Saturday, January 25, 2014

Electric-powered or Hand-powered?

Someone on asked recently what limitations there were on what could be done with hand tools.  I started writing with the intention of just saying "There are none, everything used to be done that way."  I wound up with something long enough that I've decided to put it here, as well.

I started out down the power tool route, then did a 170 (not quite a 180 -- I still use a few power tools) after seeing a presentation by Paul Sellers and some videos of a few other hand tool workers. I said I use a few power tools, still: they are a corded electric drill, a drill press, a band saw, and a circular saw. I've also got a chop saw, but it's really a rough carpentry tool... I could spend a month calibrating it, and I still don't think it would cut a perfect 90 degree angle. If I were starting over I wouldn't buy the handheld drill or the circular saw, so I'm leaving them out of my math. Here's my take.

Anything you could make with power tools, you could also make with hand tools. Anything you could make with hand tools, you could also make with power tools. The question of "Can it be done?" is therefore pretty meaningless. So what's the difference? Cost, convenience, and complexity.

Cost: Hand tools are arguably cheaper. I'm pretty sure I'm less than $800 into my hand tool kit, and the only things left that I know I'll need sooner or later are a pair of router planes and some new drill and auger bits. I'm including the two power tools I anticipate using regularly in that number, by the way -- a band saw and a drill press. I'll probably buy the planes and bits new, which means I'll probably add another $300-350 to my total. If you buy all new, instead of mostly cheap and used like I have, you can still probably get a good kit for under a grand, just slightly less complete. On the other hand, a nice solid table saw can run upwards of $500 on its own, and you'll still need a router, router table, bandsaw, drill press, miter saw, and so on. I priced it out. Buying good quality new tools, or even high quality used tools, gets expensive.

Convenience: In many cases, power tools are more convenient. I have a band saw for doing long rip cuts, long curves, and resawing. I have a drill press for drilling perfectly aligned holes of any size. In other cases, hand tools are more convenient. I don't know of a way to come up with the same end-grain surface that a hand plane used with a shooting board will get. For cutting a small board to exact length, I'd rather use a carcasse saw and a bench hook than a miter saw: it's faster, more accurate, and less prone to throwing little bits of wood around the shop like buckshot. And in just about every case, the hand tool will be quieter and cleaner, which is a nice bonus.

Complexity: In my mind, this almost always goes in favor of hand tools. Complex compound miters are relatively easy with hand tools: draw the line you want to cut on, put the piece of wood in a vise, and cut it. With power tools, you frequently end up needing complex jigs to do the same job. Given the need to cut a piece to an exact length, I can measure it out on the piece, mark it, and cut. I find that a lot easier than setting up a table or miter saw. Most operations, though, aren't any less complex either way: cutting curves with a bow saw or a band saw are the same except in terms of effort. Ripping is simple with hand or power tools, it's just more work with hand tools. There's one specific place this goes entirely in favor of power tools: production line work. If I need a hundred boards cut to the same length, I'd far, FAR rather use a miter saw with a stop block than a hand saw. It's faster, it's easier, and it's simpler. No question. If I need to produce a huge run of identical molding, a router or shaper is the simpler answer by far. There's really no room for debate, it's just true.

So. What does all that mean? It means I value quiet and simple more than I value fast and physically undemanding. I like being able to listen to the radio while working, and I don't mind that woodworking makes me sweat. (I need the exercise anyway.) I also, so far, have built small one-of-a-kind things; if I wanted to make a run of ten identical dining room chairs, or anything else for that matter, I might well re-consider. You might find the value equation goes the other way. I really couldn't tell you. But I can state that anything you can do with one type (power or non-powered) of tool, you can also do with the other type. It just may take more work.

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