Plane Folk

Hand tools are growing in popularity among the 18 million hobbyists

The roar of a table saw may be music to the ears of some woodworkers, but the quiet, methodical environment of hand-tool craftsmanship is gaining a following.

The popularity of power tools is understandable in a hurry-up culture, says Peter Korn, who runs the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. Yet the against-the-grain hand-tool renaissance is equally logical. "People are looking for something they are not finding elsewhere," he says, observing that desk-bound professionals often find satisfaction in working with their hands.

Hand-woodworking classes mainly attract well-to-do men aged 45 to 55 with established careers, says Marc Adams, who owns Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind. He says his students have an increasing amount of free time and an interest in passing along something - perhaps a handcrafted heirloom - to their children and grandchildren.

Mr. Korn caters to the subset of hand-toolers within the growing American woodworking community. He says they account for about 10 percent of the nonprofessional woodworkers, who number 18 million according to a 1998 survey conducted by American Woodworker magazine.

More women are taking up the hobby, too. Mr. Adams says about 15 percent of the students in his school are female. Some have taught classes and others are instructors at woodworking shows.

Working with hand tools is poetic in a way that mere production work isn't.

"A lot of people come to this for the pleasure they take in the process," Mr. Korn says. "That's as important and maybe more important than the coffee table they are working on. They think they go into the wood shop to transform boards into furniture, but what they're really going in for, and what's really happening, is they're being transformed in the process."

Part of the allure of hand tools is the tactile experience and the feeling that the tool is an extension of the woodworker.

"With power tools, you feed the wood across the cutter," Mr. Adams observes. "With hand tools you reverse the process, feeding the cutter across the wood. This gives you more of a sense of being involved with the cut."

Working with hand tools even has advantages for a professional woodworker like Jonathan McLean, a furnituremaker in Framingham, Mass., who specializes in making period reproductions. "There's just an accuracy level you really can't get with power tools, especially in doing joinery," he says. "Plus you get a different look, in shaping the wood, by using hand tools."

This return to the simple ways is seldom total; even those who opt for hand craftsmanship usually rely on a limited number of power tools, notably a table saw, and possibly a jointer, planer, and band saw.

Once, owning power tools was cost-prohibitive. But now, Adams says, the Taiwanese have revolutionized American woodworking by making quality, workhorse-like power tools affordable for serious hobbyists.

At his woodworking school, Adams says, the purists and technology-driven tend to divide into two distinct camps, with few people in the middle. Others, however, see the division as less rigid, partly because even for Norm Abram wannabes some jobs can be tackled more easily and efficiently with hand tools.

Ian Turner, a spokesman for Garrett Wade, a leading by-mail tool seller based in New York, speaks of a natural balance between machinery and hand tools.

Hand-tool interest has surged in the past 25 years, and while it's leveled off in the last few years, Mr. Turner says, there are still swings that more or less follow the stock market. Translation: A healthy economy means more income to spend on hand tools.

The really big money these days is being spent by collectors snatching up some of the classic hand tools, including Stanley hand planes that can easily bring several hundred dollars at auctions. These are "trophy" tools.

For real working tools (see related story), the main options are to buy non-antique, used tools or new merchandise from one of the quality mail-order houses, such as Garrett Wade, Lee Valley, Bridge City Tool Works, or Woodcraft. They are supplied by hand-tool manufacturers, which, according to American Woodworker associate editor Tom Caspar, have dwindled to a handful today.

One that Mr. Caspar and other experts cite is Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Inc. in Warren, Maine, which "reinterprets" some of the coveted Stanley tools of bygone years.

When the business started in 1981, says owner Thomas Lie-Nielsen, people sometimes balked at the price of high-quality tools.

"Over the years that attitude has changed," Mr. Lie-Nielsen says. "I think people got tired of buying inferior tools. It's a discouraging experience working with them, because you're fighting with the tool. A well-made tool is much easier to use, easier to learn with, more fun, and does a much better job."

The difference, he explains, is in the high-precision tooling specifications that are virtually imperceptible to the eye. Surface flatness and squareness, for example, are critical for planes.

Looks, or the way the tool is finished and shaped, are important too, says Lie-Nielsen, who believes woodworkers draw inspiration from the functionality and beauty of their tools.

Part of the Lie-Nielsen strategy is to make tools that are ready, or nearly ready, to use right out of the box.

What purchasers of new tools find, says Mr. McLean of Jonathan McLean Fine Furniture, is that they often must be "tuned" to coax optimum performance from less finely machined tools. "With a plane, this involves making sure the bottom is flat, that the blade is sharp, and that everything is working correctly."

Even top-of-the-line hand tools require periodic tuning, though, and Lie-Nielsen acknowledges that this can be a stumbling block for the uninitiated. It isn't difficult, he says, to learn how to sharpen a blade or square a tool but it does take time.

A Saturday-afternoon woodworker may need to resharpen a plane blade every few weeks, depending on use, and saw blades far less frequently.

But power tools aren't maintenance-free either, and with the time it takes to set up some operations, a skilled craftsperson could have long since completed the job by reaching for a hand tool.

No form of woodworking is clean, Adams observes, and even a hand-tool enthusiast can enjoy creating a mountain of curlicue wood shavings. The difference, he says, is that power tools, with their air turbulence, can quickly create clouds of sawdust. And while caution is required in using any cutting tool, power tools are known as especially unforgiving.

Hand tools are less threatening but the skills required to use them were lost for a time in American woodworking, which adopted a "production" ethic.

Then, in the early 1970s, a handmade furniture revival began. "There were very few sources of information," Peter Korn says. "It was a process of rediscovering the art of furnituremaking."

Books and articles are of limited value in imparting this art, says Tom Caspar, who teaches woodworking. "Judging by the people who have come through my classes, learning to use hand tools is very difficult to pick up on your own. For anything that involves hand-eye coordination, you almost need someone standing by you." This explains why classes and workshops on the subject are popular.

As for whether the time spent mastering hand-tool skills really makes a difference, well, there's a divergence of opinion.

Adams claims that even a well-trained eye is hard-pressed to differentiate between a piece that's 100 percent handmade and one that's been equally well made with power tools. "In the long run it's purely an arrogant thing," he says.

Korn, on the other hand, contends that hand-planed surfaces enjoy an unmatched clarity, one way that hand-tooled pieces can be made to stand out.

"I can make a piece of handcrafted furniture so you couldn't tell it apart from something you bought at a furniture store," he says. "But I also could make it so there is a world of difference in terms of the appearance of the wood, the quality of the joinery, the shaping of the parts, and the complexity of the design. All these are things the skilled use of hand tools permits, which elevates furniture from the pedestrian."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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