In making I find unsurpassed peace. It’s a silencing of excess that gives me encouragement in the simplicity of making with my hands, writing and drawing do the same for me. Stepping off the various conveyor belts we think we control but that usually control us one way or another can be tricky. I’ve experienced the same doubts about losing or leaving something. — big things and then small ones too. Over the holidays I lost my best pocket knife, the same one I’ve relied on and carried everywhere for at least two decades. I was lost! Thinking it to be gone forever I immediately sought to fill the empty space and ordered my identical replacement. It’s nothing fancy. Single-bladed, firmly solid and it works as well for knifewalls as it does for two dozen other needs in my workday.
Needless to say, as soon as my new one came in, my old one turned up where I had left it when wrapping Christmas gifts in the workshop. I used it for cutting paper and tape, opening boxes, etc.
People don’t seem to carry pocket knives much anymore so the next nearest dependency to compare might be the now highly ubiquitous cell or mobile phone. I’ve grown accustomed to carrying my mobile (cell) phone on me and like everyone I keep it near to hand. At one time I did think of pitching it in the river. That was in the days when people still wrote letters, carried a keyring torch (flashlight) and kept paper information for a wide range of things. It’s no longer easy to bank with bricks and mortar banks disappearing one by one. Even our NHS staff Google concepts of healing via their wifi these days. The fount of all knowledge will soon replace several aspects of personal caring for the elderly with AI (artificial intelligence) apparently.
When I leave my cell phone somewhere even for only an hour I feel unsettled until it’s returned to my pocket. Up until 2000, I happily went through 50 years without one and never felt insecure or unsafe. Would anyone out there ditch their mobile to live without one now? I doubt that most could do it and yet the whole world went without one for centuries. How did we live without this life-sucking, time-consuming codependency that so complicated the simplicity of ordinary life? Go on, try it. Put your mobile down and go into town with nothing connecting you to the internet for a single hour — I don’t mean changing the setting to aeroplane mode.
I often think that the same thing applies to machining wood. It’s an artificial security rooted in doubts in ourselves to be able to develop skills. And I do understand all of the reasonings and arguments. My concern mostly is that we are in reality losing a lot more than we are gaining but that it can never replace the art of how we creatively work with our hands. We cannot imagine doing our woodworking without machines and neither can we imagine that we could own the skills of working hand tools. That seems so strange, but I know of this for myself from my own experience. When we put out a questionnaire asking how many woodworkers used machines it was surprising how many did not and could not because of a variety of circumstances. I’m not talking about so-called professional woodworkers here, those who earn their living from machining wood, but those who sought to learn woodworking as a serious interest in their lives. These were the ones convinced by others that the only way forward was by machining wood: those that could never install machines, buy them because of cost or use them because of noise and close neighbours, apartment dwellers and so on. Imagine how I feel today after about 10 years of doing 98% of all dozens upon dozens, no, hundreds of furniture and woodworking pieces I have made using hand tools and only a single bandsaw. It’s not big, not commercial, my enterprise is and always was simple. I earn a modest living alongside half a dozen staff but what makes it big is the freedom to make all that I make with the moderation hand tools give me.
Giving up dependency on anything is often rooted in some kind of unbelief. I am sure that I can complete many of the tasks I do in a day more quickly than if I use a machine; I can cut a triple dovetailed corner to a drawer, common or half-lap, faster than it takes to set up a router guide and use a power router. Things change when I have to make a hundred, but I have yet to meet any home woodworker or even a professional version who’s about to make more than one or two all the same size.
