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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Old Ways of Working Wood: a review.

I'd like to recommend a fascinating book I picked up at the library last week: Old Ways of Working Woodby Alex W. Bealer. The author clearly states his position on modern woodworking in the opening chapter:

"The machine, not the craftsman, dominates woodworking today. The result has been an artistic tragedy."

Those are some pretty strong statements. Are we, as power tool enthusiasts fooling ourselves into believing that we are actually creative, let alone artistic? Are we merely button pushers and no longer craftsmen? Sadly, as a confirmed power tool user, I agree with  Bealer — to a point.

Push-button woodworking

It takes no particular skill to rip a board on a table saw. I'm pretty sure monkeys could be trained to do it. My miter saw hacks out 45 degree angled cuts with a positive click stop on its table. I push a button and it cuts with relative precision. My benchtop planer is the ultimate example of push button technology in my shop. I stick a board in one end and it comes out flat and thinner on the other end. I don't even have to push the wood through: rollers pull it through at a constant speed. Its produces a loud, almost frightening scream letting me know who's really the boss. Most of the finesse required to use these machines involves continually tweaking them so that they run straight and keep doing what they are supposed to do.

In today's shop, we solve woodworking problems by making jigs and figuring out countless ways to best exploit the machine. In a sense, we are slaves to the capabilities and limitations of our machines. Moreover, if a certain power tool doesn't provide the results we desire, we go shopping for a bigger or better machine that will. If we want to create a certain router profile, we buy a pre-made bit that will suffice. Or settle for one that's close enough to what we envision. Want to make mortises? There are machines that bore perfectly square holes. At what point are we no longer working the wood, and just cutting out dough with cookie cutters?

Woodworking once required working wood

Bealer points out that all of this has, for the most part, come about within the past hundred years or so. Before the 20th century, a man literally worked wood, starting with the tree itself. He understood the growth of trees and had knowledge of the ones surrounding him. Building with wood began by felling the tree. From there the woodworker would hew and split the wood. Saw it, plane, bore it, chisel it, turn it, and cut joints. A craftsman's imagination wasn't limited to the tools he had on hand or could buy. If he needed, say, a specialized plane for something he dreamed up, he made his own. Woodworkers viewed their tools as highly personal objects and saw them as extensions of their own hands. Each project was unique because the craftsman was intimately involved with the wood.

Each chapter of Old Ways of Working Wood describes in great detail each of these traditional woodworking techniques. It is educational and at times, awe inspiring. Would you know how to correctly fell a tree with a single ax? Ever used an adz? Bealer has learned these methods from people who actually use them and manages to share it all in a lively, easy to read manner.

So where does this leave us?

Using power tools doesn't diminish my joy of building woodworking projects. In fact, power tools increase my pleasure, because I don't have to spend years as an apprentice honing skills that can only be learned through repetition. Power tools enable anyone to become a hobbyist and create things. In the past, I suspect woodworking wan't much of a hobby. People devoted their lives to it because they needed to. But are we artists? Most of us probably aren't. But neither were most traditional woodworkers. They built things they required.

Old Ways of Working Wood makes me want to learn to use hand tools and really get in touch with the materials I use. It's inspiring. But the reality is, I don't have the time to start from scratch. I am a product of the 20th century. And here is where I find disagreement with Alex Bealer. My table saw may not be an extension of my hands, but it is an extension of my imagination. And I'm perfectly cool with that.


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  2. I've been clearing a lot of land over the last few months and splitting and stacking lots of firewood with an axe recently. As a woodworker I've been thinking along these lines a lot recently! Great Post!

    We really need to get back to the materials! There is a reason I do everything but rip boards with hand tools!

    As much as I lust over a jointer at times when I'm in a hurry; I dont think actually using one would let me enjoy woodworking near as much.

    .. and thats just using hand tools! Once you dive into making your own planes, marking knifes etc... you gain another level of appreciation all together!

