today most people would think of me as a “hand tool fellow”. The truth is, I’m both.

As a full-time professional woodworker, I rely heavily on my power tools. They do the heavy bulk load of the work for me. I would never be able to make a decent living without them. But with that said, I equally rely on my hand tools. My hand tools do the fine-tuning of my joinery or details needed on my furniture. 

Having an understanding balance of both groups makes me appreciate the advancements the modern-day technology power tools have to offer and yet, I feel a connection of all the woodworkers’ generations before me, as I use an old hand tool. It is the perfect balance and harmony in becoming an enlightened woodworker.

With that being said, if push came to shove, and I was asked which group I would prefer, I would have to say, “hand tools.’’ I say this because I believe beginning with hand tools helps train your hand and eye coordination. I believe it also helps train the way your mind works in understanding the wood better. Using hand tools, the wood teaches you more. A power tool works through the wood while a hand tool works with the wood. 

For a beginner, hand tools have the benefit of being cheaper than power tools. Also if you lack the room and space, hand tools take up much less territory than big bulky power tools. Finally, hand tools can do ANYTHING power tools can do. You just need a lot more time, physical energy, and better skills.

In the end, no matter which group you find yourself in, try new methods and new ways of doing different woodworking tasks. A great way to improve is getting out of your comfort zone. This will not only make you better, but it keeps this wonderful craft alive.

Chad Stanton- Owner of Stanton Fine Furniture 3-28-2021