Any change can be likened to something like getting off a moving bus at the tail end of a double-decker back in the 60s, which I did just once. I know! You would never do it! Many years ago I started to peel my fingers of dependency off of my reliance on machines. It wasn’t the easygoing process you might think. Allegorically, the road was spinning fast beneath my feet as I stood on the back corner edge of the bus platform. I probably would not have let go of the vertical post had the bus conductor in charge of tickets and safety not said, “Go on. Get off!” As my foot skimmed the road I felt the roughness of fine pebbles, heard them crunching and I tried to adjust my weight for the unknown. Suddenly the skimming stopped, my feet grabbed and I fell forward, spun a full 360 and fell hard and flat onto my face, just missing the corner of the bus platform with my head. My injuries were serious enough. Face, kneecaps, and elbows all torn up with bleeding cuts and embedded gravel. The conductor rang the bell signalling the driver to stop but then saw me move to get up so he gave the double ring to carry on and left me there, a crumpled heap in the road. That will not happen when you come to a point where you transfer your energies from one dependency to another in your woodworking — doubt your doubts and fear your fears. What you see me do and the efficacy of working using my hand tools is real. I have no hidden machines hovering somewhere in the background to take over off camera. What you see is what you get. I want also to assure you that it does not take decades to achieve what I take for granted in my hand working. My instruction is from a truly lived life as a lifetime, long-term and full-time maker making and selling my work year in and year out. It’s been my lifestyle for 58 years as of this week, since leaving school aged 15 in 1965. I never looked back, but the important thing for you to know is it takes a matter of weeks not decades to make skills yours when you have a prescribed course to follow. That’s why we put together the online training and created common woodworking. Here we provide all of the essential information for anyone starting out as well as exercises; here’s the link for projects and helps in providing clear instruction and support common woodworking.com . We follow up with woodworking masterclasses and Sellers’ Home , to put full flesh on the bones of becoming what I can only call a real woodworker following a significant lifestyle with woodworking and furniture making to lean into. Mostly it’s the hitherto unrecorded information, what you cannot get too well from books or especially watching sales staff and outlets demoing and selling at woodworking shows or magazines. Mostly, it depends on what you want. Once you become used to machines it’s hard to leave them behind, peel your fingers off the grab rail as it were. Primarily, I see clearly that this can be a state of mind. Unbelief in yourself and your abilities in a large percentage of people. Why would you stop using machines that work so well to get you where you need to be when it’s ten times easier and ten times faster to boot? I have many good reasons but they are for me and may not be for you. People want different things from their serious craft work.
I also know that machines are very mesmerising. Once you watch how effectively they mill wood you will indeed find it hard to take your eyes off them. A mortise machine bores into the wood and leaves square corners perfectly aligned along the length of a mortise in under a minute. Chopsaws leave a square end in two seconds and ripping down lengths of oak could not be easier. There is nothing really to learn or master in using them. Set the fences, depth stops and lengths and you’re on your way to anew coffee table. So what’s wrong with having them? Nothing, really. But whereas there is really nothing much to learn in using this equipment, it doesn’t come just like that. I have left much out.
I see machines as being a bit like honing guides, they are useful for starting out if indeed you have the space, money, availability, etc for hosting several cubic meters of shop space. They certainly help if a disability of any kind prevents you from working your wood. Whether they matter as much as we think is a matter of personal assessment. My garage will not take them. I could increase the floor space but I don’t want to because I don’t want them. Also, I want to sit in a relaxing chair and take a break from time to time to write, listen to music, drink tea or coffee and draw, compose and design. A single machine would eliminate such important practicalities in my life and I have a couple or three books yet to put out before my age and abilities stop me.
So, if I could have a bigger space, would I have both? I don’t think so, not now, now that I know the peace I get from my making the way I do. And you are right. Those little thickness planers don’t take up much room at all. And look at that, the wood’s guaranteed squareness with two perfectly parallel surfaces dead to size in a matter of minutes with no effort. Why would anyone want to do it my way? Well, of course, it doesn’t end there, does it? Neighbours do not like noisy machines next door and across the road, there’s dust and chip extraction, plastic tubes coiled with springy wire and such to suck the mass away. I actually already have that with my bandsaw and it would mean no more sweeping up shavings from around my feet, but, well, that’s part and parcel of what I do, what I created for my work life. Just one four-square-foot footprint pulse a compact extractor. I like that. That periodic sweepings and gatherings of real shavings inches long goes fast with a broad brush. I’m talking three minutes. And these sweep-ups are the full stops punctuating my days; points and places where I stop and reflect on my work and working, rewrite my life minute by minute, hour by hour; at these basic junctures, I think the immediate steps ahead of me yet to be processed and built upon.
I have consistently shared things like this through the years. I think that the message is worth the repeats. The great thing is that you can phase machines out, wind them down, keep them hovering somewhere in the background and when you are truly ready to pull the plug you can. Do you have to? No, not at all. Doing so will mean more sharpening, more high self-demand. Instead of sharpening the hand plane once a week, you’ll do it ten times in any given workday. The high self-demand bit means crosscutting and smoothing the end of a two-by-four might be a challenge for you and will you ever get just what you get from that chopsaw? I’m not altogether convinced that you will, but most of the time you actually don’t need to. Coming off the saw dead square and smooth is quite the luxury if you think about it. With the right blade on your tablesaw or chopsaw the end grain can look like it was planed. The truth is that such equipment makes the work pretty effortless, but it does come at a cost. Though it is indeed effortless, my preference is challenged and directed effort. I can get the same end cut as a chopsaw using hand tools in not much more time if any at all. When you add up all the links it takes using chopsaws and dust extraction, powder-soaked atmospheres etc, my life is better. Much better. I like things to cost me something both physically and mentally. I guess it’s called challenge, oh, and there are many others just like me, hundreds of thousands of them. Yesterday I added a few shelves in my workshop. The crosscut came from my newest and now best Spear and Jackson panel saw and the cuts were perfect.