  3. I think there is new fad of thinking we as wood workers have to spend hours hand planing a board and all this jive as some right of passage to call ourselves a "real wood worker" when in reality the craft has evolved people seem to get caught up in this fantasy world of being a "Traditional" wood worker when we never apply it to other aspects of our day to day lives.
    Does a master chef go out into the fields and flip cow patty's to find that perfect truffle?
    Does a famous painter go into the woods to find that one plant to extract color to make his own paints?
    Does an ice sculptor how to be a blacksmith and make his own chisels?
    Does a person who works with clay go out into fields and dig up their own clay?

    The list goes on but alas the answer to all of the above is a majority No answers. Do we look down on them as lesser chefs because he didn't hunt,kill,field dress that cow that he cooked our T-bone steak with? Do we call him "Not a real chef"
    because he isn't using a wood stove and slaving over a single meal for 4-6 hours?
    Do we call painters who produce wonderful works of art "Not real painters" because they bought store paints that have been made with machines?
    Do we call "potters" (is that you call the people who work with clay? lol)not real artists because they are using a motor powered machine to turn the clay instead of manually doing it?
    Do we call some the amazing ice sculptures lesser forms of art because the guy used power tool to get the basic form in the ice?
    Do we call some of those amazing carvings done with chain saws CHAINSAWS!! lesser because he used a power tool to do them?

    I would hope to the above questions the answer is No.
    So with that said why do we as woodworkers get this stigmata of not being real woodworkers because we use a power tool?
    I cannot say with 100% accuracy but I will hazard a guess that if we had a time machine and went back into a time when they didn't have these machines which make the craft so much more functional for lack of a better word and was able to take these tools back to them and have some sort of generator to power them that a big majority of the "Traditional" woodworkers would happily use them.

    See that is where is see the problem stemming from its like people seem to miss the fact that these luxury's were not available back them to "real woodworkers" so its a jaded view of what a"Real" woodworking should be as back then they didn't have these wonderful inventions to call upon we DO!
    Times have changes things have improved its time to catch up with reality and stop trying to drag our heals and live in the past, Learn from the past dont repeat it.
    If we live in this infinite loop of trying to hold onto the past we miss the future, I would hazard a guess the pilgrims would have been more than happy to trade that horse and buggy for a 18 wheel and that stick frame tent for a RV and that fire for a gas stove.
    People didnt CHOOSE to do woodworking by hand back then they had no other choice we DO!
    So grasp the future with both hands Live in present Learn from the past but for god sake use the tools available to you otherwise all the blood,sweat and tears of the former generations who because they were sick of doing things the way they HAD to! not because they WANTED to! otherwise they never would have invented a BETTER way of doing it.

    Die in the future, Age in the past, but LIVE in the present for soon as it is here, its gone.

  4. I can see his point, but we still work the wood. It's just that the tools we use, or these new extensions to our hands, do more work for us. Whereas, woodworkers used to make a hole with a brace and bit, you now do it with a power drill and bit. It's the same with a power planer, it does what was previously done with a hand plane(which I still like to use)only faster and more efficiently. Much the same way that steel tools made work easier than using the stone tools that came before that.
    And as for being an artist, I feel that anyone who creates an object that is pleasing to the eye, or is a functional item that can make life easier could be considered an artist. My father was an artist, his medium was pencil and paper, and his tools included a drafting table, straightedges, and all manner of other items such as templates, triangles, squares, etc... The final result were detailed architectural drawings.
    Every artist/craftsman uses what is currently available to him/her and what they feel comfortable with to complete their creations.
    Well, that was a bit wordy, but I hope I made my point that what you create is a product of the time in which you live and whatever tools are available to you. It doesn't make someone less of an artist/craftsman to use more modern tools to speed up or make the job easier.

  5. My grandfather was born in 1885, He was a true carpenter/woodworker who used hand tools. The only power tools he had were a "home made" table saw (the table was a half sheet of plywood), a 1/4" electric drill and an old saber saw. He would be amazed with today's woodworking tools. I still prize owning his hand saw collection, his cast iron level, a Stanley block plane and his folding ruler.
    It is fun to use these tools, but I still prefer using all the power equipment and tools that I have. I did enjoy drilling holes, when I was very young, with the Yankee Driver/drill he had. I still have two of his also.

  6. I dont have much to add to all the above statements. I personally turned to woodworking to stay somewhat active. All I can say is some woodworkers make videos that I can understand (yours are great) other woodworkers lose me instantly no matter how many times I replay it. Some works I have seen with band saws and scrollsaws are so artistic that even with master blue prints I wouldnt be able to duplicate it.

    So I would say they are some creative woodworkers out there and there are novices like me. The difference is my stuff is homemade and like moms cooking all my friends enjoy the goods. Thats what counts in my book!

  7. A very insightful blog piece Steve, and I must say that we think very much alike.
    I enjoy using my power tools as I think some of them can do things I would find very difficult to do by hand, but I also really enjoy using my hand tools.
    I remember you posting a piece stating that you have special fondness for the tools you inherited from your grandfather. Same here.
    I will read Mr Bealer's book because it sounds very interesting.
    Thanks Steve.

  8. Steve, As you said " We are a product of the 21st century" and thats nothing to be ashamed of. The use of power tools, in my mind, lends to more artistic ability due to the time savings that allows one to put more time and thought into each project. Sam Maloof is quite the artisan, and he uses power tools to create his wonders, I think no lesser of him.

    The wood workers of old had no choice but to go cut a tree down if they wanted to build a set of shelves or a chair, they didn't have a Home Depot down the street to get the wood from. If they did I'm sure they would have left that tree standing in the back yard.

    As for myself, if it wasn't for power tools, I would not enjoy wood working as much as I do, I probably wouldn't be doing it at all, the tools allow me to create things from a bare hunk of wood and turn it into something a lot quicker and easier than I could with out them. It doesn't take me months or years to complete one project like it did in the 17th or 18th centuries. I stand by my power tools and am proud to do so!

    BTW, I love your site, keep enjoying your wood working just the way you are.

  9. An interesting read, thank you. This can be said in a lot of the 'arts' though. Photography is a fine example. The technology has changed so much, anyone can take a decent photo, and some think their just above decent photo ability makes them a photographer. Some thing you have to use film, or it's ok to use digital, just no touching it up afterwards with photoshop or whatever.

    In my mind, we have to think what we are doing it for first. Why is it we are doing what we love? Whether that is photography, web design, or woodworking. Is it to fulfill a purpose? Do we have a deadline? Can we take as long as we want and it's just to relax and doesn't matter if you finish a project a year even? Do we want to get it done quicker and easier using some power tools, or would we prefer the silence of not having all this technology interfere?

    Technology allows us to do things in a manner we want to do them now. In the past, things were done how they were because that's how they needed to be done to get completed.

    In finishing, I completely agree with your final paragraph as that seems to be about where I stand. Take care,


  10. While I have not read the book if the premise is really what I am picking up here then it is BS.I could write a book here on why that is so, but no one is paying me so I won't. If you want to stand in the bottom of a saw pit wearing a straw hat then be my guest. But none of that is going to change the basic facts of what tools are, and what machines are. If the book is right then why use any tools at all? Just your teeth and finger nails should suffice!

    Beavers manage to fell trees with just their teeth and they're not writing any books on the subject. I guess they've one upped ole Bealer now haven't they?

    If Chippendale was alive today he'd know exactly what to do with that book. He'd put it next to the toilet so he could tear pages out to wipe with! Be a real man Steve and toss that intellectual drivel and get back into your shop and use tools for Gods sake! Power tools even.

  11. In the beginning was the industrial revolution, wherein and thereafter the artisan was superseded by the engineer. The engineer looked on the labours of the artisan woodworker and spoke thus:

    “Hey, dusty citizen! Desist from all you’re a-sawing and a-chopping and a-chiselling and a-filing and a-rubbing! Hark ye unto me and I will impart to you the means and the wherewithal such that your labours may be ended and all you’re a-cutting and a-sanding will be done and over for good ‘n’ all!”