The ends and edges were planed with a S&J cutting iron I am testing out in my Stanley #4 bench plane. You see, even today, at 73 . . . it’s my birthweek remember, I am still experimenting, still trialling, still using unknown tools to see what works for everyone. last week I was working with a Japanese smoothing plane. Today I worked with the S&J plane iron some more. The important thing to know with the lesser expensive goods is that they may have cut some costs. For instance, with the S&J cutting iron they most likely skipped a small step the expensive makers take care of. I found the cutting edge fractured too soon after sharpening. That’s because there is some degrade in the hardening process that leaves the first few mils of the cutting-edge too fractious. I ground off 1/8″ of the bevel on the grinder, resharpened and installed the cutting iron and the problem was resolved. About five minutes worth. The other aspects of the cutting iron were really good so for anyone starting out and needing a new plane rather than going for secondhand this is another option.
So, I cannot always explain too well why my hand working matters so much more to me today than ever before. Perhaps it’s you that drives me. Just what is real woodworking anyway? Isn’t it just a question of evolution? Are we not evolving with better and more diverse energies as we evolve the new generations? Well, no, not always and not really. When evolution displaces hand skills then we are less likely to end up with fine motor skills because, well,
I see how we still tend to compare carpentry to my work when I would never consider what I do with modern-day carpentry. Certainly, carpentry no longer describes my work as others do carpentry. It’s not snobbery. It just doesn’t fit so I don’t ever use the word unless I am putting a garden gate in or building a stud wall. Having passed over two decades living in the US I saw 2,000 square-foot homes go up in a matter of just weeks. I’m talking about a finished home in 10 weeks. Stick-frame walls for whole houses clad with OSB, wrapped with a breathable moisture barrier and then skinned with its final layer is very distant from the skilled carpentry of the 1800s though there is still some skill to it. It’s when skill is substituted for speed and income that things come into question. The speed of raising a building that way translates into profits and profits in some countries is what life is mostly about. In my world it has always been the whole process of making and then, additionally, making my living. Of course, in a commercial age and sphere, I cannot imagine cutting so many two-by-fours by hand. Portable chopsaws pastrami-cut lengths to perfection in the single pull of a handle and the press of a spring-loaded button. Thousands upon thousands of cuts in a week see the stud walls standing and the roof trusses in place ten times faster than a hundred years ago when hand-cutting was the only way. In my world of furniture making, machines could do the same. In fact, I have lived in that way too, but today I am now more sort of mentoring teacher to hundreds of thousands and what I teach is transferrable so anyone learning my methods, patterns of woodworking and so on, can indeed adopt and adapt a machine or two to work with down the road. You don’t need any more than an hour’s instruction covering safety to use any machine type and equipment and therein lies the great divide. What a difference.
Throughout my work teaching classes hands-on, I learned from students what troubles them the most. Cutting square, planing square, cutting straight and sharpening a perfect edge, the list could be exhausting were we to go down that road. We could soon convince one another that we should just go the machine route. And yet there is something truly magical every time you develop a very particular skill you never thought you could or would own. And it is this magical moment I want to speak of here. Thinking back through my years as a full-time, lifetime, lifestyle maker, I can recall every step where I earned my ability through my stubborn determination not to give up. Some recollections came when I was one step away from giving up and giving in. In that spilt second a lone voice, barely audible, said just one more try. There it was. The launch was complete and I was flying in euphoria as all resistance left, the cut was made and the two pieces slipped perfectly together for the very first time. My skills were always built by persevering first followed by building on each success that came along. Today I live in a world of knowing what I do will ultimately work, but it wasn’t always successful straight off. That’s why we need perseverance first. Even now I am still surprised when I take twenty plane strokes along the edge of a board to square it and when I offer the square to the edge it’s dead square. How on earth did that happen? Can I really feel it and stop? Then I sight along the edge for straightness and once again I go, “Wow!” The smile wraps around me and I am enveloped with something I can only describe as indescribable joy. We all know more now about brain chemistry influencing our days, something that people now describe as giving and living in something called a state of well-being. Four key chemicals, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin develop through achieving things we developed using our hands and bodies. Each one impacts on our happiness, yes, but they will also give us a contentment we seem less apt to achieve when substitutes are slipped in between our hands and brains. The effects these four chemicals have on our well-being range from boosting pleasure and satisfaction to controlling stress and anxiety. Using a machine to achieve flat wood could well be achieved by using a machine or two. I know that. What the machine cannot do is give us the same skill or levels of skill we get from hand working, muscle goes unused and undeveloped, the interaction with machines and the wood in no way parallels what we get from working with hand tools at the workbench. Think pace, relax, space to think, brain energy, patience and many more verbs and nouns. Don’t ignore the benefits hand tools and hand work alone brings to your life