    The straw-hatted wood butcher viewed the tinsmith with scepticism. “No shit?” came his retort.

    “Verily” said the metal basher “Witness that very cleft stick you have been a-hacking and a-whittling all the long day and into the night, to the neglect of your right comely wife and needy childer. I promise and affirm to engineer for thee a powerful machine, such-like that from daybreak to sundown, in that very time, many a multitude of such cleft sticks wilt thou fashion from that mighty blasted oak that fell through the roof of your humble shanty yesteryear.”

    “Word?” asked the adze-man dubiously, scratching shavings from his dusty pate.

    “Even in as much as you contract to me for such a machine, therefore will I supply the aforesaid contraption and you will make many a groat and shekel and farthing by the sale and purveyance of cleft sticks on the cleft stick market in yonder thoroughfare to the back of your skylighted cabin. Hoards of the stickless shall rush to your door to purchase your superior product and thou shalt offer a 12 month warranty and thou shalt occupy the best site in the aforesaid market and by virtue of that be ‘market leader’. Thus will you be showered in coin and afford the repair to your dilapidated abode, even to the extent of a separate chamber for the sleeping infants and indoor plumbing and shiny trinkets and baubles for your buxom mistress and decking without and a fire pit for the roasting of the fatted calf and the suckling pig and you will install a barrel of rainwater in which to store and cool your mead and ale, such will be your munificence.”

    “HOT DIGGETY! Where do I sign?” whooped the nail-basher, falling for it like a heavy thing falls from a great height.

    “I assume you’ll be a-wanting the easy payment terms” said the metal spinner, drawing a parchment from his jerkin. “But hark thee to my dire warning, crusty yeoman, for there is a facet to this contract that shall forever face to the floor, that is and shall be forever known, for as long as man does business with man, as the ‘downside’ and this is my disclaimer, withal.”

    “Wassat?” queried the dust-covered bumpkin

    “From this day forward, if thou gets into bed with me, figuratively speaking of course, for I am as straight as the track that leads from your cabin to the outhouse, if we do this deal then from now, henceforward, ye will lose all respect and be cast out from your fellow chisellers, shunned wilt thou be by decent hardworking woodcutters and all folks of quality and discernment, from this day, even unto eternity thou shalt be known, forever and a day, as a MERE MORTAL WOODWORKER!”

    “Dang” quoth the nit-picker.

  12. I fall my own trees with a hand saw, bring them back home both on my shoulders and with my car, mill them with my bandsaw and power planer, and build stuff with that sweat-owned lumber. So I can relate to what Bealer says and to others' reactions above my comment.

    Why do I fall my trees with a handsaw? for lack of a power tool... Previously I did fall trees with an axe, but I'm talking about boxwood here, so no hog cutting allowed, I want clean cuts and most of all clean stumps, so that they don't catch infections or whatever - the box trees in my area grow with several trunks on the same stump, I select the big, straight ones and never take more than two of the same stump, then apply a putty to protect the stump from any fungi attack. Hey, these are more than two hundred years old!

    Why don't I split the logs with a handsaw instead of my bandsaw? To avoid waste. The biggest box I cut down was 9,6 cm (3" 3/4) at its lowest point, and they taper down quite fast. As I only take the straightest ones, which are not so many, I do my best to avoid wasting material.

    Why the power planer? Heck, French boxwood is rock-hard, especially after it has been left to air dry (with its bark and moss, if present) for 3~10 years. Sandpaper isn't going to be of any help with that kind of hardwood if used by hand, and I can't even think about using my hand plane, as I have little holiday time to work upon my projects. Still, I lack tools to do the tedious work more quickly and efficiently, and end up wasting way too much material as compared to what would be dusted with more adequate tools. When time and raw material don't matter, it's okay to say" it's not the tool, it's the man" (hey Norm!). But with limited stock and time, power tools are the way to go for me to do the biggest part of the job, then it's okay to turn back to the fine hand extensions to finish working on a workpiece.

    That being said, I wouldn't be shy to use a CNC (am building one) for stuff that doesn't have to be FELT. Does a garden arbor need to be handmade? Is it meant to be touched and felt? Not at all. But when it comes to fine items, musical instruments, and the alike, hand finessed is the way to go.

    BTW Steve, next time you fall an apple tree, PLEASE send it to me, it's a precious wood that has been used for centuries for the finest items. For Pete's sake :)

  13. So the concept and design of the project counts for nothing? Not to mention even power tools have personality and take time to become familiar with and use properly. Maybe the ultimate example of this is the CNC router. Just a quick glance at any of the forums shows that you don't just plug it in and start carving intricate pieces, or even cut out simple shapes. There's a learning curve which requires dedication and trial and error. Selecting the right material, bit, rpm, feed rate, and pass depth is "push button" compared to picking up a handsaw and pushing it back and forth? Sure it is. I suspect the author either a) can't afford power tools or b) doesn't understand how to use them and therefore feels the need to belittle those who can and do. I don't bash those who chose to use hand tools and would appreciate the same courtesy from them.

  14. I think the most important question to ask ourselves in all of this is "why do I woodwork?" For most of us, at least readers of this blog, woodworking is a hobby. We cut wood and make things because we find it an enjoyable experience.

    There are as many different ways to experience that enjoyment as there are tools available. The joy lies mostly in the process.

    I have a couple of hand planes. They are the least-used tools in my shop. When I use a hand plane I am reminded of the skill involved in its use and the time it will take me to get to a point where I am even mildly proficient. Basically, its more work and frustration than enjoyment.

    My assortment of power tools offer me enough of a challenge for me to find the hobby enjoyable and relaxing. But it is a different process. Instead of building my skills of technique, I spend the time building experience to best manipulate and enhance my machines. This frees me to focus on the bigger picture: completing relatively cool projects is a relatively short amount of time. I know its not a race, but I have a short attention span.

    Mostly, power tools allow me to be more creative. I can imagine what I want to build and use brain power to figure out how to accomplish it. My tools are simply tools to that end.

    The line does get fuzzy when I think of using a CNC. It would be fun to draw out really complex designs and see how the machine cuts them out. But at that point, I think I would feel very little connection with the wood.

    But I am fascinated by the use of hand tools. It's amazing to watch someone who really knows what they are doing. It's kind of like watching Roy Underhill. I am absorbed into everything he does, but realize I will never attempt any of it. Strangely, now that I think about it, that exact sentence applies to Norm Abram too!

  15. Isn't "experience to best manipulate" pretty much "technique"? Power tools take skill just like hand tools.

    The few times I've watched Roy Underhill (he makes Steve look calm and collected!) I never saw him finish anything. Maybe I just couldn't stand his spasms long enough to get to the end of the show.

  16. I'm far from a hand tool purist, but I have found that the learning curve for hand tools isn't nearly as steep as I expected, but I also find that they can do things that power tools often turn into a chewed mess. Why worry about a router chipping out your hinge mortise when they're easily cut using nothing but a chisel and a mallet? It takes a little bit longer, but not as much as I expected.

    The hardest lesson with hand tools is that you should sharpen your tools every day, and not settle for less than a razor edge. A dull chisel or plane is one of the most frustrating things, and can easily lead you to imagine that there's some "skill" you lack to handling that tool correctly. Hardware store chisels are especially bad this way: they ship about as sharp as a butter knife.

    When I'm in a hurry, I lean on the power tools, especially if I have to make multiples. I also don't see any real point in performing simple operations like milling square stock by hand; that would be tedious without much gain. But when I need to cut complex joinery or in some direction that is likely to be mangled by a machine, even with proper stock support, I just pick up a chisel.

    And there really is nothing quite as relaxing as sitting down with a chisel, a mallet, and some good music.

  17. @CaladanJen Nicely said. You make a good point. Sometimes a power tool ISN'T the right tool for a given task. I need to remember this. Hinge mortises are a good example. I've done them with my router and with a chisel. It is actually easier by hand...and less stressful. I often dread setting up power tools for very small (or simple) operations.

    The bottom line is, I need to start considering all of my tools (hand and powered) as one package, and select the right tool for the job.

  18. I once read a regular poster on the woodonline forum remind us that woodworkers of old times did not have power tools like we have today, however they did have an apprentice or more to do much if not all of the repetative work. So he views his power tools as his apprentices.

    I haven't read Bealer's book (nor the umpteen posts before mine yet, so forgive me if I repeat something or say it out of context), but I wonder if he's seen the work of the likes of David Marks. He uses power tools on most every project. Would Bealer look at his work as lacking in artistic expression or talent?

    I will offer this personal observation and that is that the table saw is NOT an "extension of (the) imagination" any more than a spoke shave. It's simply a contemporary instrument of the trade. The product of the work is the extension of the human imagination.

    Great article. Great web site. Keep it up!

  19. I just looked up the book and found that it pre-dates David Marks show, so he would not have seen David's work prior to writing that book. With that clarified, I still stand on the rest of my comments.

  20. Wow, and now it is April of 2012 and I am just getting around to commenting on this. I was gathering parts from an old sewing machine, a "PortALine" portable drill press, a rotisserie motor, and other items to make my own sanding barrel to make wooden beads (as seen on LJ) and my friend said, "Why don't you just buy one?"

    First of all, I don’t believe such a thing is for sale, but even if it was, I would rather create my own.

    I guess the making of my own machine isn't part of the woodworking journey he would love and appreciate. I think that is ok. We share other parts of the craft, and that is ... just fine.

    I'm glad we both enjoy the working of wood, no matter how it is done.

  21. Seems like I'm coming late to the party myself.

    First of all, I'm a hand-tool kind of person, not because I view myself as the modern incarnation of Ned Ludd, but because my budget and my space restrict my shop experiences to hand techniques. I have a tablesaw with an attached routing table that sits under cover outside with a waterproof tarp as extra protection. Sure, I'd love to have a jointer, a planer, a bandsaw, and a big drum sander but my space restrictions and budget make this impossible. So instead, I pick up a a frame saw, foreplane, and scrub plane and do it the old fashioned way.

    But if I had the space and the money? I'd be all over it. I know if I throw a stick of wood on my crosscut sled or need to rip a board to length, my tablesaw can do it over and over again with variance. If I need to dado/rabbet in the end of a plank to create a perpendicular surface, I reach for my router. And I do those things not because I'm lazy or I don't know how to do them with handtools (because dangit, I do), I do it because this complex electrical tool allows me to do things with accuracy and consistency that I may or may not get doing it the "old way."

    Neither my tablesaw or my wooden scrub plane are extensions of my imagination, the piece I'm turning into something beautiful is the extension of my imagination.

  22. As you said, most of us are hobbists. I work as a technical control guy in a shipyard, 5 days a week for 8 hours. I am sick and tired of all the noise i have to listen on my work so when i want to relax and do some woodwork i generaly avoid machines because they are loud, dusty and dangerous. I can not relax while that router is spinning at 10000 rpm, sure it will do that moulding profile in a minute but i can to the same thing (even better) with a moulding plane in 5 minutes. I dont work for money, i work for myself so that diffrence really doesnt matter.
    I use machines, it would be stupid that i dont. But i use them for dimensioning wood and not much else. You see, there are things that are far more pleasuring than a finished project, for me that is working on that same project. I use my saw to cut dovetails, tenons and so on, my chisel to finish them and my plane to finish surfaces with a little touch up with a scraper. There is no noise except that "swosh" you hear when your hand plane cuts, your mallet blow on your chisel or your saw cutting wood. I dont sand my projects so there is very little dust around me, no noise from table saw, router or orbit sander. It relaxes me and there is no machine that can substitute for that.